on forgiving (again, and again, and again): Philippians 2

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Have you ever had a hater?

I have and it’s dreadful. You’re pretty much helpless. You can’t change their minds. And you know they’re going around badmouthing you. And sometimes we can’t avoid our haters. What if the person who looks at you with hatred is a child, a spouse, an in-law, or a co-worker? How do you manage to keep on forgiving them when you have a daily reminder of injustice? Even as I’m writing this post, I am longing to tell you about my hater. But I can’t. Because to do so would be to be a hater back.

It’s so hard not to dwell on how badly haters are behaving. It’s hard not to feel like they’re “ruining” our lives. We know we’re supposed to forgive them. We know that holding onto bitterness hurts us. We can go to healing seminars, like the one given by Ken Fish that I attended in New York City a few weeks ago, and hear that a lack of forgiveness can cause physical ailments in our bodies. We shudder. We know this to be true. It’s common sense. It’s supported by science. Perhaps we’ve heard the expression: “refusing to forgive is like swallowing poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Of course it is. We know that as Joyce Meyers says, “forgiving isn’t hard; hating is hard.”

So why is it so hard to forgive our haters and hurters and what can we do to change that?

One of the odd things about the Christian life is that you can “know” about something like the importance of forgiveness and yet find yourself “forgetting” it years, months and sometimes even nanoseconds later. It’s the reason why Christians must keep reading the Bible, talking to other Christians, praying together, having “accountability” partners, praying alone, going to church and going to Bible studies. We need the Christian life the way we need air. It’s the only way to counteract our tendency to compartmentalize. We get one area of our lives sewn up… and we discover to our horror that other areas are getting worse. C.S. Lewis says in his eponymous essay on forgiveness, that real belief in forgiveness “is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.” I find that comforting. It means we shouldn’t be shocked that we need to be reminded about forgiveness. Instead, we need to plan for it and build daily reminders about forgiveness into our lives.

The problem is that when people hurt us, we just want to hurt them back. It’s a thing. Even if we don’t pursue them through a sinking ship with a loaded gun, like that stupid scene in the Titanic (sorry but I never found that movie plausible), we find other ways to hurt them. We take a mental picture of them at their worst and carry it in our breast pocket to sneer over, as I once heard a pastor named John Yenchko say. Or we find ourselves bad-mouthing our haters to every person unlucky enough to come within ear shot of us. Or we gloat when bad things happen to them. We make sure no one else will be their friend. We have a thousand ways to hurt people back, and all of them are ugly. In our saner moments, we know what we’re doing is wrong. And yet, we find ourselves unable to stop. Part of us feels “justified.” Don’t they deserve it?

Yes, but that isn’t the point. As C.S. Lewis says in that same essay on forgiveness: “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” Lewis adds that forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing. It means “you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart – every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.” Sigh. We know, we know. It means accepting that God actually forgives us. It means accepting that our hearts have horror, dirt, meanness and malice and believing God redeems us and allows us to do that for others: “Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.”

To help us forgive, today’s chapter doesn’t have the Lord’s prayer (“forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”). It doesn’t have the parable of the unmerciful servant–the story Jesus told about the servant whose master forgave him an enormous debt, but who then refused to forgive a fellow servant who owed him a tiny debt, so the master turned him over “to be tortured until he paid back the whole debt”. See Matthew 18:21-35 (“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart”).  It doesn’t have Jesus’ admonition that if we want our prayers answered we must forgive: “if you have anything against anyone, forgive him and let it drop (leave it, let it go), in order that your Father Who is in heaven may also forgive you your [own] failings and shortcomings and let them drop.” Mark 11:25-26. Those are all good and powerful verses that remind us that if we want God to forgive us, we must forgive. We must forgive radically. We must forgive completely. We must forgive all, especially the unforgivable parts.

But what Philippians 2 has to help us get there is a description of how God humbled Himself for us, and what happened as a result. Ready? In this letter, Paul says that we are to “be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests but take an interest in others, too.” Phil. 2:3-4.

I’ve always had trouble understanding why we are supposed to think of others as better than ourselves. The next verse seems to contradict it by saying don’t look out “only” for our own interests. So we are to consider our own interests. And didn’t Jesus say we’re to love our neighbor “as” ourselves, not “more than” ourselves?

Perhaps the answer is that we are so self-centered, we need to tell ourselves to overcompensate just to reach equilibrium, the way we might over-correct a tennis move to rid ourselves of a terrible habit. But while God inspired the whole Bible, and we must therefore evaluate every verse in light of the others, we must also be careful not avoid the import of a particular verse. So perhaps we are to do exactly as Paul says and think “of others as better than” ourselves. Perhaps thinking of others “as” better than ourselves is the only way to help us lead better, happier and more productive lives.

We might be able to do that with people we love. Maybe. But how do we do that with our haters? How can we think of a hater “as better than” ourselves? Isn’t that to agree with their assessment of us? Paul provides the way in the next few verses. He says that to be humble we must copy Jesus:

“Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privilege;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Phil. 2:6-8.

In other words, Jesus actually was equal with God, but gave it up out of love. So when we are to consider others as better than ourselves, it doesn’t mean they are better than we are but that we are acting as if they were because we love them with God’s kind of love.

We can console ourselves for the hardship of this by looking at what God did for Jesus as a result of giving up his divine privilege:

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. Phil. 2:9-11.

The Bible promises that if we humble ourselves, God will lift us up in due time. Holding onto that promise can help us want to forgive. But when it comes to actually forgiving the unforgivable, if it sounds hard, it’s because it’s impossible. Looking to Christ as an example gets us only so far. It can inspire us to want to do the right thing. But we’re too flawed to really do what Christ did. In fact, the more we try to be like Christ, the more radically we will discover our weaknesses. And in that moment, comes true humility.

If we know that we have to forgive our haters in order to be forgiven, and we agree with God that we should forgive them, and we hear ourselves badmouthing them anyway…. we are humbled to the point of sorrow. We’re horrified by ourselves. And there, in our utter failure, when we cry out to God from the depths of our souls: HELP ME… is where we find transformation.

As always, we discover in our humiliation that we are, in fact, no better than our haters. That humbles us. It hurts us. It’s a death. But it’s the kind of death that leads to life. Our failure to forgive is exactly where God meets us and lifts us up. He died because He knew how hopeless we are at forgiving.

So today, right now, when we begin to pray, we are to enter into the darkness. We are to ask God to show us who we are refusing to forgive. We are to take time to be honest about how badly they’ve hurt us and how deeply they hate us.

And that’s exactly where God will lift us up. In the safety of His perfect, sacrificial, undeserved love, He gives us the strength to do what no human can do: to forgive the unforgivable and to find freedom, health and joy. And isn’t that the only thing that can stop us from being haters ourselves?

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on February 24, 2016

on suffering: Philippians 1

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In Lucy Warner’s short story, And Not as a Stranger, the main character finds herself having an affair at work with a fat, balding, married man. (And Not As a Stranger, by Lucy Warner, Image Magazine). She doesn’t understand why. She’s appalled at herself. We know from the beginning of the story that she was raped as a teenager by a friend of her parents, and that she told nobody. It’s too easy to find a causality between the two events. A more nuanced view of the story might see the rape as symbolic of all woundedness. It’s our wounds that cause us to act out. Our wounds cause us to sabotage ourselves. Our wounds cause us to do bad things that we never imagined ourselves capable of. So the story, among other things, raises the question: what is a healthier way to handled bad things?

When bad things happen to us or people we love, we go dark. We know we should trust God and stay calm, but we can’t. We lose hope. We try harder to have a positive attitude and discover instead what a negative attitude we have. We make our situation worse by complaining and getting bitter. We lose interest in things that once delighted us. We stop picking up the phone. We don’t answer texts. Our feeling that no one can understand causes us to drive away even the few kind-hearted, well-intentioned people who try. The suffering isolates us, wears us down, makes us feel like we’re brittle objects of dried clay about to crack.

If we’re Christians, we know there is such hope for us in Christ. If you’re reading this and not a Christian, the same is true: there is such hope for you in Christ. We are not clay jars but children of God, growing and loved. Paul here encourages his Christian friends at Philippi that he is “confident” that “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Phil. 1:6. Paul says he thanks God every time he remembers his friends and prays with joy because of them. We read those words, believe them, and for a moment rest in Paul’s confidence. But then the words fade from our brains, and we go dark again.

If we keep reading, we find that instead of hating on ourselves for feeling so weak in our sadness, God asks us to love more. We are to pray that “our love may abound more and more”. Phil. 1:9. Paul writes this letter from prison, but instead of praying for his release, he prays for love. He focuses on his heart, not his circumstances. He wants an abundance of love, flowing out of his heart, flowing out of the hearts of all he knows. He even notes how God has brought good out of his imprisonment; it’s served to advance and give a renewed impetus to the spreading of the good news. Phil. 1:12. With hearts of love, Paul says we will learn to sense what is vital and prize what is excellent. Phil. 1:10. Paul also prays we may abound in and be filled with the fruits of having right standing with God. We will become people who long for God to have the glory and praise.

That all sounds good; we can read that and agree. We know, deep down, that no matter how bad things get, we can keep loving; keeping giving God the glory; trust God to bring good out of bad; be more humble. But how? Because again, the moment we close our Bibles, the dark closes in. It’s waiting for us. It seems to be inside us.

The answer lies not in easy reassurances but rather by entering into the darkest part of this chapter. Paul moves from discussing love to saying: “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” He admits he is yearning to be free of this world and be with Christ. Phil. 1:23. That sounds almost like depression. Paul is ready to die. We sense his suffering is terrible. But Paul says he knows it’s more essential that he help other people by staying alive. So he asks that his readers live a life worthy of the good news. He urges us not to be afraid.

Yet right after telling us not to be afraid, he invokes more darkness. Paul says we have been granted the privilege for Christ’s sake not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer in His behalf. Phil. 1:29.

To suffer? To die? To be in such pain that death seems preferable? We shun these things. When bad things happen to us, we tend to go into denial. We shift uncomfortably in our seats when the bad things are mentioned. We crack our necks. We change the subject. Or we obsess over some other, smaller, thing that has nothing to do with our real problem. Yet denying doesn’t work. Deep down, we feel like we’re shriveling up, losing all the vitality and warmth that make us who we are.

Instead of avoiding our pain, however, God urges us go there,  But He doesn’t want us to go alone. He knows that would kill us. God is whispering to us: “Don’t be afraid. I will go with you. I walk with you wherever you go, even in suffering. I walk with you in death. I walk with you into the heart of darkness. I will grow you through suffering. I always bring good out of bad. I began a good work in you when you asked Me into your life, and I won’t abandon you just because things are hard. I know you feel afraid; I know your heart. I made it.”

That sounds good, but how can we be as “confident” of this as Paul sounds, writing from prison? How can we trust God?

How does God know anything about suffering?

Lucy Warner’s short story ends with the main character’s roommate dying. She’s been prostituting herself–more selb-sabotage–and comes to an untimely demise. The main character’s mother, who has no idea that her own daughter has been raped, says this about the mother of the prostitute:

“I can’t imagine what she’s been through. How painful a thing, to think your own child could suffer so.”

How painful a thing, to think your own child could suffer so.

by Caroline Coleman, in A Chapter a Day, posted on Feb. 1, 2016.

Note: this flower photo is courtesy of my cousin and godson, Arthur Leigh-Wood, who makes beautiful, original photo cards from his home in the hills around Bath, England, that you, too, can buy and own. This one is from the “Mum” collection. Somerset Cards.