Five resources for guilt and forgiveness

 

  1. Dealing with guilt
  2. Eight possible reasons we still feel guilty
  3. Guarding cherished resentments
  4. A closer look at forgiveness
  5. Forgive or else!

How people experience guilt and shame

Have you ever heard of the term elentics

Don’t bother with google because you won’t find much about it. Elentics comes from a Greek word translated into the english word “convict” ( ἐλέγχω / elencho). It means to expose, convict or reprove. Jesus used this word in relation to ministry of the Holy Spirit:

“…when he (the Holy Spirit) comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment concerning sin, because they do not believe in me” (John 16:8-9).

I was first introduced to elentics when asked to review a paper titled: The Application of Missionary Elentics to Preaching to Postmoderns by David A. Ridder. Elentics is concerned with how people experience guilt and shame. It’s especially important in relation to evangelism (particularly in a  cross-cultural context) because the gospel is experienced from conviction to conversion. Confession of sin leading to salvation must involve sincere acknowledgement of sin in contrition and conviction.

Elentics (in a theological context) is concerned with how people experience conviction about sin. All who care about reaching others with the goodnews of salvation must care about elentics. Taking this subject seriously will help us avoid the risk of offering a solution to people who do not understand the problem. The good news of salvation is only good because the bad news about our sin is very bad.

Salvation unfolds experientially through a series of experiences which find a connecting point in guilt, shame and conscience. It includes four elements: conviction, confession, contrition and conversion.

All people experience guilt and shame. All people feel conviction based on a moral conscience. This is related to the fact that God made humans in his own image. Although that image has been profoundly marred by sin, it remains an important part of what it means to be human (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). Even those who do not know God and His revealed will experience guilt associated with divine standards of right and wrong.

An example of the universal experience of guilt: Romans 2:14-15

“(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.)”

Conscience always involves a degree of cultural conditioning but it provides connecting points for God’s truth.

“In initial evangelism the missionary should stress sin, guilt, and repentance principally with reference to native conscience – particularly that aspect of their conscience which is in agreement with Scripture…We must preach in such a way that native conscience functions as an independent inner witness to the truth of what is being proclaimed about sinful selves. In this fashion conscience works with the missionary message.”  (Robert J. Priest, 1994. Missionary Elentics: Conscience and Culture. Missiology: An International Review  XXII (3): pp. 309-310)   

Application to Postmodernity

In Toward a Cross-Cultural Definition of Sin, Wayne T. Dye noted that,

“In order to speak to the postmodern conscience effectively, we must do what any good missionary does when initially engaging a new host culture. We must learn how sin is defined for the particular culture (Dye, p.29). This is the fundamental starting point for missionary elentics. As applied to postmoderns, we may safely assume that even those who reject the notion of moral absolutes, especially as revealed in Scripture, still have consciences, experience guilt, and are aware that they don’t measure up to their own sense of right and wrong.  We may safely assume on the basis of Scripture that the Spirit of God is still convicting postmoderns.”

“The missionary should systematically note when and why people feel offended, unfairly treated, or exploited.  What makes them seek revenge? What do they think is fair? What sorts of offenses do they think cause illness or crop failure? From such clues he can learn the ethical system and thus better understand the consciences of those he is trying to reach.”  (Dye, T. Wayne. 1976. Toward a Cross-Cultural Definition of Sin, Missiology: An International Review  IV (1): p.38).

Based on careful research, Ridder’s paper offers insightful contributions about how postmoderns experience guilt and shame. As one who has ministered in a University town for 30 years, I found his conclusions perceptive and helpful. 

Steve Cornell

See also: “Exploring Unbelief: Why do people refuse to believe?”

To young leaders and Christian counselors (pt 2)

Five examples of counseling from real-life cases

I ended my first post to young leaders by emphasizing that Christian counselors have a unique advantage of being holistically honest in dealing with human problems. We know that God has made us physical, social, psychological and spiritual beings. We also recognize important connections between three dimensions of personhood: emotion, intellect and volition (will).

In counseling others, we don’t have to discount any part or dimension of humanity and this protects us from simplistic reductions of behavior to one-dimensional sources and solutions. 

We also know (from Scripture and pervasive empirical evidence) that the most corrupting and alienating force in the world (sin) has affected each dimension of life. As a result, we know that any one of these dimensions can profoundly affect the others and that each one should be considered in resolving the problems of life in a fallen world. The Christian counselor should use the widest lens for understanding human behavior.

Yet my concern in this series of posts is a tendency among young Christian leaders (and some approaches to Christian counseling) to reduce life to the spiritual dimension by applying overly simplistic spiritual formulas to more complicated, multi-dimensional issues.

My personal journey

Most of my early training in counseling fit a model sometimes called behaviorism. This theory tends to reduce people’s problems to behavioral choices. On this view, life is about the human will. People must make better choices. They must choose to obey God. When faced with decisions about right and wrong, they simply must do what is right and best.

My Type A personality fit well with this model. No excuses! No blame games! Get with it and do the right thing! This also seemed to be the only way to sincerely take God at His word. “Why” I asked, “would God command certain things if it wasn’t possible for some people to do them?” It’s all quite simple and straight-forward! Right? 

Not exactly. Through many years of experience, both as a pastor and as a parent (faced with special challenges), I’ve learned that life isn’t always easily reduced to simple formulas. In fact, ironically (as I will later develop), my superficial understanding of the Bible supported my simplistic notions about life were behind my misdirected thinking.

Five Examples:

Allow me to use five counseling cases as examples of this approach. Each case represents issues I’ve repeatedly counseled. I’ll present each problem as described by a counselee and then present the kind of pastoral responses that illustrate the potential dangers of overly simplistic reduction of life issues.

At first glance (for many readers), the pastoral responses might sound appropriate — even faithful to Scripture. But, as I will demonstrate later, the responses (although using applicable Scriptures), risk oversimplification of life by dealing with people as if they were one dimensional.

Please be patient as I develop my concerns. In presenting each counseling case, I am not trying to take away the appropriate use and application of the Bible to life. Instead, I am advocating a more thorough and accurate application of Scripture based on the multidimensional way God created us.

Let’s look at each scenario:

1. The anxious counselee – “Lately I can’t find a way to control my anxiety. Unexpected waves of anxiety come over me for what seems like no reason at all! Sometimes it is so debilitating that I can’t even do the normal things of the day. Fear and worry seem to control my life.”

Pastoral response: “The fact is that you’re feeling the way you do because you’re choosing to feel that way. The solution is to choose to feel differently by obeying God when he says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). If you want to experience His peace, you must follow this formula. Obey God! You must stop trying to be in control of your life. This is a matter of Lordship. Who will be in charge — you or the Lord?” 

What does the old hymn say? “O what peace we often forfeit all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!” Have you been praying faithfully about this? Make sure you’re really trusting God to do what He says because Scripture says, “when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-7). Remember the command and promise in I Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Are you really doing that and trusting Him?

2. The depressed counselee - “I am not sure why I feel so discouraged. I feel like a dark cloud just follows me wherever I go.” Sometimes I find it hard to even do the basic things of life because I feel too depressed.”  

Pastoral response: “You’re feeling the way you do because you’re choosing to feel that way and the solution is to choose to feel differently by obeying God when he says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). God even tells us to “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2).

Counselee: “The thing is, pastor, I know all of those verses and I try really hard to apply them, but the dark cloud won’t go away. Then I just add guilt to my depression for not obeying Scripture. I don’t know what to do.”

Pastoral response: “Are you sure you’re not just using your ‘dark cloud’ as an excuse? Surely God didn’t mean, “Count it all joy unless you have a dark cloud that won’t go away!” You need to search your heart about your motives. You know, ‘the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart’ (Hebrews 4:12).”

3. The confused counselee -Our son just won’t obey us. We discipline him diligently and he just returns to the same behavior. It’s driving us crazy and discouraging him. Someone recommended that he might have ADHD or something. He does seem to have way too much energy. We don’t know what to do.”

Pastoral response: “Remember that Scripture says, ‘Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of discipline will remove it far from him’ (Proverbs 22:15). Our sin nature shows itself in rebellion. You have to deal firmly with rebellion. And watch out for people who blame sin on things like ADHD. We should probably change ADD to BAD. Let’s put responsibility where it belongs. The blame it on the brain psychobabble of the world contradicts the Word of God. Parenting is hard work. You have to keep with it and trust God for the results. You didn’t think it was supposed to be easy did you?”

4. The angry counselee – “Pastor, my husband has a severe anger problem. He can go a week or two without blowing up but then he explodes and sometimes it scares me.” “She’s telling the truth” the husband admits. “Sometimes,” he says, “I am blindsided by my own anger. I want to control it but is seems to take over my life and control me.” 

 Pastoral response: “Well the first step to overcoming sin is admitting you have it in your life. The Bible clearly teaches that, ‘human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires’ (James 1:20). In fact, it says, ‘In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold’ (Ephesians 4:26-27). By letting anger control your life, you’re giving the devil and opportunity to ruin your relationships. You have a choice to make here. Will you listen to your anger or listen to God?”

Counselee: “You’re right, pastor, I know that I just have to tray harder. But to be honest, sometimes, I think there’s something wrong with me at some deeper level. I feel like I can’t get control of my life. I just need to see it as sin and try harder.”

Pastor: “Yes, you do need to name your anger as sin. The Bible says, ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness’ (I John 1:9). It doesn’t say, ‘If we make excuses…’ does it? But it’s not all about you being in control. You must admit that you don’t have the strength and ask God for the strength. The Bible says to ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding’ (Proverbs 3:5). You can’t please God in the strength of your flesh. Only the Holy Spirit can give you the strength you need. When you begin to feel angry pray for strength at that moment to overcome it. God will help you. I’ll pray for you too.”

5. The betrayed counselee -Pastor, when my wife and I met, neither one of us were walking with God. Our relationship was very physical when we were dating. In fact, my wife was very aggressive in this area. But that didn’t last long into marriage. In fact, she seems to have no interest in sex. I almost feel betrayed. It feels like she used sex to get me to marry her, but now that we’re married, she isn’t interested in sex. I’ve told her how I feel but she doesn’t say much. It’s almost like there’s some deeper issue going on in her life.”

“I admit,” the wife responded, “I thought sex was how you got men to be interested in you. But that whole area of life is messed up for me. I really don’t like to talk about it.”

Pastoral response: “When you get married, you have a responsibility to meet each other’s physical needs for affection and fulfillment of sexual desires. Men and women approach sex differently but that can’t be used as an excuse for not meeting each other’s needs. The Bible is very clear about this and attaches a strong warning for those who fail, ‘The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control’ (I Corinthians 7:3-5).”

“Do you want to give Satan an opportunity to tempt your husband? You need to see this as a matter of obedience to God. If your husband is not putting unreasonable demands on you, you need to think about his needs in this area. Scripture says, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others’ (Philippians 2:3-4). Your husband is responsible to love you as Christ loved the Church and you must see to it that you respect your husband. By withholding sex from him, you are disrespecting him and failing to meet your marital obligations according to God’s word.”

Conclusion:

On the surface, the pastoral responses might appear to be appropriate. Certainly all of the Scriptures have some application to the issues. But, in my next post, I will explain why the pastoral responses are potentially superficial, inadequate and possibly even harmful.

Steve Cornell 

See Part 3

 

Why do I still feel guilty?

 

Eight possible reasons-

You were in the wrong and you know it. You’ve sinned. What should you do? Confess your sins to God. Be honest with God. Come clean. Don’t make excuses. Tell God that you know you’re wrong and you need His forgiveness. If you do this, scripture promises, “…if we confess our sins, God will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (see: I John 1:9). But what should you do if you still feel guilty? Why do people struggle with guilt after confessing their sins to God? Why do they have difficultly accepting God’s forgiveness? Let me suggest eight possible reasons:

1. Unfinished business

Sometimes guilt remains because you need to finish things — to complete the circle of confession and make restitution. If a store clerk gives you too much change and you keep it or you speak hurtful words to someone and walk away; if you were dishonest in a business deal, in each case, feelings of guilt are tied to unfinished business. The circle of confession should equal the circle of offense (see: Proverbs 28:13).

2. Inability to bring closure

How do you finish the circle of confession when you’ve lost contact with the one you hurt or he has passed away? This is a common struggle for those who’ve had an abortion. They carry unresolved guilt because of an inability to bring closure. The damage is irreversible. In these cases, we must remind ourselves that the only thing we can change about the past is how we allow it to affect us in the future. If we remain bound to guilt, we’re more likely to multiply pain in the lives of others. Some have found help in writing a letter of apology and reading it to a trusted counselor. When dealing with deeply painful regrets, we often need the assistance of a wise and godly counselor. 

3. Unwillingness to accept forgiv
eness

Many feel too wicked to be forgiven. Others can’t believe in forgiveness because they don’t feel they could forgive someone who did the same thing. Those who nourish an unforgiving spirit toward someone else will have difficulty believing in the possibility of being forgiven (see: Matthew 6:14-15). Remember Jesus extensive promise in Matthew 12:31 “And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” The surest sign you have not committed blasphemy against the Spirit is concern that you may have committed it! Memorize and believe the promise of I John 1:9!

4. Desire to punish ourselves

Some carry guilt as their payment plan for their sin. But the desire to punish ourselves contradicts the fact that Jesus took our punishment for us (II Corinthians 5:21). It is right to make changes in relation to the wrongs we’ve done but these changes should not be viewed as payment for our sins (see: Isaiah 53:6; Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:8-9).

5. Working to deserve fo
rgiveness

Sometimes we feel a need to off-set our sin with good deeds to make ourselves worthy of forgiveness. Sometimes a woman who gets an abortion will devote herself to crisis pregnancy work as a kind of repayment for her choice. Parents also fall into this trap when looking back with regrets. This is a spiritual snare for one who seeks forgiveness and restoration after having an affair. Though forgiven, he feels he has a mortgage that will never be burned. We must not accept performance-based forgiveness. This insults the grace of God by failing to take the sacrificial death of Christ seriously (see: Galatians 2:21).

6. Struggling with “What ifs” and
“If onlys”

Some get trapped in guilt when they struggle over the “what ifs” and “If onlys.” We all have a list of “what ifs?” and “If onlys”.  Some are worse than others but wallowing in them holds us hostage to guilt. This is a choice to live in past regrets and miss the present and future joys of life. It honors God when we do our best to make things right and then move forward in a positive, other-centered direction.

7. Equating forgiveness and r
econciliation

When a relationship has been severely damaged, people will struggle with guilt if they think that forgiving requires immediately restoration to their offender. Unprepared to reconcile, they feel they are also unable to forgive. This leads to guilt—especially for those who know God commands forgiveness. Yet it’s possible to forgive an offender without being reconciled to him. Unlike forgiveness, reconciliation is often a process that requires rebuilding trust.

8. Conseque
ntial reminders

Although God forgives the guilt of our sins, he doesn’t promise to remove the consequences. It’s common to battle feelings of guilt because of consequential reminders. But God will graciously carry us and comfort us through these painful circumstances. Guilt is positive when it corrects us; negative when we never move beyond condemnation to forgiveness. Destructive guilt is past-oriented, based on a refusal to receive forgiveness and move forward in freedom. Constructive guilt, when it leads to confession and forgiveness, is grace-based, future-oriented and other-centered.

Unresolved guilt produces turmoil and misery. Forgiveness brings peace and joy. Scripture says, “…if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2).  To gain freedom from guilt, we must refuse to hold against ourselves the sin God has forgiven.

Steve Cornell 

See: A closer look at Guilt 

For reflection:



A closer look at forgiveness

 

   “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.” 

This is how one person described his bitterness toward those who hurt him. Perhaps you’ve been hurt badly enough to feel like your heart has been poisoned. Perhaps you know someone who is struggling with this kind of painful experience. What do you do with a heart filled with hurt and resentment? 

How can we protect our hearts from the poison?

The answer is forgiveness. But this is where many stumble. They know that they need to forgive but feel stuck in bitterness. It seems so much easier for others to tell them to choose forgiveness than for them to forgive. 

I believe that many people struggle with forgiveness because they do not know what forgiveness involves. If forgiveness means swallowing hard and letting your offender off the hook or just pretending the offense never occurred, it’s not surprising that we find it difficult to forgive. When people talk about forgiving and forgetting, it just feels like an unrealistic impossibility to those who have suffered?

The alternative is more miserable.

But to allow an injury to double into resentment and bitterness only leads to deeper misery. Injured may people feel like their getting emotional revenge through anger and resentment, but these emotions do not heal. They only multiply into more self-inflicted injuries and spread the pain to others. They also give an offender even more control. The injury one experiences in choosing anger and bitterness is not only emotional. These emotions are now being linked to physiological problems. Researchers are connecting the emotions of unforgiveness with high blood pressure, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and other illnesses.

A closer look at forgiveness

One reason people have difficulty with forgiveness is that they assume forgiving and reconciling are the same thing. They fail to understand that forgiveness does not require an offended person to immediately restore a broken relationship no matter how seriously it was damaged. It is possible to forgive an offender without being reconciled to him.  In some cases, especially those involving abuse, it’s the only safe option.

What must be understood is that forgiveness occurs in the context of a person’s relationship with God apart from contact with her offender. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “… whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25). Jesus made forgiveness a non-negotiable part of fellowship with God.  

The choice to forgive is not dependent on the confession and repentance of the one who offended us. Such confession has to do with reconciliation and restoration of relationship. Forgiveness is a matter of worship and is based on God’s forgiveness of our sins. God expects forgiven people to forgive and reminds them that they will never forgive another human in proportion to his forgiveness (see: Matthew 18:23-35).

Forgiveness is one thing; reconciliation another

Reconciliation with an offender is another matter. Restoring a broken relationship is dependent upon an offender’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing. When such an acknowledgment is made, if the relationship has been significantly violated, regaining trust and rebuilding relationship often take time. An offender must demonstrate the sincerity of his confession by his attitudes and actions. If, after deeply betraying the relationship, he resents the need for time and demonstration, it may prove that his confession was not genuine. This kind of response will delay the process of restoration. 

Sometimes an offender will try to manipulate the person he deeply offended by claiming that her hesitancy to “go back to things as normal” indicates her lack of forgiveness. This offender should be informed that he is confusing forgiveness with reconciliation. His manipulation must not be allowed to work. If the healing of a broken relationship is superficial, it will likely lead to another betrayal. The depth and nature of a betrayal along with the response of the offender all effect the process and timing of reconciliation. 

Learning from one man’s story:

A classic example is found in the story of Joseph. Years after his brothers mistreated him and sold him into slavery, Joseph rose to a powerful position of authority in Egypt. From this position, Joseph had opportunity to confront his brothers and they said among themselves, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”

In fear, they came to Joseph and said that their deceased father had requested that Joseph forgive his brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating him so badly. “Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father,” they pleaded (Genesis 50: 17).

When their message came to Joseph, he wept. He told his brothers not to fear and then asked, “Am I in the place of God?” Joseph recognized a truth later summarized in the New Testament, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay, says the Lord”‘ (Romans 12:19).

Joseph also refused to yield ultimate control of his life to his offenders. He said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).

Long before being reunited with his brothers, Joseph settled the matter of forgiveness in the context of his relationship with God. This gave Joseph freedom from the bitterness that poisons the heart and destroys life. Joseph honored God as both final judge and the one in control.

Forgiveness and consequences:

“Forgiveness” as one has written, “does not preclude the enforcement of healthy and natural consequences on the offender.” Some people “view forgiveness as a cheap avoidance of justice, a plastering over of a wrong, a sentimental make believe. If forgiveness is a whitewashing of wrong, then it is itself wrong” (Lewis Smedes ).

Restoring a broken relationship could involve restitution, a period of detachment, and new boundaries for the relationship. This process will take time in cases involving deep and often repeated offenses. But genuine forgiveness (in the context of one’s relationship with the forgiving God) causes the process of reconciliation to be restorative rather than retaliatory.

Practical guidelines for reconciliation

How do you begin reconciliation when you’ve been deeply and perhaps repeatedly hurt by someone? How can you rebuild trust? 

The first and most important step is to confirm the genuineness of the apology or repentance. I realize that changes to deeply ingrained patters do not happen overnight. Yet there are some foundational attitudes that are essential to any hope for change. These attitudes flourish in hearts where God has granted repentance and are demonstrated by the seven signs below.

Seven signs of genuine confession and repentance: (Essential information for co-dependents or enablers)

The offender:

  1. Accepts full responsibility for his/her actions. (Instead of saying, ”Since you think I’ve done something wrong…” or “If I have done anything to offend you…”).
  2. Accepts accountability from others.
  3. Does not continue in the behavior or anything associated with it.
  4. Does not have a defensive attitude about being in the wrong.
  5. Does not have a light attitude toward his or her hurtful behavior.
  6. Does not resent doubts about his/her sincerity- nor the need to demonstrate sincerity. (Especially in cases involving repeated offenses)
  7. Makes restitution wherever necessary.

Use these signs carefully and with prayer. 

In difficult cases (especially ones involving violence), seek the help of a wise counselor. For genuine reconciliation to occur, you must be as certain as you can of your offender’s repentance—especially in cases involving repeated offenses. It is hard to truly restore a broken relationship when the offender is unclear about his confession and repentance.  

Remember that even God will not grant forgiveness to one who is insincere about his confession and repentance. The person who is unwilling to forsake his sin will not find forgiveness with God (Proverbs 28:13).

Of course, only God can read hearts– we must evaluate actions. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16a). But we must not allow superficial appearances of repentance to control our responses. Displays of tears or “appearing” to be sorry must not be substitutes for clear changes in attitude and behavior.

Understanding that reconciliation is often a process distinct from forgiveness helps people to forgive and frees them from a bitter heart.

Steve Cornell
senior pastor
Millersville Bible Church
Millersville, Pennsylvania

see: Forgiveness is one thing; Reconciliation is another:



Understanding legalism

What is legalism? How can we know if someone is being legalistic? Answering these questions requires an understanding of how Christian standards are formed.

Three categories for Christian standards

  1. Things clearly commanded in Scripture
  2. Things clearly forbidden in Scripture
  3. Things permitted (left to free and responsible judgment to the best of our knowledge and conscience).

Categories 1 and 2 (things commanded and forbidden),

These are areas where Scripture offers specific requirements dealing with both actions and attitudes. Christians, for example, do not need to debate the morality of murder, adultery, sexual immorality, greed, outbursts of anger, slander, showing partiality and drunkenness. We can be very clear in many areas of moral decision making. Attitudes like jealousy, bitterness, envy, arrogance, and unforgiveness are clearly forbidden.

Other matters are not as clearly defined. While we can confidently conclude that we are rejecting God’s authority in one of the actions or attitudes just mentioned, we cannot as easily determine right from wrong on matters less clearly defined by Scripture.

Legalism is involved when people demand from others standards beyond the specific requirements of Scripture (with the exception of house rules which I will discuss later). Christians must not endorse rules and measurements for godliness beyond explicit Scriptural demands.

The Church has always been threatened by legalism. The apostle Paul warned believers about it when he wrote, “let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day — things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

Before moving to Category 3

We must confess that we have not always done as well as we should in obeying the clear instruction of Scripture. Consider, as an example, the works of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:19-21.

“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality,impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

The apostle listed four categories of sinful behavior. At the end of the text he declared that “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  

Three of the categories deal with sexual sins, sins of worship (idolatry and witchcraft), and sins of excess (drunkenness). But the largest category is relational sins (hatred, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envying).

What’s the point?

Christians renounce the sexual, worship, and excess sins with loud protest but to often allow an open door for the relational sins.  I suspect that many churches would experience a much needed revival if they opposed the relational sins as vigorously as the others.

The difficult category (3)

Moving to less clearly defined matters, the primary area of debate among Christians is the third category: “things permitted, or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge and conscience.”

When a person establishes a conviction in the third category (which we are at liberty and often responsible to do), the problem arises when the person treats his position as something clearly commanded or clearly forbidden—belonging to categories one or two.

When she does this (and crusades for the issue) she risks violating the clear command to maintain unity in the church. She fails to show deference to other believers (Rom. 12:10;14:3; Eph. 4:1-3).

Scripture does not always demand uniformity of opinion among Christians, but it always demands unity of disposition (see: 1 Peter 3:8; Eph. 4:1-3). Although we will come to different conclusions in category three, we are always required to maintain unity of disposition out of mutual respect for one another.  I realize that this is the point of great challenge.  

It’s understandable when Christians divide over things clearly forbidden or clearly commanded. But in areas of freedom we are responsible to relate together in respectful deference to one another.

Final thought

When we treat our personal convictions as absolutes from God, we threaten the unity of the church. When we reduce God’s clearly stated absolutes to matters of personal preference, we threaten the purity of the church.

Stated differently, when we elevate something from category 3 and treat it as belonging to categories 1 or 2 issue, we sin against Christian unity; when we demote issues that belong to category 1 and treat them as category 3 issues, we sin against the purity of the Church.

Steve Cornell

See: Understanding legalism (part 2)

Inception: A movie review

Here’s a great line from a review of the movie Inception:

“Bereft of any authentic mechanism outside himself to deal with his guilt at Mal’s suicide, and with only an unreal projection of her to talk to, he is left to try and forgive his own sin himself—by going deep into his own psyche and simply writing it off.
The snag is that real forgiveness of real guilt demands that a real price be paid. Real wrongdoing demands real redressing; the stain stubbornly persists. (from: Barry Cooper, Inception: Sweet Little Lies, http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2010/08/05/inception-sweet-little-lies/)

The need for forgiveness is universal; the language of guilt and shame, univocal. “The gospel must be proclaimed to all nations” (Mark 13:10). as Cooper concludes,

“Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness,” as the writer of Hebrews puts it. Fake blood, however realistic, simply will not do. However, Jesus Christ’s death is real enough, and deep enough, to fully deal with the problem of guilt and shame. More than the mere inception of an idea, played out on a shallow screen, it is actual flesh and blood reality, lived out in history. Unlike the attempted resolution of Inception, Jesus’ death refuses to downplay or explain away the gravity of our sin. And only Jesus’ death and resurrection is able to offer the deep forgiveness and reconciliation that the film poignantly reaches for. In Christ, God’s love for his children overcomes all obstacles—all the guilt, all the shame—so that he can be finally reunited with them. In reality.

Can a film as masterfully made as Inception, a beautifully constructed dream, offer real forgiveness to guilt-haunted, shame-scarred souls? Well, in a world without a cross, it’s about the best we’ve got.

Grudge-bearers have a worship deficit

Abandoned Prison 11.27.2005

  • Do you keep a grudge account?
  • Do you collect grievances and offenses?
  • Do you have any cherished resentments?

If you answer affirmatively to these questions, please recognize that you have a problem that reaches far beyond those who offended or hurt you. You have a problem with God and it has become a worship deficit in your life.

Have you ever thought of forgiveness as an act of worship?

What you’re about to read could radically change the way you understand forgiveness. I am suggesting that  forgiveness is first and foremost a matter between you and God, not you and your offender. Jesus linked forgiveness with worship when he said, “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:25).

Empty your grudge account

When Jesus referred to holding things against others, he hit the root cause behind most personal and societal problems. It’s the tendency to bear grudges. Many people go through life collecting grievances (perceived or actual) and store them in their memory bank — specifically in their grudge account. Rather than forgive their offenders, many choose to nurse their anger; to sludge in their grudge; to lick their wounds. Some enjoy commiserating with others in their grievances by swapping grudge stories. They might even throw pity parties for those who seek solidarity in the right to be angry and unforgiving.

Those who continually collect perceived rather than actual grievances are in a different category. Such people are usually narcissistic and pathologically paranoid. Narcissistic, because they think people think about them more than people do; pathologically paranoid, because they think people are continually against them. People who live like this are self-destructively self-absorbed. They must come to even deeper levels of repentance by embracing Jesus’ call to self-denial.

“Forgive him?!” “Not after what he did to me!”

Jesus’ words “Forgive him” are hard for some to hear. I recall more than once, people responding, “Forgive him?!” “Not after what he did to me!” Does Jesus ask us to become morally neutral about wrongful behavior? Is he asking us to pretend nothing happened and let our offender off the hook? One thing is clear from Jesus’ words, whatever else forgiveness involves, it is the opposite of “holding something against” someone. Forgiveness requires an act of “letting go” or “releasing”— a refusal to “hold against”.

Yet this act is not a superficial effort to erase the action of the one who did wrong. Letting go of an offense does not require a morally neutral position about right and wrong. We are not required to let the offense go into some imaginary zone of forgetfulness. Instead, forgiving is an act of worship. It takes place in the presence of the God who is the righteous judge of all the earth. Forgiveness is an act of releasing the offense to the God who said, “Do not take revenge, …but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

When sinned against, it’s easy to only see the horizontal significance of what occurred. “This is about me and the one who hurt me!” we might argue. But for those who worship God, forgiveness is an act of worship that this is primarily about God and secondarily about them. The rest of Mark 11:25 reminds us that our grievances must be drawn into our relationship with God: “…if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Do we earn God’s forgiveness?

Jesus placed the act of forgiving others in the context of God forgiving our sins. It’s not that we earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving others, but that God expects forgiven people to forgive. When forgiven people don’t forgive, God is not worshipped— He is dishonored (See: Matthew 18:21-35).

This is where worship connects with forgiveness. When we forgive, we “let go of” instead of “holding on to” or “against”. It is an act of releasing to God the actions and consequences of the wrong done to us. God holds the sole prerogative of vengeance (Romans 12:19). If the one who hurts us is to be punished, it is God’s right to punish him. When sinned against, turn to God and worship Him by acknowledging His authority as judge. Acknowledge your acceptance that any judgment of the one who committed evil against you is his right.

When forgiveness enters worship in this way, we are not surrendering or neutralizing our sense of morality. This is not a cheap letting off the hook of the one who hurt us. It’s not a mental exercise in forgetting or trivializing the evil. It’s an act of worship. On this view, forgiveness is not solely about me – what happened to me and who did it. It’s about God—who He is and His authority as Judge.

Worshipping God, not using Him

Forgiveness is an act of releasing to God what rightly belongs to him. Since God is the Judge of all the earth who will do what is right, releasing to God places the offence in the purest context of judgment. Forgiving is releasing the grievance and the offender to God’s all-knowing perspective and to the perfect balanced of justice and mercy. This honors God by placing matters into His hands and His timing. This must not be corrupted into a “God will get you” mentality. Worship is not an effort to use God; it’s an act of humbling yourself before Him.

When forgiveness becomes worship, the offended person humbles herself before God honoring and confessing Him as judge and trusting Him to uphold His judgment as He chooses and in His time. In this act of “letting go” or “releasing to God,” the one who forgives is also released and empowered to live out the radical prescription of Romans 12:20-21: “On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. …. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Punishment of wrongdoers

Please don’t leave this subject with the final words from Romans 12. The connection with Romans 13 is important in any discussion of forgiveness. According to Romans 13:1-4, sometimes God executes His wrath (compare 12:19) and punishment of wrongdoers through the agency of human government (see esp. Romans 13:4). This strengthens the point that forgiveness is not a matter of moral neutrality.

When the one who wrongs you receives punishment from a God-ordained authority, it’s right to support and honor the role of government in punishing wrongdoers (see: I Peter 2:13). We honor this role of authority for the glory of God and the good of society. Yet endorsement of just punishment must never be sought as a means for vindictive and vengeful intention. If tempted toward this, seek release in worship based on Romans 12:18-21.

When we’ve been wronged and the punishment of the wrong-doer becomes a matter for human government, we cannot sincerely support such punishment with the right spirit until we prayerfully apply the teaching of Romans 12:18-21.

In summary, this is an invitation for those who bear grudges to worship God as the only rightful judge of evil. Turn your grudge over to the Judge! Recite His deep moral opposition to the evil committed against you and surrender every desire for revenge to His prerogative in punishing evil (Romans 12:19). If God chooses to (or involves you in) mediating His judgment through ordained human authority, honor and support those authorities for fulfilling their divine role (see: Romans 13:1-4), but check your heart against seeking any satisfaction of personal revenge. The connection between Romans 12 and 13 offers the important reminder that forgiveness does not require a surrender of our sense of right and wrong.

We need the grace of God to apply these truths with sincerity and humility.

“God, please help us when we hurt. You have forgiven our sins and each day we remind ourselves that you have not dealt with us as our sins deserve. We release our grudge to the Judge and trust you with the outcome.

Steve Cornell

Freedom From a Bitter Heart

 

“If you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”

This is how one person described his bitterness toward those who hurt him. Some people double their injury when hurt by others. They refuse to let go of their anger and resentment. And their increased injury is not only emotional. Anger, resentment and bitterness are now being linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular disorders, high blood pressure, hypertension, and psychosomatic conditions. Researchers have also concluded that the act of forgiveness is related to emotional and physical healing.

But sometimes forgiveness is hard to offer. Perhaps you’ve been hurt badly enough to poison your heart. Does it sound unrealistic when people talk about forgiving and forgetting? If forgiveness means swallowing hard and letting your offender off the hook or pretending the offense never occurred, who would choose to forgive?

One reason people have difficulty with forgiveness is that they assume forgiving and reconciling are the same thing. But forgiveness does not always require an offended person to immediately restore a broken relationship no matter how seriously it was damaged. It is possible (and often the only safe option in abusive relationships) to forgive an offender without being reconciled to him.

Forgiveness occurs in the context of a person’s relationship with God apart from contact with her offender. This is what Jesus meant when he said, “… whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your transgressions” (Mark 11:25). The point is that forgiveness is one thing; reconciliation another.

A classic example is found in the story of Joseph. Years after his brothers mistreated him and sold him into slavery, Joseph had risen to a powerful position in Egypt. From his position, Joseph had opportunity to confront his brothers and they said among themselves, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” In fear, they came to Joseph and said that their deceased father had requested that Joseph forgive his brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating him so badly. “Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father,” they pleaded (Genesis 50: 17).

When their message came to Joseph, he wept. He told his brothers not to fear and then asked, “Am I in the place of God?” Joseph recognized a truth later summarized in the New Testament, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge, I will repay, says the Lord”‘ (Romans 12:19). Joseph also refused to yield ultimate control of his life to his offenders. He said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph had settled the matter of forgiveness in the context of his relationship with God long before being reunited with his brothers. This gave Joseph freedom from the bitterness that poisons the heart and destroys life. Joseph honored God as both final judge and the one in control.

Forgiveness is not contingent on the confession and repentance of an offender. It is based on God’s forgiveness of our sins. God expects forgiven people to forgive and reminds us that we will never forgive another human in proportion to divine forgiveness (see: Matthew 18:23-35). But reconciliation with an offender is another matter.

Restoring a broken relationship is dependent upon an offender’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing. When such an acknowledgment is made, if the relationship has been significantly violated, regaining trust and rebuilding relationship often takes time. An offender must demonstrate the sincerity of his confession by his attitudes and actions. If he resents the need for time and demonstration, it may prove that his confession was not genuine. Sometimes an offender will try to manipulate the person he offended by claiming that her hesitancy to quickly “go back to things as normal” indicates a lack of forgiveness. This offender should be informed that he is confusing forgiveness with reconciliation.

“Forgiveness” as one has written, “does not preclude the enforcement of healthy and natural consequences on the offender.” Some people “view forgiveness as a cheap avoidance of justice, a plastering over of a wrong, a sentimental make believe. If forgiveness is a whitewashing of wrong, then it is itself wrong” (Lewis Smedes). Restoring a broken relationship might involve such things as restitution, a period of detachment, and new boundaries for the relationship. Forgiveness allows the process of reconciliation to be restorative rather than retaliatory. But understanding it as a process distinct from forgiveness helps people forgive and frees them from a bitter heart.

Steve Cornell
senior pastor
Millersville Bible Church
58 West Frederick Street
Millersville, PA 17551