Forgiven, but Still Incarcerated

Forgiven, but Still Incarcerated

But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. Exodus 21:23

It’s not uncommon for those who’re incarcerated to become desperately interested in God and what he might do for them. With a newfound faith, they also find forgiveness and eternal absolution. Often, they hope this means that God gets them out of their mess. New faith and forgiveness are often accompanied by an expectation of leniency from the judge. God’s forgiven me. Why can’t you?

I’ve been there – maybe not incarcerated – but in the impending disaster of my addiction, I became desperate for divine assistance. When my life began to crumble and terrible consequences loomed over me, I turned to God, asked forgiveness, and then hoped that meant that he’d deliver me from those consequences. If you’ve forgiven me God, then why must I still face the penalties for my actions? I’ve learned my lesson. I’m good now. Just get me out of this mess. Then, when I lost my job, had to go to treatment, and my marriage was still falling apart, I became frustrated with God. Hey, I thought I was forgiven!

Today’s passage provides some insight into this. In it, God provided the rules that were to govern his people. These laws were predicated on a system of retribution. If you caused loss to someone else, you must suffer that same loss. This was justice. Jesus later came along and turned this on its head. You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:38-39). Jesus though, wasn’t suggesting that the government stop enforcing laws. Rather, he taught us how to behave in our individual lives, not seeking retribution from those who wrong us.

When facing consequences, we’d like to appeal to Christ’s teaching on turning the other cheek. We’d like to believe that faith and forgiveness mean no consequences. We may find eternal absolution when we come to faith, and we may experience the spiritual freedom of being forgiven. If, however, we rob a bank today, we’re still going to jail tomorrow, even if we find faith in the meantime. We may be forgiven and destined for heaven in the afterlife, but when we engage in self-destructive behavior here on Earth, we’ll still suffer painful consequences, even as Christians. That’s just how God made the world.

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