A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – I Timothy 2:1-6

April 18th, 2019

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – I Timothy 2:1-6

During this series of Looking at the New Testament from a universalist’s perspective, I’ve found some verses that universalists do need to explain why they don’t mean what they at first glance seem to mean. (Usually that’s because of a poor translation.) But this is a verse that non-universalists have to explain away in order to hold their theory of eternal torment for nonbelievers.

The passage is I Timothy 2:1-6:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people.

There are two important “all”s in this passage.

First, it says that God our Savior wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. Could that possibly be clearer?

Now, the devotional that our church is using actually says that doesn’t mean that God wills all people to finally be saved. And the reason given is that if God wanted everyone to be saved then everyone would be saved! They cite Romans 9:19, which says that no one can resist God’s will.

So they’re basically saying God doesn’t want everyone to be saved (despite what this passage says) because if that were true, universalism would be true!

So they’re making my point for me, that if this verse means what it seems to mean – that God wants everyone to be saved – then universalism is true.

It seems like your choices one of these three:

1) Universalism is true.
2) God doesn’t really want all people to be saved.
3) God wants all people to be saved, but the power of those people to rebel is greater than God’s power to win them over. So regretfully, not all will be saved.

I think the interpretation that fits Scripture best is that God indeed wants all people to be saved and He indeed loves the world and everyone in it. And what God wills, God can bring about, even though it may take until the end of the ages for some to come to Him. But one day God will be all in all.

And that’s not the only “all” in this passage. Another is that Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all people.”

If Jesus gave Himself to save all people, but all people are not saved – then was His sacrifice ineffective?

This is the main reason Thomas Allin gives for believing universalism, and the reason he titled his book Christ Triumphant. You can read my review to get a taste of that reasoning – but do we really think God set out to save the world and then failed?

Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all people, so if all people are not ransomed, then surely Jesus was defeated in each case of a person who was not saved.

But back to the beginning. Do you believe in your heart that God truly wants all people everywhere to be saved? Isn’t that a bigger, a more powerful and more loving God than the one you hear about who (however regretfully) sends people to suffer eternally because they didn’t accept His offer and believe the right formula while they were still on earth?

God loves you and He loves me and He loves our loved ones more than we do ourselves. And He also loves those people I didn’t really want or expect to see in heaven. All of them, even, maybe especially, those who seem truly lost now.

And truly this brings glory to God our Savior.

On Prayer

April 14th, 2019

This is going to be a hodgepodge of thoughts about prayer, and I want to tell about an amazing answer to prayer as well, because now it’s public information.

An Example

Let me start with the start of the story of an answer to prayer. First, about the praying:

It was December 2018. I was thinking about my New Year’s Goals. Every year for the last few years, besides goals, I’ve made prayer requests that I pray every day. What are the top things I want to ask God for?

For years, one of those requests has been getting out of debt. It was a long-term goal (We’re talking $30,000 in credit card debt) and I didn’t really expect it to happen any time soon. But then in early 2018 after my old car died and I bought a new one – I discovered that I had enough equity in my home to get a home equity loan that would pay off all my credit cards! So my prayer was answered! And my monthly payments were smaller so I hoped to build up some savings.

But alas! In the summer, just when I’d successfully paid off some unexpected large bills including a dental crown – my hot water heater broke and the cost to replace was over $3000. I charged it.

So now it was December 2018 and I was discouraged by that bill. I’d just paid it down to exactly $3000 but it felt like I was back in that grind. I was probably going to add to my debt with Christmas gifts and some more unexpected expenses hitting then. Would I ever get it paid off?

The next day when I went for my walk and prayed through my prayer requests, I actually thought, Why do I even bother praying to get out of debt? It’s not like God can give me a sudden influx of cash now. I’m not applying for a better job. There are no prospects of money on the horizon. Why do I even pray about this?

And it took a minute, but I thought, No, I’m going to ask. Because wasn’t I completely surprised when God did it last year? And now what I owe is so much less.

Lord, I do ask that you would get me out of debt. I don’t see how you’ll do it, and maybe it will take patience on my part, but that’s what I ask. Thank you that you helped me pay off ten times this amount last year when I least expected it. Lord, if this is my opportunity to pay it down little by little over a few years, thank you that it can still happen. Thank you for providing for me. Thank you that I have a job I love. Thank you for credit cards and that I was able to get that water heater fixed when it was leaking down into my neighbor’s hot water closet. Thank you that I can afford the payments on this, and thank you that you faithfully provide for me.

With Thanksgiving

That’s what I want to talk about regarding prayer: With thanksgiving.

Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Do not be anxious about anything. But in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Why give thanks when making a request? It reminds us that God will come through. Whether or not we get what we want, God will come through. Doing it in my prayer above completely changed my attitude.

A lot of Christians know about the Philippians verse. But did you know this idea is also in the Psalms?

I’ve already talked about forms of psalms, particularly Laments and Thanksgiving Psalms. Both forms – even the lament where you’re asking for help from a dire situation – end in praise.

I also love the words of assurance – Here’s what God will do.

In a lament, the psalmist fully moans about his plight – and then talks himself into trust. Sometimes he asks God “What’s taking you so long? Don’t you even see what trouble I’m in?” But he goes on to say, “I’m going to be praising you in the great assembly after you get me out of this!”

Look at the end of Psalm 4, after he’s asking for help:

In peace I will lie down and sleep,
for you alone, Lord,
make me dwell in safety.

Look at the end of Psalm 5, where he’s got enemies after him:

But let all who take refuge in you be glad;
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
that those who love your name may rejoice in you.
Surely, Lord, you bless the righteous;
you surround them with your favor as with a shield.

Or look at the refrain in the great Thanksgiving Psalm, Psalm 107:

Let them give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind.

But I’ll go on for hours if I try to list all the Psalms that end with thanks. Go through yourself and look at how psalms end – so many end in praise. And yet many also begin with requests for help out of great trouble.

And one thing so interesting about the Psalms is that a lot of that thanks and praise is about what God is going to do. They give thanks for God’s future actions. Yes, psalms go over what God has already done, but that’s usually in the main body of the psalm. As the psalmists work themselves into a better place, they remember what they know about God – and one of those things is that they can count on him to help.

Look at the end of Psalm 7. Note the future tense:

I will give thanks to the Lord because of his righteousness;
I will sing the praises of the name of the Lord Most High.

I’ve been looking at Psalm 117 lately, the shortest psalm in the Bible. The first verse says to praise the Lord, and the second verse says why:

For great is his love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

God is faithful.

So we know that however he answers our request – Yes or No – He will still be faithful; he will still be good to us.

My challenge is: Thank God for the outcome, whatever it is. And thank him ahead of time.

Manipulation and Faith

When I desperately demand that God answer a certain way, when I believe it will be utter disaster if he does not make happen what I want to happen – then I’m trying to manipulate God, trying to tell him what to do, trying to control circumstances with my “faith.” But is that faith?

When my ex-husband left me, I connected with a well-meaning ministry that taught you must “stand for your marriage,” and for years I tried to pray my husband back. (Now, this ministry had many positive effects in my life, one of them being encouragement to listen to what God wanted to tell me.)

But through various means, it became clear to me that with my prayers and my words and everything I did or didn’t do, everything I said or didn’t say – I was trying with all my might to make my husband come back – or even to make God make my husband come back. Put bluntly, I was trying to manipulate God. Or at least I was trying to manipulate my husband by manipulating God.

But if I stopped praying for my husband to come back, wouldn’t that be lack of faith?

One day, our pastor preached a sermon that spoke to that. He brought in an actual chalkboard and made a big diagram on it. On one end he put “Fate” or “Letting it happen” and on the other end he put “Control” or “Making it happen.” He said where we want to be is the sweet spot in the middle – the Path of Trust.

And it dawned on me that telling God what to do is not trusting God. All this time in my prayers, I’d been telling God what to do – bring my husband back.

But isn’t that what we think of as faithful prayer? Tell God what to do! And the more boldly you insist, the greater your faith, right?

But what if instead I lay my requests before God – and thank him for what he’s going to do. Do I still trust that God is faithful if his answer is No?

I can think of a lot of prayers that didn’t go as I hoped. My husband did not come back. Because I needed to work full-time for the first time in my life, I got my Master’s in Library Science and became a librarian. I love being a librarian, but I wouldn’t have done it if not for the divorce, I would have been content working part-time.

Back in 2013, I was on the ballot to be on the Newbery committee. I missed being elected by 15 votes (out of about 800) – and was heartbroken. Four years later I tried again – and the timing was much, much better, for multiple reasons including that now I had an empty nest and more time for it.

There have been a couple of jobs I applied for and prayed for and didn’t get. There was the time I got cut from the library because of budget cuts. But all of those things worked out to the amazingly wonderful job I have now, with co-workers who are fantastic to work with, a library system that paid for my trips to the ALA conferences for Newbery deliberations and even nominated me for an award. (More about that in a minute.)

All that is to say that God does and has done in my life exceedingly abundantly above all I ask or think. And very often the blessings come after not getting what I asked for.

Why not thank God for the outcome in advance. The thing is – whatever happens, I know that God is faithful.

Answer to Prayer

Back to that December 2018 prayer about getting out of debt, prayed on a day when I had just paid down the debt to be exactly $3000.

The next day I was at work, and my branch manager asked me for my resume. She said she hadn’t wanted to mention it to me, but I was being nominated for an award and they wanted to be sure they listed all of my qualifications. She wasn’t sure exactly what the award committee was looking for, but it was a Public Library Association Award about knowledge of books. The Library Director of our library system and Branch Coordinator (who had once worked with me as my branch manager) had asked her to write up a nomination for me for this award.

Well, I was completely honored! Wow! Nominated for a librarian award! Kind of puts a capstone on God working things out for good from my divorce. Kind of emphasizes that my life is going a good direction. Feels really good to be nominated, too! Wow!

But she hadn’t known exactly what they were looking for, so I started wondering – would I feel like a fraud being nominated for this award? Did I at all fit what they’re looking for? So – I did a search on the PLA Awards. I knew this was about knowledge of books.

I found the Allie Beth Martin Award. The award is for a public librarian who has demonstrated: “(1) extraordinary range and depth of knowledge about books or other library materials; and (2) distinguished ability to share that knowledge.” At the bottom of the page it says to think of people “who have widely and enthusiastically shared their knowledge through book talks, presentations to community or professional groups, written reviews, etc.”

Okay, I don’t feel like a fraud being nominated for this award, seeing as I’ve been writing Sonderbooks since 2001 – on my own time and for the love of it. I’ve always felt like Sonderbooks epitomizes who I am – incorporating my love of reading, love of writing, and fun with a little bit of computer coding. And now I learn there’s an award for being who I am! Not to mention that it feels like being on the Newbery committee gave me an advantage – since I’d been living and breathing books all year.

But the punchline? Much to my surprise (the Newbery doesn’t come with any money), the Allie Beth Martin Award comes with a $3000 honorarium!

And I found this out the day after I’d asked God for help paying off my $3000 credit card debt! Even though I didn’t think he could! It felt like God saying to me with a big smile, “Oh can’t I?”

The postscript to the story is that I did win the award. I won’t receive the honorarium until June at ALA Annual Conference in Washington, DC. (Since it’s in DC, some of my colleagues can come to the presentation.) Honestly, I recently had to get another dental crown – and the total I owe is now more than $3000. And they’ll take out taxes, too. But I simply don’t have any doubt at this point that God will meet my needs. And can get me completely out of debt again.

It sure took the worry away.

Now, I’ve got other prayer requests. Some others that I’ve prayed daily for years without getting what I asked for. I’m not saying that praying this way always has such a dramatic result.

But I’m more and more sure that God is faithful.

And like the psalmist says:
I will sing your praises, Lord.
I will be telling everyone I know about the amazing ways you will work these things out.
Thank you, Lord!

Acceptance, Approval, Affirmation, and Love

April 13th, 2019

Recently, a friend posted a meme on Pinterest that says “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

I disagree with this statement. I don’t think the writer understands the depth of what happens when people reject LGBTQ people. (Let’s be honest. That’s what they’re talking about here.)

[Note: I talked with my friend about it, and he wasn’t thinking about LGBTQ people at all. I still think the author of the meme was, and that’s what I’m arguing with.]

I hang around Christians and am a Christian and love Christians. But I’ve heard a lot of defensiveness about condemnation of LGBTQ people. They say we should “Love the sin and hate the sinner,” which just comes across as hate. They say you can accept someone without approving of what they do.

And that’s actually true. For example, I have a very good friend who’s polyamorous. I don’t approve of being polyamorous and would never ever do that myself. But who’s asking me? It doesn’t matter in the slightest what I think about my friend’s love life. I care about my friend and love talking with him, and he’s given me plenty of wise insight on relationships – some of which he’s gotten because he’s had to pay extra attention in order to navigate relationships with more than one woman at the same time.

Has being a universalist made me less worried about his soul? Yes, actually it has. Whether his behavior is sinful or not is between him and God – and they can work it out. One thing I’m sure of: His love life in no way blocks him from God’s love for him. And it doesn’t block him from my friendly love for him, either.

Just because I don’t “agree with his lifestyle” or “approve” of what he’s doing – doesn’t mean I need to disapprove of it either.

But let’s talk about LGBTQ folks. What’s at issue here is identity. This is about who they are.

It’s most obvious when you talk about transgender people.

My oldest child is a transgender woman. So there was a day when she told me that she was no longer going by the name I gave her at birth. And she told me that I was wrong about her – that she is not a man but a woman.

Suppose I say, “I love you, but you are wrong. You are deluded. You don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve changed your diapers and know what’s between your legs, and that’s what makes you male or female. I know better than you.” And I refuse to call her by her new name or refer to her as my daughter.

Or even worse, suppose I say, “I love you, but it’s evil to say you’re a woman. It goes against God’s design.”

Could my child possibly feel loved in that situation?

Never mind that the Endocrine Society – doctors who deal with this – have come out with a statement that there is strong scientific evidence that we are born with a gender – but that gender is determined by what is between our ears rather than what is between our legs. And it doesn’t always match.

But let’s say that I decide that I know better, that since God created humans male and female and I am sure that knowing which one depends on what you can see on the outside of a person, then making the outside match the inside is evil and wrong.

I just can’t imagine that my child will feel loved by me if I insist on calling her my son and call her by the male-gendered name I gave her at birth. If I do that, am I really loving her? Or only the person I think she is, but that matches less and less who she says she is.

How could she possibly feel loved by me if I don’t even call her by her own name? I’m loving my fantasy child, not the child I actually have.

I’ve known many people in my lifetime who have gotten my name wrong, calling me Sandy or Sandra. One person thought my name was spelled Sandra and I was just trying to sound cultured or something pronouncing it “Sondra” – which he refused to do. I usually make the mistake of being too polite to correct these people, but if it persists, I have a hard time feeling like they know me at all. Now imagine if other people don’t even get your gender right.

I keep going back to the writings of Patricia Evans on verbal abuse. She says that verbal abuse is defining someone differently than the way they define themselves, insisting that you know better than they do who they are. Refusing to believe a person when they tell you what gender they are seems like the ultimate expression of this.

A person being treated this way is not going to feel loved.

Someone might say (and I’ve actually heard people say this), I accept your son, but I don’t approve of taking hormones and dressing like a woman. I believe that’s sinful.

I’m sorry, but if you’re not accepting my daughter, then you’re not accepting who she actually is.

With gays and lesbians, it’s also about identity. Being sexually attracted to people of the same gender isn’t something they chose; it’s the way God made them.

Now, you might say that the problem isn’t the attraction but acting on it. You accept the people, but you don’t approve of same-sex marriages.

My transgender daughter is engaged to a transgender woman, so there are those who think I should not approve of my daughter’s upcoming marriage.

Again, this is about her very identity. If people make a point of showing their disapproval by staying away from the wedding or delivering a judgmental sermon rather than a wedding gift – well, my daughter’s not going to feel loved by them.

Now, the main reason to disapprove is because you think the Bible teaches that same-sex relationships are evil and perverted. I’ve studied this issue, and I don’t think that’s a correct interpretation. I think Paul was talking about sexual exploitation, not loving same-sex relationships. So, as it happens, I do agree and approve and I’m happy for my daughter and her fiancé.

I guess part of the question is this: Who am I to approve or disapprove how another adult chooses to live their life? Doesn’t that fall under Jesus’ command, “Judge not lest you be judged?” How about we accept other people for who they are, and let God handle the approving or disapproving?

In fact, in the case of LGBTQ people, I believe that being vocal about your disapproval and calling it sinful can actually do that person harm, telling them that God will punish them if they authentically live the way He created them.

Back to the meme that touched off a reaction to things I’ve been hearing people say ever since my daughter came out – the first “lie” it called out is that “if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle you must fear or hate them.”

Well, if you only disagree, there’s no problem. But if you feel a need to protest that lifestyle, to get in their face, to loudly proclaim that this person is evil – as some Christians have in fact done to LGBTQ people – well, it’s pretty normal for the targets of that to feel feared or hated.

The second “lie” that the meme claims our culture has swallowed is that to love someone means you have to agree with everything they believe or do. Of course that’s nonsense.

But do be aware that if you “disagree” about someone’s very identity – it’s going to be a lot harder for them to feel loved by you. You don’t even know who they really are!

If you “disagree” that someone should be married to the spouse they’ve chosen – are you really able to make them feel loved? You can say you love them until your tongue falls off, but I don’t know if they will feel loved by you. It will certainly add constraints to your relationship.

It seems like the meme is trying to make black and white something that’s full of nuance. It’s trying to say that it’s possible to “hate the sin but love the sinner.” Yes, I can love people I think are sinning. But mostly I’ve found that it’s not my business if the people around me are sinning or not. As Paul says in Romans, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master, he stands or falls, and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

There’s a huge difference between disagreement and judgment. Are you really sure you’re only disagreeing?

Is it compromising my convictions to not worry about whether my friend’s lifestyle is sinful or not? Maybe rather than worrying about whether he’s sinning, I should worry about whether I’m loving my neighbor as myself.

In general, I find that when I’m most convinced someone else is sinning is when I’m least likely to be able to influence them to change. Funny thing about that. It’s almost like it’s not my job to convict other people of sin at all.

I wrote this entire post, and then yesterday I posted a quote by John Pavlovitz that says it more concisely:

One of the things you learn when you walk down the path of being an ally is that people aren’t LGBTQ based on the consent you give or don’t give to them, the approval you provide or withhold. That’s not how gender identity and sexual orientation work. Your acceptance doesn’t give people permission to be anything. It simply allows them to be fully authentic in your presence and to feel loved as they are. It secures people in those places where they should feel fully secured: in their families and friendships and workplaces and churches. If you don’t think you have LGBTQ family members, coworkers, classmates, and friends right now, you may want to ask yourself if that’s because you’ve created an environment in which they would be afraid to share it even if they were. It might be that your words and manner have already told people that they’re not safe to be honest with you. As our society thankfully becomes less and less hostile to the LGBTQ community and as people begin to gradually feel safer in authenticity, more children will come out and more families will have a new reality to reckon with. Those families will continue to seek spiritually and they will continue to need and deserve to be in faith communities where they are fully welcomed. It is one of the reasons the table needs to be made bigger.

I still haven’t touched on affirmation. Affirmation goes a step further than agreeing or disagreeing. Affirming someone is saying, “Yes! I hear who you say you are, and I find that delightful!”

It’s saying to my daughter: “You are beautiful, Zephyr! I’m so happy you are telling the world who you truly are! I’m so happy to have you for a daughter. I believe what you are saying about yourself, and I’m honored to learn this truth about you.”

It’s hugging and congratulating my daughter and her fiancé and rejoicing with them and dancing at their wedding.

And sure, you can love someone without affirming everything they do.

But affirmation sure feels nicer than judgment.

Getaway Reflections

April 12th, 2019

I spent three nights this week at a “Getaway” cabin. It’s a very small cabin with cooking facilities. And you get to not talk to anyone. They left a card for you to leave behind thoughts, a quote, or a picture.

Here’s what I wrote:

Silenced

I came with an agenda,
so much to think about,
so much to plan.

I sat out by the trees,
and the woods said to me,
“Shut up!”

I laid by the big window,
and the stars said to me,
“Shut up!”

Silenced by beauty,
stopped short by wonder.

And it was good.

***

That was my reaction to the first night. I’d brought lots of books to read and had intended to do some major planning. But when I arrived and saw the space was smaller than I’d anticipated, instead of spreading out the books and notebooks and getting to work – I went outside and read a book.

After it got dark, I laid on the bed and discovered I could see more stars through the big window than I’ve seen in a very long time. And it calmed my mind.

The next day, I did get busy with my getaway.

The space was smaller than I’d expected. Somehow I’d expected drawers, closets, shelves, and certainly mirrors, something more like a hotel room. This was not that. But my suitcases did work to hold my clothes.

I brought far, far too many books. But I’d known I was bringing too many, and it turned out there was room to line them up so I could choose, so I could dabble in a wide variety.

There was a hiking trail and it turned out to branch into two directions. I took the first way the first day, and it eventually petered out (unless I missed a turn?), then took the second way the second day and was relieved to find the trail was a loop so I didn’t have to turn back. I did have a scary moment crossing the stream on stepping stones. People who lay out stepping stone paths generally don’t plan for people with very short legs such as me, and despite myself and despite the super shallow water, I got so scared I was shaking, and then was more afraid I wouldn’t make the step.

Believe it or not, here are the stepping stones that scared me:

Then I went and found a walking stick, and I got my foot a little wet, but I did it! Both walks took about an hour, walks through the woods with plenty of birds singing and not seeing a single solitary human. On the first walk, I saw someone as I got back to my cabin and told her where the trail started.

In some ways, I’ve got a getaway in my own home, since I live alone. And I had a getaway all three times I went to a library conference while on the Newbery committee – since I had a large hotel room to myself.

But the gift of this place was that part of not talking to any people. I’ll admit, I did check my phone. And answered a couple of emails very briefly. But it was ideal for a place to read and write on my own agenda. I made simple meals and did not have to go out and find food, as I did when I stayed in a hotel room on Chincoteague.

My purpose in going was to decide: Do I want to take up writing again, now that my time serving on the Newbery committee is done?

The answer was an unequivocal YES.

Now, it was two years – since April 2017 – that I knew I would be on the Newbery committee, and another year before that I knew I would be on the ballot. So I’ve been putting my writing on hold for three years. And it was a beautiful experience being on the Newbery.

I brought all my old writing – the three books I’ve finished, three books I’ve started, and two short stories. My plan was to read them all and decide whether there is anything to salvage out of them and what to work on next. I was also planning to think through possibilities for nonfiction writing.

I didn’t have time to read all of those. What I ended up reading was an old writing journal I’d written 1995 to 2001, when I was a mother of young kids and planned to write. Toward the end of the journal, I thought of writing Sonderbooks, and it was fun to see that idea develop.

In the journal, I was reflecting on writing books I’d been reading. And I was asserting that I am a writer.

The lovely thing, reading that now? I no longer feel the need to assert that so hard. Yes, I am a writer. Now I know it in my bones.

All the years of writing Sonderbooks reviews, of responding to life in Sonderjourneys, and especially all the friends I’ve emailed about so many big issues – about my marriage falling apart, about what directions to take, about dreams and hopes, about theology – and even writing my life story in Project 52. I’ve figured out that I think things through by writing about them. How I put it, when I apologize to friends for the long emails I send, is this: I am a writer at heart.

Whether or not I ever get a book published, I am a writer. That’s who I am.

And taking some time out to think about that reasserted that. Yes, now that the Newbery’s done, yes, I want to spend at least a half-hour a day writing. I don’t think I’m going to not count writing reviews any more (like I used to) because some day I might want to write some kind of collection of book reviews. I won’t, however, count the time it takes to post the reviews.

But yeah, I’m a writer. And thinking about adding that back into my life makes me happy.

In fact, I’m not putting this on my online profile, but it makes me a lot happier than the thought of dating someone again. Maybe I’m not discouraged after all that I’m not finding a match that way! I’m thinking out a schedule for getting that half-hour in, and maybe having a longer time once a week… and I’m not sure I’ll be real patient with anyone wanting to interrupt that.

As for what to work on – one of those short stories is a very silly story about a kid saving the world from alien invasion. I’m going to try to turn that into a beginning chapter book.

It’s a very unserious story, and I like that for my again trying to write a book.

Today I read this in the book Chapter after Chapter, by Heather Sellers:

One writer I know, Brandon, is dying to write what he calls his magnum opus, a fantasy novel that brings all of his ideas together in one stunning story. But he feels stuck as a writer, completely blocked, and he has trouble starting even small pieces. Many of his friends have told him he needs to write his magnificent book and risk failure in order to save it. The longer he sits on his project, the more blocked Brandon will become.

But he won’t start writing.

I’ve always wanted to write a great book. Reading for the Newbery, I read plenty of great books. So if I get back into it by writing a silly little book – maybe it won’t be so paralyzing.

Anyway, that’s my plan. And I just spent a half-hour writing about that plan. Funny how easy that is.

But it was a lovely Getaway.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – II Thessalonians 1:9

April 9th, 2019

As our church is reading through the New Testament together, I’m pointing out passages that look a little different when you read them with the eyes of a universalist. Today we encountered another, II Thessalonians 1:3-10:

We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

Once again, there are concerns about the way this is translated. The Greek word translated “everlasting” is the same Greek word eonian which means “of the ages,” and “everlasting” is a misleading translation.

I looked over my books on universalism and a few address this passage. Thomas Talbott goes on at great length in his book The Inescapable Love of God, also looking at where the word “destruction” is used elsewhere by Paul and it is a redemptive kind of destruction. George Sarris says some of the same things in Heaven’s Doors, but he’s a lot more concise, so I’ll copy that out here:

In II Thessalonians 1:9, the apostle Paul tells his readers that those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus will be “punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . .”

Those are pretty strong words! If you were punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord, where else would you be but in hell? Here again, the translation into English is misleading.

As we have seen, the word translated as everlasting does not mean never-ending. It means the end is not known. The verse definitely talks of punishment, but it does not talk of punishment that never ends.

The actual Greek text of this verse also does not say that those punished will be shut out from the presence of the Lord. It simply says that the punishment is from the presence of the Lord. Depending on the context, that phrase could mean punishment away from or punishment coming from the Lord.

A few verses earlier, Paul says that God is just and will punish those who unjustly treated the Thessalonian Christians. He’s not talking about punishment that keeps people shut out from the presence of the Lord. He’s talking about just punishment that comes from the presence of the Lord on those who are mistreating His people.

The destruction Paul refers to literally means ruin or desolation. In this passage, Paul is simply saying that those who are unjustly persecuting the Thessalonian believers will experience ruin from the hand of God in the age to come. He’s not talking about endless torment. He’s talking about how the wicked will be humbled before God, and the plans of their hearts will be brought to nothing, as God justly pays them back for the trouble they have caused His people.

Again I’m reminded that the teaching that hell is never-ending torment was not part of the teaching of the church fathers as long as they were native Greek speakers. When Augustine, who did not speak Greek, came to be a leader of the church, he popularized the idea that hell is unending torment.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – The Rich Man and Lazarus

April 2nd, 2019

I’m following along with my church’s reading of the New Testament and making comments when there’s a passage that might look different when read from the perspective of a universalist. Today we read Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

I like the discussion of this story in George Sarris’s book, Heaven’s Doors, so I’m going to copy that out here.

Note first that the newest edition of the NIV Bible correctly translates the word “Hades” in the parable rather than using “hell.” “Hades” means “the grave” rather than a place of torment. But here’s more from George Sarris:

At first glance, it certainly looks like there’s no way around understanding this parable as promoting the idea of endless, conscious torment. After all, the rich man is in hell. He is “in torment and agony in this fire.” A great chasm has been fixed between the rich man and Lazarus. And those who want to cross over that chasm cannot.

However, if we take a closer look at the passage, a few things bring that interpretation into question.

First of all, the rich man was not in hell.

As mentioned earlier, the English word hell automatically brings to mind never-ending punishment. But as we have just seen, the Greek word Jesus actually used here does not communicate that idea at all.

Jesus said the rich man was in Hades, and Scripture specifically says that Hades, as a place of punishment, does not last forever. Hades will one day give up the dead who are in it and will itself be cast into the lake of fire.

The next thing we should note is that this is a parable. Jesus is telling a fictional story to teach certain truths to His listeners.

The audience for this parable was made up of two distinct groups of people. One group, the tax collectors and sinners, were spiritually poor and recognized their need for God. The other group, made up of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, were materially rich and had deceived themselves into thinking they were favored by God. Like the rich man in the parable, many of those religious leaders were actually clothed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.

In this parable, Jesus alluded to an Egyptian folktale that both the religious leaders and the tax collectors were familiar with. But He told it with a very important twist.

The story known to His listeners was about a poor scholar and a rich tax collector. After the two men died, one of the poor scholar’s colleagues had a dream. In his dream, he saw the fate of the two men in the next world. The poor scholar was in “gardens of paradisal beauty, watered by flowing streams.” But the rich tax collector was standing on the bank of a stream, trying to reach the water but unable to do so.

In the original folktale, the Pharisees and teachers of the law would have identified with the poor scholar since they were also scholars who prided themselves on their knowledge of Moses and the prophets. They looked with marked disdain on the tax collector who they considered a great sinner simply by virtue of his occupation. In an absolutely brilliant move, Jesus turned the tables on the listeners and identified the religious leaders not with the hero in the story, but with the villain. They were the ones who were rich in this world’s goods, but poor in the eyes of God.

Jesus wasn’t relating definitive facts about the afterlife. He was using the story to communicate specific truth about this life. The pride and hypocrisy of the religious leaders kept them from understanding what Moses and the prophets taught.

The last thing to note about this passage is that the parable was told before Jesus had risen from the dead.

A great chasm separated the rich man from Lazarus. But there is nothing in the account that says that the chasm will always be there. Neither Abraham, nor the rich man, nor Lazarus could do anything to make it possible to go from one side of the chasm to the other. That was the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection. God bridged the chasm through Him.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 15 – The Lost Son

March 31st, 2019

Yesterday we looked at the first two parables in Luke 15 – the lost sheep and the lost coin. Today we’re going to look at the beautiful parable of the lost son, otherwise known as the prodigal son. But as many have pointed out, the son is not the prodigal in this parable – extravagantly generous. That’s the father.

Let’s look at the story:

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

“’My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

Before I talk about this passage and universalism, let’s think about this father. This is how much God loves you!

Notice that the father did not force someone to pay back what the son had squandered before he forgave him. He didn’t require payment of any kind. He was watching the road for his son’s return. It was the son who needed to be reconciled to his father, not the other way around.

But this is also how much God loves other people!

Let’s think for a moment about the setting of this parable. Let’s review when Jesus told it. Here’s how the chapter starts:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

I mentioned yesterday that the next two parables Jesus told are universalist parables. But looking at the context, the point Jesus was really making was this:

Those sinners I’m eating with are going to be welcomed in heaven with great rejoicing!

Those tax collectors and sinners who were gathering around Jesus – he was saying that his Father values them and would search for them until they were found.

And then the parable of the Lost Son – this is how much the Father loves those sinners and tax collectors – He’s eagerly watching for them and will run toward them when He sees them approaching.

Obviously, Jesus was thinking of the Pharisees when he told about the older son who didn’t want the father to celebrate after all his brother had done.

But where’s the universalism in that?

Well, suppose I’m right about the first two parables. Suppose they are saying that ALL will be saved, that the Good Shepherd will keep searching for every single lost sheep until they are found.

Don’t argue with me for a second, just assume that universalism is true and examine how you would feel.

If universalism is true – will you feel aggrieved? Will you start asking God, “What did I follow you for if you’re going to save these people in the end, anyway? Why have I been slaving for you and trying to please you – when you get excited about these miserable sinners who only deserve hell? Why did I spend my life on earth trying to follow you?”

Today is Transgender Visibility Day. If you’re convinced that being transgender is a sin (It is not – the reasons why not are a post for another day.) – will you be upset with God for welcoming them lavishly into heaven?

Will you be upset if gays and lesbians and other queer people are in heaven? People who married someone of the same gender and people who were a different gender than the one on their birth announcement? Or how about cheating husbands? Murderers and *shudder* people of the opposite political party?

If universalism is true – if our Father’s love is that big – will you be angry with God?

Back to the older brother — Notice that he has no joy in the service he’s been doing for his father. He describes his work for his father as slaving for him.

Notice also, though, the father’s answer: “You are always with me and everything I have is yours.” The elder brother didn’t have to nearly starve in the pigsty. I do believe there will be judgment, but that the Lord will win in the end. We can do it the easy way or the hard way. Those who choose to follow Jesus in this life have Him always with us and everything He has is ours.

On the surface, the younger brother is the one doing things the hard way. And yet if the elder brother is finding no joy in being with the father, he’s got a drudgery of his own.

And I suspect his pride is hurt by his little brother getting so much attention. But life with the Father isn’t about comparison. It’s not about being better than the others in our human family.

May we never begrudge anyone the lavish love of the Father – He has more than enough for all of us.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 15 – Until They Are Found

March 30th, 2019

I’ve been looking forward to chapter 15 of Luke. Three parables are listed, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Today we read the first two:

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I’ve emphasized the until he finds it phrases above, because those are key words for universalists.

These parables don’t leave any room for failure. The Lord is not willing that any should perish, and He will keep searching until He finds His lost sheep. This is yet another reason I say that there is no deadline.

Yes, we saw in earlier passages that there will be judgment after death. But this judgment is spoken of as correction. Perhaps with some it is part of the process of finding that wandering sheep, of bringing it home. This Good Shepherd is not a shepherd who ever gives up.

In fact, every time we sing Cory Asbury’s song “Reckless Love” in church, I think of those I know who haven’t yet come to Jesus. Because God’s love is indeed overwhelming, never-ending, and reckless. He will indeed not be stymied by our resistance. He will keep after us until we are found, even if it takes eons.

Peter Gray wrote a booklet that he titled Until They Are Found, which I reviewed in 2010. It’s short, so I reread it before writing this post. He also asserts that this shows a shepherd who does not give up.

Here in Luke, we are presented with a vision of the Good Shepherd who searches without ceasing. Normal search and rescue operations only last a certain time; eventually they are called off, even if not everyone has been found. But there is nothing normal about the rescue mission of the Good Shepherd, for he does not know how to give up. He knows nothing of cutting his losses, for if He did, He would surely never have searched in the first instance. After all, ninety nine out of one hundred is a pretty good standard, don’t you think? Ninety nine percent might be good in our books, but it is not good enough for God. Nothing short of one hundred percent will satisfy the Good Shepherd.

Look at what Jesus says in verse 4, “Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?” Notice that word ‘until.’ It is there deliberately. It is not by accident that Jesus does not say, “in an attempt to find it.” Jesus says that the shepherd will search until it is found, hence the title of this book. This story says nothing about not finding the lost sheep; no hint of failure is given. That there may be a sheep belonging to Him that He will never find, is a conclusion that this story precludes us from believing. Praise God!

It is Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, and the success of the search and rescue operation depends upon His skill. He sees so clearly, and intervenes so effectually, that He will most assuredly bring them in. Jesus Christ will not lose one of His sheep. True, some sheep may wander in the wilderness for a time, but to be forever lost? Never! A thought that He cannot bear. Could the Christ fail to save even one of those for whom He came and for whom He died? Impossible! Such a thought He could not endure. A defeated Christ is a Christ whom I cannot conceive of.

He makes another point from these first two parables: Neither the sheep nor the coin contributes anything to being found.

The coin was not found because the coin followed a law or a commandment. It was not found because it realized its own state of ‘lost-ness’ and began looking for its owner. It was not found because of some ‘good works’ it had managed to achieve. The coin was found only because the woman looked for it. What could a coin contribute to its being found? The answer, of course, is nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And is this not the point of using a coin as the imagery? There is absolutely no possibility of being misinterpreted. A coin cannot contribute to being found in any way. A sheep could possibly have made a sound or even walked toward the shepherd. Even though Jesus does not say any of this happened, it is possible to misinterpret Him and think the sheep did something. The point I am attempting to make is that the religious people in Jesus’ audience, who were so convinced that they contributed to their salvation, could find a way to distort the obvious meaning of the story and conclude that the sheep did do something. And so the lost sheep story is followed by the story of a lost coin, and now there is no way to be misinterpreted. A coin cannot do anything to contribute to its being found. The coin was found because the woman went looking for it — no other reason can possibly be asserted. And what’s more, the woman went looking until she found her coin. Again, Jesus chooses to use this word until. ‘Until it is found’ carries no possibility of failure. It can mean only one thing: that all who are lost shall be found.

The final story in Luke 15 is about the lost son — it shows how much the Father loves the one who is lost. We’ll read that one tomorrow.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 13

March 28th, 2019

Here’s another difficult passage for universalists, Luke 13:22-30:

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

“Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

“But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

Now, I am a universalist — I believe that, eventually, all will be saved. But I also believe in hell. How is this possible? Well, I believe that hell is not unending. It is for correction, not outrageous, out-of-proportion punishment of unending torment for all time.

Notice that this passage never says the punishment is unending. In fact, saying “the first shall be last” implies their time will come, in the end. After all, Jesus didn’t say, “The first shall be never.”

Remember also that Jesus was speaking to religious people like the Pharisees who were very proud of their religion and believed they knew exactly what was necessary to please God. He was emphasizing to them that these Gentiles they despised would come from the east and west and north and south and enter into God’s presence before them.

Yes, this is a passage universalists need to explain — but taken together with so many other passages, I still think that universalism fits best with what the New Testament teaches.

A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – Luke 12 and George MacDonald on Forgiveness

March 23rd, 2019

Okay, this one’s a difficult passage. Luke 12:8-10:

I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God. And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.

George MacDonald has an entire sermon about this verse in the book Unspoken Sermons, Series One, the chapter titled “It Shall Not Be Forgiven.” I can’t include the entire chapter here, but I want to include some long sections from it.

First, he talks at length about what forgiveness actually is. When we’re talking about God’s forgiveness, it includes the remission, the sending away, of sins.

First, he looks at human forgiveness to give us the idea:

A man will say: “I forgive, but I cannot forget. Let the fellow never come in my sight again.” To what does such a forgiveness reach? To the remission or sending away of the penalties which the wronged believes he can claim from the wrong-doer.

But there is no sending away of the wrong itself from between them.

Again, a man will say: “He has done a very mean action, but he has the worst of it himself in that he is capable of doing so. I despise him too much to desire revenge. I will take no notice of it. I forgive him. I don’t care.”

Here, again, there is no sending away of the wrong from between them — no remission of the sin.

A third will say: “I suppose I must forgive him; for if I do not forgive him, God will not forgive me.”

This man is a little nearer the truth, inasmuch as a ground of sympathy, though only that of common sin, is recognized as between the offender and himself.

One more will say: “He has wronged me grievously. It is a dreadful thing to me, and more dreadful still to him, that he should have done it. He has hurt me, but he has nearly killed himself. He shall have no more injury from it that I can save him. I cannot feel the same towards him yet; but I will try to make him acknowledge the wrong he has done me, and so put it away from him. Then, perhaps, I shall be able to feel towards him as I used to feel. For this end I will show him all the kindness I can, not forcing it upon him, but seizing every fit opportunity; not, I hope, from a wish to make myself great through bounty to him, but because I love him so much that I want to love him more in reconciling him to his true self. I would destroy this evil deed that has come between us. I send it away. And I would have him destroy it from between us too, by abjuring it utterly.”

Which comes nearest to the divine idea of forgiveness? Nearest, though with the gulf between, wherewith the heavens are higher than the earth?

For the Divine creates the Human, has the creative power in excess of the Human. It is the Divine forgiveness that, originating itself, creates our forgiveness, and therefore can do so much more. It can take up all our wrongs, small and great, with their righteous attendance of griefs and sorrows, and carry them away from between our God and us.

Christ is God’s Forgiveness.

Before we approach a little nearer to this great sight, let us consider the human forgiveness in a more definite embodiment — as between a father and a son. For although God is so much more to us, and comes so much nearer to us than a father can be or come, yet the fatherhood is the last height of the human stair whence our understandings can see him afar off, and where our hearts can first know that he is nigh, even in them.

There are various kinds and degrees of wrongdoing, which need varying kinds and degrees of forgiveness. An outburst of anger in a child, for instance, scarcely wants forgiveness. The wrong in it may be so small, that the parent has only to influence the child for self-restraint, and the rousing of the will against the wrong. The father will not feel that such a fault has built up any wall between him and his child. But suppose that he discovered in him a habit of sly cruelty towards his younger brothers, or the animals of the house, how differently would he feel! Could his forgiveness be the same as in the former case? Would not the different evil require a different form of forgiveness? I mean, would not the forgiveness have to take the form of that kind of punishment fittest for restraining, in the hope of finally rooting out, the wickedness? Could there be true love in any other kind of forgiveness than this? A passing-by of the offence might spring from a poor human kindness, but never from divine love. It would not be remission. Forgiveness can never be indifference. Forgiveness is love towards the unlovely.

Let us look a little closer at the way a father might feel, and express his feelings. One child, the moment the fault was committed, the father would clasp to his bosom, knowing that very love in its own natural manifestation would destroy the fault in him, and that, the next moment, he would be weeping. The father’s hatred of the sin would burst forth in his pitiful tenderness towards the child who was so wretched as to have done the sin, and so destroy it. The fault of such a child would then cause no interruption of the interchange of sweet affections. The child is forgiven at once. But the treatment of another upon the same principle would be altogether different. If he had been guilty of baseness, meanness, selfishness, deceit, self-gratulation in the evil brought upon others, the father might say to himself: “I cannot forgive him. This is beyond forgiveness.” He might say so, and keep saying so, while all the time he was striving to let forgiveness find its way that it might lift him from the gulf into which he had fallen. His love might grow yet greater because of the wandering and loss of his son. For love is divine, and then most divine when it loves according to needs and not according to merits. But the forgiveness would be but in the process of making, as it were, or of drawing nigh to the sinner. Not till his opening heart received the divine flood of destroying affection, and his own affection burst forth to meet it and sweep the evil away, could it be said to be finished, to have arrived, could the son be said to be forgiven.

He’s making a point that sometimes we can’t receive God’s forgiveness. And it’s because of us.

But, looking upon forgiveness, then, as the perfecting of a work ever going on, as the contact of God’s heart and ours, in spite and in destruction of the intervening wrong, we may say that God’s love is ever in front of his forgiveness. God’s love is the prime mover, ever seeking to perfect his forgiveness, which latter needs the human condition for its consummation. The love is perfect, working out the forgiveness. God loves where he cannot yet forgive — where forgiveness in the full sense is as yet simply impossible, because no contact of hearts is possible, because that which lies between has not even begun to yield to the besom of his holy destruction.

Then he talks about the two sins Jesus said will not be forgiven.

But there are two sins, not of individual deed, but of spiritual condition, which cannot be forgiven; that is, as it seems to me, which cannot be excused, passed by, made little of by the tenderness even of God, inasmuch as they will allow no forgiveness to come into the soul, they will permit no good influence to go on working alongside of them; they shut God out altogether. Therefore the man guilty of these can never receive into himself the holy renewing saving influences of God’s forgiveness. God is outside of him in every sense, save that which springs from his creating relation to him, by which, thanks be to God, he yet keeps a hold of him, although against the will of the man who will not be forgiven. The one of these sins is against man; the other against God.

The former is unforgivingness to our neighbor; the shutting of him out from our mercies, from our love — so from the universe, as far as we are a portion of it — the murdering therefore of our neighbor. It may be an infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him. The former may be the act of a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over the feeling that excludes, that, in our microcosm, kills the image, the idea of the hated. We listen to the voice of our own hurt pride or hurt affection (only the latter without the suggestion of the former, thinketh no evil) to the injury of the evil-doer. In as far as we can, we quench the relations of life between us; we close up the passages of possible return This is to shut out God, the Life, the One. For how are we to receive the forgiving presence while we shut out our brother from our portion of the universal forgiveness, the final restoration, thus refusing to let God be All in all? If God appeared to us, how could he say, “I forgive you,” while we remained unforgiving to our neighbor? Suppose it possible that he should say so, his forgiveness would be no good to us while we were uncured of our unforgivingness. It would not touch us. It would not come near us…. With our forgiveness to our neighbor, in flows the consciousness of God’s forgiveness to us; or even with the effort, we become capable of believing that God can forgive us. No man who will not forgive his neighbor, can believe that God is willing, yea, wanting to forgive him, can believe that the dove of God’s peace is hovering over a chaotic heart, fain to alight, but finding no rest for the sole of its foot. For God to say to such a man, “I cannot forgive you,” is love as well as necessity. If God said, “I forgive you,” to a man who hated his brother, and if (as is impossible) that voice of forgiveness should reach the man, what would it mean to him? How would the man interpret it? Would it not mean to him, “You may go on hating. I do not mind it. You have had great provocation, and are justified in your hate”? No doubt God takes what wrong there is, and what provocation there is, into the account; but the more provocation, the more excuse that can be urged for the hate, the more reason, if possible, that the hater should be delivered from the hell of his hate, that God’s child should be made the loving child that he meant him to be.

But George MacDonald doesn’t think this is the final word.

No one, however, supposes for a moment that a man who has once refused to forgive his brother, shall therefore be condemned to endless unforgiveness and unforgivingness. What is meant is, that while a man continues in such a mood, God cannot be with him as his friend; not that he will not be his friend, but the friendship being all on one side — that of God — must take forms such as the man will not be able to recognize as friendship. Forgiveness, as I have said, is not love merely, but love conveyed as love to the erring, so establishing peace towards God, and forgiveness towards our neighbor.

To return to our immediate text: Is the refusal of forgiveness contained in it a condemnation to irrecoverable impenitence? Strange righteousness would be the decree, that because a man has done wrong — let us say has done wrong so often and so much that he is wrong — he shall for ever remain wrong! Do not tell me the condemnation is only negative — a leaving of the man to the consequences of his own will, or at most a withdrawing from him of the Spirit which he has despised. God will not take shelter behind such a jugglery of logic or metaphysics. He is neither schoolman nor theologian, but our Father in heaven. He knows that that in him would be the same unforgivingness for which he refuses to forgive man.

Here’s a little bit about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit:

The man who denies truth, who consciously resists duty, who says there is no truth, or that the truth he sees is not true, who says that which is good is of Satan, or that which is bad is of God, supposing him to know that it is good or is bad, denies the Spirit, shuts out the Spirit, and therefore cannot be forgiven. For without the Spirit no forgiveness can enter the man to cast out the satan. Without the Spirit to witness with his spirit, no man could know himself forgiven, even if God appeared to him and said so. The full forgiveness is, as I have said, when a man feels that God is forgiving him; and this cannot be while he opposes himself to the very essence of God’s will.

But he does not believe this is a fixed, final condition.

The Spirit of God is the Spirit whose influence is known by its witnessing with our spirit. But may there not be other powers and means of the Spirit preparatory to this its highest office with man? God who has made us can never be far from any man who draws the breath of life — nay, must be in him; not necessarily in his heart, as we say, but still in him. May not then one day some terrible convulsion from the center of his being, some fearful earthquake from the hidden gulfs of his nature, shake such a man so that through all the deafness of his death, the voice of the Spirit may be faintly heard, the still small voice that comes after the tempest and the earthquake? May there not be a fire that even such can feel? Who shall set bounds to the consuming of the fire of our God, and the purifying that dwells therein?

It’s a difficult passage — even George MacDonald acknowledges that. And yet Jesus forgave his murderers while they were still in the act of crucifying him. It makes sense to me that if there are people God cannot forgive, the problem is with the people, not with the heart of God. They simply can’t experience God’s forgiveness.

I think of my child, when he had done something he knew was wrong and I confronted him. I was ready to forgive — he was only a small child, and it was a small fault. But he wanted nothing to do with me! Or my ex-husband. I was ready to forgive. But again, he wanted nothing to do with me — He could not experience my forgiveness, and any overtures I tried to make were interpreted as unkindness.

May we all open our hearts to the amazing forgiveness and love of our Father!