Today, I want to reflect briefly about guilt in the circles I walk in.
As part of the way my life is structured, I have the blessed opportunity to relate to both believers and non-believers in Jesus Christ. It has been my goal for many years to try and actually understand the people around me (believer and unbeliever alike) and why they do what they do. The primary way I’ve attempted this is by asking good questions and then (trying) to listen while people tell me what they think. (This is an area of continued growth in my life, as I sometimes like to talk more than I listen.) At the same time, like all of us, I watch the American culture in the way that most of us do, trying to make sense of what people in my country do and are doing, and why they are doing it.
Lately, I’ve noticed a profound disconnect along the fracture lines of my life about how people process guilt. This fracture plays out in a variety of ways: culturally/personally; believers/non-believers; younger/older; etc. Guilt is obviously related to responsibility, and so that will also figure prominently in my thoughts. I want to throw this out today, and then ask for your feedback. Have I hit this or am I missing something? I’ve become convinced that seeing ourselves by our focus on our guilt is a telling reflection of our core issue(s) as a culture.
The first fracture that appears to be present is the way we process guilt on an individual, personal level, and the way that we process it as a culture or society. To put it bluntly: as a culture we are comfortable taking on extreme guilt where we are not comfortable taking on any guilt personally. When someone in our culture is confronted with a failure to achieve a responsibility, the prevailing impulse seems to be to avoid taking personal responsibility in favor of pointing to a larger societal responsibility which negates that responsibility. The net effect of this transaction is to make the sins of every individual the responsibility of the larger culture. A few examples…
…we blame video games and a “culture of violence” for the violent behaviors exhibited by some of our youth (not parents who allow such a culture to proliferate in their home or the kids who participate in aspects of it.)
…we blame “the church” for the sins committed by individuals.
…we blame “consumerist culture” or “unchecked population growth” for the supposed changes to our environment and climate. (I’m not talking about the veracity of this claim, I’m talking about the nature of the claim).
…we blame “being born this way” (in essence placing blame on our parents and the genes we inherit–a function of larger cultural setting), for the evil predispositions we have (from alcoholism to serial murder).
…we blame our politicians for failings of our society, though our politicians take their cues almost exclusively from us–politicians make a life from responding to trends in their constituents.
The short version here is that when our culture is given the opportunity to choose between personal responsibility and cultural responsibility, our culture elects to place blame on the latter. We distance ourselves personally from guilt as far as we can. If we are right to blame the culture for our individual guilt, it seems like a curious tactic to trust in the power of culture to achieve our individual responsibilities–we have already demonized it and claimed it is evil!
The second dynamic is based on age. I don’t have as many examples here, but if you compare my generation (people in their late 20′s and early 30′s) to my parents (now in their late 50s) and my grandparents (my last remaining grandparent is near 80), it seems to me that there is a significant difference between the way those groups handle responsibility and guilt. In general, it seems to me that older people take more responsibility and still somehow, amazingly, feel less guilt (at least publicly). The generation which fought World War II took enormous responsibility for the future of the world when they were my age (or younger), and stewarded it through that period before handing it to their children, who seem to have shirked that responsibility in at least some ways, though without feeling guilt for those decisions at the time. The generation which brought us “free love,” the drug culture, hippies, protest culture, and so on made it virtuous to skirt responsibility while warring against guilt. As I consider my generation, it seems to me that we feel tremendous guilt, even as we cannot connect our guilt to our failure to accept responsibility for our actions (or lack thereof). Nothing is our fault. And yet we feel profoundly guilty. Along this fracture line, the young blame the older and the older blame the younger for our current state of affairs. Everyone may be on to something.
The third dynamic is based on faith in Jesus. Ironically, the result between these two groups is the same, but the paths and reasons for the why guilt is processed in these ways are vastly different. It seems to me that there are two ways for people to process their guilt if you don’t want to own it–attack or avoidance. Those who do not own their guilt (they do not acknowledge they have done anything to merit guilt) tend to attack anyone or anything which they feel makes them feel guilty. Someone disagrees with you? They become the locus of rage and derision, the source of guilt, and they are demonized. The guilt of the guilty is placed on the one who is supposed to have made them feel that way, and the responsibility passes (in theory) from a person. Those who own their guilt (those who acknowledge they have done something to merit guilt) tend to distract themselves from their guilt–to avoid it. When these people feel guilty, they look for engaging things which can overwhelm their senses and make them forget. Unfortunately, neither of these approaches–attack or avoidance–ultimately solves the problem of guilt, and can often make the guilty feelings worse, and so the problem spirals. The great irony of these two approaches is that they often create even more guilt. Those who attack often find that the person who they farmed their guilt out to was themselves not culpable for their guilt. Those who avoid their guilt by indulgence often find that the contrivances they use to ignore it cause more guilt.
Among unbelievers, attack looks like activism. Entire schools of philosophical thought have coalesced around the idea that you can study history and thought and establish where the blame ultimately belongs for the way things are. As an example, I suggest liberal feminism. Feminists argue that men have misused their power to further their own privilege and therefore mess up the world. There are a variety of ways in which this is described, but ultimately, men are responsible for the current status of women and the larger world, which is uniformly assumed to be very low. (Hear any echoes of guilt in that transaction?) Leaving aside for a moment the extent to which the feminists are right to do this (they may have some points), the point I am making is that the impetus for this move is inherently about guilt and responsibility.
Among unbelievers, avoidance looks like self-satisfaction. People find as much fulfillment or pleasure as they can, under the assumption that reaching the imaginary “paradise” point where they have everything they desire will finally exterminate the emotion of guilt under a flood of pleasure and self-gratification. People who are doing this use words like, “relief” or “escape” to describe what they are doing. The prevalent drinking and drug culture, the culture of impulsive video gaming, and pervasive sexual promiscuity are all, in their own ways, attempts to bury guilt. In the same vein, the effort “to be a good person” can achieve this same goal.
Among believers, attack also looks like activism, but usually here leads to people demonizing either those in the church or those outside it. One group thinks the church has failed and wants to achieve the prophetic role and call it to repentance (again, they may be on to something there). The other group thinks the problem is the culture created by unbelievers, and therefore wants to subdue them by force. The so-called “moral majority” of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson would be an example of this second group. Of course, either way this is a violation of the Christian’s convictions about who unbelievers are (people God loves and wants to reach) or what the church is (the bride of Jesus Christ).
Among believers, avoidance often looks like legalism. Rather than ignoring guilt, this group so identifies with their guilt that their entire life becomes an attempt to separate themselves from it. This group will either talk often about their sin and the extravagant efforts they are undertaking to overcome it. For some of these people, they will attend prayer meetings or healing sessions in desperate hopes that they will be delivered in a moment from the guilt and shame of what they have done. (Again, it seems to me that some people actually experience this, though that does not seem to be the usual way for people to achieve final victory over sin and guilt.) Some of these people become near-Stoics, trying to be ascetic to keep themselves from temptation. Again, avoidance of the stimulus is the ultimate goal. Another possibility for guilt-avoidant believers is for them to do whatever they want in an attempt to demonstrate God’s forgiveness. This still constitutes avoidance, in that you avoid God’s judgment in favor of his love so that you don’t have to feel guilty for not being perfect.
I have more to say about what I think this means, but before I go further, I’d love to hear some feedback. Have I described this correctly? What do you think? How does our culture process guilt? How do you process it?
Hello out there to all my friends in sanctification land. Hope all is well with you.
Today’s dispatch from the road is all about authority.
When you read that, did you cringe just a little bit? If you’re an American, and you’re under the age of 60, the chances are excellent that you did. The mythology (true or not) surrounding the United States is that we are a nation of rugged individualists who fought a war of independence to achieve our own manifest destiny. Americans self-identify as people who question authority, and tend towards self-determination. My history textbooks throughout my secular educational life made heroes of those who refused to stand up and openly questioned and fought authority. People who followed orders were given nearly no space at all, unless the orders they followed came from someone who WAS identified as a rebel against authority of some kind, in which case they too were heroes for acknowledging someone else’s visionary sense. This ideology is not only prevalent in our political or military history, but also our social history. The units in my American history classes about the 20th century did not focus on popular culture and it’s heroes–it focused on famous non-conformists, and glorified protest culture. (More Thoreau, anyone?)
The message was clear: question everything, and more importantly, everyone. If someone wants to be a leader, their motivations should be immediately questioned. If they are capable and want to lead, they are not trustworthy, because they will use their gifts to take your rights from you. If anyone says something which is personally problematic for you, don’t think, don’t blink, don’t question for a minute–just rebel, and in so doing, you will be a leader. In other words, the lesson was: qualified leaders are those who rebel. You will know them by the fact that they don’t follow anyone else. The credo is assumed by millions of people, spouted as self-evident. You may even have caught yourself doing it a time or ten.
There are two problems with this model of understanding leadership for you and me as Christians. The first problem is a logical one. If a leader denies authority in favor of rebellion and encourages others to do the same, they provide no legitimate means people to trust their own leadership. Their style of leadership would be, in effect, to cause those following them to refuse to do so. This is clearly absurd. The second problem is both logical and theological: how do you follow Jesus yourself and simultaneously ask others to follow him while at the same time undermining his ability to make any demands on individuals because he demands to be Lord or nothing?
Ironically, the place I hear compliments and exhortations to this type of leadership is some of my fellow seminarians. Whether it was the “emergent” movement in my early years at Denver Seminary, which habitually pilloried the status quo and leaders who were part of the “old institution,” or the generalized movement seemingly everywhere to abandon denominations in favor of independent local congregations, or those in my current circles who refuse to embrace orthodoxy because it’s 2000 years old, clinging to tradition and orthodoxy is clearly not “cool.” There are days where it feels to me like some of my classmates are desperate to find any way to escape tradition so that they aren’t accused of being part of the “institution.” It’s like they can’t stomach representing “the man.” The problem is especially ironic in those contexts. How on earth can you simultaneously erode confidence in authority while you are studying to one day become an authority (or, more appropriately, a representative of the highest authority) yourself? Is it possible to work to erode trust in all earthly authority without also eroding trust in your own words? If it is, how could you say something substantive about anything else?
What I am not trying to say is that we all ought to unquestioningly and uncritically follow anyone who stands up to lead us. What I am saying is that we have a responsibility to respect legitimate, godly authority around us as we would Christ himself.
Much has been made about Jesus’ calling of his first disciples with the simple request that they follow him. (Mt. 4:19, Mt. 10:38, Mk. 2:14, Lk. 9:23, Jn. 10:27, Jn. 12:26…) But with the anti-authority bend so many of us unthinkingly adopt, how can we truly follow anyone, including our Lord? I submit as proof of our difficulty in this realm the prevalence of the distinction often mentioned in American Christianity between Jesus as savior and Jesus as Lord. Such a distinction would be totally foreign to the readers of the New Testament, and furthermore, foreign to anyone who was not privy to the particular cultural ideals which I have described above. How can you trust someone as savior who you do not acknowledge as Lord? Would a “savior” who didn’t deserve to be followed be capable of affecting salvation for anyone? Would a god who wasn’t the Lord of life be able to save through death on a cross? The fact that such a distinction is viewed as helpful only demonstrates how far from the path we have strayed in this respect. Our insistence that Christ must be both savior and Lord proves that a significant number of us do not understand the matter to begin with.
Another hint is wrapped up in our desperate desire to make Jesus a rebel-figure. He is sexier and more attractive to us and to those we tell about him when he is a rebel. Certainly, there are aspects of Jesus ministry which could be interpreted as rebellious if you were inclined to do so. (A sampling: turning over tables in the temple, calling the religious leaders “whitewashed tombs,” eating with sinners, and on the list goes.) The only problem with this interpretation is that it ignores the most important thing about Jesus: his authority. At the beginning of his ministry, his authority is highlighted in all the Gospels. Matthew, in particular, takes great pains to show Jesus’s authority over and against the teachers of the law, over diseases and unclean spirits, and over nature itself. In other words, there is nothing rebellious about Jesus. To see Jesus as a rebel is to miss the first and most obvious thing about him: he is God. He did not come to earth to lead a rebellion–he came to earth to end one. The significance of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross by the political authorities is not that it is an act of rebellion, but one of willful submission. The blunt fact is that Jesus, at any point during his crucifixion, could have chosen to end the entire charade–the miracle is that he did not! The entire Bible screams from its pages that Jesus is God. For God to be a rebel is a logical impossibility. Who would he be rebelling against? I hope you see that while well-meaning, attempts to make Jesus a rebel again miss the point in a most devastating and total way.
My hope for this entry tonight, having explained the situation and the difficulty, is two-fold.
First, it is my hope to incite you to do one of the last truly rebellious things for a person in our times to do: totally, completely, and unquestioningly give your loyalty to Jesus Christ. In one important sense, such an action is no rebellion at all–it is the ending of one. But to live as a sold-out believer in our culture and in these times will require rebellion against an entire system of thinking and being, a system in which individuals have not only the right but the responsibility to question everything. You will be rebelling against the virtue of rebellion.
Second, it is my hope that if there are any leaders in my limited audience, you will be challenged to call people to radical submission without undermining Jesus Christ’s ultimate leadership (or your subordinate leadership). If you are a leader and you are encouraging rebellion from those who trust and follow you as you follow Christ, you are walking on dangerous ground, even if your goal is to teach people to rebel against culture. Teaching rebellion as a virtue will not, by itself, foster devotion to Christ, but may make an idol of the act of rebellion and ultimately make people powerless to follow him. Instead, teach radical devotion, and your followers will come to their individual acts of subterfuge against the world quite naturally and organically as they search the Scriptures and are led by the Holy Spirit. When any person submits to Christ and gives their wholehearted devotion to him, they will be equipped by God himself indwelling them to stand against ungodly patterns above and beyond any feeble rebel ethic you could teach. Leave the convicting on rebellion to God and teach devotion, loyalty and sacrifice instead–first through your own example as a leader. No leader worth following is unfamiliar with being a follower themselves, and this is doubly true in the Christian faith–there is only one leader, and anyone serving him is at best only a messenger for the real leader. Leadership in the Christian community is tied up entirely with the way in which the nominal leader is themselves following after the Master. It is for this reason that Paul exhorts believers to “follow him as he follows Christ:” any leading which didn’t ultimately trace back to Christ himself would be no leading at all.
From the standpoint of applications, there are a couple of important takeaways here, beyond these two larger goals.
First, it is not virtuous in and of itself to rebel. If you are the kind of person who rebels against everything, slow your roll down. It’s not a virtue, and there are probably people God has placed in your life to lead you and to teach you how to follow him who you are ignoring. Stop it. (And if that command rankled you, I’m talking to you!)
Second, it is not virtuous to question everyone’s motives all the time, especially if you don’t want it to be done to you. While it’s true that some people have bad motives, the process of selecting leaders should have enough discerning as part of it that by the time they’re asking you to follow, they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. Choose to trust leaders are doing the best they can, even when they make mistakes, unless you have specific evidence to the contrary. If you’re in the Word the way you should be, if they get out of line, it will be obvious in a hurry. Trust me. (See what I did there?)
Third, pay careful attention to your life when you start to assert your own rights or the supremacy of your own ideas, especially as it relates to your theology. You’re on thin ice. We have names in the religious world for people who won’t listen to anyone else and are constantly inventing their own beliefs and then justifying them in ridiculous ways. We call them heretics. Not good times, bad times.
Finally, and most importantly, hand the keys to Jesus daily, and let him do the driving. I know that’s cliche and terrible, but the reason that everyone says that is because it’s true. If you are the kind of person who can’t trust God to direct you, then you may not know God as well as you think you do. It’s time to build your faith. Buckle up and get ready for a fun trip.
In case of life, follow the leader, and do it without undermining his authority or your own walk. It is the only way to be sure that the one you’re following is really him.
10 “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13 No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other… -Jesus in Luke 16:10-13a
Tonight’s dispatch from discipleshipland is going to be shorter and more terse than my usual missive. Before I write anything else, I’d like to have you look at the following link, and let the raw data wash over you:
Before I explain why I’m having you look at that wall of data, there’s something else that needs to come first.
I raised a few eyebrows on my Facebook account a few months ago when friends started participating in the #KONY2012 viral movement. I cautioned my friends who would listen to try and measure their response to what the folks from Invisible Children were trying to do. This was not because I support Kony (does anyone?) or because I wanted people to do nothing. It was because the situation to which that video refers is an complicated and nuanced situation which requires a nuanced and cooperative response from a variety of people. Independently funding a single (illegal) military operation to kill a marginally influential man hiding who knows where is likely not the best response to that situation. I also cautioned my friends that if they still cared about it in a year, that they would be justified to act only if they had done some research to find out the real issues were. I was accused of being a bucket of cold water. I was (and am) completely guilty of the charge.
We live in a world of virtual emotion. Virtual outrage over a very real murderer in central Africa is just one example. Nearly everywhere you turn in our culture, someone is feigning emotion about something. Serious issues are abandoned when the sizzle wears out for the media outlets who report it. Tragedies are given clever graphics packages and tag phrases and the complete attention of our media…until people tire of it and want a new tragedy to emote about.
For every genuine emotion a human being can experience, there is at least one counterfeit. Some of the counterfeits are obviously labeled: lust, for example is the virtual analog to love. Some of the same external features, none of the soul or conviction or sacrifice which would prove the existence of the genuine article. Other counterfeits are not so obvious. For compassion, for example, there are competing virtual emotions covered up by tag phrases like “raising awareness” or “highlighting an issue.” Those tag phrases are a comfortable way for people who don’t really care one way or the other to check off their social activism box in the “being a good person” merit badge, just another one of the altars that people worship in service of civil, works-based, religion.
For real compassion–for real caring–there is no substitute.
The Apostle Paul understood this well. In the Greek world of his day, the seat of the emotions was thought to reside in the “guts.” In several places in the New Testament, he reports that he is in agony, or that he was torn in his guts about the situations that his fellow believers were dealing with in their contexts. What Paul is saying, in the most direct and straight ahead way, was that he actually cared for the people he ministered to–to those he labored with and shared the Gospel with and prayed for. There was nothing virtual about his affection.
Jesus, for his part, is more than happy to let false disciples part from him when they discover that there was real sacrifice involved with following him and that the road would be difficult. Jesus, over and over, makes it abundantly clear that following him carries a cost, and not just persecution of the body. In the garden of Gethsemane, shortly before his arrest, Jesus was not sweating blood because he was under physical strain–it was because his emotions were waging war within him–He cared! It mattered to Him! And that is why he took on the Cross–because His caring for a lost world was greater than his own personal physical, emotional and spiritual pain. And that is our example.
Sadly, it is an example that many Christians refuse to follow. Frankly, Christians in America are, in at least some cases, being outstripped in real caring by people who do not profess faith in Christ at all. That such a thing could happen affirms both that the image of God still resides in all people, and also that something has gone tragically wrong in some Christians.
You can’t fake caring. Either you do, or you don’t.
Look at that list of statistics again. Do any of them jump out at you? Grab you?
Do you care? Honestly? What do you care about?
On the average day, where is your emotional energy spent? Is it spent on the hurting people around you? On the orphan and the widow? On the lost and hopeless? Or is it on temporal things and the next possession you can acquire? Your answers are telling, and may be the important thing about your life in Christ after knowing Him as Savior and Lord.
It is widely acknowledged that God is love. If you don’t have love, something has gone tragically wrong in your walk. (Clanging symbols don’t care either.) It is only dead things that feel nothing, and if we are alive in the Holy Spirit, we shouldn’t be numb or unfeeling, even in a world that is filled with so much tragedy and pain. Being calloused or overwhelmed is not an excuse. If you find yourself in an honest place realizing that you honestly don’t care about other people, there are some steps you can take.
The first step is to repent and cry out to God. God wants you to care, and he will open up the portals for you to do just that.
The second step is to accept what you know you should expect. I know that part of the reason people fear honestly caring for others is because they fear being hurt. Let me spoil the suspense: if you really care about other people, you WILL, without any doubt, be hurt. The good news is, so was our Lord–you’ll be in good company. And, just in case you’ve forgotten, the power that overcame death is rolling all up in your business if you’re a believer–you have all the resources you require to survive earthly pain.
After you have acknowledged your deficiency, repented of your sin and expressed a desire to love the world as Jesus does, you need to pay attention to the Spirit’s guiding and to your feelings. If you feel a deep compassion welling up inside you for someone, go with that. Pray for them. Look for ways to do something about it that will glorify Jesus Christ.
Because in the Christian life, when it comes to love and compassion, either you do or you don’t. Jesus did, and He does. Do you?
There is nothing worse than what “ought to be.” So much agony in this life is wrapped up in the little word “if.”
I’ve been thinking for the past several weeks about my tendency to revisit places in my past and wonder at what could have been and should have been. This is despite my near constant assertion to anyone who will listen that I really am content with my life. So far as I can tell from the objective and subjective pieces of my life, I AM actually content and I really like my life, its struggles notwithstanding. So what gives with the “what-ifs?”
I’m convinced that it’s a malady common to all humanity, regardless of our individual state–happy or otherwise. One of the drawbacks to being human is being bounded by the constraints of linear time. We get one pass through, and each decision we make limits the next set of decisions with which we are presented. You choose to eat soup for lunch, and that means that you don’t eat a cheeseburger. You choose to spend time with one friend and not another, and a few weeks later, you’re like complete strangers. And on it goes. Worse, we know it’s happening while we’re living it.
Almost everywhere I go, the lure of potential is before me. Pick up anything which contains articles about sports, for example, and you’ll discover it is rare to get through an article without it somehow addressing the issues of potential. Between injuries and the way the ball bounces, there are a multitude of ways in which any single game could turn out drastically differently, not to mention seasons or the careers of those who play professionally. In the last 30 years in the sporting world, there has been new and enormous attention paid to the drafting processes by which teams select players. The drafts for the major professional leagues are now a near holiday in some quarters, with resources springing up so people can devote time to become amateur judges of an athlete’s potential. (Don’t believe me? Check out the pages of any sports website. The day after the recent completion of the NFL regular season, one prominent sports website featured an entire series of articles on what the teams who did not make the playoffs needed to do to improve, which is actually TWO potentiality exercises happening at once!) In the world of literature, we lament about authors who write a single great work and are subsequently never head from again. Musical composers, painters and sculptors who died young are accorded a melancholy sense of awed respect, but in the next breath is always the question of what could’ve been.
Perhaps no where is this mindset more obvious than the cultural mindset surrounding those whose lives expire before we expect. I am not here to dispute that there is a special brand of grief and sadness that surrounds the death of someone young. I have had the unfortunate experience of grieving with parents who have lost young children, and I hope to never have it again. By the time I turned 20, I had already carried a box holding the remains of a friend around my age. But the kinds of things people say about such passings are revealing, and I think strike at the heart of all of our worship of potential. (Some of the most provocative arguments against both abortion and euthanasia are at their essence, potentiality arguments–that we ought not snuff out potential. Of course, such arguments are also impossible to prove, but that does not shake them of all of their power, which only demonstrates how core these potentiality questions are.)
At the core of all of these statements and what-ifs is a central theme: that what has happened represents an injustice or a reversal of the expected and assumed order of things. It’s not fair! Everyone is entitled to a long life. Everyone ought to completely maximize their potential, either for their own good, or for ours. Those who are most gifted ought to be the most willing to be selfless to contribute the fruits of their abilities to those around them. The people we give affection to ought to return it. And once again, on the list goes. We really believe in these unspoken rules of what everyone deserves, and we grieve when they do not prove out in the lives of those around us.
The problem is that these rules to which we refer are an illusion.
There is no world accessible by us where everyone will be guaranteed to be allotted their 68.7 years. There is no world we can reach where everyone we love will love us back in exactly the way we need to be loved. There is no world where everyone reaches their potential. It is a fairy land. A myth. A lie. And we believe it, sometimes beyond all reason.
I think this ties up in our core brokenness as humans. As the philosopher Blaise Pascal noted, “…what a chimera then is man! What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error; the pride and refuse of the universe!” We are great because we understand greatness, but the refuse because we cannot attain it, however great our accomplishments. We know what we should be, and we are desperately avoiding the conclusion that we will never reach it. Ultimately, all our offerings to the idol of potentiality amount to a denial of our own sin and its consequences. Because all humanity has strayed, all of us are captive in a system where the options which lead to us being everything we were meant to be are not available to us. We can’t fully find the love and acceptance we crave. We can’t achieve what we think we should be able to. And at some point when the hubris wears off, we are confronted with that realization.
Again, this would be pretty depressing if that was all. Happily, it’s not. We need not offer up endless offerings at the altar of potential. Instead, we can worship the One who was everything man was supposed to be–Jesus Christ himself. He took on human form and all that meant, and then lived perfectly in the flesh. He lived the life we couldn’t to secure the future we couldn’t, a future where our human frailties are refined out of us and we can be what we were always intended to be. Anyone who is in Christ is in the process of being refined in this way, being made into the likeness of Christ, the one who actually capitalized on the maximum amount of potential it is possible to have by being simultaneously God and man.
We do not have to worry after our what-ifs if God is directing our steps. We can know and affirm that no matter our past, and no matter our abilities, we are becoming what we were always meant to be. Even if our past is filled with things we wish had gone differently, we do not have to have any doubt about the good things that God has wrought out of them. In case of life, give up sacrificing to the altar of potential, and rely on the one who was, and is, and is to come.
Meanwhile, I’ll be praying that God takes the bitter out of some of my bittersweet memories, and yours as well.
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. 4 In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. –Hebrews 12:1-4
Tonight’s dispatch from discipleship land is going out to all you out there who are still checking this occasionally. As so often happens when life and ministry abound, time for writing does not. I pray all is well with you as you follow after Jesus. As I sit at my keyboard tonight, bleary-eyed from translating Hebrew while propping up my eyelids with Kona, I am pondering what God is teaching me in this season of my life.
The lesson that has been resonating in my mind for these past several months is about the relationship between obedience and endurance. I have been in seminary for nearly a decade now–not the way they draw it up when you are admitted. When I started my journey through seminary in the fall of 2003, I was young, brash, and prideful (do they make 23 year old males any other way these days?). Despite bumps in the road, I feel as called to complete this degree today as the day God affirmed to me after a summer ministry internship 12 years ago that it would be necessary. If you had told me then that the journey would take this shape, I’m not sure how I would’ve have responded, but it probably would’ve started with denial and ended with disbelief, if not outright anger. I never would have drawn it up to look like this. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying I’d change anything about my life. I’m quite content, as a matter of fact. It’s simply that the road to ministry has been much more circuitous and difficult than I originally anticipated.
“I have decided to follow Jesus…no turning back–no turning back.”
This semester, I am in a Hebrew exegesis class which is requiring me to spend time translating portions of the book of Jeremiah. Translating the words of “the weeping prophet” has proved instructive to me. As I consider Jeremiah’s calling, and the callings of nearly everyone else in Scripture, for that matter, it now seems to me that none of those heroes of the faith expected what they got when they responded to God’s calling in their lives. Certainly Moses couldn’t have foreseen wandering in the desert with a grumbling people who wouldn’t obey the God who’d delivered them out of slavery. Samuel, as a young boy confused by God’s call, would never have guessed that he would be rejected by the people he was called to lead and then by the king he anointed to replace him. David, as a shepherd boy, never would’ve guessed that he’d be subject to civil war because one of his sons raped one of his daughters. Isaiah had no idea he’d be sawed in half by an evil king for delivering the words of the Lord. Saul, as he studied under Gamaliel, likely wouldn’t have believed he’d be tortured, stoned, beaten, and ultimately killed for preaching a Gospel which reflected God’s desire to save Gentiles. You get the idea. None of these heroes of the faith signed on for that.
Though it’s obviously not the same thing, I don’t think that anyone comes to Jesus expecting what they ultimately receive. I mean this in both the positive and the negative senses of the word. There are benefits in Christ which the world vainly strives after in nearly every other location–peace, contentment, provision, fellowship, love, mercy, and so on. These benefits are found only in Christ so far as I can tell. But there are also struggles unique to those who follow the Lord Jesus–self-doubt, the pain of rejection, the burden of knowing that hell exists while so many are oblivious to it, callings which are difficult to fulfill, loneliness, awareness of the brokenness of our world, watching that brokenness continue to wound and hurt people around us we care about, and so on. Perhaps most strangely of all, it seems that the benefits and the struggles are uniquely intertwined. It is only those disciples of Jesus who embrace the struggles of following Him who ultimately taste the riches of the Kingdom.
Everyone who follows Jesus Christ can expect two things: struggle and blessing. The only thing which will help the follower of Jesus to survive the struggles to receive the blessings is the grace of God in the form of the strength necessary to stand under them. As it relates to the will of the Christ-follower, this comes simply in the form of assent to the work of the Spirit of God. We will that His will be done in us as it is perfectly in heaven. This desire to “will the one thing” is the core attitude of a disciple of Jesus. We decide to follow Jesus, no turning back.
Though none go with me, still I will follow…no turning back–no turning back.
It shouldn’t surprise us, but to a world unconvinced first of God’s existence and second of His goodness, following a God who could make such a demand of His followers is foolhardy. Why follow a God who could ask us to do something we don’t approve of? What possible reasoning could there be for such behavior?
If this opinion were only outside the church, that would be difficult enough. But because all of us are built differently by God’s design, with our personalities, proclivities, backgrounds and giftings, and because the outworking of that singularity of creation expressed in us is lived out in community with other believers, we are often subjected to the same kinds of questions from our fellow believers. These kinds of questions are thrown between denominations as they accost one another on a variety of bases, and inside denominations as they argue amongst themselves. Even inside local churches, there is often a shocking lack of awareness of the variety of God’s creative work, and how He designs it to be deployed in the world. Seasons of loneliness can be expected in the Christian walk, even for those who are blessed with strong churches and many friends and loved ones. It is one of the unfortunate consequences of the fall of this world.
We endure this loneliness because we believe that it too is part of the burden Christ Jesus bore for us. If anyone in the history of existence ever had cause to feel alone, it would be Jesus, even before he was subjected to crucifixion by Pontius Pilate at the insistence of his own people. Being God incarnate most certainly comes with drawbacks, most notably, a lack of intelligent company who can understand what it is like to lay aside so much of your essential nature. Leaving the perfect community of the Trinity for a campfire circle with Peter and John, while quaint, likely left much to be desired. But Jesus lovingly related to and taught his disciples, and our calling is to do the same, even if no one understands us. To understand our Lord is better than to be understood. Because we are unique, there are limits to our understanding of one another, which is why our relationship with Christ is so crucial–only He is ultimately equipped to fully understand. Ultimately and finally, we are understood by the God who made us. Fleeing to him when we are lonely is then the most appropriate thing a follower of Christ can do.
My cross I carry until I see Jesus…no turning back–no turning back.
I’ve already written on this, but in following Jesus, we are called to struggle against the sin still at work in our mortal bodies. We do not struggle alone in this, but nevertheless, we must struggle. Sin is constantly crouching, waiting for an opportunity, and like Cain, if we do not master it, it will master us, yielding death in our lives. For this reason, we must be diligent in dealing with the reality of our own sins, beginning with our thoughts, and extending all the way to how we behave. This is the essence of carrying the cross of Christ. The life of the Christian is not totally comprised by our efforts, but we would be foolish to think that we can do nothing and still mature in Christ. We must endure until our appointed work on earth is completed, or until the Son of Man returns in glory. Either way, we endure and work and perservere and struggle against sin until we see our Lord’s face. Struggle is a core component of what it means to be a Christ follower.
The world behind me, the cross before me…no turning back–no turning back.
If we stopped there, this would be one of the most depressing blog entries in the history of the internet. Happily, it doesn’t end there. In the midst of our struggle, God showers His blessings on those who persevere. Ultimately, the final blessing is to lay down our labors and strivings and be with the Lord. But until then, we have promises from God that He will stand on our behalf, providing for us. This provision comes in a variety of forms, but ultimately, we are assured that our sinful humanity will be finally defeated. We are, as Paul says, more than conquerors in Christ. Ultimately, arrival at the cross means death to an old way of being, and a welcome into and empowered and eternal life. It is a life we reach by slow degrees until after defeating the last enemy, we arrive safely home. No turning back, indeed.
Every day is a new beginning…
Each morning when we wake up, and tomorrow when I awake from my slumber into punchdrunk stupefaction, we have choices to make as followers of Jesus. The choice boils down to whether we will obey, regardless of the struggles we may encounter, or whether we will bog down in the cares and worries of this world. Empty promises of loyalty will not suffice. Our decision will ultimately be made the first time we act. And the second. And the 900th. In case of life, obey Jesus Christ and the leading of the Holy Spirit, even if it means temporary struggle, because the blessings come with each new day.
Recently, I received a request from some long-time friends who are aware of my Sabbath convictions to explain my position on the matter. For those who were unaware, I am of the opinion that the seventh day of the week is the Sabbath of the Bible and still has value for Christians today.
Goals and a Disclaimer:
Before I do so, I need to clarify my position and what I am attempting to accomplish in writing this. I am simply trying to explain the reasons that support my convictions. I am not attempting (at least not explicitly) to “convert” anyone my position. I am not trying to suggest that the keeping of the seventh day Sabbath is a matter which automatically bears on someone’s salvation. I am not suggesting that seventh day Sabbathkeepers are “real” Christians and those who observe the first day of the week are second class or worse, not saved. The observance of Sabbath is not a legalistic conviction for me–it is not something which one MUST do to be saved. This sort of disclaimer must be given because the most common charge raised against Sabbathkeepers is that they are legalists–requiring other people to do the trappings of the old Mosaic Law in order to be saved, or requiring people to keep some other extrabiblical set of rules to be saved. This is likely due to the theology of “other” Sabbathkeeping denominations, whose beliefs are more well known (though significantly shorter lived, historically). I am NOT a legalist.
I am a Baptist. I do not believe that any denominational body has the right to prescribe extensive doctrine on individuals. Instead, I believe that the conscience of the individual, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (which will always conform to Scripture’s testimony), is the means that God uses to guide Christians. Accordingly, I am comfortable with the idea that not all Christians believe exactly the same on all issues. Matters of eschatology (end times theology), prophecy, and others generate a tremendous amount of press inside the Christian church precisely because the Scriptures themselves are not abundantly transparent on these matters. I am comfortable leaving such matters to the Holy Spirit’s direction. Ultimately, it is individuals who must answer to God for their convictions and beliefs. I do not believe that matters like the “divinity of Jesus Christ” or the “personhood of the Holy Spirit” are up for debate. Orthodoxy (the long standing theological tradition of the church) has a long witness which can be found in most of the older creeds (Nicaea, Chalcedon, Westminster Confession of Faith) and documents of the church. The main substance of Christian doctrine has not changed for thousands of years. I am not refuting any of the intractable truths of the faith in what I am about to say, at least not as I understand them (I would disagree with Westminster about a few small things, but not on the fundamentals of the faith.)
To sum up: I am not trying to change your mind. I am trying to explain a belief which I am fully convicted of by the Holy Spirit and which does not refute anything in Scripture. Now that I’ve done my preliminaries, lets get down to business.
First Principles and Bible Interpretation:
It is my conviction that the work of interpreting the Bible (hermeneutics) is, at its most basic level, one of first principles. Despite our best intentions, all people approach the Scriptures with their own assumptions. I am no exception to this rule. In the interpretation of Scripture, most conservative Christians would use some principles to guide their understanding. First, they would understand the texts as inspired: God participated in the creation/authorship of the texts. I am bracketing for the moment questions about exactly how that works to make the more general statement above. Second, they would affirm that the text is authoritative upon the matters which it teaches. Third, they would be cautious of outside factors outside the context of the original audience (read: modern ideas and ways of thinking), which could impose incorrect meanings on the text. Fourth, they would search the language of the text itself for clues about how it should be understood. Fifth, they would attempt to understand the situation of the original audience as best as it can be distinguished (this is frequently tricky business). Sixth, have done all to understand the text on its own terms, they would then take the lessons derived from the text as they would’ve been understood by the original audience and tried to bring such lessons into the present day. The work of exegesis and hermeneutics (finding and interpreting the meaning of the text) is completed in this way. Furthermore, certain logical principles must also apply (laws of identity, contradiction, bivalence/excluded middle, etc).
My case for the seventh day Sabbath will employ these same principles. It is my opinion that in order to make the Bible teach that either there is no Sabbath or that the day was changed will require readers of the Scriptures to abandon one or more of these basic interpretational principles.
There are historical considerations which must be addressed before the Scripture texts themselves are addressed. I debated about whether the tests of the historical context of the interpretation should come first, but given that the historical context here is the reason that the Sabbath question has been debated, it seems logical to put it first.
Christianity began as a sect of Judaism. Jesus, obviously, was Jewish. He was an observer of the seventh day Sabbath, as one of the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). In fact, to Jesus and the other Jews of that day, to use the word “sabbath” to describe a day other than the seventh day of the week (or one of the Jewish festivals), wouldn’t have made any sense: the terms were equivalent. After the death of Jesus, there is no biblical evidence to suggest that the disciples stopped meeting on the Sabbath for worship. In fact, the book of Acts is clear that the disciples and other followers of Jesus were still participating in the worship at the Temple. The Apostle Paul made it a habit to not only observe the Sabbath, but go to the synagogue on the Sabbath as well. I don’t think anyone would dispute this who has serious considered the texts of the Gospels and Acts. There are mentions made of meetings which took place on the first day of the week (literally, “first from the Sabbath” in the Greek New Testament), but I see no indication from these texts that this was to be considered normative. (That point would be disputed by many first-day/Sunday observers.)
Through the early church period and up to the time of Constantine’s reign, Christianity was illegal. Christianity had been denied the status of religio licita after Jews declared that the Christians were not of their sect and was declared illegal before the end of the first century. Between that time (approximately 80AD and the Edict of Milan in 313AD), all Christian practices and meetings were illegal, and subject to punishment from the Roman authorities. In the early to middle part of the second century (somewhere between 130AD and 160AD), some Christians began to distance themselves from the Sabbath and other Jewish practices because Jews were also not popular among some Roman emperors. (As one example of this, the Emperor Nero began a process of persecuting the Jews in the early 60s AD in the series of events that led up to the Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.) Justin Martyr was writing in 150′s AD against the value of sabbath observance in favor of honoring the first day of the week, the day Jesus was resurrected. By this time among Christians, the first day of the week was frequently being called “The Lord’s Day.” There is some evidence in Palestine that Christians there kept the Sabbath into the 300′s AD, but in 321AD Constantine instructed that all people in his empire observe “the venerable day of the sun.” This is what we now call Sunday. Much debate in the historical literature about the Sabbath centers on whether Constantine was actually a Christian or not. To me, the point is moot. Even if he was a Christian, he could still be mislead. Nevertheless, after Constantine made worshiping on Sunday compulsory, Sabbath observance wasn’t recorded much before the Reformation.
At the time of the English Reformation, the issue of Sabbath came up for the Puritans. Reading the texts of Scripture, a Puritan named Nicolas Bownde wrote in favor of Sabbath observance in England in 1606 (He understood the Sabbath to be Sunday). In 1618, another Englishman, John Traske, was imprisoned, along with his wife, for keeping the seventh day Sabbath. Traske later recanted his views and returned to his first-day congregation. Theophilus Brabourne, an Anglican priest, wrote in 1628 asking the English religious establishment to consider a move to the seventh day Sabbath. Again, with pressure, Brabourne withdrew his proposal, though he continued to write about the Sabbath in his later years. By the 1650s, there were seventh day Sabbath keeping Baptists in London. They were meeting together for worship by 1654 or 1655. My current vocation is stewarding the historical archives of this group, Seventh Day Baptists. From then to now, Seventh Day Baptists have had an amazingly constant position on the Sabbath.
Three Positions on Sabbath
With relation to the positions someone could take about the Sabbath, I think that ultimately there are three.
First, you could decide from the biblical texts that Jesus’ death on the cross rendered the entirety of the Old Testament law null. That none of the Old Testament laws applied, including the 10 commandments. This position would focus on the completion of the Law in Christ’s work on the cross. Subsequently, the early church’s keeping of Sabbath would then be confusion springing from their Jewish roots. The right understanding of the Sabbath was that it was a vestige of the Jewish law which has been entirely abolished in Christ.
The second position would be to see that the Sabbath was changed at the time of the resurrection, and that while the Jewish Sabbath was the seventh day of the week, the Christian Sabbath is the first day of the week. God has the power to change the day, and the change was signaled by the coming of the new covenant, which rendered the Jewish law unnecessary, undone by Christ’s atoning work on the Christ. The right understanding of the Sabbath is that it was a vestige of the Jewish law which has been repurposed and changed to Sunday to celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and as a symbol of the future rest we will all have in Christ’s kingdom.
The final position is that the day has never changed. Because the first two positions are much more common in the Christian church, I will not spend my time explaining them. People who are convicted of those beliefs should be able to articulate them, it seems to me. I would be underqualified to speak meaningfully about a conviction that is not mine, and to do so charitably inside the constraints of this blog entry would be difficult. Perhaps if the readers could find good arguments for the other positions they could post them in the comments. Those treatments would be more likely to be fair from their own points of view.
Part 2 will focus on the Sabbath in the Old Testament, and the nature of Covenants. [Coming Soon(ish)!]
39 Jesus said,“For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”
41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.
-From John 9:1-41
For various reasons, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the book of John lately. This story has jumped out. I think part of the reason is because the first and most obvious thing about this story is something that, in my density and taking things for granted, is the thing I missed in this story. It’s a profound truth, so I’ll try to point it out, just in case, like me, you’ve missed it.
The story of John 9, on the basis of the data, appears simple. A man born blind is healed by Jesus. The neighbors and Pharisees question this because of their preconceived idea that physical maladies like blindness are punishments from God doled out on people for their sins. When those assumptions are challenged by the blind man who now sees, the Pharisees come unglued. After this, Jesus seeks out this same man he has already healed and further reveals himself to the man, who immediately worships him. The juxtaposition is telling, and Jesus, through John’s retelling of the story, makes it explicit in verses 39-41 above. It is one of the standard reversals in world literature: the blind man who truly perceives and those with physical sight being unable to perceive simple truths. Even inside the Bible, it is not an uncommon motif, with perhaps one of the most obvious locations in the book of Isaiah where the people of Israel are seemingly mocked by their inability to understand what they should see clearly. Jesus himself later quotes this prophecy in his interpretation of the Parable of the Sower (Soils).
So what was it that I missed in this story?
In the middle part of this story, John implicitly tells us that the Pharisees are blind by having them ask questions of a blind man, who clearly knows more than they do. The Pharisees bring forward a series of witnesses, including the blind man’s own parents, who aren’t willing to testify beyond the fact that he was born blind. In essence, his parents say, “he’s a big boy and can speak for himself.” When it becomes clear that the blind man isn’t going to become a scapegoat for their impotent rage, they insult him instead when he prods them with his question about if they also want to become his disciples. The religious leaders and the self-righteous neighbors are so sure of themselves and yet, at the same time, they have to ask a blind man what he saw. While it may not be the dictionary definition of irony, it’s certainly in the ballpark.
Once the blind man actually encounters Jesus, he is more than willing to accept Jesus for what he is. His healing has caused him to be able to not only physically see, but spiritually perceive. The story seems to suggest two kinds of people. The first is people who know Jesus and accept him for what He is: God himself. These people are humble because they understand the depth of their own need for His healing power, and Who they are dealing with. The second group is comprised of people who are too good for Jesus, and who need nothing from Him. They are self-sufficient, and they have their neat religious system to bound their understandings and guide their lives. They are rigid, uncaring, unloving and utterly unaware of what happens around them because they cannot comprehend a world which does not fit their preconceived system. In other words, their preconceptions blind them to everything else. The basis for their amazing (and foolish) self assurance? Their absolute confidence that they are without sin.
I wonder how many Christians have more in common with the Pharisees in this story than the blind man? Too many, I’d wager. Christians in many parts of the world have a reputation for being judgmental, hypocritical and self-righteous–people who would throw Jesus himself out of their weekly worship service if he didn’t dress the part or already know the order of service. This story should be a powerful reminder to those in churches that Jesus is much more interested in those who are needy and know it than those who are needy and are too self-righteous to care. Remember, in this story Jesus sought out the blind man, not the other way around. It would seem that Jesus pursues those who are aware of the depth of their own need and the breadth of their own sins, and in seeing ourselves as we truly are, we are blessed. In case of life, take off the rose-colored glasses of self-sufficiency and see yourself as you really are: a sinner desperately in need of a healing touch from the Master’s hand.
And, it’s been a year since I’ve added anything to this blog!
I have good excuses…been working on a book that’s tied to some of the issues this blog was meant to cover. Luckily, I think this means I’ll have more posts, but they’ll be shorter. I’ll look forward to comments if I can! The book project is really one I meant to take on collaboratively, so I’m looking for feedback, but it’s hard to write with multiple pens at the same time, so someone has to sit down and do it! More from me soonish. I think by mid-August I should be ready to roll once again.
12Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. 13Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
This dispatch from discipleship land will probably make you uncomfortable. You probably already know what this is about from the verse I just posted above, and a part of you is twisting, running through the list of people who you’ve got a grudge against or a problem with. Some of you may not even have a list anymore, you’re just angry all the time and you don’t trust people. Or perhaps I’m mistaken. Perhaps you’re the kind of person who read in your Bible that you should forgive people and you’re trying really hard to do it, and you’ve been blessed by our Lord and your efforts have found some success.
Either way, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, forgiveness is what is asked (even required) of you. It’s non-negotiable.
So, let’s begin with tangling with the obvious. Before we deal with your need to forgive others, let’s talk about everything you’ve ever done. If you’re the visual type, I suggest you get a piece of paper, and you write down every sin you’ve ever committed, according to the biblical definitions. (Remember, the etymology for the word used in the New Testament to describe sin comes from an archery term for missing the target–we’re talking about ALL the times you didn’t do what you should’ve.) Despite what you may think, and despite the fact Christianity is often accused of making people feel guilty, the fact that you don’t have a clean sheet shouldn’t surprise you. If you’re a normal person, as you started writing down your list, you went for your big “screw-ups.” This is normal. But it’s also likely that as you kept writing, you realized that you made mistakes today, likely in the last couple of hours–and these are just the sins you’re aware of.
So, right now, you’re probably asking yourself why I’m doing this to you. I have one motivation: to remind you that you’re not infallible. You screw up. Join the club…everyone does. You have to know that the Bible never teaches that people are sinless. The Bible is honest about humanity, and the honest truth is that everyone makes mistakes. (Romans 3:21-26)
This next part I want to handle in a form called a syllogism. A syllogism is a fancy way of laying out a deductive argument–where the first two statements prove the third. So for example…
- All people are sinners.
- I am a person.
- Therefore, I am a sinner.
See how that works? The first two statements, if true, must lead to the third statement. I’ve just logically and deductively proved everything in the previous 500 words. Let’s move on to the next one, which is just as obvious.
- All people are sinners.
- We are surrounded by other people.
- Therefore, we are surrounded by sinners.
In other words, every person you encounter, if the first premise is true, is a sinner. So why prove that? Seems obvious enough, right? Here’s the question that my words tonight turn on:
If we really believe that everyone we encounter is a sinner, whether saved or not, how should we expect them to act towards us and others?
The only logical answer to that question is that we should expect people to sin against us, just as we should expect ourselves, at some future point, to sin. That is not to say that we should accept this reality and give up struggling against it, but the reality is that sinners sin. Hurt people hurt people. And, if you live long enough, people will hurt you. You will hurt others. It’s a given of human existence.
Most of us don’t need any logical proofs of the truth of my previous statements–the hard reality is one we have learned as the product of hurtful experience. If you live, you will learn this lesson the hard way–likely from both sides.
But it doesn’t have to keep hurting you, and you don’t have to wallow in the wounds of your past–not the wounds you have taken, nor the guilt from the ones you’ve issued. The cure? Forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a refusal on the part of the wounded party in a sinful interaction to hold another sinner responsible for their sin. It is the gift of a self-aware sinner, saved themselves from their sins by a gracious and merciful God, to another sinner, who may or may not be aware of their sin. To clear up some misconceptions, here’s a few things it is most decidedly NOT:
- Forgiveness is not forgetting. While forgiving people often do not have reasons to remember things they have forgiven others, just forgetting something happened is not, and will never be, an acceptable substitute for forgiveness.
- Forgiveness is not justifying what someone else has done. You don’t have to make excuses for someone who sins against you in order to forgive them.
- Forgiveness is not understanding why someone else has sinned against you. You don’t have to have any understanding of why the other person has done what they have done in order to forgive. Sometimes, such information can make it easier to forgive, other times it will make it harder.
- Forgiveness is not pretending that it didn’t negatively affect you. Lying to yourself or others and saying it doesn’t hurt is nothing like forgiveness, it’s just prideful dishonesty. Don’t believe the hype.
- Forgiveness is not ignoring what someone has done. Pretending that the sinful act never happened is not forgiveness, it’s delusion.
- Forgiveness is not holding their actions against them until they make it right by you. You don’t get to make people who sin against you do penance until they demonstrate enough contrition or do enough to pay you back. That’s not forgiveness. It’s extortion.
- Forgiveness is not wallowing in how badly someone else has hurt you. Likewise, if you’re going to forgive someone, you don’t get to wallow in self-pity because someone hurt you.
There’s lots of advice in the world about forgiveness that is totally worthless. It either misjudges the reality that when people hurt us, we hurt, or it misjudges the reality that people are sinners and will frequently take the easy way out. Forgiveness is acknowledging a hurt, processing it, and then immediately disposing of the anger, frustration and avarice that accompany our hurts in favor of giving someone something they do not deserve: to be let off the hook. Forgiveness, REAL forgiveness, is looking into the eyes of someone who has hurt you, fully grasping the depth and breadth of the damage that was done, and deciding not to make any claim on that person at any later point for their transgression. In order to forgive in this way, you have to let things that hurt you hurt you. You have to stop trying to protect yourself from the blow after it has been delivered and let it hurt, and then tend it with regular care. You have to understand what has happened to you, accept it, and then let the guilty party go free. You have to stare your anger, frustration and desire for revenge full in the face, and then willingly put it down and refuse to take it back up.
The reasons why you should forgive are compelling. The first and most obvious reason is because Jesus commands it. Over and over again (including this highly disturbing passage from Matthew 18), Jesus teaches his followers that forgiveness is the first and greatest value of the kingdom. Even more, Jesus teaches that measure of forgiveness we use with others is the same one that God will use with us. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God would forgive them as they forgive their debtors. Ouch. Many people pray that prayer from memory, oblivious to the fact that they are asking God not to forgive them, because they don’t forgive others.
These two reasons should be enough to convince you that forgiveness is the right thing to do. But just in case they aren’t, let me give you a few more.
1. Forgiveness is an act of faith that demonstrates you believe that God is gracious and merciful. If you received Jesus as your Lord and as your Savior, you are the recipient of an enormous gift–freedom from the cosmic scale of good and bad (where the ledger of your life is the basis by which you will be judged). As a believer in that extremely good news, it is your responsibility to put your faith into action by paying it forward. Forgiveness in an unforgiving world may be one of the most arresting acts left to us to demonstrate we believe in God. It’s a powerful evangelistic tool as well.
2. Forgiveness frees the one who gives it as much or more than the one who receives it. There is nothing more tragic than someone who refuses to forgive because they think they are getting revenge on the person who hurt them by withholding forgiveness. Inevitably, they hurt themselves more than the person they are withholding from, and ultimately, if they continue on that way, the bitterness will turn on them and they will become consumed by their own selfishness while the offending party goes on with their life, often completely oblivious or nonplussed by the other persons refusal to forgive. Bitter people don’t get less bitter as they age. There is a pithy saying that unforgiveness is like eating the poison and then wondering why the rat won’t die. If there are truer words, I have no idea what they would be. When we forgive, we let ourselves out of prison to continue our lives. We release ourselves from a ball and chain that would bind us and slow us down in favor of walking in freedom.
3. Forgiving people have more friends and better relationships. If you think you’re going to make lots of friends by holding grudges, you’re crazy. Unforgiving people spill out malice and anger without thinking, and they only kind of people they attract are those as venomous as they are. People with that much anger, when left to themselves, will inevitably fight amongst themselves as well, and end up refusing to forgive one another. In other words, unforgiveness is the fast track to loneliness (or, perhaps more appropriately, a self-involvement so potent that there is no room for other people). You want to live a long and happy life? Forgive people. When others know that you will forgive them for being human and that you know you are too, there is room for a healthy friendship to grow. Without that mutual offering of grace, friendships wither.
Are you hiking with a ball and chain, all the while holding the key that would set you free? Right now, I urge you to consult your conscience for your list of grudges and unforgiven people and begin to forgive them. To begin with, you will probably just have to make a decision. It won’t feel any different, but you will begin to train your mind and your emotions to not attach the person’s actions against them. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t feel relief immediately–just as some scars take time to heal, so also will forgiveness of deep hurts. Keep at it. In case of life, unlock yourself from a burden of unforgiveness and walk in freedom. Your life will improve drastically when you do.