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

how to win by losing: 1 Corinthians 6

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Thank you, President Putin.  We the American people appreciate that you’ve reminded us to follow the rule of law.   We agree that sometimes governments in power can set up their opposition.  We value your reminder to use diplomacy first.  We agree that the shedding of innocent blood must be avoided at all costs.  We look forward to working together to try to help the Syrian people resolve their own internal conflict.  We say Amen to your admonition that God created us all equal.  Finally, we’re so glad that you recognize the positive power of freedom of the press, a freedom that enabled you to write a letter to us in today’s New York Times.   “A Plea for Caution from Russia,” by Vladimir V. Putin

President Putin’s letter to the American people reeks so strongly of hypocrisy that I nearly gagged from the fumes seeping in under my apartment door when I woke up this morning.  And yet the above is how I imagine Dale Carnegie might recommend responding to President Putin.  Why?  Because Carnegie knows that responding with humility accomplishes far more than lashing back in pride.  He knows the value of losing a battle in order win the war.

BBC World News posed the question this morning: do the American people WANT the Russian President telling us what to do?  It’s the wrong question.  Why?  Because in the battle of good against evil, we need to keep our eye on the prize.

In today’s Scripture, Saint Paul makes the stunning claim that it is better to be cheated than for a Christian to sue a fellow believer in a civil matter.  Read 1 Cor. 6.  It’s the kind of claim that sends shivers up our litigious American spines.  Seriously?  You mean if a Christian sister steals your money, you’re not supposed to sue her in a secular court?  Yes, that’s exactly what Saint Paul says.  He’s not against all legal action.  In Acts 22 and 25 he appealed to the Roman courts for his rights.  So why this advice here?  His reasoning is that when Jesus comes back, the Christians will judge even the angels.  So Paul asks: is there not even one Christian person who can fairly judge between Christians?  Why would a Christian assert their rights before someone who doesn’t respect or submit to the laws of God?  Paul says Christians should try to work these matters out amongst themselves, and to find an honest Christian arbiter, and if that’s not possible, it’s better to be cheated. God is the ultimate judge of wrongdoers, and Paul provides a long broad list of behaviors God rejects unless they’re covered by the cross.

If we look at the Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus making the same kind of stunning claims as Saint Paul.  Turn the other cheek.  If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.  Give to anyone who asks.  When things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.  Luke 6:27-30.  These claims come bang up against our pride.  But our pride is based on the lie of our perfection. As Paul says, the reason we should let things drop if we have to, is that we’ve cheated other people, too.  The truth is that we’ve all hurt other people and taken things from them unjustly.  Sometimes we take their boyfriends and girlfriends, or even their spouses.  Sometimes we take their reputations.  Sometimes we take their belongings.  Sometimes we take their self-esteem.  We rob them of their dreams, dash their hopes and yell at them for being too sensitive when they protest.  When we realize we’ve done these things, we fling ourselves on God’s favor, mercy and goodness to release us from guilt.  We rely on the cross alone.  If we’re honest, we can never rely on our perfection.  And so we, in turn, would be fools not to offer that kind of forgiveness to others.  Who wants to live in a world of pure justice?  None of us would survive.  We need a world of grace.

Grace leads us even deeper into the heart of the matter.  The reason we can follow this off-putting advice about allowing ourselves to be cheated in certain circumstances, is that God’s grace proves to us we can trust God.  We grow to trust God more and more, the more we take in how kind He is.   We start to rely on God to rescue us.  And if God says we’re not to sue a fellow believer, and that we’re instead to try to get a Christian to judge between us, we’re to trust Him to bring good out of that situation.

Which brings us back to President Putin.  What’s our goal in Syria?   Is it a zero sum game, where either the Russians or the Americans win?  Or is the goal truly to help minimize evil in the world by using our influence to persuade governments to not kill their own citizens, and especially to never use chemical weapons?  If so, the kind of forgiving nature God calls us to counsels that we get off our high horse in the interest of achieving the greater good.  In this conflict the Russians have to date stymied our ability to work within the UN Security Council.  The fact that President Obama’s red line in the sand means there now seems room to maneuver within the diplomatic channels means that the most powerful thing President Obama can do right now is agree with the Russians.  Of course, everything Putin says is pure hypocrisy, but who cares?  “What a GREAT idea!” our President can say to the Russian President.  “I’m so glad you appealed to God and the law.”  And together, they can try to wipe out chemical weapons from the face of the planet, as difficult as that may be in practical terms.

Why do we Americans want to help the world?  Here is where we get to the worst thing President Putin said.  Putin is right to say that all are equal before God.  But he’s wrong to say that therefore none can claim to be exceptional.  It’s the other way around.  God sees us each as exceptional.  As Paul says, our body is as exceptional as God’s body.  We are all exceptionally loved by God.  How do we know?  Because God loved us so much, that even though we weren’t obeying His laws, God chose to be unjustly tortured and killed to set us free from the consequences of our sins.

That’s why the letter God wants us to worry about isn’t a letter written by any human hands.  We should pay no heed to those letters that point fingers and tell us what we’ve done wrong.  God wants us to tear up those letters of the law.  Instead, God asks us to look at His hands.  His liberating love for each of us is engraved there. His love letter to us is the one our hearts cry out for every day, in every way, in every hurt, injustice, crime and poison.  It’s the only letter worth reading, and if we keep our eyes fixed on the message of love there, we will find ourselves responding with humility instead of pride because our hearts have been melted down into rivers flowing with tears of repentance and gratitude.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day, my blog on Scripture, literature, life and love… and sometimes war