The Hidden Benefits of Forgiveness

Several months ago I wrote a post called “The Hidden Benefits of Praying for your Enemies” and  I’ve been very surprised by how many people have read it. It seems that everyone around the world is struggling with this issue. I’ve had people from dozens of countries read that post. As I contemplated the response to it,  I realized that praying for your enemies and forgiving them actually go hand in hand. It’s really hard to pray for someone if you hate them and won’t forgive them. But according to the Bible, forgiveness is not a suggestion, it is a command!

Jesus tells the disciples in Mark 11:25-26   “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive you your trespasses”.

Forgiveness is a tough concept to comprehend. The image that often comes to mind is that we are somehow doing the other person a favor by forgiving them; as if in some way we are absolving them from the guilt of their actions and no longer holding them accountable, if we choose to forgive them. It makes us cringe because we feel as though we are telling the offender that their actions didn’t matter and didn’t hurt us.

But nothing could be further from the truth. As a matter of fact, I believe that forgiveness has very little to do with the other person, because often times, the other person is not sorry and doesn’t ask for forgiveness. And that’s the reason why it’s so hard to forgive them. If they were truly sorry and asked for our forgiveness, it might be easier to forgive.

So what do we do with this command of forgiving our brother when the other person is not sorry, when they don’t care that they hurt us, and wouldn’t dream of owning up to their faults and telling us they regret their actions or words? How do we reconcile our pain and our anger with this command? I think that the only way that we can, is if we see it from a different perspective. Let’s look at what forgiveness does for us, not the person who is forgiven. When I began to study this issue, I realized that the benefits for me personally are overwhelming, not just spiritually, but also emotionally and physically.

I’m going to start with the physical and emotional benefits of forgiveness. I actually got this information from the Mayo Clinic online. Yes, the Mayo Clinic has an article about the benefits of forgiveness. That really blew my mind. According to the Mayo Clinic, a well know nonprofit academic medical center here in the United States, forgiveness improves your mental health, lowers your blood pressure, creates a stronger immune system, improves your heart health, allows you to live with less anxiety, stress, hostility and depression, and last but not least, creates healthier relationships in your life. Now I would have to say that those are some powerful reasons to forgive!

But what about that command made by Jesus himself?  He didn’t just tell us to forgive once or twice. He said it several times in different situations. Peter even came to Him in Matthew 18:21-22 and asked Jesus how often he should forgive his brother, suggesting that perhaps seven times was enough. But Jesus answered Him in the following way: “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven”. Jesus told several parables about forgiveness to His disciples and He also taught them what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer. One of the lines in it says the following: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. So why would God put such a strong emphasis, such a strong requirement on us over such a daunting task? If I start with the belief and the understanding that God is good and that He only wants good things for each of us, then it must follow suit that forgiveness has enormous benefits to me personally.

I would suggest that the reason is because He loves us and He knows what is best for us. God thinks forgiveness is so important to us, that He says that we ourselves will not be forgiven by Him, if we don’t forgive others. Why? Because if we are harboring anger, bitterness, resentment, rage, revenge, etc. then we cannot truly repent. If I come to Him and ask Him to forgive me for my sins, but I decide which sins, then it’s not really repentance. It’s like saying “Here Lord, you can forgive me for those sins over there, but I’m holding on to these ones over here, because I feel justified in keeping them. After all, that person really hurt me, and he did it over and over again. So I choose not to forgive him or her. Unfortunately it doesn’t work like that, although we’d like to believe we have that option.

Let me put it another way. Jesus tells us in Matthew 22:37 “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind”. The word all means whole, complete, or throughout. Now tell me how I could possibly love God with ALL my heart, ALL my soul and ALL my mind if part of my heart and part of my mind and part of my soul is filled with anger and bitterness and unforgiveness. It’s not possible, is it? So He is in fact telling us that if we want to be forgiven and truly be able to love Him, then we have to give up our right to be angry and bitter.

There’s a story in Luke 7:36-48 that really shows us this concept in action. Jesus is sitting down to dinner at a certain Pharisee’s house when a woman, who everyone apparently knew was a sinner, came in and while weeping, she anointed Jesus’ feet with some fragrant oil. The Pharisee was indignant at this and He spoke to himself the following: “This man, if He were a prophet, would know who and what manner of woman this is who is touching Him, for she is a sinner”. I guess Jesus overheard him because He goes on to tell this man, named Simon a story. He actually asks him a question. “There was a certain creditor, who had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing which which to repay, he freely forgave them both. Tell Me, therefore, which of them will love him more?” Simon answered that he supposed it was the one who owed more, which Jesus affirmed was correct. He then points to the woman and tells Simon that this woman, whose sins were many, is forgiven because of her love for Him. He also tells Simon, that his love for Jesus was very small because he did not believe he needed any forgiveness, because he didn’t consider himself to be a sinner.

If you have ever read the Bible, you will know that God thinks sin is sin. He doesn’t care if it’s immorality, anger, pride, rebellion or murder, to name just a few. It’s all sin. We are all sinners and we all need a savior, Jesus Christ. But until we come face to face with our own sins and realize that our own righteousness is nothing but filthy rags in His eyes, that we cannot truly be forgiven.

The older I get, the less rocks I pick up to throw at others.  If we are honest with ourselves, then we all have to realize that if we haven’t committed that exact sin, we probably have committed a variation of it at some point in our lives. I know I have.

God desires for us to be healthy. He is our healer. He calls himself that. But he cannot heal us if we don’t forgive. I would encourage you today if you are reading this, and you are struggling to forgive someone, stop focusing on the other person, and think about the benefits of forgiveness to you personally. You will be amazed at how much better you will feel if you choose to forgive. I know, because I had to choose forgiveness as well. It was hard, but it was so worth it. My life is so much better, so much happier because I chose forgiveness and let go of my anger, hurt, resentment and pain. By forgiving, I was able to receive the healing that Jesus Christ had for my heart.

 

 

 

Finding Light in the Darkness

We all go through dark times. Grief, sorrow, disappointment, and loss happen to all of us. Unfortunately, it is not hard to get stuck in that darkness and allow it to overwhelm us.  It is easy to get trapped in anger, fear, unbelief and bitterness. Going through the stages of grief is healthy and important. We must feel the pain of our loss; denying what happened only works for a very short time. It is important to move into anger, depression, bargaining and then acceptance. Why? Because those are all natural human responses to loss. The problem is when we get stuck in one of those emotions. Getting stuck in anger turns us bitter. Living in denial means we never allow ourselves to truly live and even love again. Being depressed for a period of time after a loss is normal. Being depressed for years and never accepting the loss incapacitates us and keeps us from once again feeling joy and happiness and ultimately living our lives to the full again.

I went through a season in my life where it seemed like everything around me was falling apart. It was a very long season, lasting almost 10 years. My church split and fell apart, my parents both died within a couple of years of each other, my marriage ended in divorce and many people who I had considered good friends deserted me. I could easily say that those years were the darkest years of my entire life. I wasn’t sure at times if I would ever come out of them, but I did. How did I come out of such a long and dark season? How did I find hope and joy once again? I chose to press into God and ask for His help.

During those difficult years I learned that often God’s light shines the brightest in the darkness. I learned that only He could help me to move through my pain and sorrow and come out the other end of the tunnel with hope and joy.  It often felt like He was hiding from me, but what I learned when I called out to Him and searched for Him, was that I could hear His voice very clearly in my darkness. I discovered that pressing into God when I saw nothing but darkness around me, caused Him to actually reveal Himself to me, often times in new and surprising ways. I learned that even in the darkness of my soul, in the darkest hours of my life, God reigns supreme. He is King, even in the darkness. I could in fact access Him in the midst of my darkness, if I persevered.

Scripture is filled with examples of God speaking in the darkness. As a matter of fact, it tells us that He is surrounded by clouds and darkness (Psalm 97:2).  Solomon tells us in 1 Kings 8:12 and 2 Chronicles 6:1 “The Lord said He would dwell in the dark cloud” (the Hebrew is thick darkness or gloom). In Deuteronomy 4:11-12 and 5:22 God speaks to the children of Israel with a loud voice “from the mountain that burned with fire to the midst of heaven, with darkness, cloud and thick darkness“. My favorite is Psalm 18:9-11 where the psalmist tells us that “He made darkness His secret place; His canopy around Him was dark waters and thick clouds of the skies“. God dwells in the midst of our darkness. He makes it His secret place.

Let’s look at that term “secret place”. In Psalm 91:1 David tells us “He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty“. This really threw me for a loop because the implications here are enormous. So let me paraphrase   Psalm 18:11 and Psalm 91:1 into one sentence.  God makes darkness His secret place, and if I dwell in that secret place with Him, then I will abide in His shadow and He will protect me. I’m sure that I don’t even begin to comprehend what this really means, but as I follow this concept of the secret place in Scripture, I discover there is even more revelation. In Psalm 27:5 the psalmist tells us the following: “For in the time of trouble, He shall hide me in His pavilion; In the secret place of His tabernacle He shall hide me; He shall set me high upon a rock“.

Psalm 32:7 says “You are my secret place (often translated as hiding place); You shall preserve me from trouble; You shall surround me with songs of deliverance. Look at this one in Psalm 81:7 You called in trouble, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder. What does it mean? I’m sure that I can only begin to understand the depth of what it means,  but this much I do know. When I called to Him in that darkness, He heard me and He delivered me. He protected me from getting bitter and helped me to work through my anger and pain. He helped me to forgive those who deserted me when they should have been my friends. He helped me to move through the stages of grief and allow myself to be healed and love again.

If you’re still not sure that you believe that God is in the midst of your grief and pain, then let me share this story with you. In the gospel of John chapter 11 we are told the story of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus. Lazarus gets sick and dies. Jesus is in a different place of the country when He gets the word about Lazarus being sick. Now I don’t know for sure why Jesus waited, knowing that Lazarus would die during his delay, other than that He tells His disciples it would bring glory to God. But what I really want to point out is the reaction that Jesus had to Mary’s grief, when she fell at His feet. It says, Jesus wept. (John 11:35) Why did He weep? He knew He was about to raise him from the dead. It would have been natural for Him to ignore her pain, knowing what He was about to do. But He didn’t ignore it. He wept because He felt the depth of her pain and loss. He cared about the way she felt, even while knowing that He was about to bring her tremendous joy, by raising her brother from the dead, which He did.

God cares about your pain as well. Your anger and your grief do not bother him or inconvenience Him. He’s big enough to handle the anger you feel at your loss. As a matter of fact, your pain makes Him weep because He loves you. Just as your children’s pain hurts you, our pain hurts Him.

If you feel enveloped by darkness and you cannot see Him in the midst of it, then let me encourage you that God is very near to you, not far away. The prophet Isaiah encourages us in Isaiah 50:10  with the following words: “Who among you fears the Lord? Who obeys the voice of His servant? Who walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord and rely upon his God“.

I notice something important however, when I read this passage in Isaiah 50:10. Isaiah starts off by asking a question. “Who among you fears the Lord?” Do you fear the Lord Jesus Christ?

Do you feel surrounded by darkness, for whatever reason, and see no way out? Then call out to Jesus. Cry out to Him and believe that He is God Almighty. He is sovereign over everything, including your darkness.

Allow Him to comfort you, deliver you, protect you, heal you and maybe even raise your dead.

 

 

 

 

 

A Call for Unity in the Church

I watch a lot of YouTube videos. Perhaps you can relate. I really enjoy listening to different Bible teachings and sermons from various people and groups. YouTube is filled with some really good information and some really bad information. If you have spent any time at all on it you will know what I mean. Sometimes it is hard to discern if someone is speaking truth or lies. Sometimes it’s not so much that people are lying so much as they are deceived. Deceived people can sound really earnest and believable. It never ceases to amaze me how earnest people can sound, while speaking about things that are completely contrary to scripture. So why does it bother me so much, you might ask? Who cares what people are teaching or talking about? Does it really matter if what they speak is truth, lies or deception? Yes, I believe it does and here’s why.

When we call ourselves Christians and we go onto public forums such as YouTube for example, we have a lot of people who will listen to what we have to say. And our words will influence them. Those words will either lead them to the truth or away from the truth. James tell us in James 3:1 “let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment“. He goes on to say in vs 8 “But no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison“. Our words can literally poison people’s minds and affect their hearts. If we are not careful, our words can lead people astray and cause them to walk away from the truth, and away from God or worse, never know Him in the first place.

The story that caused me to think about this issue is found in Matthew 11. John the Baptist has been thrown into prison by Herod and he is so depressed and offended with God over the way his life turned out, that he sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask the question: “Are you the coming One, or do we look for another?” Now I’ve always focused on the question that was asked by John whenever I have pondered this story. I mean didn’t John baptize Jesus? Didn’t he announce early on that Jesus was the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world? So why did he ask it in the first place? How could he not know the answer?

So today as I was reading this story again, I suddenly saw it from a different angle. I began to wonder why John the Baptist still had disciples, when Jesus was now on the scene? And worse, why could those disciples not answer this question themselves? Why did they have to go to Jesus and ask Him who He was?  Who were they really following, Jesus or John? I mean you would think that if John had done his job correctly, those men would have known Jesus as their Messiah and therefore could have spoken words of encouragement to him and helped him through this dark time in his life. They could have pointed him back to the truth, in the midst of his depression, despair and confusion. So I ask again, why did these men, these disciples of John, not know who Jesus was? Yeah, I never thought of that before either.

And that brings me to an even scarier question. How many leaders in the church have created disciples for themselves and not Jesus?

After the resurrection, In John 21 we read the story about Jesus talking to Peter and restoring him after he had denied Jesus three times during the crucifixion. Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him. As Peter responds each time with “yes”, Jesus tells him to “Feed my lambs“, “Tend my sheep” and “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17) The words that Jesus uses in this conversation create the imagery of a shepherd taking care of, protecting and feeding the sheep. Notice that Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?” Why does He ask this? Because the insinuation is that if Peter loves Jesus, He will take care of Jesus’ sheep. Not Peter’s sheep, Jesus’ sheep!

Now this leads me to two different issues. The first one is the responsibility of leaders in the church, whether they be the pastors of a church, or the speaker on a YouTube channel, to be very careful that they don’t create disciples for themselves instead of for Jesus. And the second issue is one of personal responsibility. We have to be careful that we do not allow ourselves to become deceived by someone in leadership who is creating disciples for themselves and not for Jesus.

Paul warns the Corinthian church about this issue in Co 3:4 when he tells them “where there is envy, strife, and division among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, I am of Paul, and another, I am of Apollos, are you not carnal?” He is very clear when he points to Jesus as the foundation of their faith. He admonishes them with this: “For we are God’s fellow workers“. If this isn’t clear enough, Paul brings up the subject from a different angle further on in the book. He writes on the subject of spiritual gifts (Co 12:1-30), and then reminds them that not only do they each have different gifts but that those gifts are going to look different. Using the human body as an illustration, he points them to some pretty obvious facts. Reminding them that we are all one body and that that body has not one member, but many (vs. 14) he goes on to give some interesting visuals. “And the eye cannot say to the hand,  I have no need of you; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” I would like to suggest that the church is doing this exact thing.

Now you might ask me, how is this issue of gifts related to leaders making disciples for themselves? Actually it’s pretty simple and when you see it, it will make sense. All those denominations you see out there in the world, I would like to propose that they are actually different members of the same body. And not just members, but members with different gifts. And they are all looking at each other and saying, “I’m a foot or I’m a hand or an eye and you don’t look like me so you’re obviously not part of the body of Christ”! Their disciples are following the leader who originally had this gift and attracted others with the same gift. So now all the feet of the body go to First Church of Whatever and all the eyes go to Second Church of Whoever and on and on it goes. I’m obviously oversimplifying things here, but I think you get my drift. We are disjointed and flinging mud at each other because we don’t like hands or ears or noses because they don’t look or act like us.

Now with all that in mind, I would like to point you to a better way. Jesus tells us in John 15:12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Paul tells us in 1 Co 13 that the greatest thing of all is love. Without love, none of the gifts profit us anything. John tells us in 1 John 2:9-11 that he who loves his brother abides in the light and those who hate their brother, are in darkness.

I have seen too much hate disguised as teaching in the church. It must stop. We will never be the church of brotherly love or as Jesus called it, the church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3:7, if we continue to be divided and hate each other’s gifts. We are called to unity not division. And it is not a suggestion. It is a command. Perhaps it is time for the leadership of the church to repent and begin to love each other and point to Jesus instead of to themselves and their own opinions.

Imagine what a united church of Jesus Christ could accomplish in this world? I bet we could turn the world upside down for Jesus!