Taking the serious seriously


As boys, many of us played different kinds of conflict games. In my time playing cowboys and Indians was a common, and very serious activity, which today probably will be understood as racist. There were, however, rules and the rules must be followed. When someone was fought down, lying on the ground or had got stuck in a place of no escape, he would utter the word “mercy” and the onslaught immediately stopped. The boy was allowed to stand up or leave the place where he was stuck. Sometimes he was then out of the game, other times he was simply given a new role. The rules were applied, justly for the most part, and the boys learnt the code of honor.

Many understand God as stern and hard in his holiness, which is true. Others understand God as full of grace and mercy in his love, which is true.

What is not true, however, is that God is either one or the other. He is both, according to his word. And so, the question often asked when considering God’s vast character is: Which attribute is more prevalent – his holiness or his love?

Personally, I believe the question posed misses the point.

Being humans, we are generally positive to our own existence. Normality is what we are used to, and we do not anticipate major changes. And so, we invest in education to get a job in the future. We take up mortgages, understanding that we will always have a job to finance the debt. We have children, a testimony to our belief in the future. And history basically tells us that changes will come and be for the better. Just look at what has happened to the standard of living in Norway over the last generation.

Unfathomable!

This basic understanding of life does not, however, always hold.

Sometimes wisdom is not our forte – and we unwittingly set ourselves up for fall: If you do not run you finances well, your most probably will fall on hard times. If you lead a promiscuous life style, there are reasons to believe that consequences will present themselves at some stage. If you treat your children badly, chances are you will be lonely at old age, and your offspring might not fare well in life.

Some of us learn from our elders, some learn from their own mistakes, but we hopefully learn. We learn to take serious things seriously - things like health, finance, and relationships.

On the other hand, people who do not learn, neither takes serious things seriously. They are confused and taken aback when bad things start to enfold. They consider it unjust, or bad fate. And then they find someone to blame. They are often conceived as fools.

Sometimes, however, we entangle ourselves into destructive situations because of lack of knowledge, things we hardly could have foreseen. We are still responsible, and are to blame, so maybe we are not fools but we still fall on hard times.

This happened to a number of private citizens in Norway in the 1980’ies, when our society was mortgage-happy. The value of real estate had grown wildly since World War II, and everyone believed this development would continue forever. However, the oil crisis, high unemployment, decrease in the value of real estate, and the fact that many individuals had mortgages far beyond collateral value, placed a lot of people in a bottomless pit of debt. In 1987 the mortgage interest rate was at 16,8%.[1] For many there was no way to redeem themselves. Selling their home, they would still have a totally unmanageable burden of debt for the rest of their lives. It was a terrible time, with lots of anxiety and loss of faith in the future.

This was a serious situation for the nation, and needed to be taken seriously, and righteously. The political discourse took place towards the end of the 1980’ies and culminated in The Debt Settlement Act[2] in 1992, enacted into law in 1993.

Certain aspects of this law show how Christian belief has found its way into legislature.

  • The law only applies to private citizens, not to businesses or corporations. It is a law that encompasses the individual.

  • The debtor must first try to find settlement on his or her own.

  • The law applies only to those who are in a lasting state of inability to pay their debts, even if they sell their home and all their belongings, clothes and personal items excluded.

  • The law must be administered in such a way that it is not offensive to others who are able to pay their debts, if only barely.

  • When seeking debt settlement, the debtor must show absolute transparency when it comes to the totality of his or her finances. By not disclosing relevant information, the debtor forfeits his or her right to seek debt settlement on accord of this law.

And so, after certain procedures, the justice system took over the private economy of the debtor. He or she would have money for humble living quarters and needed sustenance, while the rest of the money in that household went against the mortgage, usually for five years. It was a hard and very frugal living. Then the debt was forgiven. You could start over.

A large number of Norwegians sought this opportunity of getting out of the debt pit. When in desperation, any solution - no matter how humbling or harsh - is preferred to remaining in despondency.

So then, is the Norwegian government harsh or lenient? This question divulges a lack of understanding for the situation.

A serious situation must be taken seriously. All those in bottomless debt understood this, and the rest of the nation would only accept a debt settlement law if the situation was dealt with righteously. Only when you had reached your wit’s end and were totally incapable of getting out of your predicament, were you eligible for debt settlement.

Helpless. Mercy. The code of honor.

Now, mercy denotes the compassion one feels for a person in need, and an action to alleviate that need. Grace, on the other hand, means God foregoing the dept you own him. Sin is the action that indebts you to God.

Many fail to understand that an offence towards God is most commonly first an offence towards our fellow man. Sinning against your neighbor, you are also sinning against the creator of your neighbor, whether your neighbor is a believer or not. [3]

And still, sometimes our sin is a direct offence towards God himself. This is what happens when we blatantly refuse to believe in him, when we discard his word, or when we worship the creation before the Creator.

If we take these things lightly, repentance very often becomes obsolete, and forgiveness becomes cheap. This, by itself, is a symptom of not taking serious things seriously. And that puts us in a bottomless pit of debt. Towards God.

Claiming that The Debt Settlement Act shows traits of Christian belief, let us go the other way, and show from that law what is Christian belief.

First you need to understand that God wants to forgive, and he is not slow to forgive, even though we might be slow to trust his forgiveness.

Let us then compare with the mentioned law:

  • You can only access God’s forgiveness as an individual. Belonging to a group, as a for example a church, does not convey forgiveness.[4] Only God can forgive, and he only forgives individuals.[5]

  • Retribution towards God would demand showing constant unselfish love towards him and man. As humans we have tried that, and failed catastrophically, and all ways of getting out of debt towards God are exhausted.

  • Concluding you have no way of living up to the demands of unselfish love towards your fellow human being, and finding there is even no possibility of repairing the wrongs you have imposed on your neighbor, you are eligible of God’s forgiveness.

  • The distribution of forgiveness is based on righteousness. Those who can manage without, are not eligible. There is no short-cut for those who want to manage partly on their own. Either you are helpless and need mercy, or you will manage on your own.

  • There is no forgiveness without repentance. If we are not willing to own the actions that put us in debt and to come forward and name them, humbling as it might be, there is no forgiveness.

It is not God who is demanding and judging, it is us not taking what is serious seriously. Where some people find stern and hard, the debtor finds grace and mercy.

Now, it is evident that he who never expects to stand face to face with the living God, will take his debt towards God lightly, as of no consequence. The interesting thing is that the feeling of guilt still seems to linger.

Repentance is the un-even barter of guilt and forgiveness. When repentance becomes a religious activity without being anchored in practical real life in your community, it has no value beyond your personal emotions. Repentance is the expression of understanding what you did, and the naming of it to the one you wronged. Repentance is humbling. Only when repentance is as stern and harsh as the action perpetrated, has it touched your life. Repentance is honesty at the intersection between God and man. The Greek word for confession means to agree with – in repentance to agree with the party wronged, either God or man. Repentance is only obsolete if guilt is.

God called you out, to restore your relationship with him and man.

Forgiveness without repentance is like love without action. It is pure feel-good.

The mark of cheap forgiveness is that it lacks the power of transformation. True forgiveness only takes place through a two-sided effort:

  • Humbling oneself and confessing to the one you wronged

  • Extending forgiveness by forgoing recompense for the wrong committed

Forgiveness has the power to turn enemies into friends, to reestablish broken relationships, to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the heart of the fathers to their young, to mend marriages, to unite churches, to heal the divide between the genders, nations, and peoples, and it makes disciples where it is most unlikely.

In summing up, let us make one thing clear: We all fall short. This is not a contest of faith or perfection. On the contrary, this is the way of life for those who realize they cannot cope without forgiveness. We do not, and need not, remain in a state of guilt and short-coming. We turn to him who made a way where there was no way, and to a joy that goes far, far beyond happiness. The joy of living a life of freedom from guilt.

Taking the serious things seriously.

[1] Statistics Norway, https://www.ssb.no/300692/gjennomsnittlig-utlans-og-innskuddsrente-i-bankene.per-31.desember.prosent-sa-454

[2] «Lov om frivillig og tvungen gjeldsordning for privatpersoner», 17.7.1992

[3] If interested in this topic, see former article: “Why would anyone love the cross?”

[4] Receiving absolution only has meaning when you understand that your repentance is before God, and he is the forgiving party.

[5] In the Old Testament we see a nation repenting, but that only gives meaning if a nation has entered a covenant with God. In the New Testament we enter the covenant individually.

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