Tag Archives: justice

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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Whatever is True?

This morning, because of some personal inner wrestling, I found myself seeking comfort from Philippians 4:8, which reads (ESV):

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

When you find your mind fixated on negatives, this passage can be a great help. It reminds us to fill our mind with those things which are positive. However, it is too easy to misunderstand this passage and think of it as a sort of positive confession or as an example of early pop-psychology. This would be an error. It is not saying to simply think happy thoughts. It is not telling us that claiming good things will make them a reality. While the latter parts of the passage can be misunderstood this way, the very first encouragement prevents it.

The passage begins by telling us to think about “whatever is true”. I found myself wondering how the author meant this word. Did he mean “true” as in the correspondence view of truth, meaning it is something that corresponds with reality? Is it possible that the apostle Paul was commanding us to think about what is true and mean that which is “reliable, unfailing and sure”[1]? It is very important for us to understand exactly what Paul intended. Each definition includes different materials for us to fill our minds with. The latter group would be a much smaller group than the former correspondence definition.

If Paul is commanding us to think about those things that are sure and unchanging then we have a very small group included. However, if he intends us to understand “true” as everything that corresponds to reality, then we get a different feel for this part of the passage.

The word Greek word used is ἀληθής which means “statements that agree with facts” or “substantively true thing, fact”.[2] The antonym for this word is ψευδής which means “lying” or “false”.[3]

Paul is commanding us to look at what is factually true. To honestly look at what corresponds to reality. We are not called to imagine things as better than they are, but to honestly look at how they truly are. We are called to be people who accept and act upon the truth. One of the greatest causes of depression is the lies we tell ourselves. You can convince yourself that you are worse off than you actually are. You can be certain that the true condition of your life is false. You can build your actions upon lies that you have told yourself.

As Christians, we must have the courage to look honestly at the truth, accept it and act upon it. We should never hide from the truth, even the hard truths. We should never accept the lies told to us—whether told by others, by the enemy or by ourselves.

This actually informs our view of the rest of the passage. We are to think about those things which are truly honorable, truly just, truly pure, truly lovely, truly commendable, truly excellent, and truly praise-worthy.

[1] Dictionary.com definition of “true”

[2] Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament

[3] Ibid.

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The Lord’s Servant

This morning, my devotional reading was in Isaiah 42. I was struck with the following (vv1-4 ESV):

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

 

It is important that we understand this passage is a description of Christ. However, keep in mind it also points to another. Hebrews 10:1 tells us that the law was a shadow of the good things to come. The law established Israel as a servant of God. Israel was a shadow of the true good servant to come. Israel, in this capacity, serves as a shadow of Christ. So this passage refers to Christ as the good servant who would peacefully and faithfully seek justice, but it also refers to his Old Testament image—Israel. Now, after the coming of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit the church fills this role as the image of Christ upon the earth. We must keep this in mind. The servant mentioned in Isaiah 42:1-4 was, in their role as the Old Testament shadow of Christ, Israel; was Christ who came in the flesh; and, is applicable to the Church who displays Christ today. If Christ is seeking Justice in the world—as Isaiah says he will do—then he does it through his church.

Notice something about this passage. It says the servant would not cry aloud or lift up his voice, would not break even a bruised reed, nor extinguish a faintly burning wick. This is an image of someone working, but doing so peacefully. It is not the image of an activist screaming in a bullhorn. It is not the image of a rebel taking up arms to throw off a tyrant. It is the image of one who quietly and peacefully sets his shoulder to the work of establishing justice around him.

This image is to be a description of our own work in the world. We are to be about the business of establishing justice and these efforts should be marked by two qualities: peacefulness and faithfulness. We are to seek justice in a way that encourages the peaceful transformation of society from unjust to just and we are to do so no matter how long it takes and regardless of how many oppose our efforts.

The faithfulness is easy to understand and difficult to misapply. This means doing it without stopping and without discouragement. Actually, the passage goes on to say that the servant will not grow faint or be discouraged until his work of establishing justice is complete. This helps us to understand exactly what is meant.

The problem comes when trying to understand the peacefulness quality. Does this mean we must always be quiet and malleable? Does this require having a milquetoast quality? Well, if we follow Christ’s example we have to conclude that this is not what is intended. Christ opposed strongly. He stood for the weak and he spoke for the voiceless. He insulted the spiritual leaders of his day (What else is meant by calling them “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones” or a “brood of vipers”?) He flipped over tables, and drove away the merchants with a hand fashioned whip. He stood before a king and contemptuously refused to answer any questions.

So, what does this mean? How do we fulfill this quality? Actually, the passage itself makes it clear.

First, how we speak:

It says he would not lift up his voice or make it heard in the street. This doesn’t mean we never shout or be loud in support of justice. But it does mean we do not draw attention to ourselves. When we shout it is not to put ourselves forward, but to put forward the cause and the need for justice and to draw attention to the victims. If we raise our voices, it is so the world is informed of the injustice. We speak to publicize the need, rather than our efforts.

Second, how we act:

Notice that the unbroken reed was already bruised. For those who do not understand this means that it is previously damaged and weakened. Notice that the unquenched wick is already burning faintly—nearly extinguished on its own. In other words, he will not do more harm to what has already been damaged. The servant of God does not destroy what is already broken, nor does he tear down what is already falling. The servant of God seeks to build up, to encourage, to mend.

Unfortunately, we often do exactly the opposite. When we see Christians screaming in people’s faces or practicing scorched-earth politics the world sees a twisted image of Christ. Believers responding to sin with judgment rather than forgiveness mistake Pharisaism for Christianity. When we are more interested in being loved by the powerful than lifting up the weak we are not acting as Christ.

Christ had an Old Testament image which was embodied in Israel. Christ was the physical manifestation foreshadowed by Israel.

Peacefully seek justice—justice for our fellow believers, justice for our neighbors and even justice for those who oppose us.

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Forgiveness Guaranteed?

1 John 1:9 (ESV) says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We all sin. We all fall short of perfection. The solution to these sins is taking them to Jesus for forgiveness, but we often feel we don’t deserve forgiveness or that we have been too bad to forgive. This passage is a wonderful promise of forgiveness because it is tied to very important qualities of Jesus. You can be sure of forgiveness, not because Jesus is “nice” or “kind” enough to forgive. Unfortunately, this is how we often imagine it. Niceness and kindness are vague concepts. What is the nice thing to do in every situation or the kind thing to do? Sometimes being kind or nice can actually inflict discomfort—such as to teach an important lesson. This passage does tie forgiveness to Jesus’ character, but not to these vague qualities. Instead it is tied to two of the strongest qualities of our savior. Our forgiveness is tied to Jesus being faithful and just. The first part, Jesus’ faithfulness says Jesus is going to do exactly what he is supposed to do when he is supposed to do it, without reservation, hesitation or failure. This faithfulness can be scary because if the right thing to do was to exact punishment then we would be punished. But the passage isn’t so vague. It says he “is faithful [to] forgive.” This means Jesus will always (another way of saying “faithfully”) forgive. He doesn’t wait for you to feel sorry enough, or for you to do enough penance. Confess and be forgiven. Jesus forgives because that is his role as our savior. God sent him to secure forgiveness and salvation for us, and he is faithful to do the will of the Father, at all times (John 6:39f). There is no danger of Jesus refusing to forgive you because to do so would violate the will of the father and make the son unfaithful—something he can never be.

But there is another quality of Jesus mentioned here and tied to our forgiveness: justice. It says that Jesus “is just [to] forgive us our sins.” Now wait just a minute! Justice is usually to be feared when guilty of sin. It is justice that balances the scales. Justice responds to evil with punishment. When one is harmed justice forces the guilty party to make recompense. When one sins, it is justice that ensures you receive the punishment you deserve. Justice is not usually associated with forgiveness. Actually, forgiveness is the antithesis of justice. If one is forgiven, then justice was not met. If one receives their just reward, then there was no forgiveness. However, through Christ the forgiveness and cleansing of our sins has changed from unjust to just. You see we deserved death for our sins. Justice would have repaid those sins with death (Romans 6:23a) to balance the scales. But the death of Christ balanced them on our behalf and in our place. This death paid for them fully—not just past sins but all sins (past, present, future). Since the sins are already paid for, forgiveness has already been secured (Hebrews 9:26ff). To refuse to forgive would, itself, be unjust. To refuse to forgive would declare the sacrifice of Christ insufficient.

There is a huge difference between justice without Christ and justice with Christ. Before coming to Christ we were responsible to pay for our own sins. Justice demanded payment. However, once we came to Christ he paid it all and justice assures any subsequent sins are forgiven, fully.

Now, some will still demand a price for this forgiveness—a price paid by the sinner. They will point out that this passage says we will be forgiven “if we confess our sins.” It is claimed (wrongly) that one who does not confess (or fails to confess) will then not be forgiven. This is only possible if the confession is what makes the forgiveness just. To claim this would be to claim that the confession is what makes the sacrifice of Christ sufficient to pay the price, and without our confession the sacrifice of Christ would not be enough. Such a claim, in effect, is a claim of needing “Jesus plus” (it requires my actions to complete the work of Christ). This is abominable. But if you know how to look at such statements you will understand that this is not what the author is saying.

He does not say, “If you confess you will be forgiven, but if you do not confess you will not be forgiven.” No. He says, “If you confess you will be forgiven” then justifies this with the qualities of Jesus. So the first part must be taken by itself, since the latter is meant to justify (or explain) the former. Does it mean that we will only be forgiven if we confess? Of course not.

The statement is what is known in logic as a conditional statement. These take the form of “If A then B” (or in propositional logic A→B). Such statements have two parts: a sufficient clause and a necessary clause. In this case “confess” is the sufficient clause, and “will be forgiven” is the necessary clause. To understand these let’s look at the rules for each:

Sufficient Clause: “A sufficient condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that, if satisfied, guarantees that S obtains.”

Necessary Clause: “A necessary condition for some state of affairs S is a condition that must be satisfied in order for S to obtain.”

(Taken from: http://philosophy.wisc.edu/hausman/341/Skill/nec-suf.htm)

You see, logic (and language is really just a logical way of making statements) has rules for such statements. For a conditional statement to be true, the necessary statement must be true if the sufficient clause is true. In the example of A→B, if A is true, then B must be true or the statement is false. In this case, if I confess and Jesus does not forgive then the statement is false. However, the reverse (If I do not confess, I will not be forgiven) is not impled. That would be a very different statement: (A→B)&(~A→~B) which would be the equivalent of A↔B. Such would actually set confession as the equivalent to forgiveness (the two would define each other). It would ultimately be my confession that causes my forgiveness—a heretical idea. And to make confession a necessary for forgiveness, the statement would be “If you are forgiven, then you have confessed.” This is a very different statement—no longer a promise, but a simple declaration.

The statement “If you confess you will be forgiven” is saying that is you confess your sins you can be sure of being forgiven because of whom Jesus is and what he has done. However, it says nothing at all about what happens if you fail to confess or are unaware of sins and unable to confess them. Those are handled by the second statement: Jesus forgives because he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us. We can also rest assured in other promises, such as 1 Thessalonians 5:23f, which says (ESV), “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.” Add to this the promise of Jesus interceding for us forever as High Priest (Hebrews 6:19f). The Spirit will bring sins to your attention for you to confess. This is not because one must confess to be forgiven—the forgiveness is already secured. The Holy Spirit does this so that you can repent of the sin and turn from it. This is part of sanctification and growth, not a requisite of forgiveness or salvation, which were already secured.

Once you have come to Christ, you are never again in danger of unforgiven sins.

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The Good, The Bad, and the Not so Ugly

“[…] that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires” 2 Peter 1:4 b, c NIV.

This passage shows something foundational about the Christian faith. It shows a view of the world differing greatly from other ancient world views.

The first view this passage counters was the prevalent Platonic metaphysics of the day. Common among the Greek speaking world of the time was the idea that the spiritual realm was perfect and the fleshly realm corrupt. The flesh was seen as a prison in which the spirit was trapped. Everything to do with the flesh was corrupt and of no permanent spiritual value. The way to perfection was to escape the flesh. This very negative view of all things material actually crept into the church over time and influenced much of later church practice. However, the biblical view is not that the material universe is corrupt. Instead, God made it and declared all that he made good. The physical universe in which we live is good, but it is our sins, inspired by our evil desires, which corrupt the world. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the physical, the sensual, the fleshly—within proper bounds of righteousness. It was this for which Jesus was often attacked. Many times he was attacked for hanging out with sinners and dining with them. He even said that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard (Mt 11:19). For the follower of Christ, all food and drink is good and holy if enjoyed within the bounds of proper moderation and with thankfulness to God who provided. Likewise, sex is good and holy within the faithful bounds of marriage.

This passage also counters a second view. Though already ancient at the time, there is no evidence I am aware of that the author intended to counter this view or even knew about it. However, it is a common view in certain circles today, and this passage answers it perfectly. Buddhists view the problem of suffering to be one of desire. We suffer because we have desires. To escape suffering we must stop desiring. Though the apostle probably didn’t have this in mind, it is faced by the church today. A form of it is even found in the church. Many pretend today that we are not to have desires. They seem to think the Christian life is to be a form of monastic existence with no desires for money, a home, a family, etc. However, this passage shows it to be evil desires that are the problem. There is nothing wrong with wanting to acquire what you do not have—or wanting more of what you do have. The problem is when you either desire what you should not have, or when your desires lead you to behave in an unrighteous way to fulfill the desires.

The way to handle these desires is to see them as what they are. Imagine them as a checklist. We all have a list of things we want and things we do not want. If we listed these and put a check into the category of want and don’t want we can see what our desires are. Even the things we “don’t want” often manifest as negative desires (not evil, but as something we desire to not have or experience). I do not want to get sick. This is itself the negative side of a desire for health. The list of our desires actually says a great deal about us. We must understand that it is not the desire that drives us to act. We choose to act upon those desires. Through the indwelling Holy Spirit we are empowered to choose. We then make our choice. Desiring evil is not itself a sin—it is a symptom of sinfulness. It is when we act upon the evil desire that it becomes sin. It is this which shows the truth about us. For example, Jesus countered, in Matthew 5:27f, the belief that one was fine so long as one didn’t actually (physically) commit adultery, but only looked. Jesus said that anyone who looked on a woman with lust had already committed adultery with her “in his heart.” Is he saying that the look itself counts on that person’s tally of sins: “Hey! You looked! So we’ll mark down a sin check mark here in your book.” No. That is not what he meant. That would make the desire itself a sin. What he means is that the desire tells the truth about our heart. The drive for sin is internal and works itself out in our actions. The person who hasn’t actually touched the woman, may be without credited sin, but cannot claim to be truly righteous if he has lustful thoughts when looking at the woman. Those thoughts show that the potential for the sin dwells within the heart of the person. The man may not be committing the deed of adultery, but the look and thought prove that he is indeed an adulterous person—it shows the person still desires to sin, even if he is resisting it. The goal is to be transformed into a person who no longer even desires sin.

So understand your desires (good and evil) for what they are. They tell about your maturity and about where you are in your Christian walk. They tell you that you are not perfect—but neither are any of us. We are to seek improvement daily. Hopefully, we will no longer desire tomorrow what we desire today. In time the evil desires drop away as we are transformed more and more into the image of Christ. However, there is no reason to think the goal is for us to have no desires whatsoever. We are to desire justice, righteousness, more of Christ, a deeper walk with God, the love of our family, and yes, even a financially secure life. There is no sin in these desires—and neither is there sin in striving to see them come to pass.

The world was created to be a good place—it is the place we were created to occupy. God made it and declared it good. Desire is good—so long as it is desire for what is good, and leads us to fulfill those desires righteously.

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