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Easy to Forgive?
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Photo: Mikael Damkier
I have a mental game for you to play today, and it’s going to be easiest for those of you who have had bosses in your work experience—especially one that you didn’t particularly get along with. If you ever went to an Adventist academy, you can probably play this mind game very successfully. There was a story in the sports pages not long ago about a professional baseball player and athletic hero who had personal assistants and flunkies on his payroll, and they often had to endure profane, steroid-laced outbursts from the man who signed their paychecks.

Anyway, here’s the scene. It’s 2:00 a.m.; you’re sound asleep in bed with your spouse. It’s very cozy there; you’re having a beautiful dream about your favorite team winning the World Series or this church bursting at the seams with visitors, with people standing along the sides because the pews are all filled. Wonderful dreams. And all of a sudden the phone rings, and it’s this guy. This boss you do not like. At two in the morning.

And he says: “Uh, Dave . . . did I wake you?” Well, of course he did, but you don’t say that. “What’s going on, Mr. Jones?” And he says to you: “I need a favor. I just landed at the airport twenty minutes ago because of that big storm back east. And I get out here to the curb, and the bus shuttle stopped running because of some tie-up out their way. There’s no buses or van pools for at least three hours, they tell me.”

And you want to say: “Mister, what’s that got to do with me? I punched out nine hours ago; you don’t own me at two in the morning. Abe Lincoln freed the slaves back in 1863.” But you don’t say that. You’re thinking to yourself what a selfish, argumentative, bossy boss this guy is, how he treats people unfairly, how he needlessly hurts people’s feelings, how he lets his cousin have a phantom job at the company, how his wife who never works gets a company car. And now he’s calling you up in the dead of night, interrupting your nice baseball dream. But you don’t say anything, because you know what’s coming next.

And the guy says: “Dave, I’m sorry . . . but can you run down here and pick me up? I’m at Terminal Four. We’ve got that big teleconference at ten this morning, and if I don’t get at least some shut-eye, we’re going to blow that crucial Sacramento account.”

Even as you hear this request/demand, even as a million excuses flood into your mind, even as you toy with saying to the guy: “You know what? Get your wife to drive down there in that stinking fancy company car and pick you up, you blowhard excuse for a boss,” you slowly ease yourself out of bed and begin putting on that pair of pants you dropped on the floor three hours earlier. You’re going to do it. You’ll hate yourself for chickening out; you’ll boil all the way to airport and all the way back; your wife will call you a wimp in the morning. But you’re going to get in your car and drive one hour down to the airport and pick up this clod and take him home so he can go beddy-bye.

Here is the ironic thing. And I’ve pondered this scenario many times. The next day, down at the loading dock where we all work, I’m grousing and feeling sorry for myself with my fellow workers—Bob, Peter, Jose, Elvin, Tony. And I say to them, “You know what? If any of you guys had called me at two in the morning, and said you were really stuck, snowstorm back east, Super Shuttle on the fritz, could I give you a ride home, blah blah blah, I’d do it. No problem.”

And you know, that’s true. If any of you were to call me from the airport at two a.m., I’d be happy to go get you. I wouldn’t mind at all going to pick up anybody from our church family. It’s no problem. It’s the middle of the night; there’s no traffic. The freeway’s a big, moonlight-bathed wide-open four-lane concrete ribbon. I’ve got cheerful music on the car stereo. We both get home by 3:45, I sleep in a couple of hours more than usual, we get back to the factory by ten the next morning and we laugh about it over our coffee.

Now, why don’t I mind going to the airport for friends like these? Because I like these guys. They’re my friends. I have genuine affection for them. Even though a nocturnal airport run isn’t really my favorite thing, my love for my fellow church members makes it an easy task.

But this jerk who’s above me in the flow chart, this boss I don’t like, this person I have a ten-year feud with . . . no, I don’t want to do good things for him. I’m not willing to sacrifice for my enemy.

I think one way or another, we are all familiar with this scenario. We put up with things from our friends that drive us batty and resentful when we get the exact same treatment from the antagonist in our life.

I have good news for all of us today. The Bible describes this very airport scenario. There’s another commuter named Pete—author of two epistles in the back of your Bible—who has this to say. I Peter 4:8: Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Isn’t that true? If you love someone, that covers over their sins. If you love someone, you forgive them for calling in the middle of the night. There’s a stated truth that has run from my parents down to me, and from me down to my own children. It goes like this: “You can call us any time! If you’ve been at a party, and you need a designated driver, call. If you’re pulled over for speeding, call. If you’ve been busted for something, call. If some boy has gotten you in trouble, call.” If they’re away at college, they know that your home is their home, even at two in the morning. That’s the one knock on the door you will never resent. And even if they get a little drunk and land in jail and call you up to go their bail, you put up with it. Why? Because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Many of us can remember teen moments where we had to call our own parents and confess that we had messed up in a royal way. Some of us have gotten ourselves kicked out of Adventist schools. And we make the most incredible discovery: love covered over a multitude of sins. Our parents forgive us; they overlook it; they never mention it again. They live by the principles of this Bible verse. The Message paraphrase puts it this way: Love makes up for practically anything.

Now, the reality is this. There are two kinds of love. One kind is natural-born. In the Bible a confused young man named Jacob was married to two girls at the same time; they were sisters and he only loved one of them. He had to force himself to be nice to Leah and to remember to bring her flowers on her birthday. But with Leah’s little sister, Rachel, that wasn’t a problem. He was head over heels with Rachel; Rachel was the one worth working seven years to get. With Rachel it was honeymoon love.

How many of us can attest to the fact that love covers over practically anything when you’re in Maui for two weeks following your wedding day? During a honeymoon you can find yourself in a hotel that doesn’t meet your expectations, you can go to a restaurant where the food is undercooked and a sporting event where your team loses. Your spouse might come down with a bug and you lock your keys in the car. Despite that, you have one of the happiest two weeks of your life. Love covers over almost anything when it’s natural, free-flowing, kissy love.

In Matthew 5, which is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He points out the obvious truth that there isn’t really credit given for having a forgiving nature on your honeymoon. Everybody does good deeds for their friends; everybody loans money to their friends. Loving your friends is something even the tax collectors do; in fact, most Aprils I wish I had a friend who did work for the IRS. But praying for your friends and doing good deeds for your church pals, going out to dinner with the people you already like, isn’t a true test of our Christian faith. No, what God is looking for here is His people who will allow love—meaning spiritual love, chosen love, disciplined love—to cover over a real and aggravating multitude of sins.

I have sometimes had telephone visits with people whose marriages have gone on the rocks. A husband will confide that he and his mate have just moved into separate quarters. Communication is hard. They don’t see eye to eye. And it strikes me with real pain that what seems so easy and natural for us in some circumstances is painfully impossible at other times and for some other people who may be here in our midst.
   
There may be someone in this place, who is in this sanctuary at this very moment; out of the corner of your eye you can see them. And right now, you do not like that person. The chemistry is volatile and toxic. You don’t openly fight with them, but if an opportunity comes to torpedo them from behind, you do it and you enjoy it. Have you ever watched a conversation drift here and there, and suddenly you thought to yourself, “I may get a chance to say this malignant but delicious thing against the person I don’t like”? There’s the choice: when the train of sinful opportunity comes by, are you going to jump on board, or are you going to do the disciplined thing and wave the devil past you?

In his book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis has a chapter entitled “Forgiveness,” where he writes about the admittedly difficult task of “loving” an enemy. He calls it “this terrible duty.” And here’s what he says: “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war.” Meaning World War II. Meaning Adolph Hitler. Meaning Auschwitz and the concentration camps.

The Los Angeles Times has been running a series recently on our wounded soldiers in Iraq. It’s wonderful news that, today more than ever, those Black Hawk helicopters can swoop down to pick up the wounded, and have these brave soldiers in sterile, state-of-the-art medical units within 60 minutes, or what they call the “golden hour.” If you can be in the operating theater within one hour and stop the exsanguination, they can usually save you. But even now, men’s bodies are still being just chewed up by those enemy IEDs. One doctor came upon a scene of carnage where there was blood an inch deep on the floor and a pile of body parts. And with his stomach twisting around, he had to ask: “Is that one person or two?” But people who go to war, trying to liberate a foreign population, sometimes come home with lifetime disabilities inflicted by those very people . . . and all of a sudden, forgiveness is a real, gritty, bloody business. It’s not poetry and flute music any more.

Even here at home, you may have an enemy who truly is a terrible person. Your own spouse may be an ogre at times. There might be someone here at church who really has treated you unfairly. They may be unlovable. And it’s understandable and even all right that you hate their destructive, hurtful qualities.

However, there’s one Christian sitting here today, one bad, petty, conniving, treacherous beast whom you keep on loving. “Hate the sin, but love the sinner,” we say, and we follow that rule for one person. Any idea who? (And don’t all of you say “our pastor.”)  No, that Christian is you. No matter how bad you may be at times, you keep on loving and forgiving yourself.

But in what spirit do we love and forgive ourselves? Hopefully, we do it in this way. Lewis again: “We ought to hate [cruelty and treachery and cowardice and greed in our enemies] in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is any way possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again.

When Jesus was on the cross, He experienced the scorn of those nail-driving, dice-throwing Roman soldiers, and the Redeemer side of Him wanted to have them restored, made morally right again. He experienced a caring connection with the thief next to Him—and I mean the bad one, the one who died with a curse on his lips.

And sometimes it becomes the arduous, thankless, unglamorous, heroic task of the Christian here at this church to think of this thoughtless supervisor, or the materialistic hypocrite sitting near you, or that brother or cousin who caused a rift in your family . . . and, maybe with fasting and prayer, decide to have “the mind of Christ” about that person. If we can’t have a natural love for them, at least we can have the spiritual kind, the kind forged out of Calvary and the commands of the Bible.

Remember that Peter talked about this kind of love covering over a “multitude of sins.” Well, Calvary forgiveness is sufficient to take away the sins of the world, so clearly God means for it to be enough.

On a practical, day-by-day level, though, what can we specifically do? A man who worked at a small Christian publishing company discovered that the place was internally dysfunctional. The venture ended badly for a number of people. Some lost their jobs; others were methodically maneuvered toward the back door. Finally it became his turn, and it was a fairly bitter experience. For a good while afterwards, he had a big emotional scar, and a get-even mindset. He enjoyed trashing the person involved; he waited daily for the gossip train to come into view, and he jumped on board every chance he could.

One day a Christian friend said to him, “Phil, this thing is gonna kill you if you don’t let it go. If you don’t surrender the entire mess to a higher power.” So he knew he had to, but what was the first step?

First of all, pray. Pray for the person if you can, and pray to the Lord about your feelings. That’s not going to surprise Him, but it helps to articulate your helplessness, your sinful attitudes, your frustration. Do like King David did in the “imprecatory Psalms”; just let it all hang out. We shouldn’t use curse words here at church; but if your prayers have some strong emotional language in them, it’s not going to be anything God hasn’t heard before.

Secondly, fill your life with the basic Christian disciplines. Read your Bible; share even your bruised and damaged faith. Join God’s people each week, even if you feel like a hypocrite. Everyone else here is struggling with it too; I can promise you that. Keep on with the five purposes: worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, mission.

And then: take baby steps. It may not be possible to fully forgive that enemy right at first. That’s all right. Becoming holy is the work of a lifetime. But take a baby step.

This particular man finally said to himself about this particular person who had hurt him: “That’s it. First of all, I’m going to stop talking about him to other people. Number two, the next time I run into him, I’m going to shake his hand and try to act like this catastrophe never happened.”

He did okay with the first thing, but several months went by, and God was kind enough to not let him run into his adversary. One day, as he was in attendance at a camp meeting retreat clear across the country, there was that enemy, big as life. And Jesus gave him the power; he went up to his former fo, said hi, and held out his hand. The surprised opponent shook it . . . and again, God in His mercy, made sure it was a very brief conversation. The man’s former boss was quickly called to another appointment, and our friend went back to his motel room and watched 16 straight hours of “Nick at Night” as his pulse rate returned to normal. Actually, it was a positive, good-feeling moment. It was a baby step, no two ways about that; but it was a step toward having the mind of Christ.

In his book, Crisis of the End Time, Marvin Moore tells how he had seriously wronged somebody way back when he was living in a college dormitory. This is decades ago, and for something like 25 years, that misdeed just sat there. He hadn’t been friends with this person, so for a while the estrangement wasn’t something he even noticed. But as he began to seek a deeper spiritual life with Jesus, that problem began to come back and bite at him. The Holy Spirit seemed to be telling him, “You need to confess that sin and seek reconciliation.”

And at first his reaction was very predictable. No way. Not a chance in the world. “I would rather die than confess that sin.” His exact words. It was almost: “I’d rather go to hell.” It was just an emotional impossibility.

Well, that’s all right. God let him keep making baby steps, keep slowly growing. But bit by bit, the conviction grew. And finally, one day, he felt like he was ready. He sensed that this confession should be a face-to-face thing, not done by e-mail, and he already had to go and see this person about something else. So he got him on the phone, and said, “When I come to see you about such-and-such, there’s something else important I need to discuss. Is that all right?”

The day came, and he had to drive for several hours to make this appointment. And as he got closer and closer to the town where his enemy lived, he found out that he was actually anticipating taking this spiritual step. In a sense, the decision was out of his hands; his new faith mandated this confession, the Bible mandated it, the promptings of God’s Spirit mandated it. And God was clearly planning to give him the power to get this thing done. When he actually did it, it turned out to be a wonderful experience.

Speaking of baby steps, it’s true that so often this discipline of loving enemies requires us to do things we simply do not feel. That doesn’t matter. In terms of both loving God and loving the unlovely people all around us, our directions are basically the same: just go and do it. C. S. Lewis advises: “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor (in terms of feelings); act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.” He further points out that “trying to be like Jesus” will often bring into our minds something we ought to stop doing. Okay, stop. Never mind what your feelings are—stop. Something else you may need to start doing—okay, start. He once wrote: You—husband—probably should stop reading this book and go help your wife do the dishes.” Well, I don’t want to. What does that have to do with anything? Go take a baby step into the kitchen; that might soon lead to more productive steps taking you to happier parts of the house.

And as we’ve been saying in this series, let’s keep before us the grandeur of God’s kingdom. Jesus said once to His disciples in Luke 17, The kingdom of God is within you. It’s here now. You inhabit it already. If you’re My follower, you’re a citizen now. Our nation is currently debating this whole immigration issue, and should we put people on a fast track to citizenship? But Jesus tells us that when we embrace the Christian faith, it’s here now. We begin to live by its principles immediately.

So you and I are already beginning a life of preparation for residence in a land of complete harmony. We’re going to be living there. But so is that other person. So is that person in the next pew over. So is that person on the board who disagrees with you most of the time. God needs to remake us and He’s planning to remake them. And somehow we need to take our petty and not-so-petty resentments, our list of grievances and simply surrender them to the reality of God’s rule in heaven. It’s God’s task to make us ready, to make us fit and holy. Our job is to love each other and to allow that love to cover over a multitude of sins.

I don’t want to undo the strength of this kind of Christian discipline, but I will observe that even in this hard-as-nails theology, bad is still bad. Sin is still sin. And sometimes bad things still do need to be punished. In C. S. Lewis’ essay, he stoutly affirms that wrongdoing still must reap its reward. Rogue nations need to be defeated on the battlefield by Christian soldiers. Criminals sometimes need to be executed, even if they have repented. “We may kill if necessary,” he writes, “but we must not hate and enjoy it. We may punish, if necessary, but we must not enjoy it.”

And when the desire to get revenge, to savor hatred, to anticipate executions, comes along, we just have to kill that desire, he writes. Hit it over the head every time it bobs its head up, day after day, year after year. Boom! Love your enemy. Boom! Love your enemy. Love him. Christ loves him . . . YOU love him.

Paul writes in Ephesians 2 about how Jesus works this out in our lives: He is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.

Let me close by lifting up the possibility that Jesus can actually change our hearts instead of simply enforcing an emotional discipline here. Having the “mind of Christ” might be like watching an exercise video for a while, but let’s remember that Jesus really did love these people. He didn’t have to grit His teeth and force it; His love was real and genuine and spontaneous. And that can be an incredible gift if we allow Him to give it to us.
   
Maybe you remember a little cinematic story going back about a decade. Kathleen Kelley owns a little children’s bookstore in New York City. And she has an enemy named Joe Fox. Big, bad Joe Fox, whose huge discount megastores always put the little neighborhood bookstores out of business.

Her only comfort during this conflicted time is her anonymous Internet friend, NY 152. He’s kind, he’s caring, he understands her, he supports her. Kathleen is always comforted when her laptop informs her, You’ve Got Mail. And when she goes to the mattresses to fight big, bad Joe Fox, he’s there online for her.

Well, you know the story. She doesn’t realize that she has fallen in love with her enemy. And just before Joe Fox makes himself known, he asks her to forgive him for being mean, for putting her out of business. A few scenes later, they meet at Riverside Park. She begins to cry—tears of joy: “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so bad.” He says: “Don’t cry, Shopgirl; don’t cry.” And of course, forgiveness is now easy. She can now forgive because she’s in love. True love covers over a multitude of sins.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. Shall we pray?

Jesus, we’re willing to reconcile and love as a discipline if need be. You went to Calvary despite human fears that drew You away. But we ask You today to give us a miraculous experience of real love, of a unity that flows freely from hearts renewed by Your grace and reborn at the Cross. In Your name we pray, Amen.

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