Sunday, November 27, 2011

Because of Jesus... I Am Hopeful

Have you ever had to wait and wait and wait? Can you remember when you were a little child, when it seemed like Christmas morning would never get here? The wait was endless. Or maybe you’ve had to wait for something more recently, like waiting for the doctor to come out to the waiting room to tell you that the surgery was successful… or waiting for a soldier to come home… or waiting for the call that says you’ve got the job.

Then there are other kinds of waits. Is there anyone who doesn’t check to see which checkout lane is shortest? And that doesn’t mean just by numbers – you have to look at how stuffed the carts are.  Same thing with lines at tollbooths or even stop signs. And some of us will drive 40 miles out of our way to avoid a 10 minute traffic jam.

We don’t like to wait.

Why is it that we don’t like to wait? Part of it is that we just aren’t patient by nature, but another part is that we are often fearful about the results. It’s like why men don’t go to the doctor. We’ll be complaining about something that’s bothering us, but when someone asks, “What did your doctor say?” we’ll answer, “I haven’t been to the doctor” and if pressed on why, the answer is often, “What if there’s something really wrong?!” We don’t like getting bad news. And so often we’re not hopeful about what we’re waiting for. The doctor might give us the news we were dreading. We might not get the job. Christmas might never come. We wait, but we don’t hope.

My generation is a generation that detests generalizations, but, in general, we don’t have a lot of hope. We’re the first generation who stands to earn less than our parents. We fully expect Social Security to have run dry by the time we get there. As famous non-Generation-Xer, Tennessee Ernie Ford said, “You load sixteen tons and whadda ya get? Another day older and deeper in debt.”

Even Solomon wrote, I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11). In fact, he repeats the word “meaningless” times in only 8 chapters.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (1:2) He goes on to list pleasure; work, labor and achievement; wisdom; life and death; leadership; dreaming and many words; and money and possessions. They are all meaningless, a chasing after the wind. The saddest thing I can think of is a meaningless life. I know people who wonder why they are still alive; their lives seemed to have lost their meaning, and they have thus lost hope.

We live in a world largely without hope or with misplaced hope. In North Africa and the Middle East, this past year has seen dictatorships toppled… for what? Our culture is full of Occupy this-or-that protests for wealth redistribution. Our president campaigned on “hope” and “change” and struck a nerve. But is that hope real hope? In Ephesians 2:12, the Apostle Paul writes Remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. (Ephesians 2:12)

Paul was onto something – separate from Christ, we are without hope. Psalm 33 says No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. (Psalm 33:16-17) Where have you placed your hope? When I was in Russia, it was my roommate’s birthday, and he celebrated in good Russian style, by getting falling-down drunk. When he had passed out, another Russian friend told me, not to pick on him, because he was just doing what Russians did. They drank, as Michael explained to me, because they have no hope. I’ve found out that this isn’t a Russian thing; it’s a human thing. Apart from Christ, we have no hope. I honestly can’t blame people who don’t have Jesus for their coping mechanisms. What else do they have?

In the Old Testament we read about some dark times, but even when the prophets were prophesying doom and gloom, destruction and exile, they still brought a message of hope, a message of a Messiah coming in the line of David, one who would save his people. But there came a time when even the prophets were silent. Between the Old and New Testaments, the voices of hope were silent.

It is in this situation the angel Gabriel shows up to Mary, announcing that “The Lord is with you.”  (Luke 1:28b) He announces the impending birth of Jesus, revealing that “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:32) A word of hope in a hopeless world.

This is why Christmas is such an important celebration – not because of the load of gifts that will inevitably become next month’s clutter and next year’s Goodwill trip. Not because of the gluttonous Christmas parties. Not because of Santa or reindeer. Not even for the beautiful Nativity scene. But because the baby born is the hope of the world.

Jesus Himself is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations. He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will he will not snuff out, till he leads justice to victory. In his name the nations will put their hope.” (Matthew 12:17-21). In his name the nations will put their hope.

The hymn “My Hope is Built” says it well: My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand. Without Jesus, there is no hope. No other foundation is solid. But because of Jesus, I am hopeful.

Probably the most famous verse in the book of Jeremiah is Jeremiah 29:11: “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 a hope and a future.” Jesus is that hope!

Jesus gives us the hope of living meaningful lives. When we pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we recognize that without Jesus, it is impossible, but with Christ, all things are possible. He has given us everything we need for life and godliness. (2 Peter 1:3) This is why Paul can write to Titus that God’s grace, which has appeared to all, teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and all worldly passions and to live sell-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:12-14)

In the midst of this life, we wait. Advent is all about waiting, especially the wait for Christmas. We await Jesus’ birth, but that’s kind of a strange wait – to wait for something that already happened, especially in the midst of a society that can’t stand to wait. Think about it; how early did the stores start playing Christmas music this year? Even the rush to Christmas consumerism has started earlier; it used to be the day after Thanksgiving, then stores started opening earlier and earlier on Black Friday, and this year more and more stores were open on Thanksgiving, but the online deals started even earlier. So many retailers noticed that people were going online to find out what the deals were, so in order to lure their business in, they would offer deals online… right now. So nobody would have to wait and then have the possibility of shopping somewhere else.

But as Paul wrote to Titus, we wait for Jesus’ return. We wait for him to fulfill his promises in us. We haven’t yet “arrived” and God is still doing a work in us. Even so we wait with hope. We wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Romans 8:23b-24a Though we are not naturally wired to be patient, Paul writes in Romans 8:25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. Part of the joy of Jesus Christ is that not only is he the One for whom we wait, He is also the One who gives us the strength to wait. While Jesus never promised that this life would be easy, he did promise to be with us. Hebrews 10:23 tells us: Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Aren’t you glad our God is faithful? We have all had people fail us; we have all waited and then not gotten positive results or answers, but God is always faithful and He always fulfills his promises.

Indeed, as we know from Isaiah 40:30-31: Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

Waiting is tiring, and it can be easy to get discouraged. The Bible tells us to put our hope in the Lord, that He will be our strength. Some of you have never put your full trust in the Lord. You are putting your hope in all kinds of other things. That is called idolatry, and God detests it. Even as we begin our Advent celebration, I invite you to spend some time turning your burdens over to Jesus, putting your hope in him alone. And He will be the answer you need.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Still Offended

(Note: The thoughts contained in this message and last week's come from The Bait of Satan by John Bevere)

Last week we established that most of us have every reason to be offended. We have suffered every sort of wrong, no matter who we are or what we’ve done (or not done) to deserve this treatment. The worst pain comes when the offense was done by someone close to us, and often, when we’ve been wronged, we begin to build up around ourselves walls for self-preservation. Unfortunately these walls don’t end up protecting us; they end up isolating us and keeping us from growing and maturing. Often God uses those difficult circumstances to shape us into the person He is calling us to become, and when we simply run away from them, we not only miss out on the blessings God has for us, but we are actually sinning against God. This is exactly what Satan wants us to do; pick up the bait he has set out for us and end up trapped in a stronghold. Most of us have experienced those times when our very foundation is shaken; sometimes God himself does the shaking. God shakes for five reasons: To bring something closer to its foundation; to remove what is dead; to harvest what is ripe; to awaken; to unify or mix together so it can no longer be separated.

This shaking will remove all self-confidence and independence. What remains will be God’s sure foundation. There are many people who have come to the altar, said the sinner’s prayer, attended church, studied their Bible, but if they don’t know who Jesus really is, when disappointment occurs, they are offended with God and will have nothing to do with him. “God never did anything for me!” They fall away, offended, because they have no foundation.

Our sure foundation must be Jesus Christ. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.”(Isaiah 28:16) Jesus Christ is our foundation, and as long as that is true, we can build. If our foundation is anything else, it will crumble. The trials and tests we face don’t make us. They locate us. They determine the true condition of our hearts and the trustworthiness of our foundation.

With Jesus Christ as our foundation, we can move from taking Satan’s bait of offense and instead live our Christ’s redemptive mission in our world. Jesus offers us the way: through the radical steps of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Jesus really meant what he said: “If you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.” (Mark 11:26) Do we really want God to forgive us in the manner we have forgiven? Before we jump to forgive others, first ask God’s forgiveness for withholding forgiveness! Peter asked Jesus how many times they should forgive someone who sinned against him – up to seven times? (Just as an aside, he was being generous). Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” He goes on to relate a story about two servants.

The first servant owed his master ten thousand talents, meaning millions of dollars. Because he couldn’t pay his master back, the master ordered that he, his wife and children, and everything they had, be sold to repay the debt. “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”(Matthew 18:26-27)

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii (a few dollars). He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. (Matthew 18:28)

Though the second servant begged, because he could not pay back the debt, the first servant had him thrown in prison. The other servants saw what happened and they reported back to the master. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” (Matthew 18:32-34)

Jesus ends with a zinger: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

Is there any doubt that God calls us to forgive? We know we are supposed to forgive, but did you ever think that the unforgiveness that you hold is sinful? We all have people in our lives who are somewhat easy to forgive, but God calls us to love our enemies. Why? Because this is God’s character, as God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

And the debts others owe to us are in no way comparable to the debt we owe to God. God has forgiven our million dollar debts… how have we responded to the debts that others owe to us?

Did you notice how the parable ends? The unforgiving servant is turned over to be tortured. Honestly, living in unforgiveness is torture itself. People are often unable to receive healing when they won’t release others and forgive them. Many mental issues are tied to bitter unforgiveness. John Bevere asserts that doctors have even linked unforgiveness and bitterness to diseases such as arthritis and cancer. Furthermore, the servant has to pay off the original debt. God the Father will do the same for any believer who does not forgive a brother’s offense. Why would God require this of us? Because when we withhold forgiveness, we are in fact standing in judgment over them. We are playing God. We are saying that Jesus died for my sins, but he’s not sufficient for yours.

You can’t have it both ways!

If you are feeling put on the spot here, please know that this is a message of mercy and warning, not harsh judgment. I’m not trying to cause guilt and shame if you haven’t forgiven someone. I know how hard it is. I have been betrayed, and I know it’s hard.

Satan wants us to sit in judgment over others, withholding forgiveness from them. He reminds us of the pain they caused us. He reminds us of the wrongs they’ve done again and again. When someone has been hurt by someone else, human justice says “They will stand trial for what they’ve done and pay if found guilty.”  God is the Judge, and He will pronounce righteous judgment, repaying everyone according to His righteousness.

So how do we escape the trap of revenge and unforgiveness? First of all, know that it takes effort. Think about it this way: every exercise regimen tells you to check with your doctor before you start. If you have been exercising regularly, you probably won’t get injured. But if your muscles are out of shape, you’re prone to injury. If you aren’t used to reconciliation, it’s going to hurt when you start.

Ask the Holy Spirit to change your heart. You have to start with a willing heart. If your heart isn’t willing to forgive, your responsibility is to allow the Holy Spirit to transform you.

The next step to healing is to recognize and admit that you are hurt. I told you last week about a colleague who betrayed me. I was sure that I was over it, because I had forgiven him, but the truth was, I was still hurt. I allowed my pride to get in the way: I am a pastor. Of course I forgave him. I’m over it! But I wasn’t over it, because I was not where God wanted me to be. God was actually calling me to love this person. Jesus says “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44)

When you have forgiven, God calls you to take it a step deeper, to pray for the person who has hurt you. I didn’t say “if” you have forgiven. If you are a Christian, you must forgive.  But that’s not the last step. It’s only the first step.

In Psalm 35, we see King David dealing with people who are fighting with him. In verses 11-12, ruthless witnesses are accusing him falsely. They repay me evil for good and leave my soul forlorn. But look how David responds: Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother. (Psalm 35:13-14)

This is an amazing scene. David’s enemies are bent on attacking him, yet when they are sick, he is mourning over their illnesses. This is what I learned that my response needed to be regarding my former colleague. So I began praying for him. I’ll admit that my early prayers weren’t all that godly. “Lord, give him what he deserves” wasn’t exactly sackcloth or mourning for my friend or brother. But as I continued to pray, my heart began to change, and I started to actually pray for him. I was finally led to send him a short e-mail, and though you can’t really read the emotion of e-mail, I know he was pleased but shocked to have received what I sent him.

It is hard to get to the place where you actually want to love someone who hurt you, but hard places always come in our journey with the Lord. They are part of His process of perfecting us, and running from them will only hinder our growth. I’ve seen a lot of people in this community who have been hurt and have refused to forgive, let alone love the person who wronged them. This only leads to bitterness and pain. But as we overcome different obstacles, we become stronger and more compassionate, and we also learn obedience to God through the things we suffer. Remember that it isn’t easy. It’s kind of like rowing against the current; I grew up doing a lot of canoeing, and when we first started out, we would paddle upstream and then turn around and return with the current. It is hard to paddle against the current; if you want to get upstream, you have to continuously paddle if you want to progress against the flow of the river. Likewise with loving the unlovely; you will have to continually work at it.

In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus starts out one section by saying, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22) Jesus is serious about how we deal with our anger. He says it can lead to judgment and eventually to Hell.

The other side of this is that if we have caused someone to be angry with us, we are leaving them in danger of hell. Let me pause for a moment and say that it doesn’t matter at this point whether you were in the right or wrong. Which is more important, to prove to the world that you were right, or to restore a stumbling brother or sister? Maybe the person we have offended believes we were injust in our treatment when really we did nothing wrong. Maybe the person has accurate information but has drawn an inaccurate conclusion. You see, we often judge ourselves by our intentions and everyone else by their actions. Or maybe we did sin against the person.

No matter what caused it, this offended person’s understanding is darkened. For whatever reason he feels this way, we must be willing to humble ourselves and apologize. Reconcile even if the offense is not your fault!

I need to interject here that there are times when a physical reconciliation is not a good idea. When the person is abusive, don’t put yourself back into that situation. Also, if it was a former love interest and you’ve both moved on, it might not be a good idea to put yourself back into a situation that might cause temptation. And sometimes the person we offended has died or is somewhere that we can’t get in touch with them. I would suggest in this case to write a letter apologizing, even if you can’t send it. And you can still pray for the person who you can’t get in touch with.

But when you are in touch with someone who is offended, don’t go to them with an attitude of frustration, and don’t go in defending yourself. This won’t promote peace and often only fuels more offense. It’s going to take a lot of humility to keep your mouth shut and let them say what they need to say. Even if you don’t agree, let them know that you respect what they have said. Ask the Holy Spirit to search your attitude and intentions; maybe there is something in there that God needs to work on. Nevertheless, an apology is in order, and not one of those fake, cheap apologies that doesn’t mean anything, the “I’m sorry you were offended” ones. Even if you didn’t meant to hurt them, it’s appropriate to tell them, “I never meant to hurt you, but I obviously did, and I am sorry.”  Sometimes they are accurate, and it takes humility to admit, “You are right. I ask your forgiveness.” Godly wisdom is willing to yield.

What happens when you are the one who has been offended? Matthew 18 gives us the route to take; first go to your brother and show him his fault and if he hears you, you have gained your brother. If he won’t listen, take one or two others with you. If that won’t work, tell it to the church, and if he won’t even listen to the church, treat him as a pagan or tax collector. Remember that this isn’t for condemnation but for reconciliation.

God’s goodness leads us to repent. His love doesn’t leave us condemned to hell. He proved his love by sending Jesus to die for us, to reconcile us to Him. Remember, don’t go to a brother who has offended you until you have decided to forgive him from your heart, no matter how he responds to you. If we keep the love of God as our motivation, we will not fail. Love never fails.

Jesus proclaims: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matthew 5:9) – remember that he doesn’t say “peacekeepers” there - peacekeepers will avoid confrontation at all costs to maintain peace, even at the risk of compromising truth, but the peace he maintains is not true peace. It is touchy and superficial peace that will not last. Peacemakers, on the other hand, will go in love and confront, bringing truth so that the resulting reconciliation will endure.

This is how God behaves with humankind. He is not willing that any should perish, but he will not compromise truth for a relationship. He seeks reconciliation with true commitment, not on superficial terms.

Are you ready to take action?
First: Ask the Holy Spirit to walk with you through your past, bringing before you and people against whom you have held something. Stay quiet before Him as he shows you who they are. Don’t hunt for something that is not there; he will clearly bring them up to where you will not doubt it. Then, as you release the people from blame, picture them individually and forgive individually and personally. Cancel the debt they owe.

Pray this prayer: Father, in the Name of Jesus, I acknowledge that I have sinned against You by not forgiving those who have offended me. I repent of this and ask Your forgiveness.  I also acknowledge my inability to forgive them apart from You. Therefore, from my heart I choose to forgive [insert name]. I bring under the blood of Jesus all that they have done wrong to me. They no longer owe me anything. I remit their sins against me. Heavenly Father, as my Lord Jesus asked You to forgive those who had sinned against Him, I pray that Your forgiveness will come to those who have sinned against me. I ask that You will bless them and lead them into a closer relationship with You. I pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Write the names of the people you have released in a journal and record the date.

You may have to exercise to stay free from offense. Make a commitment to pray for them as you would pray for yourself. If thoughts continue to bombard your mind, cast them down with the Word of God and declare your decision to forgive. When you know your heart is strong and settled, go to them for the purpose of reconciliation for their benefit. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I'm Offended

(Note: The thoughts contained in this message and next week's come from The Bait of Satan by John Bevere)

I grew up watching a lot of action movies. The general plot of every action movie in the mid to late 1980s was the same: bad guys do bad things. The good guy is usually reluctant but eventually is brought into the action, usually after something bad has happened to him, his friends, or his family. He is thus “forced” to come in and get revenge.

There is something that just seems “right” about this kind of story. When we are wronged, we need justice. This is intentional; it is because God wired us this way. God made us in his own image, and our God is a God who requires justice; it is part of his Holy character. So when we desire justice, we are, at some level, reflecting God’s character.

Unfortunately, going all Chuck Norris on someone is not what God had in mind. But the draw of these action movies is clear; most of us have been wronged at some point or another, and we have often been left wanting revenge. In Ecclesiastes 7:15, the teacher writes: In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. Have any of you seen this?

We have all experienced wrongs. We have all been offended. And Satan often uses those offenses as bait to trap us. In his book The Bait of Satan, John Bevere writes about this usually hidden trap, what he calls “one of the most deceptive and insidious kinds of bait” that Satan uses. Because we are wired to require justice, when we don’t see justice in our lives, we tend to pick up the bait, consume it, and allow it to gain root in our hearts, and we become offended. I don’t know anyone who has never been offended. That’s just part of life. But if we remain in the state of offense, we produce negative fruit like hurt, anger, outrage, jealousy, resentment, strife, bitterness, hatred, and envy. The unfortunate thing is many people don’t realize where this comes from or its terrible effects.

In Luke 17:1, Jesus tells his disciples, “Things that cause people to sin are bound to come.” The King James Version renders the phrase “things that cause people to sin” as “offenses.” He says “It is impossible that no offenses will come.” In my short time in ministry, I have seen that played out over and over again. Whether it’s people in ministry leaving the ministry because of how they have been hurt or church members experiencing pain, that seems to be one constant in the church. The worst part is that it is usually fellow Christians who have inflicted the pain. How much more painful is it when the one who hurt you is not some random stranger or even a non-Christian, from whom we expect to receive persecution, but from a fellow brother or sister… In Psalm 55:12-14, King David laments, “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me; then I could bear it. Nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me; then I could hide from him. But it was you, a man my equal, my companion and my acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together, and walked to the house of God in the throng.

Truly, the worst offenses are from those who have been closest to you. “You find the greatest hatred among people who were once close.” I sometimes watch true mystery shows on TV, like 48 Hours Mysteries, and it always seems like the guilty party is the spouse or significant other. Everyone knows the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” but the truth is, if those words come from someone close to you, they hurt worse than any stick or stone. Only those you care about can hurt you, and the more you expect from someone, the greater the potential for hurt.

Although Jesus made it clear that it is impossible to avoid offenses, we are frequently surprised, even shocked, when it happens to us. It can seem like we’re the only one who has been hurt by a fellow believer. That often causes isolation or bitterness, and our response determines our future.

The Greek word (that we translate “offend” in Luke 17) is skandalon. Its literal meaning is the part of the trap that bait was attached to. So when Jesus says that offenses will come, he is talking about laying a trap in someone’s way. Who is laying this trap? This is one of Satan’s most deceptive and tricky snares. In 2 Timothy 2:24-26, Paul writes that A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare (entrapment) of the devil, having been taken captive to do his will.

Satan’s goal is to take us captive to do his will. When we succumb to the offenses that Satan throws in our way, he does exactly that. You might be thinking, “But I have every right to be offended!” You probably do. I have no doubt that you have been wronged. Or you might be thinking, “Well, I’m not offended, and I’m offended that you’re claiming that I am!” It can be hard to see where those bars of captivity are – most of us have blind spots that are hard to navigate ourselves.

John Bevere says that there are two categories into which all offended people fall: those who have been treated unjustly and those who believe they have been treated unjustly. Those in the second category have often drawn their conclusions from inaccurate information or their information is accurate but their conclusion is distorted.

In a former ministry, I was betrayed by a colleague. It was extremely painful, and it took me a long time to even want to forgive him. After I’d forgiven him, if you would mention his name, I would still seethe inside. Then I wondered, “Did I really forgive him?” But I felt like I was justified in holding a grudge against him. I now knew what his character was, and I was the obvious victim. I was mistreated. Therefore I felt justified in telling others all about this guy. Honestly most of it was gossip. But I felt completely justified; after all, I was the injured party!

And don’t we have the right to be offended? Let’s take a look back in the Old Testament, at Joseph. In Genesis 37, Joseph gloated to his brothers about how much his father preferred him to them, and he told them about his dreams in which they were bowing down to him. So they despised him. Because of this, they sold him into slavery. Joseph had every “right” to be offended, didn’t he? No matter what his attitude had been, his brothers had no right to do to him what they did. Many of us have experienced wrongs as well. How many of us say things like
·         It’s my parents’ fault I am so messed up.
·         If it weren’t for that teacher in school, I would have followed my dreams and wouldn’t have ended up stuck where I am now.
·         If it weren’t for my ex, my kids and I wouldn’t have all this financial trouble.
·         If it weren’t for all the gossip in the church, I would still be in ministry…

If you are offended, remember this: there is nobody who can snatch you away from God’s will. No man, woman, child, or even the devil has the power to take God away from you. Only God holds your destiny. In Genesis 37:20, it is clear what Joseph’s brothers’ intentions were. “Let’s kill him, throw his body in a well, and say that a wild animal ate him” isn’t exactly unclear. But when Joseph is finally reunited with his brothers, listen to how he responds: “It was not you who sent me, but God.” (Genesis 45:8) Joseph had every opportunity to get revenge on his brothers for their treatment of him. Many people would have sat in that prison, the whole time growing more and more bitter, waiting, just waiting for revenge. One of my favorite comedians of all time is Bill Cosby. One routine I loved was his skit “Revenge” in which his friend Junior Barnes hit him with a slush ball. He plotted revenge, making the perfect snowball and sticking it in the freezer. When Junior Barnes was least suspecting, Bill went to the freezer to get the snowball… only to find that his mother had thrown it away.

Revenge isn’t sweet. It is bitter. It only sows more seeds of bitterness. Listen to the words from Proverbs 18:19: A brother offended is harder to win than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a castle. When we’ve been offended, a natural response is to construct walls around our hearts to prevent future wounds. We open ourselves only to those who we believe are “on our side” only to find that they are often offended as well. Instead of protecting ourselves, we lock ourselves in prisons. Then our focus turns inward, guarding our rights and personal relationships carefully, our energy consumed with making sure no future injuries occur. The difference between “others focused” and “inward focused” is like the difference between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is living, because it has water running into it and out of it. It receives and gives. The Dead Sea is dead because it only receives. It doesn’t have anywhere for water to run out of it. And when we are inward focused, out of our fear, we do not give, and we become stagnant, and those protective walls become strongholds.

We often hold on to our offense as a means of self-preservation. We’re just protecting ourselves from being hurt again. Building walls does not actually protect us, however, because it simply keeps us from seeing our own flaws. There is always someone outside the walls who can be blamed; it couldn’t be me. Then we never have to face our role in the situation, our immaturity, or our own sins, because all we see is our offender’s fault.

Did you ever think that God might have allowed you to experience this to develop godly character? God doesn’t grow the Fruit of the Spirit in a vacuum; He builds the Fruit in willing soil. God’s plan often causes us to face hurts and attitudes we don’t want to face. Since we don’t want to face them, we run away from the very thing that will bring strength and healing to our lives. Refusing to deal with an offense will not free us from the problem; it will only give us temporary relief. The root of the problem remains untouched.

So we lock ourselves into strongholds and offense grows. In Matthew 24:10, Jesus shows how offense progresses: “Many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another.” It starts with offense, which grows to betrayal, and finally blooms with hatred.

If you are offended and unwilling to forgive, you are sinning. If you refuse to repent of this sin, you are not walking in the truth. You are deceived and living like a hypocrite. The problem is that if we don’t risk being hurt, we cannot give unconditional love, because unconditional love gives others the right to hurt us.

When you sow the love of God, you will reap the love of God, though not always from the field you sowed in or as quickly as you’d like.  This means if the person who you give love to doesn’t return love, you are freed up to love that person even more. “If more Christians recognized this, they wouldn’t give up and become offended. Usually this is not the type of love we walk in. We walk in a selfish love that is easily disappointed when our expectations are not met.” (John Bevere, p. 15 )

I remember shortly after I got here, someone told me, “This place isn’t as perfect as you think it is!” I didn’t think it was perfect, and I’m glad; otherwise there wouldn’t be any room for me, and we wouldn’t need Jesus’ grace. But in this imperfect organization called the church, it’s good to remember that churches are not cafeterias. Many want to pick and choose what they want – to stay as long as there are no problems. In 1 Corinthians 12:18, Paul write: “But in fact God has arranged the parts of the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.

Rather than face the difficulties and maintain hope, some people run to where there appear to be no conflict. When we don’t face our conflicts head-on, we usually leave offended. Some people look for a perfect pastor – keep looking. Jesus is the only perfect pastor (and he saved his harshest words for church people!)

Psalm 92:13 tells us that Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. If you keep transplanting a plant every three weeks, it will die. If someone keeps jumping from ministry to ministry, blaming the leadership or the other people around them, they are blind to their own character flaws and do not realize that God wanted to refine and mature them through the pressure they were under.

There are many of us who have been hurt, and we are just waiting for an apology and admission that the other party was wrong. Waiting for an apology leads us to bondage to human justice. Let’s look for a moment at how Jesus offers forgiveness. Jesus didn’t wait for us to say “I was wrong. Forgive me.” – he forgave us from the cross.

This is the beginning of our healing as well. Jesus likens the condition of our hearts to soil; ground will only produce what is planted in it. If we plant seeds of debt, unforgiveness, and offense, then instead of the love of God, the root of bitterness will spring up. If a root is nurtured – watered, protected, fed, and given attention – it will increase in depth and strength. When I was in elementary and middle school, I took piano lessons. My family couldn’t afford the lessons, so we worked out a deal; my brother and I did yard work for Mrs. Moore. I thought that was going to be simple, but Mrs. Moore had a perfect yard. How did she keep it perfect? By having me and my brother pull up every weed by its root. If you don’t deal with a root quickly, it’s hard to pull up. Likewise with bitterness; the longer you ignore it, the stronger it will become and the harder your heart will become. In Hebrews 12:14-15, we read: Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled.

This is why Paul tells the church in Ephesus: Do not let the sun go down on your anger (Ephesians 4:26b)

How do we get rid of the root of bitterness? Next week we will look more closely at forgiveness and reconciliation, but before we can get there, we have to realize that the only way to get out the root of bitterness is to examine our hearts and open ourselves up to the correction of the Lord, for only His Word can discern the thoughts and intentions of our hearts.

Remember that we have the Holy Spirit within us. We don’t just have a little bit of God; we have all of Him in the Person of the Holy Spirit. But we need to get real with Him. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to transform us, but He won’t do that without our permission. Start by asking Him to reveal to you your part. What can you own? Where have your own character flaws been revealed by your reaction to someone else?

If you are anything like me, you might not want to let go of your hurts. After all, nobody has stepped up to apologize. If that’s where you are, I suggest changing the tone of your prayer. Pray that you will want to want to heal, to let go of hurts, to tear down the strongholds of bitterness and offense.

Next week we will continue on forgiveness and reconciliation.