Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Discipline of Forgiving

When we were dating, my husband had the habit of sending me four or five pink demerit slips he had earned while attending Bible college with each of his letters. At one point I asked him just how many he possessed, since he appeared to be drawing from a never ending supply. He showed me the stack in the top drawer of his desk. It was impressive. Now don't get the wrong idea-- they were all for relatively small misdemeanors, like leaving the lights on or the bed unmade. Yet over time they accumulated into enough of a statement that he was called into the dean's office to give an account for his actions. Apparently, small "sins," over a long period of time, can add up.

This principle is true in relationships as well. It is why Paul, in describing a godly kind of love, reminded the Corinthians: "Love is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs." In this simple description, Paul gives us powerful preventative medicine for all of our relationships: we must maintain an on-going discipline of forgiveness.

The Old Man of the Mountain, a massive granite formation which once overlooked Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, stood for thousands of years, most likely created by glaciers that once moved over northern New Hampshire. It was the New Hampshire state symbol, and beloved enough to earn a place on the New Hampshire state quarter. Thousands of tourists stopped each year on their way up I-93 to take photographs of this famous landmark. Then one night in May 2003, during a heavy wind and rain storm, the Old Man formation collapsed into the valley below. What could fell such a huge monument, after standing for thousands of years? Tiny individual molecules of water.

When water freezes, it expands. The collapse of the Old Man was a result of small amounts of water seeping into the cracks year after year, freezing and expanding, making the fissures a small bit wider each time. Finally the cracks became wide enough to weaken the entire structure, and the monument crumbled.

Elisabeth Elliot wrote of this principle within the context of marriage: "Marriages break up when 'small' things accumulate and resentments build. Love is the intention of unity. Resentment is the destroyer of unity." Making frequent decisions to forgive is crucial to the health of a relationship.

Easier said than done, you are probably thinking. What if the offending party is not sorry and shows no sign of repentance from the behavior that hurt you in the first place? You are not alone-- Peter struggled with this idea as well. "How many times must I forgive?" he asked the Lord. He then generously offered, "Up to seven times?" Rabbinic standards required forgiving up to three offenses. Peter was willing to more than double the standard. Surely seven times would be enough.

Jesus took care of Peter's faulty expectation with his answer. "Seventy times seven," he replied.

How can we choose to forgive on a daily basis? By keeping our eyes trained on Christ. By choosing to forgive, we are expressing what he has freely done for us. We were forgiven when we did not deserve mercy. That's the meaning of grace: undeserved merit or favor.

To indulge in harboring grievances is most often an exercise in self-absorption. We struggle to forgive a wrong because we feel we deserved better than what was done to us. Christ deserved better. He deserved honor and glory because he was God. Yet he chose to lay aside his equality with God and humbled himself to obedience, to the point of death on a cross.

Amy Carmichael observed: "If I am soft to myself and slide comfortably into the vice of self-pity and self-sympathy; if I do not by the grace of God practice fortitude, then I know nothing of Calvary love."

Choosing to forgive is really a reflection of our understanding of how much we have been forgiven ourselves. It is a discipline which often must be performed outside of our emotional state. We are choosing to love because we know we are loved. And as we imitate our Savior in forgiveness, we understand a bit more of what it took for him to bear our sin.

"If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. 'He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.' When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly." 1 Peter 2:20-24

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Called to Fail

Every elementary teacher is painfully aware of the challenging students moving toward her grade level. The future troublemakers make themselves known in the hallways, during assemblies, and on the playground. Before they ever walked through the door of my fifth grade classroom, I was fully aware of what was coming.

I began to dread one particular child early in his fourth grade year. His name was always expressed in an exasperated tone by his teachers. It seemed like every time I walked down the hall, there he sat on the floor outside the door of his classroom, banished for his bad behavior. He was an angry, frustrated little boy. And I had a sinking feeling that in the next year he would be all mine.

And so he was. I am only one very limited woman. Yet I knew that God had given him to me; not only for his benefit, but for mine as well. We would spend the year learning from each other. I threw myself into the boy. Every time I could find a reason to praise or encourage him, I did. I set reasonable and attainable boundaries for him. I carefully picked my battles and made sure the negative he got from me did not outweigh the positive. He was sneaky and manipulative. He also had some leadership qualities, and several of the other boys began to follow his bad example. I determinedly continued to work at positively influencing him. It wasn't easy. And unfortunately, it wasn't especially successful, either.

I breathed a sigh of relief as he walked out my door on the last day of school. I continued to occasionally see him throughout his middle school years as he passed my classroom door. He remained a troublemaker. I don't know if my year with him made any difference whatsoever. I sometimes think of him, and wonder how he is now as an adult. I wish I could have done more to help him turn around.

We all like a story with a happy ending. Even as Christians, we tend to measure our effectiveness by the "success" of our ministry. Yet there are times that God knowingly calls us to something that will ultimately result in failure.

Isaiah had that kind of calling. "Go, and tell this people: Keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand. Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed." (Isaiah 6:9, 10) Judah had long been unfaithful to their God. Judgment was imminent. Isaiah was to bring a message to a people who would reject it hardheartedly.

God was sending Isaiah on a mission doomed to failure.

If he did it in the way God intended, the nation would remain unreceptive. This was in God's plan, for Judah had many spiritual lessons to learn that would only be accomplished by extreme hardship and desolation. Eventually the nation would repent. But it would not be in response to Isaiah's message.

Author Leigh McLeroy, in her excellent book, "The Beautiful Ache," comments on the idea of serving without immediate reward: "My generation is big on return-on-investment. We want to see results. We don't invest in much of anything at all unless we're relatively certain we'll be rewarded. But following the King into the mysteries of the kingdom may demand that we deny our rush to "cash in" and introduce ourselves to the discipline of long, unmeasured spending. Some might call this lack of foresight. But not Jesus. He would call it faithful obedience-- and he doesn't relent in asking for it."

God wants us in for the long haul. He is more interested in who we are in the process than in the final result of our efforts. Day by day obedience, even when things are true drudgery at best, or excruciatingly difficult at worst, is what honors Him. Because what we do should be about serving God, and not done for a self-serving sense of fulfillment.

Yes, we are called to live victoriously. But that victory may not always be over circumstances. It may be in the fact that we were found faithful in spite of the failure to accomplish what we set out to do.

"Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father." Colossians 3:17