Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
— John 8:1-11
This story only appears in John’s Gospel account and, even then, the earliest manuscripts do not include it. I am so grateful that God’s providence allowed this woman’s story to be included in the canon of Scripture, though.
It’s easy for me to put myself in the adulterous woman’s shoes, because her name is never mentioned, and she says very little. Actually, she only says three words. But those words are heavy with meaning. She tells Jesus that no one is left to condemn her, and she calls him Lord. What a beautiful thing! In this account, Jesus rescues a woman from the death she earned through her sin. Jesus did not refute the law that condemned her. He simply allowed those who would carry out the punishment to realize what Paul would later write to the saints in Rome:
for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
— Romans 3:23
We all deserve death for our sin. We are all like the woman caught in adultery.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
— Ephesians 2:4-6
In the story, Jesus stood up and spoke to the woman, informing her that he did not condemn her. He demonstrated rich mercy and love to her, even while she was dead in her trespass. He instructed her to rise up and to go and sin no more. And, as she rose up, her position changed.
I wonder what it was like for this woman after that. Did she go and tell everyone who would listen about her encounter with Jesus, like the Samaritan woman did? Did she continue to try to hide her shame from those who would be quick to condemn her? Did she ever struggle with accepting the full forgiveness she was given? Or did the mercy she experienced from Jesus instantly enable her to forgive herself?
I have known people who were able to immediately feel free of condemnation, guilt and shame when they gave their lives to Christ. I have also known people who have struggled to accept the forgiveness they know is theirs and to forgive themselves. I have fallen into the latter category. It was not further condemnation that finally freed me from those horrible feelings. It was not being shamed that enabled me to forgive myself. Instead, it was experiencing full acceptance from God and others, even when they knew the ugliest parts of my past. I am so grateful for the way God used the kindness, patience and love of fellow believers to move the knowledge of my forgiveness in Christ from my head into my heart!
If you know that you are fully forgiven in Christ, but you are finding it difficult to accept that forgiveness and forgive yourself, please know that you are not alone. You are not less than others. You are not a bad Christian. You simply struggle in this way. I encourage you to seek out Christians who can walk with you through your journey with patience, love and understanding. There is freedom from guilt and shame waiting for you. Do not stop until you can fully accept it for yourself!