FORGIVENESS—WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?

RECENTLY I WAS with a group of acquaintances, mainly fundamental Christians. The conversation got on to estrangement from one’s family. This was something one of the ladies had recently begun to experience, while for me it has been nine years since I saw my two daughters and their five children, my grandchildren. Immediately, one of the women in the group told me that the answer to this problem was forgiveness. I was not amused.

Firstly, that woman did not know me at all; it was the first time we had met. Secondly, she had not even heard my story—the dreadful complex challenges that had marred my life from birth and that had flowed on to my daughters turning their backs on me; and, thirdly, she did not know that forgiveness had already been a integral part of my healing journey.

I was angry with that woman. She was typical of so many people in many churches who are so swift to mete out judgment on those experiencing deep wounds from problematic families, wounds that they often have no idea what happened to cause them and from which they seek healing in the midst of a mess they did not create. Even when I challenged her belief, the woman remained adamant that all you need to do when life is tough is to forgive. I learned later that she herself was struggling with a difficult relationship with her daughter and could not understand why it was continuing, even after she had forgiven her—or at least tried to forgive her. Such situations are far more complex than simply mouthing words of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a process, an often arduous journey dependant upon the circumstances leading up to the need to forgive.

So, what is forgiveness? What’s it all about?

Perhaps we need to first understand what unforgiveness looks like. Unforgiveness is about holding grudges, becoming bitter, resentful, judgemental; holding onto the anger, hurt and desire for revenge that comes through a whole range of distressing and disturbing situations that cause us deep heartache, grief and despair.  When people are devastated by the actions of others that lead to crushing feelings of intense angst and anguish the last they need are words of judgment from the pulpit or supposed “godly” counsellors telling them that unless they forgive their abusers they themselves will not know God’s love or forgiveness. In times of such overwhelming devastation, people need to know God’s compassion, kindness and care. They need to be held in his arms of love, Bruised reedhear his promises to be with those who are bruised and broken, understand that he does not condemn them for hurting, being vulnerable, feeling foolish for being in situations that led to their distress and for which they were not responsible.

Christians, do you understand this?

Before you go preaching forgiveness, walk with the wounded in their distress. Hold their hands to help steady them in the mess of their lives. Hold your tongue—desist from mouthing words that can kill, cruel words that come from the pit of hell, not from the Word of God who is himself love.

There is a time for forgiveness. But ideally it should come in an environment where the intensity of one’s pain has eased, one’s emotions have settled, and when one can once again make lucid decisions about how best to cope with life’s difficulties.

Forgiveness is a rational response that helps us address our most painful situations. It includes the releasing of our hatred towards those who have betrayed us, our desire for revenge, and the need to know they are sorry for what they have done—none of which removes the power they still have over us if we hang onto our own bitterness and unforgiveness.

Forgiveness, the letting go of the wrong that was done to us and learning to release those who have caused our pain into the loving care of our Father who knows how best to deal with the whole situation, enables us to move on in life’s journey free from the heavy burden others have tried to place upon us.Cross

When I think of the distress others have caused me, my thoughts move towards Christ on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they have no idea what they have done.” I am reminded that not only did he speak those words to those who hurt me, but to myself who so often needs his forgiveness for the wrongs I do, both knowingly and unknowingly.

Forgiveness. It is a journey—one we all need to be on.

 

 

IS YOUR GOD TOO SMALL?

MY GOD IS an awesome God, full of majesty, power and might, grace, mercy, kindness and care. I haven’t always known him like that. For many years he was frightening, somebody to be feared and shunned, a judge who sat upon a lofty throne glaring down at us mere mortals who, no matter how hard we tried, could never attain his standard of  perfection or righteousness. Though I was fascinated by him and wanted to know more about him, my childish comprehension kept me from ever getting to know him. I am not alone in what was my faulty, fictional understanding of who God is.

J.B. Phillips, in his book Your God is Too Small described the different perceptions God on throne 2people have about God. Many still hold the view of him that they had in Sunday School, a benevolent old man in the sky meting out blessings to those who were good and punishing those who were bad. Others see him as a “resident policeman” making sure they obey the myriad rules placed upon them, while others understand God as the “managing director” of their lives making decisions for them and taking away any responsibility for what they determine to be “God’s will”. Many others have placed God in a box that has been created by their brand of Christianity, Protestant or Catholic, or by their individual life story. None of those concepts, Phillips states, is adequate when one experiences the challenges of today’s society—and he was writing more than sixty years ago!

My understanding of God leapt out at me many years ago when I was speaking with a pastor about some persistent concerns that had nagged me since childhood. He suggested that I visualise myself as a little girl running towards God in his throne room and experiencing his loving acceptance of his daughter. I guess the pastor thought it would be rather like how JFK Junior would rush into the White House to be with his father. He had unprecedented access to the most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States of America. But for me, I was terrified and blurted out, “He says he won’t!” And my God remained even more distant than I had already known him to be. I have come a long way since then.

Where do I begin to explain who God is? So awesome, magnificent, majestic and mighty, ruler of the universe, our sovereign Deity, bursting with glory and wonder, power and might; all knowing, ever present and in supreme control of this world we live in. And yet this breathtaking Being who holds the world in his enormous hands, is so cognisant of the pinnacle of his creation, humankind. The Psalmist of old captures the dilemma we have:

LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:1-4)

How can we make sense of our majestic God’s desire to have a relationship with us mere mortals, particularly when for many of us our comprehension of him comes from distorted teachings flowing from the pulpit that have failed to represent the reality of our loving God?

God is love. The whole message of his creation is that of love. Despite mankind’s disobedience and rebellion, God’s message remains that of love. Throughout the ages, as he interacted with the Israelites—his chosen people—his message was that of love. And his plan of salvation, the sending into our sin-sick world of his only, dearly beloved Son to demonstrate in tangible ways the reality of God’s love for all peoples, was an unarguable message of extreme, extravagant love. The suffering and brutal crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ on that wretched cross at Calvary was the ultimate message of love for humanity and God’s creation. The resurrection brought with it the triumph of that message of love, culminating in the awesomeness of his ascension followed by the promised empowerment of the Holy Spirit upon those who chose to receive him.

God is love. And his message for all people everywhere, regardless of colour or creed, gender, race or religion, social standing or marital status, is that of love.

Jesus and lambThe message of salvation begins and ends with God. God is love. God loves me with an unconditional, welcoming love that accepts me just as I am—just as I was when I first met him and began to understand something of who he was and is. Just as I was in the mire of my life when chaos ruled, when my faith in him was as fragile as that of a lost lamb who had wandered far from her Shepherd’s care, when my anger at what others had done to me through their atrocious abuse, betrayals, lies and the distortion of God’s truth raged. God loves me. And because God loves me with that pure, unadulterated love—unconditionally and with no holds barred—I want to love him back, and love others in that same exquisitely perfect way.  I have much to learn.

Reference:  J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small, London: Epworth Press, 1952

CHRISTMAS GIFTS

A VISIT TO Israel, the land God chose for the birth of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, brings with it an awareness of the richness of God’s love and the gifts he has for each one of us.  During my time there I was touched by the profoundness of his love, grace and mercy.

angels_singingVisiting Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, and standing in the Shepherds’ Field where angels proclaimed the arrival of the Christ-child, brought a fresh awareness of the Christmas story. I understood anew the wonder of my Lord and my God – Immanuel, God with us.

As I sat in the magnificent church on the Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the words of one of the Beatitudes captured my heart: Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Many people find Christmas particularly difficult, the grief of their lives intensifies in the midst of the heightened air of excitement and anticipation. There are those who are mourning – those who are bereaved, those with broken relationships, the loss of hopes and dreams. To each one, Jesus brings his gift of comfort. He gently says: Blessed are you who mourn, for you shall be comforted.

As I walked the streets of Jerusalem, where Jesus once walked, I was reminded of how heJesus and leper reached out to the poor and needy, those who lived on the edge of their communities. Jesus reached out to all in need – and he does that for all of us today. At Christmas time there are those who feel alone and lonely. To each one Jesus brings his gifts of love and acceptance.

As I talked with Jesus in the serenity of the Garden of Gethsemane, the words of an old hymn came to mind:

I come to the Garden alone,
While the dew is still on the roses
And He walks with me,
And He talks with me
And He tells me I am His own

The words of the contemporary Christian song, Servant King, also capture the pathos of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane as he awaited his arrest and pending crucifixion. It speaks of the garden of tears where Christ chose to bear our heavy load, where his heart was torn with sorrow, but in obedience to his Father, he declared: ‘Not my will, but Yours be done.’

At Christmas time there are those who are carrying heavy loads. To all, Jesus offers his gifts of empathy, kindness, care and compassion. He invites everyone to give him that heavy load, and receive from him his love, joy and peace.

His name shall be calledChristmas is a time to reflect upon the love of God, demonstrated to us through the birth of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ – our Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – the One who knows us intimately, loves us deeply, and who offers us Life with a capital ‘L’.

At Christmas time, may each one of us accept his gift and embrace it in all its fullness. The love of God – a wonderful gift that He has given for all of us to know and experience.

I STAND AMAZED

I SOMETIMES BECOME overwhelmed with the grandeur of my God, his awesomeness, majesty, might and power, and how, though Creator King, Maker of the Universe, he still has time for us mere mortals.

Shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks in America, I began my morning community radio program with two songs: Bette Midler’s From a Distance, and The Bachelors’ I Believe. The first describes how God watches over us from a distance, the second that in the storms of life he hears our smallest prayers.

Psalm 8’s anthem of adoration to Almighty God captures the paradox that, while launching the sun, moon and stars into space, his thoughts were upon his people, making them a little lower than angels and crowning them with glory and honour (Psalm 8:5)

So many people have such a limited view of God, created according to their church’s creeds, their brand of biblical exegesis, according to their status in life or because of the unacceptable behaviour of those who claim to know him, but who fail miserably to demonstrate his reality. These restrictive images, the idols we make, leave little room for us to know God in all his glory or to experience the life and liberty he has for us.

On one of the many occasions when my life had fallen apart, I realised that the image I had of God, formed by restrictive church teachings, was far too small for the enormity of what I was going through. At my lowest point I decided to go back to the Gospels and learn for myself who Jesus is and what he really taught. It was a revelation like no other. Through him I experienced the reality of his love, grace and mercy and came to know his Father as my own. The words of an old hymn came to mind:Jesus

I stand amazed in the presence
Of Jesus the Nazarene,
And wonder how he could love me 
A sinner condemned, unclean
How marvellous! How wonderful!
And my song shall ever be:
How marvellous! How wonderful!
Is my Saviour’s love for me.

 

 

To be like Jesus

One of the attributes that attracted me to Jesus was his love of people on the edge of society, those who others regarded as untouchable and unlovable. He willingly reached out and touched the leper, the woman who had been haemorrhaging for years and who was considered unclean by Jewish law, the lame, the blind and those possessed by evil spirits. He embraced everyone in their uniqueness, regardless of their situation, with compassion, kindness and care.

Many years ago when my life disintegrated into utter chaos, I believed myself to be something akin to a leper. So great was the devastation of my soul that I regarded myself as nothing but excreta fit only to be flushed down life’s sewers.

At the time the church I attended was opening its grand new premises on the outskirts of Brisbane. Such was my despair that I pictured myself as a leper dressed in filthy rags squatting outside the gates of that magnificent complex crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!”

Nobody in that place knew what I was going through.  I have come a long way since then.  However, I have never forgotten what it feels like to be a leper.

It is time for those of us who call ourselves followers of Jesus—whether we go to church or not—to reach out to those around us who feel vulnerable, alone and lonely.

We are all called to be like Jesus and to follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:21).

footprints

Unforced rhythms of grace

My favourite Bible passage is from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 11, verses 28 to 30. Jesus gives us all a simple, sincere, significant invitation:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light,” (New International Version).

Those words of welcome have had a profound impact upon me throughout my life, particularly when I was going through times of distress and heartache, doubt and confusion.  Always, they drew me back to my Saviour, my Lord and my God.

Recently I read that passage in Eugene Peterson’s version of the Bible, The Message.  It was so refreshing!

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion?  Come to me.  Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest.  Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it.  Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

I sure have been “burned out on religion”, well and truly.  But what struck me even more was the intent of God’s invitation to “Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” That is such an exquisite expression of God’s love, kindness and care—the “unforced rhythms of grace”. It is as though he has all the time in the world to bathe us with his love, his grace and his mercy.

“Unforced rhythms of grace.”

May that be our reality as we nestle into the arms of our loving God and experience the joy of knowing him more fully and more deeply than we’ve ever known before.