Do you remember being told as a child that you must never, ever get into trouble in school because all your misdeeds would be indelibly recorded on your permanent record? We believed it. We wondered if graduation from high school would be impossible. Perhaps college was out of the question. Maybe we would be denied gainful employment because of what was recorded on that menacing permanent record. Every lost library book and failure to return from recess in a timely manner was said to have been dutifully recorded on our permanent records and would haunt our futures.
It wasn’t until several years after college that we ran into an employee of the county school board’s records department and asked if we could get a copy of those permanent records. Do you know what she said? She said there wasn’t any such thing. Imagine that!
Thinking back on the permanent record ploy made us realize that there were some similarities with the way many of us were taught about God’s oversight of the world and of us. Were you taught that God kept score, tallied demerits, took names and wrote down all your deficiencies on an other-worldly Permanent Record? If so, perhaps depicting God as a sort of strict school principal served its purpose in motivating you to be a better behaved child, but we’re not convinced the image is a very helpful one in teaching anything very useful about God. And yet the image of God as a harsh and exacting disciplinarian is still prevalent.
We love the story of a woman who claimed to have conversations with God. Friends and neighbors flocked to her because it seemed she was often able to bring comforting messages or offer hope which she received through her conversations with God. When her pastor heard of this he scoffed. He had spent his entire life studying and honoring God, and he had never received such revelations. Surely God would not grant such insight to an ordinary person such as this woman.
He decided to unmask this woman’s pretensions by asking her to perform a test. He told her that the next time she was able to communicate with God she should ask God what the last sin was which he had confessed. The woman agreed to ask God about it and get back to her pastor. A week passed and the woman asked her pastor to visit. She had received a message from God. The pastor hurried over and asked her scornfully, “Did you do as I directed? Did you ask God to tell you what the last sin was which I confessed?”
“Yes,” the woman replied. “And what did God say?” the pastor pressed. The woman replied, “When I asked God to tell me your last sin, God said, ‘Tell your pastor: I don’t remember.’”
Now that’s an entirely different image for God, isn’t it? Not someone who maintains a damning permanent record or tallies demerits or keeps score of our every failing – but One whose grace is almost too vast to comprehend.