Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Human Relationships: A Devotional

[The following is a devotional I gave this morning to an ecumenical prayer group that meets twice a week in Cleveland, Tennessee. Rev. Max Morris started this group in 1999.  The total attendance for these services has been well over 100,000. The content of the devotional comes from my "Just a Thought" series on Facebook.]
Human Relationships: Forgiveness and Reconciliation
Jackie David Johns
His Hands Extended: Cleveland, Tennessee
February 26, 2013


Matthew 5:20-26  "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER ' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.'  "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. "Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison.  "Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.

Matthew 6:14-15 For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

1 Corinthians 13:11 – 13:13  When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love. 

This devotional is a collection of thoughts I have been writing on Facebook. This year I will complete forty years of credentialed ministry in the Church of God. I felt prompted to write each day a paragraph about the things I have learned and taught during those forty years. I have been surprised that so many of my thoughts have been on forgiveness and reconciliation. I am not certain what that says about me or my ministry. I have been equally surprised that this line of thoughts receives more responses on Facebook than others. Perhaps it is an indicator of our shared struggles to be faithful to the heavenly calling.

In my experience, forgiving another is often tied to the closeness I have shared with that person. The closer I am the easier it is to overlook the small things, but the more difficult it is to forgive the big transgressions. Intimacy makes daily life much easier and seasons of conflict much more difficult.

It is a fearful thing to place the care of your soul in the hands of another person. And yet that is what each of us longs for in intimate relationships and what each of us is called to in Christian community.

We all know human relationships can either hinder or nurture our relationship with God. This is because human relationships are by design a primary mode for knowing God. The struggle to know and be known by others is but an expression of the struggle to know and be known by God. The Spirit of God is the ever-present giver and sustainer of all life. To know another human is to stand before his or her Creator. God is thus a witness and participant in all relationships. It is for this cause that all sins against others are in fact sins against God. And discord in human relationships is caustic to our relationship with God.

It is by design that the need for intimacy with another human is linked to the need for intimacy with God.  Adam and Eve were created to know each other knowing God. The first couple fell into sin when they agreed to share a knowledge apart from their Creator. And the knowledge they chose to share became the knowledge that divided and destroyed them. In eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they lost their fellowship with God and their harmony with each other. Once marred by sin, the drive to live in deep communion with another became a primary battleground for sin. Ever since that fateful choice, humans have hungered to return to the Garden. That hunger is in truth a craving to return to that condition of knowing and being known in the shame-free, life-giving presence of our Heavenly Father.

This hunger to know and to be known is revealed most clearly in the gaze of our eyes. As we stare deeply into the eyes of another we are not voyeurs merely seeking to see into the soul of that person; we also desire for someone to see our inner self. When we lock our eyes on this person whom we are coming to trust, we enter liminal time and space. Without losing our personal identity we join this other person to create a new, shared reality. We enter into a covenant of co-existence. In that shared existence we freely give ourselves away; we boldly embrace that which was foreign to us, and we become more than we are. Hearts and minds are intertwined with or without physical connection. This psychic union offers the promise of personal fulfillment and the hope of the renewal of the image of God. Before the mouth speaks, the eyes expose the secrets of the heart.

The gaze of our eyes and the love of God are most exquisitely expressed in a holy and unfeigned love for one’s spouse. Properly construed, this love not only binds the husband and wife to one another; it also binds each to God; it serves as an ongoing expression of the worship of our gracious Creator. In the Garden, Adam and Eve knew and loved God as they knew and loved each other. For some, the great challenge in life is to not let love for one’s spouse eclipse that holy love from which it flows. For too many, the connection is never made so in failing to love their spouse they fail to know the love of God. Blessed are those whose love for spouse and love for God are of the same essence. They have already begun to know as they are known.

This is the reason forgiveness and reconciliation are essential to the Christian life. The quest for righteous intimacy is integral to our transformation into the likeness of Christ. Christian love, fellowship, and mutual honor mirror the glory and honor of the image in which we were made. In relationships of love and mutual respect we join with God in the restoration of His image. Brokenness in human relationships signals a fracture in our relationship with God. While marriage is the quintessential expression of knowing as we are known, all relationships must point toward our destiny in which we will stand together face to face with our Savior.

Our reconciliation with Christ and our reconciliation with each other comprise a single event in the divine economy. We will not be forgiven if we do not forgive. In the fellowship of the Spirit, we realize that the altar of self-denial at which we forgive one another and the altar at which we are forgiven of our sins against God are the same altar, the one at which all things are being reconciled to the righteousness of God. Similarly, at that place of reconciliation the voice of God’s pleasure (these are my beloved) and the voice of His call to service (go proclaim the good news) are heard as one voice. Those reconciled to God are reconciled to each other and they share in the ministry of reconciliation (II Corinthians 5:18-21).

Before concluding, it may help to make a couple of observations about that great obstacle to reconciliation – anger.

On one hand, anger is not a sin. It is an emotional response to a person, an event, or a situation. Counselors tell us it is a secondary emotion, one triggered by a primary emotion such as fear, or insecurity, etc.. I suggest that anger can also be grounded in love for others. Further, I suggest it is sometimes the only appropriate response to evil. Holiness draws us into the affections of God; we love as He loves and we hate as He hates. Thus, it may be sin to not have anger toward sin, especially sins of injustice. Our holy response to injustice should be to share in God’s anger toward it. Only, let our response be governed by His mercy and focused on the sin itself, not the sinner.

On the other hand, anger is a lot like wine. In and of itself it is not a sin. But like wine, anger has the potential to rule our lives. Mingled with other weaknesses it excites our brokenness and our inclinations toward sin. It numbs our better judgment and our self-restraint. Even righteous anger must be sobered by love and grace lest it devour our peace and give opportunity for evil in our hearts. To have anger may be an expression of righteousness. To hold on to anger is to hold on to our selfish ambitions instead of clinging to His righteousness.

With these thoughts in mind, I offer a few practical thoughts on forgiving and reconciling with others.

First, forgiveness should not be measured in emotions. We too often condemn ourselves for negative feelings when remembering an offence. The presence of the offender reminds us of the offence and we hurt. Then we feel guilty for hurting and possibly for feeling anger. We should not. Forgiveness is an attitude, a disposition, a dogged determination to treat the offender as if they never did us wrong. It is a firm commitment to act out of our convictions and not our feelings. Forgiveness should be measured in our resolve to bless the person who offended us.

Second, forgiveness must be more than the mental negation of an offense or simply “letting go” of a grievance. Such definitions allow, and even encourage, apathy toward the offender. Apathy is perhaps the greatest of the dehumanizing dispositions and indifference is a form of resentment. Thus, forgiveness requires a positive disposition toward the offender, a commitment to bless.

Third, forgiveness and reconciliation do not require a return to former patterns of relating, nor to old definitions of the relationship. Those patterns and definitions were no doubt built on an illusion of fidelity. They do require an openness to begin again and to build a relationship on truthfulness. Never settle for going back to the way things were. Never be driven to create that which should not be. Just be open to God’s power to make all things new. Seek to build a relationship that pleases God.

Fourth, as stated, the hope of reconciliation should not be the restoration of a relationship to what it once was; such attempts are destined to fail as they are locked within irreconcilable imaginations about the past. The hope should be for the creation of a relationship that should have been. Thus, true reconciliation is aimed at the future, the hope of what might be if both are willing to become.

Fifth, forgiveness is an expression of grace, a deep commitment to bless the one who offended our sense of worth and thereby fractured our delusion of wholeness. The grace of God never “dead-ends” in a receiver. In order for it to have its full effect on us, grace must flow through us to others. To “for-give” is to “for-grace.”

Sixth, forgiveness does not erase the pain of betrayal nor does it guarantee we will ever be fully healed. It is an exercise of faith in others that builds our faith in God. Forgiving others opens our soul to receive gifts from God. The grace that brings emotional healing flows from the same fountain as the grace that works redemption and sanctification. All of the gifts of grace are provisions of the atonement of Christ. Thus, we do not heal ourselves by forgiving others, instead we prepare ourselves to receive healing.

Finally, reconciliation with others requires reconciliation across time. While true reconciliation is aimed at the future, the journey forward should begin with openness about the present, and openness to the present requires sincere effort to hear and honor memories of the past. Those memories are part of our present reality and they too must be redeemed. We will have reconciled not when we fully agree on what happened, but when we each see what happened through the eyes of the other and embrace them as though it happened the way they remember it.

1 comment:

Phil Hoover, Chicago said...

all of my relationships--including my relationship with Christ--are richer, because you and Cheryl have shown me how godly relationships should function. Thank you.