In the Broadway play Grace (which is no longer running), toward the end Ed Asner’s character tells a story. As a child, he was forced by Nazi soldiers to inflict unthinkable abuse upon a young girl. Throughout his life he lived with a burden of guilt, although he had not chosen to commit the crime. Still, he remembered what had been done, and that memory affected his whole outlook. In any event, by accident late in life he bumps into the woman from his childhood. They sit over coffee and talk. Later he reports the encounter to two people he knows. He tells them: “She spoke to me the most beautiful words I ever heard. She took my hand, looked me in the eyes, and said, `I understand’.” Much of the meaning of the play’s title was captured in that story, in fact, in those two words.
Perhaps the Grace that overcomes guilt is experienced when God says to us, “I understand.” God looks past what we have done to why we did it. God looks past what we have failed to do to how we were discouraged from trying. God looks past our actions to our essence, past our deeds to our nature, past our sins to our wounds. God knows us as we are and thus says with infinite love: “I understand.”
This is not to say, of course, that we believe in a God who would condone sinfulness. God expects us to learn from failures in the past so that we might make better behavioral choices in the future. There’s a story in the gospel of John (chapter 8: 1-11) where Pharisees bring before Jesus a woman caught in a scandalous situation. In fact, they considered it so serious that they intended to stone her to death as punishment had Jesus not intervened. Once the accusers departed, only the woman and Jesus remained. And He specifically said to her: “Go your way, and do not sin like this again.” In other words, “Let this be a lesson to you. You’ve got to work on your behavior. It’s time to do some serious self-assessment and follow some new highways in the future.” However, before Jesus spoke those words, he spoke these: “Neither then do I condemn you.” It was the voice of Grace, a caring and compassionate presence that looked into her tearful eyes and assured her, “I understand.” He understood the inequity of the situation, how she was threatened with stoning but the male partner in the story was let off scott free. He understood how susceptible she may have been and why, or how used, or how victimized, or perhaps simply how unmet lifelong needs had made her vulnerable to temptation. Who knows what the details were? John doesn’t say. What we do know is that Jesus understood the “why” behind the “what,” and because of that he treated her with Grace. “Do not sin like this again,” but also, “Neither then do I condemn you.”
That, we believe, is how God treats us... with understanding and Grace. Certainly we are called to learn from our errors so as not to repeat them. But even when we err, God’s love is never withdrawn. That is a constant. And whereas some preach that God operates with wrath toward sinful folks, the God Jesus revealed instead operates with understanding. That’s what I call Good News!