“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” ~Ephesians 4:32
There was a group of Methodists in early 19th century England from a small village in Cornwall that decided to attend their local church, which was considered the family church of a notable household in British society. When the Methodists arrived for Sunday service they were greeted with the compliments of the local clergyman who could not believe such undignified folks would dare cross the threshold of his respectable religious institution.
While the clergyman waited for the leaders of the aforementioned family to begin the service, the Methodist rabble (as the clergyman perceived) began to sing out in praise to God with song, and the church members were in disbelief. Eventually, the reputable household arrived, and they were horrified that these Methodists – that these type of people – were in their church. After the service ended, the visibly exasperated head-of-household, who happened to be the church’s primary benefactor, commanded his minister to deal with the Methodist problem. The Methodists, unable to meet the church’s standards for class and purse, were subsequently asked never to return.
What is your impression when reading the story above? Are you disturbed; angry; unsurprised? The story is actually one that comes from fiction. It was portrayed in third season of the BBC series Poldark. The reality is, though, that the scene portrayed isn’t a story that is entirely fictional. Usually, stories displayed in fiction are based somewhat on reality, and this type story is one too often retold by countless individuals throughout the ages. The love, compassion, and acceptance of sinners – and all of the outcasts of society – reflected by Christ is nowhere to be found among many Christians. The effect of such treatment can leave these individuals completely disillusioned to God and His Church, and to Christianity as a whole. It is the results of people taking God’s Name in vain.
Personally, I have an incredible number of stories that I could tell regarding my treatment from Christian people. I have had so many terrible experiences within the church that it is nothing less than the grace and power of God that I still actually attend a local church at all. Throughout my years I have had to wrestle with the anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness associated with the injuries received from Christian people. I remember sitting in my pastor’s office over 10 years ago crying bitterly during a marriage counseling session when he told me that I had to forgive the people who had hurt me. I told him I didn’t want to. I told him I wanted justice.There was a tremendous amount of pain there. I won’t go into everything that has occurred in my religious past. I will tell you, though, what I have learned through it.
The climax of my troubles with the Church came in 2013 after I moved to Florida. After another horrible experience with a church and Christianity, I had enough. The anger and unforgiveness, which remained mostly undealt with, propelled me into open rebellion against God and His Church. I told myself I would never attend a church again or waste my time trusting in God. It was a year of darkness, and one I won’t forget.
This blog isn’t about Church bashing. Far from it. I say all of this, highlighting my personal shame and embarrassment, to tell my readers this: I know what it is to be hurt; I know what it is to be angry; I know what is it to rebel; I know what to be drawn to repentance; and I know what it is to be forgiven and healed. I am not alone in my experiences with church and Christians, and for those who are still wrestling with the pain incurred by them, let me share with you these points:
(1) THE PAIN IS REAL
There’s no way around it, the pain experienced is real and it hurts. I’m not going to insult anyone by underestimating what they have experienced. When you enter into intimate relationship with people, and they betray that relationship by sinning against you, it really hurts. And, many times, these individuals don’t realize what they’re doing. It is possible that their ignorance is completely honest, and they just don’t understand how their actions affect you or others.
When we enter into divine fellowship and community with people, and share our lives with them, the opportunity to become greatly injured by those people is immeasurable. It’s like the saying goes, “The people closest to you are the ones who hurt you the most.”
What’s encouraging about this is that the Triune GOD is no stranger to betrayal. We have a High Priest who can fully sympathize with our sufferings (Heb. 4:15). The reality is that Jesus and the Apostles realized the potential within the Church for broken relationships due to sin and spoke directly about about it (Matt. 6:14-15, 18:21-35; Eph. 4:25-32; Col. 3:12-14). The method to the madness is forgiveness.
(2) UNFORGIVENESS KILLS
There’s nothing worse to an individual’s life and health than unforgiveness. It’s often said that you forgive people for you and not for those who hurt you, and it really is true. We think that holding our forgiveness hostage will somehow distribute retribution to those who seemingly get none, but it just doesn’t work that way. The only person you hurt is yourself, and eventually, if you don’t treat the injury, it will kill you.
There are a couple of things to think about when we are considering whether to forgive or not. First, none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes and we all hurt people. I’d say that this would cause most of us to desire forgiveness from God and others for what we have done. If this is true, and we do request forgiveness from others, then why wouldn’t we offer the same to those who harm us?
Our sinfulness and need for mercy should compel us to forgive and show mercy. If we don’t offer the same forgiveness and mercy that we have requested and received to others, then we either have an incredible amount of pride and ungratefulness, or we are completely ignorant to the amount of debt we owe God and the high price He paid to eliminate that debt. The failure in one or both respects is deadly for us, which will be discussed in the following point.
Second, and more fearfully, Jesus said that God would not forgive our sin if we did not forgive those who sinned against us. He says this explicitly in Matthew 6:15. Furthermore, in Matthew 18:21-35, Jesus tells us a parable expressing the reality of God’s anger toward those who withhold forgiveness from others. The inability or unwillingness to allow the mercy of God lavished on us to affect how we act toward others and their failures is unacceptable to God. If the infinitely holy God of the Universe can forgive depraved humanity at the infinite expense of His own Son, then we can surely forgive those who have harmed us.
Jesus makes the concept clear in the Lord’s Prayer, “…and forgive our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors (Matt.6:12).”
Third, forgiving others isn’t just about obedience, it’s really about trust. God is the Judge of entire cosmos, and nothing escapes His view. Everyone, as I have mentioned in other blogs, will stand before God and give an account of what they have done, whether good or evil. This means that whoever has injured us will face justice. Jesus understood this and it informed His response to everything He endured while on earth. Consider what the Apostle Peter writes:
“He [Jesus] committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”
As I said before, God the Son knows betrayal very well. Jesus was betrayed at a cosmological level. He wasn’t only betrayed by Judas Iscariot. Jesus was betrayed by all of the Disciples, the entire nation of Israel, and the whole world. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him (John 1:10-11).”
The people that God called as His own – the ones that God personally delivered so that He would be their God and Israel His people – handed their promised Messiah over to be killed on a cross by Gentiles. It is the ULTIMATE betrayal! It is a horrendous crime against the God of the Universe! Yet, Jesus’ response was, “Father, forgive them.” How amazing! To think that this same Jesus mediates our cause to God the Father for all eternity is unfathomable.
Here’s a couple things Jesus understood: (1) His accusers and persecutors would eventually be held accountable by God – He entrusted Himself to the Father’s perfect justice, and (2) His betrayers were sinners, the very type of sinners He was sent to die for.
Ironically enough, Jesus Himself would bear the justice His people deserved for the sins they committed against Him and others. God will hold everyone (saved and unsaved) accountable, and if we look for justice for the sins committed against us by those who are in Christ, look to the cross. The measure to which we cannot forgive is the measure to which we lack trust in God. And, if Jesus shows us anything, it is that unforgiveness isn’t power, forgiveness is power; and it’s a power that set’s captives free.
(3) UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS
Jesus looked to the Father as His Source and was not expecting anything from sinful man. Jesus knew what humanity was all about and what to expect from them. He didn’t depend on their loyalty, will power, or approval but, rather, was entirely dependent upon the Father for everything throughout His human life (the entire Gospel of John evidences this reality, in which Jesus constantly reminds His audience that He does nothing of Himself. This is the context of Jesus’ heart-wrenching cry on the cross regarding God’s abandonment is so intense).
Jesus’ approach to life and ministry should teach us something. Living in divine community can be messy and we should expect it to be so because we are still human. Despite what many people think, Christians aren’t perfect and never will be. We still struggle with sin and are in need of our Savior to continually transform us more and more into His image from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:18). Sanctification (the process by which we become more like Christ) is a lifelong journey, not instantaneous. So we shouldn’t expect perfection from imperfect people. Instead, we should expect to forgive again and again and again, and to offer forgiveness again and again and again.
(4) JESUS AMONG US
I remember a class I took in Bible college (Discipleship in the Church) where I was responsible to give a vocal essay on the curriculum I would implement for the discipleship program in my church. What I vocalized was program devoid of the church. In 10 minutes I expressed my complete disgust for the Church and my desire to have nothing to do with it. My beef with the Church has some history.
After class my professor (Professor David Munley) spoke with me about the churches in the book of Revelation and that even though they were imperfect Jesus still stood among the candlesticks. His point was clear: Jesus builds His Church; Jesus loves His Church; Jesus sanctifies His Church; and Jesus never abandons His Church. He is among us despite our imperfections. I didn’t listen then, but I will never forget it.
The point was driven home even more when a random person came up to me after a school chapel a day later and gave me a word from God about what I had been enduring that year using the same exact metaphor, word-for-word. I couldn’t believe it. God was clearly reaching out to me. It took a few more years and a few more bad experiences, but I finally understood where I should fix my gaze. All who have been hurt by the church, remember: Jesus is standing among the candlesticks.
People will fail us and people will hurt us. This is a guarantee! So, let’s take our cue from Jesus and not look to men. Let’s look, rather, to our Savior who never fails, never disappoints, and never hurts us. If our hope and trust is in Him, and Him alone, and if He is our joy and satisfaction, then forgiveness will be an impulse. We will love the Church because He loves His Church; we will never abandon the Church because He will never abandon it; and we will forgive because He forgave.
“Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.”