Forgiving God

To discuss forgiving God may seem as if I am accusing God of doing wrong, but that is not the case. Forgiving God is very similar to forgiving ourselves since in both instances we are letting go of our disappointment. Just as we can be angry with ourselves when we do not live up to our own standards we may become resentful toward God for not being the God we want. Because of our limited understanding we often believe that there is something better that God could be doing than what he is. The reality is that we do become unhappy with God, and we need to “forgive” or let go of that disappointment.

Our unhappiness with God when we do not get what we want is not because everything we want is bad. We innately desire peace, happiness, relationship, and many other good things. Often, the circumstances of our struggles are beyond our control but we believe that they are not beyond God’s control. The good we desire seems elusive and we wonder why God does not give it more readily.

Our disappointment is inevitable because we want life to be different than it is, for tragedy not to occur, hurt and pain to go away, and we lay the blame on God for what is going wrong. We are not interested in fine distinctions of allowing or causing, God is responsible for our existence and apparently knew the evil that was going to happen even if he did not cause it. Clearly, we have reason to be upset with God because we trust God for goodness that seems not to come. We may believe that God does not actually do what is wrong, but his action or inaction often seems wrong to us. This is what we must let go of . . . that God is not the God we want.

We do not have to like everything that happens to us. To be unhappy with God is not sinful, but could descend into bitterness and resentment if we do not let go of our disappointment and “forgive” God. God’s will is not always our will, as Jesus expresses distinctly in the garden (Luke 22:42). Jesus had to let go of what he wanted and to accept the will of his Father, but the gospel accounts relate how agonizing this was. The temptation to avoid the cross was what the devil offered three years earlier at the beginning of his ministry, so I suspect that he struggled to accept his Father’s will the whole time. It was not during the night in the garden only. We could say Jesus had to “forgive” his Father for not letting that cup pass.

We see a similar but lesser situation with Paul who prayed for his thorn in the flesh to be taken away (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). He wanted God to be the God who takes the thorn away, but God did not. In the end, he accepts that God’s strength is brought to completion in weakness. I would call this “forgiving” God for not being the God he hoped for.

Some say that we deserve all the bad that happens to us and truly deserve far worse. According to their way of thinking, we should be thankful that not even greater suffering comes into our lives. If one is unhappy for what God is doing or not doing, their response is that God by all rights should do even worse so you should be grateful. However, such talk lines up with the friends of Job (Job 11:6) who are chastised by God for saying such things (Job 42:7).

We would all like God to be “useful” to us. In other words, we would like God to help us and protect us and bless us in the ways we want that to happen. Whenever God does not meet our expectations we ultimately have to accept God for who God is. We also learn to trust that God is more the God we need than we realize, and that he does what is truly good and helpful. Letting go of how we want God to be and trusting him involves “forgiving” God for how he does not do what we think is best.

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Forgiving Yourself

Last week, in response to my thoughts on forgiving the unforgivable hurts of others, one reader requested that I address forgiving ourselves. To do this, we must first define what we mean by “forgiving ourselves” because it is very different from forgiving others.

Essentially, forgiveness is the extraordinary grace given when a person who was mistreated does not hold that offense against the person who wronged them. But when we speak of forgiving ourselves we are not both the offender and the offended. Instead, we have done something wrong to another or acted poorly and are angry with ourselves for the failure. We have not mistreated ourselves and need to extend forgiveness to ourselves, but are disappointed at what we have done to someone else. This forgiving ourselves is more about accepting and coming to terms with our own wrong actions. The “offense” is how our wrong behavior is not who we want to be. Getting over our anger at ourselves in these situations does not even have much to do with whether or not the person we mistreated forgives us. We are miserable because we failed to live up to our own standards.

Sometimes the actions that we regret and hold against ourselves were done long ago when we had a different mindset about such matters. Now our understanding about what is good and right has changed. We are in disbelief that we could have acted so poorly in the past, even though at the time we thought nothing of what we did. To forgive ourselves we need to let go, not of an offense against us, but of the illusion that we are better than we actually are.

Therefore, to forgive ourselves starts with admitting that we have not been as good as we want to be. Once again, like in forgiving others their unforgivable offenses, our difficulty forgiving ourselves is a opposed by pride. We want to believe that we are basically good people, and often excuse many of our mistakes because our intentions were genuine. However, when we have truly and undeniably behaved badly, we must face our sinfulness much to the horror of our pride.

Being forgiven is a profoundly humiliating spiritual experience. To receive forgiveness requires acknowledging our misbehavior, and the forgiveness itself is an unmerited gift. We are humbled by both the admission of guilt and free gift. We must accept that we cannot undo or fix what we have done which was harmful, and we are simply in need of the mercy of forgiveness. We would rather, to satisfy our pride, make up for what we did wrong than have to receive the charity of forgiveness. I see at least two parts to self-forgiveness, and pride will be a hindrance for both. 

One part is accepting forgiveness. This may or nay not be extended by those we hurt, but is always God’s gift to us. Trusting in the totality of God’s forgiveness will help us forgive ourselves, but may not be enough to relieve us completely of our anger at ourselves. The second part is that we fully accept our weak and imperfect present condition. Even when we have been granted a willing spirit, the flesh is weak (Matthew 26:41). This is no excuse for ungodly behavior, but the humbling awareness that we have sinned and will continue to struggle with sin. If we think of ourselves as unlikely to make mistakes, we will be devastated when we do wrong.  

Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.  1 John 3:2

If the root problem is pride, then the path to forgiving myself begins with admitting and not denying that I have sinned. That confession is made to God and to whomever I have wronged. I need to trust that God’s forgiveness is certain, and to make amends if possible to any others I have harmed. All this is done within the humble acknowledgment that I am a very imperfect person. I must let go of any false idea in which I believe I can be perfect, and so let go of past failures that could haunt me. God is much more comfortable with my imperfection than I am. To be like God, who is accepting, I must accept my present weak condition. We learn from he past but move toward the future.

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Toward Forgiveness

When I examine myself carefully, I find that I am not a very forgiving person though I could easily pass for one. I may seem like a forgiving person, perhaps to others and often in my own eyes, but when faced with some deep hurt or something that truly offends me, I have great difficulty forgiving. The reason I tell myself that I am a forgiving person is that I easily let go of the “forgivable”.

By “forgivable” things I mean what others do or say over which we could take offense, but do not. For whatever reason, we view these as smaller slights and not major injuries. Maybe we speak to the person quickly and discover a misunderstanding and the issue never becomes a source of resentment for us. Perhaps we give them the benefit of the doubt, assume they did not intend to be hurtful, or conclude they were having a bad day. Thus we temper our thinking about what happened, keeping us from taking such potentially hurtful actions or words personally. Letting forgivable matters go is good but we never really saw these actions as unforgivable.

Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 1 Peter 4:8

Forgiveness is letting go of the unforgivable. These offenses are when we remain convinced that we were deliberately mistreated no matter how hard we try to think they did not mean it and we ought to let it go. The events remain in our thoughts and the memories continue to hurt. There are no extenuating circumstances. We were sinned against and we believe that we have every right to be angry, hurt, and bitter. Now we are dealing with what is unforgivable to us, and forgiving these is truly difficult.

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Colossians 3:13

The question is how to move toward this God-like forgiveness when we have experienced what we consider unforgivable. A good beginning place is to examine what is happening internally within us, the reason we view some actions as forgivable and others as unforgivable. Perhaps a simple example can help us think about this.

Let’s assume that when others are not punctual it irks us to no end, but if someone is forgetful we let it go. Both are relatively small matters, but one seems inexcusable and the other forgivable. I think the difference between our two different reactions involves pride. If I pride myself on always being on time, I will likely consider it a greater offense and extremely rude for someone to be late. They are not valuing my time. My time is important and they do not respect me, as apparent by their lateness. However, if I myself am late at times, their tardiness is easily forgivable.

Their actions become unforgivable because of my pride both in being punctual and in the value I place on my time. Forgetfulness may seem like a personal quirk that I easily “forgive”. I will also likely conclude that timeliness is something they could manage if they really wanted to, but may think that forgetfulness is not as much their fault. So I let go of their absent mindedness, but continue to hold against them their chronic lateness. Because we can easily take pride in what we do well, these are the very areas in which the failures of others often seem unforgivable. Polite and courteous people may find rudeness unforgivable. Loyal individuals have trouble forgiving disloyalty, the generous, miserliness, the religious, sacrilegious behavior, and so on.

If I am correct, then when I am unforgiving I need to examine where pride, a deadly mindset, is fueling my difficulty in forgiving. Thoughts like ‘how dare they’, ‘I deserve better’, and ‘what they did or said was wrong’, when repeated endlessly in our heads, keep us from forgiving. It may be true what they did was wrong and we do deserve better, but forgiveness is not about whether what happened was right but whether we will forgive the unforgivable wrongs we suffer. Eventually, we want to move more things from the unforgivable category of what we cannot get over, to forgivable matters. Addressing our pride will likely help.

Forgiveness can become the gift that we give without even thinking. We may, with grace and inner work, not think of ourselves as forgiving people because the offenses of others have ceased to be major matters we wrestle to forgive, and are simply overlooked in love. We may become so forgiving that we do not think of ourselves as forgiving.

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Beyond Cynicism

How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! Psalm 1:1

The Jewish prayers begin with this blessing for the person who distances herself or himself from corrupting influences. Along with wicked counsel and sinful paths, the psalmist warns against the company of scoffers. In other words, we ought to be careful not to join in with those who mock, deride, and ridicule constantly, finding fault and tearing down because they view everything with contempt. Consider how a scornful attitude contrasts with love.

[Love] does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:6-7

Mocking everything and hoping all things are clearly at odds, but does Paul imply that love is naive and gullible? I do not believe this is the case because we do not have to be either naive or derisive. Love that hopes all things can still be worldly wise without ridiculing everything. In fact, the psalmist is saying we ought to be leery of those who are scoffers!

Proper skepticism does not mock everything but knows not to trust everything either. Learning to distrust the untrustworthy is actually a sign of wisdom. Being astute enough to not believe everything nor everyone does not mean one has to treat all things with contempt.

But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. John 2:24

Because Jesus did not trust the motives of others we could say he was cynical about human tendencies. Cynicism is the belief that people often act from self-interest rather than from higher ideals. We would have to be ignorant of ourselves and naive about others not to realize this to be true. But to be cynical, that is, aware of human frailties, does not necessitate being scornful and derisive.

Though Jesus knew better than to trust anyone other than his Father, his life was also an expression of divine love. He could be suspicious of human motives while hoping all things in his Father. Jesus knew what his Father was doing and could do even within those he knew would easily disappoint and fail. He did not ridicule or mock people for their weaknesses.

Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers. Luke 22:31-32

Jesus understood Peter’s weaknesses but he also knew the faith that his Father could grow in Peter nonetheless. A naive person would not believe Peter could deny Jesus, a cynic knows that Peter likely will, but beyond cynicism there is the hope that trusts in what God can do despite human weakness.

If we are deeply cynical, then we have honestly faced the disappointments of life. We cannot return, nor should we, to simple naive hope. However, we do not want to become scornful and scoffers. Mature love moves beyond cynicism to a kind of skeptical hope which incorporates a wise distrust of human strength within a confidence in our transformation by grace. The loving do not scoff and ridicule, but trust that grace will succeed in healing the deep flaws which are so evident within us all.

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From and Through

I believe it is important to understand that Jesus saves us not from but through the troubles of life, that is, through suffering, sin, and death. If we were saved from such tribulation we would avoid these entirely. However, that is not what God promises. Grace is saving us through them, meaning that we will continue to experience suffering, sin, and death within the Christian life though these no longer hold ultimate power over us.

While this may be disappointing to hear if we expected complete deliverance, everyone, believers and non-believers alike, experiences suffering, sin, and death. These are endemic to all who are in the flesh and have not yet become what we will be in the life to come (1 John 3:2). Jesus did not teach us a way to avoid the present realities of human existence, but how to live through this world and yet overcome in the same way he did.

These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world. John 16:33

Regarding suffering, the first of these, Christians struggle in this world with the same physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual sufferings which are common to all. The promise of Christ is that in him, by following his way, and through the grace of God, we are not destroyed by this suffering.

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps. 1 Peter 1:21

Christ is our example of how to suffer, not one who enables us to avoid suffering. Without his example and teaching, to say nothing of his abiding presence and grace, we could be completely overwhelmed by suffering. By grace our sufferings have been taken up by Christ, we are never left alone, and we find strength to help in time of need (Psalm 46:1).

Concerning the second, sin, we know from experience that being a believer does not insulate us from sin. I have known some who expected an instantaneous relief from temptation and sinfulness. However, in Christ we still wrestle with temptation, weakness, ignorance, and how these contribute to our failures to emulate God.

If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 1 John 1:7

Jesus is helping us through our struggle with sin in this world, cleansing us, but not taking the whole problem from us. Of course, we continue to strive to resist our disordered desires. We have been delivered from slavery to sin (Romans 6:6), but the struggle against sinfulness persists.

Finally, Jesus saves us through death and not from our mortal fate. He is the resurrection and the new life which lies beyond this existence (John 11:25). Since he has conquered death, it has no power over us (Hebrews 2:14-15) though we still must pass through it. A realistic understanding that we must pass though these struggles, rather than them being taken from us, keeps us from being disillusioned when facing the difficulties of this life.

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Grace and Confession

For many of us, the prospect of admitting our misdeeds stirs feelings of fear and shame. In this world we expect punishment and rejection for wrongs committed. We do not anticipate forgiveness and reconciliation if we confess sins, but instead retribution and being declared worthless. We are accustomed to conditional love. Our good standing, or so we have learned, is contingent on worthiness, being good enough, and measuring up to some standard.

Seldom have we been truly loved and accepted just as we are, no matter our successes or failures. Such belonging is the gift of grace and gives us a sense of safety and security. We do not have to fear losing everything because of some oversight, poor judgment, or disobedience. Consequently, when a relationship is unconditioned, the admission of failures cannot threaten our belonging.

Because we have experienced much more performance-based acceptance than uncommon grace, we easily import these expectations into how we think of ourselves and God. We fear that God’s displeasure will displace his love if we sin. We recoil from admitting sin because we think God will be angry with us, as if there is no mercy and grace, and are scared that we can no longer be God’s children.

And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Luke 15:21

Jesus put these words into the mouth of the prodigal son because he understood our fear of punishment, rejection, and being counted as worthless. The son believes that the punishment for his actions will be permanent estrangement. However, Jesus is revealing to us that this fear is completely unfounded. The son is neither punished nor disowned, but forgiven and received with joy.

Surely it is not an overstatement to say a central dynamic of the Gospel is grace. Well before the of coming of God into the world as Jesus, Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt. Moses makes it abundantly clear that this was an act of grace dependent only on the love of God.

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Deuteronomy 7:7-8

The Exodus was Israel’s introduction into grace, and so it becomes a metaphor for our own salvation, from slavery and death, through the waters, and on a journey to the promised land. Grace must not be viewed as some gift only appearing late in the story of God’s working.

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. John 1:16-17

John is not saying there was no grace and truth until Jesus. The giving of the law to Moses was a grace, and it certainly contained truth. However, Christ is grace upon grace, and actually the fulfillment and the essential meaning of the law itself. All God’s merciful actions through Israel’s journey were grace upon grace, culminating in the Word made flesh.

When we can hear and marvel at the central dynamic of grace, that the love and saving acts of God are merciful and not in nay manner conditioned on our worthiness, confession can be something we do eagerly. We fear no punishment, being only disappointed with ourselves for having fallen into ungodly attitudes or behavior. Being forgiven is pure joy. There is no question about whether we will be forgiven or punished and rejected. God is just and faithful to forgive us (1 John 1:9). Having the love, mercy, and forgiveness of God reaffirmed no matter what we have gives us hope. What is more encouraging and motivates us to renewed efforts at faithfulness than grace?

A grace-infused understanding of how we stand before God, forever within his forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love, is essential to any regular practice of confession that is life-giving. We should have joy and relief in confession. This is why the church has called this the sacrament of reconciliation. Once we know that reconciliation is always the outcome, confession relieves our burdens and grants us peace.

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Repetition in Prayer

Many of us were taught that reciting or repeating a prayer, anything other than coming up with our own words, was the wrong way to pray. Jesus’ teaching from the Sermon on the Mount has been put forward as the basis for rejecting all but extemporaneous prayer. 

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. Matthew 6:7-8

The basic question is whether Jesus is declaring all repeated prayers to be meaningless, or if repetition can be either meaningful or meaningless, and we are to avoid the latter. Remember, Jesus prayed the exact same prayer three times in the garden (Matthew 26:44), and he also gave his disciples a prayer to say immediately after this criticism of repetition (Matthew 6:9-13). Therefore, Jesus is not rejecting all repetition but only meaningless ones.

The most obvious indication that Jesus is not criticizing all repetitive prayer is because he warns against the meaningless repetition of the Gentiles and says nothing of Jewish prayers. This is very telling, because the Jews had been praying and reciting the psalms for centuries. If Jesus opposed all repeated or recited prayers why not criticize Jewish daily prayer, synagogue prayers, and the temple prayers? The Gentiles were not the only ones who used repetition. Jesus is warning against what makes Gentile repetition meaningless and is concerned that his disciples might do the same. Jesus points out two reasons that the Gentiles use repetition, both of which are based on flawed understandings of how and why we offer prayers.

First, Jesus says that Gentiles are repetitive because they believe they will be heard if they use many words. They do not believe their gods are inclined to hear them. The situation reminds us of Elijah’s mocking of the prophets of Ba’al that perhaps their god was relieving himself, asleep, or had gone on a trip (I Kings 18:27). Their antics were to gain the attention of a disinterested or inattentive deity. Conversely, Jesus is insistent on how his Father is eager and willing to hear and help (Matthew 7:11) because of his great love for us.

On that day you will ask in my name. I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. John 16:26-27

Second, Jesus implies that Gentiles think they are telling their gods something which their gods to not know. He reminds his disciples that God already knows what they need before they ask. This is also a mistaken understanding of God, and if believed, will lead to useless repetition as we imagine ourselves informing God.

These two underlying conceptions of their gods were why the Gentiles’ repeated their prayers, are not true of God. Jesus in fact wants us to repeat the prayer he gave, as the church has practiced since the beginning, but not for those mistaken reasons. Poor thinking about God may lead us to engage in meaningless repetition. What is in the mind of the one praying, the reason for reciting or repeating prayers, is what will either make them meaningful or meaningless. 

Ironically, the person who believes his prayer will be more readily heard by God or is authentic becausehe is not repeating a prayer composed by someone else, is engaged in meaningless non-repetition! This is also a flawed understanding of what makes prayer meaningful because such a person relies improperly on the non-repetitive nature of his prayer as why God will hear. Neither repetition nor non-repetition is the secret to some prayer formula, but what matters is the act of lifting our hearts up to God.

Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.
Psalm 86:4-7

You may pray these words daily and your repetition will never be meaningless. May we become the words we pray.

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