Tag Archives: forgiveness

Reconciliation begins with forgiveness – primarily of you.

Conflict burns. Like that welt on your hand that takes weeks to heal after you hit the side of the oven, the reminder and pain of conflict remains long after a disagreement ends. Some of us would rather not cook up a relationship at all for fear of being scorched again! Whether we address conflict head-on or mostly absorb offenses, handling the emotional aftermath is hard. If we aren’t careful, resentment can bubble up into a new flame and consume us. Are you keeping a fire going somewhere in your relationship circle right now? In your marriage or family, maybe?Related image

It is good to have a strategy ready for conflict. And it is important to deepen our consciousness for what to do with the emotions that follow it, and often make us sore. Having a healthy conflict and working through the aftermath both require a basis of forgiveness to end in healing and not further heartache.

In Matthew 18, right after Jesus’ instruction on moving from conflict to reconciliation, Peter asks a probing question. “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?”

The religious leaders of Peter’s day had already put a numerical cap on forgiveness. They taught to forgive three times, and you’ve earned the patience badge on your spiritual Fitbit meter. But then after your three strikes you’re out (and in the U.S. possibly in prison forever). Peter,  as passionate as ever, threw in four more just to be sure.

Jesus’ response must have been a bit aggravating: “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Then he tells a story to explain his daunting answer. A servant is brought before his master to settle an account. We’re let in on a secret in verse 25. This servant who promised to pay back everything can’t pay. Yet his master doesn’t hold him to his empty promise, but personally absorbs the debt.

That reminds me of someone.

Shortly after, this forgiven servant pursues a fellow servant who owes him far less than he had owed his master. He seizes him and begins to choke him: “Pay what you owe.” The fellow servant’s reply sounds familiar: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you’’ (Matt. 18:29).

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My pain instead of yours

Is this fellow servant also making a promise he cannot keep? MaybeIt’s infuriating when we’re on the receiving end of empty promises, isn’t it? Picturing such experiences in his story, Jesus gives us a taste of what forgiveness really feels like. God does not forgive worthy sinners, but guilty ones. That’s what makes forgiveness so wonderful but so hard. When we radicals actually apply the Bible and pursue the steps outlined in Matthew 18:15-20 we are doing it as forgiven people, looking for forgiveness to bind us all in grace.

Andrée Seu Peterson writes: I asked a few people if they’d ever forgiven anyone and what it felt like. They gave me answers so pious I knew they’d never done it. . . . Forgiveness is a brutal mathematical transaction done with fully engaged faculties. It’s my pain instead of yours. I eat the debt. I absorb the misery I wanted to dish out on you, and you go scot-free.

Most of us don’t want any of that when we address conflict, if we dare to address it at all! No, we want a fellow sinner to satisfy our righteous demands—for their own soul’s sake, of course. But that seventy-times-seven thing calls our bluff.

Perhaps you theoretically think you can muster up enough forgiveness to meet the criteria. At least you don’t want prisoners to rot without rehabilitation or ex-offenders to lose their voting privilege! But have a fight with someone in the cell and they could get cut off. If your mate loves porn or other men, you might never get over it. If someone besmirches yours or the church’s reputation, they’re out. Our church has gone through long seasons when personal codes of justice trump forgiveness every week, somehow, and it would be legit to question whether we pay attention to Jesus at all.

Later in the Lord’s parable, the Master punishes the servant he forgave, calling him wicked because he couldn’t forebear with another’s empty promise: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:32–33)

Our gratitude for what God gives us is revealed in how merciful we are toward those who owe usOur horizontal relationship with one another reveals the nature of our vertical one with God.

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Forgiveness is an antidote to resentment

Walking through conflict can be tricky. As we progress through telling brothers or sisters their fault, acquiring witnesses and perhaps eventually telling it to the church, our self-righteousness can flare up and engulf our insides even as we seek to maintain a pious shell. When our adversary doesn’t seem to know the script—to repent in dust and ashes—it’s easy to be a Peter, sigh, and ask, “How many times, Lord, must I go through this with this person?”

When we dwell on the person’s behavior and not the finished work of Jesus, we can get stuck in resentment. Outside communion in Christ, the Jesus way to conflict resolution, even when sincerely followed, will probably leave us empty and disillusioned. 

So what do we do when bitterness invades our souls, especially if the offense cuts deep?

  1. Admit: I can’t shake the bitterness. Pray something like this: “God, I need your help to stop feeling rage. I’m not sure I even want to let this go. Lord, please take this away.”
  2. Revisit: God promises us life. When we think of the promises of God, we often think of his unconditional love—the stuff Pinterest memes and coffee mugs are made of. But there are sobering promises, too: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Rom. 12:19). Listen to God’s implicit question in the Lord’s parable: “Will you trust me with these hurts, these regrets, and these unpaid debts?”
  3. Reset: Go back to square 1. We are forgiven. It is where we are born again. It is the doorway to our eternity. The very offense that causes us to go to another sinner, looking for their redemption, is a similar offense to whatever drove Jesus to the cross on our behalf.
  4. Recalibrate: Look toward square infinity. Some people have wrecked Matthew 18’s practical road toward harmony by making it a means to purify the church from whatever might cause them to forgive. But the Lord loves the people who sin against us, even hate us – and we just might meet them in the age to come. Their tiny faith might not be enough to satisfy us, but it might be plenty to assure them of eternity. God’s goal is redemption, first of all, not merely justice. Jesus is our justice, any other justice we experience in this world is right and desirable, but it is not the hope on which we stand. Any person we saddle with the requirement to make things right with us could easily wither under the weight of our demand.

As we labor under the burns that take so long to heal and flinch with the fear of being burned again, try these additional actions:

  • Stop re-reading that hurtful email or text message.
  • Stop meeting with the friend who seems to enjoy hearing all about what was perpetrated by that terrible person you can’t forgive.
  • Stop going to those places with all those memories.
  • Stop savoring a cycle of painful or vengeful thoughts but shift your mind to dwell on what is good. When you are tempted to seek revenge—if only in your mind— think on your Master who saw you trying to make things right on your own, making promises you could not keep, and forgave you anyway.

Forgiveness is the foundation of the life of Christ visibly alive in the church. It doesn’t begin with other people getting with it, repenting and being forgivable. It begins with each of us.

Forgiveness begins reconciliation: “White” supremacy and the Smith family

Last week in our cell, we talked about the Theological Declaration on Christian Faith and White Supremacy which our pastors (including me) signed and asked us all to consider. After the outburst of anger and pain in St. Louis last week, it makes our hope for reconciliation even more radical in the face of society’s persistent injustice. But like the authors of the declaration, we have hope.

True. But “white,” “silence,” and “complicity” could all mean more than they appear if you asked our cell’s members.

We have a relatively large cell, so our reactions to the declaration fell on quite a spectrum. Some did not read much of the statement since it was so long. Some found it hard to understand. Some had never heard of it, yet. But once I provided the gist of it, we all had stories about racist people who don’t get it and our own feelings about white supremacy. So-called white people had their own experiences of wearing supremacy to share.

In the course of our dialogue, I remembered a verse from Jesus Loves Me, which I learned when my parents dropped me off for Sunday School. Many people had never heard it. I looked it up on Google to make sure it actually existed! Sure enough:

Jesus loves me, Indian boy
Bow and arrow for a toy
Big Filipino, wee Chinese
Living far across the seas.

The verse is a nice, little lesson for “Jesus loves everybody, even people who are not ‘us.’” The sentiment is nice, as long as you can erase the white supremacy from the mixture (which is unlikely, of course). The song also teaches that we are the center of the universe and tall Filipinos (they are the little ones in other versions) and those wee Chinese people with their funny clothes and language are also partakers of our grace. I say “our” because God gave it to us to give to them. They’ve gotten into this Christianity we have owned for a long time. All that is also laced into the message and fed to youngsters.

Anthony Lamar Smith, Jason Stockley victim, Anthony Lamar Smith photo
Click the picture for the Smith story

For instance, after Charlottesville, the members of the BIC List had an argument as to whether white supremacy exists. I imagine some are shaking their heads over the family members of Anthony Lamar Smith who were at the forefront of protests  in St. Louis after Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder last week. While the family already received $900,000 in their wrongful death suit, justice for the policeman, personally, did not happen in their estimation. All this again reminded so-called black people to remember that they can be killed by the police without repercussion.

What do Jesus followers do in the face of this?

To be clear, it would be impossible to list all the things Jesus followers do about these things because they do a lot, from trying to change the justice system, to alleviating the impoverishing impact of injustice, to invading the prison system with grace, to flooding the streets with those who are brave enough to say “No!.” Many of our members in Circle of Hope are leading us every day to do a lot.

But generally, what should we all do about white supremacy, the long oppression that continues to raise its ugly, often-denied head?

Repent

So-called white people need to repent. The violence, self-aggrandizement, systemic division and oppression, the persistent self-interest all happened; it created and maintains white supremacy. Yes, you may not have done much personally, but you continue to benefit, whether you want the white privilege or not. Donald Trump is the president of white privilege. The election was a whitelash. Maybe the whole term “white” will begin its long-needed decline, soon, but it is alive and destructive right now. To repent means admitting the sin and turning away from it. Admitting is not quite enough. It is the turning that transforms and heals.

Forgive

So-called white people can forgive themselves so “people of color” (yes, that is the pernicious label for everyone who is not “white”) can get along without having to comfort you in your guilt. Guilt might be a starting point, if you have never felt it about your privilege. But that should last for about five minutes, maybe. If you carry your guilt like a badge of your awareness, it is, essentially, yet another feature of your privilege.

So-called black people, of all the people who experience the ill-effects of white supremacy, need to forgive, if they follow Jesus. Desmond Tutu taught this so much during the South African transformation that he put it all in a book: No Future without Forgiveness. Here’s a quote:

“To forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that summum bonum, that greatest good, communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community.”

Forgiveness is the beginning point, like Jesus says. Forgive as you have been forgiven. As Tutu adds, it makes you human and no one can take that from you.

…working in the lives of all genders, of course.

Many “people of color” to whom I have spoken are afraid not being angry and out for retribution makes them disengaged or cowardly, even a traitor. That could be true. But getting loud for justice can also be an endless, unproductive fight against the windmill of evil humanity. Jesus followers are going to keep prophesying and acting, but if that’s all we’ve got, good luck. Martin Luther King had more than that to motivate his efforts. Here’s a point from one of his early sermon outlines:

Forgiveness is a process of life and the Christian weapon of social redemption. Forgiveness is always spoken of for others. Give Peter’s attempt to put it in legal and statistical terms.[How many times should I forgive?]

Here then is the Christian weapon against social evil. We are to go out with the spirit of forgiveness, heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society with forgiveness. Of course we don’t think this is practical.

This is the solution of the race problem.

Forgiveness is often mistaken for reconciliation. If the dominated believer thinks that forgiveness means everything is settled, a call to forgiveness could mean “I need to roll over and take what the oppressor dishes out because I forgave them” or “I need to make it work for white people because I love Jesus.” That’s not accurate. Forgiveness begins the road to reconciliation, which is God’s goal. We forgive for the redemption of the person who sins against us, not to preserve their status quo. Forgiveness is a weapon of transformation, not the imposition of self-denial, as if not being my true self in Christ will help the world, as if letting someone live a lie will save them from some suffering. In the hands of Jesus, forgiveness is the tool that begins the possibility of new individuals and instills the hope of the beloved community. Without it, we just keep using the tools of the world to change the world, and nothing really changes; no one is new and no new community is formed. Perhaps something changes in us, though, since we become the tools of hatred and violence.

In our cell we were tempted to refight all the battles the world foists upon us when I brought up white supremacy, how it labels us this or that, creates division, rewards white people and despises the rest. One of our members with an “Asian” background (who has a great story about teaching some racist tormenters about his culture and changing his environment one time), reoriented us when he talked about having nothing when his family arrived as immigrants to the United States and now having houses in which to live. He had a perspective which differed from most of us. We see things in many different ways in our diverse church. As my friend finished his story, I secretly celebrated our capacity to have a great conversation about white supremacy and still enjoy the cookies. We all took a sweet next step on the road to the beloved community.

You don’t know either: Break your law and forgive someone

The subtitle of Development is “truth without love kills and love without truth lies.” I think we need to do better than “truth is truth” or “all you need is love.” Following that conviction to do more than what amounts to common sense makes living with Jesus harder than entry-level faith, but it also makes us more likely to be the presence of the future.

This week I had two experiences that taught me more about following when it is hard — in these cases when justice is hard to find. Here’s the essence of what I am learning: When we “break the law” (the “truth” we beat people with) and forgive (the love that doesn’t lie about who we are and what has happened), we are learning to walk in His steps. We must get beyond the rules and get to the Ruler.

The automatic cut-off

More than one of my friends is harboring resentment toward another friend for something that person did — several of them are married to each other! You’ll probably relate to this: at one point the resented one did something my friend did not like or thought was wrong — or maybe they did it repeatedly, or maybe they just are it. In the case at hand, that person did something and it rubbed my friend the wrong way. It set off an unexplainable reaction in him. He told the person what he felt and got no satisfaction because they could not change what they did and they didn’t feel it was wrong.

So in some place in his heart, he cut the person off. In a very real way, the person had violated some law by which he ran his life. Just running into them began to feel awkward. They needed to be punished. If they got away with it, he would be giving  up something precious. The way he punished them was to cut them off. As we talked about the impact of this reaction, we found that it had a lot more to do with my friend’s heart than it did with the other person’s actions. (Meditating on the people who bother you the most may be fruitful at times). The resented one tripped off some ancient alarm wire in an area God needs to enter. After a long consideration, he realized that instead of holding on to this sense of injustice he felt, he should just forgive the person – even if they were still bad.

Forgiveness is a starting point, not an aspiration

Forgiveness is the starting point that God gives us. Reconciliation follows. Holiness might be quite a ways down the road, justice even farther. Like God in Jesus, we also need to start with forgiveness, not judgment. Your truth might kill someone. Your “law” might need to be broken. In a cell group, “starting at the starting point” becomes even more important to teach and to learn together. There are so many opportunities to trip over someone’s wire in a small community! People can quickly get the feeling that they need to be very careful, instead of ready to risk love. There is a lot more to a relationship than the starting point with God and others. But we may never start at all we don’t forgive as we have been forgiven.

Father forgive them
Gary Bunt — Some People Following Jesus

The therapist’s ethics can be a law that kills

The other experience is more theoretical because it came up as part of my dissertation presentation. My subject might be too dissertationy to introduce here. But part of it dealt with how psychotherapists apply their ethical standards and follow law.  One of the ethical standards therapists keep is to maintain a professional relationship with clients. It is outside their boundaries to have sex with clients, but also to have business relationships, social relations and other kinds of relationships that muddy up the waters of the alliance they make with a client in service to the client’s health.

We discussed how hard following this law can be in a small community such as Circle of Hope where a therapist might run into a client (for example “At the Love Feast,” someone said). My research showed that most therapists take this ethical principle seriously. Some take it so seriously that it becomes a law they are afraid to break – even when breaking it might be in the best interest of their client. The dialogue reminded me that we are all prone to letting a law do the work of relating for us. We live under the influence of unforgiving powers and it takes some courage to violate their will.

Forgive like the Ruler

At the heart of the world, Jesus is our law; he is the way, the truth and the life. Our characters are containers for his Spirit. Whatever laws and agreements we might make are subject to his rule; they should be containers for his truth and love, too.

I told someone about my experiences and I said, “I want to be ruled, not just follow rules.”

Most of us are going to begin by following rules – the ones installed in our hearts by parents and teachers and the ones put upon us by governments and associations. But, like Paul says, even the Mosaic law was just a tutor to help us learn Christ, the king of the kingdom. Sometimes the rules will reveal our Ruler because of how absent he is from them.

If you are exploring all the rules you live by, how about installing a better one in the heart of your spiritual territory? Let’s try this: When someone is doing something wrong (at least wrong according to your rules you live by), maybe the first rule should be to follow the example of our ruler: forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.

Usually, I don’t fully know what I am doing either! It may seem backward to let ourselves or someone who offends us start off as forgiven and deal with the law later, but I think that is the gift God has given us. We may not get things right, but we can be righted. All those other lawbreakers need the same break as we do. Forgive them.

Memorial Day: Yes, John Fogerty and James, the rich are still exploiting us.

Memorial Day weekend just came to a close. I spent most of it with my delightful family, in a delightful place with delightful weather. The other part was spent with the delightful people at Circle of Hope Broad and Washington. Nice.

Even though I was having the perfectly-divertive, potentially-numbing weekend (like everyone else was trying to have), the reason behind the holiday kept running through the back of my mind. I was reminded on Sunday that Memorial Day is for putting flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers. What’s more, as Jerome said in our meeting, it is for mourning the meaninglessness of war and the tragic loss of lives in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Then, on the way home tonight, I was listening to Sound Opinion on NPR. They included a section called Memorial Day: Songs from the Front Lines. It gave my mind a chance to get free of my commitment not to think so much for a while as the music critics collected their most-respected war songs in honor of the holiday. They re-minded me and took me back to some places I need to stay.

The rich send the poor to fight for them

Wars always elicit songs. In my lifetime, American wars have increasingly spawned protest songs. One of the songs from the show took me back to the Vietnam War (when I was fifteen). Creedence Clearwater Revival sang a protest song that Jon Fogerty has been singing ever since called: Fortunate Son. It is about how the rich send the poor to fight battles to maintain their wealth. That’s a truth that has only become more true since the sixties. What’s worse, is that today’s young, unlike Fogerty, have much less hope that a song will change anything. They seem to be sure that the “powers that be” will just reduce their passion to a ring tone or a jingle and sell it back to them. They act like their only hope is to sell their soul for a lot of money, not just a little, since they’ll be selling it one way or another.

fogerty

Fogerty was not the son of a Senator or millionaire. So as a young man he felt very afraid that he would be drafted into the secretive, fruitless, and divisive war in Southeast Asia. Because he was not rich, there was no way out. Because he was not connected to the oligarchy that ran the country, he had no power but his song. So he sang it hard:

Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they’re red, white and blue
And when the band plays “Hail to the Chief”
Oh, they point the cannon at you, Lord

It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no Senator’s son, no
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no fortunate one.

Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don’t they help themselves, y’all
But when the tax men come to the door
The house looks like a rummage sale, Lord

It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no, no
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no fortunate one, no

Yeah, some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Ooh, they send you down to war.
And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”
Oh, they only answer, more, more, more.

It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no military son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no fortunate one

When Bruce Springsteen covers it, we fellow-locals need to sing along. There are still prophets out there! We grow them ourselves — Raleigh Booze will give it a go for you, too — just ask him (or ask  him to sing)! We can at least sing, “It ain’t me” hard — even if we are only going to sing.

share of total income

We Christians  should be singing along with Fogerty and Springsteen, but that’s hardly the best we can do. We don’t have to thumb through the Bible very far to be reminded that they are singing our song. We could, for instance, “sing” along with James and plan some fearless resistance with him. For one thing, he’ll remind us that we are all poor in the eyes of the Lord, whether we write hit songs and fill arenas or not. And he’ll remind us to forgive our exploiters for the sin of their corruption even as God has forgiven all our sins — but not by overlooking them. Our faith unleashes radical forgiveness but also releases  prophetic love-anger over what needs forgiving that the world so desperately needs:

“ Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?  Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?” James 2:5-7.

Yes, James, they are exploiting us and we elect more millionaires to do it.  They dishonor the poor and we wring our hands. They blaspheme Jesus and we are afraid to tell them the truth. Forgive us. Sing us the old song again. Help us to sing along and at least make the right kind of noises.