Forgiveness

Last week, on a friend’s recommendation, Carolyn and I started listening to the podcast “Dirty John.” It’s a six-episode true-crime story, reported and edited by Christopher Goffard of the LA Times. Worth a listen.

Anyway, the fourth episode is called “Forgiveness,” and, as we were listening, I found myself thinking, I don’t think I agree with that understanding of forgiveness. What was being presented as forgiveness (by one person — I won’t name who, so I don’t spoil anything) seemed like a brushing-over, a non-acknowledgment of reality; it seemed more like willful ignorance, choosing to pretend that some very real and important actions weren’t actually real or important.

Eugene Peterson writes (Living the Message, April 28):

The word forgiveness has been watered down by journalistic cant and careless practice. It frequently means no more than, “I’ll let it go this time — I won’t let it bother me — but don’t do it again.” It is the verbal equivalent to a shoulder shrug. So there needs to be repeated return to the New Testament to renovate the word, to discover its vitality, its strength, its power, its versatility; to realize that it is the most creative act anyone can engage in; to know that more new life springs from acts of forgiveness than anything else; and to believe that the parent who is called on to engage in an act of forgiveness is in a literally god-like position.

Another friend recently pointed me to Desmond Tutu’s The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our Worldco-authored with his daughter Mpho. My friend said it was tremendously helpful for his own processing and thought it might be good for me too; he was right.

Tutu begins by stating two simple truths:

there is nothing that cannot be forgiven, and there is no one undeserving of forgiveness. When you can see and understand that we are all bound to one another—whether by birth, by circumstance, or simply by our shared humanity—then you will know this to be true.

When you’ve been hurt, that can be hard to hear. It can be hard to want to forgive. It’s much easier when we’ve been wronged to feel justified, to cling to our grievance, to consider ourselves as having the moral high ground, perhaps even to hold on to our right for revenge. At the end of the introduction, there’s a prayer, which begins:

I want to be willing to forgive
But I dare not ask for the will to forgive
In case you give it to me
And I am not yet ready

Too real. And Tutu doesn’t skip over the very real feelings of those who have been wronged, acknowledging the reality and validity of our experiences, while also drawing us forward:

Know that what was done to you was wrong, unfair, and undeserved. You are right to be outraged. And it is perfectly normal to want to hurt back when you have been hurt. But hurting back rarely satisfies. We think it will, but it doesn’t. … Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.

As Tutu lays it out, the fourfold path of forgiveness and healing is this:

  1. Telling the story: sharing the facts — what happened
  2. Naming the hurt: sharing the feelings behind the facts — what was lost
  3. Granting forgiveness: recognizing our shared humanity — learning to tell a new story
  4. Renewing or releasing the relationship: stepping into a future unfettered by the past
Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (1669).

More often than not, we just do #3, without understanding that each piece is important because forgiveness is not just an act for us as human beings, but rather a process. It takes time to forgive — and not time in the sense that if we wait long enough, we’ll forget about it, but rather time in the sense that we may have to forgive over and over again until we have truly given up any right of revenge, any wish for retribution, any desire for the other’s ill.

With TIME Magazine declaring as their 2017 Person of the Year the Silence Breakers — the women and men who spoke up about sexual harassment and assault — #1 and #2 have broken their way into the public awareness, and that’s important. The journey of forgiveness begins with naming and acknowledging the full extent of what has happened.

But it can’t stop there; if we recognize our shared humanity, that all of us will, at some point (and sometimes the same point), be in a position of being the transgressor and the transgressed against. It is forgiveness that unlocks the cycle of retribution and bitterness, that frees us from our past, and opens the way forward.

For me, learning #4 was the most helpful insight. There can be a sense that forgiveness means we must go back to how things were before, as if nothing ever happened. It was liberating instead to read these two options:

Releasing a relationship is how you free yourself from victimhood and trauma. You can choose to not have someone in your life any longer, but you have released the relationship only when you have truly chosen that path without wishing that person ill. Releasing is refusing to let an experience or a person occupy space in your head or heart any longer. It is releasing not only the relationship but your old story of the relationship.

Renewing a relationship is not restoring a relationship. We do not go back to where we were before the hurt happened and pretend it never happened. We create a new relationship out of our suffering, one that is often stronger for what we have experienced together. Our renewed relationships are often deeper because we have faced the truth, recognized our shared humanity, and now tell a new story of a relationship transformed.

Wherever you may be on your journey of forgiveness, with whatever needs to be addressed — or confessed — and forgiven, I pray you’ll have the strength to keep walking.

Being Single, Part 4: Sex

[Adapted from this past Sunday’s message at The District Church, “Being Single.”]

Statistically, most single adults have had sex. Some of you are in relationships where you’re having sex now; others of you have had sex before—maybe it was good, maybe it was terrible; and some of you really wish you could have sex. My hope today is that, regardless of what has already happened, we can have a biblical understanding of and approach to sex, because what happens next is also pretty important—actually, more important.

It’s an interesting thing being a single 30-year-old pastor in a church full of young, smart, good-looking people, in a city full of young, smart, good-looking people, in a culture that tells you that you need to be young, smart, and good-looking in order to find someone else who’s young, smart, and good-looking so that you can “find God’s match for you” (anyone seen that tagline recently?) and/or just have a little good old harmless fun between the sheets.

Accepting singleness as a gift—living into who God created you to be—doesn’t mean being free from sexual desires and urges; it doesn’t mean you’ll be miraculously free from hormones and chemical reactions in your brain and your body; it doesn’t mean you’ll be rescued from the cultural bombardment that we’re all faced with: on billboards, in ads, on the internet. I know how difficult it is to be hit by wave after wave of messages that say you need to have sex in order to fully enjoy life; that you’re somehow incomplete if you haven’t had sex; or that it’s just another appetite like being hungry or being thirsty—it’s a physical urge that just needs to be satisfied.

I realize this may be a very sensitive topic for some of you, but the perspective that says, What happens in the bedroom is nobody else’s business! doesn’t really work for a people who say, as Christ-followers, “All to Jesus I surrender; I surrender all.”

So here’s what I think the Bible says about sex—and if you disagree, talk to me, email me, dialog with me; let’s keep encouraging each other to find better and fuller and more holistic ways of following Jesus.

First, if Jesus was single and celibate his entire life, for 15-20 years after his hormones started kicking in, for 10-15 years after he was ‘supposed’ to be married and at least have some sort of outlet for his sexual urges, and if Jesus is the most complete, most fulfilled, most content human being that ever lived, then you are not incomplete if you haven’t had sex and you can live life to the full even without having sex.

And before you say, “Well, he was God,” the author of Hebrews reminds us: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

And before you say, “Well, he didn’t have the internet or magazines on which every single cover has the word ‘Sex’ on it, or he didn’t date anyone so of course he wasn’t tempted to have sex,” you don’t need those things to be tempted. As far as I’m aware, you have a mind, you are a sinner, and there is a devil: ergo, you will be tempted. It is not a sin to be tempted; Jesus was tempted! It is a sin to give in to temptation, to entertain those thoughts and play them out and act upon them. Martin Luther is reported to have said that you cannot stop birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.

Second, sex is not just an appetite like any other. This is clear from the way Scripture talks about it: Paul writes, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). In fact, it is for these very reasons that Paul writes, one verse earlier, “Shun sexual immorality! Every other sin which a person commits is outside the body; but the one who commits sexual immorality sins against his or her own body.”

I think God intended sex to be not only a way to procreate and have babies, but more importantly, as one of the most intimate and vulnerable and enjoyable expressions of commitment and trust and love. In the beginning, it says in Genesis, “The man and the woman were naked and unashamed” (2:25). That doesn’t mean they were brazen about it, as is the common attitude today, which says, It’s just sex! What’s the big deal? Rather, it means that they had no fear in revealing all of who they were to one another. And the physical act of sex is symbolic of this closeness, allowing someone to get about as close as a person can get, “becoming one flesh.”

Scientifically speaking, when two people have sex, not only is the chemical dopamine released, which makes you feel good, but also oxytocin, which is the bonding chemical, increasing commitment. That’s why, relationally and emotionally, if you have sex with someone, you’re more likely (and of course there are exceptions) to feel a connection with that person. Relationships in which sex is a part are going to be a lot harder to end if they need to and they’re going to hurt a lot more when they do, and relationships in which sex is the main thing tend to be self-serving rather than self-giving; and we see in the person of Jesus Christ that love is about putting the other’s needs before our own. “We know love by this, that he [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 John 3:16).

As Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Love is an act of the will, where you act lovingly even if you do not always feel loving. We tend to think love is a feeling, but it is not. Love is an action; love is something we do for others” (God Has A Dream, 78).

So sex is not the same as love. Sex is intended to be the most intimate and vulnerable expression of love, meant to be enjoyed in tandem with serving the other person and sacrificing for the other person and putting the other person’s needs before your own. It’s not that sex is bad as a single person and then good for married people. Sex was always intended to be a very good thing; so precious, in fact, that God wanted to protect it within the confines of a covenant relationship, where two people have committed to each other that, no matter what, they will see it through. When things are valuable, we take care of them: most of you treat your iPhones as valuable, even if that shows itself by putting it in a protective case so that it can take some punishment. Similarly with sex, if it is a good thing, if it is one of the best things in life—and I believe that it is—then it should be cared for, it should be protected, it should be enjoyed in the safest environment, that is, a committed covenant relationship.

Jamie the Very Worst Missionary wrote a couple of great blogs on sex (here and here). Here she’s talking about waiting:

… when you wait to have sex, you are creating an important connection between the very powerful urges to do things that feel really good and the ability to control those urges. Otherwise known as self-control. This practice of self-denial and delayed gratification makes you a healthier, more poised, and better moderated person. Ultimately, self-control is a character trait—or *ahem*, fruit of the spirit, for the Christian folk—that will help you be a better long-term partner in your ’til-death-do-we-part relationship.

… we’ve done a really bad job of teaching about sex in the Church. Our approach has been to shame girls for having it, and shame boys for wanting it. And when the smart kids ask, “Why wait?”, we shrug our shoulders like a hillbilly and say, “Because the Bible says.” Then we give the girls a purity ring and we give the boys nothing and we cross our fingers and hope they’ll cross their legs. So dumb.

We’ve made virginity the goal, when it is purity that we should be aiming for; they’re not the same thing. Sexual purity is a lifelong spiritual practice that doesn’t begin or end with a single sex act, just as it doesn’t begin or end on a wedding night. So when we are asked, “Why wait?”, we should have an answer that empowers and prepares people to choose wisely for a lifetime.

So her advice for her kids is to wait and, by waiting, to cultivate self-control and to grow as a healthy, mature human being who’s capable of rising above the animal instincts that tell you that you can’t do anything other than what you feel. She says:

the person you’re with right now … is not the last person you will have those feelings toward, and you need to know what it feels like to not act on those feelings, because a day will come when you will have to exercise self-control for the sake of the relationship you’ve given your life to—and, trust me, you will want to know how to do that. Do not relinquish that power without a fight.

Now, please don’t hear me saying that what married people do in the bedroom doesn’t matter. It’s entirely possible to be selfish with sex as a married person, just as it’s entirely possible to live a life of integrity and wholeness and joy as a single person without sex. And as C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity:

There is no getting away from it; the Christian rule is, ‘Either marriage, with complete faithfulness to your partner, or else total abstinence.’

Ubuntu

Desmond Tutu on ubuntu:

It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up in and inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness; it speaks about compassion. A person with ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are.

(God Has A Dream, 25-26)

Advice from an Archbishop

I’m reading Desmond Tutu’s God Has A Dream, and while his writing is always pertinent, the book and the chapter I happened to read today were so apposite as to be ironic. I have to say, I laughed out loud when I opened it up.

Anyway, here are some gems of wisdom. Enjoy:

In God’s universe, while we are not free to choose whether we suffer, we are free to choose whether it will ennoble us or embitter us. (72)

You have very little control over your feelings. That’s why God didn’t say, “Like your enemy.” It’s very difficult to like your enemy. But to love your enemies is different. Love is an act of the will, where you act lovingly even if you do not always feel loving. We tend to think love is a feeling, but it is not. Love is an action; love is something we do for others. … Our freedom is based on our ability to rise above our feelings and to act based on our will. (78)

Sometimes the best you can do is to say to God or to yourself, I want to love. Sometimes the best you can do is to say, I want to want to love. But when you do, you are much more likely to act in a loving and compassionate way, regardless of what you are feeling. Certainly it is wonderful when our feelings prompt us to act lovingly, but it is not realistic to expect that we will always want to do what we must do. (78-79)

The extraordinary thing is that when you act lovingly you can begin to feel love. … If you act for long enough in a particular way, you begin to feel the feelings that accompany the actions. We don’t always feel like we are all God’s children. (79)

Practicum with Oasis; first thoughts

In case you didn’t know (or didn’t read previous blog entries), I’m interning with Oasis USA this summer, primarily in the area of human trafficking. This week, the rubber hit the road, and we really got rolling. Along with the two other Fuller interns (Brianna and Kelly), I’m working on Oasis’ “Active Communities against Trafficking in the sex industry” (ACT/s) pack. The aim is to pilot it in a community or two in the area, as well as to review it and put forward any suggestions we might have. But the practical application part of that hasn’t quite gotten going yet, and so we’re working on the review side of things, as well as a couple other things. I’ve been working on constructing some sort of bible study and/or church toolkit resource, which is leading me to go over a number of other organizations’ bible study resources as well as my own theological education. I haven’t written a bible study since before I studied theology, and I’m finding a lot of already-existing bible studies like to proof-text! (Which, to be fair, I’m sure I did a fair bit before I knew any better!)

The first thing we did this week was to watch a couple videos on trafficking. I’m a person who has a surprising capacity for unwavering optimism and faith in the basic goodness and decency in human beings. The area of human trafficking poses a serious challenge to that optimism because there are some really bad people out there. Here are situations and circumstances that make me wonder if such people and such things can be redeemed.

But two things tell me that they can. First, Genesis 1, from which we learn that all human beings are made in the image of God—all human beings, including those who make bad decisions and choose not to walk with God. Of course, those who are victims are more in need of people to defend this image, but just as much, we have something to say about the image of God in those who victimize. As easy as it is to demonize them and to portray them as utterly bad—and well they may seem deserving of such framing—it would serve us well to remember that they too are created in the image of God. Our approach to them will undoubtedly be different from our approach to the survivors, just as Jesus’ approach to the Pharisees was very different from his approach to the oppressed and marginalized; but they are no less creatures of God.

Second, the fact that Christ died for all. Which means that he loved the world—not just those who return his love—enough to give his life as a ransom for many. And as his followers, we are called to have his perspective—no one is beyond redemption. Desmond Tutu writes of his experiences in post-apartheid South Africa in his book God Has A Dream:

As we listened to accounts of truly monstrous deeds of torture and cruelty, it would have been easy to dismiss the perpetrators as monsters because their deeds were truly monstrous. But we are reminded that God’s love is not cut off from anyone. However diabolical the act, it does not turn the perpetrator into a demon. When we proclaim that someone is subhuman, we not only remove for them the possibility of change and repentance, we also remove from them moral responsibility.

We cannot condemn anyone to being irredeemable, as Jesus reminded us on the Cross, crucified as he was between two thieves. When one repented, Jesus promised him that he would be in paradise with him on that same day. Even the most notorious sinner and evildoer at the eleventh hour may repent and be forgiven, because our God is preeminently a God of grace. Everything that we are, that we have, is a gift from God. He does not give up on you or on anyone for God loves you now and will always love you. Whether we are good or bad, God’s love is unchanging and unchangeable. (Tutu 2004: 10-11)

This may be the biggest challenge I face during this internship and beyond: to keep God’s perspective in the forefront of what I do, think and say.