Tag Archives: forgiveness

An Awkward Feast

turkeyYesterday’s BBC headlines opined that this could be the most awkward Thanksgiving ever. Following months of heated debates, antagonistic facebook posts, and threats of leaving the country from both sides, American families may find it difficult to sit around the same table and talk with each other again.

I have to admit that I have been shocked by the nastiness this election dredged up in all of us. I heard in our conversations a heartlessness and cruelty towards the opinions and interests of others that should have shamed us, but didn’t. In fact, we modeled for our kids (and for the watching world) that it is perfectly acceptable to mock, slander, verbally attack, and basically dehumanize whomever we disagree with. It is almost as if, for a suspended period of time, we chucked out all our Christian morals about the fruit of the Spirit and supported the humanist assumption that all is fair in love, war, and politics.

In the wake of all that, how do we regather as families, churches, and communities who have been torn right down the middle by our political battles? Do we simply pretend like we didn’t say the things we said? Do we confront each other with “I told you so”s or “I can’t believe you would”s? Or do we simply avoid each other, silently retreating from those we have come to see as the enemy?

Having watched Christians on both sides of the emotionally-charged fence navigate the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum and of Brexit, I would suggest that we approach this Thanksgiving feast the way Christians throughout the ages have been called to approach our Eucharistic feast.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God… Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Ephesians 4:29-32

More important than preparing our turkeys, we need to start by preparing our own hearts, asking ourselves, “In what ways have I contributed to the problem? What attitudes or assumptions have I held on to that may be unnecessarily distancing others? Have my rants and jokes and snide comments communicated the love Christ bears for them?” If we start by working the planks out of our own eyes, we may have a better chance of seeing each other with renewed compassion.

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:12-13

Zooming in on ourselves is a critical first step for creating humble pie, but zooming out allows us to remember why we bother with a feast in the first place. We come to the Lord’s Table because we are broken and needy refugees, desperate for His healing touch, His cleansing blood, and His life-restoring presence. We come because our relationship with Him gets strained or distant and is in constant need of renewal. When we come confessing our sins and sincerely seeking His face, He never turns us away or hides behind distancing excuses. He places Himself in our hands, once again offering us the opportunity to both delight and hurt Him (which we inevitably do). And because of Christ’s conciliatory posture, we (who just as often behave like His enemies as we do His friends) can again be at peace with God.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.
Ephesians 2:14-16

And as sweet as this peace with God is, it is not complete until we share it with each other. After all, communion was never meant to be a private dining experience. I am not the only one He invites to His table! If I claim to love God, then I must love those whom He loves. If I care about what is important to Him, then I will invest myself in reconciling the relationships that He poured out His blood to make peace between.

For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household…
Ephesians 2: 17-19

I hear Christians from opposing political camps talking as if they can no longer share fellowship with each other. For many it is the pain and betrayal they feel from those who seem to have blatantly compromised their Christian values by the way they have behaved or voted. For some it is simply the inability to understand why certain issues would be such a big deal to the exclusion of others. Regardless, as those who have been invited to sit together at God’s table, it is simply not an option to hold on to our relationship with Him without also working to reconcile our relationships with each other.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 4:1-3

We might be tempted to wonder why God would include at His table such an odd assortment of guests. What with our disparity of cultural values and political positions, not to mention emotional temperaments, personal perspectives, and communication styles, how can He expect us to all sit together and enjoy a peaceful conversation? It may be that we have to do a lot of teeth-gritting as we put up with each other, praying frantically that the Spirit will override the divisive reactions which naturally come springing out of our lips and replace them with His own fruit.

God never promised that diversity would be easy, or that unity would come naturally. Overcoming barriers of caste, gender, race, nationalism, and political persuasion to gather His people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into one happily dining family is nothing short of a miracle. It takes constant forgiveness (even of those who don’t know they need it) and vigilant sensitivity to the fears and pain of others.

But this is exactly the awkward social situation into which He invites us to come and dine. And as our stubborn love keeps us together at the table, the miracle of His grace gets put on display for a watching world to see.

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No Room for the Spirit

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“There’s just something missing at church. I can’t put my finger on it, but each week I come home feeling frustrated and empty.”

How often have I heard this sentiment expressed by Christians of all stripes (and felt it myself)! If often falls in the context of a fair critique of artificial fellowship, program-driven worship, or pre-packaged sermons. But perhaps, just perhaps, it is a symptom of a deeper issue, one which starts in us.

The “church” of Hannah’s time was experiencing an all-time low. The spiritual leaders who had been entrusted with the holy task of ministering before the Lord and of shepherding His people were instead using their powerful position to take advantage of vulnerable women and to embezzle the offerings of faithful worshippers. Their minds were so far from the Spirit around whom their service and their facility were oriented that they didn’t recognize His work when He showed up!

As she kept on praying to the LORD, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”

“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the LORD. …

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.”
1 Samuel 1:12-17

But that didn’t stop Hannah from encountering Him. Her desperation for a child and her deep faith that God was the only One who could give her one drove her into His presence. There, through the veil that separated her from the ark of the covenant, she communed with the Spirit in a powerful way, His prayers bubbling up on her lips and mingling with her own tearful longings. And despite Eli’s well-intentioned blunder, the Spirit spoke His blessing and assurance through His not-so-spiritually sensitive priest. Hannah left the tabernacle strengthened and encouraged, filled with the sweet satisfaction of having met with God.

Though Eli’s sons didn’t recognize it, God’s Spirit was living in their midst. He did respond to the prayers of the faithful who came seeking His face. He did take issue with their corrupt practices. And He wasn’t about to let them get away with using Him as an excuse to get what they wanted or a talisman to protect their own self-interests. So when they hauled the ark out of its holy home and put it on display before the eyes of pagan invaders, God let them lose, both the battle and the gift of His Spirit.

She said, “The Glory has departed from Israel, for the ark of God has been captured.”

When the people of Ashdod saw what was happening, they said, “The ark of the god of Israel must not stay here with us, because his hand is heavy on us and on Dagon our god.”
1 Samuel 4:22; 5:7

But as He had done for Sarah when her husband devalued her glory in a similar way, God honored His Spirit’s abode in the eyes of its captors. He allowed no one to desecrate its holy form. He poured out plagues on the households of those who took it in. And He brought down in involuntary worship the idol-king who presumed to use it as a self-gratifying prop. By time He was finished with them, Dagon and his Philistine devotees were begging for the Spirit to depart from them. The care with which they sent off the ark and the gifts with which they surrounded it testified to their newfound awareness of the Spirit’s power and worth.

“I will not enter my house or go to my bed, I will allow no sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, till I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.”

We heard it in Ephrathah, we came upon it in the fields of Jaar: “Let us go to his dwelling place, let us worship at his footstool, saying, ‘Arise, LORD, and come to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. May your priests be clothed with your righteousness; may your faithful people sing for joy.’ ”
Psalm 132:3-9

No wonder David prized the Spirit’s presence with him more than any other gift or accomplishment. No wonder he felt the incredible wrongness of the way the ark had been neglected, abandoned as it was in some shed in a farmer’s field. And no wonder zeal to build a proper house for the Spirit consumed him. The lack of a permanent building or organized worship hadn’t prevented David from meeting with God and enjoying the fellowship of His Spirit. But the value he placed on the Spirit drove him to honor It with the central-most space in his kingdom.

This is what I think we are too-often missing, both in our churches and in our hearts. We fail to recognize the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst. We forget to honor Its holiness, to give It central place in our thoughts, our prayers, our service, and our worship. We go through the motions of doing the right things while missing the beauty and the power of the One who could fill them with meaning and satisfaction. In short, we take the Spirit for granted.

For the LORD has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling, saying, “This is my resting place for ever and ever; here I will sit enthroned, for I have desired it. I will bless her with abundant provisions; her poor I will satisfy with food. I will clothe her priests with salvation, and her faithful people will ever sing for joy.
Psalm 132:13-16

The Spirit may be the least-visible member of the Trinity, but It is certainly not the least precious. Last Sunday we celebrated Pentecost, the pouring out of the Spirit on us as individual believers and as a Church. This Gift is one to be treasured, adored, welcomed, and sought out. Whether our churches welcome the Spirit’s manifestations or not, whether they invoke It’s presence or not, the Spirit is with us. Both in private prayer and in corporate worship, the onus is on us to faithfully, zealously seek His face.

And as each heart prepares Him room, Heaven and nature will have cause to sing.

When Your Heart Condemns You

photo credit: http://stephenonbible.blogspot
photo credit: http://stephenonbible.blogspot
“Shame on you. How can you even call yourself a Christian?”

The accusation of an enemy cuts deep; the rebuke of a friend even deeper. But the condemnation of your own voice from deep within stops you dead in your tracks. How can you even answer?

When your own heart condemns you,
where can you turn for an alibi?

Memories of past failures come back to haunt you. Countless “if-only’s” scroll down your mental timeline. Caught between a past you cannot change and a present you can’t escape, your heart begins to beat to the rhythm of every criticism that has ever been leveled at you, both intended and implied.

“They must all be right. There must be something fundamentally wrong with you,” your heart testifies against your spirit. Shame seeps deeper into the core of your identity, stripping away your last defense and paralyzing your final attempts to stand up to the accusations.

When your own heart condemns you, where can you turn for an alibi?

As much as it may feel like it, you are not alone in this struggle. Although it takes place in the lonely prison of your own mind, godly men and women through the ages have fought this same battle.

When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD”– and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Psalm 32:3-5

David had plenty to regret and plenty of opportunities to regret it. His inexcusable behavior towards Bathsheba and Uriah, his failures in handling the antics of his children, and even the cries of “foul play” from his opponents came back to haunt him again and again. Instead of attempting to ignore or deny the accusing voice within his spirit, David recounted his shameful past in full, remembering not only the causes of his shame but also its resolution. Yes, he really had done those awful things that kept popping up on his mental record. But he had also laid them bare in God’s presence, confessing them to Him and receiving His full forgiveness.

Therefore let everyone who is godly pray to you while you may be found; surely when the mighty waters rise, they will not reach him. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.
Psalm 32:6-7

So when the mighty breakers of condemnation began to overtake his spirit, David clung to the Rock. Only God’s verdict of “forgiven” could release him from the skeletons of his past.

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him. Rejoice in the LORD and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart
Psalm 32:1, 10-11

David combatted his recurring shame with a tenacious faith in God’s unfailing love. By faith he could sing of the blessedness of being forgiven. In fact, by faith he could go a shocking step further and sing of the joys of being counted righteous. Giving in to his shame would hardly do justice to God’s love. Celebrating his position as God’s beloved child would.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. …Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.
1 John 3:16-20

And this is precisely the refrain that the seasoned disciple John picked up in his letters to younger believers. Speaking out of the depths of his own experience, he taught them how to respond to voice of condemnation in their own hearts: Go back and remember the extent of Jesus’ love for you. Recount the ways His love has compelled you to live out love for others. Remember the time you gave something up that you really treasured? Remember the time you forgave that person who had really hurt you? Why did you do what would otherwise be counter-intutive? Because Jesus’ love lives in you. Because you really are God’s beloved child.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “”Abba,” Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.
Romans 8:15-17

And for those times when even our faith in God’s love runs dry and our memory of His good work in us fails, God picks up the struggle on our behalf. Paul described how God’s Spirit testifies to our own, answering our heart’s condemnation with His resounding assurance: of course you are Mine!

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? … Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died–more than that, who was raised to life–is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Romans 8:31-35

God knows the battle that shame wages within our hearts. He not only silences the Foe whose voice accuses us from without, He also refutes the voice within ourselves. Our standing as His children is secure because of Christ’s track record, not ours. Not even our own hearts’ testimony against us is enough to separate us from His love. He is both Advocate and Judge. He reserves the right to decide who He loves and why.

God reserves the right to decide
who He loves and why.

And so when shame nibbles away at your confidence and condemnation steals over your spirit, run to your Alibi. Cling to your Rock. Listen to His affirming words telling you who you really are. Let His Spirit’s voice echo through your soul until it becomes one with your own.

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. …
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!

And that is what we are!

1 John 2:28-3:1

Bridging the Gap: Confessions from a Member of the White Race

attachmentConfession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

These words scroll endlessly down my screen as I read my Ugandan and Rwandan students’ essay submissions from this month’s Spiritual Formation unit. They have been asked to write about the people they find it the hardest to forgive and about situations in which they need to take steps towards reconciliation. My screen is full of stories of betrayal, slander, violence, and theft. But many of these stories are not just about individuals; they involve whole tribes or communities who carry complicated, time-accrued grudges towards each other.

I can sit at my less-than-tidy desk miles away from East Africa and try to mentally untangle the cause-and-effect web of historic animosity between these conflicting groups, but one thing is abundantly clear. At some point, someone from one of the groups has to stop pointing the finger and start admitting where their people have been wrong. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. And leaving it as it is will only result in further segregation, mistrust, and retaliation.

It’s crazy what I can see so clearly in someone else’s country but am blind to in my own! As I read the headlines about ongoing race conflicts in the U.S., I am struck with the fact that the same dynamic is at work. As a white member of the American middle-class, I am wired to think individualistically, to think of my status as something that I alone determine and am responsible for. But my individualistic mindset has blinded me to the fact that I am part of a race, a group of people from whom, for better or for worse, I have inherited my appearance, my social position, my identity, and my worldview. I may not be overly conscious of my race (looking for the Caucasian box on application forms always strikes me as a bit odd), but that is more a testimony to my having grown up with my race being the dominant one than it is to my being color-blind. I can afford the luxury of not thinking about it!

But for American blacks, especially in my beloved South, race is something they are never allowed to forget. The days of slavery and legal segregation may be past, but (often not-so-subtle) snubs, derogatory comments, and biased treatment from people of my color serve as daily reminders that they are not only different but also despised. Media-coverage of incidents of unfair police treatment and spiteful hate-crimes has only recently brought to white awareness what has been the ongoing reality for American blacks: that they are still treated as second-class citizens in their own country, and that even the “nice” whites hold pre-judged assumptions about the intentions and moral character of the black race of which they are presumed guilty until proven otherwise.

I could throw up my hands in defense and exclaim: “I’m not a racist!” But even if I could honestly claim that I have never avoided the seat next to a black stranger in a subway or clicked my automatic-lock button as I drove by a hooded black man at night, the inescapable fact is that people of my color have perpetuated the ongoing divide between whites and blacks. I may not condone their actions, but they still represent my “kind.” And until enough people from my race go out of their way to demonstrate a message to the contrary, their message of hatred, mistrust, and division will stand as a representative banner over us all.

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, …then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
Philippians 2:1-7

As uncomfortable as it is for me to suddenly discover myself on the side of needing forgiveness rather than being the one asked to give it, I recognize that this is exactly the position I need to adopt if true reconciliation is ever to take place. If a few people can represent my race with their hateful comments and violent actions, then can I not step into the gap they have created and verbally acknowledge the wrongs of my people, both past and present? I may not be guilty, but we are. And beyond guilt, I feel a profound shame over this aspect of my cultural inheritance.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, …. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
Ephesians 2:14-16; 3:17-4:3

So it’s my turn to practice what I teach. Lay aside my rights. Promote others’ interests over defending my own. Take up Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and humbly do what it takes to break down the barriers of hostility between groups of people for whom He died. If that means listening sympathetically to the hurt and frustration of my black brother, then I consider it a privilege that he would be willing to open his heart to me. If it means confessing the ways in which racist assumptions have influenced the way I think and asking my black friends to help me see life through their experience, then I can only pray that they will find me worthy of their trust.

Confession. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Trust.

We’ve got long way to go. But thanks be to God, we’ve got a great Mediator already on the job. May His Spirit reign in all our hearts, bringing peace that defies history and love that surpasses human understanding.

A Saintly Sentinel: Guns or Prayers for the Nigerian Church?

IMG_8082From the time my Nigerian students first raised the issue, I have been struggling to formulate a response to the question of how the persecuted church should respond to repeated, violent attacks, especially when government does not intervene to protect it. Is it ever right for Christians to take matters into our own hands, to take up arms in defense of our families and communities?

The complexities to this question have left me in two minds, paralyzed by my ability to argue both sides of the coin. I have never been forced to choose between taking a life and passively watching a life be taken. And yet the relevance to our brothers and sisters for whom this scenario is not hypothetical demands a response. With the Nigerian elections coming up this weekend, this issue is at the forefront of thousands of Christians who may soon find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun.

The following statement was written by one of my students, a respected leader in the Nigerian Christian community and a senior-ranking civil servant. I wrote earlier about Ibrahim’s involvement in rescuing some of the kidnapped Chibok girls. His gutsy faith in the face of yet another potential outbreak of violence against himself and his loved ones inspires me each time I read this. May it call us all to greater faith as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and around the world.

There he went into a cave and spent the night. And the word of the LORD came to him: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
He replied, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.”
…And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:9-13

This evening, I read the recommended passage of 1 Kings 19:9-13. My attention was caught by the last sentence: Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I stopped and a mental sheet rolled down and on it a written question: What is the future of the church in Nigeria after the 2015 Presidential election?

I said, “God, I do not know! You are all-knowing… You know what happened to the church (Christians) in Northern Nigeria after the Presidential election in 2011. You allowed the Muslim irredentists to attack the church—burning down church buildings, houses, and properties of the Christians and in many places slaughtering Christians like rams. Perhaps it was because Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian from a minority ethnic group from Southern Nigeria, won the election. My God, Christians did not know why they lost their lives and properties, including the church buildings. Your command is to love them and pray for them, to not take revenge because vengeance is yours.

You allowed the Muslim irredentists to attack the church…

In 2015, Nigerians are still going to the poll to elect a President. The two major contenders are Jonathan from Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Muhammad from All Progressive Congress (APC). The Muslim leaders vowed in 2011 that if Jonathan wins, they would make Nigeria ungovernable. Jonathan won and Boko Haram manifested with all the subsequent attendant destructions. God, you allowed it and yet you said that I and my Christian brethren should love and pray for the Muslims.

“God, when I recall what happened to the church in North Africa and the present Turkey many years ago when the Muslims reigned, there was no freedom for the church and it was virtually destroyed there. What do you want me and the church to do in Nigeria after the election? As it looks, whether Muhammad wins or loses the church would be visited by the Muslim murderers. Should the church not prepare to defend itself from probable immediate attack by arming itself with weapons of war? God, if Muhammad wins the election, he would strengthen the Nigerian membership of Organization of Islamic conference (OIC) with the total goal of Islamizing Nigeria.

I need your strength and support for me to pray for and love Muslims.

Lord, it appears the best option to the church is to fortify itself with prayers, cast votes, and wait in your hands. We will not retaliate with carnal weapons but spiritual weapons (prayer and confession of thanks). God, I need your strength and support for me to pray for and love Muslims. The Church in Nigeria needs you today to face the task on hand – conflagration!

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Hebrews 13:5-6

Father, I am overwhelmed with fear and sorrow. However, strengthen your church—your body. I will remain focused and faithful. My prayer is to believe you when you said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.” This refers to all Christians and to the church in Nigeria.

My prayer is to believe you when you said, “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”

Finally, Lord let me go back to the question you asked me: ‘What are you doing, Ibrahim?’ Well, God, forgive me for the sin of unbelief and doubt. I realize that you are the creator and nothing happens without your knowledge and express permission.

You will win in Nigeria come 28 March, 2015. You have decided and we accept it with thanksgiving.”

by Ibrahim Bangalu

Sweeter than Revenge

nail-in-handWhat’s wrong with wanting revenge? Isn’t revenge merely the fair response to injustice, a way of affirming the value of the person who has been wronged? When our dignity has been violated, we need something to restore it. Without revenge, we are left with the message that we are worth no more than the way we were treated.

And yet Jesus calls us to forgive.

For the longest time I have been struggling with how to hold these two together. Asking a woman who has been beaten or raped to forgive her abusers seems to me to add insult to injury. Requiring a man who has been maligned or berated to turn the other cheek seems to me to reinforce his degradation. What happened to affirming the dignity of the image of God within each person? Isn’t it right to defend that image?

And yet forgiveness means giving up our right to revenge.

Heartfelt forgiveness is no more a matter of one-time, personal choice than emotional healing is.

I suppose my hang-up over the common Christian assumptions about forgiveness is that they seem to deny the value of the person who has been hurt, to overlook the need for their worth to be reaffirmed. Having personally struggled with the profound shame that follows abuse, I can’t accept the trite answer that forgiveness is simply choosing to forget about the hurt. If only it were that simple! But heartfelt forgiveness is no more a matter of one-time, personal choice than emotional healing is.

So I am left with the question: How can a damaged person forgive while still holding on to any scrap of self-worth? In my heart I’ve known that revenge isn’t really the best way to re-establish damaged dignity, but at least it is a start. Revenge solves the problem with corresponding negativity. But is there a positive way to receive the affirmation we so desperately need?

And once again, Jesus leads the way in showing how it is done.

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by men and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads: “He trusts in the LORD; let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.” Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you even at my mother’s breast. From birth I was cast upon you; from my mother’s womb you have been my God.
Psalm 22:6-10

Talk about a degraded image of God! At the end of a lifetime of criticism and questioning. After an eternal night of being tortured and molested. Pulverized. Victimized. Ridiculed. Rejected. In the midst of agony and mockery on the cross, He neither sought His abusers degradation nor gave in to His own.

Jesus could forgive those who tore Him down because His Father kept building Him up. Descending doves. Assuring affirmations. Repeatedly the Father had reminded Him of how valued He was, firmly establishing Him in His status as God’s beloved Son.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
Colossians 3:12-13
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God forgave you. Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us…
Ephesians 4:32-5:1

And these are the same affirmations embedded in the multiple texts that call us to forgive. Dearly beloved children. Cherished people. God is not calling us to let go of our worth; He is leading us to assert our position as His kids by responding to others the way He responds to us. Forgiveness based on our relationship with Him is not further degradation; it is proof of our glorification.

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Romans 12:19-21

And lest we worry that in embracing this higher call our abusers will somehow get the message that the way they treated us was OK, our Father reassures us. He will make sure we are avenged. In the meantime, we get the pleasure of exercising our freedom from being defined by how others treat us. We get to repay their evil with good, their cruelty with kindness, because we know who we are to God.

Forgiveness based on our relationship with God is not further degradation;
it is proof of our glorification.

Healing from emotional wounds takes time. Forgiveness does not come easy nor is it achieved overnight. But I have found that as I grow in my security as a treasured child of God, my need for revenge is steadily dropping away. Instead I find myself increasingly consumed by a greater desire: to receive and reflect my Father’s love.

Sweet revenge. Sweeter love.

Reconciling Justice

“The truth is I hate them and find it hard to forgive them with all of my heart…”

My heart wrenched as I listened to the frank testimony of one of my African students. A mature, dedicated servant of Christ, he lives with the perpetual torment of visually reliving the night of his parents murder.

Soft lights. Gentle laughter. A family relaxes together after their evening meal.

Harsh intruders. Vicious blades. Screaming husband and wife fall beneath relentless blows. A terrified child hides in the corner, helplessly watching his parents being hacked to death.

They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. Therefore pride is their necklace; they clothe themselves with violence. …
They say, “How can God know? Does the Most High have knowledge?” This is what the wicked are like– always carefree, they increase in wealth.
Psalm 73:4-12

Run for safety. An eyewitness report to the police. Appeal for justice. But the murderous neighbors walk free. Laughing. Gloating. Powerful. Prospering.

Forty years later and they still walk free. Free of trouble, free of worry, free of justice.
Have they really gotten away with this? Is there no justice for those slaughtered parents, no consequences for their heartless butchers? Is there no healing resolution for this wounded man, living with the fallout of traumatic memories and agonized questions?

We can pity our enemies because
we know the outcome of their story.

How is he supposed to feel toward his parents’ unpunished, unrepentant murderers? What does it look like to love these neighbors?

Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence. All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” I would have betrayed your children.
Psalm 73:13-15

As a Christian leader, he has devoted his life to reconciliation, beginning with his own humble, repentant posture before God. He has tirelessly ministered to others, shepherding them towards reconciliation with God and mediating their conflicts with each other. Overflowing with compassion and mercy, this gentle man of God has faced more than his share of cheek-turning opportunities as he leads the church, demonstrating in each situation his commitment to love and his trust in God’s justice.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before you.
Psalm 73:2-3, 21-22

But in this case, that justice seems to have failed. From where he stands, God seems to have blessed the wicked and punished the righteous. It doesn’t fit with what God says about Himself, but how else is he supposed to make sense of what is happening? He struggles to keep trusting God’s goodness, but the pressure of his ongoing experience is driving a wedge between them.

We can put down the burden of revenge because we trust God to carry the weight of justice.statue of justice

Listening to this African brother’s story has added to the burden I feel over all the unresolved injustice in our world. I feel caught along with him in the contradiction of faith and sight. What about the countless stories of unavenged victims and expansive oppressors that swirl through our history books and across our newsfeeds? What justice is there for the victims of ISIS and Boko Haram?

When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
Psalm 73:16-17

I am tempted to question God’s justice, to be swallowed up by my own conflicting emotions of love and hate, of forgiveness and revenge. What we both need is a heavenly glimpse, the opportunity to see these gut-wrenchingly wrong situations without the earthly limitations of time and space.

Surely you place them on slippery ground; you cast them down to ruin. How suddenly are they destroyed, completely swept away by terrors! As a dream when one awakes, so when you arise, O Lord, you will despise them as fantasies.
Psalm 73:18-20

Viewed from the heavenly courtroom, the scene looks completely different. We see those once intimidating oppressors cowering in terror before the throne of God, their formerly invincible strength melting like wax before the Almighty. We see the illusion of their carefree control evaporate before the reality of God’s righteous justice. And we are satisfied.

Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Psalm 73:25-26

Our hearts can once again rest in the goodness of God. Our minds can once again be reconciled to His just work in an unjust world. What is lacking is not His commitment to intervene or His faithfulness to follow through. It is our ability to see the complete picture of what He is doing.

Those who are far from you will perish; you destroy all who are unfaithful to you. But as for me, it is good to be near God. I have made the Sovereign LORD my refuge; I will tell of all your deeds.
Psalm 73:27-28

The assurance of God’s justice forms the basis of our reconciliation. We can put down the burden of vengeance because we know He will carry it to completion. We can pity our enemies because we know the outcome of their story. And we can draw near to God in full assurance of faith, knowing that He who promised is faithful.

Beheaded Children?–When the Imprecatory Psalms Are Suddenly Relevant

My children and I just looked at internet photographs of an Iraqi child’s beheaded body. Why would we expose ourselves to such horror? Because it is really happening. Because to carry on as if it were not happening would be to perpetuate the crime. Because even the ground cries out for us to acknowledge and respond to the shedding of innocent blood.

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

But having stared such atrocity in the face, what do we do with our newfound awareness? My son comes back into the kitchen teary–eyed, asking me what he can do about it. Send money to a charity? Write a letter to a politician? Our profound sense of horror is slowly replaced by a deep sense of helplessness. When faced with the reality of such unspeakable evil in our world, evil that at this moment is overpowering people no different than we, how do we even begin to pray?

“Lord, have mercy” runs through my mind again and again as I scroll through the footage of severed heads and gunned-down bodies. But what about the gunmen in the pictures, gloating over their fallen victims? My son asks the question that I am already thinking:

“Do I ask God to forgive them or do I ask Him to damn them?”

How can I think of mercy for those butchers while the aftermath of their carnage stares me in the face? They aren’t sorry. They plaster the evidence of their brutality all over the internet, boasting in their conquests, delighting in the devastation they have caused.

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
Psalm 137:1-3

All of a sudden the imprecatory psalms start making a lot more sense to me. No wonder they cry out for God to remember the atrocity these victims have endured. No wonder they recount to Him just how horrific it was. And no wonder they demand His judgment on the perpetrators.

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
Psalm 137:4-6

How can we sing happy praise songs while our brothers and sisters are being slaughtered or running for their lives to different lands? If we forget their anguish, we may as well forget our own souls. There is a rightness to remembering, to allowing unresolved atrocity to interrupt the peaceful humdrum of our otherwise undisturbed lives. It is an expression of our true humanity, a reflection of God’s image within us that says, “This is not O.K.”

Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Psalm 137:7

But we can’t just leave it at that. Awareness without action makes our souls sick. So we take our angst to the street, pounding on God’s door until He does something about it. “Remember what they did! Look at how bad it was! Take action, O God. You are the Judge of the world. Come down and make this right.”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us–he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Psalm 137:8-9

But what exactly do we want Him to do? Decapitate their children, too? Repay them blow-for-blow for all the crimes they have committed? That doesn’t seem very Christian of us. Nor does shrugging off genocide as if it isn’t really a big deal. There must be some way to turn the other cheek while holding on to justice.

God will intervene in a way that compromises neither His justice nor His mercy.

The solution to that is beyond me. Thankfully, it is not up to me to arbitrate divine action. This is one of those moments when I am relieved not to be God, because I can’t be impartial. I can vent my unreserved outrage and my vindictive anger to Him, trusting His ability to act as both righteous Judge and merciful Savior. He can find a way to extend mercy while upholding justice. I think of the way He dealt with Saul, one of the original Christian killers.

So I repeat my prayer, “Lord, have mercy. Bring them down to their knees in repentance.”

But lurking underneath that hopeful request is the dark reminder that not all sinners repent. We cheer when the penitent Peters get re-instated, but we also breathe a deep sigh of relief when the hard-hearted Judases finally get what they deserve.

“One way or another, Lord, bring them down.”

My youngest daughter breaks into my reverie with a solution that resonates with my heart, if not my head.

“What if all the Christians in the world just made their own army and marched into Iraq to beat off those bad guys?”

I chuckle, wishing the world were that simple.

But has God not intervened in similar ways in the past? It may be that He will use our political lobbying and social awareness raising to change the outcome of this crisis. It may be that He will bring deliverance to His people through international military action, as He did in response to the Holocaust.

And though I don’t know what the Judge will do, I know what we can do. We can join in the lament for our Iraqi kin. We can beg Him to change the hearts of their oppressors. And we can swamp Him with petitions through fasting and prayer, asking Him to send in an army to protect His people.

Who knows? It could be the kind that comes marching through the treetops.

Vindicating Forgiveness

I sat at lunch with a dear friend recently, swapping stories of past hurts and current healing. Sadly, neither of us was surprised by the other’s experiences of betrayed friendships and smeared reputations, spiritualized power plays and politicized cover-ups. And although we both have been delivered from these abusive situations, the doubts and insecurities they raised within us linger on. The questions they raised about our honor remain unanswered; the accusations they implied about our character stand uncontested. In a way, we both feel like we were taken apart by a team of ruthless examiners and then left in pieces, abandoned on the workbench.

Public shame calls for public honor.

What would finally allow all the pieces to be made whole again? What would lay these past wounds to rest and free us to move on?

In a moment of brutal honesty, we admitted that we want vindication. We want the record set straight about who we are and how we have been treated. We may privately know the truth, but as long as public perception remains inaccurate, the past cannot be laid to rest.

Is vindication a godly desire? Shouldn’t forgiveness eradicate our need for it?

When I think of forgiveness, I picture Jesus on the cross, reputation thoroughly trashed and body totally thrashed, crying out to God to forgive the people who were treating Him this way. No vehement self-defense. No retaliatory threats. Just compassionate, sacrificial love.

Hear, O LORD, my righteous plea; listen to my cry. Give ear to my prayer– it does not rise from deceitful lips. May my vindication come from you; may your eyes see what is right.
Psalm 17:1-2

And yet when I read the Psalms (including some of the messianic ones), I can’t escape their repeated prayers for vindication. These prayers are what David claims to be a righteous response to being falsely accused and unjustly persecuted. At least he is going to God for vindication rather than taking it into his own hands, but shouldn’t he just let it go altogether?

Vindicate me, O LORD, for I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the LORD without wavering. Test me, O LORD, and try me, examine my heart and my mind; for your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.
Psalm 26:1-3

But he can’t. The fact is that even in God’s economy, honor matters. David’s integrity has been denounced, and he is coming to the righteous Judge to make it right. He is asking God to look him over, check to see if he is alright, and reapply the stamp of approval that others have stolen from him.

O LORD, you have seen this; be not silent. Do not be far from me, O Lord. Awake, and rise to my defense! Contend for me, my God and Lord. Vindicate me in your righteousness, O LORD my God; do not let them gloat over me. Do not let them think, “Aha, just what we wanted!” or say, “We have swallowed him up.” … May those who delight in my vindication shout for joy and gladness; may they always say, “The LORD be exalted, who delights in the well-being of his servant.”
Psalm 35:22-27

And a private awards ceremony won’t cut it. Knowing that God sees and knows the truth about him isn’t enough. David boldly asks God to make public what He has already affirmed in private. He has been attacked and shamed before the eyes of others; now he is asking God to restore his honor in the same sphere.

This isn’t just about David’s reputation. It’s about God’s. Is He or is He not just? Does He or does He not care about the well-being of those who entrust themselves to Him? God’s vindication of His servant will vindicate His own character before a watching world.

Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
Matthew 26:62-64

And this is exactly what I see happening in Jesus’ story. At the height of His trial, in the midst of cruel insults and relentless accusations, He broke His silence to answer a direct attack against His identity as God’s Son. He told His accusers that they would one day witness what they were currently denying. He had no need to argue His position now because God would prove Him right later. He would not defend His honor now because God would publicly exalt it later.

Entrusting our vindication to God allows us to extend forgiveness to others.

Jesus’ ability to forgive His accusers was predicated on His certainty that God would vindicate Him before their eyes. He could let go of His honor because He knew that God wouldn’t.

So is it wrong to ask God for vindication? Far from being wrong, I think it demonstrates a deep trust in God’s righteousness and an unwavering confidence in His unfailing love. Taking vindication into our own hands would betray our lack of faith in God’s justice. Downplaying the idea that God will vindicate us would deny the extent of His care for each of His beloved children, including ourselves. But entrusting our need for vindication to Him allows us to extend forgiveness to others.

We can love them because He first loved us. We can forgive them because He won’t forget us.

“Bless Them” or “Bring Them Down”?

From childhood I have sung and prayed the Psalms, reveling in the words that they provide me for worship, for intercession, and for the soul-baring expression of my deepest struggles to God. Their ability to capture the essence of my messiest emotions and turn it into relationship-building prayer causes me to return to them everyday, using their words to shape my prayers. But sometimes as my soul sails along one of their pristine highways of praise it suddenly collides with a dark, imprecatory wall.

But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Matthew 5:44-45

How do I pray along with psalms that ask for bad things to happen to my enemies? I thought I was supposed to ask God to bless them, not bring them down. How can praying for my enemies to be ashamed and dismayed possibly fit with God’s command for me to love them?

Make them like tumbleweed, O my God, like chaff before the wind. As fire consumes the forest or a flame sets the mountains ablaze, so pursue them with your tempest and terrify them with your storm.
Psalm 83:13-15

But as I look a bit deeper, I discover that not all of these imprecatory psalms are vengeful. While some clearly do call for pretty nasty retaliation (Wishing our enemies’ children to be dashed against rocks is quite out of bounds for those of us who are seeking to follow Jesus’ teachings and example), others are asking for something quite different.

They pour out arrogant words; all the evildoers are full of boasting. They crush your people, O LORD; they oppress your inheritance. …They say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob pays no heed.”
Take heed, you senseless ones among the people; you fools, when will you become wise?…Does he who disciplines nations not punish? Does he who teaches man lack knowledge?
Psalm 94:4-10

In these, the psalmist is asking for horrible things to happen to his enemies so that they will repent and change. The problem is that these people think and act as if there is no God, as if He will not judge them in the end for what they have done. But the psalmist knows better. By faith, he knows that, left on this trajectory, they will eventually run into the wrath of a just God and be eternally judged for their actions.

Cover their faces with shame so that men will seek your name, O LORD. May they ever be ashamed and dismayed; may they perish in disgrace. Let them know that you, whose name is the LORD– that you alone are the Most High over all the earth.
Psalm 83:16-18

So in a moment of loving compassion, he asks God to intervene in his enemies’ destiny. Scare them. Shame them. Break them. Humble them. Do whatever it takes to teach their minds that You really do notice and will call them to account. Do whatever it takes to turn their hearts back to You before it is too late.

Blessed is the man you discipline, O LORD, the man you teach from your law; you grant him relief from days of trouble, till a pit is dug for the wicked.

Let a righteous man strike me–it is a kindness; let him rebuke me–it is oil on my head. My head will not refuse it.
Psalm 94:12, Psalm 141:5

The psalmist knows from personal experience that it often takes a pretty heavy blow from God to set him straight. He has learned to embrace God’s discipline in his own life, to see it as a blessing instead of a curse, because it saves him from greater harm and it prepares the way for his greater good. He is asking nothing for his enemies that he would not also want for himself.

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
Matthew 7:12

And that is where love fits back into the picture. In asking God to discipline our enemies, I think it is possible to fulfill the law of love on the deepest level, asking God to do for them what we would want Him to do for us. Clearly we need to keep close tabs on our own hearts, evaluating whether this is a prayer born out of love or out of revenge. But it is a prayer that we can wholeheartedly join in, especially as we progress through the multiple stages of forgiveness.

You are forgiving and good, O Lord, abounding in love to all who call to you.
Psalm 86:5

It scares me to think of the consequences that my “enemies” may face if they remain unrepentant. When I seriously consider the day they will stand before our righteous Judge, I cringe and beg Him for mercy. I suppose this is an encouraging sign of the work of His Spirit in me, expressing itself in another layer of forgiveness towards those whose wrongs against me remain unconfessed. If our final reconciliation is predicated on their repentance, then I eagerly pray that God will do what it takes to bring that about. Even more, I long for the day when my enemies will turn and run into our Father’s forgiving embrace.

Bring them down, Lord, so that You can bless them.