Compelling Grace, Part 2. How Loving Others Points to God.

For a worldview or religion to be compelling you would expect it to nurture good relationships. This is especially true where offence is involved. Where there are relationships, there are hurting people, for people hurt people. We are human. If a worldview or religion is true, we should expect that it will help us relate to one another and navigate the nasty quirks of our humanity.

Does Christianity provide a compelling vision for relationships including a method of dealing with offence? Some would say “no, Christianity is all rules which makes people get all judgemental.” Others would say, “no, Christianity is all forgiveness which turns people into doormats.” So which is it?

Last week we looked at the compelling way God relates to us. To summarize, God’s relationship with us is based on His grace, not our performance. How are we to relate to others?

Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. 2 Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. Ephesians 5:1-2 (NLT)

As God relates to us, we relate to others; with love and grace. Consider the following verses:

7 Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. 8 But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. . . .
10 This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. . . .
16 God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world.
18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19 We love each other because he loved us first.
20 If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? 21 And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. 1 John 4:7,10,16-21 (NLT)

We are to relate to others in the same manner God relates to us; with love and grace. There are some things we can say about this . . .

First, grace provides a compelling atmosphere for relationships. Some relationships are like sailing in a thunderstorm or like walking on eggshells. Fear is a constant. However, “perfect love expels all fear.” God drives out our fear for He does not treat us as our sins deserve (see Psalm 103), but rescues us, and relates to us, by his grace. What is true with our relationship with God can also be true in our relationship with others. Grace provides a great fear-free atmosphere for people to thrive in growing relationships. In marriage, in family, among friends, at the workplace, in teams, the experience of grace given and received provides a great atmosphere to live, work and play.

Second, grace provides a compelling response to offence. People often deal with offence by either “fight or flight.” Neither work well. The Christian is to do neither. Rather than lash out and risk an all out war, we are to turn the cheek. Some will say that is not at all compelling.  Won’t people will walk all over us and take advantage of our grace? Well, no, grace provides for a flexibility in responding to offence.

Suppose a spouse is abused again and again, and each time the abused spouse is expected to forgive the abuser as if nothing ever happened. Is that compelling? No. I call this “doormat grace.” Some would say this is the vision of Christianity in dealing with offence, but it is not. The Bible teaches the need for grace, love, and forgiveness in relationships, yes, but the Bible also teaches the need for wisdom. The Book of Proverbs is still in the Bible! We need not offer doormat grace, but wise grace. Grace toward offenders means wanting the best for them, it does not mean putting up with the worst for yourself. When you respond with grace, you do not seek the destruction of the offender, but neither do you open yourself up for destruction. The gracious person turns the other cheek instead of hitting back. The wise person also takes a step back.

Grace, when applied with wisdom, sounds like this: “I will not seek your harm, though I think you deserve it, however, I do not trust you and so have set boundaries so that you can not harm me further. There may be opportunities for changing these boundaries in the future, but right now I discern these to be appropriate for my own safety and well-being.” Grace leads to not seeking revenge. It does not lead to acting as if the offence never happened, that trust has never been broken. Wisdom considers trust. Grace considers the possibility of future relationship. Wisdom considers the possibility of future harm. Grace leads to treating people better than they deserve. Wisdom leads to not letting people treat you worse than you deserve.

Grace in relationships is compelling. It provides a compelling atmosphere for relationships and a compelling response to offence which includes flexibility in applying wisdom in responding to offence. Within Christian relationships there is space for growth, reconciliation, boundaries, and safety for oneself. Christianity when practiced in emulation of God, in the Spirit of Christ, and keeping in step with the Holy Spirit, provides a compelling vision for relationships, including a compelling method of dealing with offence. The manner in which Christians are to relate to others is really compelling. This is no surprise of course, for it comes from a real God.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

Advertisements

How to Not Go Crazy When Offended

Offence can drive us crazy. Offence can make us crazy. We can sink to our lowest thoughts and actions when offended. Nothing draws foolishness out of us like offence. John Bevere calls offence “the bait of Satan”. Indeed he wrote a whole book on how offence can lead the offended into terrible trouble. No one took the bait more quickly, no one stands as a better example of foolishness in taking offence, than Haman from the Book of Esther. Let us learn from Haman how not to handle offence.

Haman went out that day happy and in good spirits. But when Haman saw Mordecai in the king’s gate, and observed that he neither rose nor trembled before him, he was infuriated with Mordecai; 10 nevertheless Haman restrained himself and went home. Then he sent and called for his friends and his wife Zeresh, 11 and Haman recounted to them the splendor of his riches, the number of his sons, all the promotions with which the king had honored him, and how he had advanced him above the officials and the ministers of the king. 12 Haman added, “Even Queen Esther let no one but myself come with the king to the banquet that she prepared. Tomorrow also I am invited by her, together with the king. 13 Yet all this does me no good so long as I see the Jew Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate.” 14 Then his wife Zeresh and all his friends said to him, “Let a gallows fifty cubits high be made, and in the morning tell the king to have Mordecai hanged on it; then go with the king to the banquet in good spirits.” This advice pleased Haman, and he had the gallows made. Esther 5:9-14 (NRSV emphasis added)

First, do not make it about you, do not take it personally. What do I mean by that? Haman takes the offence of Mordecai’s failure to rise in his presence very personally. It is as if he is thinking “how dare this man do this to ME, this is so disrespectful to ME, does he not realize who I am, how could anyone do this to ME?”. What he could have thought instead was “This Mordecai is a disrespectful person”. You can feel the difference! When we take things personally, we make the problem centre on us. We can, instead, leave the problem where it belongs, at the feet of the offender. Consider that an offence may be more about the offender than about you. “This person has a problem with gossip, I hope she can get some help with that” is a much different response than “She said bad things about me, time for payback”. Refusing to take the offence personally might even cause us to have empathy. What happened in the offender’s life to make them act like this?

Second, watch to see if there is something to be learned. Offence is an opportunity for growth. Do not assume that the offence has nothing to do with you. “What is it about me that was a trigger for this offence?” Had Haman stopped to reflect for a moment, he might have considered his over-the-top narcism. He might have considered his over-the-top pride. Biblical scholars are of two opinions as to whether Mordecai was doing the right thing by his refusal to ever bow or stand in the presence of Haman. However, we can be sure that Mordecai had a valid point, that Haman was not all that. When someone causes you offence, it may be an opportunity to grow and learn. They might be shining a light on a blind spot in your life. They may be pointing you to something about yourself than no one dare tell you about. Offence, if it is rooted in a person’s honest negative reaction to something about you, may be of greater benefit than a thousand compliments.

Third, do no overreact in your response to the offence. Haman responds with a plan to impale Mordecai on a pole fifty cubits high. Seriously? Esther’s response to the offence of a threatened genocide is wise. She asks for a just response. In fact she says she would not have said anything if it were a lesser offence (see 7:4).

Fourth, do not rush to respond to the offence. Haman’s wife suggests a solution and Haman in effect says “okay, let’s go!”. Esther, on the other hand, is wise in her patience in dealing with a much bigger problem. She fasts for 3 days before even speaking to the king about the offence, and even then delays another day.

Fifth, consider if the offence is something that can stop you from living well. Is it really all that important? Mordecai neither stands nor trembles in Haman’s presence. Oh well, life goes on! In contrast the Jews are to be wiped out thanks to the Haman’s plotting. This is a life and death issue. This is an offence worth dealing with. When offended, can your life go on just fine if you let it go?

To help us in our discernment, we can ask if God has our back on this one. God does not have Haman’s back. He does have Esther’s. Is your offence truly an experience of injustice and is your response righteous?

Sixth, do not underestimate the power of conversation. At no time do we see any initiative on Haman’s part to talk it through with Mordecai. This again, stands in contrast with Esther who won’t even speak about the offence against her people until she has had dinner with the King and Haman twice. She is building relationship, leading up to talking about the offence. Jesus teaches us about the importance of conversation when offended:

“If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back. 16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses. 17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17 (NLT)

This means that we do not deal with offence by tweeting! Recently I heard podcaster Carey Nieuwhof lament that in our Facebook world people engage in broadcasting rather than conversation. Offence is handled better through a conversation rather than a broadcast.

Esther stands as the wise person in the Book of Esther, Haman stands as the foolish one. Esther points us to the wisdom of God. Though our sins are an offence to Him, He offers forgiveness and reconciliation. God Himself offers the best example of what to do when offended; pick up a cross.

When offence makes you crazy, look to wisdom, look to God’s Word, look to God.

When Anger Flares

small__4446092308You find yourself in a moment of anger. You are not a happy camper, and worse yet, the person that offended you is either oblivious to your hurt, or doesn’t care. And to make matters seem much worse, ringing through your head comes an expression you heard in Sunday School: “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” You hope it is not in the Bible, for then you may feel obligated to do something about your anger. But it is:

26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27 NRSV)

To make matters worse still, you are a Canadian, it is winter, and the sun goes down very early indeed. What do you do?

Before you do anything, pray.

Then, ask this question: “Are my expectations of the person who offended me reasonable?”

It was at a pastor’s retreat that I first heard the concept that anger often comes from unmet expectations. We can see this in Jonah who expected that God should have judged the enemy of Israel, the Ninevites, with no chance for repentance. God did not meet that expectation which was great news for the Ninevites, but a great disappointment for Jonah. God responds to Jonah’s anger by asking “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4 NRSV). In other words, “are your expectations of how I should act appropriate and reasonable?” God goes on to use a rapidly growing, then declining, bush to teach an angry again Jonah a lesson about appropriate expectations:

9 But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” 10 Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals (Jonah 4:9-11 NRSV emphasis mine)

Jonah needed to adjust his expectations of what God would do and how God would act. Now back to your anger toward someone who has offended you. Before you do anything with it, you can ask that same question God had of Jonah: “Is it right for you to be angry?” Are your expectations of the person who has offended you reasonable and appropriate? If the answer is ‘no, I have been expecting too much,’ then go back, adjust your expectations and your anger will subside even though the sun may yet have a long way to go.

But suppose you have prayed and reviewed your expectations, and you have discerned that, yes indeed your expectations are reasonable, and yes, the reason for your anger lies at the feet of the offender. They have messed up, and you have the right, some might push it here and say obligation, to be angry. Now what?

You now have two options before the sun goes down. 

The first option is to go and talk with the offender about how you feel offended.

This is in keeping with a Biblical principal given to us by Jesus:

15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. (Matthew NRSV)

We do not have room here to go into Jesus’ instruction on the involvement of church family in verses 16 to 17. That is for another day. But for now, here is some wisdom that may help you in your chat with the offender:

1. Read and commit to living out the rest of the passage:

25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil. . .  Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. 31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. 1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2 and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (from Eph 4:25-5:2 NRSV)

Then read and commit to living out the rest of Ephesians. In fact you may as well read and commit to living out the rest of the Bible. By the time you are done this, you may forget why you are angry! All joking aside, when you go to someone you are angry with, go as someone who who is Jesus-following, Spirit-filled, and Bible-informed. My Mum’s daily advice growing up rings through well: “Remember Whose you are and Whom you serve.”

2. Make it easier for your offender to get into putty mode than potty mode. That is, you want to communicate in a way that makes it easier for your offender to consider their offence and how they might have done better, and do better, rather than putting them on the defensive and getting them all angry too. This can be done by beginning with ‘I’ statements, like “can we talk about how I felt when something happened?” rather than ‘you’ statements such as “you did this to me.” Not only will beginning with ‘I’ be less likely to put the offender on the defensive, but it also starts with something the offender cannot deny; your experience. It is also good to avoid words like ‘always’ and ‘never.’ It is better to keep the discussion to the one offence that aroused your anger rather than make the offender feel like they have always been losers and never been good enough. That is how your offender may receive “you always” and “you never” statements.

The second option is to let it go.

This is not the best option if the offence is serious, or if the repeating of the offence will make it serious, or if this offence will be serious when repeated in the lives of others. But it sometimes can be the best option. We can be so easily offended and so quick to take offence. Perhaps we might benefit from growing a thicker skin? You might object and say “this is impossible, I could never let an offence go!” It might seem that way but like everything else, this gets easier with practice. We should note here that because God is holy, He can never let offence go unpunished. Instead He offers to pay the penalty for us, through Jesus Christ at the cross. When we are angry we do well to remember that amazing grace! Our offender may need grace. We might need it too.

photo credit: Stéfan via photopin cc