on revenge and forgiveness: Romans 9

We hate everything about bullies — the bullying, the being bullied, and the standing by silently while someone else is being bullied.  The bully feels helpless in the face of his own senseless rage.  The victim feels oddly and wrongly ashamed, as if something in their very being invited mistreatment.  The silent bystander feels in some ways worst of all, both victim and victimizer, complicit in guilt and yet deemed worthless enough by the bully to be subjected to watching their crime.

I once heard a Vietnam vet describe the concept of what he called “third party forgiveness.”  He said we need to forgive not just the things others have done to us; or the things we have done to others; but also the things we have seen others do to other people.

That’s a lot of forgiving.

The problem is there is something inside all of us that prizes revenge.  “I hope that man that incarcerated those three women for ten years DOESN’T get the death penalty,” someone said to me yesterday about Ariel Castro.  “I hope he is put in a prison where others mistreat HIM, so he experiences the same thing he did to those women.”

Holocaust victim Elie Weisel said something similar about Bernie Madoff.  Weisel should know better.  He wrote in his memoir Night that when the Nazis treated him like an animal, he found himself behaving like one.  And yet when Weisel lost most of his money to Madoff’s ponzi scheme, Weisel wrote that he hoped Madoff would spend the rest of his life in a prison cell with a video running 24-7 of his victims.  Weisel said this before Madoff’s son committed suicide.  I’m not sure if Weisel still feels Madoff needs a 24-7 video after that kind of a consequence.

Why do we want bullies, criminals and other people who have maimed us to experience the hurt they inflicted?  Why do we want to exact an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth?  What is it in us that has an automatic revenge button that gets triggered the moment someone hurts us?

Is it possible that we each have a sense of divine justice?  Are we humans so made in God’s image that we automatically know that a wrong must be punished? Do we have God’s laws written on our hearts, as the Bible says of our consciences?  I can’t think of any other explanation.

And yet when we talk of exacting revenge like this, we forget the most important thing.  If our sense of justice comes from God, why do we find it so hard to trust that same God to exact justice in the best possible way?  That is part of what Paul is trying to get at here in Romans 9.  He’s saying who are we to argue with God?  God is the potter.  We are the clay.  Part of peace comes from recognizing that the potter has the right to do whatever He wants with the clay.  Romans 9:20-22.

No one could read about the hell house those three victims of Ariel Castro lived in without weeping.  The policemen who released the women were crying.  The women saw the sunshine twice in ten years. We feel the pain of those three women, even as we know we can’t even imagine their pain — and that, too, is part of our pain.  We are the bystanders who want to suffer for others but can’t.

Luckily for us, we have a God who did suffer for us.  The potter could have broken every one of us clay jars.  Instead, God became clay Himself.  He was broken for us.  He suffered the pain of hell so we wouldn’t have to.

Because His justice was satisfied on the cross, God forgives us, but His only condition is that we forgive each other.  He wants us to forgive the things we see others do to others.  He begs us to let go of hurts others have inflicted on us.  He longs for us to receive His forgiveness.  He says it’s the only way to heal.

If someone really needs to see a video 24-7 of all the wrongs they’ve inflicted on other people, God can do that, too, by playing it on the screens of their minds.  Maybe that’s already happened to Madoff.  Who knows. But maybe not, because we humans don’t really know what kind of spiritual torture other people deserve.  We don’t know what kind of suffering their consciences have imposed on them.  We don’t know what kind of suffering their hard hearts have given them.

There is nothing more painful than having a hard heart.  Hard hearts condemn us to live in a world of hate, rage, suspicion and loneliness.  All crimes come from hard hearts.  No matter whether we are cruel to others, indifferent, thoughtless or actively malicious, everything evil we’ve ever done comes from the same source: a hard heart.

A hard heart can only be broken with softness.  God has a soft heart toward us that offers us only kindness, sweetness, love and mercy.  We don’t really understand mercy.  It’s not our natural response.  But while we may not understand it, if we go there we discover it’s the best place to live.  It’s a tender place.  It’s a vulnerable place.  It’s a scary place.  And it requires knowing we need mercy.  It requires letting go of justice and the law and “well I did THAT so maybe I didn’t do THAT but you did THIS and I deserve THAT.” It lets us instead focus on God’s forgiveness for us, not on focusing on what others have done wrong.  Only when we accept the need for mercy can we love others – all others — even the bullies.  Even when we have met the bully and he is us.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day

is there something divine about wanting?: Acts 22

IMG_1535Acts 22.  When we don’t get our way, it doesn’t feel good when our friends say: “God’s no is really His yes.”

Right.

Patience is a virtue that most of us lack.  I mean, okay fine.  We can be patient when we don’t REALLY want something.  But if we actually want it?  If we really desperately forget-about-everything-else want it?  If we’ve lost our appetite and stare wanly out the window and can think of nothing else?  If we’re in THAT kind of wanting?  Patience flies out the window.  Wanting and now are synonyms, aren’t they?

But barely are we cast onto the shores of this world before we learn we can’t always get what we want.  So what’s the solution?  Are we supposed to quiet ourselves down to a zen-like state where we want nothing?  That sounds a little dull.  What about self-talk?  Can we reason ourselves out of wanting the things we can’t have?  We can’t always get what we want, but if we try try try we just might get what we need?  We can lie to ourselves and say we didn’t really want it, anyway; we can practice a little Aesop-style sour grapes.  We’ve all done it, but lying to ourselves is never a healthy solution.  Another option is to just wait out the disappointment and remind ourselves that yes, absolutely, we’re utterly miserable, but in a little while we’ll be fine and zippy again.

Those strategies work.  They’re good.  They’re practical.  They make life go more smoothly.  But they don’t take us all the way there.  They leave unresolved this issue of wanting.  What are we supposed to do with that?  I mean, let’s face it.  Wanting means we’re alive.  Who wants to stop wanting?  Is there a way to walk around in our wanting and enjoy it – even if we never get what we think we want?

As with most things, the solution lies in trusting God.  If we can trust Him we can enjoy His presence even if He answers our prayers with silence, a shut door, or even a deep dark bottomless pit.  Proust wanted to know if we can redeem the time we’ve wasted.  God’s answer is: of course.  In God’s math, nothing is wasted.  He uses everything in His plan.  God is perfect, after all.  When we create, there are always unused scraps left over.  Little bits of pie crust litter our kitchen countertops on Thanksgiving morning.  It’s not like that with God.  He rolls those leftover crusts up and flattens them out with the press of His fingers into something even more delicious, even more delectable, something just right for us.

He uses even the things we consider scraps to make something beautiful just our size.

And those friends who remind us that God’s no can be His protection are not wrong.  Look at Paul being popped in jail here.  It saved him from being torn limb from limb by an angry mob.  We don’t know what savage lions prowl on the periphery of our lives.  When another car cuts in front of us — only to drive in the middle of the road “like a poached egg,” as my English grandfather used to put it — we don’t know what twisted metal fender bender God may be saving us from.  A traffic jam could be rescuing us from a gun wielding madman.

There is so much we don’t understand – both about ourselves and the spirit realm.  God is weaving an eternal tapestry and we can only see a few dangling threads.  For instance, in the Hebrew Scriptures (a/k/a the Old Testament), three weeks after Daniel prays for something, an angel appears and tells Daniel that from the moment he started praying, the angel was sent to him.  But there were spiritual oppositions that took place and caused a delay.  See Daniel 10:12-13.  So there are forces of evil that can oppose even angels.  Evil can thwart our prayers.  That sounds hard to believe until we consider those times we’ve prayed for people on a downward spiral – those friends who are drinking too much or doing drugs or in a self-destructive relationship – and they go on with their behavior despite our prayers.  Is that evil thwarting our wanting?  It sure feels like it.

This is a detail that cracks open the edges of our world and gives us a glimpse of heaven.  God brings good out of bad, but good is wrestling evil all the time and we don’t know the half of it.  Maybe miracles are happening all the time in the spirit world and we just can’t see them.  Maybe we’re not wrong to want a miracle.  Maybe miracles are natural and our world is unnatural.

But even more than the somewhat abstract philosophical approach of trusting God in even our frustrated desires, there’s a deeper sweetness inside of waiting.  The goal is to embrace the delay, to sink into the waiting, to rest in the presence of God.  And in that resting in God we find such joy that our original wants pale in comparison.

Because God wants us to be in touch with our wants.  He wants us to be alive to our true emotions.  “Bring me your heart,” God says over and over in the book of Psalms.  Jesus makes it clear that Satan is the author of all lies. John 8:44.  God wants us to have nothing to do with lies.  He wants us to walk around inside the truth.   He wants us to walk around inside our hearts.  He made our hearts.  He made them for Him.  We’re supposed to open ourselves to God.  It sounds like He wants us to trust Him enough to be vulnerable with Him.  He wants us to get real with Him and tell Him what we really want.

And if we walk inside our wants, we may discover a want that lies deeper than all the others.  We may discover the thought that lies too deep for tears.  We may discover a want which will always be answered because it was made to be answered.  For there is one delay over which we have total control.  Have a look at this chapter.  Paul tells yet again the story of his conversion.  Why?  Because the more we hear these true stories of Jesus’ true love for each of us the more our hearts melt.  And look at what Ananias asked  Paul in that story:  “Why do you delay?” Ananias is asking him: what are you waiting for? Ananias adds: “Rise and be baptized, and by calling upon His name, wash away your sins.”  Acts 22:16.

We may not get the possessions we pine for, the degrees we want; the results we expect; the friendships we long for; the promotions we know we deserve, the love we crave; the health of our children we try to protect; the health of our friends and family we desire; the control over ourselves we depend on.  But we can always have God’s forgiveness, always.  It’s only an ask away.  It’s only a want away.

For there is no delay when it comes to the thing we need most.  There is no waiting period for God’s love.  There is no waiting and wanting about our ability to approach the throne of grace.  It’s always there, all the time.  Jesus made it come true already.  He paved the way on the cross.  He thirsted so we would never have to.

He did it because God is wanting us.  God lives in want, too.  God longs for us.  He’s always waiting and wanting.  So yes, there is a touch of the divine in waiting.  Waiting and wanting is a quality we share with God.  We can embrace our waiting.  It’s is touched with glory.  We can find in the wanting a deeper answer, one we didn’t even know we wanted until we got it:

God is saying: I am with you always, even in your deepest desires, because being with me is what you always wanted all along without even knowing it.

by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on January 12, 2013