Friday, October 24, 2014

Ramblings on Anonymity, Being Alone with God, and Forgiveness

Sirach 16:17 states (in the NRSV): “Do not say, “I am hidden from the Lord, and who from on high has me in mind? Among so many people I am unknown, for what am I in a boundless creation?”

The point of this passage, of course, is that sinners should not think that God does not notice their sins and will not punish them.  But the passage stood out to me because it highlights how it is possible to feel lost in the big world—-to be anonymous.

Some people feel comforted that there is a God who notices them personally.  I think of the song, “His Eye Is On the Sparrow.”  But there are others who do not like such an idea: they feel that it invades their privacy, or they recoil from the prospect of being under someone’s judgmental eye all of the time.

Both ideas are in Scripture, in some sense.  Psalm 8 marvels that God notices man amidst the vast creation, and it goes on to talk about how God exalts and dignifies human beings.  On the other hand, Job, while he was suffering and thinking that God was afflicting him, was wondering why God pays so much attention to human beings (Job 7:17).  God is great and powerful, right?  Human beings are no threat to God, right?  Why, then, does Job have to be under God’s watchful eye, suffering affliction from God?

Anonymity itself can be a mixed blessing.  On the one hand, when we are anonymous, we don’t have to meet other people’s expectations.  On the other hand, when we are anonymous, we may feel lonely and unloved.

After I read Sirach 16:17, I was thinking about the concept of being alone with God.  I remembered a sermon that I heard years ago.  The pastor was referring to Max Weber’s study that showed that suicide was higher among Protestants than among Catholics.  The reason, Weber said, was that Catholics had a greater sense of community, whereas Protestants felt alone with God.  I would not say that Catholics have “community” in the manner that is pushed by evangelicals—-you have to have “intentional” community, socialize, and be vulnerable (sometimes, perhaps often, to judgmental people who may think that you don’t have the Spirit if you have certain issues).  But Catholics have a confessional where people can confess to a human being and receive absolution.  In the book that I recently read, The Sacred Year, Michael Yankoski talked about how he suggested to his Protestant pastors that they set up a confessional!

It would help me to be told by an authoritative human being that my sins are forgiven.  Trying to get that assurance in a setting where it is just me and God is difficult, especially since God in the Bible sets up so many conditions to receive forgiveness, and it is hard to know if I have truly met them: I need to forgive others, I need to repent (turn away from sin), etc.  It would be nice to go to a priest, confess my sin, and go back out feeling forgiven and trying to be good.

Of course, many have had problems with the Catholic system.  When forgiveness of sins is vested in a church, what happens when a church abuses that authority?  Consider the kings who got excommunicated by popes for not doing what the popes wanted.  Because human beings can be so judgmental, I can understand why some would like to make confession and forgiveness solely a matter of them and God: they figure that God will cut them more of a break.  And then there is the potential of abusing forgiveness.  You know of the stereotypical Catholic mafia boss, who kills others yet receives absolution because he confesses his sins to a priest.  Of course, Catholicism may say that it is not for that, that it promotes repentance and good works, and some Catholics may even say that it is Protestantism that gives people cheap grace—-the hope that they will go to heaven as long as they believe in Jesus, even if their lives are full of sin.

Anyway, those are some ramblings for today.


  1. Hitbodadut- going to some place alone-- and talking with God as a friend became a major point during the lifetime of Rebbi Nachman. It shows up in the Lekutai Moharan only towards the end of the first volume. It seems clear that even though he himself was doing this a lot, it did not become a major point of emphasis until some time after he was saying those later Torah lessons. And the most radical statements only appear at the very end--that the highest Divine serve is to go to some place where no one else is around and spend the whole day every day talking with God. If possible he also said a forest or some other place out in Nature is best.

  2. Some of that overlaps with that book I just read, The Sacred Year, particularly the part about spending time in the forest or in nature.

  3. There was a fellow Brother Lawrence,--not well known--who also had a similar approach. A nun collected her talks with him and it can be found in a collection called the Presence of G-d. There are a few differences though. Not just in the idea of being in nature. But also in the fact that R. Nachman made this kind of practice to be something one should do all day long.It is an unusual approach.

  4. Yeah, like he thought about G-d while washing the dishes. I've heard good things about that book but never read it.

  5. It is a great book. But it was not popular among Catholics because there was a quietism movement during the same time period. And Bother Lawrence's talks were too close for comfort for the Catholic authorities.

  6. That's interesting. I didn't know much about the historical context surrounding the book.


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