Why Forgiveness is so Hard
It’s easier to go to war.
I’m not talking geopolitical battles, although it is likely true regarding international and cultural conflicts. I am talking about the battles that rage in our homes, communities, workplaces, and churches. The wars that rage inside of us and around us are just as real as the wars we hear about in the news.
I have been rereading Matthew 18 and realize that for the most part, it is about relationships and the value of embracing lostness, conflict, sin and forgiveness from the perspective of there being real people on the other end of each of these things.
It’s easy in conflict to turn people into problems and begin to relate to them as objects. Truthfully, the problems and the people are intertwined. Here’s an example:
Sue and John were a newly married couple working full-time jobs. Between the two of them, there was enough money to pay the rent, car payment, buy groceries and have a little bit, though not much, extra.
Their schedules were out of sync so they often met for a quick dinner at cheap fast food restaurant. They didn’t see each other again until they were exhausted at the end of each night. Mornings were always a rush to get ready for work and get out the door.
Sue often felt like John put work first. It fact, she jokingly referred to work as his other wife. John felt underappreciated for the things he did like helping with the laundry and other household chores. He also wished they had more time for physical intimacy. Sue wanted intimacy but had very different ideas on what that meant. She liked walks and talks and maybe a movie.
Both of them were tired. Reading and good cup of coffee in the corner of a coffee shop tended to energize John. A long talk or the synergy of working on a task with John tended to energize Sue.
In time, their “out of sync” personalities, schedules, and perspectives began to wear on their relationship with each other.
John began to feel like Sue didn’t understand him. She really didn’t know much about his needs, desires, or cares. She didn’t appreciate how hard he worked or how much he pitched in around the house.
Sue felt like John’s commitment was to everything but her. He was a doer so everything was about how much got done. She felt like John’s “get it done” behavior was actually part of the problem. His deeds done were a list to be held against her, instead of a help coming alongside her. He wanted intimacy, but not “intimacy.”
In time each began to identify the problem(s).
Sue saw the problem
- Work is more important than me
- Tasks are a list to use against me
- Time with me is nothing more than another task
- He doesn’t care about me
- All he wants is __ __ __.
- He really doesn’t know me
- He doesn’t understand my needs
John saw the problem
- She doesn’t appreciate the things I do
- She doesn’t even notice when I help out
- She doesn’t really care about me
- All she wants is a guy who acts like a girlfriend…. Talk… talk… talk.
- She doesn’t understand me or my needs.
John began to see Sue as negative, unappreciative, uncaring, nagging, and needy. Sue began to see John as passive-aggressive, non-relational, and work-obsessed.
When Persons Become Invisible
The more they saw, the more they didn’t. Yes, they saw “things.” And that became part of the problem. It fact, it was the problem. They began to see the problems, “things,” more than the person who the problems began to represent. In fact, the person became “the problem.”
Pretty soon the person began to fade into the background and the problems became the person.
One might say, that each person lost their personhood in the eyes of the other. In time, even seeing each other began to be painful because the problems were really what was in view. Each person began to relate to the other from inside of a box, justifying their feelings and behavior because the other person was uncaring, insensitive, and lacking understanding.
This happens in marriage, work relationships, other family situations and nearly every conflict imaginable. People begin to see problems more than persons. They objectify the other people and begin to justify their own behavior based on their perceptions. The more they justify their own behavior the more they “see things” and the less they see the person. Both want the other person to change their behavior. Neither realizes how much their own behavior is contributing to the conflict.
The First Step of Peace
The first step toward peace and forgiveness is often the most overlooked. This is true in marriage, work, community, and church relationships. The reason it’s overlooked isn’t because we don’t know we should forgive. Forgiveness is difficult because we don’t understand “why we don’t forgive?”
Admittedly, some forgiveness in hard. When a person has physically or sexually abused another person, forgiveness is still necessary, but so is justice. Forgiveness doesn’t mean abuse is ignored.
Addressing “Sin” and “Why We Don’t Forgive?”
Sometimes addressing sin is impossible because we don’t understand the root of sin and the beginning of forgiveness. It’s possible that the reason we “sin” against others and “why we don’t forgive?” are actually tied together.
Why Some Forgive and Others Don’t
Matthew 18:21-35 tells the story of a king who calls the debt of servant. The debt is enormous. A talent was actually a weight measurement, not a coin. A Roman talent was 75lbs. A Heavy Talent was 130lbs.
The first servant (forgiven servant) in the story owed 10,000 talents, the equivalent of 750,000lbs. 6,000 Denarii equaled 1 talent. A single denarii was worth a one day’s labor. As you can see, the first servant owed an insurmountable debt to the king. Since the servant could not pay the debt the king ordered that everything the servant had, including his wife and children be sold, in an attempt to recover some of the debt.
The servant begged the king for more time. He pleaded for mercy. There were likely uncontrolled tears and stories about his precious children and his wife along with promises to pay. The king was moved. He was moved to the extent that he did more than just give more time for payment to be made. He forgave it all. Every penny! All 10,000 talents worth.
Soon after that same servant called the debt of a second servant. The second servant owed him 100 denarii. Remember, 1 denarii was equal to a day of labor, just under 20 weeks. In anger, the first servant (the forgiven one) seized his fellow servant (the un-forgiven servant) and began to choke him. The second servant also plead for patience. It was not given! The first “forgiven” servant refused. He threw his fellow servant in jail for non-payment.
Things that Get in the Way of Forgiveness
One might ask “Why?” Why would he not forgive?
The reason is obvious. The money (thing/object) was more important than the person. From the first servant’s perspective, the money was more valuable than his fellow servant. His perspective can be illustrated in an equation using less than < greater than > symbols.
The Servant < 100 D
D x 102 > S
D = Denarii and S = Servant
The servant is worth less than the object. The servant has been objectified. The servant’s value has been degraded. The servant is merely a means to an end and has no value other than the other servant’s enrichment.
The first servant was treated very differently. He also owed a debt. His debt wasn’t just greater, it was an unpayable debt. Apart from mercy, he had no hope of ever paying the debt. And one might ask, why did the king forgive that servant’s debt? Did the debt not matter?
The debt did matter. However, the king forgave the debt because of his perspective on what was more valuable. The king’s perspective can also be illustrated in an equation.
The Servant > 10,000 T
T x 104 < FS
T = Talents and FS = Forgiven Servant
The Root of Sin
It seems that the root of sin is often the “objectification” of people. When objects are more valuable than people, forgiveness is impossible. Sometimes those objects are intangible things like a demand that the other person change before we forgive them. We are demanding them to pay their “debt” to us. In such situations, the person has less value than whatever demand we are making.
The Beginning of Forgiveness
Forgiveness begins when we relate to people as real people, flesh and blood people, made in the image of God people. The king forgave the first servant because one forgiven servant was more valuable than a treasury full of money. One forgiven servant and his family was “a treasure” to the king and his kingdom. The king’s most valuable asset was his people and their welfare. It was an easy trade. Having one servant saved was more important than having large sums of money.
Relating to Real People
5 Questions for Moving Toward Forgiveness.
Having a heart of forgiveness begins with seeing people, real people, flesh and blood, made in the image of God people, on the other end of every conflict. Some questions that can help us move toward forgiveness.
- Begin to think about the “things” that get in the way of your relationship(s).
- What demands are you making of other people “before” you begin to extend to them the forgiveness that they need?
- What are the most valuable “things” in your life right now?
- Are you demanding that another person changes before you relate to them?
- Based on your demands, what might you need to change before you can properly relate to another person?
Attendance is a big deal. Churches depend on it and pastor’s egos are often tied to it. That said, the attendance trap can be psychologically discouraging (for pastors) and a poor measure of the spiritual health of a church.
While all of the above is true, attendance is still an important aspect of church life. Attendance, however, might look different than it used to. And other factors may help the body of Christ to “connect” in ways other than the Sunday morning worship service.
Here are some quick notes about attendance before I throw out some ideas on how to “Thrive During the Summer Slump.”
Summer Looks Different
In a journal article titled, “Never on Sunny Days,” Laurence Iannaccone and Sean Everton analyzed weekly attendance records from churches and argued that people are less likely to attend church when the weather outside is just right. Jon Acuff has a less scholarly but equally interesting article about taking church off for the summer. His humorous assessment on why people are less likely to attend church during the summer comes down to there being more guest speakers, personal vacations, outdoor activities (the “God is in nature” card), and people needing to recover from volunteering for VBS. I am smiling about the last one in particular.
It’s a good thing for us to think about why summer attendance looks different. A good article for you to read is What Sociologists Have Learned About Church Attendance, by R. Stephen Warner.
I am tempted toward discouragement given the evidence that Summers Slump. But beating discouragement might be as simple as looking for the opportunities summer presents.
Here are some ideas to explore for the summer.
- Focus on relationships.
- Promote personal, spiritual growth in the lives of individuals.
- Emphasize service opportunities that are doable, short in duration, and can involve the whole family.
- Encourage family based discipleship.
- Prepare for a strong fall initiative.
- Design one time, simple events that bring people together around our common bond in Christ.
- Utilize communication tools to connect the body of Christ in other ways. Communication tools that work: social media (Facebook, Pinterest, etc…), email, online newsletters, physical postcards, snail mail, texting and everything else that works in your environment.
- Don’t give up on vacation bible schools, summer camps, and father-son, and mother-daughter events. They are often the tried, true, and tested events that help people grow spiritually. Yes, they are exhausting. And they may affect attendance in other ways. However, the spiritual growth that often comes from these kinds of events are hard to replicate in any other way.
 Never on Sunny Days, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion © 2004 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.
It hard to believe that I’ve been a pastor for nearly two decades. I have also had the privilege of spending time with great pastors. In the process of both, I have learned a few things about the habits of great pastors. If you want to be a great pastor:
- Spend personal time with God.
- Stay in the Word of God personally, not just for studying. Let the Word of God saturate every part of your life.
- Pray a list of prayers.
- When people ask you to pray, pray with them immediately, follow up on their prayer requests, and ask them how things are going.
- When people express a hurt, follow up with a card, call, and visit.
- Spend time encouraging and mentoring a small group of people.
- Stay accountable to church boards, committees and ministry teams.
- Stay accountable to a small group of colleagues/friends.
- Keep Learning. Read books. Attend Seminars. Meet with people you admire and ask them questions.
- Use your time effectively. Keep track of your schedule and eliminate time wasters. Focus on the things that have a return on time invested. Ask a few other people to evaluate your schedule and give thoughts/advice.
- Use your day off and plan extra time off on a regular basis.
- Do the things you love doing as a pastor most of the time. 80% of pastoral ministry should fall into the love category. If you don’t love what you do most of the time you’re either in the wrong position or wrong place. Maybe even the wrong profession.
Love is sacrificial! Love is difficult. It’s hard for us to get it right and just about the time we think we know how to do it, we find that most of our love is intermittent.
The Apostle Paul said, “the thing that counts is faith, working through love.”
His idea of what counts doesn’t jive with the metrics of American culture. What counts for most people is
- the amount of money in the bank
- the size of one’s salary
- education and degrees
- the number of things we have
- how nice our car is
- how big or beautiful our home is
…and one could go on.
In Paul’s day, what mattered most was how religious a person was, what nationality they were, and whether or not they could claim the right birth mark. Sounds crazy, but birth marks were a big deal, particularly the one that identified you as being religiously pure (Circumcision).
Paul wanted to be clear. Circumcision or un-circumcision was not what counted. Faith working itself out in love was and is what counts.
Faith matters… It’s the foundation of everything!
The Bible refers to three kinds of faith.
- Dead Faith (James 2:17) – it’s a faith with no muscle. It’s all talk and no action. It’s in the head, but lacks the heart. It can boast big words, sing doctrinal truth, argue every point, articulate every dot and tittle. But it has no flesh.
- Demonic Faith (James 2:19) – a faith that is a real as any other kind of faith, but is evil to the core. It’s selfish faith. It’s belief without moral grounding. It’s recognition without repentance. It’s egotistical, self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and self-centered.
- Dynamic Faith (Galatians 5:6) – It’s a faith with legs. It lives by loving in tangible ways. It has hands and feet. It’s always on the move looking for an opportunity.
Dynamic faith has energy. Like the atoms and molecules that make up our world, it’s always in motion. There’s nothing inactive about it.
It’s the kind of faith that causes a David (small, but active) to stand up to a Goliath (Bully). It’s the kind of faith that causes the well-off to notice the left out and do something about it.
It’s the kind of faith that made a difference in my life when I was a vulnerable young man. I experienced faith embodied by love when my youth pastor started inviting me over 2-3 times a week for dinner. I became a member of the family. I got to eat dinner, enjoy good conversation, and watch a lot of John Wayne movies. The most impacting thing was getting to see what following Jesus looks like around the dinner table, washing dishes, putting kids to bed, and even watching old western flicks.
It’s the kind of faith I see when people give portions of their income to feed the hungry and provide clean water, clothing, and shelter to those in need. It’s the kind of faith I see when Sunday School teachers give part of their morning away to hang out with kids and teach them about Jesus, even though they worked hard all week long, and could easily choose to sleep in.
It’s the only thing that matters – faith working itself out in love. (Galatians 5:6)
Is your faith, the kind of faith that has legs under it?
I don’t know about you, but I have never been invited to go the the white house, much less the Governor’s Mansion. I haven’t been invited to go to lunch with any famous people and for some reason or another, when I make it into the newspaper, it’s usually because of a traffic violation.
My life is pretty mundane! You might feel the same way?
If so then you can understand the Christmas Story better than some. The Christmas story is full of normal people. Mary and Joseph were young people engaged to be married. They were also work-a-day people, struggling to make a living. Joseph was a carpenter, more comfortable covered in saw dust than the center of attention. Mary was a teenager, preparing for marriage, caught between the engagement and marriage vows. They were closer to the poverty line than most of us are and even though both of them could claim King David as an ancestor, 600 hundred years had passed since a blood relative had graced the halls of a castle or led the kingdom.
Other people were in charge and they lived nameless lives in small town Nowheresville (Nazareth).
They never got invited to statehouse dinners either. The only invitation they did receive was to attend a census meeting so bureaucrats could give them a number. Bureaucrats don’t understand things like impending births and because maternity leave was out of the question, Mary and Joseph had to hoof it (no pun intended) to the county seat, about 80 miles away.
Unfortunately, their Toyota Prius was on backorder for 2000 years so they had to walk for 4-5 days. Fortunately, to fulfill prophecy, Mary had to actually get to Bethlehem so having a baby on the road wasn’t a possibility.
In fact, the birth and Bethlehem were perfectly timed. Joseph had forgotten to make reservations at the local Hilton (typical man). No room at the inn, even for for a young girl in the first stage of labor.
No room! Even the Super 8 couldn’t keep the light on for them. Not even a walk-in closet could be spared? Nope!
Joseph found the last and most luxurious accommodation available. Oddly, the center piece was a feeding trough, which just happened to be a blessing in disguise. Maybe Mary didn’t notice that it wasn’t really a baby basinet?
While things were getting exciting for Joseph (he was getting ready to play catch after all), there just happened to be sheep and shepherds hanging out in a field nearby. They weren’t invited to the statehouse dinner either. Herod thought they smelled a little too much like sheep.
Some angels got lost somewhere between heaven and earth and decided to scare, I mean sing Halleluiah to shepherds. I’m sure some head angel thought it would be a great joke to make shepherds “quake at the sight.” After a song (and laugh) they were able to say, “Don’t be afraid! We’ve got some good news! Follow us and we’ll show you.”
The show wasn’t a show at all. It was a baby, and not just any baby, a gift from heaven had showed up in the most unlikely location.
Later that baby as a grown up Jesus would tell a story about a different kind of a King who did invite dignified and famous people to a party. A huge banquet had been prepared. Every detail and been thought of and no expense had been spared. On the day of the banquet excuses instead of people arrived. I am too busy, said one. Another party said, “I can’t make it this time. Maybe next?” “The football game is on at the same time,” said a third.
Everyone who had been invited, declined. The banquet hall was prepared and the guest rooms were ready. What to do?
The master of the house told his staff… “The party must go on… Go out an invite everyone who doesn’t usually get an invitation. Find people with and abundance of time, but no money. Find people whose legs might not work, but whose heart is good. Find people who can’t see, but still know how to feel. Find a couple of stinking shepherd too. They might like a warm room and good meal. In fact, look around in the alleys for some dumpster divers and box dwellers. Find the lost, the least, and the left-outs. We’re throwing a party!”
The people who were originally invited don’t realize what their missing. But there was more than enough room for everyone else.
The same person who told this story, Jesus, later said to his disciples.
“Don’t worry about the fact that you will never get invited a big earthly party at the castle, or the Hilton, Sheridan, or any other fancy Inn.There’s wasn’t room for me (at the inn) when I showed up either.
But know this. My Father’s house has many rooms. I can’t wait to show you. There’s nothing like it in this world.
I tell you what. I’m going to go get them ready. It’s going to be a blast. In fact, it’s going to be the biggest banquet ever thrown. Everyone’s invited, but most people won’t remember or will be too busy to accept. Which is a bummer, because they don’t realize what they’re missing. I’ll let you know when everything is ready. In fact, when everything is perfect prepared, I’ll come get you myself.”
You see that’s just the way it works. He showed up as a baby in our world, to invite us to His. He’s actually the owner of both, ours (earth) and heaven (his). Today we celebrate his birth. We do it during a season that we call Advent – a fancy word that remind us that he came. And we light candles. The candles around the edge of a Advent wreathe remind us of the fact that peace, joy, hope and love are present. The center candle reminds that they are present in a person, not a feeling. That person is Jesus, who the Bible says is the light of the World. Light penetrates the darkness.
Jesus’ good buddy John said about Jesus, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”
As we celebrate the birth of Christ, we can also celebrate the fact that our darkness has been penetrated by Jesus. The candle we hold on Christmas Eve is like an invitation to the party. The bible says that Jesus is the only True light and that his light gives light to everyone who is willing to accept it.
To everyone who accepts him, who believes in him, he gives an adoption certificate that says, “Child of God.” Amazing isn’t it. He came as a child to give us the title of child (of God).
Later he would give up his life so we could have life!
The Pastor by Eugene Peterson
I just finished The Pastor by Eugene Peterson, his memoir on pastoral life and vocation. I bought the Kindle edition and the Audible version so I could have both text and audio.
Why buy both a kindle and audio version?
The great thing about living in small town Montana is having to drive a lot. What others consider a curse becomes an opportunity for listening to podcasts or audio books. So I listened to the vast majority of the book while driving, however I am really glad I can go back to the text version for deeper reflection.
Here are some of my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor.
The first thing that I am reflecting on is:
Vocation is formed out of the real events of life.
If you’re a ministry leader, then your calling started long before you any kind of appointment. It began in your home, it developed as you played with friends, and began to take shape in the everyday events of life. Reading Eugene’s memoir was helpful in thinking about how spiritual formation happens in the life of ministry leaders. His memoir makes it obvious the seeds of his vocation were sown early in his life by his mother, congregational experiences, and life in his father’s butcher shop. Even the school bully played a part.
As I listened to and now read The Pastor, thoughts about my own spiritual formation have come to mind. I had my own bully’s to deal with and I now realize that they played a part in my own formation, as did the rest of my upbringing. It’s helpful to reflect on how the events of life are used by God in shaping us toward his call and our vocation.
The second thing I am reflecting on is:
Sometimes we find our vocation by accident or by surprise.
Early in life, I would have never imagined pastor as a vocation. It found me and not the other way around. Not everyone will serve in a particular role for a lifetime. Most people won’t. But there are some callings that seem to go deeper and are more embedded than others. While anyone can “burn out” ministry leaders often feel a sense of long-term calling and vocation. Sometimes this calling came to us by surprise.
Eugene actually chose not to be a pastor. He wanted to be a professor, scholar and writer. His own words are, “I was going to write books for people I would never meet” (page 96).
The woman who became his wife wanted to marry a pastor. She sacrificed her dream to marry Eugene. Eugene tells beautiful stories about their courtship, early marriage and how he came to find his true vocation as a pastor, much to his own surprise, and likely hers. A twist in a story, an awakening to the inner working of the Spirit and His formative work led Eugene to drop his doctoral work and enter into his calling as a pastor.
I suspect that what is true for Eugene is true for most of us. Callings are usually the result of something deeper. Some people would describe them as genetics or wiring. For those of us who listen well, we know that there is spiritual formation going on. It is, in fact, the one thing and the first thing that makes us who we are, even more so than our DNA. Reading The Pastor helped me to think about my own calling and how deep it runs.
The best part of listening to and now reading Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor is that it has plunged me into my own journey, vocation and formation. Ministry leaders need this kind of reflection, especially if we are going to be true to our calling. Seeing the events of our lives through the lenses of spiritual formation and vocation will likely help us to stay in ministry for the long haul.
If you haven’t read The Pastor then I would encourage you to get a copy. Then come back and let me know what you think in the comment section below.
If you have read it, tell me your thoughts.