How can you answer troubling questions about God that have no easy answers? How can you talk about God’s love to traumatized people in a war zone, when God seems so distant and disengaged from their suffering? During my weekly Bible study that I conduct for a group of 20-30 doctors (pictured below) in Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I’m often asked, “What should we say to our patients, whose family, friends, or neighbors have been driven from their homes or brutally murdered?” In Eastern Congo, some six million people have died due to violence, starvation, and disease over the past 25 years. Their nightmare has raised earnest questions about God that are difficult to answer, such as, “Does God care?” and “Why didn’t God protect us?”
Meanwhile, in Europe, Russian troops are wreaking havoc across Ukraine, thousands are being injured or killed, and over three million people have been forced to flee the country in a matter of a few weeks so far. In Asia, as you well know, the crisis in Myanmar continues unabated and the suffering keeps multiplying. Everywhere there is great suffering from injustice and violence, the same kinds of questions keep arising among Christians. Even my Burmeses theological students want to know, “Are we suffering because God is punishing us?” “Is God ignoring us?” “Should we expect any help from God?”
In my role as seminary professor and Bible teacher in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia over the past 15 years, I’ve been asked these kinds of questions repeatedly by people who are being traumatized by genocide, war, or oppression. However, rather than try to make up answers to unanswerable questions or offer up false hope, it’s been far more helpful to admit the limitations of human understanding about God and to focus practically and realistically on how we know that God works in the midst of great evil.
As I have struggled with my own understanding of what to expect from God, I have longed ceased to put my hope in God’s sudden appearance out of nowhere to save the people. I’d be delighted for any miraculous intervention God may choose to make, and I pray for God’s help and deliverance daily. But most of my hope rests on how God works in, among, and through those who know, love, and serve Jesus Christ.
I have never had a vision of Jesus, but I see Jesus in his body of believers all the time—in their compassionate acts of kindness, self-sacrificial service, hospitality, and generosity. They are riddled with all sorts of imperfections and failings, yet they treasure their relationship with God. They keep drawing from the well of God’s love and grace for light and life in the midst of their darkness. They love Jesus, and they genuinely want to share Jesus’ love with others. And do so, sometimes even at great personal cost.
It’s been inspiring to me to see the outpouring of support for those who are suffering in all the places where I serve— including, Ukraine, Myanmar, and the Congo—both from faithful followers of Christ within the countries and from a wide variety of caring people internationally. This is surely part of God’s plan to minister to those who call upon the name of the Lord in their distress.
There are no easy answers to the cries and confusion of people in a war zone. Nevertheless, when we, as the body of Christ, fulfill our purpose to be the heart, voice, hands, and feet of Jesus, the world will know that there is a God who cares. The power, presence, and love of God will be evident for others to experience through us. And we who serve in Jesus’ name will be less overwhelmed by the evil all around us, because our eyes will be focused more on what we can do and less on what we can’t; on what God is doing through us, and not on just on what we hope and pray that God will do for us.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.
On October 10, 2020, I had the privilege of preaching at the marriage ceremony of the son of close family friends and his fiancée, both of whom I have come to know and love over the past several years. The following Charge to the Couple was edited both to protect their privacy and to make it applicable to anyone who wants more love and grace in their marriage.
The marriage day is one of the most important days of your life. It’s a day of celebration. It’s a day of commitment. And it’s a day of testimony to your love and intention to spend the rest of your lives together as husband and wife.
And yet, today is obviously not the beginning of your love and relationship. Today is a highpoint to be sure, but it is just one day, albeit one very special day, in a long flow that began when you first fell in love. So, for a few minutes, I’m going to talk about what you’ve been creating and what’s going to help you successfully continue on this path of mutual love and commitment, which we call marriage.
Live in love
To begin, it’s worth stating the obvious that we’re here today because of love. But, what’s not so obvious to everyone is that there are several different kinds of love, each of which has an important purpose in our relationships, and especially in marriage. C.S. Lewis famously wrote about each one in his book, The Four Loves. To make your marriage strong and enduring, commit yourselves to living in love and by love.
First of all, there is family love. This kind of love isn’t exactly the same for everyone, given that each of us has unique experiences growing up. For many it’s that special bond and affection that they feel for their family of origin. But for others, especially those who have had a painful childhood or been alienated from family members, family love may be felt for a group of people they have identified as their family members, whether they are actually related to them or not. No matter how we may define it, “family” is really important for most of us, because family love, at its best, is what gives us an emotional place of belonging, a place where we can experience unconditional love, and a place we can always return to in order to find people who accept us and want to be with us. What you’re doing today is creating a new family, and inheriting new, extended family members. Don’t take this love for granted. Commit yourself now to doing the hard work to nurture and develop family love as deeply and broadly as possible.
There is also the love between close friends. This kind of love enables you to be each other’s best friend—not only on date nights, but on Monday mornings when you don’t feel like going back to work, on Wednesday evenings when you’re having a hard time getting through the week, and on those long, cold days when there’s nothing to do and all you have is each other. No matter what you might have to face in the years to come, hold on to each other as best friends, and keep cultivating your friendship with one another at deeper and deeper levels.
Then, for a married couple, there is the love of mutual attraction, or what the ancient Greeks called, eros. This kind of love is God’s way of binding a man and a woman together in a unique way, creating a bond that is intended to last for a lifetime within the context of marriage. Celebrate it, thoroughly enjoy it, and carefully protect it. Reserve this level of intimacy for each other and no one else; and enjoy the special closeness that comes from it.
And then, finally, there is agape love. This is the kind of love that the Apostle Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13. Agape love is “patient and kind. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” In other words, agape love goes beyond constantly changing moods and feelings, and expresses a commitment to do what is in the best interest of the other person, even when it requires personal sacrifice.
This is the kind of love God shows us, and the kind of love he wants us to show toward one another, regardless of attraction, friendship or family relations. It’s the kind of love that led Jesus to sacrifice his own comfort and personal agenda to stand up for others, and ultimately to give his life to demonstrate the unimaginable extent of God’s love.
One of my favorite stories in the Gospels actually started out on a sad note. Jesus’ cousin and close friend, John the Baptist, had just been killed. Jesus, shocked and heart-broken, gathered his disciples together to get away by themselves for a little while. They got in a boat and intended to get some rest and time alone, away from the demands of ministry, at their “lake home.” However, we read in Matthew (14:13-14) that when Jesus got to the other side of the lake, a crowd was already there, looking for him. When he saw them, he had compassion on them, because, in his perception, they were like sheep without a shepherd. So, he gave up his vacation plans and began to heal and teach them many things.
In marriage, there are going to be those times when your spouse is going to need something from you that you’d rather not give. Maybe you just sat down in your favorite chair with a book or turned on the TV to watch a show or game. Maybe you’re tired and just want some time to yourself. Maybe your annoyed or have lost patience. But you’re going to have to make a decision. Will you stop what you’re doing, or give up whatever you’d rather be doing, in order to care for your spouse? The degree to which you make these hard, self-sacrificial decisions will greatly determine how much love there will be in your marriage.
I know this is the kind of love you want to have in your marriage and in your family. It’s a noble ideal; but to live it out you’re going to need to help. And that leads us to the subject of God’s love and grace.
Be filled with grace
Your ability to be loving toward others is directly linked to your experience of being loved, especially by God. When you experience the kind of gracious love that God offers—unconditional, generous love, without strings attached—you develop your capacity to be loving and gracious toward others.
God lavishes his love on us not because of our worthiness, but because of who he is. It’s how he wants to relate to his creation. He wants to love us, and he has within himself the unlimited capacity to be gracious and kind, even when we are at our worst.
We read in Romans chapter two, that God’s kindness is intended to lead us to repentance. In other words, God often chooses to be patient, kind, and merciful toward us, not because he’s soft or doesn’t care, but because he knows that mercy is more powerful than judgment. He knows that the real goal: changing our hearts, producing lasting change, and cultivating love for him will rarely come from harsh judgment and punishment. Changes in the heart come from experiencing agape love, mercy and grace.
In marriage, if you want, you can judge and punish one another when the other person fails you. You have a right to do so. But it’s not the better way. And it won’t make the other person love you more. It simply can’t produce the heart change and the love you truly long for from one another. Kindness, mercy, and grace is what your partner needs when they are trying to get back on their feet and have no right to ask for anything from you.
In other words, grace recognizes that none of us is perfect, and never will be; yet there remains value and preciousness in each of us. Grace chooses to focus on the good, rather than on what’s wrong. Grace accepts the other person as they are, and it forgives when necessary. Grace believes in the other person, even when he or she cannot believe in him- or herself.
Put Christ at the center
When Jill and I got married 38 years ago, we had no idea what we were getting into! We loved each other very much and had become each other’s best friend, but there was so much we didn’t know about ourselves, let alone the other person. We had so much growing up still to do. Sometimes, in our immaturity, frustration, and disappointment, we hurt each other, and said or did things we now regret.
Yet, God’s love and grace gave us the ability to forgive each other when need be. And our common commitment to Christ helped us to rise above ourselves to find direction and purpose that was bigger than our own self-centered instincts. We haven’t been perfect in following Christ by any means, but our relationship with him has been an anchor when we’ve needed stability; it’s been a lighthouse, when we’ve needed to avoid danger in the darkness; he’s been our North star, when we’ve needed to reorient ourselves and figure out which direction to go. And he’s been our common root, which nourishes, renews, and empowers us from day to day. In other words, Christ is at the center of our relationship and we depend on him to lead and guide and empower our marriage.
To use the well-known metaphor of the cross, we have been seeking to cultivate both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our relationship with God. The vertical dimension represents our personal relationship with God. It’s grounded in God’s love for us and in Jesus’ sacrificial act of love in dying for us. We respond by putting our trust in God’s grace and mercy and by accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. Then, in the horizontal dimension, we express our faith in Christ by extending God’s love and grace toward others. This Christ-centered, multi-dimensional spirituality is God’s will for our lives.
So, on this wedding day, fill your relationship with every kind of love, but especially agape love. Put Christ at the center of your marriage and family, and learn how to draw more and more on Christ’s Spirit so that you can offer God’s agape love and grace freely and generously to each other and to others around you.
If you will do these things, you’re going to make it. But far more than just make it, alongside all the mundane and difficult moments, your life together will flourish. It will be full of joy, meaning, and purpose in more ways than you can even imagine now. It will never be perfect, but there will be love, and there will be grace. May this be your marriage story now and for the rest of your lives. Amen.
In light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this series of posts explores how Jesus’s teaching and example call us to reach out across racial lines to respond compassionately to unjust suffering in society.
I started feeling emotion the moment I began walking up 38th Street. I could see the memorial site just ahead on the corner. Flowers, placards, graffiti, and personal notes were everywhere. There was so much to take in. I could feel the grief, rage, and despair hanging thickly in the air.
When I reached the place on the pavement, where George Floyd gasped for his final breaths, begging for his life and calling for his mama, tears came to my eyes. I could feel anger well up within me. This killing was so wrong. How could someone who was hired to “protect and serve” the community, callously, slowly, choke the life out of a subdued, handcuffed suspect, lying on the ground?
The vast majority of police throughout the country do not harass, let alone kill, people of color; but the bad ones have given rise to fear, rage, and despair among many African Americans nationwide. Much of the graffiti and signage seethed with anger at the police.
Just to the north of where George died, well over a hundred names are painted in multi-colors on Chicago Avenue, memorials to black people who have died at the hands of police in recent years. George’s killing by a white policeman wasn’t the first time. Though such killings are relatively rare (according to statistics), what happened to him has happened to others. And the perception (rightly or not) of police bullying and brutal treatment was widespread enough to strike a nerve in urban communities across the country.
George’s now famous plea, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe,” has become a rallying cry for black protesters. A recent New York Times article indicated that at least 70 other people of color over the past decade have died in police custody, crying out that they couldn’t breathe before they died. Songwriters, rappers, and activists throughout the country are saying, this is what it feels like to be black in America—we can’t breathe.
How many black people feel this way? What does the average black person feel when a police car drives by or when they are stopped on the road? I don’t think anybody really knows. It may not even be the majority of people of color, but it is a sizable minority. A 2015 Gallup poll indicates that more blacks, nationally, believe the police treat minorities fairly than unfairly, but the numbers are very close (52% vs. 48%, respectively).
These statistics should make us pause before demonizing the police or assuming that the police should be abolished, but we are still left with the question, why do 48% (+/- 5% for margin of error) of black people feel that the police treat minorities unfairly? And what could we, as a society, do to lower those numbers? What could any of us, as individuals, do to advocate better for those who do not have the power or opportunity to effectively advocate for themselves?
What would Jesus do?
The cultural context in Jesus’s day is not the same as today in America, and there is no one teaching or story that directly applies to the complex racial strife in America. However, as we have been saying in this series, there is material in the Gospels that pertain to racism and injustice.
In Jesus’s context, he was very concerned about the treatment of those with less power or status in society, those who were being neglected, exploited, or abused by others. Jesus did not offer systemic solutions to racism or social injustice, but, by his personal example and teaching, he provided a powerful witness to God’s compassion and concern for those at the so-called, “bottom” of society.
As another example (in addition to those we’ve already looked at), the story of Jesus and the two blind men speaks to God’s heart, values, and response to the needs of those who cry out in distress. Notice how Jesus’s behavior stands in contrast to the crowd.
There were two blind men sitting by the roadside. When they heard that Jesus was passing by, they shouted, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” The crowd sternly ordered them to be quiet; but they shouted even more loudly, “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” Jesus stood still and called them, saying, “What do you want me to do for you?” They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.
Matthew 20:30-34, NRSV
In glaring contrast to those who felt they had the power and position to silence the shouting men, Jesus actually cared and listened. He stopped in his tracks. He asked questions. He wanted to know what was wrong and how he could help. And when he heard what they had to say, he was moved by compassion. Then, he took action.
Seven practical steps you can take now
White people’s response to the protests and riots has ranged from sympathy to condemnation, but overall, my impression is that most of us (white people) care and want to help. In just Minneapolis, millions of dollars have poured into the hands of nonprofits seeking to rebuild burned out businesses and rally around black communities. Thousands of people have been volunteering to do clean up. However, at the same time, many of my white friends feel powerless to do anything of substance to address underlying issues. Sometimes, I feel that way, too.
Yet, as we grapple with how to respond to cries for justice, greater safety in black neighborhoods, and more equity and opportunity for people of color, Jesus’s compassionate response to human beings in need provides an example for us. While there are no easy, quick solutions, there are at least seven practical steps each of us can take now.
Stop, look, and listen. Over and over again, I’m hearing pleas from black people to “see us.” In other words, African Americans are not asking white people to become “color-blind,” but to remember that when white people see a black face that that person’s experience has likely been quite different from theirs. Don’t assume you know what their experience is. If you don’t know whom to listen to, many inner-city organizations are very willing to talk with anyone who sincerely wants to hear the stories and perspective of blacks living in America.
Hang in there, without becoming defensive or judgmental. If you are listening to someone from a different cultural background, you are likely to be upset by something that person says. If you react harshly, turn them off, walk away, or jump right into trying to counter their point of view, you will be no further ahead. Keep listening. Stephen Covey famously advocated that we should “first seek to understand, then to be understood.”
Learn about the issues from multiple perspectives. Don’t buy into one of the extreme narratives, whether it is police-bashing and assailing white supremacy (as if all whites are conspiring against black people), on one side; or putting all the blame on the minorities for their own problems (as if the only thing black people need to do is take more responsibility), on the other. The truth is always more complicated than broad caricatures and over-generalizations. And voicing the extreme narratives only fuels the fires of conflict.
Let your compassion move you. If you’re not already grieving over the killings and struggles of African Americans, ask God to soften your heart. Consider their suffering with greater empathy. Feel more deeply. Think of the children.
Be patient, but diligent. Making personal, let alone societal, progress will take time and a great deal of effort. The racial and social issues that are in sharp relief right now have been centuries in the making. Stay with the process of listening and learning. Ask God to show you what you need to see in yourself, in the other person, and in our society’s structures and systems. Get ready to make changes.
Link arms with others. Find out who’s already doing good work on the street level to address social, educational, justice, and other human welfare needs. Seriously consider the merits of proposed policy changes in local and state government. There are countless opportunities to volunteer, donate money or materials, or simply stand up and be counted.
Start somewhere. Don’t get stuck in analysis-paralysis or freeze up because you don’t know what to think or do. If you haven’t already starting engaging in practical ways, do something today, however small. Go beyond just feeling sorry for others and confessing your sins. Get involved.
I don’t have all the answers for myself, let alone for society as a whole. But, Jesus’s teaching and example are convicting me of my own unexplored racist attitudes and are motivating me to do more than I’ve been doing, relationally and financially. It’s a start. But only a start. From here, I plan to get a better handle on public policy and societal structures that may be inadvertently working against people of color. Then comes advocacy.
In light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this series of posts explores how Jesus’s teaching and example call us to reach out across racial lines to respond compassionately to unjust suffering in society.
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”
Luke 10:25-28, NIV
Accept God’s purpose for your life
In short, by reciting the two greatest commandments, Jesus was teaching us that God’s purpose for our lives is to know, love, and serve God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love is the chief characteristic of God. Loving others is thus the hallmark of godliness (literally, god-likeness). This is our calling as followers of Jesus Christ.
Such a message is not hard to understand, intellectually, but living by this kind of love can be very difficult in practice. Why? Because we human beings tend to put ourselves or something else at the center of our universe instead of God (the Bible calls that, idolatry). Then, by nature, we are selfish and driven by all sorts of desires and impulses that run contrary to love. Even when we love those who love us, our “love” tends to be conditional, with strings attached. (I’ll love you, if…. I’ll continue to love you, as long as you….) But the moment we’re afraid, we’d rather do something else, we’re mistreated, or loving others becomes inconvenient or too costly, love can easily fly out the window.
So, not surprisingly, the religious leaders of Jesus day easily agreed with him about the priority of love, intellectually. But then they quickly sought ways to excuse themselves from actually putting love into practice when they didn’t want to do it.
But wanting to justify himself, [the religious lawyer] asked Jesus,
“And who is my neighbor?”
Luke 10:29, NIV
But Jesus was ready to close the loophole. He responded by telling the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan to put in no uncertain terms his answer.
Why the Samaritanis Good
When Jesus identifies the role model for Jewish people in the parable as a Samaritan, he is both (deliberately) offending them and challenging them to raise their standard for loving others in society. Jewish leaders in Jesus’s day looked down on Samaritans, who were a racially mixed people. Their religion was also a syncretistic blend of Judaism and pagan religions. After the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel (722 BC), most of the people were taken away into captivity. When they eventually returned, many had intermarried with the Assyrians. These racially mixed people became known as Samaritans. They were rejected by the so-called, pure-blood Jewish people from the southern kingdom (Judah).
By choosing a Samaritan as the hero of the parable, Jesus is making at least three points, which have relevance to us today in working to mitigate racism and create a more just society.
Who pleases God?
Not those who have the “right” color of skin
Butthose who have compassion on those in need, who show mercy and kindness to those who don’t deserve it or who can’t repay them
Who is our neighbor?
Not just those of our own color, tribe, or race
But anyone in our society, especially those who have been victimized, exploited, or mistreated by others, or who may simply need an extra helping hand
How far are we expected to go?
Not only as much as is comfortable or convenient
But as far as necessary to adequately address the needs and suffering in society
Love is not just a warm, fuzzy feeling, or cute emoji. Showing mercy costs us something. The two religious leaders, no doubt, could have preached wonderful sermons on love and the God of mercy. But when it came to addressing real-life, human needs in their society, they crossed to the other side of the road and just walked on by. In glaring contrast, the Samaritan paid for the beaten man’s medical, housing, and food expenses out of his own pocket. He took time away from his business. He planned to check back in to see if there was more he could, if he hadn’t done enough the first time.
Hot and cold racism
My Apple dictionary defines racism as “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against a person or people on the basis of their membership in a particular racial or ethnic group, typically one that is a minority or marginalized.”
This definition does a good job highlighting what I call “hot” racism— outright, overt hostility or aggression toward a different race or person of a different color. Everyone knows what that looks, sounds, and feels like. In my experience, most white people don’t act like that.
However, as sociologists Robin DiAngelo and Michael Dyson point out in their thought-provoking, insightful book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018), by only defining racism in extreme terms, we easily fail to recognize our own, underlying racist attitudes and behavior.
In other words, there is also what I call “cold” racism. Cold racism is far more subtle and difficult to detect, even in ourselves. Cold racism can simply be apathy or preoccupation with the concerns of one’s own family, tribe, or group to the neglect of others who don’t fit in with us, for various reasons. For example, to ignore the cries of black people for greater justice, or to refuse to seriously consider ways that our society favors white people over minorities is to be complicit with racism. DiAngelo’s and Dyson’s book provides numerous, convicting examples.
This essay barely scratches the surface of the kinds of changes needed in our society, since I’m focusing on the individual. But one very good place to start is for each of us (including me) to become more self-aware of our implicit biases and to be a whole lot more humble about how we might be unwittingly contributing to racial discrimination and injustice.
Let’s be honest. Like the well-educated, sincerely religious, lawyer in Jesus’s day, most of us would prefer to justify our own way of living and acting rather than do much more than make a contribution, read a few articles, and watch news shows. Many of us would rather spiel off all our good deeds and righteous behavior than do the soul-searching work to examine our deepest attitudes toward minorities. We would rather just be outraged or find reasons to congratulate our progressiveness than ask ourselves, “Am I truly loving my neighbor to the extent Jesus calls for?”
Jesus answer to the Pharisee’s attempt to justify his inhospitality and neglect of people in need was clear: Your neighbor is precisely the person you may least want to reach out to, and probably has done nothing to deserve your help. Loving him or her is going to cost you more than you want to give, and is likely to take more of your time and energy than is convenient.
The Good Samaritan does not offer a role model for working for systemic change, something essential for real change in America. Yet he does offer a concrete example of a godly (God-like) attitude toward those who are disadvantaged, suffering from racial discrimination, injustice, or just “different” from us. It’s called compassion. And when we put it into action, it’s called mercy.
[Jesus said,] Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” [The expert in the Jewish Law] said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Luke 10:36-37, NRSV
Who is your neighbor?
The full text of the parable of the Good Samaritan
But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
In light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this series of posts explores how Jesus’s teaching and example call us to reach out across racial lines to respond compassionately to unjust suffering in society.
Since George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman in Minneapolis and the ensuing protests and riots, I have felt overwhelmed with emotions and questions. I have been reading articles and editorials every day. I have been listening to blacks and whites talking, preaching, warning, advising, and arguing about racism and injustice in America. I have been watching troubling documentaries and historically-based movies on the history of race relations, law enforcement, and the justice system in recent years.
It’s not just what’s being said or portrayed that’s making me feel so upset. It’s the underlying reality of widespread disparities between whites and blacks, and a whole set of troubling societal issues, stemming from years of slavery followed by 135 years of (at times) improving, yet often pitiable, treatment of African-Americans in my country. Intelligent people are fiercely debating causes and responsibility, as they should be. But, at this point, I’m more concerned with what is actually going to produce meaningful change?
So much is needed to reduce racism and create a more just society; but here, for a moment, let’s step back from the intense emotion of these issues–not to diminish our passion to thoroughly understand what is going on, what has led to this point, and to eliminate racial discrimination. Our passion for these goals should increase, not decrease. However, at the same time, as followers of Christ, we also need to create enough space to let the Holy Spirit bring some needed, fresh perspective to us from the Bible.
What would Jesus say about all this?
The parable of the sheep and the goats
In Matthew 25, Jesus references the great Judgment Day, when the Son of Man (a reference to himself, God’s messiah, who will ultimately rule the world) will separate the “sheep” from the “goats.” The sheep, on his right hand, will inherit the Kingdom of God. The goats, on his left, will be cursed and sentenced to eternity in Hell, along with the devil and his angels.
If you’re not accustomed to this kind of preaching, Jesus was employing a popular way in his day to get people’s attention. The rhetoric was stark, frightening, and powerful, based on a core theological conviction found in all Western religious traditions: those who do what is right in God’s eyes will be rewarded. Those who do not will face eternal punishment.
And what will be the basis for judgment?
To the sheep, the King will say:
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
Matt. 25:34-36, NRSV
When the perplexed righteous ask when they had ever done these things for him, Jesus will explain:
‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Matthew 25:40, NRSV
See God in Jesus
By talking in this way, Jesus is telling us something very important about God and about what God expects from us, his creation. He’s saying, God cares deeply about human suffering, and those who want to please God will, too. Or, else.
Christians know from the full teaching of the Bible that we cannot save ourselves, by our own good deeds, but only by faith in Jesus Christ. However, especially in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we also know that true believers are called to live righteously, which means, above all, to show love to others in concrete ways. And not just toward our families and people we like or who love us. Jesus taught that we’re to love everyone, even our enemies.
Jesus, himself, showed us what this kind of non-discriminatory love looks like. For example, he identified with the poor and marginalized in ways that contradicted the dominant views of his day. By associating with the “least” (not least in God’s eyes, but those who hold the lowest status in society), and by welcoming and treating everyone (except the hypocritical authorities) with respect and kindness, Jesus provides a basis for dignity and self-respect for even the most discouraged, downtrodden person.
Then, he was killed. Jesus was crucified, because he dared to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves, and to fulfill the will of God that he die for the sins of the world. By God’s mysterious design, Jesus’s ignominious death wound up simultaneously judging humankind’s self-serving, unjust ways and showing us the breathtaking extent of God’s love.
In Jesus, we see who God is and what god-likeness (godliness) looks like in a social context. God is just, in condemning discrimination, exploitation, and neglect of the needy; and God is loving, kind, and merciful, in welcoming and caring for those who cry out to him for forgiveness and help in their time of need.
See Jesus in “others”
I met Kevin T. at Holmesburg maximum security prison in Philadelphia, which was officially closed in 1995, after decades of abusive and exploitative treatment of prisoners. I was only 23 years old, serving as a part time prison chaplain, while studying at Princeton Theological Seminary. Looking back, I realize I really didn’t know what I was doing. But I cared. I wanted to do something. I was willing to learn and to try.
Kevin was also a young man, but his future outlook was far different than mine. He was serving a life sentence, for murder. I had never met a murderer before. I didn’t know what to expect. What was both comforting and disturbing was that Kevin seemed rather normal. As I got to know him I could see his humanity. I could feel our brotherhood, in spite of his crimes.
One day, I drove my old Catalina across town to search for his parents. I knocked on the door of an old, two story building, in a dilapidated part of town. It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only white person on the block, and probably in the whole neighborhood. Peering down at a scrap of paper with an address scrawled on it, I silently prayed that I was in the right place.
When the door opened, I introduced myself and was taken to a big open room in the back. I’ll never forget the shock and the deep, deep sadness that I saw in the eyes of Kevin’s father. He was hunched over a table, surrounded by maybe a dozen family members. They weren’t expecting me. They weren’t expecting anyone like me, ever.
In that first awkward moment, I didn’t really know what I was doing there. I just wanted to show that I cared and wanted to help their son, if I could. Fortunately, they quickly welcomed me and invited me to sit and talk. It turned out, they didn’t want anything more from me. My visit was enough.
The parable of the sheep and goats challenges us to think carefully about who we think God is, where we find him, and what God expects of followers of Jesus in a world full of suffering and need, racial discrimination and injustice.
In the parable, Jesus doesn’t focus on who’s to blame for social problems. He doesn’t analyze why some people are poor, some are in prison, others are hungry, etc., as if we should first decide if someone is worthy of our help before caring or taking action. No, Jesus teaches us to first respond to “others” with compassion, mercy, and kindness, as if we were caring for Jesus himself.
Kevin deserved to be in prison. It was a just sentence. But when I visited him, and when I visited his grief-stricken parents, I experienced God’s loving presence through the encounters. I felt it. They felt it. And the racial barriers began melting away.
I learned, what I have experienced hundreds of times since, that when we get over our fears and prejudices to reach out to those who are different from us, from a place of genuine love and respect, beautiful things often happen. When we give of ourselves to someone in Jesus’s name, we often find that Jesus is already there.
Next week: It’s time.
For those wishing to read the full parable.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. … Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
In light of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this series of posts explores how Jesus’s teaching and example call us to reach out across racial lines to respond compassionately to unjust suffering in society.
I can’t get the image out of mind. On May 25, a white, Minneapolis policeman calmly kneels on the neck of a face-down, handcuffed, black man…until he is dead.
In the days that followed, Minneapolis was set on fire. While peaceful protestors marched in the street and set up memorials, violent ones started burning down buildings, smashing windows, blowing up cars, and looting businesses. And the protests spread throughout the country, and then globally.
For several days, I kept watching the endless stream of video clips of the murder and violence on social media. I’ve been horrified at all the destruction and lawlessness, and distressed, witnessing police shoving and tear-gassing protestors. I can’t watch any of these videos anymore. They are all too disturbing.
What’s going on? How could such a brazen murder by a uniformed policeman of a black man, in broad daylight, happen? Why did this killing ignite protests and riots across the country so rapidly? What kind of response would actually be helpful, rather than our usual reactivity, which tends to reinforce our biases, justify the status quo, or, worse, actually inflame the polarization and conflict?
For the past two months, I’ve been writing essays on the topic, “What can we expect from God now?” In light of the recent murder, extensive violence, and widespread protests, it’s time to turn that question around. What does God expect from us now?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8, NRSV
In the eighth century B.C.E., Micah, the prophet, wrote unsparing words of judgment against widespread idolatry, exploitation, oppression, and other unjust practices of the privileged, powerholders in ancient Israel. In one of the most well-known verses in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), he sums up God’s righteous expectations with the three fold answer to the question, “What does the LORD require of you?” He simply says:
love kindness, and
walk humbly with your God.
When black people and their allies march in the streets, they are shouting out for justice. They are screaming their outrage. They want the world to hear their stories. They are calling out to people with power and privilege, whom they believe could to do something to help, to actually do something. And when peaceful protests devolve into violence, looting, and arson, white people need to go beyond judging the external behavior to see and feel the depth of the rioters’ hopelessness, rage, and grief.
The issue is not just one abominable murder. And it’s not simply about a corrupt police force, as if there would be no problem of crime or violence if only the police were better people. There are thousands of really good, sincere, hardworking, dedicated police in America; and there are some very racist, violent, corrupt ones, too. Significant improvements are needed in training and law enforcement, but that’s not the whole solution. The issue is also not about law and order, that is, the need to deal firmly with violent criminals who are serious threats to society. There are many criminals, of all colors, who need to be stopped; but controlling all the lawbreakers isn’t going to provide more opportunity, respect, and justice to people who are routinely demeaned, mistrusted, and mistreated just because of the color of their skin or racial/ethnic background.
No, the issue at hand, as I see it, is a whole society blighted by a spiritual disease of the heart (racism, self-interest, blindness to injustice) that keeps manifesting itself at the expense of those with the least power to defend themselves or to right the wrongs. All human beings, of all colors and backgrounds, have that disease to some extent (biblical writers call it, “sin”). Yet, what those of us in position to ensure justice and provide mercy must understand better is that those who suffer the most from this societal sin tend to be people of color, at least in the United States.
They and their allies are right to take to the streets. They are not right to destroy other people’s property, but they are right to protest, call for reform, and even scream as loud as they can. And if whites–those of us in positions of power and privilege—don’t listen, the screams will get louder. And should.
Micah’s moral instruction was for the whole community. Justice, loving kindness, and humble submission to God is the calling for all of us, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, white, black, brown, or any color, race, or ethnic group we might be. It’s what God expects from everyone. Each of us has to determine for ourselves what that means in our contexts. Sometimes, the application is obvious. Other times, it takes a crisis to wake us up. We’re there now.
As a follower of Christ, how does your faith apply to blight of racism and injustice? Are you looking deeply into your heart and at your own attitudes and behavior? Are you asking the Holy Spirit to show you where you have harbored racist, indifferent, or even hateful feelings toward those who have a different skin color or ethnic background? Or, are you using most of your energy reacting to the extremists and defending yourself, as if proving that you’re not as bad as some people accuse you of being means that you are actually innocent and not responsible to try to do more to help?
I am not speaking from on high, but as a privileged white person who was raised in a highly racist environment. Even as an adult, pastor, and Christian leader, I confess that at times I have shamefully nurtured prejudice against others whom I did not understand or was afraid of. I don’t have all the answers for myself, let alone for our broken church and society. Racism and injustice are huge, deep-seated problems, without obvious or easy fixes. But I am sorry. I’m sorry for all the ways I’ve contributed to the problem and have failed to take action to right the wrongs when I could have done something.
Since I witnessed George’s murder on video, I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to think about what difference I could make. I don’t know yet. But I do know this. It’s not going to be just one thing. It’s got to start with a real change of heart and attitude toward others who are different from me. And the internal changes have to translate into external action. Action that translates into tangible benefit for those who are suffering from racial discrimination, exploitation, mistreatment, and lack of compassion and empathy. That’s what the prophets, like Micah, called for when they preached repentance to people in positions of power and privilege.
Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your lives. Even though you have been in love for some time, today you are making a lifelong commitment to one another.
You’re in love. You are committed to each other. You’re excited. You have spent a lot of time planning not only for this day, but for your future together.
You’re ready to get married. Probably more than ready. So, the question for today is not, will you commit yourself to each other. You’re already ready to do that. No, the real question going forward is, what are you going to do to stay committed? What do you need to do to keep your love alive and growing?
Everything I’m going to say, you’ve probably heard before, but now is a very good time to remind you of what you simply must remember going forward, if you want your marriage not only to survive but to also thrive and be all that God intends for you.
In short, a marriage that both survives and thrives is one in which there is rock solid commitment. There’s a lot of grace. And God is clearly at the center of everything.
Let’s talk first about commitment. What kind of commitment is needed in marriage? Well, the minimum level is a commitment to stay together, come what may. In a few moments, you are going to promise to take each other as your spouse, and to hold on to each other throughout your lives…for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health…until death. I think that’s pretty clear. Come what may, you will be promising to stand by each other until the end of your lives.
That’s the minimum. But our commitment should go deeper and further than the minimum.
The kind of commitment that helps a marriage do more than just survive is also a commitment to do all you can to work things out when things get rough or rocky. You have to keep talking, and be willing to face things in yourself and issues you might prefer to avoid.
It’s also commitment to keep growing as individuals, and as a couple, so that you have more and more to offer one another.
It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other when loving seems really hard or when you get preoccupied with other interests or concerns.
It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other as God love us—as much as that’s possible.
The biblical definition of godly love, also known as agape, comes down to putting the interests of others ahead of your own. Agape means acting in ways that are truly in the other’s best interest, even when it costs you something to do so. Even if you’re not getting all of what you want in the relationship.
Agape is the kind of love that led Jesus Christ to give up his life to bring salvation to the world. He didn’t do it because he felt all warm and tingling inside all the time. He did it the people he loved had a great need, and he alone could do something about it. He did it because he wasn’t thinking only about what was best for him. He was thinking about what was best for us.
In a word, agape is unselfish commitment. It’s not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to each other, commitment to treating each other in the right ways, commitment to believing the best things about each other, commitment to being there for each other.
Agape simply does not give up on the other person. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does. You need to focus more on what it is right than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.
Full of grace
The second ingredient in a marriage that both survives and thrives is grace. Be sure there’s a lot of grace in your marriage.
You know about grace because you’ve experienced it from God for yourselves. God’s standard for our lives and relationships doesn’t waver, but he continually remembers our frailty and limitations. He knows all our failings and weaknesses, but he loves us anyway.
God treasures and values us so highly, that even when (not if) we fail to be the kind of person he calls us to be, he is there to offer forgiveness if we turn back to him. And he’s there to help us to get back on our feet again, when we need a helping hand.
When I got married 35 years ago, Jill and I had no idea what we were getting into! Some things we knew, but there was so much we didn’t know about ourselves and each other. We had so much growing up still to do. And then, there was so much that life brought to us that we never could have imagined. Sometimes we were ready for the unexpected, and sometimes we were completely caught off guard. Sometimes, we handled challenges really well. And sometimes, we fell flat on our faces.
Yet, in the midst all our weaknesses, limitations, failings, and missteps, what’s helped us through has been grace. Commitment, to be sure; but also grace.
Grace accepts the other person as they are. Grace recognizes that none of us is perfect, and never will be; yet there remains value and preciousness in each of us. Grace forgives when necessary, and chooses to be patient and kind. Grace chooses to focus on the good, rather than what’s wrong. Grace believes in the other person, even when your spouse cannot believe in him- or herself.
In short, grace offers what the other person does not deserve, because the other person’s worthiness is not the point. Grace offers what love chooses to give. And once again, God is our example.
God lavishes his love on us not because of our worthiness, but because of who he is. It’s how he wants to relate to his creation. He wants to love us, and he has within himself the capacity to be gracious and kind, even when we are at our worst. We find in Scripture several places where the writer praises God by saying, “You, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15).
That’s the kind of God we have. And he is our example…
Rock solid commitment and willingness to show grace to each other are critical ingredients to a successful marriage. But there’s something else even more important.
Keep God at the center of everything.
No matter what your intentions may be today, you cannot fulfill your commitment or become all of what God intends for you to be in your own strength or by just focusing on each other. Your love, as great as it is, is limited. Your relationship, as special as it is, cannot be everything. It can’t even be the main thing.
From a Christian perspective, what makes a marriage and a family thrive is God. God is the author of love. And it’s only by tapping into God’s incredible love that you are going to be able to keep loving each other in the face of all the demands and pressures ahead.
All this means that you need to build a strong relationship with God, and to make that relationship a high priority. As Christians, you also need to put Christ at the center of your lives, at the center of your marriage, and at the center of everything. It’s only when Christ becomes the reason for your lives, and God becomes the source and strength of your lives, that you can hope to experience all of what God intends for you. …that you could hope to experience the kind of marriage that God intends for you.
So many times in my marriage, I have noticed that it’s been our common commitment to Christ and our relationship with God that have helped us through the rough spots.
Individually, we each gave our lives to Christ, and that common spiritual commitment has given us a common language and purpose in life.
When we’ve been tempted to just focus on ourselves and what we want, our common faith has helped us to remember that we are here to serve God and others. Marriage is never just about the lives of the husband and wife. When we remember that we are here not to just serve ourselves, but to serve Christ in the world, that outward focus has kept us from turning inward and collapsing on ourselves.
And when we did not have the strength to face a particular trial, our common habits of prayer and seeking God’s help have led us over and over again to fresh perspective and strength to not give up.
We haven’t been perfect in following Christ by any means, but our relationship with him has been an anchor when we’ve needed stability; it’s been a lighthouse, when we’ve needed to avoid danger in the darkness; and it’s been our North star, when we’ve needed to know which direction to go. It’s been our common root, from which we both can grow.
If you continually pursue this kind of Christ-centered, agape filled, gracious and purposeful marriage, not only will your marriage survive when many others are failing; your marriage will thrive. You will see God use you to bless others in more ways than you can imagine now.
May God bless you both with this kind of marriage—grounded in a rock solid commitment, full of grace, and centered on God through Christ.
At age 36, I already felt like a failure. I had accomplished a lot by earning multiple graduate degrees, taking important roles of responsibility as a pastor, and impressing others in various ways. I had an amazing wife and two beautiful children. But in my heart of hearts, my achievements meant little to me. I didn’t feel very valuable as a person. Instead, I kept thinking about being unemployed. Worse, I was plagued by shame over how far short my life fell from what I wanted it to be—and from what I believed God wanted it to be. Not only was I keenly aware of all the “bad” things I had done in my life; I felt like I, myself, was “bad”.
By the grace of God, I was given an opportunity to attend a seminar on the subject of breaking the silence of shame. I learned that what was going on inside of me was far more serious than I had realized. Feeling guilty about our sins and failures from time to time is normal and healthy, and can even motivate us to make needed changes in our lives. What I was feeling was something insidious. I felt ashamed of myself at the core of my being, and when unhealed shame remains in the soil of our hearts, it becomes toxic.
Such shame often produces “weeds,” easily recognizable as products of feeling so poorly about ourselves. For example, our lives may be marked by persistently negative attitudes, highly visible sins, or other self-defeating, destructive behavior. Surprisingly, though, toxic shame can also produce seemingly “good fruit.”
Sometimes, when we believe that we are bad or fundamentally flawed, we try to “fix” ourselves by whatever means possible. We may even succeed at accomplishing much or creating something beautiful. We may hold a highly responsible position. We may serve others regularly and give generously. Perhaps we go to great lengths to make ourselves physically attractive, or to develop extraordinary skills. To us and everyone around us, our lives may appear to be very successful and fruitful.
However, when our efforts are driven by toxic shame (i.e., desperate attempts to do something in order to feel good about ourselves) and not by the Spirit of God, all our striving will ultimately be unsatisfying. At some point, we may give up out of frustration or discouragement. We may keep pushing and driving ourselves to exhaustion. Or, in spite of convincing everyone else that we are truly extraordinary individuals, we still fail to convince ourselves.
When I heard this teaching, the message pierced my heart. I realized that I could never do enough to truly feel good about myself. I am not ever going to find the solution to toxic shame in my own accomplishments. Instead of putting my trust in what I could do for myself, I needed to trust in God’s love and acceptance of me, despite all my shortcomings.
The image of my holding my firstborn son suddenly flashed through my mind. We were in the hospital, the day he was born. My heart was full, and words gushed out of my mouth that I didn’t anticipate. I looked at him tenderly and said, “Son, there is nothing you could ever do that would make me not love you.” As I basked in the warmth of that precious memory, the same kind of love I felt for my son began flowing within me, filling the lonely, raw, frightened, and empty spaces that were etched as scars throughout my soul.
Our Creator loves us simply because we are his children. He sees all our faults and limitations, and He still loves and accepts us. We belong to Him. And, yes, our moral failures and resistance to God create serious problems that can hurt our relationship with God. Yet, God’s love is so great that He not only reaches out to us with loving acceptance, he also graciously provides a solution for our sin that we could not produce on our own.
With new joy, I recalled the words of the Apostle Paul on this very subject. He explained to the Roman Christians that God’s love precedes all of our attempts to establish our own worthiness. What Jesus did by giving his life for us on the cross shows us how far God will go to to keep us safely in His care forever. Paul wrote, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners (i.e. before we even showed any interest in knowing, loving, or serving God), Christ died for us.” (2)
In that wonderful moment of awakening, my brokenness was healed. My eyes were opened. My heart was touched. I could hold my head high once again. God’s extraordinary love and grace had replaced shame in the soil of my soul. I now had a healthy, life-giving source of strength for my life—firmly rooted in God’s view of me, and not in my view of myself, or in my ability to earn or prove my worthiness. I was given a solid foundation of love to stand upon that does not crumble every time I stumble, or whenever I fall short of my ideals, fail, or feel rejected.
Several years later, someone who knew me well, asked me, “Who are you? “I hesitated for a moment, surprised by the unexpected question. But suddenly, I knew my answer.
Who am I? I am loved.
(1) Today’s post is a revised, English version of my recent post in French, “Je suis aimé!” (April 20, 2015). The original text was in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015. On May 3, an earlier English version was published on The Full Light website, which offers hope and healing words for those suffering from abuse of various kinds, under the same title, “I am loved!“
(2) Romans 5: 8, NIV. I added the words in italics to clarify the meaning of the verse.
Le suivant essai vient de mon petit témoignage pendant la Retraite Cathédrale, 19 avril 2015.
[A note to English speaking readers: Today’s post recalls a life-changing experience of mine in 1993, when I was profoundly touched by the love and grace of God during a seminar on breaking the bonds of shame. The foundation for my self-image was radically altered, and my reflection on my experience has become the theological cornerstone for my teaching and preaching ever since. The text is in French, because I shared this brief testimony with the spiritual pilgrims at the annual Cathedral Retreat, conducted in collaboration with the Chemin Neuf Community in Chartres, France, on April 19, 2015.]
Un moment est arrivé dans ma vie où j’étais très découragé. J’avais bien servi comme pasteur.
J’avais obtenu un doctorat. J’avais une belle femme et deux beaux enfants. Mais après la soutenance de ma thèse doctorale, je n’ai pas pu trouver d’emploi. Pas dans l’église. Pas à l’Université. Pas dans un séminaire. Alors ma famille et moi nous nous sommes déplacés de Chicago à Minneapolis, près de la famille de Jill. Nous avons considéré qu’il était indifférent d’être au chômage à Minneapolis ou à Chicago.
J’étais une personne brisée. Sans emploi, vivant près de la famille de Jill, dans laquelle depuis plusieurs générations les affaires avaient réussi et je me suis vu tout petit et sans importance. Je me suis vu dans une situation d’échec. Pire, chaque jour je pensais à tous les péchés commis et mon cœur était plein de honte. Je veux dire que j’ai pensé que je n’avais pas seulement fait de mauvaises choses, comme il arrive à tout le monde, c’est le sentiment universel de la culpabilité personnelle. Non, j’ai aussi éprouvé le sentiment que j’étais, en moi-même, mauvais.
Qu’est-ce-que j’aurais dû faire ? Qu’est-ce-que je pourrais faire ?
Par la grâce de Dieu, j’ai pu participé à un séminaire sur le sentiment de honte de soi. Ainsi j’ai appris que si la honte est enracinée dans notre cœur, elle est toxique. Elle est le terrain favorable pour les mauvaises herbes. Par exemple des attitudes négatives, des péchés très visibles ou des choix destructeurs, qui apparaissent à l’évidence devant les autres personnes. Mais en même temps la honte peut produire un autre fruit bien différent, qui naît de cette honte toxique. Parfois la même personne qui se croit mauvaise, voire malfaisante, peut produire de belles choses. Elle peut accomplir de grandes choses. Peut-être a-t-elle un poste de hautes responsabilités. Ou bien elle exerce des actes de service par sa contribution à diverses actions caritatives. Cette personne met tout en œuvre pour se prouver à elle-même ou aux autres qu’elle est réellement une bonne personne. Il est impossible de se tromper sur ce point.
Après avoir entendu cet enseignement, mon cœur en fut transpercé. J’avais accompli beaucoup de choses en obtenant des diplômes universitaires, j’avais occupé des postes de responsabilité comme pasteur, par exemple, en essayant de laisser mon empreinte sur les autres. A ce moment–là de ma vie, je ne pouvais pas penser à ce que j’avais accompli. La seule chose à laquelle je pensais était : mes fautes, mes péchés, mes échecs.
A ce moment-là je me suis rendu compte que je ne pourrais jamais trouver la paix par mes seuls efforts. Il n’y a qu’une solution à la honte toxique, qu’un seul espoir. Au lieu de mettre ma confiance en moi, je dois la mettre en Dieu.
Nous sommes aimés par le Créateur parce que nous sommes ses créatures, ses enfants. Il voit toutes nos limites et toutes nos fautes, mais il continue à nous aimer. Il peut nous accepter et nous pardonner parce que nous lui appartenons et parce que son Fils, Jésus-Christ, est mort pour effacer nos péchés. Je me suis rappelé les mots de l’apôtre Paul qui a parlé de l’amour magnifique de Dieu : « Or, la preuve que Dieu nous aime, c’est que le Christ est mort pour nous, alors que nous étions encore pécheurs. (Romains 5, 8)
A ce moment extraordinaire, je me suis trouvé libéré. D’un seul coup je me suis rendu compte que je pouvais vivre, je pouvais expérimenter la paix et la joie, je pouvais garder la tête haute, je pouvais me reposer dans la présence de Dieu parce que mon identité est affermie en lui et non en moi. Son amour m’a donné ce que je ne peux jamais obtenir par mes seuls efforts et par mes seules actions.
Des années plus tard quelqu’un qui m’a bien connu m’a demandé : « Qui es-tu ? » J’ai hésité un instant, étonné par cette question inattendue. Puis j’ai trouvé la réponse : « Qui suis-je ? … Je suis aimé. »
Merci à Jill Geoffrion pour les photos au-dessus: 1) La guérison de l’aveugle (The healing of the blind man, Chartres Cathedral, France) 2) An arc-en-ciel capturé à Bora Bora, Polynésie (Rainbow captured, Bora Bora, French Polynesia)
What do you do if you’ve just had it with someone? It may be a family member, a friend, or maybe a co-worker. You may have even been quite close at one time, but lately the relationship just isn’t working. I am not necessarily talking about someone who is actively spewing forth hostility or hatefulness, or someone you have to avoid for your own safety. I’m thinking of those people you simply don’t want to be around, but can’t avoid, or you feel as if you shouldn’t give up completely on them for one reason or another. On your best days, you would still like to be able to love them better or show Christ’s love to them. Loving such “hard (for us)-to-love” individuals is, well, hard! Sometimes the slightest comment or look by “hard-to-love” individuals can stir up a whole rash of negative feelings and even bring out your worst self. Then, there are all those times when your best efforts to try to love them actually backfire, and the relationship deteriorates even further. You’ve figured that you can’t change them, and you also probably realize that it is harder to change yourself than you might like to admit. You may already be at the point of giving up completely.
So, what hope is there? Lessons from the Camino In 2006, when my wife, two sons, and I walked five hundred miles across northern Spain on the Camino, a ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, we had a LOT of time together as a family. We were deeply grateful for the unique opportunity to be together for 37 days on this kind of spiritual and physical adventure. On the other hand, our close proximity under these conditions made it impossible to avoid facing unresolved tensions in our relationships. Blow ups, sulking, withdrawing, attacking, followed by more conversation, trying to listen better, many miles to walk and think, praying, and stumbling along under stressful circumstances made the journey a lot harder than we ever imagined. Yet, facing the truth of our relational issues all led to some new insights over time. What emerged were four practical steps anyone can take to improve a broken or difficult relationship that proved to be quite helpful to us then and ever since in many different contexts. Here they are. 1. See—The first step is to open our eyes to see people for who they are, not who we want them to be, or who we’ve caricatured them to be. 2. Accept—We need to let go of any negative emotion we might be carrying from our dislike/disappointment/resentment/frustration etc. arising from the fact that they are not who we want them to be. 3. Appreciate—From a peaceful place of acceptance of another person, we are in a much better place to look for the other person’s qualities and unique gifts and contributions, and to begin to genuinely appreciate something about them. 4. Delight—From an attitude of appreciation, we can now let ourselves actually delight in this or that aspect of their personalities or way of being in the world.
How these four steps transformed my marriage In my own marriage, this four-step process has been extremely helpful. My wife and I share many things in common, but our personalities are quite different, and clash rather easily. Learning to “see” her for who she is has included giving up my ideas of what I thought a perfect wife should be and even who I thought I was marrying! One of the most helpful things I have tried is to consciously set aside my previous expectations for her and start over. I step back and try to see what is real about her. I keep asking her and myself, “Who is Jill?” Not, “Who do I want her to be?” but “Who is she, actually?” (step one) Seeing her for who she truly is leads then to a decision point: Will I accept her as she is? A negative answer perpetuates my unhappiness and the tension between us. A positive answer opens the door to greater peace—not resignation, but simply accepting that this is the person she is without a big, negative emotional charge. (step two) Then it becomes a whole lot easier to stop reacting when she doesn’t meet my expectations in one way or the other. With this, I have been training myself to say, especially when the old reactions flare up, “Well, that’s Jill.” (That is, “That’s who she is, and I can live with that.”) At this point, the marriage can take a real turn for the better. I’ve decided that I don’t want to stay stuck in disappointment or resentment, thinking about all I might want her to be or to do. Instead, I choose to focus my attention on her unique gifts, her tremendous love for me, all that she does for me and for our family, and the many ways that she creatively contributes to the world. (step three) Then, delighting in her suddenly didn’t seem so impossible to imagine anymore. In my case, I begin to genuinely enjoy many of the idiosyncratic ways Jill gives of herself to love and help me, our family, and many others day after day. There’s nobody else quite like her, and I am now more sure than ever that I wouldn’t want to be married to anyone else! (step four)
Not giving up It may be easy to blame “hard-to-love” individuals for our feelings or attitude toward them. But Jesus’ teaching on loving our neighbor and even our enemy doesn’t really support that kind of thinking. He simply doesn’t give us much room to blame someone else for our not trying to love them. To love others is our calling regardless of how others behave, not our reward for their approved or desired behavior. So, in the end, from Jesus’ point of view, loving others is not about them, it’s about us. It’s about our commitment to being people of love, who continually ask God to love others through us more and more. It’s about our willingness to humble ourselves and to let God change our hearts. It’s about doing the hard work of learning how to see—accept—appreciate—and even delight in our “hard-to-love” neighbors, so that we may love them as God loves us and we love ourselves. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Colossians 3:12-14, NIV) If you want more suggestions… Who is one “hard-to-love” person in your life? You may be at a complete loss to know what to do differently or you may feel powerless, but you still would like to learn how to let God’s love flow more freely through you to him or her.
Make a list of their characteristics as fairly and objectively as you can. Who is he? Who is she? Without judging them, try to “see” them for who they are.
Let go of all that you’ve been wanting them to be, and choose to accept that this is the way they are—and who they are likely going to be unless they choose to change. Take a deep breath and release all your pent up feelings as you exhale. Pray for the grace to get to the place where you can observe this person and simply say, “Well, that’s _________________ (so-and-so).” You know you have successfully completed this step when you can mention their name without an emotional charge, and you can think of them without disdain or distress in your judgment of them.
Now, identify their strengths as you perceive them. What do they contribute to the world or others? What potential do you see? What of their life do you genuinely value, even if they are not offering their best side to you personally?
Lastly, from a place of peaceful acceptance and genuine appreciation, is there anything about this person that you actually like or enjoy? Don’t try to force this step, but ask God to give you eyes to see what Christ delights in when he sees this person, and to free you to begin to enjoy some aspect of that person, too.