Some recent events have caused me to consider the topic of forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of those things that you can't demand; like love, respect, and honor. I've come up with the idea that being forgiven is not a moment in time. Not a milestone, but a process.
The idea is that if you can be in the process of being forgivable and asking for forgiveness, then the person you offended can be in the process of forgiving you. If you stop the process, then the person you offended can also stop the process.
This allows the person you offended to set a reasonable boundary that prevents you from continuing to offend. Until you start acting forgivable again.
The forgiveness process also involves a sincere, heartfelt, apology. This is critical to the process, because it requires you to acknowledge that you did something wrong. Next, a promise to make every effort to avoid re-offending in the same way is necessary. Then, asking for forgiveness by physically, verbally, making the request completes a part of the process.
Finally, looking at being forgiven as a process, rather than as a moment in time, cuts short the idea that once the person you offended "forgives" you, you are off the hook and the subject will not, or should never, be brought up again. It just doesn't work that way. If you continue to offend in similar ways, then all the previous offenses will be brought to mind and the accumulation of them will be brought to bear.
I see no contradiction with Matthew 18 in this approach. In fact, I see it as very consistent with the slave falling prostrate and begging for patience. That speaks to a heartfelt commitment to a process.
The recent martyrdom of Ethiopian Christians in Libya has some Christians asking themselves, "Would I die for my faith?" Very few of us American Christians will ever have to answer that question with our lives, so the question is hypothetical. And in the comfort of our own homes, it is relatively easy to answer in the affirmative. A more pressing and relevant question for me has been, "Would you be willing to die in order to enter and continue in your Christian faith?" I became a Christian when I was 16 years old. After some initial enthusiasm, I didn't let it bother me too much. I was married at 21 and now I've been married for 37 years. But, under my poor spiritual leadership, I shouldn't have made it past 10, or 15, or 25 years. Fortunately after 25 years, with the "help" that God gave me and a para-church ministry, I was able to save my failing marriage.
What I've come to believe is that the state of my marriage is a near perfect reflection of the state of my relationship to Christ. I must be willing to practice my Belief on the person closest to me; the person I vowed to love and cherish. If I can't or won't, I have little chance of successfully practicing it on others. I will have lost any credibility that I might have beyond my own home.
So, when Paul says, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her," it is not only a teaching about how to love my wife, but how to enter into the Faith. The example of Christ is self-sacrifice. When Jesus told Nicodemus that one "must be born again," and when Paul says that we are to become "a new creature," the implication is that we are to die to our natural selves and be re-born as spiritually alive creatures. If you ask most husbands if they'd give up their lives to save their wife's, they might answer something like, "Sure, if we were in a room and somebody threw a live grenade in there, I'd jump on it to save her life." But, that's never going to happen. What's far more likely is that my wife will want to watch a Jane Austin movie at the same time the big ballgame is on. What then?
I had to come to grips with the fact that my conversion as a 16 year old was incomplete. As heretical as it sounds, I needed to be born-again, again. I had to be willing to bring myself to my own personal firing line. My natural-self had to die. It was an essential part of entering into the Faith. Frankly, I didn't want to die to myself. I have a strong sense of self-preservation. What good will it do for me to die? Who will replace me? I have big plans. I want to be somebody. But, I have since come to believe that it would be very rare to achieve worldly success and spiritual success simultaneously. I looked to Christ as my example.
In a worldly sense, when Pontius Pilate declared
"Ecce homo," he presented a Christ that had been stripped,
scourged, and crowned with thorns. He put on display a thoroughly beaten man
with no prospects other than to be crucified. A dead man walking. But,
in a spiritual sense, he introduced an incredibly powerful man.
One who was willing to die for others. A servant-leader in complete
self-control. I wanted to be like Him.
To continue in my Faith, I must bring myself to my own personal firing line every day. As Paul put it, I'm crucified with Christ. As Jesus put it, I take up my cross daily and follow Him. When my old natural-self dies, I know who I want to replace me: A spiritually re-born man in whom Christ lives. A man who will produce the
fruit of the Spirit. A man who will continue to die to himself every day
and put others' opinions, desires, thoughts, and interests (especially his wife's) before his own.
Our numbers rarely approach 100 when we meet on Sunday mornings at the Community Clubhouse. Almost all of us are over 50 years of age. Many share in common that we've experienced protestant evangelical Christianity in all of its mega-church grandiosity and have opted out.
Our leader prefers to call us a "spiritual community" rather than a "church." He's the son of a prominent pastor with whom he had well documented disagreements, personal and theological. They've come to a peaceful place in their relationship, but our mentor doesn't want to be referred to as a pastor. Even if the shoe fits.
There is no "worship team" performing "contemporary Christian worship music." Our gatherings usually begin with a time of silence. We're reminded that our purpose, as a community, is to experience God. We present ourselves to God and He meets us where we are. "Get in a comfortable position," we're urged. Sometimes we're encouraged to focus on our breathing:
Inhale grace. Exhale judgment.
Inhale peace. Exhale anxiousness.
Inhale love. Exhale fear.
The tone of a brass bowl gong fills the air and we begin our contemplative prayer time with God. Thoughts of the past or the future might come into our minds. We acknowledge them and let them slip away, leaving room to hear from God; to experience Him. If someone were to walk in during the next ten minutes or so, they would find all souls sitting in silence with eyes closed, breathing fully and deeply; at peace. Personally, I have found myself feeling as though I'm floating on a cloud, with the breeze flowing past me; an exhilarating, yet peaceful experience. The gong is struck, giving notice that we are about to come out of our meditation and then again to complete it.
- - -
The spiritual discipline we are practicing is something that may, ironically, slip past many Christians: The practice of seeking God. In our sensory overloaded, confused, and distracted world it seems that many of us have a case of self-inflicted ADHD. We need to move. We're compelled to act, read, sing, pray, volunteer, and teach. But, what we seldom have the spiritual discipline to do is to simply sit in silence, focus, and experience Him whom we claim to love.
The harvest of spiritual discipline is spiritual fruit. When I'm able to tune everything else out and experience God, I feel love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in His presence. They infuse my heart.
When I experience Him from the inside out, I more easily understand my place in the world. I'm much less likely to judge and much more likely to live with my neighbor in an understanding way. Instead of forcing myself to perform Christianity, I am calm in the knowledge that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. If God is in my heart, I'm not anxious about what I'm supposed to say. Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.
The practice of contemplative prayer acknowledges the high value that Scripture places on being slow to speak, being slow to anger, and patience.
I wait for the Lord.
He hears me.
He lends help, strength, and courage.
He gives hope and rest.
He saves me.
Of course, being human, I will fall short. And, that's OK. Then, I must have the spiritual discipline to be reminded that I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be; allowing God to extend His grace towards me. And, begin again to pursue Him by getting closer and experiencing Him more deeply and intimately.
This piece was written as part of The High Calling Writer Network community link-up theme: Spiritual Disciplines