31 October 2011
Sin and Hospital Chaplaincy
Sin and Hospital Chaplaincy - a strange title? Not from my perspective.
If you were to ask me what are the most important spiritual care tasks I perform, I would have to say that hearing patients' confessions is probably right up there at the top of the list. Comforting and praying with patients is probably the most requested spiritual care task, but I think that hearing confession is one of the most important.
But isn't confession just for Catholics? And how can a swingeing theological "liberal" like me hear confession when all I want to talk about is God's love and when I don't want to talk about God's condemnation of sinners?
Well, I'm here to tell you that confession is not just for Catholics. You'd be surprised the people who want to confess their sins to another, embodied, human being. Lots of Protestants want to tell you their worst sins when their lives are in danger and they want the reassurance of God's forgiveness from someone they see as God's representative. (I believe all baptized Christians are God's representatives, by the way. As my Baptist supervisor says, you can be a priest to any individual as long as that individual ordains you for service to them.)
So what does this theological liberal say when someone asks me "Do you think God will forgive me?" My first question often is "I don't know. What did you do?" I usually follow this up quickly with "I believe that God wants to forgive everyone, so if you're asking me if God will forgive you or that God can forgive you, the answer is yes. But if you are asking me to assure you that God has forgiven you of a specific sin, then I need to know what the sin was but, more importantly, I need to know how you have repented. You need to make things right not only with God, but with the person against whom you sinned, if that's applicable."
Tough stuff for a theological liberal? And how does that fit with a theology of unconditional grace and forgiveness?
My theology of unconditional grace and forgiveness is my belief that God wants to forgive every person and that God will forgive every and any sin. There is no such thing as an unforgivable sin. There is no such thing as an unforgivable person.
But....unconditional grace is an entirely different thing than cheap grace. Here is an example of cheap grace: "God forgive me for being with a prostitute yesterday night and, by the way, you and I know full well that I intend to do it again." Not only is this not repentance from a theological point of view, but from a simple human perspective, we all know in our hearts and our guts that this is not repentance.
We can run away from this fact all we want, but if you are a cardiac patient who is conscious and awake and you know that, medically, you might die any minute, believe me that you know darn well that this is not a repentance. And that's probably why you're calling the chaplain in.
The patient asks the words "Will God forgive me?" and the answer to that is yes. The question that the patient should be asking, however, is "Will I be able to benefit from God's forgiveness if I don't really intend to amend my ways?" The answer to that is no.
So what happens to that cardiac patient? If the patient dies without having had the opportunity to confess to his wife, to amend his life in faithfulness to his marriage vows and to demonstrate his repentance, will God have forgiven him? I don't know. And neither does anyone else. This is why we leave judgements of the human heart to God. God knows if a person is genuinely sorry and I believe genuine repentance is possible, even without having had the opportunity to demonstrate one's repentance.
The real tragedy of sin is that so many people live in the hell of unforgiveness for many years. And if you visit a patient whose life is in danger and who wants to make a confession, you know that it truly has been hell.