New Beginnings

I know what you’re thinking … I’ve got my posts mixed up, and I’m posting a New Year’s meditation on Christmas Day.

No. This is a Christmas reflection.

A quiet morning, this Christmas morning. A little time to read by the fire. And here I find the Christmas story.  This is from The Hawk and the Dove, a novel by Penelope Wilcock. One of her characters reflects:

‘It’s a funny thing. The thing life is fullest of is the thing we find hardest to believe in. New beginnings. The incredible gift of a fresh start. Every new year. Every new day. Every new life. What wonderful gifts! And when we spoil things, and life goes all wrong, we feel dismayed, because we find it so hard to see that we can start again. God lets us share it too, you know. Only God can give life, it’s true — make a new baby or a new year — but he gives us the power to give each other a new beginning, to forgive each other and make a fresh start when things go wrong.’

The story of Christmas — a fresh start, a new beginning, new hope for God’s creation.

He gave us that gift one night in Bethlehem.

As His children, living by the power of His Spirit, may we give the gift as generously to others.

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A few more words on forgiveness and grace

Just a few hours after I published the previous post on turning the other cheek, I picked up a novel that I’d started to read months ago but had never finished. Getting into the story, I realized it was on exactly this subject, grace and forgiveness. A man has lost everything–wife, home, business–and he has much to forgive. Unfortunately, he doesn’t even feel the need to forgive until he meets several people who teach him.

Here are a few well-written thoughts from The Road to Grace by Richard Paul Evans:

The Holocaust survivor says,

“We chain ourselves to what we will not forgive…should a Holocaust survivor chain himself forever to Hitler and his crimes? Or should he forgive and be free?”

On grace, the author notes:

And, if we travel well, we will become as grace and learn the lesson meant from the journey, not to dismiss error, but to eagerly forgive the err-er, to generously share the balm of mercy and love for, before the eyes of Heaven, we all walk as fools.  And the more we exercise our portion of faith, the better we receive it.

Generously sharing the balm of mercy and love, may we, as His beloved children, imitate our Father in all we do!

Turning the Other Cheek

A man and a woman lived in paradise. No conflict marred their relationship and everything they needed was supplied. They even had a special friendship with the King, living in a perfect place He had provided, sharing intimate times of friendship with Him.

Until one day. That day, someone asked, “Did God really mean what He said?”

All of us now live with the consequences of their debate and reaction to that question. And the question still comes today, whispered into our minds by the same enemy — Does God really mean this?

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One of the things so wholly foreign to us humans, so utterly Christ-like that we cannot believe God really expects us to live it out is this command from Jesus:

But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. (Matt. 5:39)

Surely God does not expect us to be so weak. Surely God does not intend that we let evil actions go unchallenged and unpunished. Surely God wants us to stand for what is right. Surely Jesus did not mean that when someone strikes us, harms  us, demeans us, takes advantage of us, then we are to give them another opportunity to do the same thing again!

Surely God does not mean what He said.

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A man dies in wracking pain, executed for wrongs he did not commit. But with the last breaths in his battered, bloody body, he utters this request: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Just a few years later, a lynch mob drags another man out of the city. As he falls under their blows, he prays, “Lord, don’t hold this sin against them.”

A man shoots ten young Amish girls. Five of the girls die. Amish and non-Amish alike, families of the children and families of the murderer, the entire community—all are ripped open by the killer’s brutal actions. The Amish say, “We will forgive.”

God says, “Do not repay evil for evil. Love those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who work against you. Offer the other cheek also.”

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While I am asking God to show me how to live this, a friend tells me her story. She owns a summer home relatively secluded from neighbors. While she was away, someone broke into her home and stole from her. She knew who had done it, yet she did not accuse; the young man already had a record, but she did not file a report with authorities. She saw the young man as Jesus saw him, loved him as Jesus loved him. The end of the story? Like Zaccheus, he returned some of her possessions and paid her for those he had already sold and could not retrieve. And she turned the other cheek—now, she asks that same young man to watch over her home while she is away.

“Turning the other cheek,” she says, “is seeing others as God sees them.”

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Off the other cheek also. At one time, I thought this simply meant we were not to return injury for injury. We’re not to seek revenge. But let us be honest. If all Jesus is commanding us to do is refrain from striking back, then we still have a big problem—the anger within, the bitterness, a sense of injustice, perhaps self-righteousness, the need for punishment and revenge.

“You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too. If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.” (Matt. 5:39-41)

We’re not only to refrain from striking back, we’re to do good things for those who harm us! Jesus calls us to a new way of living, but we cannot live that way if anger and bitterness or a desire for revenge or insistence on justice soaks our soul. We can only live in this way if the Spirit gives us new hearts and new minds. We can only live in this way if we can see others with Jesus’ love and compassion.

I am far from understanding the depth of this command and far from being able to live it out consistently in my life. Every day, even in the little, day-to-day irritations and conflicts and misunderstandings, I must make a choice. I do know there are things in me that must die if I want to love others as Jesus loved me.

But I also know this–

Turning the other cheek means loving another as God loves us. Do we deserve His mercy and forgiveness? Do we deserve His patience with us? I’m ashamed that at times I still slap Him in the face; I do not always live a life worthy of the calling I’ve received (Eph. 4:1). Yet He sees me as a beloved child of His, with a new heart and spirit given by Him. He sees me as He intends to make me. How often has He turned the other cheek to me? Seventy times seventy times seventy times seventy?

How do I “see” those who strike me? Can I see them as God does? Can I see the plans He may have for them? Will I live by the Spirit of Christ and love and forgive them, rather than letting my natural human tendencies govern how I deal with them both now and in the future? They might very well slap me again; can I forgive 489 more times? Will  I forgive 489 more times?

Turning the other cheek brings God’s grace into both lives. Whether it be enemy who harms me or friend who disappoints me, if I turn the other cheek I extend love, mercy, and forgiveness to the other person instead of anger and judgment. This is the calling given to the children of God; we are called to the ministry of reconciliation; we are called to continue Christ’s mission in this world, showing the world the mercy and forgiveness of God.

And I believe Jesus asks me to turn the other cheek because it’s part of God’s plan to change me, to transform me into the image of Christ, who has turned the other cheek to me and shown me His mercy and forgiveness so many, many times.

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are His dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. (Eph. 5:1-2)

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All Scripture from the New Living Translation

Chapter 27: Forgiveness

This is a guest series by Phil Cate. If you missed previous chapters, you can read them all by clicking on ‘Phil Cate’ under the Categories heading in the right panel. Watch for new installments every Friday.

All material is copyrighted and cannot be used without permission of the author.

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Chapter 27
Forgiveness 

Matthew 18:21-34 (NIV)  

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

22Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 

23“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

26“The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

28“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.

29“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

30“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

32“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

 

       This to me is one of the greatest stories in the Bible. Jesus knew how Peter felt. He knew Peter felt that the person who had harmed him “owed” him something. Jesus knew for Peter (and for us) the only way out is to cancel the debt–to declare to the person that hurt us that they don’t owe us anything, not even an apology.

       Jesus further states that God, the King in this story, will imprison us and torture us until we have mercy on people that we feel owe us and that have hurt us. We are forcefully instructed to forgive by canceling the debt.

       Why would God propose torturing us if we don’t forgive someone that has hurt us? It doesn’t make much sense at first glance. After all, I’m the one that got hurt, now I’m going to get tortured by God? But God loves me and He knows if I don’t let the debt go, it will affect everyone and everything around me, including my own peace.

       Not only is this concept at the very epicenter of what Jesus taught us that Christianity is about, it also gives us a window into how God looks at us. I had always mistakenly thought of God as being very much into justice; yet this story tells me He is, at the very least, equally into mercy. Jesus gave me that glimpse into God’s thinking with this story, just enough for me to “get it”. He is merciful on us and demands that we be merciful on each other. He is so much into mercy, He demands it be given even when it is not deserved, just as He does for us.

       That explained a ton to me, all in one story. That explained why, so many times in my life, I had narrowly avoided consequences that I truly deserved. That explained why He let me pray my way out of things I had behaved my way into again and again.

       And most importantly, I think it explained what He wanted me to do with that mercy that I had been freely granted. He wanted me to pass it on to the people in my life. He wants a kind and merciful world and wants me to share the mercy I was given from Him. Wow.

       Now, that’s not the end of it for me. It wasn’t just conceptual; I had some real forgiving to do.

       The stealthy part about this was that I thought I had been a pretty forgiving soul most of my life; some of the people around me had even told me I was forgiving. I thought I had let things roll off, if you will. I viewed forgiveness as just moving on; but according to Jesus, that wasn’t good enough. In Jesus’s story, the King didn’t just ignore the debt and not address it. The King actually canceled the debt. That meant the King thought about what was rightfully owed him and then deliberately made the decision to wipe out the debt.

       Here’s the way this would go in my mind. Someone might hack me off at the office, and I’d maybe confront the person, maybe not. Then I’d decide it just wasn’t worth it, and I’d just let it “roll off”. See how forgiving I was? Well, not so fast. Very subtly, I’d always remember that person had hacked me off; and even though I’d “moved past it”, I still held him in judgment. In other words, I did most of what the King did, but not all of it. I carefully calculated what that person owed me and decided not to collect. I didn’t wipe out the debt. I still viewed it as owed; I just decided not to collect on it at that time. Again very subtly, I knew the guy owed me, and he was on thin ice in my mind. I was walking around like a loaded gun waiting to see if the same person hurt me again; and if he did, I’d ratchet up my reaction next time. I didn’t cancel the debt completely.

       Holding on to that debt in my relationships at the office wasn’t good, but it probably wouldn’t destroy me. With my friends, well, I could always get new friends right? With my parents, now it’s starting to get sticky; I’d always have the same parents. With Kay or the kids though, phew, not good at all. I was warehousing debt that they and others owed me, and guess what? My family took their cue from Dear Ole Dad. They learned to harbor debt towards Kay and I and each other.

       However, this also explained something that used to just baffle me. How is it that people fall crazy in love with each other, and over a number of years (or in some cases maybe even just a few weeks), they grow apart or get very combative with each other? They go from not being able to keep their hands off of each other to not being able to stand each other, sometimes in a very short period of time. In many cases, they end up purposefully hurting each other. They hire lawyers to get away from each other and to inflict some well-deserved justice.

       How on earth can it go from unbridled romantic passion to war? It’s easy. They “owe me” and they’re not paying up and I’m looking at this debt and I’m trying to collect and they won’t pay. So the resentment builds, and the romance fades, and the stage is set for war.

       Jesus knew we’d get let down. He knew we’d get hurt. He knew we’d be disappointed. Jesus, being Jesus, told us a story for the ages — just cancel the debt and live in gratitude and freedom rather than resentment and a self-imposed jail cell.

       Here is maybe the biggest set of questions yet and certainly the toughest. Who owes you? Think of the person that has hurt you the absolute worst in your entire life. Can you cancel their debt? Do you understand that no matter how bad they hurt you, they’ll keep hurting you until you let it go?

       Can you be merciful to someone even when they don’t deserve mercy, just as God is merciful to you? Who hurts you just at the thought of them? Can you forgive them for your own sake? Will you pray for them?

       Can you forgive yourself for things? Do you blame God for some things in your life? Can you trust Him and let it all go?

       It will change your life if you can forgive.

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Next: Prayer     

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Phil Cate is a resident of the Atlanta, Georgia, metro area and runs a small medical equipment resale business. He is available for speaking engagements and can be reached at PhilC@ER3.biz or by phone at 678-429-0901

Printed by permission from Phil Cate, Mama told me Jesus saved my soul, but who was gonna save my butt??? Confessions, lessons, and revelations of a born rebel, © 2008.