Introduction

This is an experiment–in my own pursuit of a deeper, richer prayer life, I want to share some of the struggles and triumphs I have had in and through prayer.  I would also like to share (and gather) suggestions to enrich how we can grow closer to God, closer to others, and closer to becoming more Christlike in our daily walk.

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Featured post

Memorials

Memorial Day weekend is coming up.  For anyone who is unfamiliar with the American holiday, also known as Decoration Day, it is a day set aside primarily to honor soldiers who were killed in battle.  In recent years, it has come under some criticism from those who feel that it celebrates a culture of war, or that it places too much focus on the past– especially a past that has been idealized at the expense of progress.  Instead, it has become a time of recreation– backyard barbecues, beach parties, and bargain hunting at flea markets and yard sales.

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But much of the real focus of Memorial Day has been lost.  Memorials should not be used to idolize or idealize the past; but they serve a purpose in reminding us of hard lessons and the need to keep learning from them.  Memorial Day is not about being thrilled or puffed up by our past– it is to be reminded of both the good and the bad, and the need to see the larger picture.  We have inherited both freedoms and frustrations; triumphs that came at the expense of others, and trials that will impact future generations.  It is right and good that we take time to reflect on such things.

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The Bible gives us several examples of memorials– signs and altars and ceremonies that are meant to call things to memory.  Some of the memorials involve battles, but many more involve both promises and prophecy.  We are to remember God’s faithfulness; His power to rescue, redeem, and restore.

Our greatest memorial as Christians, is not a soldier’s tomb– it is the Empty Tomb!  It is the reminder that our greatest battle has already been won, and the one who died to bring us the victory has conquered both Sin and Death.

For God so Loved the world, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.   (John 3:16  KJV)

Memorial Day is also a good time to remember others in prayer– pray for those who have lost loved ones in the service of our nation; but also those who sacrifice daily for their families, communities, and around the world.  Pray for wisdom and opportunity to serve others around us better.  Pray for healing and grace– for those who fight internal battles with unforgiveness, betrayal, guilt, vengeance, and more. And don’t forget praise– thank God for His redemptive plan; for the victory won; for the sufficiency of His grace.  Thank others around you for their services and sacrifices. Finally, as we honor the sacrifices of others, let’s look for ways we can serve one another better.

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*Please note:  I will not be posting for the next couple of days due to the holiday.  I will return on Tuesday of next week.

 

Where’s the Joy?

I love puns– friends from all over the world send me the craziest puns, “punny” images, silly videos, and awful jokes.  Except for those that are patently offensive and find their humor at someone else’s expense, I really enjoy them all.

Someone has said that puns are the lowest form of humor, but I disagree.  In fact, I often find that puns, like humor in general, can cause us to explore a serious topic in ways we would otherwise avoid.  The image above tickled my funny bone, but it also caused me to think.  Where is my Joy?  Do I bottle it up and hide it down in my cart, or does it bubble up, iridescent and smelling of sunshine (and possibly lemons) from deep down in my heart?

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Prayer is a serious topic, but it shouldn’t be joyless.  Even in our troubles, we can be confident that we are loved, cherished, and precious.  In our grief and sorrow, we are not overwhelmed (though it often feels as if we are) when we have this kind of joy.  It will wash away despair, anger, doubt, and weariness, as it rises up.  We pray for so many other things– health, wisdom, forgiveness– we should also pray for Joy.  Not the false and fleeting joy of a silly pun, or the veneer of joy that lies and says that “everything is great.”  We need the kind of joy that sings through tears, laughs at storms, defies despair, and shakes the rafters!  And we need the quiet, blessed assurance that God is in His Heaven and even if all is not well with the world, God still has everything well in hand. Such joy, lodged deep in our heart and soul can keep us from buckling under the weight of loss, the exhaustion of stress, and the threat of chaos.  We need a new “Dawn” of “Joy” (yes, I had to include another pun). We need to pray for joy. We need to cherish it.  And we need to pass it on.

The world could really use it!

Full Disclosure

I like to know things–I like to solve puzzles, figure out mysteries, learn trivial facts.  I want answers.  So when I go before God in prayer, I often ask questions.  Why is this person suffering?  When will their suffering end, and how?  Where were you in this disaster (as though God had stepped out for a minute and wasn’t aware of what happened)?

God stays silent.

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I can grow frustrated in the silence or I can learn to trust.  That doesn’t mean that I no longer want answers; just that I am willing to wait on God’s sovereign timing.  It also means that I am need to more about God’s nature–God doesn’t keep secrets or withhold knowledge because He wants to torment me, or frustrate me, or play some cosmic mind game (though some people accuse Him of doing just that).  God withholds full disclosure of His plans, His reasoning, and His nature out of love and compassion.  Suppose I could see into the future, even give out warnings, but had no power to stop disaster from coming.  Not only would I be haunted by the disaster itself, but by the full knowledge of its coming.  Suppose I could see a miracle in advance; know when and how it would unfold.  There would still be joy, but it would be muted by the foreknowledge– of course there would be a happy ending; of course there would be a miracle– I saw it all from afar off.

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The Apostle Paul touches on this in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13.  This is commonly known as the “Love Chapter”, and the first half is frequently quoted at weddings and church sermons.  But the end of the chapter is a wonderful message of hope and faith, ending with Paul’s triumphant statement about all three:

1 Corinthians 13:8-13 English Standard Version (ESV)

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

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God loves us with a perfect love.  Because of that, I can trust Him, and have hope in the midst of my questioning.  So when I pray with questions, I can know that God has “filed them away”– He is fully aware of my situation, questions and all, and He is fully faithful to answer them all in His perfect wisdom and timing.  Someday, I will know– not only all that I don’t know now, but why I had to wait.

God will provide full disclosure. with compassion, love, and wisdom that only He can give.

Where Your Treasure Is…

Our church held a hymn-sing and ice cream social last Sunday.  It was an informal evening service, but we heard testimony of the power of hymns to shape our worship, and to help us remember scripture’s promises.  We also had the chance to just “call out” a favorite hymn to sing together.  We probably sang 15 or 20 hymns that night, and each one had special meaning to many in the congregation.  We treasure certain songs, certain verses, certain stories– they feed our soul, encourage our heart, steel our thoughts, and pour balm on our wounds.

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One hymn we didn’t sing the other night, though it is a favorite of many, was “Sweet Hour of Prayer.”  Sweet Hour of Prayer– lyrics and much more here  In getting ready to post for today, I thought about this hymn.  We treasure the thought of prayer being sweet and bringing relief, but do we treasure prayer enough to spend an hour or more at it?  If I add up the time spent in morning prayers of devotion, grace at mealtime, evening prayers, and “quick thoughts to heaven” throughout the day, it probably adds up to an hour…but I spend more time writing about prayer each day than I actually spend practicing it.  And when was the last time I got so caught up in prayer that I lost track of time and spent over an hour at it in one sitting?

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In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned that we should not lay up treasures for ourselves on earth, but to store up treasures in heaven, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:21 KJV)  This is true of our material treasures, but also our spiritual treasures, our thought treasures, and our time.  When I hear “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” one of my first thoughts is always, “That would be nice, but I don’t have an hour to spend praying– I’d never get anything done!”  But would I have said that about watching my favorite TV show?  Spending an hour on Facebook or shopping at my favorite store?

God is beyond time– he’s not counting the hours, minutes or moments we spend with Him.  But he feels our absence and our distraction just the same.  He isn’t trying to pull us away from important things to waste our time– he wants to pull us away from the things that weigh us down, worry us, haunt us, and eat up the precious time He has given us.

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I have found that when I feel “too busy” to spend time with Jesus, it’s a good time to pause and make time for prayer.  When I do (and it’s not as often as I should), three things happen:

  • I want more!  That time refreshes me, calms my spirit, and removes the burden of  worries, failures, and frustrations.
  • I accomplish more–maybe it’s a case of God re-ordering my other priorities; maybe he just gives me the power to work more efficiently; maybe it’s a miracle–but I find that the “time crunch” I worried about seems to melt away.
  • Jesus becomes “more” to me– I grow closer to Him, and closer to the person He created me to be.

Walk This Way

There is an old comedy/vaudeville gag, where a character enters a stately home, or an office, or arrives at an  important event.  They are greeted by a “straight man” character, who tells them to “walk this way”.  The “straight man” then turns and begins walking in a manner that uses exaggerated mannerisms.  The comedic character doesn’t just follow in the general direction of the other character– s/he imitates the exaggerated mannerisms as well.

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In the last of three prayers from the song, “Day by Day” (see last Friday and Saturday), I want to explore how to “follow Thee more nearly.”

I have this quibble with the song lyrics– I know that “nearly” rhymes with “clearly” and “dearly”, but it is not grammatically correct, as it implies that I almost, not quite, but nearly want to follow Jesus, instead of saying that I want to follow Him more closely, or become a better reflection of His character.  That said, I sometimes think that I fall into the comedic trap of thinking that “walk this way” merely means following Christ with exaggerated mannerisms– I follow “more nearly” when I should be following more closely.

Years ago, a good friend of mine suggested that I read a book called “God On a Harley” (Review and summary here)  It is a fable, and an interesting read.  I don’t recommend it for theological content (the Christ it presents is more of a New-Age life coach, not a Messiah), but I’m glad I read it for two reasons:  It challenged my conventional view of Jesus, and it challenged the way I thought about discipleship.  At the time I was reading the book, I was also considering making some big changes in my life– changing careers, moving away from my home town, and trusting God to be “sufficient” in my singleness and lack of guaranteed income.

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When we talk or think about Jesus’ time on Earth, we generally focus on His birth, His miracles, His death, and His resurrection.  We don’t usually think of His everyday life…where He ate or slept or how He lived.  If He were to walk among us today, He wouldn’t appear like the paintings we see– flowing long blond hair (which has always been inaccurate), white robe and sandals.  He might wear a T-shirt and jeans, ride the bus or subway train, and hang out at Starbucks or the corner convenience store.  Jesus didn’t live in a “holy huddle.”  And, though He famously walked on water, He mostly walked the streets.  He lived and walked and ate and spent His days among ordinary people–in fact, it was His willingness to eat with and talk to the marginalized, the forgotten, the ostracized people of Him time, that got Him in trouble with the religious leaders and those in power.

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I don’t think Jesus in our time would be a tattooed, beer swilling, biker– but I’m convinced that He would be found sharing a story or a pizza  with one; and with the kinds of people many of His “followers” would shun.  The Jesus I want to follow “more nearly” is Holy, but He is not “Holier-than-thou.”  I can’t follow Jesus more nearly if I’m following an image that only exists in a picture or my self-righteous imagination.   In my youth, I had a picture of what “following Christ” looked like– but it was more about following expectations and selfish desires– successful career, marriage, giving to the “right” charities, becoming a pillar of the community.  There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but if God calls me to serve in humble (even humiliating) ways, doing thankless tasks, and spending time, not helping the needy at my convenience, but truly serving– pouring out my time and my heart until only His strength keeps me going–I have learned the joy and honor that transcends anything I once imagined.

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I’m not a biker, but I love the image of Jesus on a motorcycle, asking me to come along for a ride.  If I want to follow Him “more nearly,” I couldn’t come up with a better metaphor.  If Jesus came and asked me to ride off with Him on a Harley, several things would happen that relate to discipleship:

  • First, I have to commit.  You can’t “sort of” ride along — you either get on the bike or you stay behind. You might know all about the motor, you might know how to ride, you might know the traffic laws, you might even watch a video of someone riding, but you won’t experience the horsepower under you, the wind in your face, the road slipping away behind you.  The same is true of the Christian life.  You can know about God; own a Bible– even memorize it; you can sing God’s praises, all without experiencing a relationship with Him.  But you’ll never know the full power of His grace and acceptance until you commit.
  • Part of that commitment is to be willing to go when and where He’s going…you can’t go on the ride and stay at home.  You can’t go two hours after He does.  And that brings me to–
  • Trust!  You won’t get on the bike if you don’t trust His ability to drive and His wisdom in knowing how and where to go.  Once you’re on the bike, hanging on from behind, you can’t see all of the road ahead.  You can’t steer or hit the brakes.  In my own experience, I ended up leaving teaching after seven years with no “safety net.”  I had no job waiting in the wings, no money saved up, and no “plan” other than to take whatever honest work I could find and follow God’s leading.  I learned by experience that I can trust God’s ways to be better than mine; better than my expectations!
  • Riding together takes teamwork.  Just because God is doing the driving and steering doesn’t mean that I just sit back and watch the scenery (though I can do a lot of that, too).  If I’m not paying attention at curves, intersections, stops, turns, etc., I can throw everything off-balance.
  • Riding together, with my arms wrapped around Him is the closest I can “follow” Jesus.  It’s not about what I know, or what I can “do” for God– it’s choosing to be in a deepening relationship with Him.  As I live with Him, listen to Him, and trust Him, the knowing and doing will come naturally.

I want to follow with abandon– not just to walk several steps behind, or wander in His general direction, or watch what He’s doing from a distance.  I want to hang on and share the adventure.  That’s the way I want to “walk” with Him.  That’s my prayer, “Day by Day.”

To Love Thee More Dearly

How can I love Jesus more than I already do?  If I can love him more, does that mean that I don’t love Him enough?  That I don’t really love Him as much as I think I do?  That I love Him the wrong way?  How can I “love thee more dearly…day by day”

I want to explore the second prayer in the folk rock song “Day by Day” from the musical “Godspell” (see yesterday’s post).  When I write about pursuing prayer, this is a major focus of the pursuit– to develop my love for Jesus.  But there’s more to it than just spending more time, or even “better” time in prayer.

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I love my husband, and that love grows over the years– not because we are in an eternal “honeymoon” period, where life is rosy and all I know about him is the wonderful image I’ve built up–but because in living with him, working with him, even struggling with him, I learn to value who he really is.  I learn about qualities I never knew he had.  I learn to trust him and respect his judgment; I learn about the deepest part of his heart that he only shares with those closest to him.  And even though I learn about his faults, I see him desiring to be the best that he can be.  In his turn, my husband does the same with me– learning my strengths and weaknesses.  Together we learn how to work together to strengthen and support each other.  We even learn how to argue better!

But we all know marriages (and no marriage is immune) where doubt, distrust, disdain, and despair creep in.  The very qualities that attracted us in the beginning become sore spots that tear us apart.  The joy is swallowed up in little hurts that go unresolved; little misunderstandings that grow into lengthy silences and slammed doors.  Struggles that should bring us together cause us to run to separate corners.  Our feelings change, our hopes are dashed, and our relationship crumbles

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Relationships require trust–if I say that I love God, but I don’t trust Him, I’m not being honest with myself.  If I pray to Him, but I don’t really think He’s listening; if I read His word, but make excuses for my continued disobedience–I don’t really love Him.  I may idolize Him, even worship Him.  But I don’t really love Him.

Unlike a marriage partner, family member, or close friend, God’s love for us never changes.  We never have to pray that Jesus should love US more dearly.  It’s impossible.  The same love that spoke the universe into being and designed you to be the awesome and unique person you are, is the same love that stretched out his arms so they could be nailed to the cross– the same love that calls out to you no matter what you’ve done or who you are and offers you peace, joy, and rest.  Loving Jesus isn’t a matter of measuring how I feel about Him from day to day, but spending each day learning to know Him better for who He is and not just what He has done or what He can do for me.  The prayer should be for me to really learn better how to honor Him, how to trust Him, how to obey Him, praise Him, listen to Him, and walk close to him.

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More about this last one Monday…

Three Things I Pray…

In the Broadway musical, Godspell, there is a simple ballad, “Day By Day,” in which the singer(s) express a desire to be closer to Jesus. Day By Day/YouTube  There are three “prayers”– 1) to see thee more clearly; 2) Love thee more dearly, and 3) follow thee more nearly.  I have heard various opinions and critiques of the musical, from the use of clown makeup and vaudeville tunes, to the marginal grammar of this song.  But I’d like to spend some time digging in to the three simple prayers.

Today, I want to look at (literally) the first prayer– “to see thee more clearly”.  There is one prayer, but I think it can be broken down into two parts.

First, I want to SEE God.  God is Spirit–an invisible essence– and yet he manifests himself in a million different ways all around us.  God is in the inky, endless blackness of a moonless night, and in the vibrant colors of spring blossoms; in the glaring reflection of the sun off the lake, or the gray and palpable mist over the meadow.  He is in the wrinkled face of my neighbor, and the exuberant smile of a toddler, and the beauty of a horse running or an eagle soaring.  But I can see all of this and more and still not see God.  I can focus on the creation and miss the creator.  I can focus on the beauty and learn nothing of the artist.  I can see the amazing variety of people in the world– skin tones and eye shapes, facial expressions, and body language, dimples and hairstyles and nose-wrinkling, and hand-wringing, and miss the Love of God for each one.

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Sadly, I can sing this prayer, pray for insight, and still miss seeing God.  I can trample His creation, dismiss His presence, and hate the people He loves enough to die for; people who bear the stamp of His image.

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And I want to see Him “more clearly”–I want to see him as he really is, and not as I imagine him to be.  We live in an age of glossy retouched photos of models and celebrities; we “see” their image, without knowing what they truly look like, and without knowing anything about who they really are inside.  In many ways, God is only slightly less invisible than the real people around us.  How many people do we ignore in a day’s time?  How many do we glance at, only to get stuck on a single detail (a hair on their sweater, or something caught in their teeth, or a receding hairline or blotchy face).   How many people surprise us by not being like the image they project?   I don’t want to see a Photoshop Jesus; a glossy, smiling image of someone who says only what I want to hear, and looks like nothing ever touches him.  I want to see the Jesus who wept over the death of his friend; the Jesus who laughed with delight as he talked with children; the Jesus whose eyes were full of compassion even as he was dying on the cross.  I want to see the Living Word of God.

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Jesus is close– closer than we think.  I want to spend today seeing him more clearly.

I Sing Because I’m Happy

There is a great old hymn– His Eye Is On the Sparrow– and the chorus says:

I sing because I’m Happy,
I sing because I’m Free.
His eye is on the sparrow,
And I know He watches me.

Full lyrics here

It is a great reminder that, as followers of Christ, we always have a reason to be happy and to sing his praises, even when circumstances are confusing or situations are trying.

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I love this old song, but sometimes, even though I have reason to be happy, I don’t feel like singing.  The same happens with prayer.  Some days, I’m just not feelin’ it.  It’s not necessarily that I’m miserable or angry.  Sometimes, I’m distracted, or even happy doing self-centered things.

I find it easier to pray when I’m sad or needy– my brokenness brings me closer to God.  When things are going along just fine, I sometimes forget the true source of my joy and strength.  I take for granted that God and I are close, not realizing that I haven’t spoken to him lately, or that I have whispered a quick, shallow prayer, but I haven’t spent much quality time with the lover of my soul.

There is an old Chinese proverb that says: “I don’t sing because I am Happy– I am happy because I sing.”

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At first, it may sound like this is a contradiction of the beloved hymn, but really it is a complement.  I sing because I’m happy, but if I sing no matter how I start out feeling, I find myself happier!  I pray because I want to be close to God, but I stay closer to God because I pray.  When I was younger, I used to base my prayer life on how I felt.  It’s yet another reason I now use a prayer journal. Read more about keeping a Prayer Journal  It keeps me disciplined and helps me maintain a stronger prayer life.  We all know that prayer is a key element in building a strong relationship with God and others, but it has to be practiced to be effective.  Other key elements are:

  • Reading the Bible/doing a Bible study
  • Fellowship with other believers
  • Obedience– Actively following God’s example
  • Confession/Forgiveness

Any of these elements can become lackluster and difficult, especially if we aren’t practicing them daily.  And all of the elements will become stronger through practice.  Not only that, but they will blend together better, and the end result is a stronger, healthier, happier you.

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And that’s worth singing about!

Forgiveness is Free: It Isn’t a Free Pass

Yesterday, I posted about praying for our enemies– those who have hurt us.  We are commanded to forgive those who have wronged us, to do good to them, and to pray for them.  But I want to make sure I don’t give the wrong impression about offering forgiveness.

Forgiveness doesn’t ask us to excuse the inexcusable, or trust the untrustworthy.  Forgiveness is trusting that God, in His wisdom, His Holiness, and His timing, will bring justice, healing, and peace, when nothing else can.  This is important to remember, both as someone who asks for forgiveness, and as someone who gives it.

Jesus offers forgiveness–full, and free, and perfect– he died to make that offer.  He gave it to whoever believes on His Name.  But here’s the catch…he didn’t make that offer so you can temporarily wipe the slate clean and go on sinning without consequence.

Oscar Wilde wrote a chilling novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Dorian Gray/Wikipedia    in which the title character finds a way to trap his soul, with all its ugliness, hatred, anger, and sin, inside a portrait.  No matter what Dorian does, no matter how twisted or evil, he continues to look fresh, young, innocent, and handsome.  The effects of his dissipated lifestyle–drug addiction, sleepless nights, years of hard living, even murder–are all trapped in the portrait.  Over the years, the portrait haunts Dorian with its monstrous transformation from young man to gnarled wraith.  In desperation, he “kills” the portrait– and himself– in disgust and anguish.

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We live in an age of appearances– if all appears well on the surface, we ignore the deeper, long-term consequences of our sin.  If we “get away with” small sins, we run the risk of sinking deeper into a sham lifestyle.  We go through the motions of asking forgiveness, when what we really seek is escape from the consequences of our own actions.  We begin to see sin as a valid alternative to obedience–I can obey God if it is convenient, but when it’s not, I can just ask forgiveness.  This is a road strewn with lies, excuses, evasions, and it ends in death.  It is a lifestyle that makes a mockery of God, of his Holiness, His Sacrifice on the cross, and His loving offer of restoration.

God doesn’t just want to transfer your ugliness and rebellion into a painting to hide it away.  He wants to remove it “as far as the east is from the west.”  We don’t become perfect in an instant, but our past is expunged so that we can be free to choose obedience and live more abundantly in fellowship with a Holy God.  When we are truly sorry for our sins and seek true forgiveness, we want to make better decisions, we want to right wrongs– we want to redeem the past rather than merely escape from it.

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When we, as imperfect people, offer forgiveness to someone else, we are not able to do what God does.  Our forgiveness is imperfect; like love, or discipline, or a new habit, it needs to develop and grow.  Forgiveness is not about freeing the offender, or wiping the slate clean for the other person.  It’s about freeing yourself to heal, to move away from slavery to the pain of the past, and to learn to trust God to bring justice.

Forgiveness isn’t natural or easy.  No one deserves forgiveness– that’s what makes it a miracle that God offers it to anyone who asks.  But God doesn’t undo our sin.  He doesn’t erase our actions, or clean up the messes we have made.  If I commit murder, God can forgive me, wash away the guilt of what I’ve done, and give me the power to live a life that seeks to do good, rather than evil.  But he’s not going to bring my victim back to life, or cause a judge and jury and the family of my victim to say, “Aw, that’s alright– you’ve probably learned your lesson.  No hard feelings.”  He can (and has) caused amazing healing to happen in such situations, but that’s the exception, not the expectation.

Similarly, if you have been hurt and you offer forgiveness, it doesn’t mean that the other person is no longer responsible for his/her actions.  It doesn’t mean that you were never hurt or betrayed, and it doesn’t mean that you trust them immediately and without reservation. It is not hateful, intolerant, or unforgiving to allow justice to catch up with someone who has hurt you– it IS unforgiving to seek beyond justice to vengeance and self-defined retribution.

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This is particularly important in cases of abuse.  If someone has abused you, physically, emotionally, or mentally, they are likely to make you feel the guilt they don’t want to deal with.  “You drove me to it.”  “You are the only one who understands my anger.”  Forgiving this person does not mean– it NEVER means– that you agree with their tactics and false accusations, or that you are giving them a pass.  But it DOES mean that you are giving them, and the damage they caused, over to the God of all justice.  Your case is closed; your final judgment is in his hands, and you are free to begin again– begin to heal, begin to see how God can bring something important and good and eternal out of something broken.  Forgiveness is impossible, but God will give you the power to do it– it may take several attempts, and several years, but when it comes, it will be the miracle of God working through you to glory!

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