“Operation”– one word takes us back to a childhood memory of sweating bullets to remove little white plastic pieces from a guy with a big red nose. Think about it— why did we get so worked up over that game? The diseases you were supposed to be curing were fake, the little crevices were WAY too small, and even the penalty for failing wasn’t your patient REALLY dying, but just a little red light & an annoying buzzer. But still the game sucked you in, and before you realized it your whole life was focused on removing that tiny wish bone.
But isn’t it so easy to live our lives just like that game? We see our lives as one “operation” after another, where we have to sweat through completing this task exactly right, or acting exactly right in front of our boss, or behaving exactly how another person wants us to behave, or meeting some internal flawless standard we impose on ourselves. We are constantly looking over our own shoulder, and if we make the slightest mistake a big annoying buzzer goes off in our head. BUZZ– you should have done that instead. BUZZ– you should have said that to him instead. BUZZ– you forgot that. BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ.
And if that wasn’t enough, some people are trying to play operation with not only their lives but our lives too. They have us squeezed into their little box of exactly what we should say & do & think & be & not say or do or think or be. Their mental eyes are constantly watching & the minute we violate their rules then BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ.
There’s a better way to live. First, be gentle with yourself. In Psalm 103 David reminds us that God has compassion on us, for he knows that “our frame is like dust”– that we aren’t capable of perfection. Have compassion on yourself. Forgive yourself. Life is not meant to be an operation game, with a buzzer constantly going off.
Second, don’t let anyone else be pressing a buzzer on you. They have no right to judge you, to pronounce that you have stepped outside their little box of what your life should be. Jesus made it clear in Matthew 7 that your life is between you and God alone. Let your wise Father guide you in His love, and ignore anyone else with a buzzer in their hand.
Third, take a look in your own hand. Are you holding a buzzer over someone else? Do you have this picture of who they need to be to meet your needs, or to meet some definition in your mind? Holding that buzzer in your hand isn’t helping them, & it isn’t helping you.
Let go of the boxes, let go of the buzzers. Live in freedom & forgiveness, both for yourself & for everyone in your life.
We All Have Wounded Hearts—
Whenever two people are in contact, they will end up wounding each other. That’s the inevitable result of imperfect people living in an imperfect world. Doesn’t matter how much they love each other or how careful, kind, & considerate they are; the time will come when pain will be inflicted.
Sometimes the wound is trivial; sometimes it is devastating. The wound can be a one-time injury or it may be repeated daily, growing deeper & more painful over months & years. It can come from the hand of a casual acquaintance or from the person who means the world to them.
Regardless of the source or the severity, what we all end up with are wounded hearts. Whether it’s a little wound easily ignored, or one that feels like our whole chest has been ripped open, we know that it needs to be healed.
The question is, how? How do you heal a wounded heart?
What We Usually Try Doesn’t Work
We all try to do our best to answer that question for ourselves, but we usually don’t do such a hot job of healing our hearts. Often, we end up just trying to stop the pain for a while and think that we are healing the wound. So we use addictions, whether of food or drink or drugs or sex. Or maybe we will try to plug up the hole with success or shopping or other “stuff.” Others will turn to anger or revenge to try and seal over the wound. None of these patches last, and all of them end up wounding the heart in even deeper ways.
But what does work? What will bring true & lasting healing to a wounded heart? I have found there needs to be three steps to fully close the wound and fully heal the heart. They all need to be done, and they need to be done in order. With these three steps, I can guarantee that any heart can be healed of even the deepest wound.
Simple, But Not Easy
The three steps are simple, but they are not easy. If they were, then doubtless we wouldn’t be struggling so often with a wounded heart, would we? Because it is not easy to heal a wounded heart, there are two prerequisites, two things that you must have before you can walk the path of healing:
The first thing we need is humility. Without humility, you cannot take even the first step to healing a wounded heart. But as anyone whose heart has been wounded knows, humility is very hard to come by when you’ve been wronged and you’re hurting. It’s the exact opposite of what our heart naturally seeks when wounded.
“Why should I be humble? I’m the one who was wronged, I’m the one who is hurting, I’m the one whose life is a mess! Look at me!” All of those reasons sound, well, reasonable, but unfortunately they’re all wrong. No spiritual problem can be solved when the heart is gripped by pride. That’s why Jesus started the Sermon on the Mount by saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3) We must allow our heart to be humble, even in its woundedness, before healing can begin.
The second prerequisite for healing a wounded heart is Jesus. Honestly, you can read all the books, go to all the seminars, and meet with all the counselors you can find, but until you fall down at the feet of the Healer from Nazareth, your heart can never be whole. Jesus Himself told us that his mission on earth was to heal the brokenhearted (Luke 4:18 NKJV). Only the Spirit of Christ can give you the strength to follow the three steps. You must be willing to go to Him & trust Him with your wounded heart.
First Step: Forgive
The first step to heal a wounded heart is to forgive. Yes, it doesn’t sound fair. But it is true. Until your heart is filled with true, pure forgiveness, it will never heal. Never.
I won’t pretend this is an easy step. If the hurt is deep, it’s not easy at all. But it’s necessary. You cannot make any progress at all in healing your heart until you forgive the hurt that has been done to you. That’s why Jesus taught his disciples over & over the importance of forgiveness. Whether He was in prayer (Matthew 6:12) or in parables (Matthew 18:21-35), Jesus focused on forgiveness.
If you think, “I just can’t forgive this…” then know that if you are a child of God you can forgive, for you can have the mind of Christ. He can help you forgive even the worst of sins against you. He is our strength & our example, for He forgave those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34). Pray for the Lord to grant you a heart of forgiveness.
Second Step: Accept
I wrote about the beauty of acceptance back in 2007. In that article I outlined the three barriers we face in truly accepting one another:
- Lack of Intimacy
- Failed Expectations
- Hurt From Wrongs
We need forgiveness to get past all these barriers, but our hearts need to grow beyond forgiveness to heartfelt acceptance. We can look to Jesus as our guide, for He was known for His acceptance of the rich and the poor, the saint & the sinner, the priest and the prostitute. He accepted all who came to Him (John 6:37).
With the help of humility & the Spirit of Christ, accept the one who wounded you. When your heart can reach out to another’s heart, understand that they are human and flawed just as you are, and forgive their wrongs, then the healing balm of acceptance can further restore your heart.
Final Step: Love
Once we have forgiven and once we accept, then our hearts are free to love. I know, part of you is saying, “Wait, I just want my wound healed, I just want to feel better, and now you’re telling me to love the person who caused this?” Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying.
Our hearts were made to love, and they will never be whole until they wholly love. Instinctively, we know this to be true. Jesus taught that it was the greatest commandment (Mark 12:28-34), and He gave us the specific commandment to love one another (John 15:12).
How can we love someone who has wounded us & hurt us, who may even hate us? Here again, Jesus is our example, for while we were still in rebellion against Him, He loved us enough to die for us (Romans 5:8). And the Bible promises in Romans 5:5 that we are able to love because “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Truly, we are able to love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
A Final Thought
Forgive. Accept. Love. The three steps of the path of healing, a path that can only be taken girded with humility, walking with Jesus.
Jesus can heal our hearts & free our hearts to forgive, to accept, & to love. As God heals your heart’s wounds may you grow to embrace and rejoice in the following words from 1 John 4:
Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God….
God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another… if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…
We love because He first loved us.
Proud of Me?
No, God couldn’t be proud of me.
He sees all my pettiness, my failures, my self-centeredness, my sins. I look back at my life and it seems like one series of mess-ups after another. I look at me now and I can’t believe how I keep making mistakes and end up not being the person I want to be.
God can’t be proud of me. He’s probably proud of Billy Graham, but no way he’s proud of me.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever said words like those to yourself, but I sure have. And if you look honestly at yourself, you think the facts are indisputable: no way God could be proud of you.
But if you are a child of God, if you through faith in Christ have been born again, then you are forgetting some other facts that are more important than all of your failures stacked up in a pile as high as Mount Everest.
Fact #1 God Created Me & Chose Me
Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world… Ephesians 1:4
God from the beginning chose you for salvation. 2 Thessalonians 2:13
Read these verses, slowly, and personalize them with your name. “God chose John to be in Christ before He even created the universe.” Think of that. Even with all my frailities, God specifically created me and chose me. I am His. He made me. Made me to be in Christ.
When I have crafted an essay or a poem and step back and look at it, I am proud of my creation. Even if I know it won’t win a reward, even if it might not be the best I’ve ever written, I’m still proud. When my child scribbles a picture I put it on my refrigerator. Does it belong in an art gallery? That doesn’t matter, it’s my child and my heart is well satisfied with their efforts. So, how can we not realize that a perfect Creator does not step back from us, His creations and beam with pride?
Fact #2 God Has Forgiven Our Sins Through Christ
God will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)
All of the failures, all of the sins, all the mistakes that convince us that God cannot be proud of us— they are cast into the depths of the sea. God has forgiven us. Just picture this conversation:
God: I am so proud of you.
You: I know you’re really not. Think about how angry I got today at my friend and mistreated her.
God: Uh, I don’t remember that.
Well, yes, God actually can remember everything, but get the point: forgiveness with God is not just a mushy feeling: it is also judicial: all of our wrongs are forever not counted against us in any way. Through Christ’s death God is free to forget our sins.
Fact #3 God Has Clothed Us in Righteousness
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)
Not only does God forgive us, He does much more: he actually clothes us in Christ’s righteousness. As Christ took our sins in God’s eyes, now we take Christ’s perfect righteousness in God’s eyes.
Fact #4 God Rejoices Over Us
The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17 NIV)
It’s undeniable, it’s in the Bible: God delights in His children, He sings with delight over each and every one of us. He created us, He forgave us, He clothed us, and now He can rejoice over every one of His children.
Fact #5 God is Pleased to Give Us Life With Him Forever
Even if this life was all that there was, all that God has done for His children would be proof of His affection for us. But there’s more. Much more. Incredible, abundant life for all eternity:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ (Matthew 25:34)
What will I one day hear? “Come, John, blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” I just let that sink in and it completely blows me away. Jesus will one day invite me (me!) into a kingdom that God has prepared for me. And the joy and the love will just keep growing forever and ever.
Whenever your heart is down, comfort yourselves with these truths. If you are His child, you have a proud papa, one who chose you, who has forgiven you, blessed you, and who is preparing an eternity for you.
There in the stars or a smile of a child,
We glimpse how His joy fills eternity.
This is His pleasure to give us Himself, His glory, His heaven, His peace.
And soon all confusion will fade from our sight,
With wonder we’ll dwell in His kingdom of light.
Perfectly wonderful, mystical joy sings for creation’s great dance.
God bids us to join Him in all that He has,
Delighted to give us the chance.
God is delighted in all He has done,
Nothing can end all the joy He’s begun.
His children delight in Him through His own Son.
God is delighted in all He has done. (Steve Green)
I ran into a little piece of inspirational art with the words,
“Just for the record there isn’t a thing I would change about you!”
Now, are those the words of deceitful flattery or foolish naivete?
Hopefully, neither. When spoken in truth by a true friend, they are words of acceptance, words that say, “I know you aren’t perfect, and that you will continue to grow as a person, but I accept who you are right now, as you are, fully, without reservation.”
Acceptance. One of the most beautiful gifts we can give or receive. And yet we more often feel the sting of conditional approval or even of outright rejection than the healing balm of acceptance.
Why is that? Why is it hard both to accept and feel accepted in our relationships, fully and without reservations? I see three common barriers to giving and receiving acceptance in our relationships:
- Lack of intimacy
- Failed expectations
- Hurt from wrongs
The first barrier is lack of intimacy. I can easily go up to a complete stranger and say, “I accept you just as you are!” The words won’t be hard to say, but they won’t have much impact on the person’s soul. Why not? Because I don’t really know that person.
Our hearts instinctively realize that the only way to fully accept a person is to fully know a person, and that doesn’t happen very often in our society today. One reason is that we don’t make the time to develop close soul friendships, to fully know other people. The most meaningful words of acceptance I have had in my life are from people I have known for years and have spent many hours intentionally strengthening and deepening the friendship. That takes time, effort, discipline, and a focus on the clear goal of increasing soul intimacy. It doesn’t just “happen” unless you intend for it to happen.
The second reason we have a lack of intimacy is that we put on false faces & fronts of what we think other people want to see or what we want to be. We think that by hiding behind a mask we will feel better because people will then accept us. Yet when someone accepts a mere charade of who we really are, then we often feel worse, not better. But when someone truly knows our soul, the strengths and the weaknesses, the gold and the dirt, and knowing all looks at us and says, “I accept you” —whoa, that’s powerful, that can change a life.
Jesus was a master in human relationships. He intentionally engaged people at a soul level, and people knew he accepted the realthem. Take Peter the fisherman. Overwhelmed at Jesus’ holiness and his sinfulness, Peter said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” He was saying, “I know you won’t accept me, I’m not worthy to even be in your presence.” And yet Jesus became his closest friend. Throughout the Gospel accounts Jesus is befriending tax collectors & prostitutes. One religious leader harrumphed, “If he knew what kind of person she was he wouldn’t be allowing her to touch him.” But the beautiful thing was that Jesus did intimately know others, in all their beauty and ugliness, and accepted and loved them. So should we.
But we often don’t, partially due to the other two barriers to acceptance: failed expectations and hurt from wrongs. We all know well the sting of unmet expectations: the friend who forgets to call, the spouse who isn’t nearly as caring as they were before the wedding, the son who drops out of college. We have our image of what a friend or a coworker or a lover should be, and when the real person comes up short, then the coldness of disappointment appears. Coldness brings distance, and the relationship can slowly die. It can be one big disappointment, or a whole series of small ones, but the end is the same.
The key to overcoming failed expectations is not to judge people, not to set up the law that they must follow, and then act as judge, jury, and executioner of the relationship. Jesus once taught on the poison of judging each other:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
In Romans 14:4 Paul also taught against judging each other:
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
So, we are taught to not judge, to not compare people to our personal list of how they ought to be, because #1 we do not have clear sight to see their situation and #2 it is God’s place, not ours, to judge, to reprove, & to guide. We are not their judge, and we are not their master, and they are not our servant. We are simply their friend, and we have to let go of expectations in order to accept them. There is no other way.
The final barrier is the barrier of hurt. If we are close enough, for long enough, we will hurt and be hurt at the hands of each other. We all make mistakes, sometimes trivial, sometimes devastating. And often the deepest wounds are those given by close friends and family. How do we get past those hurts to acceptance?
There is only one way: forgiveness. We cannot accept if we cannot forgive. Here another Biblical character can teach us much: Joseph. Beaten and left to die by his own brothers, then sold by them to be a slave. He ended up separated from all that he loved and cherished, in lifetime imprisonment for a crime he did not commit.
Years later, he finally meets his brothers again, but this time as the regent of the most powerful nation on earth. One word, and he can imprison, torture, execute, or enslave them. But what does he do? He weeps & kisses them, and gives them the finest land in Egypt as a gift. He chooses to forgive them, freely, fully, and accept them.
His brothers, even years later, had a hard time believing and accepting Jacob’s forgiveness. When their father Jacob died, they thought Jacob’s acceptance would end:
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died, ‘Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21)
Joseph’s forgiveness and acceptance was unchanging. Why? Joseph himself gives the reason: his foundational trust in the goodness of God. Joseph knew the original evil intent of his brothers, but also knew that God’s hand was upon him (“you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”) Resting in God’s providence is the firmest foundation for a loving and lasting forgiveness and acceptance.
Acceptance. It’s not easy. Are we willing to take the time to invest in each other’s lives, take down the false faces, drop the expectations, forgive the hurts? I hope we are, every day, for only then will we give and receive the life-healing gift of acceptance in our lives.
I was thinking today about how I ought to forgive someone, and I realized I was thinking to myself, “Well, he didn’t mean to hurt me.” I stepped back and thought about what my thought processes were. I was actually judging this person to see if he was worthy of my forgiveness, whether he was deserving of my forgiveness— whether I had a reason to forgive.
How foolish. How human.
God immediately brought to mind Christ’s teaching on how to pray:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. (Matthew 6:9-15)
Isn’t it interesting how “forgiving others” was the only part of the prayer Jesus took the time to explain? He knew how foreign, how difficult forgiving is. Because it is hard, we try to find reasons, either to justify the effort required to forgive or else excusing us from it. Either way, it’s not the forgiveness Jesus has in mind. He wants forgiveness out of a heart that knows that it too has been forgiven. That is the focus of His parable of the unforgiving servant:
“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matthew 18:23-35)
Forgiveness. From the heart. Mercy. Because you have been shown mercy. Something to remember, each and every time we need to forgive.
Note: The following is article #21 in a series reflecting on chapters in John Piper’s book Future Grace. More information on the book from Amazon.com is available here. A list of all the articles in this series so far is available here.
Bitterness. We’ve all tasted it. We’ve all struggled to get that taste out of our mouth as well.
What does grace have to say about defeating bitterness in our lives? First, we must be blunt about what Christ commands us to do: show mercy & forgive. There are many passages such as Luke 6:35-36–
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
But we don’t want to be merciful, we want JUSTICE. We have a “judicial predicament”– part of us understands mercy, but we also realize there is a real need for justice and we want that as well. How do we find a way out? God, in His grace, has given us a way, which Jesus used Himself:
He 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. (1 Peter 2:22-23)
Jesus trusted himself to His Father, who he knew would judge justly, who he knew would bring justice in His perfect timing. We just have to realize what our role is and what God’s role is, and stick to it. Piper says, “Ours is to love. God’s is to settle accounts justly.”
How will God’s justice be served? In one of two ways. For the sinner outside of Christ, God’s terrible judgement will be satisfied by an eternity separated from Him in hell. But for those in Christ, that same judgement has already been paid, already been avenged in the death of Jesus. As Piper writes, “All sin will be avenged— severely and thoroughly and justly. Either in hell, or at the cross.”
This fact should have a profound influence on how we view the wrongs done to us by our brothers and sisters in Christ:
If my wife hurts me with an unkind word, I do not need to have the last word. I don’t need to get even, because her sin was laid on Jesus, and he has suffered horribly to bear it for her— and for me.
But there is a further dimension to defeating bitterness as well:
The battle against bitterness is fought not only by trusting the promise of God to avenge wrongs done against us, it is also fought by cherishing the experience of being forgiven by God. Saving faith is not merely believing that you are forgiven. Saving faith means tasting this forgiveness as part of the way God is and experiencing it (and him!) as precious and magnificent… Saving faith cherishes being forgiven by God.
As bitterness rears its ugly taste in our soul, we can successfully banish it with the assurance that God’s justice will be satisfied and cherishing the even sweeter taste of God’s own forgiveness and love for us.
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
His mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)
I think Hebrew is a fascinating language, even though I know very little about it. These familiar words above are only nine words in Hebrew: simple, poetic, powerful, profound.
The first word is LORD Yahweh, then the word hesed, which is the most common Hebrew word for steadfast love, used 248 times in the Old Testament, both of the character of God and of what He requires in the character of His people. It is a beautiful word filled with God’s tender care that was dear to the heart of His people then and now.
The third word means to not cease or come to an end, and then in Hebrew poetic style the fourth word is another word for mercy and the fifth is another word for not coming to an end. Then comes “new” “morning” followed by “Great” and “faithfulness.”
This mercy, this steadfast love, this hesed, that we appreciate as being so precious to us— how could we live unless we were confident that it was new every morning? How much it means to us to know that God’s heart and his actions are always filled with hesed for his children!
But this hesed is also used repeatedly in Scripture to show what our heart and actions are to be toward others. So, question time: Think of a person that you need to show a new batch of hesed toward every morning. Yes, I said YOU. Yes, I know you can think of someone that may get on your last nerve, or even mistreat you. Can you wake up and wipe their slate clean, no matter how marked up it got yesterday or the day before? Can you pray and ask God to cleanse your own heart of any bitterness or vengeance or pride or anger? Ask God for the grace to change your heart to be able to show hesed to someone who needs it today.
Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. ( Philippians 2:3 )
The last part of this Greek verse is hard to fully capture in English, but I think the ESV nails it.
The Greek word translated humility is tapeinophrosune. Thayer’s lexicon states that it is “a deep sense of one’s moral littleness.”
So, as I go about my day minute to minute, fully realizing how little I am, how far short of the mark I come, I count other people more significant than myself.
When I take a good, long, honest stare into the mirror, I am overwhelmed at how hard that actually is.
In my thoughts, in my plans, in my speech, my actions, to always be thinking “this person is more significant than I am, I need to structure my thoughts, my emotions, my plans, my words, my actions with the express intent of serving them.”
Does that include that coworker who just cheated you out of a promotion?
That person who just cut you off at an intersection?
That spouse you just had the blowout argument with?
That person who you’ve never been able to forgive?
Count all those people as more significant than myself, and mean it, and show it through my actions?
Yes, says Paul, for that is exactly what Jesus did when He walked the Earth. And as verse 5 notes, we can only do this because of Christ and through Christ, by taking on the mind of Christ as we live day to day.
When I think of the grace of God in the forgiveness of our sins, one movie immediately comes to my mind: The Mission, the stunning but underappreciated Oscar winning epic of Jesuit missionaries in Brazil.
It contains one scene midway through that is the most powerful visual image of grace I have ever witnessed, and it all transpires without a single word.
You have to see it to truly appreciate it, but here is the story: Robert De Niro is a ruthless slave trader who in a fit of jealousy has killed his brother. He languishes in despair until Jesuit missionary Jeremy Irons challenges him, saying that he can construct a penance for even a sinner as foul as him. And so, De Niro climbs up into the mountains dragging a huge net filled with his swords and guns and armor, the tools of his sins, taking days to get to the riverside village of the very natives that he had terrorized. Finally, physically and emotionally exhausted, he collapses in the river in front of the tribe. A native lifts his head out of the water, brandishing a machete. De Niro waits for the blow of justice to come and his miserable life to end. The machete falls, but it cuts the ropes binding De Niro’s sins to him. The current carries them downstream, where they plunge over a mountain waterfall into oblivion. De Niro weeps uncontrollably for the grace & freedom & love that has been bestowed.
That is exactly what God in His compassion has done for us:
God will turn again, He will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities; and You will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19)
The Hebrew has 4 distinct verbs: First, God turns again—although He in justice has turned His face away from us, He chooses to turn again toward us. Why? Because he chooses to have compassion upon us. What action does this compassion take? He sees us, subdued and enslaved by our enemy sin, unable to free ourselves from it, and with His infinite grace and strength He subdues what we cannot, and having subdued it He casts it into the depths of the sea.
What a gracious and mighty God!
Then Peter came to Jesus and said, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (Matthew 18:21)
Peter had a dilemma. He knew he ought to forgive, but he really didn’t want to forgive. We know he didn’t want to forgive because you don’t have to ask how many times you should do something you want to do: “Lord, how often do I have to win a free trip to the Bahamas?” Peter thought his solution could be a rule: if he could just follow a rule, then he could go ahead and get out of the way the bare minimum of what he ought to do without getting into trouble with God.
Of course, Jesus saw right through that. He knew that Peter, like you and I, didn’t need a new rule of forgiveness, but a new heart of forgiveness. And as Jesus often did, he tried to reach Peter’s heart not through lecture or debate, but through a story:
Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And when he had begun to settle accounts, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. But as he was not able to pay, his master commanded that he be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and that payment be made. The servant therefore fell down before him, saying, ‘Master, have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ Then the master of that servant was moved with compassion, released him, and forgave him the debt.
“But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii; and he laid hands on him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.’ And he would not, but went and threw him into prison till he should pay the debt. So when his fellow servants saw what had been done, they were very grieved, and came and told their master all that had been done. Then his master, after he had called him, said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?’ And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him. (Matthew 18:23-34 NKJV)
What was the point of the parable? Jesus Himself summed it up:
So my heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.
Look at the point Jesus makes: to forgive from his heart. Jesus is trying to get across to Peter that what matters is not only the action of forgiveness, but the heart behind the action.
And what powers that change of heart, to freely forgive? The answer is right there— “Should you not also have had compassion on your fellow servant, just as I had pity on you?” A man bound for a lifetime of prison torture over a multimilliondollar debt he couldn’t repay who then receives a complete and free relase from all his debt should have a heart so brimming with wonder and freedom and thankfulness that he should be wildly dancing for joy, not shaking down a friend for a few bucks owed to him.
Likewise, Jesus is trying to open our eyes to the glorious spectacle of a God who freely forgives us, so that that glorious sight fills us to overflowing and gushes out rivers of mercy and forgiveness from our freed-from-prison hearts. God’s salvation of rebellious sinners is indeed one of the grandest displays of His glory, and as such we should dwell on its beauty until we are ”transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (2 Cor 3:18)
So, what’s the answer to Peter’s forgiveness dilemma? The same answer as to all of life’s dilemmas, to gaze at the majestic glory of God and have our hearts transformed forever.