Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Forgiveness Part 3--The Power of Prayer in Forgiveness

"Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered."
Romans 8:4
The more I researched the topic of forgiveness, the more I realize how complicated a subject it is. It's complicated because of the way we define forgiveness and the way we take verses out of context without considering the whole counsel of the Word of God as we formulate our views on forgiveness. Some material says we forgive only if a person repents, apologizes, or changes their behavior. Some material says we have to forgive for God to forgive us. 
Some of the confusion comes from intimately lacing restoration and reconciliation with forgiveness. Some of the confusion comes from emphasizing the need to forgive without emphasizing the need to do work to rebuild trust and a healthy relationships after betrayal occurs. Some relationship shouldn't be restored because restoration prevents a person from experiencing painful consequences that may lead him or her to repentance. Sometimes restoration without repentance places us or loved ones in danger and that is never okay. Some of the confusion comes from seeing forgiveness as the sole "fix" for our wounded hearts. Forgiveness doesn't release us from pain, just from the compulsive replaying of offenses and the seeking of revenge. Some confusion may even come from the church using forgiveness as a way of avoiding confrontation and the living with the consequences of sinful choices. 
I recently attended a marriage conference with several workshops and plenary speakers, many of which touched on forgiveness. As I listened, I realized that forgiveness alone doesn't take away our pain. Forgiveness requires humility and a relinquishing of our desire to get even, to hurt another as much as we have been hurt, and to see justice done our way in our timing. Forgiveness doesn't automatically grant restoration and reconciliation. Repentance and a willingness to do what ever it takes to take responsibility for one's actions is required for that. Forgiveness doesn't erase the past, it gives us a way to live with it without letting it control our present or our future. Forgiveness isn't saying what happened doesn't matter, it saying I trust God with this person and with my pain. Forgiveness isn't easy, it requires great faith and a work of God's Spirit in us.
So, the question we often find ourselves wrestling with is, "How do I reach the place I can forgive, when it feels impossible?" In a nut shell, the answer is prayer. I know, it sounds like a religious platitude, but please bear with me as I explain what I mean by it.
Because God wants us to be radically honest with Him, I believe we need to be honest with Him where we are at in regard to pain and forgiveness, trusting that He will meet us there. If we don't want to forgive, we can begin by asking Him to give us the willingness to forgive. If we are willing, but don't know if we are capable of forgiving a particular offense, we can ask Him how we can get to that point. If we are willing and believe we have reached a place of forgiveness, we can then ask Him what does forgiveness look like in that relationship and if He wants us to confront or to consider reconciliation or restoration or simply to release the person and get out of the way so God can do His work. 
So, what do we do with all of the messy feelings that get in the way of our choosing to forgive? There are two types of prayers that help us work through our feelings and enable forgiveness. The first is to talk to God about the person. Be like a child and tattletale to God to your hearts content. David did this type of thing in many of the psalms. Tell God what happened, how it impacted your life, your heart, and your relationship with the person. Tell God what you had needed and wanted from the relationship. Try to be emotionally honest with God, naming the emotions you are experiencing, the why's you have on the tip of your tongue, and how you are feeling about God's call to forgive.
Don't be tricked by the tempter to stay at the anger stage. Look under the anger and identify hurt, disappointment, sadness, and frustration.  Write out lies you believe and vows you may have made to protect your heart from more pain and come back to the truth of who you are in Christ and to the truth that the offender, is a broken image bearer.
Check for distortions in thinking--are you embracing all or nothing thinking? Are you employing catastrophic thinking? Is a past hurt being triggered by the present hurt?  Are you personalizing things that aren't really about you? Then ask God to show you the truth of the situation and His work in it. I did a lot of this kind of work with a Christian therapist. I wrote out the process letters and read them and processed them and prayed over them in her office. It was a freeing work because I was encouraged to be radically honest and as a result realized God didn't zap people because they were angry or hurt. It was also freeing to me to have someone hear the garbage in my heart and head and display God's grace to me in the midst of anger and frustration and sadness. This helped me see that the ugly parts, the weak parts, and the wounded parts could be seen and heard and treated with dignity, kindness, respect, and grace. I think God must hate the pretense of pretending everything is fine when it isn't...yet so often we require that of other and of ourselves. What if the way out of the pain and anger is a process that frees us to let go and embrace our humanness and the humanness of others who bear the image of our Creator?.   
Secondly, as your emotions began to heal, we can love the person we consider to be our enemy by praying for the person. I often use Scripture so that I am not just praying my judgments of the person. If the person is a nonbeliever, I pray for their salvation and God's mercy to be fulfilled in them. If the person hasn't repented I pray for that, so that they can be set free form the bondage of their sin. If a person is a believer, I pray through Scriptures like the ones found in Paul's letters that outline the characteristics God wants for them. For example, if I were wounded by gossip, I might pray that God will help the person speak words that build up the hearer. If I were robbed, I might pray that God would help the person become a giver. I would maybe even write their initials in a prayer journal with the reference for the verse. I also pray any other verses that come to light as God's Spirit prompts me. After praying for a person who had harmed me, I felt God's Spirit impress on my heart that no one had ever prayed for the person before. What a privilege to be the one who did!
In closing, I know some of you are probably thinking if she only knew my story. I know life is painful and that we live in a sin-filled world and that the Enemy would do anything he could to convince God's people that the wrong they have suffered is beyond forgivable. I have even cried out to God for precious friends who have had to forgive what in my mind and my heart seemed unforgiveable and then be privileged to watch them work through the issues that needed forgiving. It wasn't easy and it wasn't fun, but it was so freeing for them and they were filled with love and joy that most people never ever possess because they were obedient and willing to see God work. When we accept that boundaries are okay for safety and repentance can be required for restoration, we can let go of fear and began to seek God in order to heal and to forgive. When we don't short change the process of forgiveness by excluding the work of confrontation and the work of building godly relationships, we allow God to turn ugly situations in to beauty. When we let God meet us in our pain, we will recognize the works of grace and forgiveness are actually opportunities in disguise to pour love into others' messy lives in the same way that God, Himself, has poured into our. Maybe, just maybe, our ability to forgive is intimately tied with how big our faith is...and God is in the faith-growing business. 
See Beth Moore's book, Praying God's Word for more help on forgiving!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Forgiveness Part 2--This Thing Called Forgivenss

"Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved,
compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness and patience,
bearing with one another and, if one has a
complaint against another, forgiving each other 
as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive."
Colossians 3:12-13
The above verses make it clear that as God's chosen people we have been made holy and that we are beloved. It makes also it clear that He calls us to clothe ourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience -- all of which are Characteristics of our Jesus. It makes it clear that we have been called to bear with each other and forgive each other because we, ourselves, have been the recipients of such extravagant grace. 
If we're brutally honest with ourselves, we have to admit we sin in so many ways. We sin through our actions when we are unkind and unloving as well as our through our inaction when we fail to show kindness and love. We sin through our words when we gossip, say hateful things, tell lies and half truths, and when we spew venom in an outburst of rage. We sin by our silences--those silences we hold  in an effort to manipulate and punish, refusing to express love, forgiveness, affirmation, gratitude, or even gentle confrontations that call loved ones out of darkness. We sin through the display of prideful attitudes that give proof to the fact that we view ourselves better than another or succumb to patterns of narcissistic wounding, failing to see our own value and worth as image bearers of the Creator. We sin through harsh judgments towards another (or ourselves) formed by the comparisons we make. We sin by withholding love, nursing grudges and seeking control to protect our hearts. We commit sin as we don't deal with idols of our hearts that get in the way of radical real relationships we were created to have with the Creator.  
In the last post I shared Dan Allender's definition of loving our enemies as "a movement of grace to embrace those who've sinned against us and to offer restoration to those who've done us harm." Enemies can be any one, even loved ones, who have wounded our hearts. Enemies can be those we know well and those we barely know. They can be people we know now, or people from our past to which we are in bondage because of the unfinished work of forgiveness.
Many authors believe forgiveness is only about the heart of the forgiver, but I believe that it is about the one who is in need of forgiveness as well. Forgiving has a lot to do with loving and inviting another to move away from the darkness they are perpetuating by their actions. 
True forgiveness can only flow from a heart deeply that is deeply connected to God. Forgiveness is in part hungering for restoration, but it doesn't mean restoration is automatic. It doesn't mean we continue to put ourselves in harms way or at the disposal of emotional abusers. It means as we relate to God, we refuse to be peace keepers and become peace makers. It means we long for restoration and become willing to live in that state whether restoration happens or not. This can be a painful state, but this grief is a different kind of pain than the pain of ongoing abuse or of heart hardened by the refusal to feel. It is the pain that comes naturally with loving from a compassionate, tender, and fully alive heart. It is a pain that allows us to continue living, experiencing joy and hope. When offenses wound hearts and tear down relationships, forgiveness is possible only by drawing near to God through prayer and allowing Him to love through us. We must understand the heart of God always longs for restoration of a godly relationship, and to be like Him means we long for restoration. But like God we also calmly and firmly state  boundaries with clear goals and clear consequences. Confronting feels risky because we can't control another's response and possibly could live a life time longing for another to be restored to both God, and us. But, again, that longing softens a heart rather than shrouding it in un penetrable walls and harsh judgments. 
In order to love like this we have to be willing to revoke our right to take revenge. Joseph is such a good example of a man who was intimately acquainted with pain and Biblical forgiveness. His brothers betrayed him, some wanting him dead and then agreeing to sale him into slavery. Many years later, after some ups and downs, his brothers come face to face with him in Egypt where he had been elevated to a high position. When their father died, they feared revenge was on the horizon, but Joseph tells them he knows what they did was for evil, but God meant it for good. He didn't minimize or excuse their behavior, nor did he shame them or lord it over them. The story shows him working through his emotions and his pride melting into humility. Face to face he acknowledged the ugly facts of their story were a part of the larger redemptive story their God was writing. Its an honest account of a man struggling to revoke His right to take revenge and allowing God to change their hearts as He had his. He showed himself to be like Jesus. He had every  reason to not trust them and every reason as a governor to take their lives in response to the sin they perpetrated and the suffering He had endured as a result. But, like Jesus he acknowledge their sin and extended them grace and offered them physical life by providing food which ultimately was an offering of spiritual life by reminding them of their God and the redemption story He is penning. 
When we look at forgiveness in this way we realize forgiveness flows from working through our pain with God. It flows from a heart that is transparent, not in denial of what has happened or the pain it's caused. It's not pretending something didn't take place and that we are okay. Forgiveness isn't about getting another person to see they owe us some kind of penance to repay a debt, it is about letting go of the debt. Forgiveness isn't about repression of, the denial of , or the dissociation of emotions. For both anger and pain flow from passionate hearts. That was true for Jesus and it is true for us. Forgiveness allows us to use that anger constructively rather that destructively. It allows us to rage against things like misunderstandings, misbehaviors, and deception, rather than at an image bearers. When we deny anger we experience in loving relationships, we run the risk of allowing sin to destroy love. We have to understand that godly people experience anger, but we use the anger to motivate us to move relationships towards reconciliation and mutual respect. Anything less may look peaceful, but it belies a heart full of turmoil and has the propensity to keep an erring brother or sister in bondage to sin. True forgiveness works through issues so that we don't live with a heart alienated driven by timidity, caution, and fear.    
In his book, The Art of Forgiving, Lewis B. Smedes points out that we can't change or forget past wounds, but that forgiveness can heal those wounds. He also points out that forgiving changes  bitter memories into grateful ones, cowardly memories into courageous ones, enslaved memories into free memories. Forgiveness restores dignity and self-respect that the enemy tries to destroy. Forgiveness melts pride into humility.
When we choose the path of forgiveness, we refuse to let our past and those who perpetrate sin control us. We refuse to use energy to deny, to cover up, to suppress emotions, or to protect our hearts which frees us to love and move past the past. When we refuse to nurse our wounds and lay them before God, we find there is a lot more good, a lot more hope, and a lot more joy to be had. When we refuse to hold on to anger and pain we find that a tender heart is more pliable and loving and allows us to live out of what we want to be, not what the accuser tries to define us as. 
Forgiveness isn't easy, and many of us are called to forgive what most normal healthy people would deem unforgiveable. But godly forgiveness allows us let go and surrender our heart and the heart of an offender to Jesus, the one who bore the wrath of God for our sin so that we could be reconciled. In my next post I want to share  some practical information on how prayer can draw us to the heart of our God and enable us to move past our emotional pain, even the unforgiveable ones. I hope you will take the time to read it as it will help you understand that we are never ever alone in this thing called forgiveness. For where there is a need for forgiveness, no matter how great the offense, our God, our great and mighty God, meets us there. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Forgiveness--Part 1: Loving Your Enemies

"But I say to you who hear, love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you."
Psalm 142:1-2
Several years ago we had an ongoing situation in our neighborhood that was hurtful for my children. I tried to intervene, but nothing changed. So, I asked for prayer for the situation in an adult Sunday School class. After class, a man I had never met came up to me and said, "Have you ever heard of a thing called forgiveness?" His scolding words stirred the deep well of shame residing in my heart at the time. I left church that morning discouraged. I longed for someone to acknowledge the pain my family was experiencing and the discouragement I felt at not being able to resolve it. I longed for kindness in the face of the unkindness we were experiencing. I longed to have someone pray with me, asking God to give me the wisdom I needed to help my children navigate the situation. I wanted someone to pray for God to heal their hearts. Sadly, after that I seldom asked for prayer in church and for the first time in my life I began to feel unsafe in church and withdrew from adult  activities. My  shame ran deep and I found it hard to talk to God about the situation, losing out on the opportunity to develop intimacy with Him through the experience. Because the man did not know me, he did not know I believed at a core level I was a "bad" Christian and the stronghold of toxic shame was putting down deeper roots by the day because I couldn't work out the situation like I believed "good  Christians would."  I was also feeling anger, hurt, frustration, and anxiety--emotions I mistakenly thought "believers" didn't feel.   

I know our situation was minor compared to what some experience. I've heard many stories and am shocked at what some people have been called by God to forgive. There are those who've lost  loved ones killed by drunk drivers, leaving them to grieve not just their present loss, but all of the things they would miss out on--not having a loved one at a wedding, not hearing their voice or laughter again, not having them at the births of their children, at Christmas or Thanksgiving. Some have faced infidelity through affairs and pornography. Some have faced rejection and/or abandonment by parent's who were incapable or unwilling to love them. Some have experienced tremendous abuse and neglect. Some have endured mistreatment by bosses who wield power in ways that harm. Some have lost loved ones in mass shootings or have had their loved ones forever changed by witnessing shootings. Some have lost friends, jobs, or a reputations due to slander and gossip. Some have been betrayed when their confidence was broken. Some have faced physical, emotional, spiritual, or sexual abuses and were sacrificed by parents who didn't help them because the reputation of the family, the perpetrator, or church was more important than the victim.

I sought counseling for some unresolved issues from my past, which eventually brought me back to the topic of forgiveness. I remember early on sitting in the counselor's office, staring at the floor as I poured out the story of  my abuse to her. When I finished, I was looking at the floor, waiting to hear, "You just need to forgive!" I waited in silence for what felt like an eternity, but the words never came. I finally looked up and saw tears streaming down her face. No one had ever shown a willingness to enter the mess of emotions I had buried deep. Over time, we examined the wounding I'd  experienced and uncovered core beliefs I'd developed as a result of the abuse. We had honest conversations about defense mechanisms with which I protected myself. We discussed how to over come them so I could love others better. We examined the distorted lenses I had used to view God, myself, and others and figured out the truth behind those distortions. We uncovered so many lies that kept me from living life as the loved person I was. And yes, we eventually began to discuss what it means to love enemies, what forgiveness is and isn't, and what forgiveness might look like as it played out in my life.

From the counseling experience, I learned the tendency to rush people to forgiveness without hearing the heart causes more wounding. It also shuts down hurting hearts while intensifying pain that is trapped inside. That is a false forgiveness. It is offered without even acknowledging the sin, the consequences of it, or the hurt. That robs us of the opportunity to see God as a Healer and experience Him as we learn to forgive from the heart. We also usually fail to invite another back to the light. 

I've often wonder why we tend to rush forgiveness. Maybe we do it because hearing painful stories triggers our own unresolved pain. Maybe we don't even know where our pain comes from when it is buried deep, but if we don't want to feel it we give a hurting soul the old church brush off by callously telling them to forgive. Maybe we do it because we have not experienced the same kind of pain or may have a different temperament that makes us more resilient to pain. If so, we tell them to forgive, thinking it will help them be more resilient. Maybe we do it because we have experienced something we consider more traumatizing, or maybe we experienced something similar for a longer period of time and find it hard to be sensitive to someone who is sharing about something we believe is small in comparison. Maybe we do it because we don't like confrontation or conflict. So, we tell another to forgive, hoping they will take the passive route which seems less dramatic and more spiritual. Maybe we fear deep pain in others, because it renders us helpless. We can't fix it and we don't realize God never intended us to. Maybe we do it because their pain stirs up uncomfortable questions about God's sovereignty, love, and suffering with which we don't feel comfortable wrestling. We want a safe God, but the truth is a life committed to the God of the Scriptures isn't safe.   
I want to introduce the topic of forgiveness by discussing a bigger topic--that of loving our enemies. Then in part two we will discuss what forgiveness is, what it isn't, and what it looks like. Then in part three we will discuss the role that praying plays in forgiveness. 

Most of us have misconceptions about loving our enemies. The first misconception is that love and anger can't co-exist, but they do. In fact, the more we care, the more anger we may experience. When someone does something hurtful and we don't experience hurt we don't care about them or are avoiding feelings. The more like Jesus we become, the more passionately we feel. The more like Jesus we become, the angrier we will feel towards sin and this anger is a reflection of Him. As we grow, we will love things God loves passionately and we will hate things He hates passionately. We will experience anger when we see another abused and experience it when the sin is perpetrated against us. The anger is not sin unless misused. A godly use for anger is to use its energy to expose sin and offer a person the opportunity to repent and live in the light. God never said in His Word that minimizing another's sin is loving. He never said that love is forgetting the past harm someone has done. The more we minimize and put hurt out of our minds, the more the past begins to control us. Paul called people out by name for their wrongs! Jesus did it as well. 

In his book, The Wounded Heart, Dan Allender defines loving our enemies as "a movement of grace to embrace those who've sinned against us and to offer restoration to those who've done us harm." Sometimes we confuse godly love with warm fuzzy feelings we enjoy. But love is something much deeper than that. Love is given to us by the Creator to only enhance life and destroy evil. We often think extending grace is about overlooking sin, minimizing its impact on us, and pretending sinful behavior doesn't hurt. What if grace is not passivity, but calling someone out of the darkness they are living when sinning against us? What if God allowed their sin to be perpetrated against us so He could use us in His redemptive plan? God calls us to love enemies and loving an enemy doesn't mean we "feel good about them." It means we love them and in the pain confront and impose boundaries that prevent abusers from  continuing to abuse without bearing consequences. It means there may be times we confront an abuser and expose the sin further by asking another person to confront with us. If it is a fellow believer, we may even at some point take it before the church to be obedient, but a church has to be willing to deal with sin. 

Loving our enemies and forgiveness aren't easy. They are sacrificial acts of courage that require a deep faith in God and a willingness to trust His sovereignty over our lives and the lives of those who wound us. Courageous acts because when we quit numbing and denying pain, we feel it and grieve the loss of  fantasy families, churches, or friends we wish we had. Courageous acts because we may have to step out of victim mode and take our power back to confront and set boundaries. For many setting boundaries feels "wrong" and unloving and it goes against the things we were taught. It takes courage because we may lose unhealthy, hurtful relationships, temporarily or permanently, and at some level we believe painful relationships are better than losing them. Courageous because some people will challenge boundaries and confrontations, claiming both are graceless, unloving acts because those individuals care more about  a false peace and the reputation of a person, a family, or a church more than individuals being wounded. Courageous acts because acknowledging hurt makes us vulnerable to others who may either help or do more harm. Courageous acts to speak aloud the things buried deep, removing a denial system used to protect hearts. Courageous acts that let go of what we want to see happen to others who do harm and trust God's justice and His grace are perfect and will be right, good, and always enough. Courageous acts that let go of anger we've used to protect our tender hearts from more pain. Courageous acts because to let go of the past means we have to face the uncertainty of the present. Courageous acts because some people don't ever repent and loving means we live in a state of longing for them to be drawn to the light for a life time like Jesus does?

I can't help but wonder if one of the reasons God was so adamant about loving our enemies is because He knows the real enemy isn't the person with whom we struggle. It is the deceiver, the predator of our souls. It is the one who stirs up strife. It is the one who seeks to devour and destroy humans that God created, humans that God loves. Because we are all preyed upon by the enemy, we really have more in common with those we perceive as enemies than we thought we did.

The times we are most like Him is when we love our enemies. For me, loving my enemies was one of the hardest things to process. But Romans 5:10 says,"For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life."  One of the ways we can be like Christ is to do what He did for us, trusting Him to give us the desire, the strength, and the wisdom to love those who have been enemies, not allowing them to continue to perpetrate harm. Its an opportunity to repay evil with goodness. Its an opportunity to repay hatred with love, not just our love, but His.  


Several years ago I realized that I often sped through my Scripture reading and gave it little thought. Yet, when I had meaningful conversations with friends or family members I replayed them over and over in my head. One day it occurred to me, that if I thought more about what God says in his word that I would not only know more about Him, but I would come to know Him in a personal way. I would know more about His thoughts, His character, His intentions, His passions, and His actions. So, I began to take one verse at a time and think on it and then journal about it. At the time I was served as a volunteer in youth ministry and shared my “Thoughts on God” with those girls. For a while I have been rewriting and posting them on this blog. I have realized when I am in the Word or move through my day focusing on God's presence that I have wonderful opportunities to Meet God in the Everyday. The Everyday can include storms, blessings, hard things, scary things, exciting things...just any where, anyplace, any time. I hope that you will be able to engage with what I write with both your head and your heart. I also hope you will be challenged to love, trust, and know the God of the Scriptures. It is my prayer that as you read you will experience Him at a deeper level and share pieces of your journey in the comments. It is my desire that we form a safe community of believers who pursue the God who loves us radically, eternally, and without reserve. As a precious pastor once told me, "Don't forget, Wendy, God is Good!" I find myself compelled by His Goodness and His Love to share so others can know Him through all the ups and downs of life. Please feel free to dialogue back and to share how each passage impacts you. If if there is a passage you would like me to write on or if you would like to be a guest blogger, please let me know. I am just learning to navigate this blog and appreciate the kind comments you have made in the past...I promise I will even try to respond if you leave a note. If you are blessed please share the blog with friends!