Last month I spent a day in court, then, before I went home, I carried out the task I had set for myself that week: to write out a confession. Every now and then, I try to practice some of the ancient disciplines of faith.
Well, I wrote it out, I had no difficulty remembering some sins that needed confessing. Then I looked at it and thought “So what?
These are my sins and God has forgiven them in Christ. So?
How come I don’t feel any gratitude or relief or anything? How come these sins don’t look like anything anyway? Do I even believe that these are sins?”
Later that night, I recalled for my friends an incident from the court-room. After a couple of quite minor cases that were dealt with quickly, a man, twenty years older than the average offender, was called into the dock. As he walked through the room he could be heard snivelling, and with an awkward walk and a pronounced stoop he appeared as pathetic as anyone I have seen.
I had been reading, waiting for my business to come up, and was just listening with half an ear when the summary of facts was read out. It was simple.
He had driven into an intersection at such and such a place and time in such and such a vehicle, and caused an accident. He was charged with careless use of a motor vehicle causing severe injury and with careless use of a motor vehicle causing death. The car that had ploughed into him on the open road had cut his in half; severely injuring him and his teenage daughter in the back seat and killing his wife. The driver of the other car suffered moderate injuries.
The prosecution’s summary was blunt and brief.
The defence lawyer then spoke, entering the guilty plea. He also outlined the circumstances, and gave a much more graphic picture of what had happened; why the accident had occurred, what it had looked like from the perspective of the man in the dock, who by this time was sobbing uncontrollably.
His client, he said, did not deny responsibility, but he wanted to point out that his client had suffered, was suffering and would never cease to suffer. That the incident was a one-off, a single error in driving over many years that could have happened to any of us. That he had now to care for his daughter who was still very ill and dependent on him.
The lawyer requested mercy. The word was not used, but it was meant.
The Judge heard it all, made some notes, and then began her summing up before sentencing.
It was a scary summing up.
She did not miss one fact. No detail of the pain caused by the accident was left out. She even referred to the fact which every-one else had politely ignored – that the offender in the dock clearly felt his responsibility cruelly and was now weeping loudly.
All these things were put simply and clearly. She covered the breaches of law, the details of the offence, the horrendous impacts of the offence, the circumstances of the family then and now; all laid bare in the open court before this sobbing wretch of a man who had left behind a whole life at an intersection when he thought he was on a family outing one sunny morning.
And then she gave judgment.
Convicted on the charges – and discharged without sentence. Punishment enough that the offence would forever stand against his name and that he lived with some of its worst consequences.
It was the merciful judgment that the defence lawyer had sought, and all in the court-room were glad for it. When the man gasped out a broken “Thank You!” no-one laughed or even smiled at his pathetic lack of self-control. It was no more than any of us would have done.
The man who had walked in so brokenly walked out again with a slightly straighter back.
He had a new life to begin.
After I told the story that night I wondered.
I know that God’s mercy is quite different from that of the NZ courts system.
I know that when he gives mercy, it is so complete that there is no record kept of the offence whatsoever – it’s as if the offence was never committed.
I know that God offers that mercy to all of us without the need for us to come up with mitigating circumstances. He does it out of pure love for us.
But I bet that man felt more relief, more gratitude after that court case than I did in writing out my confession.
He had been stood up in public and completely exposed.
Every detail was acknowledged.
And then he was granted mercy.
Maybe my sins were a little tame? It wasn’t for causing anybody’s death after all. “The one that is forgiven much loves much….”
Maybe also my confession was a little tame. I hadn’t dared write out in words the evil thoughts that I had been thinking. Hadn’t committed to paper the harsh words that I recalled using. Hadn’t outlined in detail the unloving judgements I had been making….
In fact I had avoided detail and used convenient categorical-type words to cover-up. What exactly does “Lust” mean anyway? What were those thoughts again?
What would happen, I wonder, if they were actually made explicit?
What would happen if I was exposed as that man was in court?
If God can already see the sin, why do I continue to cover it up?
Maybe the best thing that could happen is for one of my friends to get a hold of the summary of facts on my offences, and go over it in the same sort of detail that that man faced – and then pronounce me forgiven.
Maybe then I’d really feel the evil of sin – and the forgiveness of God – in all its force.