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Archive for the ‘Forgiveness’ Category

By faith Abel offered God a better sacrifice than Cain did. By faith he was commended as a righteous man, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.” – Hebrews 11:4 (NIV)

I think it’s safe to say that our world is in turmoil. When “tolerance” seems to be a prevailing value at the same time we have a growing sense of “intolerance” on many levels of society.

Daily in international news we are beset with stories of racial tension and violence, hate crimes, terrorist attacks and the list goes on. I don’t have to cite the stories which are most likely very familiar to you.

In these times of turmoil, I see the same story repeated through history, but I also see the same resolution as well. I’ve been reflecting in these days on the first recorded murder. In the Bible, in Genesis chapter 4 we see that the first death among the children of Adam and Eve was the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. The story is well worth a review if you haven’t thought about it lately.

The conflict began when Abel brought an acceptable sacrifice before the LORD and was commended. Cain brought another sacrifice and was rejected because of his heart condition. The situation really got Cain fighting mad.

As the story goes,

“. . . but on Cain and his offering He did not look with favor. So, Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” – Genesis 4:5-7 (NIV)

When confronted with the condition of his heart Cain had some major decisions to make. Would he continue to bury his anger, brood and stew over his rejection, or would he take stock of his strong internal emotions, have his heart healed, and move on to a better place?

Unfortunately, we know the rest of the story. He misplaced his rejection, blamed his brother and violence and murder erupted.

Personally, I think this story is lived out again and again in our world today and we are seeing it played out on an international scale.

For each of us, when we begin to experience anger against an individual, a different racial, political, cultural or religious group, we are in danger of misdirecting our anger and letting it take us to places that are dangerous and destructive.

Anger led Cain to murder when internal reflection wasn’t the response of his heart. Unchecked anger can do the same for any of us.

I suppose that from here to eternity love and hate will both be opposing forces. The question for each of us, is what we will do and how we will react by hating the right things. We can choose to hate racism, for example, without hating racists. What we hate says a lot about us, just as who or what stirs our anger says a lot about us.

In the New Testament, the writer to the book of Hebrews, quoted above, says that Abel was a righteous man and was wrongly targeted for stirring up his brother’s anger. Even though dead, he still speaks. Abel was an innocent victim but was also the target of hostility. His example of godliness and suffering even in the face of violence and death is something that should speak strongly to us even today – especially today.

The ultimate expression of love in the face of hatred comes at the Cross of Jesus Christ. It was He who died in all His innocence and rose to life so that each of us could be set free from misdirected anger and hatred against anyone or anything.

Anger, along with love, is perhaps the strongest and most powerful of our emotions. When confronted with deep seated anger in our hearts, each of us can choose to step back, reflect and re-direct it toward something that is worth hating. It’s not a person or a race, a political party or country, but in reality a way of life that runs contrary to love which seeks the highest good of another fellow human being.

Abel lived a shorter life than Cain but there’s no question as to who serves as a better model for us today in these times of turmoil.

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Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”  – Ephesians 4:32 (NIV)

I don’t know about you, but for many years I had the fear that people would really find out that I was much more of a mess than I appeared.

I’ll never forget the day that I had to sit down before my family and close friends and admit to a string of failures that had spanned a number of years. Sparing the gory details, just believe me when I say I was a train wreck. Without realizing it, I was missing out on major sources of wholeness in my life – for many reasons. Among them was the fact that I was trying to be “the hero” as I call it, moving through life like a knight in shining armor while neglecting key relationships with those around me.

As I interact with people on a personal level more and more I see that people, especially men, are much more alike than we are different, at least when it comes to opening up about our fears, failures and imperfections. I realize that I’m speaking in generalities but I do see some consistent trends.

We men, in general, don’t like to admit that we have needs.

We men, in general, work hard to cover up fears, failure and imperfections so that others will think the best of us.

We men, in general, think that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and if we go there will make us even more of a failure than we think we already are.

Several years ago, through a God-ordained and defining experience of personal failure and brokenness I discovered just the opposite.

When I started to shed the cloak of “perfection” and began to more openly confess and admit my sin, failure and imperfection I actually discovered that people can be forgiving. They can be loving and accepting too.

It’s fascinating to me that true confession is actually getting the bad stuff out in the open so everyone, including myself, can say, “Yes, that’s horrible! But I love and forgive you. I know the bad stuff is not the real you!”

One of my first experiences of confession outside of my closest family members came when I asked to see a couple with whom my wife and I had come to know very well. I was almost certain when I walked into their home that it might be the last time I would ever enter their door. After they heard what I had to say that might, in my thinking, be the last time they would ever talk to me. Confession was on my heart and rejection was my expectation.

To my amazement, after hearing my broken, heartfelt confession my friends embraced me in a way I had never experienced before. Their response was just the opposite of what I was expecting.

I stumbled reluctantly into the reality that humility and vulnerability hold the key to the door of forgiveness and restoration.

Really, we don’t relate well to people who are fake – trying to make others believe they are something other than who they are.

As I’ve lived with this new lease on life for some years now I see that I grew up with a perspective that some counselors call “splitting.” It’s the idea that internally we “split” ourselves, others and the world into “all good” or “all bad.” This perspective will not endure reality over time. The very best of us have badness and imperfection all mixed together and it’s reflected in our world as well.

Since we all have failings and imperfections, why not admit to them? I have found that to be healthy and whole I have to live this way.

The verse quoted above from the Apostle Paul is an instruction to people of faith in Jesus to be kind, compassionate and forgiving. It’s not a suggestion! It’s a command based on what Jesus has already done for all mankind. The perfect man gave His life for completely imperfect people. How can we follow Him without confessing our sin to others, asking for their forgiveness and forgiving them?

In order to pull this off we need to have communities of people who express faith in Jesus and follow Him to be modeling this – daily! That’s a challenge to me, but it’s a challenge to you as well. We need environments of grace and relationships of trust in order to make this work, but that’s another subject!

What are you hiding today and from whom? What do you fear that someone close to you might find out about you? What are you not disclosing to a friend or family member?

What I didn’t know was that what I was hiding with the greatest passion could actually lead to greater wholeness and happiness in my life if I only would admit to failure as a starting point.

When I started taking more steps toward vulnerability in my own life, carefully exposing my failures to trusted friends and family and dropping my “appearance” of arrogance and perfection, I found people to be much more forgiving and accepting than I realized.

Humility and vulnerability truly hold the key to the door labelled “forgiveness.”

I’m certainly never going get everything right and I’ll never be perfect in this life. But I can say that greater wholeness of life came home to my heart when my imaginary “knight in shining armor” got down off of his horse and started seeking grace and forgiveness. It’s freely available to the humble of heart.

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“’So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’  But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’” Exodus 3:10-11 (NIV)

One of my earliest childhood memories, of which there are many, is that of constructing a home-made bomb that I nearly threw at a neighbor’s house.

I must have been around five or six years old at the time. One day our neighbors across the street had unexpected company and as a result I wasn’t being invited in to play with their children that day. It really messed up my plans! I got so mad that I thought I would construct my own bomb and throw it at their house!

The idea actually came from a television show that we had watched as a family some days prior to this. I can’t recall the name of the show but the lead character was being stalked by the bad guys on an island. To defend himself he found some gunpowder and rags and stuffed them in a hollow gourd he found in an old shed. Covering a strip of the cloth in gunpowder as a fuse the bomb was complete!

I followed my television counterpart by finding a small glass jar with a lid. I stuffed strips of cloth and soaked them in lighter fluid my father had for his cigarette lighter. The bomb came complete with a fuse which I was ready to light when my parents caught me looking for matches. Fortunately disaster was averted and my punishment was swift! Discipline was administered soundly in those days although I do recall my parents being more merciful than just!

Looking back on the experience, on the positive side it took real creativity, initiative, planning, and bravery to pull that off that stunt.  But you could also call my actions childish, selfish, stupid, cruel, and yes – evil!

That was my first and last experience of constructing bombs, although I grew quite fond of fireworks! Fortunately my life has not been defined by that mistake. However, since that time I have made other major blunders, mistakes and even evil practices that could so easily define me. I’m sure the same could be said about you.

In the passage quoted above God appears to Moses as He speaks from a bush that continues burning. It’s one of the most critical passages in all of Scripture where God commissions the His new leader of the nation Israel. Moses will go on to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt through the wilderness right to the brink of the Promised Land, a journey which will last for forty years. There are many things that define the life of Moses and his faithful leadership of His people under God’s direction. He’s known as one of Israel’s greatest leaders.

It’s not often that we reflect on the fact that Moses is also a murderer who some years earlier had killed an Egyptian slave, hid him in the sand and then fled to Midian. We tend to focus more on Moses’ identity as a chosen leader rather than a murderer but somehow in God’s economy there is room for both.

A significant lesson here that continues throughout Scripture is that God is continually redeeming people, especially in their sins and failures, and using them for His own powerful purposes.

Upon hearing God’s voice Moses first response was, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Neither God nor Moses make any mention whatsoever about the murder incident that is recorded just a few verses earlier, although it may have occurred around forty years previously. I wonder if Moses, after all those years still felt unworthy of such a role as God had for him.

Whatever we think of our sins, failures and shortcomings, either our own or others, it’s important that we don’t allow them to define or control us. I think God showed Moses and every generation since then that failure need not be final but even in our failure God can bring us on to a better place if we allow Him to do His work in and through us.

The lesson for us is to believe in ourselves and others despite their failures. And more importantly to believe in our Lord and Maker who in His Son Jesus is bringing redemption and restoration to all who turn to Him in faith.

If the Bible’s record is accurate – and I believe it is – it’s good to know that if there’s a second chance for murderers there must be many more chances for all of us. Yes, even for childhood explosive experts!


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My thoughts on healthy acceptance of what we cannot change in life

“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.’ . . . Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” – Romans 15:1-3, 7(NIV)

A New Resolve: “I cannot change others and must strive to accept them as they are, not as I would wish them to be.”

If you are anything like me, it’s often a struggle to accept people as they are. Especially those who are close to us!

The crunch comes the closer people get to each other –

Wives accepting husbands

Husbands accepting wives

Parents accepting Children

Children accepting parents

Brothers accepting sisters

Sisters accepting brothers

Co-workers accepting co-workers

And the list goes on!

The reality is that people will not and cannot change to meet all of our demands and expectations. To live in hope that this will happen is a false reality.

The verses quoted above come from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament. This age-old dilemma of not being able to accept others was of course an issue in the early church. Paul’s words are quite challenging for us even today.

The model for the follower of Jesus is to accept others regardless of their failures and weaknesses just as God has accepted us in Jesus.

When we stop and reflect on it the word “unconditional” should come to mind. God’s love toward us is not conditioned on our ability to change ourselves and “clean up our act” so that we can make ourselves more acceptable to God.

When we were hopeless and heartless cases God reached out to us in His Son. Jesus Christ demonstrated His love for us through sacrificial service even to the point of death. Throughout the ages God has been making allowances for us to come to Him in a personal relationship just as we are!

Several years ago my wife was talking to a woman who had been attending Bible Studies for several months but had been unable to commit her life to Jesus in a personal way. When my wife discovered what was blocking her it was the problem of her smoking! Another Christian worker had told her that unless she “gave up” smoking God would not accept her.

This is actually the opposite of the Gospel of Jesus. The good news is that we can never “clean up” our lives enough to be acceptable to God. That is why God has made our redemption possible through Jesus.

It’s also helpful to realize that as we take a closer look at Scripture we see that God has the ability to separate us from our sins and failings and does not judge our value as people based on what we do or don’t do.

Finite beings though we are, we often have difficulty separating people from what they do. When the actions of others displease us we tend to judge them and “write them off” in our books as being unacceptable.

I think this works in tandem with how we view ourselves. If we are unable to separate our own failings from our “worthiness” as human beings and forgive ourselves it will be difficult to forgive and accept others. The deep knowledge that our sins and failures do not define who we are will pave the way for us to extend the same grace to others.

Paul’s instructions to us are for the stated purpose of “building others up” instead of tearing them down. When you think about it this is what God is in the process of doing with us. Paul says that being able to accept others unconditionally is a sign of strength – not weakness. The more we grow in this area the stronger we become.

If we truly believe in a personal God who has revealed Himself through Jesus and accepts us unconditionally when we turn to Him how much more should we be accepting of others regardless of their shortcomings or attitudes toward us?

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“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.’” – Matthew 22:37-39 (NIV)

Do you ever wonder if Jesus ever had any bad hair days? With all the important things on His mind it’s doubtful that Jesus, The Son of God, ever worried too much about things that concern most of the rest of us humans.

In all the Gospel accounts you never hear Jesus complain about the state of his hair, the dusty roads or his dirty feet. And He did have dirty feet. We know that because he walked the same paths of first century Palestine as did his disciples and the rest of humanity. He also got tired and frustrated like the rest of us.

Jesus, however, seemed to have a focus that transcended the mundane things that seem to distract us on a regular basis, but that’s a different subject.

I’m learning more these days about the concept of “self-compassion.” It’s actually a very liberating concept which differs greatly from self-esteem or self-indulgence. It simply means that in order for us to have true compassion for others, we must first have compassion for ourselves.

How do you relate to yourself? Does that influence how you relate to others?

To be honest for most of my life I’ve given myself a harder time than any other human being I know. It’s doubtful that I would ever hear Jesus speak to Himself, or to me, the way I regularly talk to myself.

Can you ever imagine the Lord Jesus Christ making these comments to Himself?

“You’re a dumb human being!”

“Your feet stink!”

“You’re a hopeless case!”

“Why don’t you crawl in a hole where you belong?”

Of course we know that Jesus wouldn’t say that to Himself because He was the perfect Son of God. But how would Jesus speak to us about our concerns both major and minor?

Jesus valued each human being as worthy of love. He knew that every human was made in the image of God and was worthy of His affection and admonition. He gave His very life for each and every human being regardless of nationality, race or intellectual aptitude – despite all of their faults and failings.

He taught us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, implying that we should love ourselves and others as God’s image-bearers.

He bids everyone to come to Him by faith and find redemption, soul-rest and restoration regardless of their situation in life.

If the Divine Son of God never had a bad word to say about Himself, or us, then perhaps neither should we.

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“The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7b (New Living Translation)

A well-respected man lived in a quiet suburban neighborhood and was known for keeping a luxurious garden. All the neighbors around him admired the way he kept his lawn cut and shrubs and hedges trimmed. He seemed to care for every detail of his garden, particularly his flowers which dazzled with color and beauty.

Most days this man could be seen doing some activity in his garden and although he was a fairly quiet individual he always greeted the neighbors and seemed happy and content outdoors. Many of the neighbors were motivated to keep up their own gardens to a higher standard, but most of them could only admire this man’s accomplishments.

One day, without warning, the neighbors were shocked to see their friend dash out of his house and begin to destroy his garden. The man, obviously shaken and angry, began to pull up the beautiful flowers and wildly cut down his shrubs. He ran to the back of his house and brought out a tiller. He then began to dig up his lawn with wild abandon. He didn’t seem to care that the fruits of years of his hard, dedicated labor seemed to be vanishing in a matter of minutes.

The neighbors were obviously in disbelief. Such behavior from someone so steady and predictable seemed quite outlandish. After the initial shock wore off they started to talk among themselves as to what should be done about this sort of person displaying this type of behavior in their midst. Some of the neighbors said that he should face consequences for his actions. After all it was a peaceful and attractive neighborhood – not a war zone. He had kept a fine garden for a long time and now to destroy it was almost unforgivable.

Others wondered what brought on such bizarre behavior. A couple of them really cared about their friend and found enough courage to approach him, face to face, and ask him what was wrong. They were heartbroken to discover that their friend and neighbor, unknown to them, had been living with significant personal challenges and problems for some years. Outside the house, the man put on a brave face and a confident persona but inside the house he was filled with despair and regret that none of his neighbors ever observed.

The man with the beautiful garden had never opened up to a single soul about the heavy burdens he had been carrying for a number of years. It seems that his garden had been a way to escape from all the pressures and problems of life he faced inside his own home. One day the pressure got to be too much and the only way he knew to respond was by destroying the very thing that had been positive about his life.

Word got around the neighborhood as to what motivated this outlandish behavior. Some of the neighbors continued to visit their friend, and to listen with compassion as he reflected on his life and what was troubling him. Many of the difficult issues of his life even began to be resolved.

Eventually he started working out in the garden once again, re-planting a new lawn and replacing the lost flowers and shrubs.

When the neighborhood returned to normal most everyone was happy to see the gardener back at work, creating something of joy and beauty.

Sadly, some living around him still refused to befriend their neighbor, doubting that he had really changed. They feared that perhaps another attack on the garden would always be imminent. They could never get the picture out of their minds of a man destroying his beautiful garden right there in their own neighborhood.

Still others who were wise and compassionate realized that what goes on inside a man’s house will become evident outside the house. They now enjoyed a deeper relationship with their friend than ever before.

“The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

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“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?’  Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants.  . .’ ” Matthew 18:21-23 (NIV)

“Here’s the deal,” coach blurted out. “I can give ALL of you one lick and we’ll forget about it, or I’ll give ALL of you three licks and THEN we’ll talk about it.”

Even though it was over forty years ago I can still hear coach Hall’s tone of voice and sense my feeling of helplessness.

It was my third year of secondary school and I was one of about fifteen second and third year students who were taking golf for their physical education requirement. There was a good system in place whereby we played a few holes of golf at local courses after school and then were required to hand in signed scorecards the following day proving we weren’t skipping out.  

Early in this particular year we had a stretch of frosty weather and by the time we got out to the courses they were closed. A few days of this went by and no cards were showing up at school. We all thought we had passed on clear information on the matter to Mr. Hall our basketball coach-turned-golf-monitor. But to our shock he decided to dispense with the perceived problem en masse. He called a short meeting after school and meted out the discipline he thought would rectify our infraction to the satisfaction of the school administration. It was a simple case to him that no cards were showing up and we were all guilty!

That day I and my teammates were victims of unexpected injustice as we all lined up for the ONE very painful and quick paddle to the backside while the coach was temporarily relieved to think that he had fairly rectified the situation. Little did any of us know what would happen next!

Being on the receiving end of unfair treatment brings wounds that can last for years. The deeper the wound the more difficult it is to forgive. Many have observed that the wounded who refuse to forgive are actually held captive by the offenders who often forget about their actions because they may be nursing wounds themselves.

I think we all find forgiving those who have wounded us to be a difficult matter.

Where we live in Ireland we find this repeatedly with victims of family and institutional abuse. One of my colleagues is a specialist in counselling adult victims of child sexual abuse. From all I have gleaned from her over the years I know that forgiveness in these situations is a process.  It’s one that can last for years and even over a lifetime.

We are also all too familiar with institutional abuse in this country. The Magdalene  laundries and their enduring legacy have returned to the Irish news in recent days. These were institutions which existed in Ireland, Britain and other parts of Europe and even in North America from the 18th to the late-20th centuries supposedly to house “fallen women.” Originally designed to be agencies of mercy they eventually became instruments of abuse and bondage for many girls who ended up there.

My heart goes out to the women who were victims of these institutions and no amount of whitewashing can take away the enduring emotional pain of the victims as well as perhaps the perpetrators of the abuse who were likely themselves victimized in their younger days.

Although no injustice  I have ever experienced has come anywhere near the abuse many like these women have experienced I do know that bitterness and a refusal to forgive others blinds us to our own sin and rebellion. When we consider forgiving  those who have wounded us it often causes us to forget our own rebellion and the harm we have caused others.

Ultimately the only way we can understand and cope with forgiveness is in the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He told a story in Matthew chapter 18:21-35 of two servants who owed debts. One’s debt was enormous and the other was pretty minor. The comparison  of the debt is between the first servant who owed  “ten thousand talents” or millions to his master vs. another servant who owed  very little, “a hundred denarii,” to the other servant.

The story is one of extreme contrast – the first servant, after begging for mercy was released from his debt only to go out and exercise harsh judgement against his fellow servant who owed him very little.

Jesus had a way of putting things in perspective. The implication is that no matter how great the infraction against us may seem, there is our Master in heaven whom we have grossly offended. Our debt is enormous – no matter how much we try to minimize it. From our perspective, what others have done against us always seems large and worthy of ultimate justice. In fact, just the opposite is true. The person who bows the knee to Jesus,  who ultimately paid the price for all sin and injustice at the cross, is the One who carried the brunt of the worst abuse anyone could suffer.

The simple fact is that we have no idea of the large debt we owe to our Heavenly Father. Despite the enormous size of the debt it has been cancelled at the Cross of Jesus. We who have been the  greatest recipients of Grace and Mercy are called on to forgive any debts that are taken out against us.

The message is all too clear and all too difficult to cope with at times.

When Mr. Hall thought that he had settled the matter of the missing scorecards, he didn’t realize that one of the student’s mother’s (mine) would issue a complaint against him to the Principal. After some quick deliberations the Principal cancelled the golf programme for us younger students for the remainder of the school year. We ended up in the gym for physical education instead of on the golf course.  Now I was working through forgiving my mother for making a fuss about the situation!

In a world where abuse, violence and injustice will probably be with us until the Lord’s return we still have to work through the actions and attitudes related to forgiveness. It’s only at the Cross of Jesus where Sin and Grace meet. Only there we glean insight into the forgiveness we need to receive and give on a daily basis.  

In the end I think we have to admit that those of us who are the recipients of greater mercy are to be greater instruments of forgiveness as well.  

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