Thursday, January 19, 2017

Forgiveness: More Blessed to Receive Than to Give?

A mean-spirited country bumpkin was asked, “Do you have a grudge?” “Heck, no,” he replied in a huff. “Ah jest put mah truck in the front yard like everybody else.” Well, many of us do have a grudge – just not the kind this fellow had in mind. We harbor grudges about many things, ranging from hurtful words people have said, to not receiving thanks for a kind act, to an unresolved family dispute.

Unfortunately, there’s only one way of getting rid of grudges: Forgive. But to do so, it often seems, is like knowing someone who’s sick, then swallowing the nasty-tasting medicine for them.

We’re told, “forgive and forget,” but much of the time it’s difficult to do either. Forgiving is hard, especially when the offender hasn’t apologized or shown remorse. To forgive in effect would mean letting someone off the hook for doing or saying something wrong without making amends. Instead, we decide never to forget the harm they’ve done to us.

On the other hand, if we’ve inflicted harm upon someone else – whether a minor slight or a serious, selfish act – we believe our apologies should be readily accepted, without repercussions. Isn’t “I’m sorry” good enough?

One of the great thinkers of the mid-20th century was C.S. Lewis, whose profound conclusions about matters of faith still resonate powerfully in this century. Lewis observed, “Everyone thinks that forgiveness is a lovely idea, until he has something to forgive.” Forgiveness, it would seem, is more blessed to receive than to give.

But should it be that way, especially for followers of Jesus? In His “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus presented a vivid picture of what forgiveness should look like. Dismissing the “eye for an eye” philosophy, He stated, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well…” (Matthew 5:38-40).

When His followers asked how they should pray, Jesus included these words as a guide: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12). Moments later He added, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). Strong words.

In another passage, the apostle Paul also challenged unwillingness to let bygones be bygones: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).

Particularly penetrating is the phrase, “just as God in Christ has forgiven you.” If we truly understand the magnitude of God’s forgiveness, what it cost Him to make forgiveness available, harboring ill will toward others and refusing to forgive amounts to an act of rebellion.

This teaching is anchored in the biblical concept of grace – God’s unmerited and unconditional favor. Grace strikes us as an alien concept, since we so rarely experience it in everyday life. Author Max Lucado, in his book, Grace: More Than We Deserve, Greater Than We Imagine, describes it: “Grace is not blind. It sees the hurt full well. But grace chooses to see God’s forgiveness even more. It refuses to let hurts poison the heart…. Where grace is lacking, bitterness abounds. Where grace abounds, forgiveness grows.”

We have two strong motivations for forgiving others: First, because of what God in Christ has done for us. If we can comprehend how much God has forgiven us, how can we not forgive others, no matter what they have done?

Second, failure to forgive “poisons the heart,” as Lucado writes. Hebrews 12:14-15 speaks of a “root of bitterness” that acts like an emotional cancer that destroys from within: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.”

Regardless of the circumstances, forgiveness can prove to be more blessed to give than to receive, because the giving provides access to peace and release from a lifetime of bitterness

Monday, January 16, 2017

Let’s Not Make It Too Complicated

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m mystified by things both mechanical and technological. I don’t know why or how my car starts when I insert key into the ignition and give it a turn, but I’m glad it does. And how my computer works, handling words and numbers and images and videos and sounds seamlessly exceeds my comprehension. But I use it just the same, thankful for all the tech wizards who’ve toiled so diligently to make computers work with increasing speed and efficiency.

When was the last time you dedicated time to absorbing your car’s owner’s manual, or the operator’s manual that came with your computer? If you’re a mechanic or techie, you might have. Most of us, however, are content with just the basics. If things get more complicated, like the computer suddenly and inexplicably freezing up, or the car failing to run properly, we turn to the experts.

The funny thing is, we typically don’t do that with everyday life. We think we’re the experts, assuming we know exactly how to achieve our goals – whether it’s success, or wealth, or health, or happiness – without consulting anyone else. Then, when our “best laid plans go astray,” to borrow a phrase from poet Robert Burns, we scream bloody murder. “Why me?! Why does life always pick on me?”

If the passage of years has taught me anything, it’s that I really need to read the manual – and consult with the Expert – if I’m to expect life to turn out anywhere near what I hope it can be.

That seemed to be the message of a chapter I read in Proverbs recently. The first two verses declare, “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity” (Proverbs 3:1-2). Who doesn’t wish for prolonged years and prosperity? But then there’s the catch – remembering what God has taught, and keeping His commands. There’s got to be another way, right?

Next I came across the passage I adopted as my life verses more than 35 years ago: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Of course, typically our preference is not to acknowledge God and His presence in our lives. We hope He’s not paying attention, so we can be free to do whatever we want to do without interference.

The following verses, however, offer a stern rebuke for that kind of thinking: “Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord and shun evil. This will bring health to your body and nourishment to your bones” (Proverbs 3:7-8). There’s the promise again – health and well-being – with the caveat not to rely on our own wisdom but rather, approach life in reverent fear and obedience to God. This again flies against our tendency to insist, “It’s my life, and I’ll live as I want to!” Doesn’t society teach this?

Finally, speaking of wisdom – God’s eternal, unchanging wisdom – another passage tells us, “long life is in her right hand; in her right hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed” (Proverbs 3:16-18).

Returning to the mechanical metaphor, long ago I learned if I periodically get the oil changed in my car, check the tire pressure, and follow the owner’s manual’s guidelines for routine maintenance, it will last much longer and I won’t have to start each trip worrying about whether it’s going to conk out along the highway. I don’t have to understand how a combustion engine works, especially with its electronic complexities. I just need to consult the manual, do what it says for properly maintaining my car, and reasonably expect to keep a well-running car for a long time.

Similarly, even though it seems mankind for thousands of years has always “(done) what seemed right in their own eyes” (Judges 17:6), that’s not the way to go if we’re desiring to live long and prosperous lives. We need to resolve, even if reluctantly at first, to follow the Manual – the Word of God, which we commonly call the Bible – and the guidelines given to us by our Creator, the Master Designer. If we do that, we might discover things aren’t as complicated as we think they are.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Hey, It’s Not Déjà vu All Over Again!

Don’t you sometimes wish you could have had more time to deliberate about something that required a fast decision? Or thought it would be nice to have a “Groundhog Day” type of experience, when events would repeat themselves until you finally got things right?

The late major league catcher/philosopher Yogi Berra might have been referring to this when he famously stated, “It’s like déjà vu, all over again.” In other words, it’s the feeling of “been there, done that,” only there you are doing it again.

Sometimes the "birds" of life can bring
unexpected, instant complications.
I recently viewed the movie, “Sully,” about pilot Chesley Sullenberger and his January 2009 forced landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in New York City. All 155 passengers and crew survived the incident with minor injuries, largely because of “Sully’s” unconventional decision to turn the river into a landing strip after a flock of birds struck the plane’s two engines, rendering them inoperable. (The birds, alas, also became inoperable.)

The aircraft avoiding a disastrous crash in the frigid Hudson instantly turned Sullenberger into a national hero. However, as the film shows, an intense investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) sought to determine whether the pilot could have taken alternative measures  to safely divert the jet to a nearby airport.

What struck me about the review was how NTSB officials repeatedly cited computer simulations of the events, determining each simulation showed sufficient time to avoid the risky and unprecedented river landing. Toward the end of the film, however, all parties agreed that only if the flight crew had anticipated the bird encounter well in advance, with ample time for evaluating possible alternatives, could different measures have succeeded. The need for instant response negated other possibilities.

Isn’t everyday life like that? I remember years ago driving on an interstate highway when a large piece of tire retread suddenly flew from under a truck in front of me. I didn’t even have time to swerve – probably a good thing. The retread struck the undercarriage of my car, causing damage that had to be repaired before I could proceed. As with Flight 1549, but on a much smaller scale, it could have been worse. I definitely hadn’t been wondering, “If a large piece of retread suddenly flies toward my car, what evasive measures should I take?”

What things in your life required immediate response that later, with the perfect vision of hindsight, might have been dealt with differently? If there had only been time for more reflection, or for assembling all the pertinent facts, things might have gone another way. But life comes at us quickly, in an blink, and often doesn’t give us much, if any, warning.

It would be nice to log onto and amend actions and decisions we made in the past, but of course that’s not an option. We can prepare as much as possible for the unexpected. That’s why highway signs remind us to wear seatbelts, not to drink and drive, and to avoid texting and other distractions. For people working in stressful, deadline-driven professions, it’s wise to anticipate potential problems and have a “plan B” (or C) readily at hand, just in case.

But when a “flock of birds” appears of nowhere, all we can do is the best we know how – and entrust the rest to God, including the outcome. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 we’re directed to “pray without ceasing,” and this can be done while driving, during a crucial business meeting, or in the midst of a family crisis. (No need to close your eyes or bow your head – especially driving.)

We’re also told God isn’t aloof, anxiously observing in the heavens as events transpire in our lives. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged (Deuteronomy 31:8). Long before adversity comes our way, He is already well-prepared, anticipating what will transpire, and “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Yes, we can and often should evaluate past decisions and actions in seeking to do better in the future. But experience has taught me that “woulda, shoulda, coulda” thinking doesn’t accomplish much, whether we’re flying jet aircraft or dealing with a coworker or family member. Even in our mistakes, our darkest moments, God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Monday, January 9, 2017

Perceiving Through Paradigms

"Made in Japan" doesn't mean today what it once meant.
Some years ago, I viewed a powerful video by futurist Joel Arthur Barker, and later read his book, Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future. There are many ways to define “paradigm,” but Barker explained we regularly use paradigms to form our unique, individualized ways of processing information and how we interpret it.

Case in point: the phrase, “made in Japan,” which has changed meanings over the years. In the 1950s, it typically referred to substandard quality material and workmanship. However, by the 1980s, aided by W. Edwards Deming and other manufacturing consultants, “made in Japan” came to mean superior quality, cutting edge, even “the best” we could buy. Suddenly automobiles and all things technological became highly prized if “made in Japan.”

How that changed isn’t the focus of this post, since what I know about manufacturing I could write on a single fingernail. What struck me is how, as with the example from Japan, paradigms shape our thinking and conclusions about virtually everything, ranging from people’s education and status to individuals of various ethnicities to brand-name products, and even to matters of faith.

What brought this to mind was a statement by C.S. Lewis I reread recently. The Oxford scholar and one-time atheist is best known as the author of Mere Christianity, a revered, well-reasoned exposition of the how’s and why’s of the Christian faith, and The Chronicles of Narnia collection of faith-based children’s stories. He also happened to die on Nov. 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Lewis’s quotation didn’t use the term “paradigm,” but easily could have, since he was explaining how moving from disbelief to faith and commitment to Jesus Christ had shifted his perceptions of himself, the world around him, and even the universe. He wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

I’ve referred to this quote before, but cite it again because it concisely and accurately distills what saving faith in Jesus should mean for each of us who profess to follow Him. Being “born again” spiritually, as Jesus described in John 3:3, means becoming inhabited by the presence of Christ, and this new life provides a kind of filter – as Barker termed it, a paradigm – by which we “see everything else.”

If a person’s an agnostic or atheist, denying or rejecting the existence of God and a belief in a divine creation and order for “nature,” that individual’s paradigm must require some other explanation for the beginnings and continuance of a relatively orderly universe that supposedly commenced through chaos.

Followers of Jesus, however, can accept the opening premise from the Bible, “In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1), along with the biblical creation account, and the narratives and teachings that come after it. Do we fully understand everything we read in the Bible, including how God did certain things – and why? No. But that doesn’t delegitimize our beliefs. As the Scriptures point out, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). When the journey takes us where we can’t see, we proceed by using the eyes of faith.

As Lewis observed, faith in Jesus means that we seek to understand the truths of Christianity as they are presented, we experience many of them at work in our lives, and by them we come to see everything else. The Christian faith indeed is a paradigm of sorts. But then, so is belief in any form, so there’s no reason for apology.

When the trials and struggles of life occur, as they inevitably will, we can attempt to fix them on our own. When we can’t, we can descend into frustration, even despair. Or as Lewis said, we can see everything, good and bad, through faith in Christ and what God has revealed about Himself – and us – in the Scriptures.

We can trust in His promise, “‘For I know the plans I have for you’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). And we can embrace another promise the Lord offers just a few chapters later: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).

We may not always know or understand what God is doing, or why He’s doing it. But we can know Him, and that’s enough.