By Eddie Lowen
If vengeance comes easier than forgiveness, I understand. But for every Christian, and most certainly for church leaders, there is a better way.
Have you seen the movie The Revenant? In the gruesome film, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, a fur trader named Hugh Glass, is attacked by a grizzly, assaulted by his companions, and left for dead. He somehow recovers, tracks down those who abandoned him, and takes violent revenge.
But the real-life events that inspired the film may have played out differently. Glass was, in fact, mauled by a bear and left for dead. Historians believe he somehow survived, then walked 200 miles to safety. But Glass appears to have forgiven the men who left him behind.
Apparently, Hollywood values vengeance over forgiveness. To be honest, I understand.
You can’t do ministry without being wounded. But when you fantasize about what happens to the critic who attacks your ministry, or to the person who betrays your spouse’s confidence, or to the bully who harasses your child, or to the person who trashes your church on Facebook, does the highlight reel feature forgiveness?
A friend whose spouse had an affair admitted to me he often imagined the other man being “dispatched” in painful, humiliating ways, some of them at his own hand. Many would say such thoughts are justified. What father didn’t consider Liam Neeson the ultimate hero when he lowered his voice and told his daughter’s abductor (in the action film Taken) he would look for him, find him, and kill him? We get it. Revenge seems sweet.
Though very familiar, the words of Jesus in Luke 6:28-30 are staggering: “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.”*
I often refer to myself as a follower of Jesus. But if these words are the test of discipleship, I am an enthusiast, at best. How often have any of us actually done one of the things Jesus commanded here?
When another driver directs a rude gesture at you, do you reply with a peace sign? (Half a peace sign doesn’t count.)
The last time something was stolen from your car, garage, or purse, did you accept the loss without filing a police report?
How many panhandlers have you passed by in recent months? How many donation requests have you ignored?
How many physical assaults have you pardoned?
Can you imagine telling a thief who has just demanded your wallet, “Wait, I’ve got a couple twenties in my front pocket . . . don’t forget these”? Does anyone practice the radical amnesty Jesus taught his followers? I can’t recall a time when I have.
Early in our marriage, my wife and I lived on the East Coast where we bought a little house on a corner lot. Our favorite feature of our home’s front lawn was a landscaped mound in which daffodils bloomed every spring. One year, just before Easter, about 30 daffodils appeared in our front lawn, right on cue to celebrate the resurrection. But on Good Friday, some dark soul brazenly cut down and stole our daffodils.
That happened nearly 30 years ago, but if my wife discovered the daffodil thief today, I’d be concerned for the person’s safety. If the thief had stolen our car, she would have generated sufficient forgiveness in a matter of days. But stealing her daffodils? Grace has its limits!
The reason Jesus listed a series of very personal violations—cursing, slapping, theft—is because sin always seems theoretical . . . until it’s not. Being cursed feels very personal. Slapping is more personal than it is physically painful. Daffodil theft from your garden is extremely personal. So, Jesus is teaching this: When it’s most personal, forgiveness is most important.
Ministry insults and opposition always feel very personal. They cut to a deep place. While we don’t wrestle to forgive inconsequential offenses, people in ministry struggle to forgive the deeply personal things people say about us or do to us. Why do the majority of young men and women who enter ministry eventually find another career or calling? Because these things hurt. And many aren’t equipped to forgive and continue serving with joy.
After seeing Jesus forgive his executioners, Peter gave up swordplay (as in the Garden of Gethsemane) and humbly endured persecution. He later wrote, “Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing” (1 Peter 3:9). Forgiveness is a mark of spiritual maturity. The question is whether or not we are marked by it.
Notice what Peter says and how it says it: Forgiveness is what God has called us to do. It’s not extra credit. It’s part of our purpose. Isn’t it interesting we use the same term (calling) for the work God asks of us in ministry? Church leadership is what God has called me to do. Preaching is what God has called me to do. And, pardoning insults and excusing offenses is what God has called me to do. Wow.
If this is reading like a campfire devotion for high school students, it’s not. I realize I’m writing to leaders. And lately I’ve noticed Christian leaders frequently hold on to the bitterness of past wounds. We do not appear to be called to model forgiveness. We excel at singing about forgiveness, preaching on forgiveness, and advising others to forgive, yes. But we are quick to recount the sins of churches and people from the past.
I’m confident I need to be forgiven of more than I need to forgive. I’ve gotten it wrong, many times. But I also have a few scars that were delivered with gusto by some mean-spirited people. My kids have been slighted. My motives have been impugned. My words have been twisted. My work has been credited to others. I’ve been pushed around and pushed out. I’ve elevated people who denigrated me. Now, I’m the first to say I’ve been treated better than I deserve in most instances by most people, but a totally comfortable ministry I have not enjoyed (though it certainly doesn’t compare to the persecution some encounter for Christ).
However, when we welcome the Holy Spirit, he leads us to forgive—not merely to move on, get over it, or suck it up, but to release it through forgiveness, which is often a recurring effort.
Did you give your best years to a church, only to be neglected at the end? That’s not right. But God calls you to trust in him and to exonerate those who were inconsiderate.
Did you make a mistake that was embellished by opportunistic detractors? I wish it hadn’t happened, but your best next step is forgiveness.
Did those who should have rallied around you pull back and leave you exposed? That’s a failure of leadership, but if you haven’t asked for God’s help to forgive them, start now.
Jesus was so gracious on the cross; he asked God to regard his sworn enemies as only mistaken dupes. He didn’t want them held fully responsible. Let’s ask for the grace to feel the same about those who’ve hurt us as we’ve tried to continue Jesus’ work.
*Scripture verses are from the New Living Translation.
Eddie Lowen serves as lead minister with West Side Christian Church, Springfield, Illinois.