Can God really forgive me?
Last updated 5/9/2008 at Noon
Once a month I have been visiting the San Diego County Jail in Vista, and just recently I have begun going to the Riverside County Fire Honor Camp in Rainbow with a group of our parishioners. I go to these places once a month, but other dedicated lay people are there every week. Almost always I am working with the women inmates at both facilities. At either place, we usually get to enter at about 7 p.m. and begin our service at about 7:30 p.m. Normally, we don’t get out and home until close to 10 p.m. On most nights I have appointments or meetings up until the time I need to leave and have dinner when I get home. So, humanly speaking, I am often tired as I head off towards the jail or honor camp, thinking, “I’d like to be driving home.” There is a natural resistance in me almost every time I go and it is simply my humanity saying, from a selfish point of view, “I need a break.”
However, the good news is that I have never gone to either place and not come back amazed at how God works through us even when we are a bit reluctant. I said “we” because often it is not me who God uses, but one of the team or one of the inmates! By our simple presence there, God is able to work powerfully in the lives of these women.
Some time ago, I was at one of the facilities, and after the proclamation of the Gospel, when it came time for the homily, I invited anyone who wanted to share to feel free to speak. A number of the ladies shared openly and honestly their pain and struggles and how it related to the Word of God that we had just heard proclaimed. After having celebrated the liturgy of the Eucharist, the team leader asked the women if any of them would like to talk with me. A number of them raised their hands immediately. I moved to the far corner of the back of the room and they began to come one at a time for counsel and prayer.
One of the ladies reiterated her sad story and how her actions had destroyed all her relationships. She had ruined her marriage, lost her children, and lost her way with God. When she had finished sharing her pain and confusion, I told her simply and clearly that God would have no problem forgiving her. In fact, I told her she was forgiven, as she had clearly expressed her sorrow and contrition and previously, not once, but many times, had confessed her sin! I told her that Jesus had died on the Cross to cleanse her of her sins. I reiterated that God’s mercy was much bigger than all of her mistakes and sins. In every way that I could think of, I tried to convince her that our God is a loving and forgiving God.
When I had finished speaking, with tears running down her cheeks, she asked me, “Can God really forgive me?” I told her that our society required that she pay the debt for her actions through jail time, and she was doing just that. I told her that many, even her husband and children and other family members might not forgive her no matter what she did to atone for her sin. Then I took her hands in mine and said, “But, God doesn’t operate the way we do! Someone already paid the price for your sins. The atonement, the debt, has already been paid. You can do nothing to earn your forgiveness. God gives it freely in Christ and all you need to do is open your heart to His only Son, Jesus Christ.” She did. She, like all of us has been conditioned to believe that love is always offered conditionally. Falling into the arms of an unconditionally loving God is a whole new ballgame for her and for most of us. Once we do, there is no mistaking the fact that not only can we be forgiven, we ARE forgiven!