Holey, Wholly, Holy

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“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life…” (2 Peter 1)

What a claim!

There is no question but that we are summoned to live holy lives. Hebrews 12:14 refers to that “holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” and time and again we read the injunction to “Be holy for I am holy.” (Leviticus 19:2)

But how’s it to be accomplished?

The first key is in that word “us”. “His divine power has given us….”

Our culture idolizes personal autonomy and those who single-handedly muscle their way forward in the race of life. In God’s grace, this isn’t how the Christian life works.

In God’s perfect design, he has given us his church as his holy community formed by the gospel. We know God and his love better as we fellowship with one another. We push each other on toward deeper faith and holiness as we encourage one another, confess our sins to each other, and pray for each other. God has given gifted and experienced teachers to build up the body of Christ and lead us to maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Don’t short-circuit God’s design for you in the church by trying to do it on your own—you were never meant to. Think community.

The second key is in the emphatic verb:His divine power has given us….” He has indeed given us what we need.

A gift need not be negotiated or discussed, only received with pleasure and unwrapped with alacrity! Think gift.

And it’s Jesus. Jesus is God’s gift to us. His life, his work, his beauty.

And His work is to solve the precise problem before us here, the problem of how unholy people can stand before a holy God. “But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.” (1 John 3:5)

If I tell you not to think about all of your past failures, what will you think about? Your past failures. Our focus must not be stopping our sin or failures because the law (simply knowing what you should and shouldn’t do) has no power to free us from the bondage of sin.

But the grace of Christ does. The grace of God teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and say “yes” to living “self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:11-12). Instead of focusing on your sin, focus on the beauty and grace of Christ. Then when you begin thinking of sinning, you can rejoice that Christ has freed you from sin’s penalty and power (even if you still feel temptation’s draw).

Your sins have been nailed to the cross. Keep your eyes fixed on the cross and let your joy in grace dwarf the misery of sin. Think gift, think grace. Focus on what God has done and not on what you have not done!

The third key is the comprehensive supply:Everything we need…”

Meditate on this all day until it becomes clear and strong in your mind. It’s so important to fill your mind with what the Bible says about you rather than what you feel about yourself.

If you’ve ever thought that breaking sinful habits is impossible, remember that you don’t have to be a “super Christian” to live in obedience.

  • In Christ, God has equipped you with everything you need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). This means you are able to walk in the righteousness God wants of you.
  • In Christ, no temptation is too strong for you (1 Corinthians 10:13). This means you always have what it takes to overcome temptation when it comes your way.

This mind-shift won’t mean you’re perfect, but it will remind you of Christ’s power to overcome sin and temptation and keep you from making excuses.  Think: “I am fully equipped to obey all the time.” Don’t think “performance.” Think “obedience.” The first is self-centred. The second is relationship-centred.

And the fourth key is what God supplies:  “His divine power…”

We are not empty-handed in our battle against sin. God is actively working in us and giving us power through his Spirit to fight sin and live righteously. Strive for Spirit-dependent lives that fight sin and walk in righteousness. Live in obedience so you don’t grieve the Spirit with your sin or quench the Spirit by missing an opportunity to follow his lead.

Life in the Spirit is incomplete without the Spirit’s sword, the Bible (Ephesians 6:17). Make God’s Word your delight, part of your daily diet, and a weapon for fighting against the flesh and darts of the enemy. 

Heed Jerry Bridges’ warning: “It is hypocritical to pray for victory over our sins and be careless in our intake of the Word of God.”

If ever you have felt powerless to overcome a certain sin on your own, remember all things are possible with God (Matthew 19:26). To grow in holiness and make progress in the Christian life, we must dedicate ourselves to prayer, pleading for the Lord’s help to resist temptation and shape our desires according to God’s.

One practical way to apply this is by daily praying the Scriptures. The Scriptures are profitable for “teaching,” “reproof,” “correction,” and “for training in righteousness,” and by praying them daily, we echo the prayer of Jesus in John 17:17: “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”

But it is God who works in us. He began it and he will see it through. It is God’s power that achieves his purposes. And though we may feel as weak and limp as an empty glove, his divine power so fills us that “all things are possible.”

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.”

 

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“It’s not good for man to be alone…”

Ordre du S.-Esprit au Droit-Désir.

The need for connection.

It’s there in the very earliest strata of Biblical writing, in Genesis 2:18, in a passage which is often overlooked these days:

“The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”

The overlookedness comes not only from its apparent espousal of patriarchy, and of “traditional marriage,” but its place in the context of the creation narratives. I heard a TV presenter refer to it (with the sickening smugness of the truly ignorant) as “the  bit about the talking snake.”

But the real point of the verse -whatever your views about the related subjects- is the need for human connection.

Frederick Buechner wrote that “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too. ”

It’s a powerful statement of the need for connectedness between human beings. Jesus spoke of a time when his friends would be “scattered” (John 16:31,32). Of course, he was referring to their rapid dispersal after Gethsemane, at the first threat of danger, but, in another sense, we do live in a time of scattering, of feeling disconnected. As Lang Leav wrote:

“Shrinking in a corner,
pressed into the wall;
do they know I’m present,
am I here at all?”

But Jesus took the thought in a different direction: He said: “Behold, the hour comes, yes, has already come, that you shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.’”  (John 16:31,32).

The impulse is for each of us to be flung- whether or not we wish it- into “our own”. Our own what? Our own reality? Our own overlooked corner? The fragmentation process with which Western society is infatuated is really quite deadly, because we belong together. “It is not right for man to be alone.”

There are two kinds of aloneness: one is either insulated by space or isolated by spirit. It is a small thing to be separated by mere distance. I once sat on a rooftop looking over New Delhi by night. I was seen, touched and heard by none, and yet I wasn’t really alone. I was conscious of the prayers of my wife, my friends and family. The love I had given and received peopled my solitude with a crowd. Their absence, as the saying goes, only made my heart grew fonder.

I was connected.

Internal loneliness -a loneliness of the spirit- is a different matter entirely. Have you ever experienced a conversation with someone who is entirely indifferent to you? Imagine an official who has only to fill in a form for you and, through dint of repetition has lost the ability to care about the individual any more. There’s no real connection, is there? You might speak for an hour together and never really communicate. It’s a loss to both sides.

Jesus once walked through a seething, jostling crowd and yet experienced deep inside himself, the touching heart-cry of an individual. He said “Somebody has touched me.”

It’s a powerful thought, isn’t it?

The disciples were confused. They saw only on the surface, that physical contact in such a mob was inevitable. But Jesus was speaking about something else. It’s not really mysterious, but is something that we all experience from time to time: the inner connectedness of spiritual contact. We express something of it in the phrase “Falling in love.” In the text, Jesus felt “power going out from him.” It is wrong to interpret this merely as some magical healing process.

It is, first and foremost, the spiritual contact between persons, alive and real, caring and loving for one another. It’s the tug of Buechner’s definition of compassion. It’s expressed in Einstein’s poignant description of his philosophy of life:

 

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

It’s not good for man to be alone. What a paradox! To realize that everything in the universe is connected is to both accept our insignificance and understand our importance in it. We belong together. “We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along these sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results.” (Melvill)

That’s the conclusion drawn in Mitch Albom’s Five People you Meet in Heaven: 

My funeral,” the Blue Man said. “Look at the mourners. Some did not even know me well, yet they came. Why? Did you ever wonder? Why people gather when others die? Why people feel they should?

“It is because the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect. That death doesn’t just take someone, it misses someone else, and in the small distance between being taken and being missed, lives are changed.

“You say you should have died instead of me. But during my time on earth, people died instead of me, too. It happens every day. When lightning strikes a minute after you are gone, or an airplane crashes that you might have been on. When your colleague falls ill and you do not. We think such things are random. But there is a balance to it all. One withers, another grows. Birth and death are part of a whole.

“It is why we are drawn to babies . . .” He turned to the mourners. “And to funerals.” 

All human lives intersect. It’s not good to be alone. The Bible’s answer is that we are summoned into family. We’re called to belong. We are called to belong to ourselves, to understand and appreciate and value our selves. We are called to belong to God, which Jesus claimed as a total antidote to loneliness. And we’re called to belong to each other, to care and love and intertwine in a  million ways.

Greed, corruption, violence, sin, deception all come from a lack of understanding that we’re all connected.

And the only alternative is love. Love with a towel, bucket and dirty feet all round. The Jesus way.

 

Pic. 14th Century French Illuminated Ms:  Ordre du S.-Esprit au Droit-Désir. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 4274, fol. 6v.

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“Every day is secretly sunny…”

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We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you,  because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people –  the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel  that has come to you.” (Colossians 1)

When Paul thanked God for the young church at Colossae, he put his finger on an amazing quality that they exhibited, that characterised their corporate lifestyle. It was the quality of vision.

They saw something way ahead of them that kept them steady on their journey together, just like the Magi saw the star that led them to Christ. They remained anchored to that vision. Peterson paraphrases:

“The lines of purpose in your lives never grow slack, tightly tied as they are to your future in heaven, kept taut by hope.tightly tied as they are to your future in heaven, kept taut by hope (Col 1 5 MSG).

Someone said: “Vision is the code that decodes every mediocrity out of life.” It sharpens focus, creates purpose, and generates drive.

And, at the very simplest level, you go towards what you aim at.

So what are you aiming at? What is your purpose…your plan?  I remember in pre-SatNav days, driving across London clutching an A to Z with my finger firmly on my destination! If I lost track it was because I lost my grip (literally) on where I was heading!

And so Paul commends this community to hang on in there, because their lines of purpose are kept taut by…what? What keeps you on track? Paul narrows it down to one word. HOPE.

“Because of the hope “- This states the cause or reason for their commitment. NIV adds “the faith and love that spring from the hope…” What does this imply? HOPE is the root of FAITH (the plant) and of LOVE (the fruit).

In other words a believer’s hope or confidence in what God will do in the future leads to a greater faith or trust in God and a deepening of love for others in the present.  Hope is the certainty that, in spite of the world’s ways, God’s way of love has the last word.

The hope that is laid up – Paul uses the present tense to emphasize that our hope is continually laid up, which signifies that our hope is being kept safe, secure, sure.

We are eternally coupled to what God has done!

That word for Laid up is interesting. It’s apokeimai, meaning to “put something away for safekeeping.” It appears in Luke 19:20, (“Master, here is your talent, which I put aside.” And it’s in 2 Tim 4:8, “In the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day...” And finally, it’s in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus instructs his listeners to “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” The present imperative suggests that it’s something that we do with our entire lives!

And that’s our hope. The everyday meaning of squirrelling away a nice little nest egg for future enjoyment,  gives way to a massive sense of immense and amazing blessing in the life to come. What a treasure you store up “in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in or steal for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt 6:20, 21).

Peter reminds his readers going through hard times that they have an inheritance “which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved  in heaven for you” (1Peter 1:4). Heaven is where Christ is, thus heaven is where our hope is and so ultimately our HOPE is not a PLACE but a PERSON, “Christ Jesus our hope“, “the hope of glory” (1Tim 1:1; Col 1:27).

And so the present takes on a new perspective. It’s a switch from a normal earthly worldview seeking present glory, comfort, and satisfaction in this present world for a future glory that is only ours in Christ.

And in that familiar, but glorious quote from Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose”.

This vision reaches into the future, for it’s wrapped up with Christ’s second advent. This is why Christians are to “love” Christ’s appearing. Someone sent me this clip: “Every Christian who lives daily in the anticipation and expectancy of Christ’s return becomes a steady, firmly anchored, unwavering soul.”

But to enjoy that reality together!  Imagine a bunch of believers who were totally animated by that vision and who journeyed through life in its expectation -what would they look like?

Well, I said it, six hundred words back: “Vision is the code that decodes every mediocrity out of life.” It sharpens focus, creates purpose, and generates drive.

A sharp focus – they wouldn’t be distracted by second-best notions about what to do! Creates purpose– they would know exactly why they were doing what they doing! Generates drive – and they would do it with guts and passion.

Because they saw something that changed everything. It was something bigger and higher than anything else.

In Caitlin Moran’s book How to build a Girl, there’s a lovely, whimsical passage that somehow unpacks this for me:

“Sitting in seat 14A, in the sun, I float on a full-moon, tidal joy unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I am getting incredibly high on a single, astounding fact: that it’s always sunny above the clouds. Always. That every day on Earth- every day I have ever had- was secretly sunny after all….I feel like I’ve just flown 600 miles per hour head-on into the most beautiful metaphor of my life: If you fly high enough, if you get above the clouds, it’s never-ending summer.”

Do you see it? Once you get above those confusing clouds, you see for real. You realise that everyday is “secretly sunny.” That was the vision that animated those early Christians. And once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

Never-ending summer.

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Derailing

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“Derailing” is a powerful metaphor.

You are going down one track and suddenly something happens to throw you completely off. Catastrophic.

Maybe bereavement works like that. Or divorce. Or any crisis that throws you off a way of living or thinking that you thought would go on indefinitely.

Our thoughts do have a way of settling into grooves and we plod our repeated way down that track until it becomes worn into a rut. I like J.B.Phillip’s paraphrase of Romans 12 in this regard: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within.” 

Sometimes we are so moulded into the world’s way of thinking that it requires a derailment.

Think of Nicodemus, that tired old intellectual, trying to figure Jesus out, based on an old rut of thinking ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.’ (John 3)

Do you see the stretch of thinking? Jesus is first a rabbi, then a teacher, then someone “who has come from God” and then a miracle worker. The train of thought is rattling against the confines of the track!

And when Jesus answers, it’s not to explain himself but to address the issue of required derailment. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” And, as we know, that latter phrase can also be translated “Born from above.” That is to say, you need a totally new perspective to see this properly.

Have you ever wondered why Jesus frequently asked people to keep quiet about his miracles and told the grateful recipients to “Tell no one“? It was much more than a fetching modesty – it was a considered determination not to be squeezed into his world’s way of thinking. The miracles were “signs” of the kingdom but they were not the kingdom itself.

Jesus refused -and refuses- to be defined by the limitations suggested by the words “Miracleworker”  any more than he did (and does) by the word “rabbi” or “teacher.” There’s a familiar quote from C.S.Lewis which is helpful here:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

And that’s the derailing that Jesus was interested in. Away with your old ways of thinking! Derail it all and start again, completely new, from a different perspective.

Even John the Baptist, who might have been expected to be fully aware of what was going on, expressed doubts about who Jesus was and was doing. Languishing in prison, he sent his disciples to ask “Are you the one?

So even the category of “Messiah” was a rut of thinking that Jesus had to derail. When Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem (Luke 19) there’s something of a mixed message. Is he reflecting the Zechariah prophecy (the gentle king on a donkey) or the triumphant conqueror of the Daniel prophecy? Is he living up to peoples’ expectations or challenging them?

Remember the Robin Williams film Dead Poet’s Society?  It’s set at Welton Academy, an elite prep school, whose ethos is defined as “tradition, honor, discipline and excellence”. Robin Williams is a first year English teacher who upsets the expectations of Welton’s leadership. There’s a wonderful, anarchic scene when his students finally break through the mould of their received thinking and grasp something of the new perspective that the teacher is offering.

And the headmaster looks on, balefully. He represents tradition and excellence and prejudice etc and all the world’s customary ways of thinking. And, understandably, eventually, the teacher is fired. He upset the status quo. It’s a parable of how much Jesus upset the religious leaders of His day. Jesus derailed every notion of relligious tradition, honour, excellence and defied all of their expectations of a spiritual leader. In the end, the religious leadership just didn’t fire Jesus, they executed Him.

Yet, Jesus rose from the dead. He’s alive and He’s still defying our religious expectations. If you look closely enough at Jesus, the derailment process goes on, wherever Jesus is truly enountered.

This morning, I was reading Luke 5:27-39. It begins with such an encounter. Jesus comes into the life of Matthew and cheerfully derails it. “Come follow me.” The encounter makes no bones about it. Take it or leave it. It’s where most of us start. There’s no account made of Matthew’s dodgy past (and present) as a tax collector, as a collaborator (with the Romans), as a crook (with his fellow-countrymen). There is no time to consider that he is unclean and a “stranger to the covenant of Israel.” All of these old categories of thinking are simply irrelevant. You must be born again. Born with a completely new perspective. “Come follow me.”

“And he left everything behind, and got up and began to follow Him.”

“Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God…”

 

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Grace in motley packaging

Strange and beautiful things emerge in the oddest places, don’t they?

One of the curious things about the life of Abraham was the amount of mistakes he fitted in.

Read the Bible’s narrative from Genesis 12 to 25 and you’ll see a roller coaster of revelatory insight, divine blessing and paternal reassurance (from God), followed by arrant stupidity, wilfulness and disobedience on a monumental scale (from Abraham).

I can’t tell you how encouraging I find all that. Remember, this is the one guy in the Bible who is lauded for his life of faith.

He is The One Who Got It Right.

That’s a kind of paraphrase of the famous summary of Abraham’s journey: “Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness.

Which leads to an interesting conclusion: that God is not as interested in our flawless performance as he is in a relationship with us. The title that Abraham earned was “Friend of God” which is somewhat different to “Servant of God, First Class,” isn’t it?

After all, we can over-focus on our own performance, and lose that sense of relationship in a nervy desire to get things right.

And maybe the very worst mistake we can make is to be constantly having the jitters about making one at all! It makes for such a tense, constipated life-experience, doesn’t it? And it turns life into an exercise in tight-rope walking. One wrong step and you’re done.

Peter Cook once said “I have learned from my mistakes, and I am sure I can repeat them exactly.”  And that’s exactly what Abraham did! That’s the thing with mistakes: in life, there are no mistakes, really, -only lessons. But you don’t necessarily learn the lesson at one go. So, for example, not only did Abraham not realise the folly of pretending his wife was his sister (in chapter 12), but he repeated the same foolishness in chapter 20 and somehow laid a seed idea for his son to do the identical thing in Chapter 26.

I’ve heard it referred to as “the 50-50-90 rule”; that is, that anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there’s a 90% probability you’ll get it wrong.

And we do. We do.

The point is underlined in Sara Poole’s novel, Poison: “We have all made mistakes, each and every one of us. The trick is to not keep making them over and over.” “I don’t,” I said, not modestly but truthfully. “I keep finding new mistakes to make. I suspect that I have a genius for it.”

A scary insight. We keep finding new mistakes!

There’s an analogy which often recurs to my mind (as often as I make a mistake, in fact), that life is more like golf than cricket. If I make a mistake in cricket then I’m OUT. Out of the innings. Out of play. But if I make a mistake in golf, then I’ve just made the next play harder for myself. I’ve sliced into the rough and have to play from there.

But I’m still in the game. No matter how poor my performance is, I’ve only just made things a little trickier for the next shot. And maybe my performance isn’t the point at all. Maybe there’s something else going on here.

Maybe Abraham became known as the “Friend of God” because he understood this principle. The point of it all is not that we perform with individual excellence, but that we walk with him in humble trust. The prophet Micah declared as much: “He has showed you, O man, that which is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”  (Micah 6:8).

Walk with justice, mercy and humility.

Well, I can do that. Especially when I read that the word “mercy” can be translated “kindness.”  (I always think that kindness is such an underrated  thing, but that it quietly changes the whole world, one shining moment at a time).

A final word from Anne Lamott, from her luminous little book called Traveling Mercies: “I don’t know why life isn’t constructed to be seamless and safe, why we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations, and our hearts get broken and out kids do scary things and our parents get old and don’t always remember to put pants on before they go out for a stroll. I don’t know why it’s not more like it is in the movies, why things don’t come out neatly and lessons can’t be learned when you’re in the mood for learning them, why love and grace often come in such motley packaging.”

So what do we do? What do we do, today?

With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity. (Romans 12 Phillips)

“You’ve gotta dance like there’s nobody watching,
Love like you’ll never be hurt,
Sing like there’s nobody listening,
And live like it’s heaven on earth.” 
― William W. Purkey

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The joy of being forgiving

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One of the books that had the most impact on my life was R.T.Kendall’s Total Forgiveness. My wife and I listened to it on an Audiobook during a long car journey. When we finished it, we glanced at each other and immediately flipped back to the beginning and started listening all over again.

To forgive totally? Everyone who ever wronged us…. to let them off the hook of our moral indignation? No grudges? No shaking our heads at others’ sins?

We were overwhelmed with the message, even though -even as I write it now- it seems that it’s like the most basic of Gospel teaching. There it is in the Lord’s Prayer, after all. “Forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The key word is “even.” Matthew even prvides a double emphasis, returning to the point a little later: ““For if you forgive other people their failures, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you will not forgive other people, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive you your failures.”

The measure with which you give will be the measure with which you receive.

Unforgiveness is like clutching something bitter and corrosive but addictive. By contrast, God desires that we experience the liberating joy of being forgiving. I want to “reap bountifully”. Remember that verse?  “He who sows sparingly shall also reap sparinglyand he who sows bountifully shall also reap bountifully.”  2 Corinthians 9:6.

C.S. Lewis once remarked that “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” That is to say, Grace received should equal grace lived.

Jesus told a powerful story about a man who was released from a crushing debt, and yet could not offer the same release to one who owed him a very little.

In the story, the man was punished for his inconsistency. Those who have been forgiven much, love much (or should do!).

And  so the verse leads us into the way that we live. Do we live critically, grudgingly, with eyes squinting in distrust, counting our change and quick to notice every slight or possible offence? Do we stand upon our “rights”?

If so, then we are sowing sparingly, and should expect a poor crop when the tally of our life is drawn up.

No. Let’s enjoy that word “bountifully.” It suggests living open-handedly, giving to others the way that God has given towards us.

Corrie ten Boom made it clear and strong. Forgiving other people does not depend upon how we feel about it: “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.”

In order to give this point its proper weight, I’d like to paste in the large context of that quote. The question is: “How do you forgive the unforgiveable?” Corrie Ten Boom writes:

“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him, a balding heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear.

It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown.

“When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever.”

The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones.

It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights, the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor, the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbrück concentration camp where we were sent.

Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: “A fine message, fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!”

And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course–how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. It was the first time since my release that I had been face to face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbrück in your talk,” he was saying. “I was a guard in there.” No, he did not remember me.

“But since that time,” he went on, “I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein”–again the hand came out–“will you forgive me?”

And I stood there–I whose sins had every day to be forgiven–and could not. Betsie had died in that place–could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

It could not have been many seconds that he stood there, hand held out, but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

For I had to do it–I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. “If you do not forgive men their trespasses,” Jesus says, “neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”

I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality.

Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion–I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart.

“Jesus, help me!” I prayed silently. “I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.”

And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!” I cried. “With all my heart!”

For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.

And having thus learned to forgive in this hardest of situations, I never again had difficulty in forgiving: I wish I could say it! I wish I could say that merciful and charitable thoughts just naturally flowed from me from then on. But they didn’t.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned at 80 years of age, it’s that I can’t store up good feelings and behavior–but only draw them fresh from God each day.

Maybe I’m glad it’s that way. For every time I go to Him, He teaches me something else. I recall the time, some 15 years ago, when some Christian friends whom I loved and trusted did something which hurt me.

You would have thought that, having forgiven the Nazi guard, this would have been child’s play. It wasn’t. For weeks I seethed inside. But at last I asked God again to work His miracle in me. And again it happened: first the cold-blooded decision, then the flood of joy and peace.

I had forgiven my friends; I was restored to my Father.

Then, why was I suddenly awake in the middle of the night, hashing over the whole affair again? My friends! I thought. People I loved! If it had been strangers, I wouldn’t have minded so.

I sat up and switched on the light. “Father, I though it was all forgiven! Please help me do it!”

But the next night I woke up again. They’d talked so sweetly too! Never a hint of what they were planning. “Father!” I cried in alarm. “Help me!”

His help came in the form of a kindly Lutheran pastor to whom I confessed my failure after two sleepless weeks.

“Up in that church tower,” he said, nodding out the window, “is a bell which is rung by pulling on a rope. But you know what? After the sexton lets go of the rope, the bell keeps on swinging. First ding then dong. Slower and slower until there’s a final dong and it stops.

“I believe the same thing is true of forgiveness. When we forgive someone, we take our hand off the rope. But if we’ve been tugging at our grievances for a long time, we mustn’t be surprised if the old angry thoughts keep coming for a while. They’re just the ding-dongs of the old bell slowing down.”

And so it proved to be. There were a few more midnight reverberations, a couple of dings when the subject came up in my conversation. But the force–which was my willingness in the matter–had gone out of them. They came less and less often and at last stopped altogether.

And so I discovered another secret of forgiveness: that we can trust God not only above our emotions, but also above our thoughts.

And still He had more to teach me, even in this single episode. Because many years later, in 1970, an American with whom I had shared the ding-dong principle came to visit me in Holland and met the people involved. “Aren’t those the friends who let you down?” he asked as they left my apartment.

“Yes,” I said a little smugly. “You can see it’s all forgiven.”

“By you, yes,” he said. “But what about them? Have they accepted your forgiveness?”

“They say there’s nothing to forgive! They deny it ever happened. But I can prove it!” I went eagerly to my desk. “I have it in black and white! I saved all their letters and I can show you where–”

“Corrie!” My friend slipped his arm through mine and gently closed the drawer. “Aren’t you the one whose sins are at the bottom of the sea? And are the sins of your friends etched in black and white?”

For an anguishing moment I could not find my voice. “Lord Jesus,” I whispered at last, “who takes all my sins away, forgive me for preserving all these years the evidence against others! Give me grace to burn all the blacks and whites as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to Your glory.”

I did not go to sleep that night until I had gone through my desk and pulled out those letters–curling now with age–and fed them all into my little coal-burning grate. As the flames leaped and glowed, so did my heart.

“Forgive us our trespasses,” Jesus taught us to pray, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” In the ashes of those letters I was seeing yet another facet of His mercy. What more He would teach me about forgiveness in the days ahead I didn’t know, but tonight’s was good news enough.

When we bring our sins to Jesus, He not only forgives them, He makes them as if they had never been.”

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There’s a story in her eyes

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It was hot and dry, and she shielded her eyes against the glare of the sun, to see a man sitting by the wall of the well. She tutted in frustration, expecting and hoping to see no one. She didn’t seek encounter. She just wanted to be left alone.

Still, it couldn’t be helped.  She set down her waterpot ready to draw the water.

“Can you get us a drink, love? I’m so thirsty.”

It was astonishing and aggravating.

In the couple of seconds that it took him to speak, she could tell that he was a foreigner, a Jew, and Jews never talked to Samaritans. Never. They looked down on them.

And it wasn’t done to talk to a woman, either.  It was very pushy. He was looking intently at her now, and she flushed. How could he just ignore normal customs?

There was a reason for the flush. There was also a reason for her coming to the well at noon, when she expected to see no one there. It was because she had a story, a difficult past, and as he looked at her, it was as if he was reading the story in her eyes.

“How come you, a Jew, are asking me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?” She spoke quickly, defensively, looking at him properly for the first time, and seeing the ready smile beneath the dust of travel and the obvious tiredness.

Unaccountable!

“If you knew the generosity of God and who I am, you would be asking me for a drink, and I would give you fresh, living water.”

And suddenly, they were talking on a different level together. The old Jew/ Samaritan stand-offishness had been dismissed as irrelevant. The man/woman distinction too. She was taken aback by his sparkling directness and the intrigue of his words. What on earth did he mean?

“Sir, you don’t even have a bucket to draw with, and this well is deep. So how are you going to get this ‘living water’? Are you a better man than our ancestor Jacob, who dug this well and drank from it, he and his sons and livestock, and passed it down to us?”

She was interested, she couldn’t deny it. She knew he was talking in riddles, to make some point, but she didn’t get it. It was if he was making fun of her, gently, to pique her curiosity and ensure her attention, and it worked.

So she jibed back, referring to the story of the ancient well, and to the common ancestor that both Jew and Samaritan shared. Nothing would wind a Jew up more!

But he simply ignored the jibe, and said something so outrageous that it took her breath away.

“Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.”

The riddle had become a claim so massive that she didn’t know what to do with it. She had first simply seen a thirsty man. Then a Jew. And now what? Something peculiar was happening. He kept ignoring outward appearance and pointing to inner reality in a way that was both provoking and poignant.

She took the bait: “Sir, give me this water so I won’t ever get thirsty, won’t ever have to come back to this well again!”

What did it all mean? Was she entering the riddle herself? She hardly knew. Something was stirring inside, like the gush of laughter when you hear a joke. She wanted…. she didn’t know what she wanted.

“Go call your husband and then come back.”

It was like a slap. A cold, hard slap. She flushed again and turned her face away. Why do you think I avoid everybody? Why do you think I’m ignored by the people in the town? “I have no husband.”

She said it quietly, but she had been stung.

But he wasn’t fazed for a second. He even nodded as she spoke! “That’s nicely put: ‘I have no husband.’ You’ve had five husbands, and the man you’re living with now isn’t even your husband. You spoke the truth there, sure enough.”

It was true. All completely true. But her real sense of shame just made her more feisty: “Oh, so you’re a prophet! Well, tell me this: Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place for worship, right?”

It was a good question, a real sore point between Jew and Samaritan, but the real reason for her asking it was to shut him up about that whole husband business. Don’t go there!

But he simply nodded and smiled again, as if he saw the ploy as clearly as he had evidently seen her messy past. And just as the water question made him think of her deeper thirst, so the mountain question made him think of what worship really was.

“Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you Samaritans will worship the Father neither here at this mountain nor there in Jerusalem. You worship guessing in the dark; we Jews worship in the clear light of day. God’s way of salvation is made available through the Jews. But the time is coming—it has, in fact, come—when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter.

“It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. Your worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people the Father is out looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before him in their worship. God is sheer being itself—Spirit. Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

It was odd. He seemed to honour the place of the Jews in the past, but then dismiss them for the future. Was that it? As if he had a whole new way of looking at everything. And her private life…. she could tell that he knew that that was intrinsically tied up with the way she worshipped God too. Of course it was. It was all part of her inner thirst.

She shivered with involuntary delight. But. But.

She had to say it: “I don’t know about that. I do know that the Messiah is coming. When he arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”

“I am he,” said Jesus. “You don’t have to wait any longer or look any further.”

And her heart flopped over. And something new began.

 


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