Last month, while talking about forgiveness and redemption at the Recovery Church circle, the question came up of whether or not we can be redeemed from God’s love. Hearing that phrase, I imagined a demon bargaining with God to gain control of some poor peasant’s soul, as if God were in the business of buying and selling.
Originally, redemption meant to buy back what one had sold. In ancient Mesopotamia, as Robert C. Ellickson and Charles DiA Thorland point out, life was precarious. Families were vulnerable to “crop failures, illness, and attack by pillagers.”  Families often had to borrow money, then were unable to pay it back. At some point, as David Graeber explains in his history of debt, the lender would force the delinquent borrower to give up belongings, land, or family members. These would be held as debt pawns. If the debtor could scrape together enough money, they could redeem what they had lost, including the relatives they loved. 
Redemption as Love
Nowadays, redemption is less about debt and land laws than it is about sin, forgiveness, and love. A child snatched by a lender to fulfill an unpaid debt could never have earned enough to pay for her freedom. One who cared about her, a parent or a sibling, would have to redeem her. In this way could she be brought back into community.
But such a child can’t be redeemed if she isn’t willing to return. This seems absurd when we think of a slave burdened with ceaseless toil. Of course she would want to be freed. But what about we who distance ourselves from loved ones through resentment, addiction, shame, or fear?
Redemption, as the Baptist pastor, Jerry W. Brown, points out, is a process. It leads us “toward fullness,” toward an intimate relationship with God, with our community, and with our selves. Our work, should we accept redemption, to is to “actualize” our “own potential.”  We return home as fully-functioning members of our families and our neighborhoods. When we leave our walled gardens and return to relationship, we become who we are meant to be. Not everyone is ready for this.
Take Annie, for instance . A few years before she died, I was called to the emergency department to comfort her family. The doctor was certain she would die that night from the effects of drinking too much alcohol. She had a perforated intestine. Because she wasn’t healthy enough to survive an operation, the medical team figured she would bleed to death. They couldn’t imagine her wounds would heal.
Miraculously, they did. A few days later, she went home, admonished by her doctor that if she wanted to live, she could never drink again.
This did not help. After all, she’d surprised them this once, hadn’t she? What made them think she couldn’t do it again? They offered her no addiction medicine consult, no referral to a counselor, not even a suggestion that she attend AA. The doctors didn’t seem to realize that what makes a person an addict is that she won’t stop using drugs or engaging in her compulsion even when her life is falling apart. A true addict can’t decide to stop and then do so. At least not on her own.
Yet Annie was left on her own. So, she relapsed. Over the years, I got to know her better. More than once, she returned to the hospital. A few times, I was able to visit her at her home. I watched her health worsen. Her eyes filmed over; her hearing deteriorated. She weakened. Yet her tenacity amazed me.
Still, even miracles come to an end one day, and so it was with Annie. When she could no longer stumble to the corner store on her own, she had to stop drinking, for no one would buy her alcohol. Though she ranted and threatened, but she was too sick to keep it up for long.
On what turned out to be her last day alive, I visited. Sitting beside her, I held her hand, spoke to her, prayed with her. A few times, she opened her eyes to slits. Appearing to recognize me, she managed a smile, but said nothing.
Redemption as Miracle
Her daughter talked, though. She longed for redemption, the kind of redemption that saves us from the consequences of our behavior. Her mother hadn’t started to drink until she was in her forties. Why was she dying now, twenty years later? It wasn’t fair. The daughter wanted me to save her mother, to bring down a miracle, as if that were within my power.
Yet there are many ways of being saved. Though healing Annie’s body was not possible, did that mean God couldn’t heal her heart? Surely any god worthy of the name would forgive Annie her broken life, would redeem her soul, buying it back from the shame, fear, and pain of choosing a bottle over a friend, a daughter, a son, a pet.
Did Annie feel redeemed? Had she found peace? It seemed so. As she lay, breathing easily, she took her daughter’s hand. At last, she had escaped her addiction, though perhaps not the way she would have wanted.
Yet it may have been the only way possible for her. She sometimes swore she wanted to be sober, but such determination didn’t last long. Shame, fear, hopelessness, and craving got in the way. If we’d given her enough support, early on her addiction, we might have saved her from the pain and suffering she experienced. We might have redeemed her from her shame and shamelessness.
But maybe she never wanted redemption. One of our recovery church members suggested that people like Annie, who choose addiction over life, do so because in the bottle, or in the thrill of the chase or the lure of the game, they find a solace they can’t accept from any other source. After all, drugs might not comfort us as well as a loving deity, but when shame grips our hearts, we remember that the drug cares nothing about what we have done. It is always ready to take us back.
Of course, so is God, but turning to God is scarier.
After all, God’s love can feel more like a scouring than like a balm. To be seen so intimately, known so thoroughly, and forgiven so completely can be frightening. When the ache in our hearts is raw, such love can sting, like iodine on an open wound. Though it cleanses and heals, God’s love does so with a cost, the cost of seeing the truth of our lives and the lives of those around us. That can hurt, for when we see what is truly inside us and in front of us, we realize we have things we need to change, things we need to forgive. Resentments will not serve us anymore.
It helps to remember that the pain doesn’t last. The shame we feel about the times we were unkind, apathetic, bitter, or resentful falls away. When we accept redemption, we learn to forgive ourselves and others, we learn to embrace the life we have been given, and we learn to let go of the past and move forward in love.
We Need One ANother
We all need this kind of redemption. Whenever we separate ourselves from community, whenever we hurt others, redemption can heal our broken hearts and invite us to make amends for the suffering we have caused. Even if we are not enthralled to a drug or a compulsive behavior, we may find ourselves turning away in fear from the grace that carries with it redemptive forgiveness. We may close off our hearts. All of us have pains from a lifetime of loss and betrayal. It can be hard to face them. It can be hard to open up to that scouring love.
Yet if sin is the breaking of relationship, the separating ourselves from God and other humans, the only solution is to return to love. As Brown points out, “[o]ur problems are relational, and God’s cure is relational.” 
Annie’s relationships were broken. Her husband had been an alcoholic, and when he died, she lost herself to the drink she had once hated. Her children, though grown, longed for her care and tending. She tried to give that to them, but when drunk she was snappish, oblivious, or apathetic. She claimed to be a Christian, but no longer prayed. It was unclear if she still believed in a deity. At times, she lied.
When we choose addiction, we choose death, whether a death of the body or of the heart and mind. Who among us would consciously do so?
When intense and unremitting pain overwhelms people, as may happen in the later stages of illness, they do sometimes choose the peace of the grave. Before that time, though, most of us choose to numb our discomfort in less drastic ways, to distract ourselves with tasks or entertainment, to soothe our aching hearts with obsessions, addictions, compulsions. We all of us experience moments and days when fear overwhelms us, when our shame feels so huge we cannot bear it. At such times, how do we turn back to the redemptive power of the holy?
For some, it is as simple as setting the intention. For others, a dire event, a close call, a frightening experience motivates them to make changes, to seek health, to open their hearts, to live rather than die. Still others resist change until a head injury forces them to slow down, or they are arrested, or an overdose leaves them disabled, or they die. When Fate hits us upside the head, most of us notice. We change. We welcome grace. That is a kind of redemption, as well.
Invited into Redemption
Even so, no one, not even God, can force us to choose life. Fate gives us one opportunity after another to learn from the tragedies and challenges we face, but it is up to us open ourselves to redemption. We can allow ourselves to be healed. Knowing that we are imperfect and will continue to make mistakes, we can nonetheless find the courage to return to the community that loves us.
We are called to heal the rupture of relationship by embracing a relationship that heals. Shame and fear can keep us from touching the hearts of others. They can also keep us from allowing our own hearts to be touched. But it doesn’t need to be this way. No one can force us to accept redemption, but if we do, we will soon find our way to freedom, contentment, love, and joy.
In faith and fondness,
- Ellickson, Robert C. and Thorland, Charles DiA, “Ancient Land Law: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Israel,” (1995), Family Scholarship Series, 350, [https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1409&context=fss_papers, accessed 11/9/19, 410.
- Graeber, David, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Brooklyn, NY: Melville House, 2014.
- Brown, Jerry W., Church Staff Teams that Win, Nashville: Convention Pres, 1979, 17.
- Not her real name.
- Brown 17.
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