If God were not willing to forgive sin, Heaven would be empty. -- German Proverb
There are words and phrases people don't really like or want to hear, like hearing "IRS audit" or "The damage was a little more extensive than we thought." In church circles, "sin" is a big word. I've heard it said that Episcopalians never talk about sin. Like eating salad with a dinner fork, it's just not done. Just to be clear, though, the Book of Common Prayer is full of the word "sin" or "sins." It is all through our liturgy, the Psalms, and the readings. Somehow, though, most of the year we don't really "hear" it as seriously as in the season of Lent, which starts next week.
A sin is a shortcoming, a fault, a transgression of moral or religious law. It is a life where God is on the back burner or even totally shut out. Perhaps that last sentence should have added other human beings, since we are all part of God's children, even if they don't realize it. When we are estranged from others, we are also estranged from God, no matter how much we are sure we are in good standing with God in all other respects.
We don't like to think about sin. We don't seem to mind doing it sometimes, if it isn't too big a sin anyway and sometimes even if it is. A child is made to feel awful if he or she swipes a candy bar and is forced to go back to the store and make amends. It's a good lesson, we tell them. But what about if we commit adultery, or steal from the company because we think they'll never miss it, or hit a parked car or (God forbid) a person and just keep driving? Are we as rigorous about amends then? Are we as willing to accept reproof for our own sins as we are those of our children or even other adults?
During Lent we focus on getting back into right relationship with God. We hear the word "sin" more often and even the beginning of Lent, Ash Wednesday, we are marked with ashes to remind us that we are dust and one day will become dust again. We are sinners, whether we want to believe it or not, but our sin does not totally define us the way we sometimes believe or are told by others. We're told about God's love, but we're also told we have to repent.
Repentance is hard. Usually sinning isn't terribly hard, and even dead easy at times, but repentance is something else. It is hard to admit that we could be and definitely are wrong sometimes, but there it is, right in front of us. It's something we need to do to make things right between us and God--and us and those we have hurt with our sins. Whether we confess to a priest, recite the General Confession at church, or even just say "I'm sorry" in our night prayers or after recognizing we've messed up, we feel better. Even though we are told in church that God loves us, we're often still not sure. We want to believe, Lord knows, but a lot of times we really wonder.
The good news is that God does love us, enough that if God had a refrigerator, every one of us on the face of the earth would have our picture on it (God would know each and every one of us by sight). More good news is that God loves us enough to forgive us even before we ask for it. The confession and prayers for forgiveness aren't for God, they're for us, as funny as that sounds.
Every now and then, something breaks through and reminds me that God really does love me, in a way my Sunday-school song "Jesus Loves Me" could never do. Reading the German proverb, "If God were not willing to forgive sin, Heaven would be empty" was one of those light bulb moments.
Now, angels in heaven are supposed to be perfect, but what about the saints? They were human beings before they were saints, and every human being has the potential for sin (well, except for one, but he was both human AND divine). Some saints were dedicated from a young age but many were real stinkers. Yet all found that God's love was irresistible, and that turned them around.
So if God's love is all-encompassing, then there is no one beyond it or outside the pale, even sinners. Heaven isn't populated with perfect people, just forgiven ones. Heaven is also boundless so there is room for everyone, all God's children, even the ones other people might consider far beyond God's forgiveness.
I can't believe that Heaven would be empty, or limited to just one group of people to the exclusion of everybody else. "In my father's house are many mansions: if it were not so I would have told you" (John 14:2) is one reassurance. Some may treat Heaven as a goal but for me I would rather think of it as a promise. I may not be perfect, but I am forgiven.
That's a reassurance I can live with very comfortably. It doesn't mean I can slack off and do whatever I want to anybody, but if and when I mess up, I can say that I'm sorry, try to make amends, and count on God's forgiveness.
I'd like to think that that third cloud from the right is my eventual home. I hope God allows pets.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, January 6, 2016.