Different

Fall leaves are dropping,
autumn arriving in typical
colors and smells.
A cool breeze hints
at winter. But not just yet. 

A lady sits on a front porch,
smiling, as she watches
a brilliant-red cardinal
clinging, calling out from
his perch. 

His persistence pays off
and a young female
swoops in, shy but determined.
The lady on the porch rocks
slowly, smiling.

She calls out to the
cardinals—Hello mom, hi Chaz,
and goes back to
waiting for her
expected guest. 

Memories prance
through her head,
retelling days of
swings and sleepovers, of the
sand and the ocean. 

Her guest arrives,
reaching for the
wooden rail.
The first step creaks.
The guest steps into view. 

He is old—well, getting old.
Older than before the
trouble started. Older but
born anew. Better
Different.

She looks in his direction
and their eyes meet. She
stays in her rocking chair
evaluating, determining, hopeful
that it’s truly different this time.

Hi mom, he says.
Hi son, she replies.

©2020 Steven Barto

The Prodigal Son (God’s Reckless Love)

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet… for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry” (Luke 15:21-22, 24, NRSV).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

IT’S NO SECRET THAT there are many ways to read, study, and interpret literature. Such investigation and analysis is called exegesis. It involves the careful historical, literary, and theological analysis of a text. Some call this “scholarly reading,” which I’ve learned to apply to my graduate studies in theology. Exegesis is described as reading in a way that ascertains the crux of a text; a type of “close reading,” deliberate, word-by-word and phrase-by-phrase, considering all the parts for a better understand of the text or verse as a whole.

There are three major approaches to exegesis: (1) the synchronic approach (meaning “within time” or “same time”), which can be considered a narrative-critical, social-scientific, or socio-rhetorical analysis; (3) the diachronic approach (meaning “across time,” focusing on origin and development and the “long view,” which is essentially an historical-critical analysis; and (3) the existential approach (something to be “engaged with,” looking at the reality beyond the text, “spiritual” truth beyond the “literal” truth). I will be using the existential method to analyze the story of the prodigal son. Please note this does not imply any connection to the philosophy of existentialism associated with Jean-Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard. Rather, existential exegesis is theological and transformative; it is done in the context of a specific religious tradition or theological purpose.

The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known stories of Jesus. Although many pastors, teachers, and biblical scholars refer to it as the story of the prodigal son, the word prodigal does not appear in the Bible. The son is best characterized as lost, emphasizing that all sinners are lost or alienated from God. To characterize him as “prodigal” casts too much emphasis on wayward lifestyle. If we limit our analysis of the prodigal son to his wanton worldly behavior, we will miss the point of the story. It is in fact more akin to the tale of the lost sheep. This story is meant to demonstrate that we  do not have to stay in our hopeless state. Moreover, it is an example of Scripture imitating life, in that it shows us what repentance means: turning away from sin and back toward the Father; doing a 180 as they call it.

Eugene Peterson puts the story of the prodigal son under the heading The Story of the Lost Son in his translation The Message. This parable shows the nature of repentance, and, more importantly, the joy and the willingness of God to welcome and restore all who return to Him. It shows us the riches of the gospel and its efficacy to overcome any form of sin. Matthew Henry draws a unique parallel between our heavenly Father and the prodigal’s earthy father. He says, “It is bad, and the beginning of worse, when men look upon God’s gifts as debts due to them” (1). Scripture tells us to not seek the wealth of this world. Jesus said, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Matthew Henry draws a parallel between the prodigal son and our First Parents. Their foolish ambition to be independent from the Father is at the bottom of every sinner persisting in sin and autonomy. The First Sin relates to man’s departure from God, toward a willful reliance on his own thoughts and valuations rather than ascribing to God’s. We see from the prodigal son that his desire to be free from his father led to a vile, hedonistic, slavish state of being. When we walk in the flesh (fulfilling its every desire) we become the devil’s servant. Walking according to fleshly desires and instincts invariably leads to a state of constant discontent. This is what it means to be a lost sheep, wandering the face of the earth in search of constant gratification, separated from God.

Exegetical Analysis

The parable of the prodigal son reveals two distinct issues: one literary, the other theological. From a literary perspective, the story revolves around two brothers: one younger, the other older. This does not indicate two separate stories, but two parts that compliment one another. Because of this focus on two brothers, it is helpful to analyze this parable from both an existential and historical/sociopolitical perspective. Historically, the “share of the estate” that the younger son would receive on the death of his father would be one-third. Culture during those times dictated that the older son would receive two-thirds, often referred to as a “double portion,” and the second son would receive the remaining one-third (see Deut. 21:17). When the property “was divided” in the story of the prodigal son, the older son was made aware of his share of the father’s assets prior to his father’s death. This was unusual in the prevailing society.

From a sociopolitical perspective, when the prodigal son asked for his portion of the inheritance, it’s as if he wished his father dead! New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey (2), who spent over 15 years in the Middle East, asked a number of people there what it meant for a son to request his inheritance while the father was still alive and well. The answer was always the same: the son wanted his father dead. In that culture, a father was expected to have complete control over his property during his lifetime, so the request of the prodigal son was quite offensive. The father’s willingness to comply with his son’s request was generous beyond all expectations. In addition, the older son in such cases was typically expected to step in and help the father save face with anyone attacking his estate. This does not happen in the parable of the prodigal son; neither son lived up to what was expected.

The wasting of all the son had while “in a foreign land” is culturally understood as acting against the family, whose inheritance can be traced back to the promises of God to Abraham. The famine made employment and food quite hard to get. The “distant country” was likely outside strictly Jewish territory. It is no coincidence that the son also ended up with the demeaning job of feeding pigs—these are unclean animals for the Jews. He had fallen so low that “no one gave him anything,” which indicates a state of complete destitution and neglect.

From a theological perspective, it is important to note there were 100 sheep (15:4), 10 coins (15:8), and 2 sons. One is lost from each number. The sheep and coin were sought after diligently until they were recovered. However, the lost son was not sought after. He was personally responsible for his coming back home. His rebellion was deliberate and “of the heart,” meaning only a change of heart would suffice for his restoration. This is extremely important from a theological perspective. It is one thing to “know” in your head what is right and what is wrong, but it is a different matter to make a heart-felt decision to change one’s behavior, one’s path—to “do a 180” as I said earlier. This was quite true regarding my wandering in the wilderness for decades in active addiction, making choices that belied morality. I never considered this crucial element in the prodigal son’s restoration before now.

The lost son’s behavior is deemed “riotous living” (15:13). The Greek word is asotos, which translates “living ruinously.” It is properly interpreted as meaning “unsavedness” or, by implication, profligacy, suggesting excess or riot. It is from the root asôtia, referring to being “not savable; incorrigible, dissolute, beyond hope.” It also implies debauchery or drunkenness (see Eph. 5:18). Of course, theologically speaking, the lost son “came to himself” (Luke 15:17). His condition brought him to his senses and he realized how his riotous life would end. Further, he considered his current predicament as being worse than his father’s hired servants, who had bread enough to spare (15:17). He decided he would return to his father’s house and ask his forgiveness.

The prodigal son showed true repentance—confession of sin, genuine sorrow, and humility. The Greek word for repentance in this verse is metanoeo, meaning “to change one’s mind for the better” (see Luke 13:3). This is more than forsaking sin; it involves a complete change in one’s attitude and orientation toward all sinful behavior. In fact, it is this degree of repentance God expects from us as a condition for receiving His forgiveness and grace. The prodigal son demonstrated complete humility. He said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son” (15:21). 

The motivation for the son’s return was hunger, but theologically it was to his “father” that he wanted to return; not to the dinner table. The words “against heaven” (15:21) can mean “to heaven,” indicating he believed his sins were so many as to reach the Heavenly Father—perhaps he believed his sins were ultimately against God. The Jews were aware of Yahweh’s “fatherly” love. Psalm 103:13 says, “As a father pities his children, so the LORD pities those who fear him.” The son knew he had no right to return “as a son.” He imagined saying to his father, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants” (15:19). In other words, he planned to earn his room and board when he returned home.

The Lost Has Been Found!

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I have sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’ But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found! And they began to have a wonderful time” (15:20-24, MSG).

What does this parable tell us? We’ve looked at several specific words and phrases (lexical items), such as “loose living” (15:13), “came to himself” (15:17), and repentance (15:21; 13:3). Looking at these words and phrases as they appear in utterances, verses, stanzas, and the text as a whole, we see the “completeness” of this story. This great parable speaks of true repentance and the complete joy a father has for a penitent son. Jesus addressed the “murmurings” of the Pharisees early in the story, saying “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing” (15:4-5). He then drove the point home: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15:7).

The details in this story are vivid and moving. Further, they accurately reflect actual customs and legal procedures of the relevant time period. The older son is much like the Pharisees. He could not comprehend the meaning of true forgiveness. In fact, the viewpoints of the two sons are diametrically opposed. The lost son rises and returns; the older son turns and walks away from his father in disgust, falling in moral stature. The central figure, the father, remains constant in his unconditional love for both sons regardless of their behavior or their attitude. Jesus identifies himself with God in his loving attitude toward the lost. He represents God’s perspective during his entire ministry on earth. This parable is one of the greatest examples of God’s willingness to forgive and to accept the return of every lost son or daughter. 

Concluding Remarks

Who are you in this parable? Are you the lost son, a Pharisee, a servant? Are you the older son who was bitter and jealous over the father’s forgiveness and blessing of the younger son who repented and returned home? Are you able to rejoice when a lost sheep is found, or are you taken captive by a righteous indignation, saying, “Why do you lavish him so? He disrespected and disowned you! I’ve been here all along. Where is my adoration?”

Family dynamics is rather fascinating. Even in the family of an addict or alcoholic we can see various roles played out: the Scapegoat (the one blamed for every wrong and ill within the family, sometimes the addict); the Punisher (often a sibling who has “always been there” for the family, and who doles out “consequences” on the addict or protects the family from the addict); the Enabler (usually a member who covers for the addict, trying to smooth things over or restore peace and order in the family, giving him or her enough rope to maybe change one day); the Hero (usually a Type-A personality who is hard-working, overachieving, a perfectionist, who is trying to create a degree of normalcy in the family); the Masot (often the funny, outgoing, class clown of the family always trying to quell the stress of the situation by supplying humor); and the Lost Child (often the middle or youngest child, shy, withdrawn, usually hates confrontation, and has difficulty with establishing outside relationships).

The parable of the prodigal son provides a wealth of theological meaning and puts an historical and sociopolitical spin on the nature of family dynamics during the era when this story was told. It can serve as an in-depth analysis of dysfunctional families today, showing us how easily we can resent the success of others; acceptance of a rebellious, riotous son or daughter who is welcomed back into the fold; righteous indignation by others in the family when a wayward son or daughter returns. It is not easy to forgive others who have harmed us or our loved ones. Thankfully, the parable of the prodigal son can serve to broaden our horizons regarding true repentance, unconditional love, and forgiveness. This is, after all, the point of the gospel itself.

Footnotes

(1) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 962.

(2) Jirair Tashjian, “Inheritance Practices in the First Century,” The Voice, Christian Resource Institute (2018). URL: http://www.crivoice.org/inheritance.html

 

 

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Works of Christ

The following is a summary of my most recent lesson in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University concerning the “Work” of Jesus.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Grudem joins most Evangelicals in affirming that the penal substitutionary theory is the primary theory and most important way to understand Jesus’ atoning work. But after sampling other biblical images and biblically based theories, pick one image or theory other than penal substitutionary and “defend” it as your new favorite: What is the full scope communicated via this image or theory? Why is it especially meaningful to you?

The lesson this week gives us much to consider regarding the “work” of Jesus Christ, i.e., His sacrifice on the cross. I’m sure most of us realize the importance of “threes” in the work of Christ. First, it is a three-day event. Jesus was taken into custody sometime around midnight (Thursday into Friday) and brought before the Sanhedrin and Roman officials for a series of “trials.” He was crucified on Friday and, after defeating death, He rose from the dead on the third day. Looking at the “work” of Christ in greater detail, “three” shows up several more times. There are three “stages” to the event itself: (1) death; (2) burial; (3) resurrection. Further, each of these stages addresses separate issues regarding atonement. In the first stage, Jesus shed His innocent blood, which correlates with the axiom “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” In the second stage, Jesus suffered actual (physical) death. This stage satisfied our moral debt. The third stage allowed our “sentence” to be served by proxy.

K.M. Kapic provides a wonderful explanation of the work of Christ on the cross. “Taken together, the images on this colorful canvas can help us see the full portrait of atonement: in Christ, God saves us as our mediator, sacrifice, redeemer, justifier, substitute, king, victor, and healer.” [1] Arguably, a key component of the work of Jesus on the cross is His taking our punishment (penal substitutionary). For this week’s discussion, I wish to focus on 1 Peter 2:24. Jesus bore our sins. However, I believe it is only because of His death and resurrection that we have been given the means through which we can “die” to sin—resist its dominion over our lives, especially the “practice” of habitual sin—and live unto righteousness in Christ. Kapic does not believe Christ paid a “ransom” to Satan. I concur. Mankind was enslaved to “sin,” not to the devil. Release from the domination of sin carried a price tag: the death of Jesus Christ.

We see in Christ’s earthly ministry many examples of His beginning to “reverse sin’s curse,” especially regarding how to stand up to temptation, the critical importance of love, submitting to the will of the Father, self-sacrifice (even unto death), and restoration. These activities point to what righteousness should look like. Human sin is in stark contrast to righteousness. Not only does sin seek its own appeasement, it causes a “failure to ‘render unto God his due honor.’” [2] God cannot overlook man’s abject disloyalty. However, I digress. Let’s stay on the matter of Jesus providing the means by which we can resist sin and seek righteousness.

Grudem defines atonement as “The work Christ did in his life and death to earn our salvation.” [3] Although this is slightly vague on its surface, I agree. But I must add that the term “salvation” is very comprehensive and includes deliverance from sin’s power and effects. The Hebrew language indicates some synonymous terms for salvation: freedom from constraint; deliverance from bondage or slavery; preservation from danger. From a New Testament point of view, Christ’s atonement provided release from habit and vice, a growing emancipation from all evil, increasing spiritual perfection (maturity), liberty, and peace. R.E.O. White says Jesus did not die to “win back God’s favor” for us. We had it all along. Rather, the work of the cross enabled us to move from a life of rebellion to a childlike willingness to trust and obey. [4]

I see a vital application of this aspect of the work of Christ to my life. I was subjected to severe “corporal” punishment growing up, which only served to make me fearful and angry. I was not empowered to handle anger, express love, or socialize with others, which led to rebelliousness, sin, addiction, self-centeredness, and a lack of social consciousness. While in active addiction, I fed my sin nature and ignored God’s initial call on my life. My coping mechanisms included those typically associated with addiction: denial, rationalization, blame, escape through physical pleasure. I lacked respect for authority.

Although I tried to stop drinking and getting high numerous times, this was not possible until I began to see how far out of balance my overt behavior was to the Christian worldview I claimed (pretended?) to have. I had to stop seeing myself as the “failure” my father constantly alluded to and, instead, see who I am in Christ because of His work on the cross. This allowed me to love myself and my neighbor. Eventually, I was also able to forgive and begin to love my enemies; what I call my “worst critics.” Not surprisingly, the result was an increasing alignment of my will with God’s will, which led to recovery from addiction. No human power (including mine) could ever break me free from the bondage of sin and addiction. I am convinced that without the all-encompassing benefits of “salvation” we cannot stand up to sin and put on the righteousness of Christ. The work of Christ on the cross allowed me to be forgiven and escape just punishment for my sins; however, it also provided my emancipation from the bondage of sin.


Footnotes

[1] K.M. Kapic, “Atonement,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 97.

[2] Ibid, 97.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 568.

[4] R.E.O. White, “Salvation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 769.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: The Person of Christ

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University regarding the Divine/Human Aspect of Jesus Christ.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I found information under the heading Biblical Perspective—Jesus Christ: Both God and Man to be a great springboard for this discussion. Indeed, one of the great mysteries in Christianity involves discerning how the two natures of Jesus (divine and human) relate to each. In fact, Paul tells us in Philippians 2:6-7, “[W]ho, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (RSV). Reading further, we also see that Jesus (while in human form) humbled Himself and became obedient to the will of the Father even unto death on the cross. To me, it seems counter to Christian doctrine to argue, as Arianism does, that Jesus was begotten by God the Father at a point in time as a being distinct from the Father and, consequently, subservient to the Father. Further, Arianism states that Jesus was the first creation of God. Interestingly, the heresy of Jehovah’s Witnesses would support this belief. In fact, it is for this very reason Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate the birth of Christ. JWs are essentially rationalists who reject the Doctrine of the Trinity and, accordingly, much of the teachings and miracles of Jesus Christ.

Arianism bases its belief, at least to some degree, on Colossians 1:15: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation.” Accordingly, I will begin with this biblical verse. Quoting from a transliteration of the Greek, Colossians 1:15-16 says, “In whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of (our) sins; who is an image of the God—invisible, firstborn of all creation, because in him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or lordships or rulers or authorities; all things through him and for him have been created; and he is before all things and all things in him consisted.” [1] My interpretation of this passage is that Jesus is considered the “firstborn” because of His divine actions regarding creation itself. It refers to Jesus as the cause of creation. It does not refer to the creation of Jesus. Matthew Henry provides a helpful interpretation. Regarding Jesus, Henry states, “He was born or begotten before all the creation, before any creature was made; which is the Scripture way of representing eternity, and by the eternity of God is represented to us” [emphasis mine]. [2] Henry continues by explaining that all fulness dwells in Jesus; a fulness of merit and righteousness, of strength and grace for us. This seems to fly in the face of Arianism’s claim that God created the Son at some point in time.

To help support my opposition to Arianism, please consider the commentary of Finis J. Dake. The Greek word prototokos, translated “firstborn” and “first begotten” is used of Jesus to mean the firstborn child of Mary (Mt. 1:25). [3] To me, this refers to the firstborn in God’s family as it relates to God born into humanity and not to deity. Acts 13:23 says, “From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised” (NIV). Acts 13:33 says, “He has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm: ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.” It would appear this refers to God sending Jesus to earth (as God incarnate) which set in motion the plan through which all of mankind can become adopted sons and daughters. The Nicene Creed would seem to muddy the waters regarding this critical doctrinal question with the wording: “And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; begotten from the Father; only-begotten—that is, from the substance of the Father; God from God.” However, the Creed specifically states, “Begotten not made; being of one substance with the Father.” [4] In fact, homoousion to patri refers to the Father and the Son being “of similar substance” or “of like being,” and does not indicate that God the Father created God the Son.

D. J. Treier, in his treatise “Jesus Christ,” notes the biblical history of Jesus’s earthly ministry and inauguration of a “new humanity.” This is the very essence of the “good news.” Concerning whether Jesus was “begotten” of the Father, it is important to note that Jesus has always been, and He was with God and “was God” at the creation. Perhaps it is best to consider the remark “today I have begotten thee” to be the beginning of the Christology of Christ; the start of His earthly mission. Treier notes, “The Bible’s Christological foundation begins with the ‘incarnational narrative.’” [5]

We must also remember that Jesus said He existed before Abraham (John 8:58). Also, He claimed that He and His Father are one (John 10:30), that He is equal with the Father (John 5:17-18), and that He, the Father, and the Holy Spirit were present (together as separate beings) at the moment of creation (Genesis 1; John 1:1-3). And we must not forget that Jesus (the man) was born in the flesh through Mary as conceived by the Father. This is the only manner in which we can rightly state that Jesus was born of the Father; however, it is the incarnate (physical) birth of Jesus we’re speaking of in this instance and not His creation as God the Son. Moreover, God has always existed as a three-in-one being, consisting of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Consider the word “trinity” (tri-unity or three-in-oneness): meaning three and unity. I heard it expressed this way a few years ago: not one-plus-one-plus-one equals three, but one-times-one-times-one equals one.

Footnotes

1. Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), 791

2. Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 1164.

3. Finis J. Dake, The Dake Annotated Reference Bible (Lawrenceville: Dake Publishing, 2008), 389.

4. Alister McGrath, The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed. (Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 11.

5. D.J. Treier, “Jesus Christ,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 442.

 


Footnotes

[1] K.M. Kapic, “Atonement,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 97.

[2] Ibid, 97.

[3] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 568.

[4] R.E.O. White, “Salvation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 769.

The Sea of Forgetfulness.

 

sea-of-forgetfulness.jpg

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

The phrase Sea of Forgetfulness is not actually in the Bible. When people use this colorful phrase, they’re usually referring to several passages in Scripture that talk about God’s forgiveness, and our justification in Christ through accepting His death, burial, and resurrection. They’re banking on the great promise from God the Father that if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive those offenses and never hold them against us again. He acts as if those offenses never happened.

It is doctrinal that God forgets our sins so completely it’s as if they had never occurred. Micah 7:19 says, “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (NIV). Verse 18 indicates that God pardons sin and forgives transgression. It is worth noting that all sin (yours, mine, your neighbor’s—past, current, or future) have been placed on Jesus Christ as He hung on the cross. Accordingly, when God looks upon us as born-again believers He sees the righteousness of Christ and not a lifetime of our iniquities. This is confirmed in Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; And I will not remember your sins” (NIV).

God is omniscient. He knows all things. So He does not really “forget” anything. Although it is beyond human capacity to grasp, He encompasses all knowledge of the universe past, present, and future. I have come to understand that God is not constrained by time in any fashion. Time (whether it’s told by a wall clock, wrist watch, calendar, or sun dial) is merely a human invention. God is able to see everything that ever was, is now, and will be, all in the same instance. The word “omniscient” comes from the Latin words omnis (signifying all) and scientia (signifying knowledge). When we say that God is omniscient it means that He has perfect knowledge of everything there ever was and will be, including our works. It is impossible for God to fail to “remember” our sins. Rather, He chooses not to remember our sins. Moreover, He creates a void between us and our sins (Psalm 103:12).

Let’s take a closer look at Isaiah 43:25. God tells us He “blots out” our transgressions. The idea of blotting out sins is taken from the custom of keeping accounts and canceling or blotting out the charge when the debt has been paid. God had a plan for our redemption before the foundation of the universe. Because of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ, our debt has been paid. Old Testament saints had a forward-looking faith in Jesus as the Messiah; New Testament believers have a backward-looking faith that Christ in fact died on the cross as our Sacrificial Lamb. When Christ said, “It is finished,” the debt was satisfied for all sins. No punishment can be exacted for those who are washed in His blood. We are pardoned.

As Far As East From West

Looking at Psalm 103:12, we see that God removes us from our transgressions as far as the East is from the West. This is equivalent to blotting our our sins. Acts 3:19 says, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (NKJV). God reminds us in Isaiah 44:22, “I have blotted out, like a thick cloud, your transgressions, and like a cloud, your sins. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you” (NKJV). In each instance, the verb is given in past tense. He has blotted. He has redeemed.

The Glory of the Gospel is That Our Sins Are Already Dealt With!

WHEN BROUGHT INTO THE LIGHT

When our sins are set before us in the light of God’s glory, our first reaction is (naturally) that they are altogether unpardonable. We may not be willing to voice this fear to others, but it is quite real. This sense of dread comes from the conviction that we can never earn salvation through “doing good.” But there us no pardon under the Law because the Law knows nothing about forgiveness. Rather, the Law says, “Do this and you shall live; disobey and you shall die.” The Law can only convince us of our inability to obey and condemn us for the failure to do so.

After we become awakened in Christ, we are made aware of our litany of sins. Of course, there is no awakening if we remain in the dark—lacking honest assessment and humble surrender. Paul noted in his first letter to the Corinthians that he gave no credence to how man might judge him, or whether the court might condemn or sentence him. Further, he did not see any benefit to judging himself. Although his conscience was clear, he remained concerned about the judgment of God. His advice was, “… judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart…” (1 Corinthians 4:5, NIV).

Typically, this so-called awakening involves five distinct stages, which Dave Ferguson aptly explained in his article at Christianity.com titled “5 Stages of Spiritual Awakening.” In his research and analysis, he noted that the story of the Prodigal Son applies to nearly every believer who has drifted away from the Father only to find his or her life wanting and miserable. Invariably, they determine (as did the Prodigal) that loss of “sonship” is not worth any amount of riches or physical comfort. Indeed, even the “father’s” servants have it better than the child who has walked away. 

The following steps are critical to achieving a spiritual awakening:

  1. Awakening to Longing. Everyone eventually begins to question the value of his or her existence. It is not unusual to exclaim “there’s got to be more to life!” Each of us longs for love, a sense of relevance or purpose, and some degree of meaning to life. This is often the first of basic longings and is what goads us to set out on a journey. Although these yearnings are given to us by God, we often search for fulfillment everywhere but from Him.
  2. Awakening to Regret. Because we tend to seek fulfillment of primitive longings without God, we end up alone, directionless, and confused. I cannot count the number of times I’ve expressed the desire to start over. It’s worth noting that many individuals often get caught up in a loop between longing and regret.
  3. Awakening to Help. When we break out of the loop between longing for a sense of meaning and regretting the mess we’ve created, we have the potential to acknowledge that something needs to change. This amounts to coming to the end of ourselves. Finally, we throw up our hands and say, “I can’t do this on my own.’ In recovery, this is often referred to as hitting bottom. We realize we need help.
  4. Awakening to Love. At this point, we come to believe that Jesus is the One who leads us back to God. As we make our prodigal journey back to the Father, we encounter grace. We begin to recognize God’s unconditional love. He is waiting for us with open arms. Unfortunately, many of us still have to deal with the shame and guilt that follows us home. If we give in to these emotions, we tend to doubt that we are loved and accepted just as we are.
  5. Awakening to Life. Finally, we are in a place where we understand when Jesus said, “I came so that they can have real and eternal life, more and better life than they ever dreamed of” (John 10:10, MSG). The Greek word for life in this passage is zoe, meaning “of the absolute fullness of life, both essential and ethical, which belongs to God.” We simply cannot reach this level of life without a spiritual awakening.

THE END OF ME

Jesus tells us the way up is down. In other words, we can only achieve greatness through humility. Admittedly, this is a quality I have been sorely lacking in for most of my life. My life has frequently been rather difficult and complicated as a result. I’ve heard it said that we can only change when we become coachable. I did not necessarily believe there was nothing wrong with me or my life. My difficulties came from thinking my problems were unique; that I was different and the tried-and-true solutions proposed to me by addictions counselors or 12-step sponsors. In addition, I was often in denial and tended to hide my feelings and actions through deception. Before I could ever hope to grow, I needed honesty and humility.

The evil companion to humility, at least in my instance, was pride. My knee-jerk reaction to advice from a fellow 12-stepper was usually, “You’re not going to talk to me that way!” I’d look at their “cheap” clothes, rusty old car, long hair, tattoos, piercings, and whatever else I decided made them “less than” me and decide they had nothing to offer. Pride. Pure and simple. It made me defensive and unwilling to hear what others had to offer. Even if it would save my life. This smacks of some imaginary hierarchy where I “outranked” the other person. Thankfully, I have put that rather glaring character defect at the foot of the cross. The minute I did so I began to notice others for who they were—children of God. I remembered something an oldtimer told me at a 12-step meeting years ago. He said, “Never look down on another alcoholic. You never know if that person will save your life.” Of course, I also had to admit my life needed saving.

Pride will often keep us from realizing how much we need God!

Pride is the ultimate issue of the human condition—not just one of the “deadly sins,” but the mother of all offenses. The late Billy Graham said, “…pride can be a very dangerous thing, blinding us to our faults and cutting us off from others. Pride also can lead us into doing things that are wrong, because we think they’ll make us greater or more powerful. The Bible warns, ‘Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall’ (Proverbs 16:18).

There is an amazingly powerful antidote for pride expressed by the apostle Paul that gives me goosebumps every time I read it. “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[fn] of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7, NIV). This is Jesus, the Messiah, equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, co-creator of the entire universe. I cannot fathom a better example of humility.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Here’s what I’ve learned: There is a real danger in making anything or anyone but Jesus a foundation for our confidence. This includes putting our self before Jesus, attempting to solve our own problems or “work” out a deal for our success. Unfortunately, being humbled is something we think of as a passive activity—that is, somebody or something humbles us. We are humbled by unemployment, by a failed marriage, by getting hurt on the job and having to rely on disability, by having to move back home with our parents. A shattered dream. But Jesus told us about a humility that is active—in this instance, we are the humblers. Jesus said, “Humble yourselves.”

It all starts with being honest about who we are in Christ and admitting we had nothing to do with our standing. It’s all Jesus. This attitude is something beyond humility. Meekness is closer to what Jesus is suggesting. Essentially, this amounts to submissiveness, without which we cannot hope to recover whatever the habit, hangup, obsession, or addiction. From a biblical viewpoint, meekness is synonymous with righteous, humble, teachable, patient when enduring suffering, forgiving, willing to follow Christian doctrine—attributes of a true disciple.

 

The Power of “And” in God’s Promises of Blessings and Curses

When we make a promise we essentially give an assurance that we will engage in or refrain from a specific form of activity. These commitments are typically made between individuals, and can include quite a range of activities. Simple promises can be written or oral, and may be temporary or lifelong. Such gestures are often sealed by a gesture, such as a simple handshake or a solemn oath. Complicated situations often require a witness and legal ratification. However, a covenant should be distinguished from a contract because it is a personal relationship into which people voluntarily enter. 

Promises may also be between groups of people. Where important bodies are involved, such as government entities, such promises generally assume the form of treaties. Among honest individuals a promise includes an expectation that the promisor is both willing and able to fulfill the commitment to the promise, with the undertaking being accepted on the basis of good faith. Where groups of people are involved, litigation is often resorted to in order to resolve the damage occasioned by the failure of the promisor to fulfill the stated obligations. In the case of broken international treaties, appeal may be made to an international judicial body for some type of redress. In some instances, military action might even be undertaken by the aggrieved party.

Scripture records agreements between individuals in the second millennium BC in Mesopotamia. A classic example is noted in Genesis 31:43-55 regarding Laban and Jacob when Jacob was seeking his independence. A covenant was established between them in which the two men agreed not to act aggressively toward one another. Each man swore an oath by his god, and erected a stone marker to commemorate the occasion. On his deathbed, Jacob promised his twelve sons that the future would hold certain prospects for them, and according to contemporary custom this statutory declaration to each of them gave the pronouncements legal force (see Genesis 49:1-33).

“AND” IS NOT JUST A CONJUNCTION

So let’s take a few minutes to discuss conjunction. My 9th grade English teacher told me a conjunction is a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause. We all know the usual suspects: and, but, if. Fine, but why “conjunction?” Actually, these clauses are called conjuncts of the conjoining construction. Okay, right. We can take it a step further, noting coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions, and correlative conjunctions.

…and who could forget this?

God has made it clear that “and” is not merely a conjunction. He is not interested in grammar. Rather, He is intent on setting the operating principles for His many promises and covenants.

A promise meant to bring great blessing to humanity was made by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. God said, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (NIV). Abraham, although childless, was to become the progenitor of a great nation. God repeated this promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. By faith, Abraham believed God’s utterances. God brought His promise even closer to fulfillment by stating that Sarah would have a son (see Genesis 18:10). Thereafter, Abraham rested his confidence in God’s divinity, and lived to see the Lord’s assurances implemented in what Paul, millennia later, was to call the “covenants of the promise” (Ephesians 2:12; Galatians 3:6-17).

The word covenant is of Latin origin (con venire). It means “coming together,” and involves two or more parties who agree to an arrangement—promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities. In Christian theology, it is similar to the word bond. The generally-accepted idea of a bond between two parties in a covenant implies that the arrangement is not unilateral. There are of course pronounced similarities between biblical and secular covenants. God is the originator of the concept of covenant. He used covenant relationships in His creation activity and handiwork. Covenant is an integral part of the patchwork of human life; it is God-implanted.

The basic elements of a covenant are embedded in the Genesis account. God, in His revelation of creation, presented Himself as the Creator. The historical record of what He has done was outlined in Scripture. He created His image-bearers by means of which He placed and kept man and woman in a close relationship with Himself and had them mirror and represent Him within the created universe. God clearly provided man with various stipulations or mandates. This makes perfect sense; as image-bearers, man is to maintain an intimate and obedient fellowship with God. The Sabbath was to enhance this. Humanity was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth; this was to be done by establishing families; a man was to leave his parents and cleave to his wife (see Genesis 2:24). Becoming one flesh, they would bear offspring.

As families increased, communities were formed. This was the social mandate aspect of God’s covenant. The cultural mandate essentially involved man and woman cultivating (“subduing,” NIV) and ruling over God’s creation. When God saw all He had done, He confirmed it so, but not by expressing an oath or performing a ratifying ceremony. Rather, He declared all to be very good (see Genesis 1:31). He confirmed this by ceasing all aspects of creation and establishing the seventh day as a day of rest, sanctity, and blessing (see Genesis 2:1-3).

WHAT ABOUT THE TWO-WAY STREET?

God did more than just “create” and sit down. He spoke of assured blessings. He blessed Adam and Eve, giving them the authority to serve as His covenant agents. He provided for their sustenance (see Genesis 1:28-30). He also spoke of the possibility for disobedience if they ate of the fruit of the Tree Knowledge of Good and Evil (see Genesis 2:17). God clearly focused on the idea of blessing (life) and curse (death). God’s covenants were all-inclusive stipulations. Basically, He said, “Here’s what you can have if you obey my covenant.” God clearly wanted it understood that His covenants are two-way streets. We cannot pick and choose which aspects we’re going to obey.

His covenants were never terminated. Paul said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, NIV). I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this verse: “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself” (MSG). Jesus was quite clear: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, NIV). Frankly, God’s covenants are similar to a lateral contract. When you buy a house or vehicle, you enter into a contract that is essentially a two-way street. You get to keep driving the car or living in the house until all agreed-upon payments (terms) have been met. Title of ownership then transfers to you. You reap the benefits of upholding your end of the agreement. Miss a lot of payments (default on the covenant) and the benefits of ownership will not pass to you.

A PRIME EXAMPLE

Jesus told us in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others of their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (NIV). I’m aware that this doctrine causes many to doubt, stumble, question God. The going argument is this: But I thought all my sins were forgiven when I accepted Christ, and that He removed my sins from me as far as the East is from the West. It’s clear that the death of Jesus Christ was ransom enough to cover a multitude of sins. By God’s grace we are saved. Yet we remain in a fleshly body and are, therefore, prone to carnality. We’re likely to stumble, but hopefully we do not intentionally disobey God. To do so is a slap in the face of Jesus.

Believers are rather enthusiastic about grace. We’re quite excited about having been forgiven through God’s grace, extended to us through Christ. So why do many of us have a difficult time extending this same grace to those who have sinned against us? Bevere (2004), in his book The Bait of Satan, notes that there are two types of people: Those who have been offended, and those who think they have been offended. Forgiveness goes much deeper than merely receiving it for ourselves and going about living our lives. We’re commanded to forgive others. This should be part of our testimony. We’re to shower others with forgiveness even as we have been forgiven. Peter was concerned about how many times we should extend forgiveness: “At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, ‘Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven'” (Matthew 18:21-22, MSG).

The true meaning of forgiveness is cancelling a debt. C.S. Lewis (1984) said, “Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it all in its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.” Forgiveness means releasing resentment. Frankly, suppressed resentment will never go away. It lies in wait, like a subtext, tainting our relationships and convincing us we’re right. It blinds us to seeing whatever part we might have played in a conflict. It’s like a smoldering fire inside a house. It can break out anywhere at any time.

Forgiveness means choosing love. When we choose to not forgive, we construct walls to safeguard our hearts and prevent future wounds. Remember the adage, Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me? Nearly all of us take that axiom to heart. This rationale causes us to become selective, denying entry to all we fear will hurt us. Unfortunately, these so-called walls of protection become a veritable prison. Our focus becomes, well, rather self-centered. Our focus is inward and introspective. It’s all about what the other person did to us. Our energy is consumed with making sure no one else hurts us. Bevere (2004) said, “If we don’t risk being hurt, we cannot give unconditional love. Unconditional love gives others the right to hurt us” (p. 16). Of course, that sounds rather counter-intuitive doesn’t it?

 Love does not seek its own, but hurt people become more and more self-seeking and self-contained. They do this in the interest of self-preservation. The offended Christian is one who takes in life but, because of fear, cannot share life. As a result, even the life that does come in becomes stagnant within the walls we build to avoid getting hurt. Bevere (2004) adds, “When we filter everything through past hurts, rejections, and experiences, we find it impossible to believe God” (p. 17). Let’s remember this: A minister or a Christian is what he lives, not what he says. If we are offended and in unforgiveness and refuse to repent of this sin, we have not come to the knowledge of the truth. We are deceived, and we confuse others with our hypocritical lifestyle.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

God clearly focused on the idea of blessings and curses. He was quite specific that His covenants are all-inclusive stipulations. He told us what we can have if we obey His covenant. He wants us to understand that His covenants are two-way streets. We cannot pick and choose which aspects we’re going to obey and still expect to be blessed. One of the best examples of this is His position on forgiveness. Jesus said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NIV). He forgave the Jewish mob who demanded His crucifixion. He forgave the Roman soldiers who beat Him and nailed Him to the cross. He even forgave Judas Iscariot. He made no threats. Instead, he entrusted Himself to Him judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21-23).

We have to come to the place where we trust God and not our flesh—our emotions. We need to understand the quid pro quo of God’s covenants. Of His promised blessings. We must become willing to forgive, even as we have been forgiven. Only then can we walk in the freedom and the joy of God’s blessings.

References

Bevere, J. (2004), The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House.

Lewis, C.S. (1984). The Business of Heaven. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Press.

Peterson, E. (2006). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing.

The Peacemaker (Part 3)

The Peacemaker: A Biblical Perspective on Resolving Personal Conflicts and Letting Go of Resentment.

Blessed Peacemakers Matthew 5.jpg

The goal of a peacemaker is to magnify the marvelous undeserved forgiveness that God has given to us through Christ and to inspire people to imitate such forgiveness to others. Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). As Christians, it is very important that we understand this verse correctly. Note we’re admonished to be peacemakers not peacekeepers. It would be a drastic error to misquote the Words of Jesus. Although it might sound like mere semantics, Christ urges that we make peace rather than keep the peace. The Gospel and peacemaking are interdependent. The Gospel is the very catalyst for peace. As believers, we are incapable of promoting real peace in the flesh. It requires the power of the Holy Spirit.

Peacemakers strive to make peace and attempt to reconcile things and people that are at odds with one another. Peacekeepers, on the other hand, strive to keep peace at all costs. Proverbs 10:10 says, “People who wink at wrong cause trouble, but a bold reproof promotes peace” (NTL). Peacekeepers, by not acknowledging wrongdoings in an effort to make peace, are actually winking at them. We must be about peacemaking as believers. My church contains in its bylaws language about peacemaking being part of our mission.

Speak the Truth in Love

Peacemaking does not—indeed, cannot—happen by accident. It is a purposeful act. In fact, peacemaking is a higher priority than worship. Of course, love is the underlying commandment. John 13:34-35 says, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another. By this everyone will know that you’re my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV). People should be able to catch a glimpse of the Father when they look at us.

Ephesians 4:15 says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head, that is Christ.” Words play a key role in almost every conflict. When used properly, words promote understanding and encourage agreement. When misused, they usually aggravate conflicts and drive people further apart. If your words seem to do more harm than good when you try to resolve a disagreement, don’t give up. With God’s help you can improve your ability to communicate constructively.

Bring Hope Through the Gospel

When someone has disappointed or offended us, our human reaction is to come at them with the law, lecturing them about what they have done wrong and what they should do now to make things right. This approach generally makes people defensive and reluctant to admit their wrongs, which makes a conflict worse. The Lord is graciously working to teach us a better way to approach others about their failures. Instead of coming at them from a position of legalism, we need to bring them the Gospel. In other words, rather than dwelling on what people should do or have failed to do, we must focus primarily on what God has done and is doing for them in Christ. This is commanded throughout Scripture.

When Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman, instead of hammering away at her sinful lifestyle (as many pastors sadly do today), He spent most of His time engaging her in a conversation about salvation, eternal life, true worship, and the coming of the Messiah (see John 4:7-26). The woman responded eagerly to this Gospel-focused approach, let down her defenses, and put her trust in Christ. Although Jesus changed this focus when rebuking hard-hearted Pharisees, His typical approach to bringing people to repentance was to bring them the Good News of God’s forgiveness (see Luke 19:1-10; John 8:10-11).

The apostle Paul had a similar approach, even when he had to deal with serious sin. In his first letter the Corinthians, he had to address divisions, immorality, lawsuits, food sacrificed to idols, and the misuse of the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts. But before addressing these terrible sins, Paul’s gracious greeting held out hope for forgiveness and change by reminding the Corinthians of what God had already done for them through Christ. What a marvelous way to set the stage for repentance and change. Paul always kept Jesus in the center of his instruction and admonishment by first providing the believers a detailed description of God’s redemptive plan. When Paul finally got around to addressing errors in the congregation, his readers were already standing on a foundation of hope and encouragement.

Paul took the same approach with the Philippians and Colossians, who also needed correction and instruction. He begins his letters to these two churches by drawing attention to what God has done in each of them. As he continued, he frequently referred to the Gospel as he moved from issue to issue. For example, look at what Paul writes in Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Before admonishing these believers, Paul reminds them of who they are in Christ.

Be Quick to Listen

Another element of effective communication is to listen carefully to what others are actually saying. Knowing this is not in our human nature, James gave this warning: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20, NIV). Good listening is particularly important for a peacemaker. It improves your ability to understand others, it shows that you realize you do not have all the answers, and it tells the other person that you value his or her thoughts and opinions. Even if you don’t agree with what others say or do, your willingness to listen demonstrates respect and shows that you are trying to comprehend their perspective. This typically helps create an atmosphere of mutual respect that will improve communication.

Waiting…

Waiting patiently while others talk is a key listening skill that is a must for all peacemakers. Without this skill, you will often fail to understand the root cause of a conflict, and you may complicate matters with inappropriate reactions. As Proverbs 18:13 tells us, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (NIV). In other words, avoid jumping to premature conclusions about what others are thinking; give them time and hear them out. Discipline yourself not to interrupt others while they are speaking. Learn to be comfortable with silence and do not respond the moment there is a pause. Moreover, do not offer immediate solutions to every problem others bring to you.

Reflecting or “paraphrasing” is the process of summarizing the other person’s main points in your own words and sending them back in a constructive way. This is the very definition of active listening. Reflecting may deal with both the content of what the other person has said and the associated feelings. Reflecting does not require that you agree with what the other person says; it simply reveals whether you comprehend another person’s thoughts and feelings. Reflecting shows that you are paying attention and you are trying to understand or empathize with them. Besides, reflecting what others are saying can make them more willing to listen to what you want to say.

Engage Rather than Pronounce or Declare

One of the fastest ways to make people defensive is to abruptly announce what they have done wrong. If you launch into a direct and detailed description of their faults, they are likely to close their ears and launch a counterattack. It is wise to think carefully about how to open a conversation in a way that shows genuine concern for the other person and engages him in listening to your words without becoming defensive. If you are going to be candid—this is often doable when speaking to a close friend—you should first affirm your respect and friendship and then describe your concern in direct terms. If strong trust has not been built between you, however, or if the issue is likely to trigger defensiveness, you would be wise to broach your concern in an indirect way that engages the other person’s heart and mind without putting him instantly on guard.

Whatever approach you use, your goal should be to describe your concern in a way that captures others’ attention, appeals to their values, and gives hope that the issue can be resolved constructively. The more you engage another person’s heart and the less you declare his or her wrongs, the more likely he or she is to listen to you. Communicate clearly enough that you cannot be misunderstood. Many conflicts are caused or aggravating by misunderstandings. People may say things that are actually true or inappropriate, but because they did not choose their words carefully they leave room for others to misconstrue what they mean and take offense. Fewer factors can derail peacemaking than miscommunication.

Use the Bible Carefully

It is often helpful to refer to the Bible as a source of objective truth when you have a disagreement with another Christian. If this is not done with great care, however, it will alienate people rather than persuade them. Never quote the Bible to tear others down, but only to build them up in the Lord. Make sure to use Scripture passages for their intended purpose. Never pull a verse out of context and try to make it say something other than its clear meaning. It’s advisable to encourage others to read the passage from their own Bibles; then ask, “What do you think that means?” This typically yields far better results than imposing your interpretation on them.

It is also paramount that you know when to stop. If the other person appears to be getting irritated by your references to Scripture, it may be wise to back off and give him or her time to think about what you’ve presented to them.

Summary and Application

Effective confrontation is like a graceful dance from being supportive to assertive and back again. This dance may feel awkward at first for those who are just learning it, but perseverance pays off. With God’s help you can learn to speak the truth in love by saying only what will build others up, by listening responsibly to what others say, and by using principles of wisdom. As you practice these skills and make them a normal part of your everyday conversation, you will be well prepared to use them when conflict breaks out.  In developing the skills of loving confrontation, you can see for yourself that “the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

God bless and thanks for reading.

Join me next Monday when I wrap up this series on peacemaking. We’ll look at the importance of taking one or two others along when confronting others in the interest of peace. Matthew 18:16 says, “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

 

 

The Peacemaker (Part 2)

The Peacemaker: A Biblical Perspective on Resolving Personal Conflicts and Letting Go of Resentment.

Blessed Peacemakers Matthew 5.jpg

Peacemakers are people to literally breathe grace. They draw continually on the goodness and power of Jesus Christ, and then bring His love, mercy, forgiveness, strength, and wisdom to the conflicts of daily life. God delights to breathe His grace through peacemakers and use them to dissipate anger, improve understanding, promote justice, and encourage repentance and reconciliation. Peacemakers help others let go of resentments.

Peace is essential to Christianity. There can be no doubt about it. God created this world with the intention that it be full of peace. But human sin derailed God’s intention. Brokenness now pervades that which God set in motion. Of course, God’s peace is inextricably related to forgiveness, salvation, redemption, and restoration. Luke 1:77-79 says, “…to give knowledge of salvation to His people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (RSV).

Matthew 5:9 says, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God” (NLT). Our aim as Christians—indeed, as peacemakers—is to encourage others to break free from the habit of focusing on other people’s wrongs and to promote peace by focusing instead on their own contribution to the conflict. We must essentially develop a passion for peace. First, it is critical that we understand how powerful words are. Peacemaking begins with saying the right thing the right way. Everything is relationship. We are constantly presented throughout each day with numerous opportunities to promote peace.

4 important keys related to conflict resolution and promoting peace:

  1. Resist the natural reaction to blame others and focus on their wrongs and differences. People who to take a moral approach are particularly fond of directions. They stress justice and fairness, noting people typically “get what they deserve.” They concern themselves with tangible rewards and the fruits of their actions. This is a “reap what you sow” perspective. They believe emotions simply get in the way. Those who focus on morals concern themselves with top/down thinking and are dedicated to truth. Simply put, they are concerned primarily with right and wrong. This limited viewpoint, however, lends itself to taking things too literally. Moral-minded people often have difficulty understanding or dealing with emotions, and are frequently highly critical and judgmental. It’s all black-and-white, with no room for gray. Those who focus on relationship concern themselves with intimacy, mercy, grace, and empathy. Focus is on the heart rather than the mind. This can be risky, however, as emotions tend to lie to us and become “reality.” Too much emphasis on emotion risks God’s principles taking a back seat to what we “feel.”
  2. The blame game always makes conflict worse. The more “right” someone thinks they are, the more self-righteous they become. This causes the relationship—the very interaction itself—to be more difficult. When we think the other party is wrong, we are reluctant to offer concessions. Failure to see conflict with an open mind can lead to stalemate. When we’re open and honest, we are more likely to accept our share of the blame in a conflict. We need to resist the temptation to list the other person’s faults. Our approach must spring forth from a problem-solving mindset and not be about proving our point. Sometimes it is best to “drop it” in order to stop the blame game.
  3. Conflict can be altered by taking a soft approach over harsh language. Confrontation is a key element to conflict resolution, but there is a proper way to approach someone about his or her conduct. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (NIV). Peterson translates the verse this way in The Message: “A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper-fire.” This concept holds true in conflict resolution, witnessing, and apologetics. We will be more successful in persuading others of our position, of being certain they actually hear what we’re saying, and increasing the chance to make a friend rather than an enemy, when we take a gentle approach. Even when others have unloaded on us, a soft response can prevent (or at least hinder or limit) an escalation of the conflict.
  4. Genuine reconciliation and lasting change require a transformed heart. Taking a hard-line moral approach when confronting someone is often counterproductive. It is akin to saying, “Here it is. Do it or else.” Effective peacemaking is a matter of the heart with a degree of give-and-take. Colossians 3:13 tells us, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (NIV). Christians are the most forgiven people in the world. Therefore, we should be the most forgiving people in the world. It is unfortunately never that simple. It can be extremely difficult to forgive others genuinely and completely. We cannot overlook the direct relationship between God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness. Biblical conflict resolution is built on the solid foundation of grace, unconditional love, and forgiveness.

Perhaps This is You?

It is impossible to completely and unconditionally forgive someone based upon our own strength, especially when they have hurt us deeply or betrayed our trust. We can try not to think about what they did or stuff our feelings and put on a happy face, but the feelings will still be lurking. Anger can fester for a long time, and often leads to resentment. Unless we undergo a change of heart—and are cleansed and set free by God—the hurt remains. The conflict goes unresolved. There is only one way to overcome this barrier, and that is to admit that you cannot forgive in our own strength.

Maybe you have prayed like this:

God, I cannot forgive him in my own strength. In fact, I do not want to forgive him at all, at least until he has suffered for what he did to me. He does not deserve to get off easy. Everything in me wants to hold it against him and keep a high wall between us so he can never heart me again. But Your Word warns me that unforgiveness will eat away at my soul and build a wall between You and me. More importantly, You have shown me that You made the supreme sacrifice, giving up Your own Son, in order to forgive me. Lord, please help me to want to forgive. Please change my heart and soften it so that I no longer want to hold this against him. Change me so that I can forgive and love him the way You have forgiven and loved me. God, please forgive me for my own unforgiveness.

Summary and Application

This is what reconciliation is all about. By thought, word, and deed, you can demonstrate forgiveness and rebuild relationships with people who have offended you. No matter how painful the office, with God’s help you can pay honor and glory to God by imitating His forgiveness and reconciliation for mankind that was demonstrated on the cross. By the grace of God, you can forgive as the Lord forgave you. This is of paramount importance in the scheme of peacemaking.

God bless.

The Peacemaker (Part 1)

The Peacemaker: A Biblical Perspective on Resolving Personal Conflicts and Letting Go of Resentment.

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Peacemakers are people to literally breathe grace. They draw continually on the goodness and power of Jesus Christ, and then bring His love, mercy, forgiveness, strength, and wisdom to the conflicts of daily life. God delights to breathe His grace through peacemakers and use them to dissipate anger, improve understanding, promote justice, and encourage repentance and reconciliation. Peacemakers help others let go of resentments.

The “Four Gs” of conflict resolution:

  • Glorify God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Biblical peacemaking is motivated and guided by a deep desire to bring honor to God by revealing the reconciling love and power of Jesus Christ. As we draw on His grace, follow His example, and put His teachings into practice, we can find freedom from the impulsive, self-centered decisions that make conflict worse, and bring praise to God by displaying the power of the Gospel in our lives.
  • Get the log out of your eye (Matthew 7:5). Attacking others only invites counterattacks. This is why Jesus teaches us to face up to our own contributions to a conflict before we focus on what others have done. When we overlook others’ minor offenses and honestly admit our own faults, our opponents will often respond in kind. As tensions decrease, the way may be opened for sincere discussion, negotiation, and reconciliation.
  • Gently restore (Galatians 6:1). When others fail to see their contributions to a conflict, we sometimes need to graciously show them their fault. If they refuse to respond appropriately, Jesus calls us to involve respected friends, church leaders, or other objective individuals who can help encourage repentance and restore peace.
  • Go and be reconciled (Matthew 5:24). Finally, peacemaking involves a commitment to restoring damaged relationships and negotiating just agreements. When we forgive others as Jesus has forgiven us and seek solutions that satisfy others’ interests as well as our own, the debris of conflict is cleared away and the door is opened for genuine peace.

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Unfortunately, many believers and their churches have not yet developed the commitment and ability to respond to conflict in a Gospel-centered and biblical manner. This is often because they have succumbed to the relentless pressure our secular culture exerts on us to forsake the timeless truths of Scripture and adopt the relativism of our postmodern era. Although many Christians and their churches believe they have held on to God’s Word as their standard for life, their responses to conflict, among other things, show that they have in fact surrendered much ground to the world. Instead of resolving differences in a distinctively biblical fashion, they often react to conflict with the same avoidance, manipulation, and control that characterize the world. In effect, both individually and congregationally, they have given in to the world’s postmodern standard, which is “What feels good, sounds true, and seems beneficial to me?”

Pastor Mike Miller at my home church, Sunbury Bible Church, started a Spring series on peacemakers. He opened the series on April 22, 2018 stating, “Peace matters to God.” The Hebrew word shalom has a comprehensive meaning beyond being content or “at peace.” It also means harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare, and tranquility. It can further mean “to be safe in mind, body, or estate.” Shalom speaks of a completeness or fullness that encourages you to give back. Jesus is not talking about mediators or political negotiators in Matthew 5:9, but those who carry an inward sense of the fullness and safety that is only available through son-ship with God. As you make others peaceful and inwardly complete, that makes you a peacemaker.

3 Relationships Needed for Building Peace:

  1. With God (first). Peace must begin vertically, between us and God, before it can be shared horizontally, between others. Man has a broken relationship with God since the Fall in the Garden of Eden. This has left a God-shaped void—a hole in the soul—which we try to fill with anything and everything. It’s like an infinite abyss.
  2. With Others (second). This is what helps build horizontal connectedness in order that we might live in harmony as much as possible. Philippians 2:5 says, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (NIV).
  3. With yourself (ultimately). We simply cannot expect to have peace within if we are at odds with everyone around us. Jesus knew this when He said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (NIV). Moreover, we cannot expect to be at peace with others if we are not at peace with God.

But at What Cost?

Genuine peace is a priority, but it is costly. We often have to give up something of ours to obtain or promote peace. Genuine peace is only found at the Cross. We’re part of God’s plan of redemption and restoration. Genuine peace has eternal consequences. Most conflicts also provide an opportunity to grow to be more like Jesus. As Paul urged in his letter to the Corinthians, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1). Paul elaborated on this opportunity when he wrote to the Christians in Rome: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:28-29, italics mine).

Jesus’ Reputation Depends on Unity

Unity is more than a key to internal peace. It is also an essential element of your Christian witness. When peace and unity characterize your relationships with other people, you show that you are God’s child and He is present and working in your life. The opposite is also true: When your life is filled with unresolved conflict and broken relationships, you will have little success in sharing the Good News about the saving work of Jesus on the Cross.

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One of the most emphatic statements on peace and unity in the Bible is found in Jesus’ prayer shortly before he was arrested and taken away to be crucified. After praying for Himself and for unity among His disciples (John 17:1-19), Jesus prayed for all who would someday believe in Him. These words apply directly to every Christian today:

My prayer is not for [My disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in Me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in Me and I am in you. May they also be in Us so that the world many believe that You have sent Me. I have given them the glory that You gave Me, that they may be one as We are one: I in them and You in Me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that You have sent Me and have loved them even as You have loved Me (John 17:20-23).

In Summary

The message given by Jesus and the apostles is resoundingly clear: Whether our conflicts involve minor irritations or major legal issues, God is eager to display His love and power through us as we strive to maintain peace and unity with those around us. Therefore, peacemaking is not an optional activity for a believer. If you have committed your life to Christ, He invites you to draw on His grace and commands you to seek peace with others. Token efforts will not satisfy this command; God wants you to strive earnestly, diligently, and continually to maintain harmonious relationships with those around you. Your dependence on Him and obedience to this call will show the power of the Gospel and enable you to enjoy the personal peace that God gives to those who faithfully follow Him.

Please join me next Monday for The Peacemaker (Part Two), when we will look at helping others to break free from the habit of focusing on other peoples’ wrongs and to promote peace by focusing instead on their own contribution to conflict.


 

The Cross

In today’s advanced aged of technology, terrorism, and the search for peace, there seems to be no concrete answer. People look for an outcome that will satisfy their needs, but forget to look in the Bible for answers from God. Even though the manuscripts are over 2,000 years old, they remain relevant for many generations, to include the present and future populations seeking peace within their hearts.

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The only man-made things in heaven are the scars on Jesus Christ. He was wounded and killed so that we could spend eternity with Him and our Father God. Because of our belief in the sacrifice Jesus endured, we can be saved and forgiven for our sins. It takes faith to believe in something we cannot see. In fact, Hebrews 11: 1 tells us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Most people only rely on tangible assets which they can touch, feel, and see.

We are to lead a Christian life, which includes love and sacrifice for the less fortunate. Eternity is forever, and where we choose to spend it is a personal choice that each person has to make on his or her own. The mistakes or confrontations we encounter daily in life bring us closer to God and His Son Jesus. Upon our request, the Holy Spirit will come along side us and provide a spiritual solution.

Water Color of Crucifixion

The Cross is symbolic because it provides us with the solution of forgiveness for our sins, and empowers us to forgive those who have hurt us by their actions or words. Jesus died on the cross even though he healed the sick and taught His disciples how to lead a Christian life filled with love, kindness, forgiveness, and honoring God by being an example to unbelievers. Words certainly can hurt when the tongue speaks in anger, hatred, envy, or jealousy. The cross gives us the ability to lead a godly life.

C=-Christian, R=Redemption, O=Optimism, S=Salvation, and S=Solution.

Without the Holy Spirit to guide us daily, we will be searching for answers we cannot find on our own. There is only one way to the cross; faith and belief that eternity has no end, and that we will be at peace, shalom, living with God forever. When we spend time in the Word daily, we find answers to life’s questions and how it all relates to God’s unconditional, everlasting love. The price for being forgiven of our sins has been paid in full by Jesus as He hung on the cross. God sent him to teach us how to live, and, ultimately, He showed us the unfathomable love of God, who sent His only begotten Son to hang on a cross in our place. Our transgressions have been forgiven, allowing us to spend eternity with our Creator.

Sunset on green Field Landscape

For since the creation of the world God’s visible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

The only way we can begin to thank God for this unbelievable sacrifice is to praise Him, allow Him into our hearts and lives, guiding us in this earthly world. We are to be a beacon. We are salt and light to the world. This is actually not an option. Jesus said that we are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world.” He did not say, “You can be” or “You have the potential to be.” He said, “You are the salt and the light.” Everyone who is born again is the salt and the light of the world. (See Matthew 15:13-16.) We are salt and light to the world, not the church. We are to go beyond the church  and share the Good News. We were saved to shine! We cannot hide our testimony. We have a story to tell. Jesus said we are to let our light shine before men so they might see our good works and choose to glorify God.

salt and light

Actually, as salt we Christians are to counteract the power of sin. As light we are to illuminate or make things obvious. Matters that need to be settled. Sin that needs to be exposed. We are to show others (believers and non-believers alike) that they should lay their burdens, their sin, their strongholds, their fears, their resentments at the foot of the cross. We have been crucified with Christ. Our lives are to be an ongoing witness to the reality of Christ’s presence in our lives. When we worship God with a pure heart, when we love others as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31), and when we do good without expectation of reward, we are shining lights. It is actually not our light, but a reflection of the Light of the Word, Jesus Christ.

We stand forgiven at the cross. We stand healed at the cross. We stand set free at the cross. The cross is the place where all the wounds of sin are healed. If you suffer from emotional problems – guilt, anxiety, depression, anger, resentment – there is healing through the cross of Christ. He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree. Clearly, God demands a penalty be paid for sin. Christ took that penalty upon Himself on the cross. The power of sin is too great. We cannot be delivered from it by turning over a new leaf. We can’t behave our way into heaven. Thankfully, we have a substitute, Jesus, who was a propitiation for our sins. When Christ died, those who believe in Him died too. We were identified with him in His death. When He rose from the dead, we were raised with Him into newness of life.

What happened at the cross shows us that God loves all people equally. He has a special place in His heart for those who are hurting – those who are under the penalty and power of sin. Simply put, the meaning of the cross is death. It was, after all, a means of execution for centuries. In Christianity the cross is the intersection of God’s exacting judgment and his unparalleled love. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice of the cross, those who put their trust and faith in Him have everlasting love. Through the cross, and the horrendous death endured by Christ, we are guaranteed eternal life.