Part III: Can God still use me?
How, then, should we respond to the forgiven transgressor? How should we see ourselves?
Should the transgressor be restored to their previous position? The answer is, “Yes, but…”
Should the former child molester be welcomed to the neighborhood? Should the former murderer be hired? The reformed molesting priest reinstated? Should the pastor who had an affair continue preaching? Should we vote for the man with a history of immorality? What if I’m the guilty one? When can I trust others? When can I trust myself? Or, having transgressed so grievously, am I now forever demoted to a lower caste?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer. Each case is individual and unique. But there are some essentials.
Two mistakes are common: restoring too soon, or refusing to restore.
Religious people are known for their refusal to allow for restoration (except when it comes to politics – then anything can be overlooked). Judgmental people refuse restoration to others; guilt-ridden people refuse to allow themselves to be restored. Depending on the nature of the transgression and our theophilosophical bent, some sins are simply unforgiveable. The pastor who gets a divorce is expelled from ministry. The clergyperson accused of any sort of sexual transgression is to be shamed and shunned. That former child molester isn’t living next to me! I did that horrible thing back then; I can never be trusted again; I deserve inner torment.
But if we are Kingdom people, refusing to restore is not an option. Nor is refusing to be restored. There is no one so far gone as to be unredeemable. Look at practically everyone in the Bible. God wants to restore us. No exceptions.
Then there are those who restore way too soon. Even more commonly, those who try to restore themselves without going through the pain of reconstruction. As long as my favorite politician’s sin was a few years ago, I can overlook it. Megachurch Pastor A committed adultery a while ago and got away with it, so Pastor A welcomes philandering Pastor B onto his staff. He said he was sorry, so I let him live with me. Hey, I learned my lesson; I won’t do it again.
Restoring too soon is simply enabling bad behavior. Being restored too soon is setting yourself up to crash and burn.
There’s a balance. There needs to be strong evidence observed over a lengthy period of months that the individual has truly repented and is deeply remorseful, though walking in forgiveness. When there is no desire to regain position or reputation, and when no excuses are being offered, when the transgressor can verbalize the pain of his victims, we’re on the right track. Now let it percolate to see if it comes from the heart. How is it with my soul?
In most cases, the transgressor’s restoration needs to be connected with extensive therapy over a long period of time. Years. Combine the therapy with spiritual direction and you’re really on the path to freedom. Therapy is about healing the past. Spiritual direction is about living under the loving care of the Divine. Both help form us into who we were meant to be. Therapy chips away the parts of the rock covering the sculpture. Spiritual direction shapes the features of the statue. This is what we mean by spiritual formation. It is living in the heart of God. It is becoming more godlike, more holy.
When we see evidences of spiritual formation in the transgressor (be that myself or someone else), we can be comfortable moving towards full restoration. The pastor can be back in ministry; the thief is now earning an honest living and lavishing gifts on the poor; the gangbanger is a licensed barber talking to young kids about choices. The transgression(s), like the sins, have been forgiven, forgotten by God, and are gone forever. The slate is clean.
In AA there’s a saying that goes something like, “You’re a pickle and you’ll never be a cucumber again.” I love AA, and I get what they’re trying to communicate (you’ll never be able to drink socially), but God can turn a pickle back into a cucumber (or unfry an egg, put the toothpaste back in the tube … pick your metaphor).
But it doesn’t happen magically with a wave of the divine hand. God forgives unconditionally but usually heals very gradually. There are many lessons we need to learn on the way. One of which is likely learning there are places I cannot go and things I cannot do. Deep painful truths must be faced. It’s a long journey from the false shadow self to who we were created to be. And it bears fruit.
Restoration involves repentance, forgiveness, making amends, and doing the deep work of self-discovery with the aid of therapists and spiritual directors.
It also involves boundaries. The former child molester should never take a job working with children. The formerly adulterous pastor, after years of therapy, can be fully welcomed back into ministry, albeit most likely in another locality. The thief shouldn’t become your bookkeeper. The pimp needs a new career.
Nevertheless, forgiveness and restoration are Kingdom principles. We are called to apply them to others and ourselves. Your life isn’t over because you blew it. As Carl Jung said, ““I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”