The Anger in Forgiveness

 

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“Why should I be sacrificed on the altar of his growth?!”  I remember the day I said these words out loud to God.  I was angry.  Angry and hurt.  I didn’t think I could get that angry.  Now it seemed like God was taking his side.

For an entire year a young man in my Christian community had publicly insulted my weight and femininity. His sideways, passive comments were lobbed in front of our friends and although we tried to ignore the jabs, we all knew what he thought of me.  I was fat and unattractive.  In private, friends tried to assure me, “He’s wrong.” “Stacie, you are pretty.”  But these comments went to the heart of my insecurities.

At the end of the day I was left to struggle with his words.  The worst part was that deep down I believed he was right.  I knew enough theology to know that God saw me as precious and beautiful, but the rest of the world?  This man was just voicing what everyone thought and no one was willing to say.  I was undesirable.  So, there I was, hurt and angry.

Growing Anger

Months passed.  I sank into sadness and isolation, functional on the outside and withering on the inside.  Prayer became a plea for God to rid me of this person and help me feel better about living in a world where I was less than everyone else.  Wasn’t God angry too?  Then came a pivotal conversation.  A trusted friend stepped into my world and offered his help, with one condition.  I needed to confront the person hurting me, share my injury and forgive.  Nothing could have seemed more unwise to me.

Although I had read the passages in the Bible about forgiveness and confrontation (Ephesians 4:32; Matthew 18:15), this had to be an exception.  Isn’t is unwise to confess hurt to someone who has only shown that they can and will hurt you?  I was pretty certain he had no idea of his effect on me and I was determined to make sure he would never know.

But then the Scripture became inescapable.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. -Ephesians 4:29-32

I was not allowed to attack back, scream and rant in anger.  I had to go to him for HIS good. I read and re-read and screamed through Ephesians.  Someone else’s behavior never lets me off the hook for acting for their good.  I am never off the hook of love and forgiveness.

My choice seemed terribly simple.  I could either die the slow death of withering from the inside, wallowing in anger, hurt, and bitterness, or I could obey God and move toward my enemy’s good.  Two paths that felt like death lay before me and God would only walk with me down one of them. God would sacrifice me on the altar of his good.  I wish I could say I had spiritual strength, faith and foresight.  What I would do next was merely obedience and little else.

Forgiveness Deserved?

I knew pride, resentment and ugliness were rooting deep in my heart and I was desperate for their death.  I was desperate enough to submit to God and confess in deep repentance the ugly truth: I didn’t care about his good.  I didn’t want to love this person.  I didn’t want to forgive.  I wanted him to pay.

In order to share with this man how he injured me I would have to be filled with the Holy Spirit but this didn’t feel strong.  It felt open, vulnerable and weak.  I didn’t even think I could talk without crying.  I prayed through Ephesians 4 over and over again, unsure of whether I could even be kind or civil.  I prayed for the heart I wanted, but didn’t have.  I prayed for strength and compassion. I prayed to expect nothing.  It could not be about getting an apology or seeing repentance.

At this point you may be tempted to think, “But he is wrong.  He doesn’t deserve kindness.”  That’s true.  But neither do we.  Why is it that when I wrong someone I want mercy, but when someone wrongs me I want justice?  The cross of Jesus shows how equally in need of forgiveness we all are and how graciously it has been offered by the One who has never been in need of it.

So, we talked. I cried.  Then, something miraculous happened.  He didn’t understand.   He did not apologize.  His words were stoic and formal.  He was caught off guard and at a loss for how to respond.  I didn’t get deep sensitivity or caring.  But it didn’t crush me.  I climbed on an altar, expecting to be sacrificed but found myself freed.  Like a tiny seed in my heart, something began to bloom.  I wanted this man’s good.  I wanted God to be kind to him.  I was able to forgive.

A Miracle

I have rarely in my life felt so protected, loved and cared for as I did the day I walked away from that conversation.  I had done as God asked, not just for his good but for mine.  My heart could break without breaking me.  God’s rebuke of me could be kind.  God saw my pride, self protection and rebellion.  I had dared to ask God to choose my good over another one of His other children, as if I were faultless.  Something in me was ugly, prideful and demanding.  Here in the ugly bits of myself there is forgiveness, mercy and grace.

Since that time Paul’s words on forgiveness live in me like light in darkness.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  -Romans 5:6-8 

Forgiveness is a miracle.  It is one of the most amazing ways we as Christians can experience the miraculous nature of the cross in our relationships.  His forgiveness of us births in us the humility to forgive, even those who hurt us.  Forgiveness is still hard, but necessary.

Do you know what it is to be forgiven?  Do you need to forgive?

 

 

Why I am a Vintage Value Christian Feminist

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Four nights ago I was driving in a van through the Zona Norte section of Tijuana, Mexico.  This is the”red light” district, complete with dark back alleys, girls on every corner, and men shopping for whatever entertainment is offered.  Street after street reminded me of the heartbreak surrounding the treatment of women around the world.  Over the next few days I would meet women who had been sold into prostitution or just plain seduced into servitude.  Encounters like these have shaped the way I define words like oppression and power.

You might consider me a feminist.  Years of study in academic philosophy told me that feminism is simply a desire for the equal treatment of women and a fight against all forms of oppression.  Of course, equal pay for equal work, educational opportunity and protection from harm seemed obvious.  Why wouldn’t someone identify as a feminist with these kinds of definitions?

Then I was introduced to a kind of feminism that screamed at high decibels in affluent western countries.  This brand of feminism was angry and carried an odd mixture of jealousy toward men while sporting a superiority complex.  This brand of feminism didn’t empower me to be woman, it simply told me to be a man because we don’t need them, as if an entire gender was expendable.

A Female Pastor

Now as a wife, mother, Christ-follower and “pastor” I get the question all the time.  “What are you as a woman allowed to do?”  There is a subtle insinuation in the question.  Hasn’t the Christian church so oppressed women that your role can never exceed childbearing, cooking or knitting, because we know there is no power in these things?   Aren’t you told to submit to a man?  Does your boss really value your contribution?

I love these conversations and I wish the Christian church had more of them.  It is here that we learn the heart of Jesus.  As a Christians, we have more ground to defend oppressed woman than any other worldview.  We have a God who made male and female to bear His image, with all the dignity and worth that goes along with that image.  (Genesis 1:26)  How we treat people comes from our view of creation.  He who mocks the poor taunts his Maker.  (Proverbs 17:5).

Much like a Monet or Picasso painting, we are priceless not because of our usefulness, but because of our Maker.

It is still a wonder to me how one can reject the notion of God and yet cry foul when people are oppressed. In a world without God, the oppressed are just too weak to defend themselves.  The lion doesn’t feel guilty for eating the bunny rabbit.  It is simply the natural order of things.  Without God, the natural order rules and there is nothing morally wrong with the powerful winning.

Even with a high view of human value and dignity, we must admit that some Christian churches have a poor track record for the treatment of women.  I have been encouraged by men, objectified by men, patronized by men and empowered by men.  How do we make any sense of such confusing messages and a culture that is slipping into further decay with each passing day?

Asking the Right Question

May I suggest that we are asking the wrong question.  God does not ask me to respond to all the world, just my little piece of it.  How then does God ask me to live as a woman in my world?  I am called to ask a better question.

“How can I, uniquely gifted as a woman, be for the good of those around me?”

It is not about how much power I can have, but about how much I can serve those around me, using my influence for the good of the men women.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.  Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  (Philippians 2:1-7)

This passage is not for the faint of heart.  Why should I submit myself to the good of someone else when they are no better than me?  Because Jesus did.  He, although being God himself, took on service, humility and yes… submission.  An outflow of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is our ability to submit ourselves on the altar of someone else’s good. (Ephesians 5:18-21)  This mutual submission, from men and women, reflects the humility of the cross of Christ.

Over the years I have seen women who fall into bitterness and hate the men around them.  These same women long for marriage.  I don’t know how we can expect to hate men and love any one of them very well.  Over the years I have seen men who simply look at women as tools for pleasure or to make them own dreams happen.  Neither of these are laboring for the good of the others.  In short, neither of these are leading someone else into God’s purpose for His people.

Everyday Life

What does this look like everyday?  I don’t need to fight for some misguided attempt to be a man.  I am not a man.  God has a different voice in my calling.  As a created female, I have immense power to inspire the men around me to be what God calls them to be.  This doesn’t mean I am silenced or kept from using my gifts.  This means that I have no right to bemoan the passivity of men and then trample on them with my competencies.  This means that I use every gift God has given me for journey of humility, leading others to Himself.

My husband and the many humble male leaders I know are also given a responsibility to be for the good of those around them and it is a responsibility that God would not have me lift from them.  They rightly feel the weight of being for my good in ways that are different than my weight.  I am for their good.  They are for mine.  This is the heart of Christ. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)

Finally, deep in our hearts we may be tempted to seek the safety of power in order to care for ourselves, get ahead or be invulnerable.  Who will look out for you if you don’t look out for yourself?  May I suggest that looking out for you is God’s job. If power is your main goal you are the last person who should lead, male or female.

Ironically, I have worked with those who long for power.  It looks ugly on both men and women.  I have worked in academia, smaller organizations, and multi-layered leadership structures.  I find myself now in an environment with men and women who strive to partner together for the good of God’s purposes in the world while empowering a new generation to be all that God has made them.

Funny that I see this in an evangelical church. And that is saying something.

 

What singleness and miscarriages taught me about God’s love

 

 

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Something felt familiar.  I was laying in my bed, consumed by sadness, loneliness, pain and grief.  At 17 weeks pregnant we were faced again with a routine appointment that revealed a heartbeat that had stopped.  Again. Twice in one year.  Two babies. Two miscarriages.  My sweet husband, with grief of his own, had no way to take away mine.  It is one of those moments in life when the acute pain of sadness is isolating.  Yet, there was something oddly familiar about this moment that was anchored to experiences from decades ago.

As a young woman in my twenties I had become convinced that marriage would be a gift denied to me.  For years I found myself without pursuers and romantically alone.  So I slowly came to the conclusion that God intended me for singleness.  By my early 30’s I was no longer trying to love life and find contentment until marriage.  I was grieving the total loss of a deep longing.  God, who was all powerful and could give me anything, seemed to be saying, “Never.”

A deep longing never to be fulfilled was familiar.  But somewhere under the layers of tears I had learned long ago where to find hope and companionship.

IS HE STILL GOOD?

In singleness I attended the weddings of most of my friends.  I saw their happiness and imagined their full lives of marital enjoyment.   In the loss of my second and third child I celebrated the birth of 6 babies, all born in the same months I would have been due to have my own.

With an undeniable belief that God exists and that He is in control over our world, we can sometimes find ourselves stuck.  If He is there and if He is able to bring good things into the lives of others, why not us?  Sure, I can understand why God would shield us from sinful desires, but is He still good if He withholds good desires?  Has He forgotten us?  Does He not see?  How could this possibly be loving?

Like Mary and Martha at the tomb of Lazarus, the easiest answer is to assume God has failed us.  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Two women who both make the same accusation.  (Luke 11: 12 & 32)  Yes, that’s it.  He helps everyone else, but doesn’t love me enough to help me.

I consider it a special grace when Scripture answers my accusing heart.  When Jesus finds out that Lazarus is sick and about to die we are told, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” (Luke 11:5-6)  He loved them, so he let Lazarus die.  He is up to something here and he wants us to know that whatever it is, it includes his love.

Although He can love us, be good and deny us what we desire, we should not make the mistake of believing that He does nothing.  Jesus loved Mary and Martha in their grief.  In their grief he offered two things.  First, he offered Himself. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.  And he said, ‘where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see,’ Jesus wept.  So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?'” (Luke 11:33-35) There it is, the accusation.  Did you catch it?  If he loved Lazarus wouldn’t he have kept him from dying?

JESUS WEEPS

Even in the deepest grief, my Spirit rebukes me when I am tempted to charge God with not knowing as much as I do about love.  Love finds it origin and anchoring in the character of God.  We start with Him to get our understanding of love.  And here at the tomb of Lazarus, love responds.  “Jesus wept.”  Let’s be clear.  Jesus is not weeping for Lazarus, as the onlookers suppose.  When Jesus does raise him from the dead, it is only to find one chapter later that the enemies of Jesus are plotting Lazarus’ death. (Luke 12:10)  I suspect that being brought back from the dead did not make Lazarus happier.  Now he gets to be the guy that dies twice in one lifetime.  Lucky him.

No, he is not weeping for Lazarus.  Jesus weeps when he sees his loved ones in grief and pain.

Let’s not underestimate how much we need this.  In pain, we may be tempted to cry out for a why.  I don’t know about you, but why wouldn’t help me.  If God had appeared to me after my second miscarriage and told me that countless lives would be saved as a result, I would at that very moment still feel crushed.  No, why doesn’t stop the tears.  What do I really need?  I need to not grieve alone.  I need God to weep with me.  Watching another friend be chosen by a good man and still feeling alone, I need a God who mourns with me and comforts me.  (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)  The comfort that comes in those private moments with Jesus is not an abstract idea, but a personally intimate time of healing and peace.

Second, Jesus offers to right the wrong.  I need a God who can make all things right again.  “Jesus said to her, I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.  Do you believe this?”  (Luke 11:25-26)  God, who came in the flesh and bore our sufferings, has promised to make all things new.  This is not the end of our story.  (Isaiah 35; Romans 8: 18-39)   Life is found in Jesus.

Somewhere in the middle of the tears, there is truth more profound and personally experienced than the grief itself.  God is there.  I am comforted.  I am not alone and it will not always be like this.  Although I now live in the aftermath of sins devastating effects,  I have found peace, comfort and joy sitting at his feet.  As much as God has blessed me through the encouragement of family, friends and other Christians, there is no substitute for Him and me when no one else is around.  It is here that I find rest for my soul.  (Matthew 11:29)

DOES SUFFERING MEAN GOD DOES NOT EXIST?

Finally, grief can make some question whether God is even there at all.  I find this odd. Grief is the irrepressible cry of the heart that says something has gone wrong.  Things are not supposed to be this way.  In grief we know most keenly that there is a way life is supposed to be and we are made most aware that something is not as it should be.

If God does not exist, there is no other way the world should be.  Grief is an illusion.

Only in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus of Nazareth can we find the answers to our deepest longings and know that our cry is an accurate reflection of reality. He validates our grief.  This is not the way life is supposed to be.  He weeps with us in our heartbreak and in the middle of it all there is beauty and rest.

How is there beauty and rest?  After the tears, there is a secret revealed.  Our deepest longing is for God Himself and to the one who seeks, this longing will never be denied. (Matthew 5:4-6)