Tag Archives: guilt

Forgiveness is hard!

forgivenLately, I’ve been thinking about the concept of forgiveness. I won’t share why, but let it suffice to say that pastors need forgiveness just as much as anyone. Funny thing is that we are best prepared to teach the things we have hardest learned. One who truly understands forgiveness, has both forgiven others much and been forgiven much by others—there is no other way to learn these lessons.

Often when counseling someone to forgive, there is one most common reaction. When hurt by another or slighted in some way, we are often unwilling to forgive the person because it would mean they got away with what they did. We can find ourselves thinking, “Once that person pays for what they did I will forgive them.” Another form of this would be “Once that person reverses the results of their actions, then I will forgive their actions.” The problem is that this is not forgiveness.

According to Dictionary.com, the word forgive comes from the Old English forgiefan, which is a compound of the prefix for meaning “completely” and giefan meaning “to give.” It literally means to give up completely. You see, if we require any rebalancing of the scales prior to forgiveness, it is not forgiveness we practice. This is because we would not be giving it up completely. In effect it would be saying, “I will not give up that much, but if you act to bring the line back this far then I can work with you by giving that up.”

Another reason a requirement for restitution does not constitute true forgiveness is because it is, instead, a demand for justice, or at least a more just outcome. Forgiveness is not interested in justice, it offers grace and mercy. Forgiveness is, in effect, to declare the scales balanced. If one demands the scales be actually balanced, then there is no forgiveness necessary.

One can only forgive if one gives up completely the right to be recompensed. One truly forgives only when one declares the scales of justice to be balanced.

So, how best can we do this? One thing to do is keep in mind that this is exactly what God did for you through Christ. God did not demand you make up for your sins, or work some of them off so there was less to forgive. No. He met you where you were, in the midst of your darkest sins, to forgive you. He declared the scales balanced. When he did this he gave up any right to demand justice against you. Think about that for a moment. The God of the universe, creator of all, the most holy and righteous judge gave up any right to demand restitution for your sins. He declared the scales balanced, meaning he declared you as not guilty of the sins—he declared that you did not do them. You see, one reason we cannot require restitution when forgiving is because we are in effect declaring the forgiven action never happened—if it never happened there is nothing for which to make restitution. We are, in effect, justifying that person in our own eyes and hearts. So, was this act of God a divine fiction—God winked and pretended you were not guilty? No. God did this by placing your sins upon Christ. The sinless Christ was declared, willingly taking it upon himself, to be guilty of your sins. We often gloss over this because we know that Christ is sinless and never sinned. We are willing to say he bore our sins (1 Peter 2:24). We are willing to see his parallel in the scape goat. We forget that this means the guilt itself was placed upon Christ. Folks, understand! This means you are not guilty of your sins. Christ has been declared guilty of them! I know this sounds too harsh, but it is the reality of the transaction to which Christ submitted. We are forgiven because Christ took our sins and he is righteous enough to balance any scales of justice.

We are commanded to forgive and should do so, because that sin committed against us was also placed upon Christ. Now this assumes the person to be a Christian. What if that person is not? Then all that person has to do is come to Christ and that sin will be placed upon Christ. So, when we refuse to forgive, we are declaring the sacrifice of Christ as insufficient to cover that sin. If Christ’s sacrifice is insufficient to cover that sin, then there is no hope for our own sins. We find ourselves caught in a trap when we refuse to forgive.

There is one more thing to remember about forgiveness. If we are truly declaring the person who has sinned against us as not guilty (as we do when giving up their offense completely), then can we ever bring that back up? If we bring it up against them later, then we show that we have not actually forgiven them. We do this because bringing it back up says, “You are guilty of this,” which is the opposite of forgiveness which declares, “You are not guilty of this.” How can we say we forgive when we then hold the forgiven act against the one we claim to have forgiven?

As you read this understand that I rebuke myself in this far more than anyone can know. There are things I have not forgiven people for. I thought I had done so, simply because I had decided to not demand restitution. However, by continuing to see them as guilty of the transgression shows I did not truly forgive.

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When we Love Another

This morning I was struck by an article shared on Facebook by a friend. It was a letter from an emergency room doctor comparing the way we used to treat our elderly and the way we treat them today. article can be read here. I highly recommend everyone digest it.

Image courtesy of hywards at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of hywards at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The doctor was arguing we have not improved the lot of the aged by keeping them artificially alive long after their bodies have run their course. He paints a beautiful image of an elderly woman propped up and looking out a window, watching her grandchildren playing as her time approaches. She is permitted to pass among her loved ones in familiar surroundings. He then compares the modern tendency to warehouse the aged and artificially keep them alive, long after they have lost any semblance of quality life. Now, before you take this letter and build a new norm—declaring that all elderly should be allowed to stay home until they are quietly and peacefully shuffled off this mortal coil—keep in mind that replacing an imperfect system with another imperfect system is not an improvement. To make it somehow unloving to seek nursing home care for a parent whose daily needs are beyond what the family can provide is no better. And simplistically deciding it is best to allow nature to run its course may not be the solution either. Imagine a person who needs extreme care, burdening her family, but continuing to carry on for decades. What I am saying is that swapping the social burden and guilt which causes many families to extend a loved one’s life into an almost cruel existence is not improved by placing guilt upon them for being unable to provide extreme but appropriate care at home.

Instead, we need to understand something much deeper. We need to understand love and what it truly calls upon us to do. Recently I had a conversation with a family member. I explained that when I say “I love you” this does not mean I agree with what you are doing, or feel good about your situation. It may be true that I can love you and not even enjoy being around you because of what they are doing. You see, to love someone is to always act in keeping with that person’s best interest. It means I will do what is in your best interest, even when it may not be in mine.

One thing I’ve discovered, in my own experiences, with families making end of life decisions is that they too often make them based upon their own interests, instead of the interests of the one suffering. People may say:

“How will I go on without him?”

“But I don’t want her to die!”

“But I need him. We can’t make it without him.”

You see, to act in a loving way is to make the decision based on their interests. The sentiments above are natural and normal. But, depending upon the situation they are likely selfish. The loving version may be:

“Is it right to force him to go on like this?”

“Does she want to continue like this?”

“What does he need? Can he live like this?”

My point is that doing the loving thing, in this situation and many others, is often the hard thing. The loving person often must make the very choice they want least to make. When I was raising my children I had to do many things I did not want to do. I did them, not because they were good for me, but because they were good for my children. As a husband, I have to do things based upon my wife’s needs. As a son, I must do things based upon my mother’s needs. Don’t get me wrong, my mother is far from needing such choices made. I hope to be as healthy as her when I am her age. It is the fact that I may someday face these choices that makes me think. I’ve already had to make many hard choices and do many hard things in love. When my son was young I had to hold him down while the doctors did a spinal tap. This was not easy. It hurt him and he screamed. My own nature said, “No!” But my duty as a father and my love for my son made me do what needed to be done.

What I am trying to do is get us to understand that love is doing what is right for the one loved. If this means it is time to pull the plug on a loved one, then do so without guilt and without any concern for what others might say. If the best care and quality of life for an elderly parent is in a nursing home, then don’t be ashamed of making that decision. But if it’s better to keep that parent at home and allow them to leave this earth from their own room, then don’t let anyone shame you into making a different decision.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

This last part is another element of love. Love acts without fear. Others may misunderstand. Others may get angry. Others may attempt to cast aspersions and to shame the one upon whom the choice falls. But recognize these for what they are—manipulations. Love will not be manipulated. Love chooses based upon the needs of the one loved and then stands behind the choice.

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God Must?

Today is Christmas morning. Of course, since most of the family other than me works today, this means I am spending the morning in my usual way. I’m sitting here alone enjoying coffee and reading. My reading lately has been in Grudem’s Systematic Theology because of a graduate theology class I am taking.

In Grudem’s chapter on Justification, I was struck by the construction of a statement. I was struck by (1) the oddness of the construction and (2) by the power of that same construction. However, there is one more thing that struck me: though it contains a powerful statement, I believe (3) it leaves us with possible conclusions about justification that are far weaker than the subject demands.

On page 723, Grudem defines Justification as, “an instantaneous act of God in which he (1) thinks of our sins as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) declares us to be righteous in his sight” (emphasis in the original). This is a great definition, but actually pretty standard. It was not this that so struck me this morning. What struck me was earlier in the chapter, when introducing the concept of justification. As the gospel is effectively proclaimed to those who are regenerated and they respond in faith, they are converted and “…God must respond to our faith and do what he promised, that is, actually declare our sins to be forgiven. This must be a legal declaration concerning our relationship to God’s laws, stating that we are completely forgiven and no longer liable to punishment.”

  • The Oddness of the Construction: I find it odd to hear the words “God must…” Can you imagine anything binding an obligation upon the all-powerful creator of the universe? Is there anything that can bind God, or limit him? The very idea of the subject “God” as understood in the Christian sense tied to the predicate “must…” seems to stretch the imagination and call for ridicule. God cannot be bound, can he? God cannot be obligated, can he? It seems laughable to imagine any creature thinking the God of heaven and earth can be bound to any course of action. This is what makes Grudem’s statement so odd. However, there is truth to the statement and the truth is far more powerful than we often imagine. We discover this truth when we understand what binds God in this instance—what makes it obligatory upon God to take this action?
  • The Power of the Construction: Grudem actually gives us the reason for declaring God to be obligated to act—promise. God promised to respond to our faith by justifying us. But how does that obligate God? You and I make promises all the time. Some of them we keep. Many of them we do not keep. For humans breaking a promise is as easy as breathing. Some people actually make promises with the intention of never keeping them. The promise is simply a rhetorical tool to manipulate another: “I promise I’ll do this, if you do that.” Then when we have what we want we walk away breaking the promise. So, why is it that the great all-powerful God cannot do this? Is there some more powerful force or deity making sure he keeps his word? Of course this is not the reason. There is nothing outside of God controlling or binding God. If God chooses his course of action with unfettered freedom (not bound by any other ethic but his own declarations), how can we be sure he will keep his promises? Could he not arbitrarily decide to break his promise and by declaration make that action good? How can we say he must do what he promised? One answer is found by considering the nature of God and of divine foreknowledge. However, simply saying God will keep his promise because it is in his nature to do so seems a bit…simplistic. I would argue a different tack. I would argue it from the inerrancy of God:
    1. God, by his nature, cannot err. If he declares something to be true, then it is true. If he declares something will happen then it will happen. If his declaration does not come true, then he was wrong—he would be in error, and thus not inerrant.
    2. Let’s apply this truth about God to the idea of a divine promise. If God promises at a point in time (our time, since God is not limited to time) to respond to those who come to him in saving faith a certain way, he is actually making a declaration of what will happen—a prior declaration of an event. He is promising that if at some time you do A, he will respond with B (Don’t mistake this for the idea of works salvation. We are simply discussing things that are later down what many, like Grudem, call the Order of Salvation—election, regeneration and proclamation have already happened causing the person to respond in believing faith, confess and be converted). God is declaring in effect, if this happens that will result. The ‘this’ is my response to his actions in saving me and the ‘that’ is his response to my faith. He declared, “If we came to him in believing faith he would accept us and justify us.” If he does not do so, then he was wrong. Therefore, God would not be inerrant. He would not have perfect knowledge. So, because God promised he would respond to our faith with justification, we can say that he must respond to our faith with justification. In this way God is obligated to act on our behalf and declare us justified—not guilty of our sins.
  • The weakness of the construction: as I said there is however one way in which this construction is still weak. However, the weakness is not in the statement itself, but in the way many might interpret it. If justification means God declaring us ‘not guilty’ of the sins we have committed, we need to understand what this means. Many will be tempted to think this means God has simply created a legal fiction—in which he says ‘not guilty’ of those who are actually ‘guilty.’ This is problematic though. If God is declaring you not guilty when you are in fact guilty then we, once again, bounce up against the inerrancy of God. This is not what is happening though. God is not just deciding to now consider you guiltless. This would be little more than divine self-deception. But don’t forget that what God declares cannot be wrong. If God is going to declare you sinless, and not guilty, then at that moment you are sinless and not-guilty. But how can this be? Yesterday, I committed sins X, Y and Z. Today, I stand guilty as charged. But today, I respond to the gospel message in saving faith, confess my sins and am converted. At that moment God declares me not guilty of X, Y and Z. How? I am guilty. I committed the sins! They are mine and so is the guilt. How can God do this? The secret to this is in the sacrifice of Christ. You see, God is not simply declaring some legal fiction. He is actually making you not-guilty because he puts those sins you have committed upon Christ. The sins and the guilt of them become Christs—no different than if Christ had committed them instead of you. Of course, there is one difference. If Christ had committed them he would have died for his own sins, with no benefit for you. By dying sinless, our sins are placed upon him (which lifts them off of us) and the guilt of those sins is poured out upon him (removing it from us). When God justifies us he not only speaks the words “not guilty” he has also made us actually “not guilty.” At that moment, I have committed no sins—they all belong to Christ. God can declare me legally sinless and righteous by imparting Christ’s righteousness to me (Romans 3:21-22).

When you came to Christ, you were justified. This means God has declared you not guilty because you are no longer guilty. You are not guilty because all the guilt was placed upon Christ. If it was all placed upon Christ, then there is none left upon you and you are now, through divine intervention, truly guiltless. If any guilt remains upon you—if any stain of sin remains upon you—then it was not all placed upon Christ.

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Christ the Triumphant

Colossians 2:14-15 speaks of Jesus’ accomplishments on the cross. In the NIV this says:

“[…] having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”

This translation says it was the ‘charge of legal indebtedness’ which was canceled. Other translations make it sound like the law itself was canceled. The KJV for example says:

“[…] blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.”

One reading the KJV and several others (including the original NIV from 1984) would assume it was the law being canceled (KJV: ordinances; 1984 NIV: written code).Those reading the latest NIV or others, like the LEB, would see this as canceling the list of debts (violations). This distinction is important because if only the debts are canceled, then the law is still in force. If the law is canceled then the debts against the law go with them. The latter removes not only the current debt, but also removes any possibility of future indebtedness. The former removes past debts, but leaves the possibility of future indebtedness. So, it is important to know exactly what is said here. The word used is δόγμασιν, which is the word for ordinances, or commands. Its root is the origin of our word ‘dogma.’ The passage says the ordinances (laws) themselves, which once condemned us, have been removed from the page. The NAS translates it as:

“[…] having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.”

The word for ‘canceled’ or ‘blotting out’ is the word for a scribe using a sponge to remove the ink from the page. In their day, they had no pencils and erasers. To erase something from the page the scribe would use a damp sponge to blot the ink from the page. It is this which Paul says Jesus did to the ordinances which were bringing us condemnation—he washed the words right off the page.

The passage goes on and says Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, making a spectacle of them. He triumphed over them by the cross. The imagery here is that of an ancient Roman Triumph. When a general returned from campaign, the Senate would often vote them a triumph. This would involve what we would recognize as a parade. During this, the enemy leaders captured would be paraded through the city before the people. At the end of the triumph the captives would be killed. It is this graphic image that Paul uses to describe Jesus victory over the ordinances and law.

In case you are still of the opinion that this only referred to the list of debts for past violations and not a triumph over the law itself, remember that this would leave you facing the possibility of future law violation. However, Paul, in verse 16 says not to let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or judge you concerning religious festivals, holy days, or even a Sabbath day. If the law was still in place, you would still be liable to judgment over these. Christ wiped the law off the page. He took it away and nailed it to the cross. He paraded it in a victory march and dispatched it. The law was taken away and we no longer face the guilt of past violation, neither do we face danger of future violation.

This does not make us free to sin, however. Paul says the law was a shadow of realities to come. The reality is found in Christ (Col 2:17). We no longer live to keep the law. We no longer live to sin. We live for Christ; we live in Christ; we live empowered by Christ.

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