God is with you – whatever is happening

A middle aged man grieves the loss of his father. Confused and confronted by some family reactions, he prays for peace among his siblings so they can honour their father’s life.

Two young people are prepare to marry. Their ‘right now’ a juggle of plans for a wedding breakfast, settling a guest list, a honeymoon, and their day to day lives.

A middle aged man sits in the morning traffic, mind blank with the yawning sameness of his daily commute. His mind flickers between being free from the grind, the financial reality of a mortgage, the boss’s expectations, and uncomfortable relational realities at home.

A young woman plans a community event, desktop stacked with schedules, memos, invoices. Under pressure. Phone rings. Plans change. Again.

Another walks home, weary from an early start. Thinks about her lack of love, and ponders shallow friendships. She doesn’t like to think about it, or where her life is headed. Or whether.

Some people say that God is only with us when we’re doing the right thing, when our lives are heading in the right direction, when we’re honouring him with right living and acceptable behaviour.

Others will say that God is really only present when were doing spiritual stuff. When we in ‘quiet time’. We read our Bible regularly, we use the right version, we pray in a humble spirit, we worship in spirit and truth, witness regularly.

Ask them, and they won’t have an answer for the people in the grind of life, except that faith is probably not strong enough, and that it’s no surprise they are doing it so tough.

The God of grace is not impressed with the musings of the comfortable, who believe their responses somehow make him present. Scripture reveals a God who is present and who is there, whatever is happening.

When the people of Israel gathered on the promised land’s fenceline, the Lord reminded them that if they were faithful to him they would be blessed in the field. He would protect them fro the enemy. Their sons and daughters would be strong, healthy. Their harvests plentiful.

Best of all: The Lord will dwell with them. He would be with them. He would be their God, and they would be his people.

Scripture reveals a God who is present and who is there, whatever is happening.

Later, when the Lord points out the implications of any future disobedience – and they are awful, horrible things – he never says ‘and I will not be with you, I will forsake you and leave you alone forever.’ Whatever happens, and whatever path his people would tread, whether faithful or rebellious, God would still be with them. Yes, he would despise their behaviour and hate its outcomes. But he would still be with them because of his covenant. His promise to be their God would never fail, because he is faithful, even when they were faithless.

Whatever is happening in your life today: whether it brings a cheer, or whether you are overcome with pain and grief, God is with you.

He knows your life is broken. And he gently whispers that his plan is to heal, and mend, and make right. He is with you. Trust him.

Upon a Hill

Three men shared death upon a hill,
But only one man dies;
The other two—
A thief and God himself—
Made rendezvous.

Three crosses still
Are borne up Calvary’s Hill,
Where Sin still lifts them high:
Upon the one, sag broken men
Who, cursing, die;
Another upholds the praying thief,
Or those who penitent as he,
Shall find the Christ
Beside them on the tree

“Upon A Hill”, Miriam LeFevre Crouse

Forgiveness is God’s Nature (5)

I have never been able to understand those who say that the God we read about in the Old Testament is angry and vindictive, while the God we read about in the New Testament is loving and kind. The reality is that God has always been gracious and forgiving, and this flows right out of the core of his being.

Think of the account of Moses on Mt Sinai in Exodus 34. Moses had asked to see the glory of The Lord, and God agrees to pass by and allow Moses to see ‘his back’. There is much in this passage that is hard to grasp, but one thing that is very clear is the nature and character of The Lord. As God passes by he proclaims his own name to Moses: “The Lord, The Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness and sin, yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

Sure, punishment is mentioned. But the thing to note is what receives the emphasis. The first things mentioned are compassion, grace, slowness to anger, love, faithfulness, more love, and forgiveness. This provides the backdrop for any words about punishment: if God is going to be compassionate and gracious and loving, then he must call to account those who are not compassionate, gracious and loving. But that’s another post…

The main thing to see is how close forgiveness is to the heart of God. Right at core of his character is his desire to forgive.

Forgive is an interesting word. The Hebrew word is nāśā. It means to lift, to carry, to take up, to lift off. So, right at the core of God’s heart is his deep inclination to lift off the burden that weighs people down. God desires to lift off the weight of sin and guilt. He does not want to see people bent and broken by wrongdoing and the fall.

It reminds me of John Bunyan’s Christian, who makes his journey with a ridiculously huge burden strapped to his back. That burden is his own sin. Christian can’t get rid of it, no matter what he tries to do. But here’s the deal: God can get rid of it. And if we pay attention to what God says is at the core of his being, it’s clear that he wants to lift that burden: he forgives wickedness and sin.

In case you wondered whether this desire to forgive was at the heart of God, we see the same thing said about the Servant of The Lord in Isaiah 53 “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering”. The ‘giveness’ of God is expressed in the giving of his Son, Jesus, who took up our pain and suffering, our transgressions and iniquities.

So these are core realities for God, for how he reveals himself, for how he sees himself, as well as the core mission of his son, Jesus Christ. God’s giveness is the foundation of his forgiveness. Our sin and guilt can be forgiven and forgotten because our wonderful God lifts it off us, and carries it away from us, in all he has done through Jesus his son.

When it comes to being forgiven, and being forgiving people, we have to start with the nature of God, with his core characteristics, and the clear reality of what he has done through Jesus. He is a deeply gracious God, and his desire is to forgive all your wrong and every sin.

Is this how you are used to thinking about God?

What does the fact that forgiveness is at the core of God’s heart mean to you?

Forgiveness is being honest with what happened (4)

Forgiveness is not only about being honest with people. It is also about being honest about what happened. We are not just blaming people, we are blaming them for what they have done. Smedes reminds us that talking about blame is risky. It sounds as if we’re laying all responsibility at the feet of the others and none at our own. But that’s not what it is about. When we talk blame, we are just saying that something has happened and someone has done it. We need to recognise that. Some of the blame may be laid at our own feet. We may have contributed to the situation, so we also need to be honest about our part in it all.

So something happened. Something was done. And people were hurt. If we want to do the work of forgiveness well, and if we want it to last, we need to name what has happened.

Was it something they said? An attitude expressed toward you, or someone close to you? Was it an act of passion? A crime? An assassination of character? Was it neglect, perhaps unintentional, but nonetheless hurtful? The more specific you can get, the more your work of forgiveness will benefit.

If we want to do the work of forgiveness well we need to name what has happened.

This is can be a little dangerous. Remembering what has been done can open the door to resentment and bitterness. Bitterness is a broad and easy road, and many are those who walk on it. It’s so easy to be nurse our pain. We turn it over, over and over again. But as we do, forgiveness and freedom move further away from us, and the poison of bitterness starts to work it’s way through our being until we are all but paralysed.

The other side of the coin is that sometimes our resistance to naming what happened stems from a fear of owning up to what we have done. At other times it is because the hurt is so deep, and what happened was so ugly that we are just happy not to have to talk about it. So, keeping it general and non specific is form of defence mechanism.

More often than not, what we are trying to protect ourselves from is our own guilt. Like a husband who has cheated on his wife might say ‘sorry for how it all ended up’. What does that really mean? Couldn’t his grieving wife say the same? Even their counsellor could say ‘sorry for how it all ended up.’ That’s a coward’s way to say sorry. That guy needs to be honest about what he has done. As long as he refuses to own up to his actions, his wife’s grief is trivialised, her pain is ignored, and his wrong still has his heart bound.

Being honest about what has happened makes good practical sense. More than that, God agrees. When Nathan the prophet confronted David about Bathsheba, he was more than angry about how it all ended up (2 Sam 12). When Jesus spoke with the woman at the well (John 4), his probing question made her uncomfortable, for sure. But if he hadn’t gone there, she would not have known the reality of her need. And without that, she would not have been able to revive the healing and restoration Jesus gave to her.

Because forgiveness has its root in God’s giveness, it is about giving something. We give someone who has hurt us a new start, we give ourselves a break, and – if we can talk about it like that – we give God an opportunity for his better way to come to expression. But we need to be honest: honest with people, and honest about what has happened.

In the next few posts, I want to look at some of the things the New Testament says about forgiveness. We’ll be working towards what actually happens when we forgive, and some of the consequences when we don’t.

Have you ever found it hard to get specific about what has happened? Was that because of something you had done, or because of something someone else did to you? Is there someone you need to talk to about this?

PS. Thanks for sharing this journey with me. Your comments are encouraging, and your questions are challenging. Keep it up!

Forgiveness is being honest with people

Forgiveness, by its very nature, always involves people. It is people who get hurt. It is people who do the hurting. Forgiveness is always relational.

There are some terrible things that have happened to people, but they don’t need to be forgiven. In January 2011 an intense storm cell hovered over the Queensland city of Toowoomba. On any other day, Toowoomba hardly has a creek to its name, but that day it flooded so badly that cars were washed down the main street. The waters rushed down the range, and obliterated several small towns in the valley below. Lives were lost and livelihoods were dashed. Who was to blame? Who did this? No one did it. It was no one’s fault. No one was to blame. As Lewis Smedes reminds us, if there’s no one to blame, there’s nothing to forgive (The Art of Forgiving, p.77).

Forgiveness is only relevant when others are involved. In some ways this makes sense. It may be easy to remember hurts that others have done to us. At other times, who those ‘others’ are will sometimes catch us off guard. We’re not always ready to admit that sometimes the hurt has come from our own actions. So sometimes we have to forgive ourselves. On other occasions, hurt comes from a group of people. Truth is, forgiving is always messy. And you can be sure the more people are involved, the messier it gets.

people are always in the mix

So, when it comes to forgiveness, people are always in the mix. Real people. Real lives. Real pain and real grief. It’s easy to lose sight of this, and it’s often convenient to avoid it. It’s easier, if we have hurt someone, to just think about ‘issues’ and ‘events’ and ‘what went wrong’. When we avoid the people in the equation, though, we dehumanise the pain. This is sin on three counts:

We sin against them, because we are not willing to see their hurt, or recognise our part in it.

We sin against ourselves: when we refuse to see the pain we have brought to others we deny ourselves the grace of being forgiven.

And we sin against God. It’s not just that he wants us to forgive. It’s more that his plan in Jesus is to raise us to a new life and a better way. God wants our lives, through Jesus, to express his better grace. He deeply wants his ‘giveness‘ to come to expression in our lives. Paul says as much when he writes “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children, and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Eph 4:32ff)

We have to be honest about the impact of our actions on people, and their impact on us. If we fail to see the people in the equation, sin, wrongdoing, and guilt will have its way with us. And guilt is such a tireless tormentor.

Which is easier, to just focus on the issues, or to recognise the people involved and the pain they are going through? Which is better?

Forgiveness: Let’s Start at the Beginning

Where does forgiveness start? This is an important question if we’re to get forgiveness right and do forgiveness well.

I think forgiveness starts with God and his nature. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. This very act says so much about the God we worship and the forgiveness he calls us into. It reminds us that God is a giver, One who at core seeks to bring life and beauty and joy into being. In the evening of each creation day God said “it is good.” On the sixth day, having created human beings, he said “it is very good”. At a very primary level, we understand that God gives himself, expends himself so that life can abound and people can thrive.

Cornelius Plantinga says “the first act in the world’s drama is God’s act of creation and sustaining ‘all things visible and invisible,’ out of a generous desire to enlarge the realm of being, to bestow life and goodness on others, and to assist others to flourish in the realm created for them.” [Engaging God’s World, p.44]

…forgiveness starts with God and his nature…

This tells us deep things about God: his core disposition is one of love, a desire to bless, to enrich, to cause to flourish, to bring life and beauty. There are a million other implications to pursue here about what the church should focus on, about how Christians should conduct themselves, and what defines the mission of the church.

What I want us to think about are the implications of this for forgiveness. This is very important, because it is easy for us to view forgiveness simply in a pragmatic sense: we want to forgive because it resolves a problem. We do it because it works. That is not bad, but it could be better.

When forgiveness is rooted in the character of God, and defined by his work in creation, we see something else. We wee that forgiveness is about bringing blessing into lives. When we go the full cycle of forgiveness, we don’t just resolve a problem, we bless each other.

That is a challenging thought. You may think of the trouble and grief that is part of your life, and seriously question whether you will ever be able to forgive. You may wonder whether you could ever see your way clear to bless the person or persons that have brought this pain upon you. Sometimes the terrors and evils perpetrated on us are so big and ugly that it seems impossible to contemplate any positive thought toward those who have done them. I agree – but for now, can we agree to leave that tension where it is, and come back to later?

The bottom line is that forgiveness is perhaps the most grace affirming, life enriching work you will ever do. It’s no wonder that if we’re going to do it well, we’ll need the sort of grace and strength and help that we can only get from Jesus.

Can you see forgiveness as ultimately a desire to see the other blessed? How does this challenge you or comfort you?

Can We Forgive?

We all have stories of pain and grief. Great hurts that engulf us. Ugly injustices that have ambushed and overthrown us. Persistent, leaden pain. Sometimes, these hurts have been brought into our lives by others. Sometimes it has come at the hands of friends. For others, the agents of hurt have not been known to them. And then sometimes the hurt has come through our own stupidity, lack of judgement, or foolish bravado.

We would like to think that dealing with this pain is as easy as ‘moving on’. Gathering our resolve and getting on with life, not letting these things settle on us. For some, it seems that the pain of life just rolls away like water off a duck’s back. For most, this is not a common experience. Be it rejection, betrayal, abuse, criminal act, or neglect, most carry the hurt for a long time. Maybe for their whole lives. They live with this hurt, as does everyone around them. It impacts on work, relationship, marriage, and pretty much very circle of interaction that we have.

Do you know what to do with all your hurt?

Do you know what to do with all your hurt? Many people do not. Each morning when they roll out of bed, or when they sit with their coffee, or in those moments when the pressure is off, and the mind starts to relax, the pain resurfaces. Like some stray dog, just when you think you have finally gotten rid of it, it returns to dig holes in your garden.

What to do? Is it as easy as managing these situations differently? Should you just fill your life with so much busyness and with so many things to keep the pain away? Is your ticket out of pain and hurt?

Chances are, trying that will leave you doubly bound. You will be stuck in your pain, and bound up in whatever escape you devise, and you will never get out of it.

There is a better way, and that is to forgive.

I know: forgiveness is not well understood. It seems such a slippery thing, and we wonder whether it’s all a bit too easy. Either that, or it seems too hard to do. But here’s the thing, God calls us into it. More: in Jesus he both models and empowers forgiveness.

If it’s true that the pain you carry changed your life, then it’s also true that they way you forgive will change your life even more.

Come with me on a journey, and let’s see how we can do this work of forgiving better.

What do you think is hardest about forgiveness?

Grief and Hatred

1 John 2:9 (NIV)
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.

Hate is a strong word. I hate what I see going on in Syria. I hate the deception that breaks relationships. I hate gossip, and malicious whispering. I hate whatever is in warfare with God and his gospel in Jesus.

Sometimes, though, I find myself wondering whether we should hate as much as we do. I wonder whether many of the things we hate are things that we should really be grieving over.

Hate, you see, keeps it all out there. You can hate stuff on the other side of the world, and not be particularly affected by it. But if you grieve over something, it’s like you have to let it have you a little, let it enter your life. When you grieve you feel something of the heaviness, the brokenness, and the grit of it between your teeth.

We all know God hates sin and wrongdoing. But I wonder whether sometimes God grieves more than he hates.

What do you think? Does God grieve about us and our world more than he hates what he sees going on?

Familiarity and Fear

My reading this morning took me to several places: First Psalm 18 – a wonderful Psalm of God’s mighty protection, and his ability to bring victory to his people in battle. Then I read Ps 94, which spoke about the Lord’s justice to those who do evil.

I found myself wondering about our tendency to see God as a mate, to talk to him as if he is any other person in the room. As if.

God is to be feared, deeply respected, bowed before and submitted to. We don’t like this language – we think we’re better than that. Truth is, we aren’t. We are deeply flawed and woefully fallen people in need of repentance.

This creates a tension in our hearts that we would rather avoid and neglect.

My final reading took me to Heb 10:19-25. And this reading reminded me that the tension above is real: there is a yawning gulf between how God wants us to be and how we actually are.

Even so, the Cross of Jesus is also real. Because of Jesus we can

1) now enter the most holy place through his blood
2) we can draw near to God with full assurance because our hearts are cleansed, our guilt is removed, and our bodies are washed
3) encourage others to find their hope for forgiveness and in our living for his new world

God is awesome, and fearful, but Christ’s perfect love drives us out of fear and into the glorious saving presence of the living God.

How do you tend to see God – as one to be feared, or on the same level as anyone else in the room?

Did Solomon Consider the Consequences?

Solomon seemed to start off so well. When, in his early years, the weighty responsibilities of the Kingdom weighed upon him, he knew he pulled up way too short in wisdom:

““Now, LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?””
(1 Kings 3:7–9, NIV)

Sometime later he wrote Psalm 127. Deliciously laconic, the Psalm calls us to consider the consequences of our actions. Our thoughts, our actions, our whispered conversations, our internet habits – where are they leading? Are they restoring life? Are they building character? Are they helping people see God more clearly? Are they displaying God’s Kingdom, and building his mission?

Our thoughts, our actions, our whispered conversations, our internet habits – where are they leading?

Only you know. Well, God knows, too. He is calling you to consider the impact of the decisions you have made, and the decisions you will make today, and those you are yet to make. Consider where they are taking you.

Did Solomon?

Did Solomon consider the consequences?

This is the question, because later in his life it is a different picture. Derek Kidner writes “…like much of Solomon’s wisdom. the lessons of Psalm 127, relevant as they were to his situation, were mostly lost on him. His building, both literal and figurative, became reckless (1 Ki 9:10ff), his kingdom a ruin (1 Ki 11:11ff) and his marriage a disastrous denial of God (1Ki 11:1ff)” [Psalms 73-150, p.44)

Did Solomon realise this is how he would end up? He was incredibly wise. He must have known the terrible consequences of his decisions. Yet it seems he chose to walk against his earlier words, and therefore, against the Lord’s ways. Against life, really. What a tragedy.

Consider:

Those plans you are making, that goal you have set, the way you are dealing with others, your closet behaviour – are these taking you where God wants you to be? If not, change, and change right now.

God has given you life in Jesus, His Son. This life is what you should be living: Eph 4:17 – 5:2