There's a text in Jeremiah that caught my attention the other day. It comes from Jeremiah 33, when God is describing the way in which He will restore and heal Judah.
But I will heal this city and restore it to health. I will heal its people, and I will give them peace and security. I will restore Judah and Israel and rebuild them as they were before. I will cleanse them from all the sins that they have committed against me. I will forgive them for all the sins that they have committed against me.... v. 6-8
It struck me because of the way the verse is ordered, particularly in the last two sentences. I will cleanse...and I will forgive. (emphasis mine)
We place a lot of emphasis on forgiveness. We talk about the God who has forgiven us. We talk about our sins forgiven (not specific sins, mind you, but the general concept of sin as it relates to mankind and not particularly us). When we tell the story of Jesus, we tell about His forgiveness. It's kind of our hook - we tell people about forgiveness.
But grace is cheap.
It's cheap because forgiveness is something but the way we talk about it, and maybe this is just me, it doesn't feel like anything. I can intellectually know my sins are forgiven, but in the depth of me, that doesn't make it okay. It doesn't make me okay. And at my heart, I think God is far more interested in me than He ever was in my sin. Which means that a forgiveness that is a process and not a personal encounter...is cheap. It is no forgiveness at all.
That's how we end up with a generation that believes they can do whatever they want and God will forgive them. Because forgiveness is a buzzword these days and not a palpable encounter with a tender God.
When I read these words in Jeremiah, I instantly wondered if they should not be reversed. If forgiveness, which we have all come to know and love, should not come before the cleansing. If God should not free us from our sin before He cleans us up. But the Bible is not incidental; the words are this way for a reason.
A beautiful reason.
I thought about a loving parent with a wounded child. If you have children in your life (even if they are not yours), you can understand the comparison I am about to make. If you don't, you can still understand because you were a child once. And I thought about a child who falls and scrapes her knees on the ground. Bleeding, screaming in pain, she runs to her parent for care.
Any parent knows there are two major components to cleaning up this mess: first, to physically clean the wounds. Second, to reassure the child. A parent instinctively begins saying things like, "It's okay, honey. It's okay." But a child does not hear "it's okay" until it starts to actually look okay!
When blood is gushing from an open wound and dirt and rocks and debris are still hanging off of your broken flesh, it doesn't feel okay. It doesn't look okay. It doesn't seem okay. You sort of hear the words, but the words are no help. The words don't mean anything. This is where we, as a people, have brought forgiveness. Into a place where the words don't mean anything.
But when the blood starts to wipe away, when the debris falls off, when the soothing of the cool washrag starts to sink into the open wound, there's time to calm down. There's time to start to breathe again. Suddenly, you can hear the words that have been said all along - it's okay - and you know what? Maybe it is. It's starting to get there, at least. It's starting to look like it might be okay.
God understands this, which is why when He speaks to the prophet Jeremiah, He says first that He will cleanse His people, and then that He will forgive them. First, He will wash away their rebellion; then, He will reassure them. First, He will tenderly nurse their open wound. Then, He will embrace them with merciful arms. Forgiveness means something again.
Because it's not okay until it's okay.
Now, the people of Judah and Israel aren't hearing the word of the Lord and looking at their sin. They are hearing the voice of their God and looking at Him. Looking straight at the one who has been softly caring for them. Looking into the eyes of the one who picked them up out of the dirt, scooped them off the side of the road. The more He comes to cleanse us, to mend our wounds, to tend to our broken flesh, the more we're instinctively drawn to look into His eyes in search of the words we really long to hear, now that things are starting to calm down: It's okay.
And you know? It kind of is.