“I will kill as many of them as I can.”
A young man from Prizren, Kosovo said this to me quietly through clenched teeth. Not knowing how to respond, I replayed the story he had just told me. It was July of 1999, and I was staying in a town just across the border in Albania. This young man told me how he had come home to find his entire family dead and buried in a shallow grave in their front yard. Groups of Serbian paramilitary had made their way through Kosovo, an autonomous region of Serbia at the time. Generations of ethnic hatred erupted into a move to purge the land of the traditionally Muslim Albanian-speaking Kosovars. The young man’s family was one case out of thousands of murders that had recently taken place. It got so bad that NATO finally intervened, bombing until the paramilitary troops retreated.
I and my YWAM team were there to help the United Nations repatriate thousands of Kosovar civilians returning to their homes that summer. But though the war was technically over, healing was not on the horizon. This young man I talked to told me that the sin of the Serbs could only be covered with their own blood. When I finally asked him what he expected from the family members of those he planned to kill, he replied matter of factly, “They will come and kill more of my people. This kind of thing never stops. We will all ultimately be destroyed.”
Does it never end?
Years later, the words of that young man still echo in my mind – and stir despairing questions. Is there no hope for an end to the ongoing violence layered throughout human history? Can the cycles of our sin against each other ever be broken?
Once again, I go back to ponder the Christian hope of redemption (read post on Atonement). The basis of it is that Jesus the Messiah came to break the hold that sin has on humankind. And He did it by letting His own innocent blood be shed on our behalf.
But does it work?
Why can’t we humans find ways to atone for our own sin as well as the sins committed against us? We definitely try. Revenge is one form of human effort – “an eye for an eye.” And when revenge is not possible, we just hold onto resentment and bitterness. Or when we want to assuage our personal guilt, we simply work harder at being a better person to make up for the bad things we’ve done. How many good choices does it take to outweigh a bad one? The endzone, where we can confidently say we’ve reached the point where everything is resolved and taken care of ends up being one that’s never reached.
The Hole of No Resolution
I have recently indulged my armchair fascination with astronomy by reading a bit on black holes. To describe exactly what they are exceeds my fuzzy grasp of physics. But the way I have explained it in my own head is that a black hole forms when the gravity of a dying star exceeds the pressure within the mass of the star itself. Gravity then takes over, squeezing the star smaller and tighter until the gravitational force given off from this intensely compressed mass is so overpowering that nothing can escape it. Even light that passes over its horizon gets pulled to the center to never be seen again.
Whereas I used to think of things getting sucked into a black hole, I have come to reimagine the process to be more like falling into a black hole, like when something falls from outer space to the surface of the earth because of our planet’s gravitational pull. But since a decaying star has an exceedingly greater concentration of mass than that of earth, as the star gets compressed, the gravitational pull increases to thousands of times more powerful than that of earth. All this to say, no one really knows for sure what happens down inside. It could be a bottomless pit for all I know. But it more likely is the ultimate crushing machine with gravitational pressure grinding everything down till all that falls into it is absorbed into its own concentrated mass.
From my observations and a bit of experience, working to atone for sin on one’s own is like falling into such an ominous pit. There is either no end to it, or it crushes and grinds the individual into nothing. How long does it take a person to realize that bringing about personal justice is a hopeless process? Speaking for myself, it depends on the level of one’s stubbornness, pride, and self-righteousness.
The Crater of Justifying Ourselves
There is something within humans that makes us resist surrendering if we think we have even the slightest chance of achieving what we want on our own. This intractable nature keeps us from embracing the only way there is to be set free from the crushing cycle of sin and condemnation. Such stubbornness typically stems from pride, that is, our demand that everyone (even God) see reality and respond according to how our personal experiences interpret it. Pride then lends us the mindset that we can justify and redeem ourselves. Self-righteousness naturally follows where we live out the idea that our own independent essence or goodness can make us, or some broken situation in the world, completely right given the time and resources.
But this belief is really just an infinite hole. Like the cosmic phenomenon in outer space, it waits for us to fall in. And, unless we’re rescued by a more dominant power, we can never get out.
To be a follower of Jesus, we must understand that to be delivered from the gravitational forces of sin and all the chains that accompany it, we need outside help. Jesus was the only person to ever walk this earth who was both pure enough and strong enough to rightly overpower and completely cover sin, our own as well as everything ever done against us. Rather than fall into the black hole of never-ending accusations and imperfect sacrifices, His death and resurrection positioned Him to absorb the black hole into Himself for the sake of all humans.
There’s a better way
As the young Muslim man from Kosovo admitted to me so many years ago, there is no real end for the cycles of sin when left in human hands. Our best efforts only push us in deeper to eventually be crushed. No human activity or blood can truly atone for any crime or injustice that we commit or that is committed against us. More is always demanded, until there is nothing left of a person. But faith in the One who has proven Himself purer and stronger than death itself is the pathway we have been given to lead us out of this dark and downward spiral. Real salvation has been made possible. But we have to look outside of ourselves and trust that which we cannot control or manipulate.
It starts with simple surrender and confession that Jesus the Messiah is Lord over everything and is enough. He absorbed it all. He has made it possible for each and all to be forgiven as well as to forgive. You can do it! Don’t let His blood be wasted.
Surrender, follow Him, so that you can resist the condemning gravitational pull of the bottomless abyss.