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?

Which Road Are You On?

Last weekend I attended ‘The Road Event’, a tremendously stimulating conference organized by Über, a Christian church in Melbourne Eastern suburbs.

The conference charted the development of cultural trends and ideas that have worked together to influence how we see life and how we view ourselves and our world. It all sounds a bit philosophical when you put it like that, but in actual fact is was down to earth, accessible, and incredibly insightful.

Much revolved around the use of the ‘story’ metaphor. The basic idea is that not only can your life be seen as a story, but that culture, too, is formed by one or a number of ‘stories’. Think of it this way: There is an overarching story or worldview that dominates our world. This ‘story’ may not be uniformly held or believed, and there might be different and competing stories. Even so, the influence of this ‘story’ is unmistakable.

There is an overarching story or worldview that dominates our world

Thinking about how ‘stories’ impact on our culture is much the same as thinking about the dominant world and life view around us. I don’t see too much difference between the different terms. What I do sense, though, is that the idea of a ‘story’ is a little easier for people to understand than the often philosophically overweight, jargon laden discussions about ‘world and life view’.

So what is the dominant ‘story’ in Australian culture? I can’t confess any real expertise, but it’s not hard to observe a few dominant themes:

• We have evolved from lesser life forms, there really is no God, we are a mass of carbon based atoms. Consequently the older ‘stories’ of faith, religion, and even traditional morality are irrelevant

• Consequently, there is no overarching ‘story’ to give life coherence and meaning. So the best way to live is to just be yourself and do no harm to others. Have as much fun doing this as you can, but don’t be surprised if you feel a yawning disconnect with everything.

• We have done terrible things in polluting our planet, so now we have to address them by reducing greenhouse gases and developing in sustainable industry

• All people should get a fair go, we should all have the same opportunities, and we should do what we can to help those who are disadvantaged

There are lots of others, but you get the drift. By ‘story’ we mean the major life views or world view that influences how we live. ‘The Road Event’ helped us see how we have been influenced by the culture of ‘the road’, an in this story where life has no ultimate destination all that matters is how we travel. All that matters is the journey. It sounds innocuous, but this view has influenced the church, Australian Christianity, social institutions, family life, our sense of self.

So my next posts are thoughts that flow on from this. I am indebted to the speakers at ‘The Road Event’: Mark Sayers, Andrew Shamy, Sarah Deutscher, and Tim Hein for their insightful critique, their warmhearted challenge, and their inspiring biblical vision.

Q: what ‘stories’ do you think dominate our culture? Leave a comment, and start a discussion!

Will God really protect me?

One of the primary questions people ask about Christianity is whether it produces actual outcomes: whether it makes a real difference to their lives. We know that Jesus is God’s son, that he died and rose again, that he rules the universe, and that he is returning to complete his restoration of all things. But does this make a difference to how we live?

This morning I read in Ps 94 how God is the avenger of those who are victimised and oppressed. He judges the earth. He does not reject his people or forsake his inheritance. He rises up for his people against his enemies. God is our fortress and our refuge.

Can you see how our view of God influences how we engage with our world and how we live in it and how we live with others? If God is our fortress, I don’t need to bolster myself with my status, or my possessions, or my reputation. If God is my refuge, I don’t have to take refuge in my orthodoxy, or in my church.

My comfort is that God’s plan will come to fruition irrespective of my circumstances

Today, my day is in God’s trusting hands. I move into my day knowing that I am working in his plan, so I don’t have to cajole him into working in mine. My comfort is that God’s plan will come to fruition irrespective of my circumstances. This is true for his plan for me, as well as his plans for my world.

Here’s the question we all need to ask: Do I actually believe God will protect me today? In my work, my living, my witness, my relationships, at my rock and my hard place?

Or are these things just nice thoughts to start the day with, but they have no ultimate power to impact my reality?

Following and Sacrifice

At first thought, following Jesus seems easy. It seems a matter of changing your mind about who Jesus is, recognising and accepting him as Saviour, and acknowledging him as King and Ruler. I suppose it is easy, relatively speaking, to see ‘following Jesus’ as a ‘decision’. Western Christianity often focuses on people making ‘decisions’ to follow Jesus, or to accept him as Saviour. In some places, these decisions are pretty much the only thing that matters. So, evangelism strategies and even services are focussed around getting people to make those decisions.

Many people who operate from an atheist or agnostic point of view will sometimes ‘the decision’ as the major battleground: with the focus being on the intellectual arguments as to why someone should follow Jesus, or whether there is a God, or an afterlife, or whatever. This makes some sense, because the primary battleground is the inner realities of human life: the heart, the mind, the will, the soul. People do need to assess who Jesus is with their mind, they do need to yield their will and bow before Jesus’ supreme and majestic authority. People do need to offer themselves – to give their heart – to this King as worshipful subjects.

Even so, if all I give is my inner realities, as significant as that may be, I don’t think I have begun to follow Jesus the way he intends me to follow. The inner realities are the starting point, sure, but those realities are connected to my behaviour and my attitudes. Here’s the rub: Jesus wants the change in your inner reality to come to concrete, consistent, continual expression in a changed life. Behaviour. Values. Attitudes. Talk. Generosity. Relationships. Business ethic. Lifestyle. Eating habits. Sexuality. Yep, pretty much everything.

This is why yesterday’s thought was so challenging: ‘think of those areas where you are not obeying Jesus, and start changing them now.’

See, friends, it is easy to ignore the call to changed behaviour and attitudes, and just concentrate on the ‘inner life’. We’re OK with change, as long as we can ‘spiritualise’ it, and restrict that change to comfortable areas like ‘growing in knowledge’, or ‘having a stronger faith’. Stressing ‘inner change’ while neglecting behaviour change is like paying attention to the safety features of your car, but still driving like a maniac. It makes no sense. It endangers to your life and the life of others. James the Apostle reminds us that the Devil has excellent knowledge of God, and that inner faith without outward expression is nothing but death.

So, God is calling you and me to change. Real change. Change that will be difficult. Jesus, in Luke 9, says that following him is like losing your life (9:24).

Are you up for that?

Are you prepared to change those things in your behaviour and in your attitudes that you know really do need to change? Are you prepared to put to death your love of wealth? Or your proclivity to gossip? Or your thirst for influence? Are you prepared to step into the compassionate lifestyle God calls you to have? Are you prepared to reduce your personal comfort to maximise your engagement with God’s mission? Are you committed to loving the people as an expression of the love for God in you?

Jesus gave his life for you on that terrible torturous cross. He counted his heavenly glory as nothing. But is following him actually costing you anything?

True. There are burdens that come as a consequence of truly following Jesus. They are felt when you start working out what God has worked in you (Philippians 2:12-13). And while it’s not a popular thing to say to comfortable western Christians, these burdens hurt and they chafe and they are weighty. This is what Jesus calls your cross (Luke 9:23).

You want to follow? Then take up your cross. Take it up daily. And, knowing he has called you, this cross, his cross on your shoulders, becomes easy, and light.

One last thing: Jesus never calls you to do this work on your own. Through his Spirit, he is present with you. He will give strength and endurance. He will give you all you need to follow, to change, to carry his cross.

So, about that change: what will it be for you? Make a commitment now: write it down, share your change with a friend, and ask them to keep you accountable.

Follow Me!

Reading Matthew 4 this morning I was again struck by how this very simple passage communicates such profound and (possibly) unnerving truths about Jesus.

Jesus shows up at the Sea of Galilee, and proceeds to call his first disciples. There is no promotional tour, no bus with a banner, no advertising campaign. Jesus just shows up, and says ‘Follow me”. Two words. Two little words. But they contain a universe of meaning.

Surprising

Jesus words are surprising in their simplicity. Simon, Andrew, James and John had no idea who this Jesus was. And we do not know what compelled them to leave their livelihoods, their trade, and follow. But they did. It is a surprising outcome.

Uncompromising

Jesus words are uncompromising. Very un-politically correct. There is no ‘please consider’ or ‘if you wouldn’t mind’ or even an ‘excuse me, but…’. They are a bold, bare imperative. A command. “Come, follow me”. Amazingly, the four men left their nets and followed him immediately.

All of us have behaviour and attitudes in our day to day lives which are destructive and which have to stop. Or things which are disobedient to God, which work against the world he desires. Or the sort of pure and simple indifference where we couldn’t give a toss. Jesus uncompromising call comes to us today and says, “follow me.”

George MacDonald, quoted in A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants, says “It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you … but you can begin at once to be a disciple of the Living One, by obeying him in the first thing you can think of in which you are not obeying him. We must learn to obey him in everything, and so must begin somewhere.”

It is simply absurd to say you believe, or even want to believe in him, if you do not do anything he tells you

So: think of those areas where you are not obeying Jesus, and follow his uncompromising call. Why wait? Do it now.

Audacious

It’s an audacious claim, isn’t it? Whether it is Jesus’ words to the four followers, or his word to you, the implication is that Jesus’ rule over people is both universal and absolute. The audacity is that Jesus’ claim is presented as simply true. True, whether you accept this reality or not.

Jesus’ call to the four men, and their surprising and equally uncompromising decision to follow – and therefore obey – shows us not only that Jesus is true ruler. His claim also shows us that his rule starts in the hearts and lives of those who follow him. With people. Jesus’ followers are, in a sense, under new management. Jesus is directing their lives, and the impact is seen very clearly. In a sense, every follow says ‘Jesus is in charge, and this is what it looks like.’

Q: what would be the first things to change in your life if you were to follow Jesus and obey him in those areas where you currently are not obeying him?

PS. If you are intrigued by the phrase “Jesus is in charge, and this is what it looks like”, and you’d like to know more about Jesus (without all the religious clutter) I encourage you to get a copy of NT Wright’s new book, “Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters” . Wright’s book opens our eyes to deeply scriptural emphases and to the life changing reality of Jesus. Koorong still notes the book as ‘not yet printed’ but you can definitely get it on line at Amazon and The Book Depository (and the latter does not charge freight!!). If you have a Kindle, iPad, or other eReader, you can access a copy right now.