I know several people who had a very Merry Christmas this year. Some of them flew to exotic locations and spent Christmas on the beach, or in a big city with lights and dozens of family members. Some of them spent a cozy Christmas in a cabin with roaring fires and glittering snow-covered trees, eating sumptuous meals and unwrapping expensive gifts.
But most of the people I know spent a Christmas that wasn’t “post-card” perfect. Some of them were alone in a small apartment with no presents and no heat. Some were working at a job they hate because they had no other option. Some were grieving loved ones lost in the past months. Some of them are facing economic mountains– debt, job loss, medical bills or taxes they cannot pay, no money for rent or groceries… Some are battling cancer or alcoholism, anger, or fear. Some are estranged from their families, or separated from loved ones because of COVID, or deployment, or divorce. And some are facing persecution, starvation, homelessness, disease, or war.
Christmas comes, whatever our circumstances– and so does the Christ Child. Jesus didn’t come to the earth to bring us all “better” circumstances or worry-free holidays, but to deliver us from eternal death, and equip us to endure the circumstances we face in life. Jesus himself came in chaotic and stressful circumstances, and He came, knowing that He would face rejection, hatred, injustice, and death on a cross.
There are millions of people who spent a “Merry” Christmas and missed the whole point. Some of us indulged in a gift-giving frenzy that left others in the cold. Some of us allowed envy, fear, greed, or bitterness to color our Christmas. In the process, many of us lost sight of the true gifts of Christmas– Peace, Joy, and Goodwill. In fact, “His divine power has given us EVERYTHING we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)
And these gifts are not temporary, like earthly Christmas gifts. They are always available, and they never break, expire, or grow dim. My prayer for this year(and the year to come) is that we all may find–and share!– these eternal and astounding gifts, this “inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade…kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4)
Christmas Day may not always be merry in this life, but because of Christmas we can face an eternity that will never disappoint, and we have a living Hope that can carry us through even the darkest hours!
“He rules the world with Truth and Grace, And makes the nations prove The glories of His Righteousness And wonders of His Love.”
Christmas is a time of wonder. Even stories that have little to do with the birth of the Christ Child– Frosty the Snowman, or A Christmas Carol, or The Grinch Who Stole Christmas–involve miracles and wondrously unexpected transformations. We thrill to see redemption and hope triumph over gloom and bitterness. We cheer when the Grinch’s small heart grows three sizes, or when Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer makes the team and leads Santa through a snowstorm. We want to believe that there is a special magic about the first snowfall of each year; that the very coming of Christmas Eve holds a special promise of Peace and Goodwill.
But the ultimate Wonder is that of God’s Love for us:
God SO LOVED the world– not because the world was lovable; not because the world’s people were just and kind and honorable; not because God was blinded to the world’s sickness and sorrows, and just wanted to feel “groovy” about the world…
That He GAVE– God didn’t just talk about Love and Joy and Peace– He GAVE–His only begotten Son. He, the creator, became the created– the ruler of the universe became a helpless baby born in a crowded city, banished to a barn because there was no room reserved for his coming. God gave lavishly, sacrificially, completely– He poured out His majesty to take on humanity, and then poured out his human life in service and sacrifice. He kept nothing back– none of his power to avoid injustice, shame, or death; none of his glory or majesty. He suffered the indignity of dusty roads, homelessness, sleepless nights, and crucifixion. He suffered the loneliness of misunderstanding and betrayal by his friends and family.
That WHOSOEVER BELIEVETH IN HIM– Whosoever! Not the noble, not the rich, not the “eminently qualified,” not the beautiful or strong or intelligent “enough.” God yearns to bring the wonder of redemption to the very ones who are ready to give up; to those who know they don’t deserve God’s love and grace; to those who have not known joy or peace, only darkness and grief– those who cannot earn God’s favor can have it in abundance, if only they believe that God exists, and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6)
SHALL NOT PERISH, but have everlasting/eternal life–What a wonderful promise! Wonderful because it is beyond our ability to fathom; wonderful because it is undeserved and unexpected; wonderful because it is the ultimate expression of limitless, eternal LOVE. We think of Death as inevitable and permanent–But Christ came to show us that death is temporary and powerless! Hope and Joy, Love and Peace– they have already WON. They are the reality– the rest is only a vapor.
20 Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Job 1:20-21 ESV (via biblegateway.com)
The book of Job presents us with a startling picture. Job is a godly man; a righteous man; a man of faith and good works. And yet, God allows him to experience loss upon loss– Job loses everything, short of his life and his nagging, bitter wife. His first response is praise and worship! But as the losses sink in; as the pain and agony and grief continue, Job questions God’s justice and wisdom. Job, like us, wants answers that make sense. He is willing to suffer– even greatly–IF he can see the purpose of his suffering, and justify it to himself.
We are getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving tomorrow in the U.S.– a day when we celebrate what God has given us. We normally celebrate family, health, good food, material blessings, etc. We celebrate abundance and comfort; peace and plenty; family and freedom. But his year, our celebration will be quite different. The Lord has taken away…
Some of us have lost jobs, or we’ve lost our good health to COVID or related factors, or we’ve lost loved ones, often without the chance to say our final “goodbyes”. Millions of us have lost the ability to move about freely and conduct “normal” errands and activities. Schools and businesses are closed or operating from a distance. Families and friends have been kept apart. Much that gave us comfort and happiness has been “taken away” this year. And God has allowed it all to unfold. He has not “taken away” this disease or its consequences. He has not “taken away” floods, or fires, or hurricanes. He has not given us answers or explanations.
Job’s initial praise turns to questioning. While he does not “curse God and die,” as his wife suggests, Job spends his time wondering, “Why me?” His friends try to find answers– “you must have done something to deserve this, Job.” Because God does not “punish” the righteous. It isn’t logical; it isn’t fair; it isn’t just.
Except that God laid on His own Son– on Himself– the guilt and punishment for all those who are unrighteous. What Job went through–unknown and unseen to him and his friends–was a glimpse into what God Himself would suffer. Christ lost everything–INCLUDING his life– in order to bring salvation to all those who are willing to believe and receive it. Christ was willing to give away His dignity, His power, His friends and family, and His life. And the Lord allowed it all to be taken.
Many people read the story of Job– his loss and all his questions and complaints–and conclude that God is not fair or just. They find Him to be capricious and unwilling to ease Job’s suffering or answer his questions. They conclude that God is wicked and unworthy of Job’s praise or trust.
Loss and grief still exist in this world; disease and suffering and hardship still plague us this year. But we have SO much to celebrate at Thanksgiving. When the Lord “takes away,” it is not because He is capricious, or jealous of our wealth or happiness. It is not because He is unkind or uncaring. At just the right time, and forever more, the Lord will Give without end– lavishly, extravagantly, abundantly. Nothing He takes away in this life– even a cherished love one–is beyond all hope of comfort, redemption, or restoration. Our losses cannot compare to the riches of His Grace and Love. This is a great mystery, but as Job discovered, God WILL DO IT!
Blessed be the name of the Lord! Let us Thank and Praise His Holy Name!
We are living in dark days– days of death counts, and dire predictions; of fear and grief and chaos. Masks, social distancing, angry outbursts, collapsing economies, job loss, political unrest, disease, plague–we are in the grip of a global pandemic. “Bring out your dead.” It’s a phrase from hundreds of years ago, and the horrors of other plagues and other disasters. Tombs, graveyards, skulls and visions of death abound. And yet, as Christians, we celebrate an empty tomb…
It’s been over a month since many Christians celebrated Easter (and almost a month for Orthodox Christians). How soon many of us forget the power of the resurrection. Our world is gripped with fear and anger. But we should be gripped with hope and healing. We celebrate an empty tomb– a testament to the victory of life over death, and hope over chaos!
Even when we use the symbol of the cross, it is not about Christ’s death, but his ultimate victory that we celebrate. Jesus himself even referred to the cross in these terms in John 3:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
Jesus is speaking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and religious teacher. He is referring to an historic incident in the wilderness, when the Israelites had rebelled (once again), and the Lord sent venomous snakes among them. Nicodemus would have known about this incident, but Jesus presented it as more than just history– it was a foreshadowing of God’s perfect plan of salvation! https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Numbers+21%3A4-9&version=NIV God had Moses make a bronze snake to be lifted up on a pole. When the people looked up and saw the bronze snake, they could live. In just such a way, when Jesus was “lifted up” on the cross, he didn’t just die. He battled death to bring life to anyone who “looks up” and believes.
That ancient symbol of a snake on a pole is used by physicians to represent healing. The ancient symbol of Christ on the cross is used to represent redemption and eternal life. Combined with the reality of an empty tomb, we can celebrate life in the midst of any circumstances.
These are difficult days–even with the hope of eternal life, we still have to face the sadness and grief of death, the confusion and hardship of economic chaos, and the uncertainty of what tomorrow will look like– socially, politically, economically, and physically. But we need only “look up” and beyond our circumstances to be reminded that this is not the whole story. There is an empty tomb– ours! There is victory–ours! Won for us by the perfect plan of God, and the perfect obedience of Jesus Christ.
We’re getting ready to enter the Lenten season–six and a half weeks of reflection and preparation before Easter. Lent is not a celebration in the traditional sense– it is solemn and reflective, personal and, sometimes, painful. It is a time of getting “real” about our sinful condition. The Bible says we have all fallen short of the Glory and Holiness of God (Romans 3:10) and deserve God’s wrath. The natural consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and permanent separation from the goodness of God.
There are many ways we can react to this reality. I know many people who resent God’s Holiness and His laws. They do not want to face God’s righteous judgment; they believe that God’s laws are cruel and unjust, and that they do not have to answer to anyone greater then themselves.
Others want to bargain with God. They feel that if they relent– if they set a goal to do more good than harm, if they strive to be better than “the next guy”–God will weigh their good deeds in the balance and judge them in comparison with how bad they “might have been.”
But God doesn’t judge on a curve– He doesn’t judge us by our measure, but by His. And none of us “make the grade.”
If that were the final word– the end of the story– there would be no reason to relent, and it wouldn’t make any difference if we were resentful. But God, from the very beginning, designed a different outcome. His judgement is just, but it is not without hope or remedy. God Himself has given us the chance to change– to repent. Repentance is agreeing with (not resenting) God’s judgment, and responding (not bargaining) with changed behavior and a changed attitude.
Lent begins when we confront the great gulf between God’s Holiness and our sinfulness. It stretches through the realization that sin and its consequences surround us, hem us in, and poison our world. It is a time of sadness and gaping loss, when we long for healing, for hope, and for a home we’ve never seen. It is a time for reflecting on the cost involved–not just in human suffering, but in God’s suffering as a human. God, who could have, in His righteousness, destroyed even the memory of mankind, chose to share our sufferings– hunger, cold, exhaustion, rejection, heartbreak, betrayal, death– to that we could be delivered into everlasting life.
Lent ends as we remember Jesus’ death and burial– His ultimate sacrifice for our debt. It ends with a shattering trumpet-blast of hope and joy on Easter Morning. Our sadness and loss is NOT the end– Sin’s power and poison are illusory. They have no power over our Great God.
It can be tempting to respond to our present circumstances with resentment. It can be tempting to relent in our rebellion– trying to bargain with God, and minimize the cost He had to pay, trying to pay the price ourselves with a show of good behavior and a superficial devotion.
But God’s great Love and Mercy should draw us to worship and true devotion. As we reflect on the great gulf between sin and holiness, it should cause us to gladly repent– to lay on the altar all the substitutes and lesser things that keep us from full communion with the Lover of Our Souls.
Our prayers during this season may be difficult. They may be filled with grief, loss, and pain. But they may also be filled with hope and joy as we anticipate the gift of Grace. And they should be filled with praise. After all, Lent is a season; a season to reflect, a season to repent, a season to mourn, but a season with a beginning and an end; a season that gives way to celebration and a sure hope of resurrection!
One of my favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” The title character begins the story as a young, beautiful, wealthy, and spoiled young woman. She falls in love with the young farm boy who works for her father. The young man leaves to make his fortune, but word comes that he has been captured and killed by pirates. In utter despair, the young woman allows herself to become engaged to a spoiled and wicked prince. She has allowed her grief to consume her, and she cares nothing for the prince, his wealth or power, or even her own future. Before she can be married to the prince, she is kidnapped by villains, and “rescued” by a mysterious pirate. Instead of being grateful, she curses the pirate, telling him that he could never understand her great loss and pain. His answer, harsh, glib, but to the point, is to say that “life is pain, Princess. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something.”
There are certain truths in life that we would avoid if we could– death, pain, sorrow, grief, suffering, and Sin–we don’t want to hear the harsh reality of our situation. We don’t want to suffer or hurt at all; much less to discover that our suffering is commonplace or universal. Everyone will taste death; everyone will face pain and grief and suffering in this life. Everyone will suffer as a result of Sin– our individual actions have consequences, as do the cumulative actions of our culture, our ancestors, and the entire human race. This is a harsh truth, but it IS the truth.
There are four common techniques we tend to use to avoid facing harsh truths– denial or avoidance, anger, bargaining, and depression or despair. Many people know these terms from the Kubler-Ross studies on patients with terminal illnesses and the five “stages” she identified as they came to terms with their impending death. https://psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/ The fifth “stage” was acceptance. The five stages have been applied commonly to other forms of grieving and loss, including the loss of a loved one or the break-up of a marriage. While most of us go through some or all of these stages when we face suffering, we don’t all go through them the same way or even in the same order.
Many of us live in avoidance and denial– rushing headlong into meaningless pleasure, self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, staying busy with the pursuit of wealth or power. Others wrap themselves in anger– blaming everyone else for their pain, seeking revenge, driving away those who want to help. Still others try to bargain– seeking to avoid death by trying every new diet or fitness routine, or trying to be righteous enough to earn a supernatural blessing or “good karma.” And many wallow in depression and despair, lost in the swamp and mist, sinking into a pit of their own feelings.
These reactions are normal and human. Harsh truths hurt– they shock us, overwhelm us, shatter our trust, even shake our faith. But they ARE true. What is also true is that God has not left us without resources, even for the harshest realities we face. Even when we are in despair, or angry, or in denial, God can give us peace and strength to go on.
God isn’t “selling something” to make the pain go away or make our life “trouble-proof.” Jesus never offered a comfortable life to His followers. In fact, He promised that our lives would be filled with trouble and pain and sorrow! Christians who claim that they never face fear, or failure, fury or frustration, loss and sorrow– they are “selling” a false gospel. Jesus faced and conquered death on a cross! He could have avoided it– He could have been angry at those who betrayed Him–He could have stayed buried in despair and failure. But He arose! We don’t worship someone who has never wept, or faced betrayal or loss. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)– if anyone knows the harsh truth, it is the one who IS Truth! And this Truth hurts– He hurts to see us grieving; He hurts when we reject Him to go our own way; He hurts even as He allows us to hurt.
Faith, prayer, worship, promises– these are not God’s way of helping us escape the reality of harsh truths. They are His tools for helping us to overcome and be victorious in the face of trials and setbacks, grief and pain, even death! As Princess Buttercup discovers in “The Princess Bride”– “Death cannot stop true love!” And it cannot stop the Truth that IS Love!
“Life is so unnerving for a servant who’s not serving–
He’s not whole without a soul to wait upon…”
(Be Our Guest from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast)
Philippians 2:3-8King James Version (KJV)
3 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. 5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: 6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: 7 But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: 8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.
1 Peter 2:13-19Revised Standard Version (RSV)
13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution,[a] whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. 16 Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. 17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
The English word serve has at least seven different definitions, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary see here, and that’s just the intransitive verb form! The concept of service and serving is often misunderstood and denigrated. Our culture (especially American culture) in general has a low opinion of servants. Value is placed on independence– neither needing service nor being required to give it to others. But service is much broader then “servitude”, and good service requires that we place our value on interdependence, rather than independence.
Good service requires a lot, but I think there are three key ingredients–obedience, humility, and love.
I don’t normally recommend Disney as a source of moral instruction, but just in the short two lines of lyrics above there is a great example of a servant’s heart. A good servant isn’t reluctantly or resentfully dragged into service. (Oh, there are days or circumstances that are trying and tiring, but that’s the exception, not the norm.) S/he is eager to serve, and even restless when unable to be of service. A good servant is also personal. Their service is not given by rote, but with attention to the individual “soul” they are serving. It’s hyperbole, of course, but the verve and giddiness found in the singing and dancing dishes of a Disney movie should be reflective of the kind of service we provide at work, at home, and at church– “Be our Guest!”
As followers of Jesus, we should also look to His example. Paul reminds us that Jesus did not seek fame or attention or demand respect or recognition during His time on Earth. Instead, He gave up all the glory of Heaven to become a man– and not just a man, but a helpless baby born in obscurity and growing up without entitlements and comforts; the child of a working-class family in a small town under foreign occupation. He lived as a homeless itinerant teacher, and died as a common criminal under shameful circumstances– naked and bloody, displayed in public, to be mocked and used as a warning for others. But Jesus wasn’t a doormat–he was humble, he was meek–he CHOSE to submit to the pain and humiliation and even the injustice of a rigged trial and a death sentence by mob rule. He had opportunities to grab the glory, to turn the tide, to escape his unfair fate, and/or to become a great political or military leader. He didn’t take those opportunities– instead, he was obedient to the Father. He showed love and compassion even to those who mocked him, betrayed him, and murdered him.
It’s frightening to serve with that kind of abandon. It’s not humanly possible to let go of one’s life with joy for the sake of those who have taken it from you. My human desire is to grab hold of life and get as much out of it as I can. Even when my intention is not to hurt anyone else, it is not in my nature to put someone else’s needs and comforts ahead of my own. But it needs to become part of my nature.
I want to serve like Serena Williams–slamming my passion at the speed of a bullet train and earning trophies. (And this is not meant to be disrespectful– I am a great admirer of Serena’s talent and drive, and I think there is much to learn from her perseverance and excellence.) But tennis, while fun to watch and good for exercise, does not teach good “service”.
I’d like to serve like a CEO– guiding a company to greater success and huge profits. I might even help hundreds of people by creating more jobs and increasing their wealth. But in the end, this is not the kind of service that has everlasting consequences, or “soul” benefits.
I honor those who have served in the military; those who work in service industries, or provide emergency services. And those who have served in government, whether local, state, national, regional, provincial, or other. Many have served selflessly and given their lives, willingly, in combat or rescue missions. For every story of someone who has abused their office, or fled in the face of personal danger, there are many more stories of courage, compassion, and sacrifice. Such service should also “serve” as an example to all of us.
I enjoy serving customers at work– helping them find something they want or need, or answering questions. But that’s my job. I get a certain gratification, and a paycheck, that help motivate such service.
God wants me to learn to serve from the pure joy of service– pouring myself out with abandon to help others succeed– rejoicing with them when they reach their goals; grieving with them in their loss. And, like Jesus, God wants me to do it, not in my own limited strength and wisdom, but in obedience to His will– not becoming a dupe or a doormat to anyone who wants to step on me, but discerning what is best for others and cheerfully doing what I can to bring it about.
That’s a tall order, and it requires that I take time to ask God and trusted friends– How’s my Serve?
Words have weight– I’m not talking about thousand-page novels or multi-syllable legalese terms– some words simply weigh heavier on the mind and heart than others. Some everyday words spill out like dust motes carried on a light breeze. They hang suspended in midair, without any set purpose or destination, and finally settle, forgotten, until someone sweeps them away. Other words explode, sending shards and pellets at unwary targets. Some words thunder like falling rocks in an avalanche of guilt or anger or hatred. And some rare and precious words have the weight of a quilt or a hug, or an arm lifting you up when you are falling.
One of the amazing things about prayer is that as we pour out our words before the Savior, the weight of our words is lifted off our hearts and minds and given to him to carry– the weight of the guilt, the weight of worry, the weight of grief, the weight of anger, the weight of hurt. Not only does God take on the weight of our words (and our pain and guilt), but he makes sense of it all– maybe not instantly, or in the way we imagine– but he brings order and goodness out of our chaos and burden.
And those everyday words swirling around like dust fall into the light, where they shine like gold dust in His presence. When we bring everything to God, he transforms it; he transforms us.
Our words have weight in prayer. And our words to others have weight, as well. Today, I want to weigh my words carefully. Are my words burdening others, or helping them lift a load of care? If I had to carry the weight of my words– my criticisms and clever put-downs, my accusations and angry tantrums, my bragging and comparisons– would I be dragging them behind me with joy and pride? What if, instead, my words were filled with the weight of shared laughter, encouragement, hope, and compassion? What if my words held the weight of truth and kindness and peace?
The past few weeks have been filled with death for me…last month, we had two family-related funerals in less than three days. In the past two weeks, I know of three people who were on my prayer list who died of illness or disease, and another who died unexpectedly. The internet and news has been filled with two recent celebrity deaths by suicide, and there are continuing reverberations from mass shootings earlier this year…auto accidents, homicides, house fires, heart attacks…we are surrounded by the urgent and shocking reminders that life is fragile and uncertain.
Death has an urgency that pushes other concerns away. Death is final; permanent. Death is powerful– we can’t cheat it, defeat it, or comprehend it. Death frightens us, angers us, and mystifies us. We begin to look at our own life and ask questions–Who am I? What makes me “me”– individual and uniquely different from everyone else? Is there a purpose to my being– to my being “me”, “here” and “now”? How can I find and fulfill that purpose if it exists? Do I have an eternal destiny after this life? If so, how can I know what it might be? Can I change that eternal destiny?
Some people argue that our origins are accidental; our uniqueness is merely a random generation of genetic code; our purpose non-existent or self-determined; and our destiny no more than dust. Many of them hear me or read what I write and dismiss me as intellectually lazy, gullible, or crazy. I’m all right with that, as long as they will be intellectually honest enough to admit to the questions; and open enough to acknowledge that there may be more than a quick denial as an answer. Crazy– well crazy is as crazy does, I guess…I’ll let my actions answer that one.
Death is powerful and mysterious, but I believe that God is more powerful, and omniscient– he has already crushed the power of death, and invites us to view death from a different perspective. When we take everything– including death– to the Lord in Prayer, he takes the weight of it, the fear of it, the pain of it off our shoulders and carries it to the cross. HIS death overshadows even our own, in its power to overcome. The urgency of death is not that it is the end of all things. The urgency of death is that it signals the end of our opportunity to recognize and live out the purpose of this short life.
If that isn’t an urgent reason to pray for those you love, I don’t know of a better one…
It’s also an urgent reason to pray for those around you who are grieving the recent loss of a loved one. And don’t just be a pray-er..be an answer to prayer– reach out with a card, or spend some time with them. Let them know that a) their loved one is not forgotten, and b) neither are they!
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.
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.
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.
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!