Monday, December 16, 2013

On Suffering and Forgiveness

I'm realizing that forgiveness, though commanded, is also something that is given.  It is definitely something we are responsible to grant, and it is an act of the will, yet it is also a gift from our Forgiver to us, a gift that gives life to our dead bones.  It is something that can be taught 1,000 times and have no real force behind it until the day it descends upon you from above.  It is something that finds its true weight and force and power and beauty not in the lightest and easiest offenses to dismiss but in the most grievous and painful betrayals to bear.

And I know this not because I have forgiven much.  I know this because by God's grace I am drawn to the edge of the camp where the fire of forgiveness burns.  I have felt it's warmth and seen it's light.  I have dabbled in it for a time, for moments here and there, and then I have run back to the cold outskirts of darkness and hatred and bitterness.  I see that while it is indeed an "act", it is also a permanent or committed shift in one's disposition toward the offender. 

And this brings me to today...

I was on Facebook, and I saw one of my Friends "like" a photo from a page.  This was not just any old Facebook page.  It is the page that belongs to someone who has done great wrong to me, someone who may still be doing wrong and may do it again, given the opportunity.  What bothered me was not that this Friend liked something on this page.  My friend does not know what happened.  It was that my friend was unwittingly accepting this person, and their endeavors... even showing support in a sense to something good this person is doing.

See... I don't want that person to do well.  I don't want them to be happy, to succeed, or to have other people think they are a good person.  I want people to know what they did, and I want people to hate them and take my side.  I don't want them to be lauded and appreciated.  I want people to see the truth.  I want them to suffer like I suffered (and still suffer).  I want them to truly know what they put me through.

And I want to forgive them... at least part of me does.  Or actually, I'll be honest.  I only want to forgive them because I know I should, because I don't want forgiveness withheld from me, and because I know it will free me inside.  Otherwise, I want them to suffer.  I really do.

This is where I must confess my inability.  I know my hatred is sinful, but I don't feel bad for hating the person.  I really don't.  How can I forgive when I really don't want to?

I don't know, but I am reminded of the story of Corrie Ten Boom.  I am reminded of how she was approached years later by one of the horrible guards from the Nazi concentration camp.  He said that he was a Christian then, that he had found the Lord, and asked her for forgiveness.  She could not.  She remembered her sister's agony and death, and she remembered this man's involvement in it.  She couldn't do it.  But forgiveness came through her toward him.  It was not of her own power.  That is what I need.

On a similar thread, Ten Boom wrote in her book, The Hiding Place...

“When He tells us to love our enemies He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
Corrie ten Boom, The Hiding Place

And though I am not there, yet, something did strike me today.  As I sat there and thought of and felt the pain I went through and still carry with me, I saw Christ in my mind's eye, suffering as well.  I don't mean that He was suffering my pain, though He does.  I mean that I saw Him suffering in this world.  I saw Him suffering the same kinds of tragic betrayal and rejection.  I saw Him suffering the hurt of lies and coldness and trickery.  These, among many, many other things, are the sufferings of Christ in this world.

In other words, I saw my sufferings as part of a greater whole -even the sufferings of Christ in this world.  And with that, there was a moment where I felt a kind of joy and peace in that... to know that I am bearing the sufferings of Christ with Him, to know that He not only knows of my sufferings but that, in my own way, I understand and feel His.  These sufferings are wrong.  They are not how things are supposed to be.  But they are... "appropriate" for this age.  They are a part of this world.

Yes, they are part of God's plan, as well -something the sufferings of Christ bear the greatest testimony to.  But in this way, I feel even slightly closer to Jesus -again, not because He understands how I feel but because I may in fact understand His agony to some degree.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

No Title

Has it ever occurred to us that the reason the cross of Christ does not mean more to us is that we fail to see how Jesus died to save us from our primary sin -which is our ardent self-determination, our unflappable, wild insistence on being in control of our own lives, our refusal to let Him be God over us, to entrust Him with the care of our lives?  In our insistence for life to go the ways we determine, to be able to find the right answer and get things to go the way we want, of course we are not more grateful for a God who saves us.

Why feel grateful?  After all, we are still trying to be our own saviors.  God isn't doing a good job when it comes to our lives, so we will take that responsibility back, thank you very much.  Perhaps we will let Jesus be our Savior to get us to "heaven" some day.  We will let Him pay for our sins.  But in our daily lives it is we who insist on leading ourselves through the desert and making the trek into the kind of comfortable journey that we insist it must be.  It is we who wish to be our own saviors, with all of our plans and strategies to control life and refuse to let it go into the hands of the One to whom it ultimately belongs. 

And the result?  Misery, pain, and relational disintegration.  I don't mean the pain that comes from simply living in this world.  I mean added pain.  I mean pain and misery added because our craving for self-determined control, to be faithless captains of our own souls, meets real life.  And it is there that we see our iron grip on the people and details of life does not work out as neatly as it does in our conceiving little minds.  Like trying to grasp at pouring oil, everything slips through our fingers, only adding to the desperation and frustration and pain of life.

Monday, December 09, 2013

Why are so many Christians seemingly silent about their marital woes?

In an online forum I participate in, one of the participants through this question out there.  They asked, "Why are so many believers silent about the challenges they are facing in marriage? What don't they reach out for help?"

This is a very good question.  Having some experience with this, I do have some thoughts on it.  Here is what I wrote:

Why are so many believers silent about what we face in our marriages? I honestly believe a large part of the problem is that the Church can tend to make an idol out of marriage -just in a way that is different from the broader culture. Our culture makes an idol out of marriage by presenting it as a sort of "heaven on earth" fairy tale that, just like in the movies, will fulfill all your felt needs, give you all the happiness you crave, and will have you two skipping through fields and having movie-style, passionate sex for the rest of your lives. Obviously, when reality hits and people realize the other person cannot make them "happy", they decide they need to go find someone else. And so on, and so on.

But the Church exacerbates the issue in a different way. The Church presents a high and lofty picture of a "godly Christian marriage", and it often looks something like this: both people love the Lord completely, want to do Bible studies together, want to pray together every day, want to do "date nights" once a week, want to go to all the marriage retreats together, read and apply all of the principles of "Love and Respect", watch Fireproof when things are tough, go to church every week together, and live happily ever after with their joyous Christian smiles on their faces. And the thing is... some people have something close to that. So reading Love and Respect might be all they need to boost things up a notch. But many people DONT have that, and when the Church presents such an idol, such a standard, that lacks the realism of life in a broken world and smacks either boldly or quietly of legalism, they feel ashamed. They feel like they don't fit in. They feel embarassed, like although they are saved by grace through faith they are screwed when it comes to their marriage, which has failed by their poor performance. And they honestly don't know who to talk to because they don't want a book handed to them, nor do they want the pad answers that the Church is so used to providing.

In other words, in the Church's battle to "save" marriage, at least for Christians, they may have inadvertently set up a standard that only creates a kind of spiritual pride for some and despair and shame for others. Marriage is not the be-all-end-all. Paul even said that if you can be single, maybe that is better. Less to worry about! We need to step it down a notch or three. Our focus has in some ways only made things worse and alienated people that have real sin in their lives and marriages. While we would never admit to such with our mouths, in practice and emphasis we have forgotten that marriage is trench warfare, full of sin. And some experience the full-brunt of the discord between man and woman seeking closeness and partnership far more than others.

And the Church should present that as a real and common part of normal, but we don't. It's like we're afraid to admit that is normal, like a Pharisee afraid to admit he is a sinner, for fear that admitting such might mean we cannot fix everything or provide an answer to every problem. We are, oddly enough, merely offering a Christianized version of "Progress", of making a heaven on earth where one cannot be made, and perhaps covering up the rough edges when we see we can't.

So, short answer? Shame. And not the "good" kind of shame that leads people to closeness with the Lord. I mean the bad kind of shame that makes people feel like they are hopeless to pull up their bootstraps and be like "everybody else." When people see that they don't live up to what appears to be the normative Church marriage experience, when they see that they don't even come close to the simplicity of problems spoken of in marriage sermons, when they read these ridiculous marriage books that seem to help others but offer them nothing but more despair and a sense of hopelessness, they feel ashamed and alienated.


The other thing I think is worth noting is that marriage is a very private thing. Many Christians maybe have gone to ask a pastor for help, often alone when their spouse has no interest or doesn't believe it will help. But such problems are not like when a family member is ill. You cannot go around the church community lamenting your painful marriage -it doesn't quite work that way! I think the person's spouse might not appreciate it! :) So, by its very nature the subject of marriage warrants a kind of hidden, silent form of counsel.

I don't think all of us need to be a "mess" in order to be an ear for others. I'm certain that people with silently painful marriages would not wish them on anyone. But we (and I mean that corporately, for I recognize that many individuals are not like this -my pastor being one of them) need to ditch the "image". The "Christian marriage image" is what alienates people. Some people need to know that, while God can certainly do any miracle He so chooses, their marriages may never BE that. And that is OK.

In other words, I believe the Church needs to re-adjust its goals about marriage. Because what happens is a person *does* seek counsel, many times alone, many times because the spouse is not willing, and they *do* have hope at first. They think, "I *can* have what the Church tells me my marriage should be like." And they read the books, they talk with their pastors, and they pray like mad. But then things don't get better. Yet, they keep trying. They pray harder, they try harder, they talk to more pastors and counselors, and they read more books to try and "fix" themselves or their spouse (a recipe for disaster). And the cycle continues, sometimes for years, maybe over a decade.

But along the way something happens. A deep shame and cynicism takes root. All the things they tried to apply haven't "worked". They feel cheated, and worse, they feel in despair because they can't get what they believed they could have. They feel like they have been beating their head against the wall. And eventually they give up. Maybe not on their spouse, but on the hope of having anyone from the Church help them and on the idea that they can have a "Christian marriage" like the "real Christians" at Church.

What could have been done differently? I wouldn't presume to know exactly. But somewhere along the way, the Church would have done well to give this person the truth: their marriage does not have to look like anybody else's because their marriage is a ministry given to them.

When we are taught to aim at some standard by our own efforts on a matter such as this, and in a way such as this, there will always be two results. There will be people who sit in some degree of comfort, thinking they have pulled it off or just need to step it up a bit here and there. Maybe they become proud. Maybe they think they should teach others and say, "Hey men, we can do better than this. All of our marriages can be like this." But there will also be people who only suffer more because of the despair of failure they feel and the alienation they feel from the people who think they know better.  It shouldn't be that way.