Rest assured this is not a commentary on the pros and cons of President Donald Trump. That said, let’s consider yet another controversial statement by our commander-in-chief. A few weeks ago, as he was leaving for an economic summit in Canada, President Trump spoke to the press,
I do have an absolute right to pardon myself. But I’ll never have to do it because I didn’t do anything wrong. And everybody knows it.
Of course the snippet got the pundits pounding on their keyboards, weighing in with their views on the notion of a presidential self-pardon. No president has ever suggested such. Is self-pardon constitutional? Is it unsavory? Morally wrong? Politically possible? I offer no opinion here, but it struck me that I pardon myself with reckless abandon. And I do so with regularity. Furthermore, I hardly notice.
When Lisa and I get into a tangle over something I say, I’m sorry……… but let me explain. The apology followed by the self-justification really un-does the apology. It is my attempt at self-pardon. When I catch myself telling a white lie, I convince the liar, me in this case, Well that little lie was necessary. It would have been wrong to offend. The truth would have betrayed confidentiality. Or I whisper to myself gently, Truth telling in this case would have taken too much time and I’m busy, busy, busy. Or maybe I lie and simply say to myself, Everyone does this…
I speak these self-pardoning justifications into my brain in a nanosecond and rush on to something else. When I transgress the law of God in big ways or small, a self-pardon is just a thought away.
I suppose it gives me great comfort that the Bible is full of fellow self-pardoning pilgrims just like me. Adam blamed the woman that God gave him. Eve blamed the serpent. Aaron, fashioned a golden calf and presented it to God’s people saying, These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt! (Exodus 32:4). Yikes. Sheer idolatry. But when Moses, the younger brother asks Aaron what happened, he says, Moses, you were gone so long, we really missed you, got kind of bored, wondered if you were really going to come back… So we had a meeting, and, just to keep the people happy, just to keep them busy until you came back,
So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf. (Exodus 32:24).
Cain pardoned himself asking God, Am I my brother’s keeper? David seems quite comfortable after his sin with Bathsheeba and his murder of her husband. At least until confronted by Nathan. Elijah justifies his lack of faith by claiming he was the only faithful prophet in Israel (1 Kings19:10). Jeremiah feels sorry for himself with self-justifying pity. The disciples pardon their lack of faith again and again. Where will we get enough food to feed all these people? Lord, we couldn’t cast out this demon… It’s late, yes, you asked us to stay awake and pray, but, c’ome on, it’s midnight! Self-pardon.
Despite my tangle of clever—or not-so-clever—self-pardoning, God makes available his amazing grace. Despite my pride that says, I’m not really that bad… God says, You are worse than you ever imagined, and my grace is deeper than you ever thought.
It is God’s grace that saves a man like Peter who denied his Savior straight up on the very night he was betrayed. It is God’s grace that brought a rabbi named Saul—who hated, persecuted, and killed Christians—into fellowship with the Jesus whom he sought to destroy. It is God’s grace that stoops to save Sunday school babies like me. Churchy people often need to be reminded of their need for a Savior, and I am one of them. Only grace could accept a self-pardoning me. Only grace could patiently wait for the inebriation of my self-righteousness to run its course.
So, in contrast to President Trump’s declaration, let us freely admit that we are experts at self-pardon. We dodge and dart. We evade our own culpability before God and before one another. We deny our sinfulness at the exact moment we name that same flaw in our friend.
The antidote is the grace of God. Sheer, pure, unmitigated grace. Grace allows us to admit our guilt without reservation, without qualification. And grace teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness (Titus 2:12) even as it compels us to live lives of deep gratitude.
Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let that goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee