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Posts Tagged ‘bitterness’


Sometimes you come across a book that looks like it will address the big questions you’ve been churning over in your mind. When you read it you are disappointed because it barely addresses those questions. This can happen more frequently in the time of internet shopping. But it is quite frustrating as you invest time in a book that doesn’t scratch the itch you have.

Unpacking Forgiveness: Biblical Answers for Complex Questions and Deep Wounds is one of those books for me. Based on the subtitle I thought it would focus on the profound ways we have been sinned against. Indeed, Chris Brauns does include a number of stories about such profound sins. But I found a disconnect between those stories and the content he presented. So while there was some good material here, it didn’t really help me in the issues I was looking for help personally and professionally.

In his introduction he claims to address “where I’m coming from”. This is not so much about his presuppositions (more in a moment) but the questions he will address, such as: should we forgive God, does God forgive everyone, and should we forgive everyone?

He does lay out one presupposition: “only God’s Word can unpack forgiveness”. He then says “unpacking forgiveness is like relocating a family.” Unpacking takes a lot longer than the actual event of moving. He mentions that 2 years after a move, his family was still unpacking. This is what I was hoping he’d address but really didn’t as I’d hoped. And some of what he said hindered this process, at least as I understand it.

I was struck at the two main presuppositions he didn’t address which shape so much about forgiveness. He never defined his understanding of sin. He assumes we all know. He doesn’t use this term often, preferring the terms derived from the verb “to offend”. While sin rightfully offends, we often use that term (which he doesn’t define either) in many ways no connected to sin. It often has psychological (for lack of a better term) uses, and he generally distances himself from other psychological concepts. This focus on “offense” is a more subjective understanding of sin, not an largely objective one. For instance he says “we have all offended his standard” (pp. 45) with regard to Romans 3:23 (I assume since he doesn’t note it). This is a great time to clarify that “sin is any want of conformity unto or transgression of the law of God.” Look, was that difficult? No. But he assumes the reader has a definition of sin, and that it is the same as his unexpressed one.

The other big presupposition was the nature and extent of the atonement. He quotes a few Calvinistic and Reformed guys (he mentions Piper frequently), but how he speaks about forgiveness points to a general atonement in which salvation is possible but not actually procured. I could be wrong about what he actually believes, which is the point: he doesn’t actually express it. (To be fair, he defines ‘propitiation’ on pp. 46.)

Granted, you can’t say everything about everything when you write a book, but these seem to be significant issues that affect much of what you say on this topic. I’m not “heresy hunting” but noticing large gaps in his reasoning.

At times his vagueness affects how he interacts with Scripture. I have notes written in the margins at times questioning how he understands particular texts.

He interacts with Lewis Smedes on the topic of “mandatory forgiveness”, representing a less than biblical view of forgiveness. But he doesn’t interact with anyone else on significant issues. I would have liked him to interact with Dan Allender’s material in Bold Love, as an example. His work regarding forgiveness is different than Brauns’ (and Smedes’). Such interaction would have helped clarify a few things in his book that I still have questions about regarding his perspective.

The main premise of the book is that “we forgive as God forgave us.” He doesn’t simply take this as forgive because we’ve been forgiven, or even in a similar way, but rather “in the same way.” He rightfully notes the graciousness of God’s forgiveness, and the costliness to God in the atonement of Christ. He properly notes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us in justification. He notes the connection of forgiveness with reconciliation (they are not identical). He also notes that forgiveness does not remove all earthly consequences which in Christ have been transformed from punishment to training in righteousness. But I struggle with his definition of forgiveness.

“God’s forgiveness: a commitment by the one true God to pardon graciously those who repent and believe so that they are reconciled to him, although this commitment does not eliminate all consequences.”

So, for you to forgive is a similar commitment to those who repent.

Take a moment though to insert that definition into a passage in the place of forgiveness. Passages like these:

76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    in the forgiveness of their sins,Luke 1

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. Acts 5

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, …. Ephesians 1 cf. Colossians 1:14

In this way, he goes beyond the simple meaning or use of the term forgiveness (which he mentions) as release from a debt to this more complex idea. We therefore offer people forgiveness, but they must repent in order for us to actually forgive them. We have an “attitude” of forgiveness toward them.

So, while he therefore says we don’t need to “forgive” everyone. He never gets to what I think is a core issue based on the doctrine of sin. I don’t forgive people unless they sin, thereby incurring a debt, against me. I can’t forgive Timothy McVeigh, whom he mentions, for instance because he didn’t sin against me except in the most vague way since I’m an American. I can feel outrage, but that is the problem: I’m carrying an indirect burden since he didn’t take anything away from me. His treatment of this issue, in my opinion, is quite superficial and unhelpful.

Let’s apply this to an unknown rapist whose repentance a victim may never know about. She has an attitude of forgiveness, and a “gift” she doesn’t know where to send. This is where it breaks down for me. Theology is all about distinctions, and there are a number of big ones he doesn’t make. The “gift” makes sense in understanding my personal relationships. But not in these profound sins in which there is no personal relationship (for instance with an uncle who physically abuses the victim).

Another important distinction that is never spelled out (or I missed it if he did) was that just because I forgive someone doesn’t mean God does. He seems to imply it does at points in his argument against automatic or mandatory forgiveness. Not only may their be state sanctions (though he has conflicting statements on this too), their may be divine sanctions that remain. Let me illustrate: there is a family member who sinned against me profoundly (it was not a crime so there would be no legal sanctions), in a way that still haunts me to this day. There person can’t really face it, or understand it. For an extended period of time I was very angry with them. Despite their lack of repentance I forgave them. I didn’t just have an attitude of forgiveness, but forgave their debt to me. I am reconciled with them despite this sin and their lack of repentance. This doesn’t mean God forgave them or is reconciled with them (by all appearances He has not).

He missed another important distinction in his chapter about when you can’t stop thinking about it. Why are you thinking about it? Is the source Satan to continually put up walls between you, to get you to be bitter or feel false condemnation, shame etc.? Or is the source God to help you deepen your forgiveness of the other person? This, in my opinion, matters. But he never mentions the latter possibility.

What I mean is this (which I hoped the book would be about or address): at times we come to a deeper understanding of the debt incurred. Something we thought was a $50 debt is really a $1,000 debt. For instance, I minimized that debt a family member incurred. I needed to face what I really needed to forgive. Ultimately God intended that process for good, even as Satan intended it for evil (to trap me in bitterness). THIS is real pastoral theology, not the superficial approach he presented that we shouldn’t think about it if we’ve forgiven. But what have we forgiven? Have we forgiven the debt as much as we can understand it?

A question he doesn’t really answer is that though forgiveness is often the basis of reconciliation, must I reconcile with someone because I have forgiven them? A rape or abuse victim should forgive the person who sinned against them. Perhaps the person has even repented. Must you be reconciled to them? Have them over for dinner? Leave your kids with them? No. Forgiveness does not mean that the person is suddenly trustworthy, or that you trust them with your life. It just means you no longer want your pound of flesh, for the debt to be repaid. It doesn’t mean you have to loan out more money.

There was also somewhat of an internal conflict in the book. He thinks we should only forgive if the other person repents. That was not the intention of Jesus’ answer to the question. It was not what must they do for me to forgive them, but if they repent must I forgive them. Very different question, and to distort that distorts the answer. As long as someone repents, I must forgive them. But it doesn’t mean I must wait until they repent to forgive, which is what Brauns says at points.

Later in the book he notes we can overlook an offense. But they didn’t repent. Unlike Ken Sande, whom he references at times, there is no real process for sorting out when I should just overlook an offense or sin. Some even Braun, despite his previous statements, means they don’t have to repent for you to forgive them.

This book does present some good material that may be helpful to a number of people. He is closer to the biblical understanding of forgiveness than Smedes is. But there are some holes in the foundation, gaps he didn’t address or distinctions he failed to make that prove unhelpful for others. For instance, my sister-in-law found the book helpful. Okay. I don’t think she’s deceived or stupid. It helped her and that is GOOD. I didn’t find it as helpful. That could be a function of my understanding of theological complexities which differs from hers necessarily as a pastor, and/or the ways I have been sinned against that she has not. I still find Allender’s work more helpful for me. If you are more like my sister-in-law you may legitimately find this book helpful. If you are more like me, you may not find this book helpful for equally legitimate reasons.

 

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Being on vacation we were able to spend an evening, or two, with CavWife’s sister and her husband. Since we had Netflix available on the iPad we decided to watch a movie. CavWife and I have been wanting to watch Ragamuffin and they hadn’t seen it yet.  Since it was over two hours long, and the sisters are not night owls, we turned it into a miniseries.

Ragamuffin is based on the life of the late Rich Mullins. I used to have his first album on vinyl years ago. I still own Winds of Heaven, Stuff of Earth and A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band. He had a prophetic bent that was similar to mine. We shared an appreciation for Francis of Assisi who turned his back on wealth to follow Christ much to the frustration of his father. As Calvin would say, “To scorn this life is not to hate it.” In the movie he seemed to not only scorn it but hate it. You can hear in his music that Rich struggled with this world and its allurements as well as his own sin. As a result, the latter album in particular would encourage me during times of suffering , disappointment and loss.

I still remember being at David Castor’s house when Lenore came in and let us know that Rich had died in a car accident in September 1997. We were all stunned and saddened.

There was a disagreement about this movie along gender lines. The women loved it and the men while appreciating much of it struggled with particular aspects.

Ragamuffin focused on Rich’s fractured relationship with his father. It portrayed him as haunted by the negative statements of his father, like “Why is it that everything you touch breaks?” This inability to connect with or please his father profoundly shaped the Rich portrayed in the movie.

He was also bitter about a relationship with a woman that didn’t turn out the way he wanted. She had a strong sense of what she wanted from life, and while attracted to him recognized that he had a different calling she wanted no part of. Their engagement is not even a part of the movie. At times it seemed as though he wanted no part of it either. He is portrayed as an exceedingly unhappy man.

I don’t mind if a movie shows a man’s weaknesses and sins. That he struggled with alcohol and smoked cigarettes didn’t bother me. What bothered me was his portrayal of a self-absorbed jerk. In the movie you wonder how he could have any friends. He would blame bandmate “Justin” for not being there. There was an unstated need for Justin to keep an eye on him, and protect him from his own temptations.

You wonder how fictionalized this story was. I wonder what his good friends, particularly Beaker aka David Strasser. As I look at biographical information, Justin is probably a version of Beaker who also left their life on the road to start a family. His relationship with Beaker seemed far more significant that portrayed in the movie. While introducing “Hold Me, Jesus” during a concert, Rich talks about listening for Beaker to snore so he could feel tempted in Amsterdam. That was the night he claims to written the song. They apparently shared a room on the road and were best friends by all accounts. In the movie Justin is more of a guitar player, lackey and nearly silent travel companion (though he didn’t “introduce” Rich to Brennan Manning via a sermon tape).

On the other hand, Mitch McKeever who was also a long-time friend portrayed himself in the movie. He was the man in the Jeep with him that night in September 1997. So maybe the portrayal of Rich in Ragamuffin is accurate. Maybe.

If I remember the movie sequence correctly, Rich sings “Hold Me, Jesus” in concert prior to meeting Brennan Manning. This is significant, perhaps, since “Hold Me, Jesus” is on A Liturgy, a Legacy and a Ragamuffin Band. This term, Ragamuffin, was one he got from Manning. As a result, I got the sense that they played a little lose with the chronology to fit their narrative for the story.

His relationship with Brennan Manning was significant in helping him resolve his struggle with God (at least in the movie). I remember hearing Brennan speak at the New Sound Festival (89? The Charlie Peacock Trio and the Choir were among the performers that year) and being brought to tears. He had a profound message of grace and the love of God. Part of what was refreshing about Manning was his honesty about his struggle with alcohol.

There is a key moment in the movie, after Rich drank far too much, that Brennan invites him on a retreat. Rich had been struggling since his father’s death. One day Brennan asked Rich to spend the night alone and write a letter from his father.

What happened next was also seen differently based on gender differences among us. They used flashbacks to those painful moments in his relationship with his father. Then they completed those flashbacks, without explanation. Were they completed memories he had neglected as he focused on the negative, or were they simply what he wished his father had said? The women didn’t really care and found it “emotionally powerful.” The men cared. Was his father a better man than he remembered, or was this just psychological manipulation on his own part?

Our memories matter. We can distort the truth by focusing on part of the memory. These memories then color our relationship either appropriately or inappropriately. We can used them to nurse our bitterness, or grow in appreciation.

In the past my relationship with my father was more complicated than it is today. I focused on particular memories. I grew bitter regarding his very real failures. But those failures are not the sum total of my father. I had to remember other, better, memories too. I am faced with this again as I think of my mother and try to mourn now as Alzheimer’s has largely erased the women I knew.

In the movie there is great ambiguity about these memories. I didn’t really like the ambiguity. But this sequence is used to resolve his father issues so that Rich dies in peace, so to speak.

The movie had a number of scenes in concerts in which Rich is talking. This man comes off a cynical and bitter. Additionally there seems to be little church life except playing concerts. He seemed to have no connection to the church. But during the credits they showed some video of the real Rich Mullins talking during a concert. He seemed very different than the man in the movie, more like the guy I think of when I remember Rich Mullins: funny, not full of himself and pointing people to the church as community. As I think about Ragamuffin I wonder, where was THAT guy? Is he a figment of my imagination or is Ragamuffin a figment of theirs? As the old Tootsie Pop commercial says, the world may never know.

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“I heard the news today, oh boy…”  One of my former elders sent me a link to the Sun-Sentinel.  I was saddened to hear that the “dissidents” from Coral Ridge, not getting their way in the vote the previous Sunday, have already left and begun the process of forming a new congregation.

They currently call it The Church, and over 400 people attended a worship service led by the organist and choir director who just resigned and a former staff member.

There are ways to leave peaceably, and then there are ways to leave spitefully.  This looks to be the latter- it was rash, hasty and bears all the marks of a knee-jerk reaction instead of patience & love.  And this is disheartening to me.  It must be much more disheartening to Tully Tchividjian and the rest of Coral Ridge.  People can disagree on ministry style (and non-core theological issues).  Churches can plant new churches with a different ministry style.  That is leaving peaceably.  Agreeing that though we disagree, we love and respect one another and will continue to work together though we will work differently.

But “splants” are something altogether different.  They are born of animosity.  They are taking their toys and going to a new home.  I currently live in “splant central”.  While they may initially have success, the rotten foundation ultimately does them in unless there is repentance for the self-will and bitterness that lay at their root.  Such actions say “the gospel is not enough for us to overcome our differences and love each other well.”  Such actions are actually anti-gospel.  As a result, they undermine the work of the kingdom in the community.  This is precisely what I feared would happen, and I wish I was pleasantly surprised by a very different outcome- one in keeping with the finished work of Christ applied to His people.

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