Thursday, May 26, 2016

Love is a many splendored thing & forgiveness will get you there

Love is a hot topic throughout scripture and plays a fairly significant role in our daily lives.

We love certain foods, which means we like them a lot. We love to read, which means books are an important part of our life. We love our favorite sports team, unless you don’t care about sports, and then it’s more or less a matter of feigned interest.

All of these loves are essentially choices we make.

When it comes to people, love means something different. It’s still a matter of choice but there is a definitely different quality to it. Plus, loving a person and being loved by a person is far more important that food, sports, and even books. Or at least should be.

When the topic of love surfaces, almost always hate gets a reference. These are seen as opposing forces, one usually canceling out the other. Love is characterized as pretty, sweet, joyful, and, of course, lovely. Hate gets painted as ugly, dark, bitter, and all things nasty. Usually rightly so.

In John 13:34-35, Jesus even declared as a final commandment that we “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” not just because it’s a feel-good thing but because “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Clearly, love is important in the Christian life. But what blocks love and feeds hate?

Anger by any other name is still anger

Some years ago, a counselor explained to me that when we say things like “I’m frustrated” or “I’m annoyed” or “I’m unhappy with...” these are all really just different ways to say, “I’m angry.” That what we’re doing is merely putting a nicer face on our anger.

Why are we prone to whitewash and minimize anger? Usually it’s because we feel anger is a bad thing -- even a sin thing -- while being frustrated, annoyed, irritated, etc. are acceptable. Her point was that what we are really doing is lying about how we feel, and ignoring the root anger that we are expressing as something else.

It took me awhile to buy into this, but she challenged me to think and say “angry” whenever I wanted to think or say something else. So, instead of saying I was frustrated by someone’s procrastination, I said I was angry. Instead of saying that a person’s failure to return my call in a timely manner was disappointing, I said it made me angry. And so on.

It didn’t take long before I began to see her point and to reassess what I was really feeling in these situations.

There’s good anger & there’s bad anger

As most of us have realized by now, anger in and of itself is not necessarily wrong or sinful. There are times when anger can be motivating. But the challenge is not allowing anger to set up in us like concrete. To mix metaphors, when anger hardens in us, soul rot sets in.

Held anger is unhealthy. This point was made in a meme someone recently posted on Facebook. Here’s the first part of the meme:

It says “One minute of anger weakens your immune system for 4-5 hours.” I’m not sure if this specific claim is true, but I do know that, in general, it’s a claim supported by science and experience.

Again, anger is not automatically bad. Stuff happens and we get angry. The key is what happens then. Do we acknowledge it, understand it, find a way to use it, and move on? Or do we hold onto the anger, sitting and simmering in our own stinky mad juices?

Anger held always turns us sour. Anger transformed and released yields world-changing love.

Forgiveness makes all the difference

In his first extended teaching we have on record, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a model prayer that centers on asking for, receiving, and giving to others forgiveness. In fact, forgiveness is so important he adds after the prayer, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 6:14-15, ESV).

In many instances when Jesus healed someone, he would also say to them, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9:2, ESV).

When Peter asked Jesus how many times must we forgive others, suggesting seven times was good, Jesus responded expansively with seventy times seven, and then launched into the parable of the unforgiving servant as an example of the consequences of not forgiving (Matthew 18:21-35). 

Jesus makes it clear that forgiveness is an essential part of living a healthy spiritual life. It’s so essential that when we deny forgiveness to others, it will be withheld from us.

It takes cross to change a village

So here’s my point. What’s more important than love and hate? Forgiveness and anger. Anger leads to and feeds hate. Forgiveness clears away anger and allows love to flourish.

Withholding forgiveness -- no matter how good we think our justification for doing so is -- is sin.

Refusing forgiveness is really worse, in a way, than clinging to unhealthy anger. Why? Because it’s easier to hide and cover up unforgiveness. It’s easier to say, “I’m no longer angry with you,” but a lot harder to say, “I forgive you.”

Our favorite anger verse of Ephesians 4:26 says be angry but don’t sin. It doesn’t say be unforgiving but don’t sin. Why? Because it’s not possible to be sinless while clinging to unforgiveness. Unforgiveness blocks love and feeds unhealthy anger.

In fact, refusing forgiveness and clinging to hate in a specific instance will spread and impact everything. If you’re angry at your co-worker, it’s easier to be angry with your spouse, your children, your friends, your neighbors, your elected officials, your town, your state, your country, the world and all the “weird” strangers it holds.

When you forgive your co-worker, then it’s easier to forgive others, and the world in general doesn’t seem so glum.

Forgiving just feels better. And that leads us to second part of that meme.

It says, “One minute of laughter boosts your immune system for over 24 hours.” Studies that offer the science behind this meme actually measured people’s compassion versus anger.

As with many memes, the message isn’t always perfect. What’s important is that positive, godly thinking and behavior lead to positive, godly outcomes. This is why it’s possible to be angry and not sin. Righteous anger when sifted through biblical thinking transforms into healthy, positive action. It starts with forgiveness.

Frankly, I’m not sure it’s possible to truly love someone you won’t forgive. I’m not sure it’s possible to really love anyone when you harbor anger and unforgiveness toward someone. Why? Because just as a little yeast impacts the whole ball of dough, held anger turns a whole life bitter. A bitter life tends to exhibit all manner of bias, prejudice, discontent, greed, and more.

Here’s one way to illustrate it:

If anger fails to “cross” over to forgiveness, nothing good follows. If, instead, anger does “cross” over to forgiveness, then the story has a better ending. Which way the story goes is our choice.

My prayer is that you and I choose forgiveness, seventy times seven and then some.

Additional resources:

Have there been times in your life when forgiveness felt impossible? How did this impact your attitude and outlook in general? Do you believe that sometimes unforgiveness is justified? If so, please explain. Do you agree or disagree with this post? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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