Jesus’s Revolution Against the Unfairness of the World

Some years ago, a church bulletin board in a Cleveland suburb displayed the following message: “Prayer is faith’s revolution against the unfairness of the world.”

Some days later, the same bulletin board showed a somewhat different message: “Forgiveness is love’s revolution against the unfairness of the world.”

There haven often been individuals who have romanticized political protest and political violence as a way to revolution against the unfairness of this world. I lived in the town next to Kent State University in 1970, and I was one of those sent home early from junior high school when four students were shot dead due to the turmoil of the political protest and violence at that time. I also lived in Nyack, New York in 1981, when two police officers gave their lives in service in opposing an armed robbery by a renegade political group. I deplore any romanticization of political violence as a way to remedy the unfairness of this world, and I will assert that while there is a place for peaceful political protest, it will not repair the unfairness of this world. So now I say to this generation and every generation that the real revolution against the unfairness of this world comes from Jesus Christ. The revolution against the unfairness of this world is the revolution of faith in God and Christlike love for others. It is the revolution that uses the two weapons of prayer and forgiveness against the obstacles and hurts of this world. It is the revolution of the power of God and changed hearts and not in changed political circumstances.

The revolution of Jesus Christ against the unfairness of this world started in his teaching ministry. It was never a revolution of political protest or of political violence. It was always a revolution of changed people living in a fallen world and bringing into it the power of the world to come, the kingdom of God, that was present in the person of God’s anointed King.

An unusual incident happened during his last week of his earthly life and ministry before his crucifixion. On the slopes of the Mount of Olives, outside Jerusalem, stood a fig tree. One day he found no fruit on it, and he commanded that no one would ever eat from it again; the next day it had completely withered and become lifeless. It was the only miracle of judgment and destruction that Jesus ever performed during his earthly ministry, It was this incident which he used to tell his disciples are to deal constructively with the unfairness of the world around them.

The teaching that Jesus gives from this incident is the authorization of Jesus for his people to act radically different than the world in the way that they meet the unfair obstacles and hurts of this world. He gives a mandate for those who have been saved by faith in him,  to deal in a manner with the world around them in a way opposite to the way the world treats them. And understanding and following the revolutionary teaching of Jesus on how to deal with the unfairness of this world is how his followers are to show the difference it makes to be a son or daughter of God by faith in Jesus Christ.

Here, then, is how the gospel of Mark describes the incident of the withered fig tree and the teaching that Jesus gave based on that incident: “And as they were going along in the the morning they saw that the fig tree had dried up from the roots. And Peter, recalling what had happened before, says to him, “Rabbi, look! the fig tree which you cursed has dried up.” And Jesus said to him in answer, “Have faith in God! Assuredly I say to you that whoever says to this mountain, ‘Up and be thrown into the sea!’, and does not doubt in his heart but believes in his hear that what he says will be accomplished, it will happen for him. Because of this, I say to you, all things whatsoever you pray for and ask, believe that you have received it, and it will happen for you! And when you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your transgressions.” (Mark 11:20-25).

Faith in God is the basis for answered prayer. It makes the difference between simply addressing prayers to God as part of a religious ceremony and making pious God-talk and seeing legitimate requests answered by God. It is the attitude of trust in God and confidence in him that sees real answers to the requests that we make to God. It is the revolution of faith against the unfairness of the world.

Faith in God is a necessary condition of answered prayer. The definite fulfillment of the requests that we make to God in prayer calls for the definite stand of faith in God. The actual answers to prayer, then, come where there is an attitude of childlike trust and confidence in God.

In verses 20-22, Peter noticed an actual example of answered prayer, in the fig tree that had dried up overnight in response to the curse of Jesus upon it. The word of command from the Son of God, in the form of a curse, amounted also as a request to God the Father for a request for the destruction of the fruitless tree. This may be an enacted parable of pronounced judgment, but the main point of Jesus is the need of faith in God for answered prayer. He said, “Have faith in God!” Jesus called his disciples to trust in the power, wisdom and goodness of the heavenly Father whom he had been revealing in his words and deeds. The lesson of faith was that there need not have been any surprise that the prayer was answered, but rather expectation that it would be.

One of the things that tends to be lost in the English translation of this passage is also the interplay of the singular and plural ‘you’s’ in what Jesus says. He isn’t saying to Peter, “You (singular), Peter, have faith in God.” Rather, what he is saying here is to all the disciples: ‘All you here who are listening to me – you (plural) – have faith in God.’ I don’t think that this is a small point. I think that it can have a major impact when we understand that faith in God for answered prayer is not something that comes to or is the responsibility of just certain individuals who have faith. Rather, it is part of what Jesus expects for prayer from all his disciples, and it is part of what he expects from us when we pray together. And I think that the more that we realize this, we will come more and more to see answered prayer not so much in terms in receiving the personal and individual blessings that we seek – though God is certainly gracious and ready to answer prayers form individuals standing in faith before him – but answered prayers coming to believers united in faith in our marriages, families, small groups, churches and fellowships of churches. Although this faith in God for answered prayer starts with each of us as individuals, we truly do see how Jesus wanted it fulfilled when we pursue it in the plural. It will come when we see Jesus addressing not just me, when we change the object of Jesus’s statement from the singular to the plural, but Jesus addressing us – his people who he calls by his name.

Faith in God, then, is what Jesus points to as the condition to see the requests that we make in prayer become realities. it is faith in God – not self confidence, the amount of personal confidence that a person can drum up in oneself, but rather trust in a trustworthy God. This needs to be made clear, because self confidence is only faith in oneself and one’s own capabilities, and not in God. It is not a feeling of faith either, since Jesus says nothing about feelings here. It is not saving faith in Jesus Christ either, as in the third chapter of the book of Romans, as Paul set out, but it is is the continuation of saving faith, in trust and dependence on God. It is a faith in God that comes from knowing God, and it grows as a believer in Christ grows in that relationship with God. And it is not, in the light of other scripture, which includes the direct statements of Jesus himself, the sole condition of answered prayer, since Jesus teaches elsewhere, for example, that praying in his name for the glory of God (John 14:13-14) and continuing in relationship to him and in his Word (John 15:7) are just as necessary for the life of answered prayer. And even more, it can and should include understanding and holding to other promises of God, as faith in the God who made the promises, in asking and seeking from God what he has already promised to give in answer to prayer.

And as far as the answers to prayer, I think that we need to look at how the apostolic church actually exercised their faith in prayer. It was not for things, such as Peter getting a bigger house in the neighborhood of the Jewish High Priest so he could invite him to a neighborhood Bible study, nor for a more attractive spouse, nor for a bigger bank account, nor for most things that many of us now might want in answers to prayer. Here’s where I think that modern prosperity theology has muddied the waters in regard to answers to prayer, that it’s about expecting God to answer prayer for things, and often self indulgent and self aggrandizing things. And even in regard to the church, you don’t find them asking for a sanctuary bigger than Herod’s Temple to proclaim the gospel or a gymnasium or a chariot stable and stadium to carry on a sports ministry to to the sports crazy young people in the Roman empire. Their vision wasn’t for stone, bricks and mortar. Rather, the apostolic church exercised their faith in God in the direction of the ministries of the Holy Spirit to them and through them for the witness of the gospel throughout the world, and for the building up of believers in Christ. We can see them exercising their faith in God in prayer in the upper room before the day of Pentecost, when they were gathered with one accord in one place (Acts 2:1). We can see them exercising their faith in God when they prayed for boldness to share the gospel and for God to provide them with miracles to witness to his gospel (Acts 4:29-30). And this was not so that they could go, “Ooh!” and “Ah!” or say, “That’s awesome!” when they saw the miracles that they were asking for, but so that God’s truth would prevail against the unfair opposition to the gospel that was coming against them.

Going on, then, we can see that faith in God is necessary to achieve the impossible through prayer. However large the need may be, faith in God will find whatever is asked is entirely possible within the power of God.

In verses 23-24, Jesus goes on to say, “Assuredly I say to you that whoever says to this mountain, ‘Up and be thrown into the sea!’, and does not doubt in his heart but believes in his hear that what he says will be accomplished, it will happen for him. Because of this, I say to you, all things whatsoever you pray for and ask, believe that you have received it, and it will happen for you!” He is not promising for anyone the ability to re-arrange the landscape, but rather giving an example of something that they would consider impossible for them that they could accomplish through prayer. They were at that moment descending the slopes of the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem – that was the mountain that Jesus meant when he said, “ . . .  this mountain . . .”  The Dead Sea would have been within sight of them – that would be the sea that Jesus meant. So the phrase means, in answer to believing prayer, for example, they could command the Mount of Olives to be thrown into the Dead Sea. That wasn’t something that Jesus would want anyone to take seriously as a matter of prayer, but rather as an example of something within the power of God that could be achieved through prayer. The emphasis is that the believer must trust God to do the impossible to see him accomplish the impossible, and this promise then becomes the challenge to believers to ask the impossible of God through prayer. And I do believe that we do see this kind of word of command coming from a stand of faith established in prayer in the book of Acts, in the healings of the crippled man at the temple (Acts 3:6), of Tabitha/Dorcas (Acts 9:40), and the crippled man in Lystra (Acts 14:10).

So then, faith in God to answer prayer never, ever limits his power to answer before even asking. The promise of faith is not about the what and the why but about the can and the how of answered prayer. It is a quiet confidence in God’s power that approaches him confidently and appropriates his promises trustingly. And this kind of faith cannot be directed toward one’s own self interest,  but even more to the interests of the kingdom of God first of all. By the time a person in Christ has grown to the place where he or she regularly exercises this kind of faith, in fact, he or she has grown beyond his or her own petty personal interests and material concerns and turns to exercise it more in intercession for the needs of the world and the furtherance of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world.

One of the strongest examples that I can find in Christian literature about this kind of faith is in the diary of David Brainerd, as he pursued his missionary work to the Native Americans in the United States before the Revolutionary War. In a remarkable passage, he states, “In prayer my soul was enlarged, and my faith drawn into sensible exercise for my poor Indians; and though the work of their conversion appeared impossible with man, yet with God I saw that all things were possible . . .  It seemed to me that there could be no impediment sufficient to obstruct that glorious work, seeing that the living God, as I strongly hoped, as engaged for it.”

The prayer in faith to God is revolutionary because it is opposite to the the natural pride and self reliance of human nature where there is little sympathy with Christ and only intermittent experience of being led by his Spirit and walking in his Spirit. It is not the usual way of human nature to deal with problems and difficulties, but the way in which Christ has directed us. And I think that the pride and self sufficiency of many Christians, and therefore many within our churches, leads them to believe that they can make it on their own without having to trust God much in prayer. Howard Hendricks once told how he asked a pastor how much of a prayer life he had, and the pastor replied, “Not much.”

He then asked the pastor how long he had had a problem with pride, and the pastor asked, “How did you know about that?”

Hendricks said, “By your answer to my first question.”

And again, this faith is not to be divorced from the whole teaching of scripture and from the righteous and spiritual common sense leading of the Holy Spirit in prayer that prevents faith in God from becoming presumption. Certainly though, the faith that will see God doing the impossible in this world is necessary to the work of his kingdom and for the demonstration of his glory, though, will often seem to be strange, outrageous and presumptuous when it is exercised, but often understood to be the leading of the Spirit when it happens. For example, in a prayer meeting in the fall of 1982, I prayed for freedom for brothers and sisters in Christ behind the Iron Curtain in the Soviet Union, and for their government to be replaced by a more just and equitable system that would permit the free and open preaching of the gospel. I don’t think that I was alone in the body of Christ around the world in what I was asking, but was simply joining in what many brothers and sisters in Christ were praying around the world. From the others in the prayer meeting, though, I received some outraged and angry looks, as if I were some kind of nut. But I rejoiced after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the following events, as the others around the world who prayed for the same kind of thing to happen, as I could say,  with some joy and assurance, “I prayed for that!”

If, then, I’ve already made the point that the godly exercise of faith in God for answered prayer will be more in the way of intercessory prayer for the witness of the gospel and the working of the Holy Spirit in and through the church. And I’ve already made the point that this kind of faith in God was not to be exercised simply by certain individuals, but by all the disciples of Jesus Christ. So, I want to ask the question, “Where is the place of intercessory prayer in the modern church?” I’m not asking simply about what may have happened to the midweek prayer meeting, although it’s possible that some may find this question leading them to do more to strengthen it. Some churches do have an abundance of small groups where often intercessory prayer does take place among believers on a weekly basis – although I would ask the question whether this intercession includes concerns beyond the stated needs of those in attendance at the group. No, I’m wondering whether intercessory prayer has anywhere near the same place in many churches as it did in the apostolic church, where it seemed to have a significance comparable to the preaching and teaching of the Word of God, and far ahead of singing praises.

Here are several relevant passages:

“And they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayers.” (Acts 2:47).

“I call for, therefore, first of all, for requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving, to be made for all men, for kinds and all in authority, that we might lead quiet and peaceful lives in all godliness and seriousness. This is good and acceptable before God our Savior, who wishes all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth . . . I wish, therefore, that men in every place pray, as they lift up holy hands without anger or arguing . . .” (I Timothy 2:1-4, 8).

Here’s my suggestion. In many churches, what had been the normal custom of the pastor to offer an intercessory prayer has been left in the past. Usually we may hear some kind of prayer to bless the service or the message from the Word, but pretty much in most churches it’s a series of praise songs, or, in recent months, sometimes something that does not even sound much like praise, but twentysomething angst and weird metaphors allied with a pretty shallow understanding of God, the gospel, and scripture – it seems to me to be more like a bad coffeehouse solo at times. I don’t think that it’s too much to suggest that we could easily drop at least one of these songs for a time of prayer and intercession. If God is truly meeting us in our time of worship, he is gracious enough to give us some time to approach him with the needs of our people, our congregation and the world. We could do this by a pastor leading in intercessory prayer, or, two or three spiritual leaders, leading in intercessory prayer for the needs of the congregation, but most of all for the needs of a lost and dying world that needs men and women who need to know how to exercise faith in God for the power of the Spirit of God to bring them the gospel of God.

But Christlike faith is not all that Jesus calls for to receive answered prayers. He links it with something else. Christlike faith that receives answered prayers also demonstrates a Christlike forgiveness of others.

Forgiveness of others must accompany the prayer of faith. Christlike forgiveness of others is part of the conditions of answered prayer as well. Unforgiveness as well as unbelief will cut short answers to prayer. The forgiveness of others as part of one’s own prayer life as a stand taken before God and then the whole body of Christ and the entire world is love’s revolution against the unfairness of the world.

It is the expectation of the Lord Jesus himself that the forgiveness of others is to be a regular part of the believer’s prayer life. It is not too much to say that the most underemphasized condition of answered prayer is forgiving others before God as part of our prayer lives. And it is not too much to say that too often we don’t get what we want from our prayer lives because we don’t give God what he expects from us as part of our prayer lives, namely, forgiving others for each and every offense against us before him.

In verse 25, Jesus said, “And when you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone . . .” Jesus called for forgiveness, then, toward the end of his ministry, just as he had in the Sermon on the Mount and when he gave the outline of prayer that we call the Lord’s prayer. Here his call to forgiveness may have been to forestall a possible misunderstanding that the disciples may have taken from the withering of the fig tree. His call to forgive was tacked on to the end of his statement on the need for faith to prevent them from ever offering requests in prayer that were unanswerable from the start: prayers for the harm of others out of personal spite. This call to forgiveness is Jesus’s call for the believer in Christ not to deal with other people in curses but in forgiveness. It is Jesus’s call that prayer is not to display any kind of hostility or even contempt toward other believers but rather to release them from that hostility and offense before God. Jesus gave his call to forgiveness to apply to every possible offense, every personal judgment, and any kind of grudges for any reason. I think that Jesus gave us this not only because he knew that taking up offenses and grudges against others was a universal habit of human nature but because he had seen it in the lives of his own twelve disciples. For instance, James and John once made asked Jesus, after a Samaritan village refused them hospitality, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” (Luke 9:54). Jesus immediately rebuked them for that, and I think that he wanted to make sure that they kept free and generous forgiveness of others as part of the conquering faith of a victorious prayer life – victorious not so much over circumstances, but first of all of the most malicious tendencies of one’s own heart. And like the previous verse, this is also a command in second person plural in the original language, and I think from this we need to apply this not only to our own individual hearts but also in our social relations with each other as believers in Christ in the body of Christ – and there will be more on that shortly.

By the command of Jesus, then, forgiveness must have the broadest possible scope. It must mean letting go of any personal animosity toward anyone for any possible reason. Most commonly, this will be for those who say and do things that may offend or harm ourselves or those that we love, and for those who arouse our envy, hatred and spite. It means that we do not sit in the judge’s seat of our personal and social courtrooms of our hearts and of our evangelical social circles with the determination that we will not be soft on the real or supposed crime of another person against us or anyone else. It is noteworthy that this applies to the state of the heart of the Christian who claims Jesus as Lord, and is never applied to civil justice; it is especially necessary for believers in Christ because we have the tendency to have very strong expectations on how others should act, and there is thus that tendency to cherish and nourish personal offenses and bear grudges, and even to spiritualize and rationalize them, and even to continue stubbornly in them when Jesus through the Holy Spirit puts his finger on that beloved little offense that we have been nursing for far too long.

Here’s the rub, then, with those who claim that they can’t forgive because, “It’s hard!” Jesus does not give a pass on this to anyone because they find it hard or difficult in any way! And neither should we, when someone brings up this excuse. Frankly, I think that the excuse of the extreme difficulty often comes from those who are either too obsessed with the sin of the other person to see anything else, or those who believe that they have something to gain from not letting that other person off the hook; either way, it’s covering the sin of unforgiveness with the sin of deceit. So the first issue with those who claim, “It’s hard!” is the issue of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Each issue of personal offense kept and not released in forgiveness is ultimately an issue of obedience before God and will be answerable at the judgment seat of Christ. And the truth is that over the centuries many, many believers have been able through the grace of God to forgive even the deepest offenses and crimes against themselves and even the most beloved members of their families. Jesus himself was the ultimate example of this kind of forgiveness when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).  And Stephen, when he was dying from being pelted with rocks, was able to say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60) .Still another example that may come to mind for many is the forgiveness that God enabled Corrie ten Boom to extend when the guard whose abuse led directly to the death of her beloved sister Betsie told her how he had come to Christ and that he was extending his hand to ask her for forgiveness. And I can attest to the utterly impossible but real stand of forgiveness that Rev. and Mrs. Robert Hullinger took toward Bill Coday, who had murdered their beloved daughter (and my friend) Lisa Hullinger. So, to those who cling to this excuse, we may all legitimately say, “Who are you to say it’s too hard?

Forgiveness before God, then, assures a believer of an unhindered relationship with his heavenly Father. This kind of forgiveness before God that Jesus calls for means that there is no quarrel with another person that stands between him or her and his or her heavenly Father. And this is what it is all about: not letting our gripes with other people poison our relationship with God.

At the very end of this passage, Jesus gave the same reason for forgiveness of others that he gave throughout his earthly teaching ministry: “. .  .so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your transgressions.” (verse 25). Jesus places here the forgiveness of God as being reciprocal to the the believer’s forgiveness of other people. This does not appear to be the same kind of judicial forgiveness as part of justification by faith through grace, as in Romans 3:31-16, but rather the forgiveness of sins necessary for an ongoing, close relationship with God; as some have put it, it’s relational, not judicial, forgiveness. And the reason for this is apparent: human unforgiveness particularly intrudes into the relationship with the heavenly Father because if intrudes into the prerogative of judgment which God reserves for himself. Unforgiveness amounts to personal judgment of another person which no believer in Christ has either the wisdom nor the justice to pursue. And this is why personal forgiveness of other people is necessary to live in God’s forgiveness and not to have that personal grudge standing between oneself and an unhindered relationship with God.

In the light of scripture, then, the security to forgive is in the justice of God and his promise to defend his people. It takes faith in the justice of God, as he has revealed himself to be the totally righteous, fair and just Ruler and Judge of the world, to forgive just as it takes forgiveness to live in that close relationship with God where relational faith receives answered prayer from God. But even more, in the context of scripture, then, this forgiveness is truly the practice of loving others as Jesus has loved us. This is the revolution of love which comes from practicing forgiveness in the way that Jesus has :

“Let all bitterness and anger and wrath and rage and slander be swept away from you, with all desire to hurt and harm another person. Be kind and merciful to each other, as you forgive each other just as God has forgiven you in Christ,. and be copycats of God, just like beloved children, and walk in love, just as Christ has loved you and given himself as a sacrifice and offering to God as a sweet fragrance . . .” (Ephesians 4:31-5:2).

“Love . . . does not keep a record of wrongs . . .” (I Corinthians 13:5).

“ Be extremely serious about your prayer life, and above all things have fervent love for each other, since  love covers a multitude of sins . . .” (I Peter 4:7-8)

It then becomes obvious, as it is often belabored by some now, that the person who bears that grudge is hurt the most before God. But we need to emphasize as well that grudge, those hurt feelings, not only stand between two or more people, but also between every person that takes up, keeps and holds that same grudge and God. Again. this is also a second person plural in the original language; it refers not just to me but also to us. And this is something that is too often skipped over, on how much grudges between believers poison church fellowships, since often the bearer of a grudge passes it on to others, and each person who takes up that same grudge on behalf of the aggrieved party has the same responsibility to forgive before God for their borrowed spite. And this is often why there are so many broken relationships within our churches, that there is someone pursuing a grudge against a believer and continuing obstinately and impenitently to pass it on to other believers, and other believers are easily being drawn into other people’s grudges and vendettas.

After my over 38 years of following Christ, I’ve learned and experienced a great deal, and I must honestly say that the one thing that continues to astonish me is how so many believers, even otherwise spiritually mature pastors and elders, are so easily drawn into taking on the offenses and grudges of other believers. I think that there is more rampant and totally unnecessary social unforgiveness than many of us would like to admit. From what I can tell, this starts the way most rumors, quarrels and grudges start in our adolescent years, and they are symptoms of how so many in our churches have the same social goals, habits and practices of a high school senior. It usually starts with the hurt feelings of one conceited and talkative person, and it usually is nothing more, but those hurt feelings grow, the offense becomes highly exaggerated and encrusted beneath falsehoods and scare stories, and all this is passed on to others, to get other people worked up over things which were never their business to begin with. And where this comes from a conceited, arrogant and talkative person, there is a great deal of ego validation in this social vindictiveness. And those who are drawn in often seem to be more like adolescents who want to be part of the group of cool kids, and then let themselves be taken in as a part of the element of malicious secrecy, malicious self promotion and even malicious entertainment that come from these often baseless hurt feelings. A more carefully discipled and spiritually mature person, though, eventually learns to reply to these often habitual victims of hurt feelings by, “Be quiet about it, and stop talking about it – let go of your bitterness and forgive – I think that I would hear a very different story from that other person – I cannot be drawn into this – I think that you really need to let go of this . . .” And these kinds of hurt feelings and personal grudges rarely come up under any legitimately scriptural proceedings of church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17, I Corinthians 5:9-13), because it will usually be found, if each allegation is considered seriously and calmly and the accused party can reply to each accusation one at at a time, that the person behind the allegations is living in a raging and extended tantrum and his or her charges and insinuations against a brother or sister in Christ will not stand in the light of day.

So then, let’s make a call for group forgiveness more a part of our public ministry, as well as unity in that forgiveness, and restoration to the full love and fellowship of believers of the repentant as Paul wrote in II Corinthians 2:5-11. In our fellowships of believers, let’s make it more outwardly prevalent to extend forgiveness to others in our prayer times, to make explicit and open the practice of Mark 11:25, and to cover the sins of other brothers and sisters in Christ, and to refuse to define and hold down our brothers and sisters in Christ by their past faults and sins. I would urge us to to make it a custom to urge forgiveness of others as well as asking forgiveness of God according to I John 1:9 when we come before God to share the Lord’s Supper. I don’t doubt that we would find our church fellowships to be much more merciful and forgiving if we made extending forgiveness as much as part of our practice of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper as taking the benevolent offering is in some churches at that time.

As someone who has himself been a victim of a civil crime in the past and who has been a part of a jury murder for hire trial where the prosecution sought the death penalty, it’s worthwhile for me to take a moment to tell how the forgiveness Jesus calls for fits in with civil justice. The duty of the believer is to tell the truth to assist civil authorities to fulfill their office (Romans 13:1-7) and to decide according to the law without any personal vengeance in the act. I always thought that at the end of the novel The Three Musketeers,  it was done exactly right, where each one of the Musketeers declared their personal forgiveness of Milady de Winter even as she faced civil execution for her crimes and murders.

I’ve left until last in dealing with forgiveness about the emotional consequences of forgiveness and and unforgiveness, and I’ve done this pretty much because we have a tendency to be so emotionally centered in our preaching and teaching, and the emotional consequences are a consequence of obedience to what Jesus commands about forgiveness, and not the reason to forgive. First, there’s a remarkable passage in David Brainerd’s diary about his own experience of forgiveness for those from Harvard who had pursued a personal vendetta against him for an imprudent remark:  “O it is an emblem of heaven itself to  love all the world with a love of kindness, forgiveness and benevolence; to feel our souls sedate, mild and meek; to be void of all evil surmisings and suspicions, and scarce able to think evil of any man upon any occasion; to find our hearts open, simple, and free, to those who look on us with a different eye!”

Two of the most poignant descriptions of extended unforgiveness and bitterness and the extreme emotional torment that it brings comes from both Cindy Swindoll, the wife of Chuck Swindoll, and James Robison – hardly those who would be in any kind of collaboration! They themselves linked together the following passages to describe their own experiences under the sway of extended bitterness:

“And becoming enraged the master (of the unforgiving servant) turned him over to the tormentors until he repaid what he owed. And that is the way my Father in heaven will treat you unless each of you forgives his brother from your hearts” (Matthew 18:34-35).

“Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your aggravation, and do not give an opportunity to the devil . . .” (Ephesians 4:26-27).

As I recall, both Cindy Swindoll and James Robison reported a tremendous personal oppression due to their bitterness, and they identified their tormentors as demons and described their their experience as demonic oppression due to bitterness and unforgiveness. Scripture definitely connects a kind of demonic inroads into our lives though extended unforgiveness and bitterness, and this is why many people who come to a real victory of forgiveness suddenly seem to experience a great deal of peace, joy, and frankly, renewed and deepened sanity. There’s a clinical term called ambulatory psychosis, and I think that certainly unforgiveness and bitterness is part of the underlying problem in many whom we can say are walking on the edges between sanity and insanity. I’ve often felt, as some other pastors that I have known, that one of the symptoms of this kind of demonic oppression is seeking after praise music to relieve the torment, like King Saul did (I Samuel 16:14-16, 25), and I’ve known a number of people like that, in being practically addicted to praise while holding on to deep bitterness. So, I would bring it back to this again: one of the best things that we can do as a part of public ministry in our churches is regularly to call our people to forgive others, and perhaps to make our call to forgiveness even more clearly and compassionately if more and more people seem to be using praise as an escape from the torment of their own bitterness and the part of their hearts that remains allied to hell.

Forgiveness, then, is revolutionary because it does against the usual human tendency to bear and nurse a grudge. The revolutionary way that Jesus sets for his followers is not to withdraw, plot and sulk, but to forgive as he has brought us forgiveness. After declaring forgiveness before God, then, we need to follow the advice of Peter Marshall: “Never talk about them and never think about them.” This is well worth having an unhindered relationship with one’s heavenly Father.  Christlike forgiveness, then, comes from the person, who is growing to pray like Jesus himself if he were in our shoes, and it is the demonstration of Christlike trust in the heavenly Father and growing to love others has he has loved us.

Jesus Christ, then, calls his followers to deal with the unfairness of the world by his methods. Whatever has happened to us in the past is not to enslave us to brooding and sulking over hurt feelings and past injuries, to complaining about others,  and to be chained to the ways of this world to deal with difficulty and hurt. Rather Christ calls his people to the adventure and joy of faith and love, to see the possibilities that can happen by the grace and power of God if we follow his revolutionary methods. His call is to the revolution of faith, to seek fro God to melt the hearts of the impenitent and obstinate, and to do the miracles of reconciliation and the accomplishment of the impossible. His call is also the revolution of love, in which his people forgive as he has forgiven, as far it is necessary.

Whatever hope and dreams that there may be among us as brothers and sisters in Christ, therefore,  which are in line with the will of God, for successful evangelism, purifying revival and spiritual awakening here and overseas, and to see victories of faith over the obstacles and difficulties of our lives – especially anything that would keep us from our greatest usefulness for Christ in this life – let us take them all to God in prayer and expect his answers for them. Let us take every complaint and every obstacle and turn it into a prayer request. And as your faith grows, let your faith and vision take in the whole world for Christ.

The Christlike heart that expresses itself in Christlike praying, then, is also a forgiving heart. For any believer, therefore, who wants to see answers to pray, take your backlog of grudges and declare your forgiveness before God for them. Ask God to bless that person, and, if you have a tendency to keep digging up grudges, burn the list. Understand that there is no getting around forgiveness if there is any expectation to get close to the God who knows all our hearts and our every thought and for him to hear and answer prayer.

Finally, the revolution of faith and love begins when a person comes to Christ by faith to receive eternal salvation from the path to hell to the place in heaven. Repentance and faith in Christ is the way to sign up for his revolution of the changed heart and to become a believing and loving revolutionary in this world.

Where Has a Generation of Psychology Based Family and Marriage Ministry Brought Us?

In the early 1970s, revival began to sweep a number of churches from different denominations in central Canada. Known as the Canadian revival, as the Holy Spirit swept through these churches, professed Christians were confessing their sins to God and man and entering into a fresh and revived relationship with God and with each other. Marriage and family reconciliation and renewal was a prominent effect of this revival. One teenager explained it this way: “When we saw our parents getting serious about right with God, we started getting with God ourselves.”

At about the same time, James Dobson started a new ministry called Focus on the Family. His commendable motive was, “Families are hurting.” The son of a Nazarene minister, he included a very definite focus on Biblical teaching and evangelical conversion, but also incorporated a number of aspects of secular psychology from his own background, most notably the self esteem teaching. Though for generations there had always been evangelicals who had degrees in psychology and psychiatry, since psychology itself had been part of the philosophy, religion or theology departments in many universities, the psychological perspective seemed to become a more prominent part of addressing marital and family issues than ever before, especially after the wide circulation of the film series “Focus on the Family” in the late 1970s to the early 1980s.

So, since the late 1970s, it’s seemed like when there are marital and family issues, the pastor, the Bible study leader and the Sunday school teacher have given way to the Christian psychologist – either through quotes, repetition / research  / plagiarism, or the use of media such as films and videos. Every day there are a number of programs on Christian radio stations with Christian counselors and psychologists that deal with Christian and family issues. So how effective have the Christian psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors been in dealing with family disintegration within the evangelical church? Anyone familiar with the occurrence of unreported abortions, unwed pregnancies, divorces and remarriages, affairs and parent/child discipline problems in most churches could say that there have been a number of individual success stories, but that by and large, the people who attend evangelical churches tend to be not very far behind the secular culture. The thing is that while families within our churches are still hurting, probably more of them are hurting now than a generation ago, and the explosion of psychologically oriented family and marriage ministries does not seem to have done that much to stem the tide.

Here’s where I think that we’ve lost something in our ministry to churches and families due to seeing the problems as having solutions that need to come from the psychologists. I think that we’ve lost the realization of what God himself can do by himself through the Holy Spirit in the lives of his people to produce family and marital reconciliation and tried to do more through a psychological orientation than the results overall would warrant. And I think that we’ve taken on far too many formulas based upon human insights – sometimes ultimately from secular sources that have a very different starting point than a Biblical understanding of the world and of God , mankind and sin —  and a direction based on human understanding, motivation and effort toward satisfaction in this life. So the emphasis seems to have shifted away from marital and family issues as being part of trust in and obedience to Christ as Lord, the disciplemaking ministry of the church, and the sanctifying ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Even more, this can take the form in marriages and families of a psychologically based legalism and judgmentalism. This is where spouses, potential spouses and family members make performance based demands and judgments based upon what he or (more likely) she found in the writings or teaching of a Christian psychologist. And often enough, the other person has never had a chance to hear or read, understand or evaluate according to scripture these expectations and judgments of his or her personal failings, and so may be being pressured and browbeaten to behavior which he or she has not subjected the scrutiny of scripture or even his or her own conscience before God. So, in this way the Christian psychology and counseling ‘industry’ may unwittingly be actually instigating further conflict in families and marriages that are already shaky. And those who may have come out of failed marriages may thus be left with a deep bitterness on how the other person has failed him or her based on their lack of performance up to the expectations from the Christian psychology and counseling industry rather than a humble scriptural examination of his or her own failures and responsibilities.

Just as much, this may also form the often unstated goal of a psychologically based personal perfectionism.  Much of the goal of the pop psychology from the 1970s onward seemed to be directed toward the goal of being happy, perfect and complete in this life (see the goals of the California based Human Potential Movement) and pathologizing people who weren’t. So, the tendency is to give people the impression if they weren’t happy, perfect and complete, emotionally expressive and secure by the definitions of the Human Potential Movement there is something wrong with them that can and should be fixed. And often enough, there may be the idea that if someone is going through a difficult time, or even vaguely bored or dissatisfied, that there’s a solution to be found through pop psychology. And certainly the covers of so many books in the field seem to promise exactly that. So, the first thing that needs to be considered critically, in the light of what scripture says about this fallen world and fallen human nature, is whether there is an explicitly stated or heavily implied goal or promise of human perfectibility or being able to achieve a personal utopia in one’s family or personal life through the psychological diagnoses and formulas.

So, following are the ways in which I think that the psychological orientation falls short of what God has done through two millennia by the Word of God through the Holy Spirit.

The psychological orientation lacks the authority of scripture as the basis of change.

The basis of the psychological orientation comes down to research which came from fallible human beings. It may have been done according to the scientific method, but it still required fallible human beings to understand, interpret and pass on the results of this research. But sometimes it does come from other sources such as the southern California Human Potential movement or even Buddhism (Psychology Today magazine has featured the Dalai Lama on its cover before, for instance).

The danger is that this may wander into the error that Paul warned against in Colossians 2:8: “Watch out that no one makes a captive of you through philosophy and empty deceit according to the traditions of other people, according to the basic ideas of the world, and not according to Christ.”  Rather, the authority for the believer is the Word of God, and it is sufficient to make a believer complete in godliness without any support from psychology and psychiatry: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, fully equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17).

The psychological orientation lacks the overriding motive of love to Christ as the emotional impetus to change.

Too much of what I’ve heard from psychologically based teaching does not rise above mere human selfishness as a motive to change. The goal too often does not seem to rise above the desire for me to feel good and for me to get what I want out of my life, marriage and family. There is too little mentioned on the scriptural motive to do all this stuff out of love for Christ for the glory of God: “The person who has my commands and keeps the is the one who loves me; and the one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will manifest myself to him . . . If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him. The person who does not love me will not keep my words, and the word you heard is not mine but that of the Father who sent me . . . In this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so shall you be my disciples” (John 14:21, 23-24, 15:8).

The psychological orientation lacks the personal responsibility to Jesus Christ as Lord as the reason for personal responsibility to change.

Again, the tendency of much teaching from the psychological orientation is to furnish material for resentment and blame-shifting in personal relationships. Often, when it hits the natural stubbornness of human nature, the recipient does not apply it to himself or herself, but to others – the focus is not to what I need to do but what someone else needs to do or needed to do. And so, this becomes often enough, picking at the speck in another’s eye: “Why do you say to your brother, ‘Let me pick out the speck in your eye, and, look, there is a plank in your own eye? Hypocrite, first pull out the plank in your own eye, and then you will see clearly to pull out the speck in the eye of your brother” (Matthew 7:4-5).

Ultimately, though, the personal responsibility is rather to Jesus Christ personally, and this will mean taking not a ‘you first’ but a ‘me now’ where there are matters that someone needs to address: “But we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ , so that each one of us may receive for the deeds done while in the body, whether good or bad” (II Corinthians 5:10).

The psychological orientation lacks the power of the Holy Spirit as the purifying power for change.

Ultimately, the psychological orientation relies upon the power of the fallen human nature to change. This means that it falls into the self effort / human performance trap of Galatians 3:3: “When you began with the Spirit are you now to be made complete by the flesh [the direction and power of fallen human nature]?”: Rather, the need is to find and live in the power of the Spirit of God to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ in our thoughts, motives, intentions, words and deeds: “But we all, reflecting as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (II Corinthians 3:18).

Good Line For a Sermon . . .

One of the most striking lines from any movie ever which I remember came from the movie Tiger Warsaw. Patrick Swayze played a young man from a small Pennsylvania town who was the family outcast because of something that had occurred years earlier. The line came from his mother, who stood at a family dinner, and remarked that there was one person from the family who was not there, “ . . . because forgiveness is messy, and we have other plans.”

That has reminded me that what often stands in the way of forgiveness and reconciliation of our broken relationships among families and throughout the body of Christ – “forgiveness is messy, and we have other plans.” Plans such as keeping the resentment and memories alive to keep another person beaten down – plans to use the incident in the future to blackball someone – plans which never consider the other person having a future apart from the stigma of the past – plans beyond dwelling on another person’s wrongdoing or supposed sins to feed my own pride and sense of superiority.

The Joy of a Forgiving Heart

David Brainerd had a victory of forgiveness in his own life that preceded his life of prayer and his powerful ministry among the Indians. He had been expelled from Harvard for a fairly mild criticism of a professor that was needlessly repeated by others. One of the tremendous victories of his prayer life was the conquest of his own disappointment and bitterness at the experience. Here are his own words at the consequence: “O it is an emblem of heaven itself to love all the world with a love of kindness, forgiveness and benevolence; to fee our souls sedate, mild and meek; to be void of all evil surmisings and suspicions, and scarce able to think evil of any man upon any occasion; to find our hearts open, simple and fee, to those that look upon us with a different eye!”

The path of forgiveness is a path to the joy of Christ.

Present Enemies, Ghosts and Scapegoats: Those Whom We Love to Hate

Present Enemies: those from whom we receive hostility, or those toward whom we feel hostility and anger, the desire to hurt or hit back for hurts received, for ourselves or those whom we desire to protect, such as family members and close friends.

One of the most lurid examples of vengefulness is the boastful song of Lamech, Genesis 4:23-24:

“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
wives of Lamech,  hear my words;
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged seven times,
then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

(God promised to avenge Cain seven times if anyone would take his life in vengeance for his murder of Abel. Lamech is boasting that his vengeance accomplished more than God for less provocation.  This is an example of the extreme defiance of God that the Bible depicts among mankind before the Flood.)

  • Write down one time that someone hurt you and how you responded.
  • How typical is that of how you normally respond to hurts?  Very typical or often or sometimes or rarely?
  • How would you say that you normally respond to someone that hurts you?              
  • How would someone who knows you well say that you respond to hurts? Ask one person.

Ghosts: Former Enemies who still affect us

Midnight, July 16, 1943: a powerful force of United States Navy battleships, cruisers and destroyers was eighty miles southwest of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands. General Quarters was sounded after several large ships reported radar contacts eight to twelve miles away. So the Japanese Navy was going to oppose them after all! They were ready for them; the Japanese would not be able to use their expertise at night tactics to win a quick victory!

The battleships and cruisers began to fire their big guns at the reported targets. During the next few minutes lookouts reported the wakes of torpedoes headed toward the ships. Others saw the flares and searchlights from Japanese warships. Men below decks felt the concussions of  shells that exploded beside their ships. One neurotic sailor had a nervous breakdown under the stress of battle.

No Japanese ships were within miles of the US force, though. The radar contacts were return echoes from islands from one hundred to one hundred fifty miles distant. All the visual sightings and perceptions of torpedoes, flares and searchlights, and explosions from near misses were from the wakes and gunfire of the other ships in the force. The power of suggestion made them appear  to be from enemy warships.

The “Battle of Kiska” gives a chuckle to old sailors, but something like it occurs in those who still continue to fight old battles with enemies long gone, separated by the circumstances of life or no longer the substantial threat they once were. Sometimes people continue to fire their guns and perceive opposition when the enemies are not there, and the others in their lives suffer the consequences.

Is there a former enemy who continues to rule the way that you act? (Ask someone close to you also if you seem to be fighting old battles.)

Scapegoats: Those on Whom We Heap Our Own Sins

The objects of blameshifting and smokescreening:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

One of the most insidious ways that some deal with a guilty conscience is to accuse others of the sins that they themselves commit. This is a form of diverting the attention of others and one’s own conscience which Jesus here exposed.

Much of the needless criticism and gossip that some professed believers indulge in is actually of this nature, and the sin is sometimes deepened when the claim is made that these unrighteous accusations come from the Holy Spirit. But the truth is that no one has ever made himself look good by throwing mud at others, and the true conviction of the Holy Spirit does not work through slander and insinuations.  Indeed, it means that one is acting in the way of ‘the father of lies’ and  ‘the accuser of the brethren’ rather than of Christ.

The gossip needs to go to the scriptural method of dealing with his or her sin before God and man through repentance and receiving the forgiveness of Christ rather than the indulgence of a hateful spirit.

The objects of envy:

Spiritual envy:

“Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brothers were righteous . . .  “ (I John 3:12).

Spiritual envy is the envy of another believer more mature in Christ, consistent  in his walk with Christ or seemingly prominent among fellow believers in ministry. It is begrudging another person what he has in spiritual gifts, experience and attainment by a false comparison with one’s own.  It is the reason why some professed believers try to bring down others who might seem to have more than they in their spiritual lives.

Material envy:

“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.
For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”
(Psalm 73:2-3).

Material envy is the begrudging of another a superiority in material prosperity without regard to his or her spiritual standing.

The Christlike Way to Win: I Peter 2: 21-23 and Romans 12:17-21

The Example: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

`He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”  — I Peter 2:21-23

The Command: “Do not return anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, `It is mine to avenge; I will repay’, says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” –Romans 12:17-21

Step 1: Avoid making enemies in the first place. Plan to do what is right and honest the first time; avoid doing anything which would appear to be harmful to another person.  Determine to admit when you are wrong, to tell no lie, and to give no one a reason to be angry with you. Many problems with others would neither begin nor continue if you determined to be honest, courteous, respectful and humble.

If you find yourself taking offense at the actions of another person, ask yourself whether another person intended hurt, or there was simply unexpressed or unreasonable expectations on your part. Misunderstandings may be at the bottom of some perceived hurts. Give others the benefit of the doubt, and be more ready to listen than to react: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). Personal vendettas from misunderstandings interrupt what God is really trying to do in your life and the lives of others.

Step 2: Plan not to try to hurt and punish those who do anything to hurt you. It is wrong for anger at someone else to lead you into sin (Ephesians 4:26).  Plan and rehearse your  godly reaction. Make it an immediate reaction to the situation. Too often lingering resentment comes when some people, particularly the unassertive, clam up when they become angry. Others escalate the situation when they blow up in response to someone else.
Scriptural examples of godly reactions:

  • The soft anwer: “A gentle word turns away wrath, but a harsh word turns away anger.” — Proverbs 15:1
  • Blessing and prayer: ” . . . bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” — Luke 6:28.
  • Gentle rebuke: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.” — Galatians 6:1
  • Forgiveness: “When you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him,  so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” — Mark 11:25

Step 3: Let God be the Judge. If the other person has truly transgressed his will, God will enforce the consequences. Give the situation to God in prayer and ask him to be your Defender.

Step 4:  Plan to do something good simply out of obedience to God’s Word. Loving actions must come even if there are no loving feelings. The consequence may be a change of heart by the perceived enemy. The “Love Feedback” can turn that grudge around, and has the potential of strengthening the relationship rather than destroying it, and turning the potential enemy to a friend.

See also Matthew 5:43-48, for additional teaching from Jesus in accord with this passage. Ephesians 4:1-3 and 4:29-32 also describe Christlike actions, replacing hypersensitivity with patience and resentment with forgiveness.

Take the previous example of how someone hurt you and write out a reaction more in line with what Christ would do in your situation.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they shall be called sons of God.”
— Matthew 5:9

“Come, my children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
Whoever of you loves life
and desires to see many good days,
keep your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking lies.
Turn from evil and do good;
seek peace and pursue it.”

— Psalm 34:11-16

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.