So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. –2 Corinthians 5:17-21
by Rachel Brownson
I met a woman here at the hospital who was about halfway through a very complicated and unpleasant treatment for a very aggressive cancer (I’ve changed many details about this patient for privacy’s sake). She’d just had a scare, a late night trip to the emergency room, and was just beginning to feel a little better; her nurses brisked in and out of the room cheerfully assuring her that soon she’d be home again. The odds of her surviving this illness weren’t impossible, but they weren’t great, either.
When I saw her, she looked good, sitting up in bed, bending her face toward the sunlight that streamed in through the window. We talked about her illness, her grandchildren, mistakes she’d made in relationships, all the ways she’d learned to deal with feeling powerless. She said that she was afraid of dying, and I asked her what about dying she was afraid of. “I need to get right with God,” she said. “I have to get back to where I was.”
Where she was?
“When I was young I went to church three, four times a week. I’ve got to get back there, or else I don’t think God will take me back. I have to get healthy enough to do that or I don’t know where I’ll end up after I die.”
Last week I began taking medication for attention deficit disorder after a lifetime of feeling overwhelmed, anxious, scattered, inefficient, and distracted. The first day I took it, as it kicked in on my drive to work, I slowly felt the constant drone of thought-noise in my head fade to a quiet hum. I went into the hospital and calmly got everything done that I set out to do over my ten hour shift. As I sat alone in my office at the end of the day, entering my numbers and checking off tasks, I began to weep.
I wept because I realized I had never, ever forgiven myself for being overwhelmed, anxious, scattered, inefficient, and distracted. Some part of me had always been convinced that if I punished myself hard enough for being “lazy,” I would feel enough guilt to spark some corrective action. I had clung to shame like a life raft, when in fact it was the only thing dragging me deeper under the waves. But here was this gift, this normal day when I did what I set out to do without the constant spinning turmoil of inner resistance and recrimination, to show me that I wasn’t past being reconciled to myself, to my work, and to God.
It is a sin to hold onto shame when God has reconciled the whole world to God’s self through Christ. It’s an understandable sin, but it’s a sin because it warps the soul, points us in the wrong direction, and hinders our walk with God. It’s a seductive sin because it fools us into thinking that shame is the only path to righteousness.
“Be reconciled to God,” Paul urges, in the aorist imperative passive. He’s quite deliberate in this passage about who is doing the reconciling. It begins with God, proceeds through Christ, and is given as a ministry to us to give one another. Paul does not say, “Reconcile yourself to God” because this is not how it works. Be reconciled. Receive forgiveness. And extend the forgiveness you have received to those around you.
When I was deep in shame, I needed a human being to tell me that I needed help, not punishment; that I was worthy of love and fully reconciled to God. I couldn’t make myself believe it, any more than the woman in the hospital could. Which is why we are ambassadors for Christ in this regard–because God is merciful, because we are the body of Christ in the world, God speaks through our mouths to offer each other grace. So that afternoon in the hospital, with the light painting the woman’s bed evening gold, I touched the grace I had just received and offered it to her.
Rachel Brownson is a Reformed Church minister, a writer, and a board certified chaplain at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in the University of Michigan Health System.