I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. – Matthew 3:11
The idea of relapse is an indispensable presence in our imagination and vocabulary. From the man declared cancer-free to the rehabilitated sinner, we all recognize the fear of this killer of hope and joy: “What if it returns? What if I relapse? What if it happens again?”
In some cases, in the penitentiary system, recidivism is related to the strange nostalgia for the penitentiary, it is a kind of addiction to evil. Various explanations have been given, but nothing rational can explain the desire to return behind bars or to the world of crime. Strangely and irrationally, the liberated Israelites longed for Egypt, and the Christian Jews wanted to return to the “yoke of bondage” (see Galatians 5:1; 1 Timothy 6:1). However, some of us are once again pushing ourselves toward those “weak and poor” things (Galatians 4:9) that we have just strayed from. It’s a recurrence of guilt.
The importance of self-forgiveness is hard to really appreciate. But so is the severity of relapse into guilt and self-forgiveness. The present generation is facing an increase in the number of suicides among young people and, more recently, even among children. Ultimately, terrible self-unforgiveness shreds these young lives into pieces.
The content of the farewell messages left by those who leave varies in detail, but the common denominator remains the same: self-forgiveness in the face of falling or failure. He who forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:7) is ready to offer help: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32).
“Where was God?” the mother moaned next to the cold body of her 18-year-old boy. God has always been by our side, but His saving forgiveness, glorious and full of light and grace, remains dependent on another form of forgiveness — self-forgiveness. God forgives you in vain if you refuse to forgive yourself. Self-unforgiveness is caused, first and foremost, by our misconceptions about the idea of forgiveness and, in particular, about self-forgiveness.
The surprise of the gravediggers
Genesis 37:29 – When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes.
The phrase “to bury memories” — or evil, or the hatchet — is another familiar presence in our vocabulary, and it communicates the idea of peace and reconciliation by burying conflict.
But can there really be peace in the soul by burying evil or the past? Can burial bring those far away together and bring those who hate each other closer? It depends on what you bury. For example, if you bury a pack of cigarettes in the table drawer, you meet it again every time you open that drawer. This is not a clever or sincere burial. Evil is not a decaying corpse, it is not a rotten material, but a seed, a root that gives shoots, a tumor metastasizing everywhere in the body. It is a mine primed and ready to explode, it is a deep grave covered with branches and leaves, a race connected with a steel cable to the trunk of an oak.
Burying past, present, or future evil does not mean forgiveness and reconciliation, but only a dangerous, aggravating procrastination. It is like thorns going deeper into the flesh with each movement. The evil present at the level of experience or memory must not be buried, but must be burned and the ashes must be thrown into the water.
In vain did Cain bury Abel’s blood .. “Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10). One cannot run away from the memory of evil, there is no specialized refuge for such a thing, because wherever one takes refuge — in the desert, in alcohol, in debauchery, in drugs, in justification or in blame — he takes evil with him, within. And the evil inside is much more dangerous than the one outside. In order to remain old-fashioned believers in Russian Orthodoxy, during the Stalinist persecution, the Lycov family took refuge in Siberia in 1936. They all escaped the demon from the outside, but couldn’t escape the discord, incest and curse stemming from their inside, even in total isolation. There, in Siberia, every morning for decades, Agafia Lycov, the last survivor of the family, kneels, bows and curses the Russian patriarch of Stalin’s time. Siberia, the Sahara or the Himalayas cannot solve the problem of evil, much less heal the soul from the stigma of guilt. The answer must be sought elsewhere.
The sacred fire
If we were to ask who likes the burning fire illustration, few people would probably say they do. “The sinners in Zion are terrified; trembling grips the godless: ‘Who of us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who of us can dwell with everlasting burning?’” (Isaiah 33:14).
But there is nothing to fear, nothing to fear about the burning fire and the eternal flames, when we know who is the One who said: “I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities.” (Isaiah 1:25) This is the true solution for the evil in our life and for his memory — the fire of God, which burns and destroys the evil and its memory in our life.
The phrase “God throws sin into the sea of oblivion” is as dangerous as it can be, even if it seems innocent. The Americans developed the illustration and said that after throwing sins into the sea of oblivion, God would put a sign there: “No fishing!” No, God does not throw sins into the sea of oblivion, whence one can imagine that they might one day be brought to the surface again. Instead, he burns them, to remove them forever and ”remembers your sins no more” (Isaiah 43:25).
Joseph spoke to his brothers only once about their intention, then burned this episode for good, and without ever talking about it again, he spoke all his life about what God had done based on their intention. Not even the memory of sin remains, because the memory sanctified by God does not preserve the memory of sin, but the eternal memory of the forgiveness of sin. The burning fire destroys only what was set to destroy you. That is why I can pray: Lord, baptize me with the Holy Spirit and with fire! We do not need to flee from God, but rather to flee to Him: “I will blot out your transgressions as a cloud, and your sins as a cloud; return to Me, for I have redeemed you ”(Isaiah 44:22).
Psalm 38:6 – I am bowed down and brought very low; all day long I go about mourning.
David, depressed? Where did this condition come from? “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.” (Psalm 32:3). So the cause of his depression was his own silence. It turns out that the remedy is just the opposite: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5).
So, if God forgave me, He burned my sin, iniquity or mistake, He wiped it out of existence, then must I not follow the “example of God” (Ephesians 5:1) and never return under the “yoke of bondage” of a guilty conscience?
Many of the patients would leave the hospital healed much faster if they gave up resentment and self-unforgiveness. There would be a lot of grass growing in the alleys of the hospital and many fewer tears would flow passed the gates of the cemeteries.
As for temptation, Satan will always present sin as a minor issue before committing it, and a major issue after. If only we could see sin before committing it as we see it afterward!
But the most important thing that remains is not the magnitude of sin, but its forgiveness and cleansing: “the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
An even greater sin than the sin committed is the refusal of the forgiveness that He who is Love without a beginning, without borders and without an end offers. Why would you want to remember what God has decided not to remember?
There are no angels versus people on earth, only people who have received forgiveness and peace with God and people who have refused to receive them. The holiest and most sinful of men have equal chances in life, because both have access to the only Source of change: the holy mirror of the life and Word of God in Jesus Christ. There, mysteriously, the holiest and most sinful of men are changed into the likeness of His image. From there, through them alike, God “spreads the aroma of the knowledge of him everywhere.” (2 Corinthians 2:14).
We have been led to believe that guilt must be kept as a permanent attitude and that it is in itself a virtue. That couldn’t be farther from the truth! The feeling of guilt does not make anyone a superior person, but only a conscious one. The pain is good and blessed, because it signals a health problem or a danger, but once the problem has been resolved and we have been healed, the pain disappears. Just as pain is a sign of suffering, the cessation of pain is a sign of healing. Why would anyone want, after being healed of the pains and torments of conscience, to relapse into suffering as if nothing had changed? Has nothing really changed? Does God’s love and forgiveness in the Golgotha Sacrifice mean anything?
It is possible, however, that after receiving forgiveness from God, the feeling of guilt persists. Do not assimilate such a feeling, but consider it an intruder, return to the Great Doctor and denounce it as false!
He will tell you that this feeling is not true, but it is only a sensation similar to that which one has after amputation.
This state of affairs is not the product of a half-forgiveness, but of a half-faith. For this reason we come and go, asking for forgiveness for what we have already been fully forgiven.
Have you ever wondered why the blind man who appears in the Gospel of Mark in chapter 8 is not fully healed as soon as Jesus touches him? Why does he see people “as trees” instead of seeing clearly? It was not a matter of Jesus’ power, but a matter of his faith. Jesus intervenes a second time and this time the healing is complete. The Lord will not drive away from Him someone who has less or insufficient faith, but will walk with Him to the end. His faith cannot receive full deliverance, but only a part of it. He is called by God to resume the struggle of faith and to rise seven times should he fall seven times!
So it is with forgiveness and especially with self-forgiveness. Sometimes our little faith receives a kind of incentive, but we are still afraid to step free. The Lord does not abandon the one who walks slowly or limps, but walks with him, no matter how slow that step.
Under the pressure and tension of guilt, we are inclined to resort to any human means of attaining peace of mind. We build churches, we make vows and promises, we make donations, we build hospitals or schools, we make pilgrimages, use rosaries or fast, we become monks, we become priests or pastors. These are especially good and blessed things in themselves, but “the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.” (Hebrews 9:9). In the realm of forgiveness, they “indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:23).
Matthew 16: 13-15 – Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Where does doubt come from, where does procrastination come from, where does unbelief or little faith come from? They all spring and come from what we believe about God, which Tozer said is “the most important value in a man’s life.” Some of Jesus’ contemporaries believed that He was Elijah, others that He was Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Knowing the crucial significance of this, Jesus asks His disciples directly, as He asks us now, “But who do you say I am?” Who am I for you, those who have seen My life so closely? What we choose to believe and what we want to understand about God will determine our relationship with Him and our temporary and eternal destiny. If He is a stranger to us, then we will not follow Him, no matter how heavy His call: “they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10:5).
God’s forgiveness is not a possibility or a probability, but a law such as the “law of sin and death”: “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people.”(Romans 5:18). Apart from refusal or rejection, there is no sin that has been committed or will ever be committed and that is not covered by this “decision of forgiveness”.
Every step of our life and our very relationship with God is the product of what we believe about Him. We will receive His forgiveness and truly forgive ourselves only if we have truly believed His Word. There is no need for God to be prayed and begged to give us His full forgiveness: “ In that day you will ask in my name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. No, the Father himself loves you because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (John 16:26-27). Forgiveness is not something improvised, but the earth and life were based on the forgiveness offered to us in the One who was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). That is why Jesus addresses “your sins are [already] forgiven” (Matthew 9:2) or “her many sins have been forgiven” (Luke 7:47).
Who are those involved in blessing this decision? “Whosoever believes” (John 3:16), “in great numbers” (Acts 2:39), “for all men” (Titus 2:11), “whoever wills” (Ezekiel 3:27), “whoever hears” (Matthew 7:24), “let no one perish” (2 Peter 3:9),“ let all come to repentance ”(2 Peter 3:9)! The only exception is the one who “has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10:29), that is, refuses the gift of forgiveness in Christ Jesus. In this case and only in this case “there is no more sacrifice for sins” (Hebrews 10:26)!
What, then, is the reason for so many people not yet enjoying the freedom of “holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12), but choosing to dwell “in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79)? Or what is the courage of those who received the invitation based on “his is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5: 14-15)?
We are clear about the first steps we have to take, but what about the last step, by which we are made masters of what we asked for? Do we really take possession of the gift of forgiveness in Christ? Do we take ownership of what God has given us in Jesus? When you come down from the mountain of forgiveness prayer, can anyone see the radiance of your face? Does your life confess that you are a forgiven and transformed being?
God does not need time to forgive, but only a welcoming heart. He forgives sin at the moment of its commission, and we are called to walk in the same light. Just as God does not need time to forgive your sin and error, so you never need time to think to forgive your neighbor or to forgive yourself, but you need to forgive right then and there.
Forgiveness is a paramount emergency.
God forgives fully, completely and without payment. He never again discusses the sin he forgave, because he burned it and turned it to ashes out of your life. This is the marriage of the Lamb to whom you are “neither a stranger nor a guest” (see Ephesians 2:19), but the church of Christ is the Bride of Christ! “Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.'(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) Then the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!’ And he added, ‘These are the true words of God.’ (Revelation 19: 6-9).