When we first moved into the parsonage, there was a Bougainvillea that had been neglected for years. Lack of skilled pruning made it misshapen and ugly. It also had lots of sharp thorns that were dangerous to little hands retrieving basketballs and toys. I talked to our landscaper about pulling it out of the ground and throwing it away. Once removed, we could replace it with three Christmas palms, which I imagined would be better.
But the landscaper said, “Mark, the reason you don’t like it is because it has been neglected. Whoever lived here previously didn’t truly understand the plant and how to care for it in a way that brings out its natural beauty. Let me trim it, prune it, and work on it for awhile, and you decide to keep it.”
I reluctantly agreed, and now, almost six years later, as I sit on my front porch to pray and drink coffee, the most beautiful thing I see are it’s bright purple flowers. As silly as it seems, I have deep gratitude for the beauty of this plant, which remained hidden until it was understood, pruned, and nurtured—until someone invested time and energy to wrestle with its unruly growth and bring out its natural best. I’m also grateful for all the birds it draws into it’s thick leaves and the songs they sing. It still has sharp thorns that occasionally inflict wounds, and it still requires work to keep it heathy and beautiful, but I’m so glad we didn’t uproot this bush and throw it away.
This got me thinking about how our lives are like this Bougainvillea, and how many of our relationships are like this Bougainvillea ….
Jesus said: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2)
As we celebrate Christmas and the beginning of a new year, we are expected to be happy. Unfortunately, many people are struggling with deep sadness and isolation. In this message, Pastor Mark talks about his long battle with depression, the medical facts behind the illness, how to recognize symptoms, and ways that we can all better support those navigating the darkness. Please share with others who may this message helpful.
Podcast: Search “Pastor Mark Reynolds” in your preferred app
Last weekend was one of the busiest of my career, and on Sunday I was at church from 8:45 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. The only time I left was to run across the street to Taco Bell to grab some lunch. When I got to the drive through window to pay, I saw a young man who looked pretty stressed out. I felt a nudge to offer words of encouragement, and, to my surprise, he began to explain that it was just him and the manager running the whole place. He also told me that he used to have a good paying job with benefits until he was laid off due to COVID, and now he trying to work several part-time jobs to make ends meet.
I felt bad for him and said, “I’m going to pray for you today, that God bless you and take care of your family,” and upon hearing these words, his facial expression changed, and he said, “I really appreciate that. I need to remember that I am blessed just to have this job and to be alive today.” By acting on the nudge and offering prayer, God was able to bless this guy through me and make his day a little better, even if just for moment.
Sometimes, if we are paying attention, God prompts or nudges us to do something or say something that will bless another person. Someone’s name might pop into your head, prompting you to think, “Maybe I should call him,” or “Maybe I should pray for her.” You might feel led to invite a friend out for coffee or feel a nudge to ask if a stranger if she needs help. Has something like this ever happen to you? Recently, a friend came to my mind who was having a hard time, and I felt a nudge to text him and say, “I prayed for you today. If you need a listening ear, give me a call.” Shortly after clicking the send button, he called me on the phone, and we talked for a long time. At the end of our conversation, he said, “Man, I really needed to talk about this stuff, and I feel better now. Thanks for listening.” I then felt led to pray for this person on the phone, which he deeply appreciated. We often forget that God is always already working in the life of every person around you, trying to move them toward more healing, more freedom, more peace, and more joy. And if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, if we are awake to God’s presence in our everyday lives, then God empowers us to join in what he is already doing in their lives by blessing them. Isn’t that incredible?
But we must be tuned-in to what God is doing, and we must pay attention to God promptings. So, how do we do that? Well, the most important way is through prayer. Prayer is simply an ongoing conversation with God in which we both speak and listen. We can talk to God just like we talk to anyone else, and he wants us to pour out hearts. But we can also listen by meditating on scripture. God speaks to us as we read the Bible, and when we hear God’s still small voice nudging, prompting, convicting, or encouraging, we can ponder it in our hearts and reflect on it with our minds. While there are many different ways to pray, we teach the ancient practice of lectio divina. You can learn about this by picking up my free booklet on the welcome center, “New Life in Christ,” or by going to our website and checking out the page, “Connect Online.” However, you chose to pray, the important thing is that you actually do it, because it’s the lifeblood of our relationship with God.
It’s so important, Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 to “pray without ceasing” and to “rejoice in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Jesus Christ.” As you may know, I try to go to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit every year for spiritual retreat. The monks who live there take this call to pray without ceasing seriously, and they use the analogy of breathing. They say that speaking to God is like breathing out, and listening to God by meditating on scripture is like breathing in. And like breath, it is a necessity for spiritual life. This can be seen in their practice of “breath prayers.” For example, as they slowly breath in they say in their mind, “Lord” and as they exhale, they silently say, “have mercy.” Then, following the same pattern, “Christ / have mercy, Lord / have mercy.” The idea it to synchronize their breath with this prayer so that it becomes so natural they unconsciously do it even while they’re sleeping—they are learning to pray without ceasing. The main idea is that prayer is to the soul as breathing is to the body. And this is what keeps us awake, alert, paying attention to spiritual things; it’s what gives us eyes to see and ears to hear, as Jesus would say.
In the context of this message, the principle is simple: when you want to love people, when you want to live a life that regularly manifests the blessings of God in ways that help others, Jesus invites us to begin with prayer, which is precisely what HE does. Before Jesus even starts his earthly ministry around 30 years old, it says in Luke 4:1 that “Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness.” Why did the Holy Spirit lead him into the wilderness? To fast and PRAY.
Furthermore, when he had to make one of the most important decisions of his life regarding who to choose as his followers, it says in Luke 6 that “[Jesus] went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God.” It was only after praying all night that Jesus felt ready to choose the twelve disciples, not only to follow him as their rabbi, but to carry his message of salvation to the whole world after he ascended to heaven (vv. 12-16).
Every time Jesus made important decisions, regarding what to do, who to call, who to engage, who to disengage, how to reach people, and how to bless people, he started with prayer. In fact, Jesus didn’t just pray on occasion, he lived a life saturated in prayer, awake and responsive to the presence of God. And this is what he wants for us too because this is how we discover God’s will and find the wisdom, courage, and strength to carry it out.
Let’s look at all the things God does in prayer to help us bless others. First, God uses prayer to OPEN our hearts us to the leading of His Spirit, allowing us to tune into what He is already doing, and helping us to recognize the promptings to join Him in blessing others. This is our starting point, and why we are not just called to pray, but to BEGIN with prayer.
Second, as we continue in prayer, God will show us WHO to bless. He will bring people to mind and give us a desire to pray for them (reminding us that we need to pray for someone other than ourselves). And as you pray for someone, you start to see them differently—you start to see them as God sees them. And this gives you deeper understanding of their hurts, habits, and hang-ups, and, consequently, a better understanding of their needs. This evokes compassion and empowers us to listen to them without judgement (which is our topic for next week). As we see them from God’s perspective through the eyes of compassion, God cultivates a desire to want to bless them. (As a side note, this is why Jesus tells us to pray from our enemies. We often get tethered to an enemy in anger, resentment, and even hatred, all of which compels us to see him/her in a particularly bad light that makes compassion difficult if not impossible. This creates a kind of slavery that destroys us from the inside out. But if we obey Jesus and pray for our enemies, it can change the way we see them, and when anger gives way to compassion we are finally set free to live again.)
Third, when we pray, God show us HOW to bless the people. After opening us to the leading of the Holy Spirit, showing us who to bless, and helping us to see them through the eyes of compassion, God directs us in prayer regarding what to do. As I mentioned earlier, it could be as easy as sending a text message to say, “I am praying for you,” or inviting someone to lunch. The main point is that God directs us regarding when we should approach them, how we should engage them, and the ways we can bless them.
Finally, prayer connects us to the POWER of God that makes all this possible. We must always remember that blessing someone means being a conduit of GOD’S grace. In other words, I’m not the one blessing people, God is blessing them through me. And without this power, without this divine grace, our efforts will fall flat. Furthermore, the BIGGEST blessing that people experience through us, is not the specific thing we do like sending a message or listening without judgement, but the experience of drawing close to the presence of God. God works through our specific actions to give them the most transformative and life-giving blessing a person can receive—God gives them Himself. It’s important to remember that while we can do something to make someone’s day better, God can heal their heart and save their soul.
Notice how all the work of prayer happens in us for the benefit of others! I’m gonna say that again and I want you to let it sink in: All the work of prayer happens in us, and it’s for the benefit of others. [Which helps us to understand why Jesus said that if you try to save your life by focusing on yourself you lose it, but if you are willing to lose your life in service to others you gain it. Prayer is the tool that leads to this discovery, which is the secret of a happy life . . . but that’s for another message.] God uses prayer to change us so that we can bless others and change the world. Without prayer, none of these things are likely to happen, especially since God sometimes asks us to bless others in ways that make us uncomfortable. Again, it all hinges on our willingness to begin with prayer.
So how do we do it? How do we begin with prayer? Notice I didn’t ask: How should we pray? I have done various sermon series devoted to this topic that you can find on my YouTube channel, and there are many good books and devotionals on the topic too. Furthermore, I’ve already pointed you to the ancient practice of lectio divina. But what I want to focus on this morning is how to BEGIN with prayer. And to help you, I’ve provided a tool in your bulletin. For those watching online, I have posted the handout on our church Facebook page. It’s called, “The Art of Neighboring,” and it’s a great tool to get you thinking about who God may be calling you to bless.
You can start with your own neighborhood. The house in the center represents where you live, and the eight empty boxes represent the people who live around you. Write the names of those people in the empty boxes. If you don’t know their names, then you might want to find out. Go knock on their door and introduce yourself. Say something like, “We are neighbors and I just want to take a minute to introduce myself and let you know that I’m willing to help if you ever need anything.” If this suggestion makes you nervous, you can also Google them. But don’t get hung-up on geographical location. The goal is simply to write the names of 8 people that live close to you in the empty boxes. You can also use this tool in other areas of life, for example, at work with 8 of your closest co-workers, or in your basketball league, or in your civic club. Once you get these names written down, start praying for them every day.
Since this may be a challenge for you, I want to share three things that can help.
First, plan. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “If you fail to plan, then you are planning to fail.” So, plan time every day to pray for the people on your neighbor map by setting a reminder in your phone or putting it on your calendar. Then pray for them by name. You may be thinking, “What if I don’t know them? How can I pray for someone I don’t know? Well, you can start by asking God to bless them.
Second, prepare: As you pray, ask God to prepare you to bless them. Ask God to help you notice them, to see them as he sees them. Ask God to make you sensitive to his promptings.
Third, ask God to show you how to bless them, to show you their needs, and to help you know when and how to offer acts of kindness.
In closing, I want to remind you of two things. The first is something that holocaust survivor, Corrie ten Boom said: “We never know how God will answer our prayers, but we can expect that He will get us involved in his plan for the answers.” In other words, God intends prayer to mobilize you so you can join him in blessing the world. If your prayer doesn’t lead to action, something is wrong. Second, remember that following Jesus isn’t meant to be comfortable, it’s meant to be life changing. So, when you start praying and God shows you who to bless and how to bless them, you must be willing to step out of your comfort zone. And that is the good news of the gospel today. Amen.
Are you frustrated today? Dealing with some kind of a set-back? Remember, “Nothing beautiful comes without suffering” (Desmond Tutu). Countless stories, like that of Nelson Mandela, remind us that the path to deep joy and generosity of spirit, does not lead away from suffering but through it. While pain and conflict can certainly embitter us, if we don’t lose sight of God’s presence and the hope of redemption, we can find meaning in our suffering and it can ennoble us with greater wisdom and compassion. The most sure sign of this transformation is that we lose the compulsion to retaliate. Instead of returning insult for insult, we develop the capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of others long enough to ask, “What is possessing him to act this way?” While this does not mean that we abandon healthy boundaries and stop exercising wisdom when deciding whom to trust, it does help us surrender ego and exercise more empathy and wisdom when deciding how to move forward. Our kindness grows only when it is tested.
However, this transformation takes time (for most of us a long time), and this means that we not only need to cultivate compassion for others but also for ourselves as we repeatedly try to offer more mature responses in the face of difficulty.
For more on this topic: “Suffering and Adversity: Passing through Difficulties,” in The Book of Joy by Desmond Tutu & The Dalai Lama.
In 2013, I hired a guy named Casey to be the Worship Leadership for Shepherd’s Community UMC. My wife, Emma, and I became great friends with Casey and his wife, Cindy. Early on, they shared with us that they had lost a baby at birth, a little girl named Selah. Upon hearing this, I felt compassion but didn’t give it much thought until it came up in other conversations. From my perspective, their loss didn’t affect the way our friendship developed or how I saw them as people . . . until they invited me to a gathering called Compassionate Friends.
If you’re not familiar, Compassionate Friends is a support group at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL for parents who have lost children of all ages. My first encounter with them was around Christmas time when I was asked to deliver a message for their holiday gathering. Casey, Cindy, and Emma were also asked to lead worship, so it was an opportunity to serve together. Upon arrival, I felt like a fish out of water. How could I possibly speak to this group of people when I didn’t share their unique loss? I was fearful of having no credibility or unintentionally offending them with presumption.
I am happy to say that all went well that night. However, the greatest blessing for me was the opportunity to gain a better understanding of my friends, Casey and Cindy. Prior to that night, I really didn’t get it. I did not understand the full significance of their losing a child, and how this event deeply shaped them as people. As I stepped into their world and watched them interact with others who were suffering a similar heartbreak, I began to understand an important part of their identity.
Has this ever happened to you? You thought you knew almost everything about someone but were missing something important. something that you could only discover by stepping into their world.
Resurrection as Disorienting
Well, this happened to the disciples too in their relationship with Jesus.
According to the gospels, Jesus told the disciples that he was going to die and be raised from the dead by God, but by all accounts, they just didn’t get it. It is not that resurrection was a completely foreign concept (it already had a history in their native religion, Judaism), but when Jesus talked about it they did not understand the significance of what he was saying. It did not seem to affect how they saw Jesus or how they lived their lives . . . until they discovered an empty tomb.
This was a confusing, disorienting, and terrifying discovery. Since we know the whole story as recorded in scripture, we tend to see the resurrection as the solution to all life’s problems, but this was not the case for the early Christians. Their experience of the empty tomb did not function as a solution but created a whole new set of problems that, up to that point, they did not have. At first, they did not understand what was happening—they did not get it.
The Original Ending of Mark
It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples. We forget that no one in the ancient world had their own copy of the Bible. We forget that there was a time when the early Christians did not have the New Testament because it had not been written yet. Furthermore, we forget how these books came to be, one at a time, and that even after they were written the early Christians had limited access to a few handwritten copies passed around in house-churches. For these reasons (and many more), it’s difficult for modern people to read the gospels from the perspective of their original audience. However, there is much to be learned by this imaginative effort.
For this article, I am most interested in the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel to be written. At the time of composition, there was no Matthew, Luke, or John. Furthermore, the oldest manuscripts of Mark end at chapter 16, verse 8. If you have a study Bible that is informed by modern scholarship, the textual notes will alert you to this fact as well as the two different endings that were added later.
For whatever reason, after the Gospel of Mark was written, the early church was not satisfied with its original ending. Thus, a short addition was added in which the women tell the disciples about the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus appears to them. As time went on, this ending did not satisfy either, because the early church came back and added an even longer ending, which made it sound more like Matthew and Luke.
Remembering that there was a time when the earliest Christians only had one gospel, the Gospel of Mark, let us try to hear the original ending without filling-in the blanks with the additions or other gospels.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. [THE END.] (Mark 16:1-8).
Do you see why the church may have found this ending inadequate, especially since there were no other gospels to fill out the story? The truth is, we probably do not like this ending either. However, there is much to be learned if we try to imagine that we are hearing this gospel for the first time, that this is the only gospel we have, and that this is the only ending we have. What could this teach us about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection?
Resurrection as Invitation
As mentioned above, the empty tomb by itself does not answer questions, it raises questions. According to the story in Mark, it evokes fear, amazement, and confusion, leaving the women stunned and asking, “What in the world is going on here?” The empty tomb and the claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead created a problem for the earliest witnesses. It apparently raised so many questions and evoked so much fear that they refused to tell anyone about it!
Knowing their initial response, the man in white apparel gives them further instruction: Go and tell the disciples, and then go to Galilee, because the risen Jesus goes ahead of you and “there you will see him, just as he told you.” If they want to see the risen Jesus, they must leave the empty tomb and go to where he is—ahead of them.
Importantly, Galilee is not a town or a city, but a region. It is the region where Jesus spent most of his time serving the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, and rejected. So, the angel seems to be saying: There is only one way for you to begin to understand the empty tomb, one way to begin to understand what resurrection might mean, one way to trade your fear for wisdom—to personally encounter the resurrected Jesus for yourself. And the only way that you can do this is to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve who he served. If you do this, then you will encounter Jesus and will finally start to get it. By serving the friends of Jesus, you will come to know in the deepest part of your being that, somehow and in some way, Jesus is still alive and at work in this world.
As it was with the disciples, so it is with us.
However, just because the claim, “Jesus is alive,” strikes us as true does not mean that we have it all figured out. What is interesting about deep truth, wherever we find it, is that it creates a weird experience in which we believe that something is true, but we are not exactly sure how it is true. Why? Because the most profound truths of the universe are beyond human understanding, beyond human categories, language, and explanation. In this way, the dawning awareness that something is true serves as an invitation to a process of discovery in which we gradually get glimpses of what this truth might possibly mean.
According to the Gospel of Mark, this is what the divine messenger does for the women who discover the empty tomb, at least in the original ending. He doesn’t answer all their questions or give them miraculous knowledge. Rather, he invites them to a way of life in which they can (1) come to believe that the resurrection is in some sense true, and (2) enter a process of discovery that will help them see how it is true. In my own experience, when we gain this kind of deep insight through personal experience, how something is true can be surprising. It might be true in a way we never expected.
When Christians say that Jesus was raised from the dead, they are saying that Jesus is still alive and at work in the world today. He is still out ahead of us with his friends, abiding with the poor, outcast, rejected, and vulnerable—with those who suffer. If we want to encounter the risen Christ, if we want to understand him and his resurrection, then we must go where he went, do what he did, and serve the people that he served. We must step into his world and see it as he does. This is the only way that anyone can make sense of the resurrection and truly come to believe it. Just like I could not really understand Casey and Cindy until I stepped into their world and served their friends, I cannot truly come to know Jesus and his resurrection until I imitate his life in ministry to his friends. It is in their eyes that we meet the risen Christ, come to believe that he is still alive today, and get glimpses of what this might possibly mean.
The resurrection is an invitation to a way of life that ends-up being a process of discovery.
Gracious God, as I learn the stories of Jesus, empower me to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve the people he served so that I may come to believe and understand his resurrection.
(This post is the fourteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
When he was two years old, Robert tried to take a bottle of milk out of the refrigerator. He lost his grip, and it spilled all over the kitchen floor. When his mother came into the kitchen, instead of yelling at him, giving him a lecture, or punishing him, she said, “Robert, I have rarely seen such a huge puddle of milk. Well, the damage has already been done. Would you like to get down and play in the milk for a few minutes before we clean it up?” Indeed, he did.
After a few minutes, his mother said, “You know, Robert, whenever you make a mess like this, eventually you have to clean it up and restore everything to its proper order. So, how would you like to do that? We could use a sponge, a towel, or a mop. Which do you prefer?” He chose the sponge and together they cleaned up the spilled milk.
His mother then said, “You know, what we have here is a failed experiment in how to effectively carry a big milk bottle with two tiny hands. Let’s go out in the back yard and fill the bottle with water and see if you can discover a way to carry it without dropping it.” The little boy learned that if he grasped the bottle at the top near the lip with both hands, he could carry it without dropping it.
What a wonderful lesson: In a safe environment, mistakes can be turned into learning opportunities.
What Robert didn’t realize until becoming an adult is that the way his mother treated him when he failed as a two-year-old had a big impact on his willingness to try new things and learn from his mistakes. This attitude, combined with a love of science, led him to become a famous research scientist who made several important medical breakthroughs. Trying something new, failing, learning, and trying again—it’s what scientific experiments are all about.[i]
The same is true of the moral life and the life of discipleship. All of us make bad decisions and do things we shouldn’t do. In the language of scripture, we have all sinned, we have all missed the mark.
Even Jesus’ firsts disciples missed the mark. Listen to what happens during the last hours of Jesus’ life as recorded in Mark 14 beginning with verse 17. Pay attention to Jesus’ comments regarding their failure.
When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,
‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’
But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same. (Mark 14:17-31, NRSV)
Despite their denials and promises to be faithful to the end, Jesus predicted that all the disciples would fail him. And they did. One would betray, one would deny, and all would become deserters.
Learning from Failure in the Safety of Forgiveness
What is most encouraging to me is that Jesus still invited all of them to join as friends in his final meal and to stay with him until his arrest. It’s like Jesus was saying, “I know that all of you are going to face some terribly difficult situations because of me, the intensity of which will outstrip your burgeoning faith. In your suffering, I know that you will cave to the pressure of sin, but I still love and forgive you. I still consider you friends.” So, he invited them to the table, talked about his own sacrifice for their sins (and the sins of the world), and promised that through their ongoing table fellowship he would continue to be present with them and offer forgiveness. Note what he didn’t say; he didn’t say, “You lousy group of men are going to betray, deny, and desert me, so I’m going to cut you off and find a new, more faithful group of friends.” Rather, knowing they would fail him, he said, “I love you, forgive you, and am going to stick with you.”
And if we keep reading, this is exactly what Jesus does. Most of you know the story. He is executed by the Romans, all the disciples fail him (as he predicted), and when he is raised from the dead and encounters them again for the first time, he is gracious. Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt in that first encounter? They knew what they had done a couple days earlier, and now they must look him in the eyes knowing what they did, and knowing that he knew what they did. But Jesus didn’t scold them, shame them, give them a lecture, or kick them to the curb for a new group of followers. Rather, he says, “I know you were in a difficult spot and failed me, but I have compassion for you and forgive you. If you will learn from your mistakes, then you can still play an essential role in my Father’s great rescue mission of this world.”
Did you get that? Jesus didn’t just forgive them, he called them to recommit and said, “You are still useful. Indeed, because of what you have been through, you may be more useful insofar as you can uniquely connect with others who share similar struggles.”
And this is exactly what Jesus does for us. He knows that we will fail him, especially when we are new in our faith, when we suffer, or when the challenges are fierce. But like Robert’s mother mentioned above, he gives us the safety of forgiveness, so we can learn from our mistakes, get better, and use what we have learned to help advance his mission in unique ways.
And forgiveness is crucial, because we cannot reflect on our mistakes and learn important lessons if we are stuck in guilt and shame. Guilt, shame, and self-recrimination rob us of our power to move forward in useful ways. Whereas forgiveness sets us free to ask important questions that help turn our mistakes into learning opportunities.
Questions like: What led up to my failure? What was going on in my life that made me vulnerable? What was the trigger that sent me over the edge? What could I have done to better prepare, to head it off at the pass, to diminish the intensity of the temptation instead of increasing it? How did my failure to properly deal with one temptation lead to others that were worse? What were the natural consequences for me and the people around me? What will this sin cost me? What can I learn so as not to fall into the same sin again? Now that I’ve messed-up, how can I make amends and move forward in ways that will make reconciliation more likely? How can I turn this mistake into an opportunity to get wiser, stronger, and more faithful? These are the kinds of questions that turn failures into learning opportunities that help us become better followers of Jesus.
How Failure Uniquely Equips Us to Help Others
When we truly take responsibility for own our failures, confess and sincerely seek forgiveness, let go of guilt and shame, critically reflect on our sin, and learn important lessons, then it not only benefits us but also others. Because now God can use us for very special purposes in his rescue mission of the world. Think about all the special ministries of the church that help bring healing to people that are hurting: divorce recovery groups led by people who have gone through divorce, addiction recovery groups led by recovering addicts, prison ministry led by ex-cons. It’s not that you must be divorced to help divorced people, or a recovering addict to help other addicts, or ex-cons to help those in prison, because we can all bear testimony to God’s forgiveness and encourage others in their healing. But we all know that it’s easier to connect with someone who has been through what we are going through. They seem to have more credibility and wisdom that uniquely applies to your situation. So, if you fail, receive forgiveness, learn important lessons, and rebuild your life, then you become particularly useful to God in helping others going through the same thing. It just might turn out that your mistake is what not only what was necessary for your transformation but also the transformation of someone else.
Implicating the Church
What is true of individuals is also true of the church since the church is full of people who struggle with sin. As is clearly illustrated by the Book of Revelation, entire churches, like individuals, can be unfaithful. We lose sight of our mission and turn inward and become self-serving. Instead of following Jesus into the future and partnering with him in new ministries, we get stuck reminiscing about the past and are blinded by a yearning for the good old days. Instead of asking how we can serve the mission of Jesus through the ministries of the church, we ask how the church can serve our personal preferences and agendas. Instead of producing fruitful ministries in God’s great rescue mission of the world, we become consumers of religious goods asking, “What have you done for me lately?” Instead of being gracious, loving, and hopefully, we become critical, negative, and pessimistic. In this way, we fail not only Jesus but also each other. When we fail each other, we also fail all those in our community that desperately need us to practice what we preach, so they too can come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. So, just as individuals need to confess their sin, let go of guilt and shame, deeply reflect on their failure, learn important lessons, and recommit to serving Gods great rescue of the world, the church needs to do the same—repeatedly.
In conclusion, we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, individually and as a church. But Jesus offers forgiveness and the opportunity to convert our sin into wisdom, wisdom that will uniquely equip us to help others in God’s rescue mission of the world. So, confess your sins, receive forgiveness, leave shame and guilt behind, and take some time to deeply reflect on your failures without self-recrimination to learn how to be more faithful to God and helpful to others.
Gracious God, forgive me of my sin and help me to forgive myself. Deliver me from guilt and shame, and teach me whatever lessons I need to learn to be a more faithful follower of Jesus and a healing voice for others.
(This post is the thirteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
[i] This story was taken from Jack Canfield, et. al., Chicken Soup for the Soul in the Classroom (Middle School Edition).
A few weeks ago, I was in the gym and noticed a guy working with a personal trainer. He was doing an abdominal circuit, and after a few supersets of planks and crunches he started groaning in pain. Now I work out, but my routine is not as intense because I have two simple goals: to not look fat in clothes, and to stay fit enough to surf. So, as I watched this guy, I thought, “Why would anyone submit themselves to this?” Then it occurred to me, he has different goals. Like my friends who do CrossFit, some people push themselves to the limit, enduring discomfort and pain, because they want to get in the best shape possible for their age and body type. If that were my goal, I would probably be doing the same.
Indeed, most of us are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain for a higher purpose. Think about the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that students make for a degree, that professionals make for their careers, that soldiers make for their country, or that missionaries make for the mission of Jesus.
Choosing Suffering for a Higher Purpose
All of us experience suffering that we don’t choose, and when this happens we try to stay close to God and do our best to handle it with faith and maturity. In the process, we hope to learn important lessons, grow spiritually, and become better people.
But not all suffering is forced upon us. Sometimes we choose it in service to a higher purpose. This is certainly true as we seek to follow Jesus, who says in Mark 8:34-35:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
Jesus is saying that sometimes we are called to choose suffering, to carry a cross, to experience a kind of death. Furthermore, he teaches that there are at least two higher purposes that empower us to be obedient.
First, suffering can serve as a catalyst for our own spiritual transformation. It can help us become more compassionate, loving, kind, wise, strong, virtuous, and faithful. It can help us become more like Jesus. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a life of self-sacrificial love.
I’ve heard countless testimonies of how people felt closer to God when going through suffering than in any other time of their life, and how God used their pain to change them in positive ways. While they didn’t necessarily enjoy the pain, they felt called to take-up a cross, and by faithfully carrying it became a better version of themselves. God expanded their capacity for compassion and gratitude, which helped them to live with more purpose, value, meaning, and joy. In short, when we are called to travel the road of suffering and are obedient, we can learn many lessons that make our lives better in the long run.
Second, God can use our suffering to help accomplish God’s great rescue mission of this world. The biggest source of inspiration for me in becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus has been other Christians. Not heroes of the faith, but ordinary men and women who handle great adversity and pain with grace, patience, and courage. These living and breathing examples of Christ inspire me to step-up my commitment and be more faithful in my own devotion and service. In this way, God uses our suffering, especially the way we move through it, to help and inspire others, which is one important way that God transforms the world.
In summary, if we are going to take-up our cross and follow Jesus, then we need a clear vision of a higher purpose, something that is compelling an inspiring, something that is bigger than ourselves. According to scripture, that higher purpose is spiritual transformation, which not only makes our own lives more meaningful but also makes us useful in God’s great rescue mission of this world.
The best example of this is Jesus himself. To accomplish his mission and serve the greater purposes of God, he was required to choose suffering. The gospels make clear that no one took Jesus’ life from him, but he willingly laid it down for the salvation of the world. This was so counterintuitive that Peter, one of his greatest disciples, refused to even consider the idea, pulling Jesus aside and rebuking him in private. Turning to his disciples, he scolded Peter: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things not divine things” (Mark 8:31-33). Jesus continued by teaching the disciples that if they wanted a life worth living then they had to be willing to suffer, to take up a cross; that they must crucify their ego and completely surrender to God. And Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also lived it to the end, even to the point of death on a (literal) cross.
Following the example of Jesus, many others have witnessed to these truths about sacrifice and suffering. Think of all the biblical characters who illustrate the value of suffering for a higher purpose, people like Abraham, Mary, Peter, and Paul. Think also of the great cloud of witnesses throughout Christian history, culminating in our time with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. And think of all the faithful Christians with whom we have the privileged of sharing life even to this day.
As we learn and meditate on these stories and countless others, we get a clear vision of the higher purposes of discipleship, especially during seasons of suffering. They remind us of some essential truths:
God will not allow our suffering to last forever. It’s only for a season.
Our suffering is not meaningless, nor is it in vain. While God does not cause our suffering, he certainly finds ways to use it for our own transformation and that of the world.
God suffers with us, so we never face our pain alone.
God gives us everything we need to move through suffering with grace, maturity, and faithfulness, and when we fail God offers grace and forgiveness.
Our suffering will eventually give way to joy.
These are the promises of God that together generate a vision of a higher purpose that empowers us to choose the way of self-sacrificial love. Without them our suffering becomes meaningless and death-dealing. Without them we’ll never be able to faithfully follow Jesus during seasons of great suffering and learn the lessons therein.
The Dialectic of Suffering and Hope
All of this leads to an important truth: we should never collapse the tension in Christian life between suffering and hope, because that tension is creative and transformative.
It is true that all of us experience suffering, and part of what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to handle our suffering in a Christlike way. Wisdom teaches that we should expect suffering, so we can prepare for it. However, Christianity cannot be reduced to suffering, nor does it seek to glorify suffering in and of itself. It never has the last word in the Kingdom of God. There is never a cross without an empty tomb, never a death without a resurrection. Christianity is about the good news that love wins, life wins, God wins, and when we talk about the necessity of suffering it’s always in the context of God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death. Therefore, as we anticipate and prepare for seasons of suffering, as we take-up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the higher purposes of God. Suffering without hope leads to an unproductive and death-dealing despair that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Likewise, hope without sacrifice leads to empty wishing, and joy without an honest acknowledgement of suffering leads to a kind of sentimentality that make it hard to take Christianity seriously.
True Christianity acknowledges the truth and importance of both suffering and hope, holding them in productive tension. As we live in this tension, as well as that of law and grace and love and justice, God recreates us in the image of Jesus and gives us the possibility of a truly good life.
Remember the words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”
Where do you find yourself in all of this? Is God calling you to something higher? Is there a sacrifice you need to make or a season of suffering you need to endure to achieve the higher purposes of God? Do you need to get into recovery, spend some time grieving losses in therapy, do some painful emotional work with your spouse or kids, give-up something that is blocking your own spiritual growth, sacrifice more time for deeper spiritual practice, or make a major decision that you’ve putting off too long?
We are all in different places on the disciples’ path, and God calls us to different seasons at different times. Only you know what God is calling you to do. In your own discernment process, remember that God is with you, and that if you stay close to Jesus and move forward with faith then your suffering will not be in vain. God will use it to transform you and others. Remember the promises of God and allow the hope transmitted therein to give you want you need to keep moving forward in ways that are life-giving and productive.
Gracious God, show me your will, and give me the courage to carry it out, even if it requires taking up a cross.
(This post is the twelfth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
Emma and I moved to Cocoa Beach in July 2016, and in October of that same year Hurricane Matthew hit Florida. Having spent so much time inland, we didn’t know much about mandatory evacuations and were told that once the winds reached a certain speed the bridges would be closed and anyone who stayed would be on their own. Although we were fortunate to have my parents’ house in Lakeland as a refuge, we were not prepared for the evacuation. We didn’t have a hurricane kit and most of the stores were sold-out of staple items. I had no idea how to board-up the windows, and as the evacuation deadline quickly approached all we could do is clear the lawn of potential projectiles, throw our kids and five pets in the cars, and drive into stand still traffic. As weather reports predicted a 6-8’ storm surge, I was scared that we would return to a house underwater, especially since we didn’t have flood insurance. Emma wrote on Facebook:
“I am awake in bed two hours away from our new home in Cocoa Beach, glued to the storm coverage, and I keep wondering what we will find when we go home. I can’t help but think about things I left behind, like the kids’ baby books and that growth chart I’ve been keeping since Isaac was a baby… I should have grabbed those. We should have boarded up the windows. Why didn’t we fill sandbags? Exactly how far above sea level IS our house?”
Since Hurricane Matthew wobbled off its projected path, Cocoa Beach avoided a direct hit. Our home was not flooded and there was minimal damage to the property. Lakeland was not affected much either, so we didn’t need the supplies that we failed to prepare.
This was a big lesson for us. Immediately upon getting home, I purchased flood insurance. The church also installed hurricane windows in the parsonage. As the next hurricane season approached, we got a hurricane survival guide and prepared a kit, which proved helpful when we were evacuated again in 2017 for Hurricane Irma. We returned to Lakeland fearing a direct hit to Cocoa Beach, only to discover that the storm changed directions and we had evacuated into its direct path. The eye of the storm tore through my parent’s neighborhood, causing significant damage. Fortunately, we learned how to better prepare after navigating Matthew and, with the help of family and friends, had all that we needed to weather the storm. Had we not learned how to better prepare after Matthew, we would have been in real trouble with Irma.
How many times have you had to navigate storms? And I’m not just talking about the weather, but about emotional and spiritual storms too. Were you prepared? How did you handle it? Did you learn important lessons from one storm to another?
To Be Like Jesus: Finding Peace in Chaos
While the disciples never weathered a hurricane, they did have to navigate some fierce storms, and according to the Bible, Jesus expected them to learn important lessons in the process so they could be better prepared for whatever life threw at them. What is interesting to me is that the disciples often failed to meet this expectation, and this irritated Jesus.
Take for example the storm that we read about in Mark 4:35-40:
That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”
Jesus’ questions at the end are striking, especially when we consider that the disciples encountered other storms throughout the Gospel of Mark that provoked a similar response in both the disciples and Jesus. Take for example the story of Jesus walking on water in Mark 6. The disciples were once again on a boat when another storm breaks out. As they were fighting the storm, they saw something across the water that looked like a ghost and were terrified. Walking on the water, Jesus identified himself, told them not to be afraid, and calmed the wind. Then Mark says that the disciples lacked understanding because their “hearts were hardened” (vv. 48-52).
After following Jesus day in and day out, listening to his teachings and observing his way of life, after witnessing him calm storms and perform other miracles, the disciples failed to learn important lessons about faithfully navigating difficulty. Repeatedly, Jesus questions their fearful reaction, which culminates in Mark 8 when an exasperated Jesus says, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (vv.17-18). Jesus is disappointed because they frequently miss the whole point of following him—to be like him, especially in the face of challenge when it really counts. Jesus shows them repeatedly how to prepare for and navigate storms, how to stay close to God and cultivate a calm spirit, a wise mind, a peaceful heart, and a strong faith, all of which are necessary to handle suffering in mature and faithful ways. But instead of growing in spiritual maturity and developing the resources needed to act like Jesus in the face of challenge, they remained immature, demanding that Jesus do everything for them.
Notice their response in the story recorded in Mark 4. First, they are unprepared, caught off guard and consumed with fear. In desperation, when they finally call on Jesus, they essentially accuse him of being absent and uncaring when they needed him the most: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” They seem to mad at Jesus for not preemptively rescuing them.
We often do the same. We go through life without paying much attention to Jesus. We might pray before meals, go to church on Sunday, and occasionally share a Christian meme on Facebook, but we don’t spend much quality time with Jesus in serious, daily discipleship. Neglecting things like prayer and meditation on scripture, which help us regularly connect with God, we’re left unprepared when storms come. Like the disciples, we are caught off guard, overwhelmed with fear, and demand that Jesus miraculously change realty to match our desire. We even get angry with Jesus or blame God when things don’t go our way and we experience suffering. Without the ongoing spiritual growth that happens through the consistent practice of spiritual discipline, we fail to see how these compulsive reactions to fear are misguided, entitled, and immature.
In contrast, Jesus wants us to grow-up in the faith. Instead of remaining the same from day to day and expecting him to do everything for us, Jesus wants to cultivate in us the same spiritual resources that empower him to faithfully and wisely navigate storms. Through a close relationship with him, Jesus wants to increase our awareness God’s perpetual presence, which serves as a conduit for the virtues we need to deal with difficulty: wisdom, faith, courage, patience, and peace. The good news of the gospel is not that God will miraculously prevent you from facing fear and pain, or that Jesus will do everything for you so that you don’t have to do anything for yourself, but that Jesus can empower you to faithfully navigate storms like him.
So how do we prepare for storms? By imitating the life of Christ day in and day out. Jesus could calm storms because he was deeply connected to the powerful presence of God through a life of perpetual prayer. As one who was constantly connected to the peace of God, he could remain calm in the face of chaos. As one who was constantly connected to the wisdom of God, he could make wise choices when all hell broke loose. The closeness of his relationship with God served as a conduit for everything Jesus needed to handle whatever life threw at him. But he didn’t wait until to storm broke-out to prepare.
As a faithful Jew, Jesus was intentional about growing his faith through the practice of spiritual discipline. Day in and day out he prays, meditates on scripture, teaches, and serves. He was intentional about staying aware of and connected to the presence of God, which shaped his heart and mind in ways that prepared him for stormy seas. Then when the storms came, the chaos didn’t rob him of his peace, but his peace brought calmness to the chaos. In this way, Jesus models a way of life that transforms us into his image. As we daily imitate the pattern that he sets forth, we gradually receive the wisdom, faith, courage, and peace required to handle difficulty like him. Our preparation for the storms of tomorrow happen today. We don’t wait until the bridges are being closed. And when the storms to come, we draw on the hard-won spiritual resources to help us stay true, knowing that even in failure there is grace and there are lessons to be learned that will better prepare us for the next storm.
Time Away for Rest and Meditation
In addition to daily spiritual discipline, Jesus gives us another important practice when we find ourselves in the middle of a storm, straining against the oars: physically separating ourselves from the chaos by going to a peaceful place. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus gets worn down by his service to the crowd. He deals with this challenge by frequently going to a quiet and deserted place to rest and pray. In addition to doing this himself, he encourages his disciples to do the same (Mark 6:31b).
We all need time away from the busyness and chaos that swirls around us. This is why God commands us to keep the Sabbath, to set aside at least one day per week for rest and re-creation. We ignore this command at our own peril, especially when navigating storms that result in seasons of suffering. In addition to weekly rest, sometimes we need to literally walk away from the noise and chaos, to physically withdraw to a quiet place for rest, prayer, and meditation.
Most of us easily go to conversational prayer when facing trouble, but when navigating storms mediation is just as important. Since mediation is a lost disciple for many Protestant Christians, I offer several teachings on this topic that can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes. When chaos is swirling around us in and in us, meditation is the best tools for quieting the mind, body, and spirit so we can get meet God at the deepest level of soul, where God gives us access to divine wisdom, courage, strength, and peace. It is no coincidence that Jesus calms the storm in Mark 4 by saying, “Quiet! Be still!” And Jesus says the same thing to us today to calm the storms of our hearts.
Meditation (or contemplation) clears space in our hearts and minds so we can find clarity about our next best steps, but to calm the storm on the inside we sometimes need to, first, calm the storm on the outside. We need to get away from the noise, busyness, conflict, and competing demands of others, finding a quiet and peaceful place for rest and prayer. Do you ever give yourself this gift?
It’s important to note that if we don’t prepare for storms through daily spiritual practice, or if we fail to handle the storms with wisdom and faith, Jesus doesn’t abandon or reject us. The Bible is clear that Jesus abides with us always, and when we fail he offers grace and forgiveness. However, our lack of discipline and preparation will make it more likely for us to make unwise, and even sinful, choices that result in even more difficulty, pain, and confusion.
So, let us commit now to a life of daily spiritual discipline. Being a Christian is not just about a one-time decision in which we ask Jesus to be our personal lord and savior. It’s a way of life based on the imitating Jesus. It’s about a radical transformation that makes us more loving, compassionate, faithful, and wise. In addition to daily conversational prayer, let us also commit to daily meditation, the practice of stilling our hearts and minds in silence, so we can become increasingly aware of the presence of God in every single moment of life. If you need help with meditation, you might consider attending our Christ centered yoga class or acquiring some other good resources. Like Jesus and disciples, let us commit to taking time away from the noise and chaos for rest and prayer, whenever the need arises. And when we return from our deserted place, let us commit to getting help from other Christians, especially those who are farther down the disciple’s path. Christianity is not a spectator sport or an individual sport, it is a community affair. We need each other. We need good traveling companions and guides. This is the main reason we offer the Quadratos Companioning Group and other groups, studies and classes to support you.
Don’t wait until the storm arrives to start preparing—start now through the practice of daily spiritual discipline. If it’s too late and the storm is already raging in your life, then get help from other more mature Christians and do your best to commit to prayer, meditation, and the study of scripture, which will help you to be faithful and to pay attention to the lessons that God wants to teach you in the process.
Gracious God, teach me how to stay close to you day by day through the imitation of Christ so that I can be prepared for storms.
(This post is the eleventh in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:1-5)
A Call to Repentance
The gospel of Mark begins with the announcement of good news to a people enduring great suffering. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin with a birth narrative. Rather he jumps right to a message that the people needed to hear: you do not suffer alone; God suffers with you. This is communicated by evoking a prophecy in Isaiah of a suffering servant sent by God to save his people, and by suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy.
The appropriate response upon hearing this good news is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which seems odd. Why would the first message to a brutalized people be a call to repentance? At first glance, this may seem like victim blaming. What exactly are the sins from which they need to repent?
Remember that when Rome burned in 64 C.E., Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and a mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on every door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Jesus follower. If a believer was identified, either by admission or because of someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified, then those living there were required to name someone else living elsewhere. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day.[i]
As they were subject to unimaginable horror, some people acted out of character, doing things that they deeply regretted. Some denied Jesus by denying their faith. Others betrayed friends to save their own families. Resentment and hatred poisoned their hearts in the face of unjust violence.
These are some of the sins from which they needed to repent because they created heavy burdens of shame. Seen in this way, repentance was a gift from God insofar as it provided a release from these burdens through the process of forgiveness. They needed to forgive themselves, as well as their family, friends, community, and enemies to move forward, live full lives, and be transformed into the image of Christ, the suffering servant.
According to the Gospel of Mark, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah makes all this possible because he baptizes the repentant with the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers us to find freedom through repentance and forgiveness, both of which are miracles of God’s grace.
Suffering, Self-Discovery, and Forgiveness
In my own experience, suffering functions to peel away layers of old beliefs, thoughts, and patterns of action that cloud a true understanding of our pain. So often we don’t really know the source of our pain or what drives it because our understanding is distorted by false assumptions and stories we tell ourselves that are simply not true. Suffering can initiate a process of self-discovery that strips away the things that deceive so we can get to the roots of our suffering, which is the only place where true healing can happen.
However, this itself is a painful process. When our illusions and defense mechanisms are stripped away, we are required to face the fullness of our suffering. This is experienced as a kind of death—the death of ego. Many try to shorten this process by rushing forgiveness, as if it were a momentary decision of the will: “I forgive you. Yes, yes, all is fine now.” But all is not fine because forgiveness has not really happened. Rather this is an exercise in denial that sweeps the wrongdoing under the rug and prevents authentic forgiveness, which includes naming and condemning the offense, grieving losses, processing resentment, converting bitterness into compassion, and reassessing the boundaries in the relationship. Although denial may appear to work for a little while, over time it proves to be another deception that must be stripped away by suffering, so we can get in touch with deeper currents of anger, pain, and shame. Healing from brokenness and betrayal, the kind inflicted on us by others and the kind we inflict on ourselves, is a process that takes time. It cannot be rushed. And part of this process involves the confession of sin and repentance.
This is hard to hear when you’ve been the target of mistreatment or abuse. We must be very careful not to blame victims for offenses inflicted on them by others. (See the comments below on appropriate and inappropriate guilt.) But even truly innocent victims sometimes discover that they need to repent from their reaction to the offense. For example, some retaliate with violence, repaying evil with evil, while others nurse resentment for years.
These examples illustrate a more general truth: it’s hard to focus on our part in wrongdoing when our part is very small. Except in extreme cases of victimization, we usually bear some responsibility in the conflict we experience with others. Sometimes our part is easy to see because we’re mostly to blame, or at least a 50/50 participant. But when the offense of another is pronounced and obvious, it can eclipse the small ways that we may have contributed, making it appear as if the other person is 100% to blame.
Imagine having a difficult conversation with someone where you honestly spoke the truth in love. He gets furious and retaliates by mistreating you for months, trashing you behind your back to anyone who will listen. Resisting the temptation to repay insult for insult, you remain loving and continue to act morally. Then, one day, after a particularly nasty attack, you lose your temper and send an email in which you speak more truth, but this time it’s in anger not love. You’ve had enough, and your primary goal is to hurt him in the same way he has hurt you. Your enemy then takes the email and makes it public to continue hurting you. The wrong doing of this disgruntled man is so obvious and prolonged that it is easy to saddle him with 100% of the blame. By highlighting his gross wrong doing, you can eclipse your own small part and act as if you’re totally innocent. But if you want to be healed and spiritually transformed, you must own your part, even if it’s so small in comparison that it’s hard to see. Indeed, even if the other person is 99% to blame, you still must confess and repent of your 1%.
Understanding Confession and Repentance
But what do we mean by confession and repentance? Neither one of these spiritual practices can be reduced to a fleeting memory of wrongdoing acknowledged by an obligatory, “I’m sorry.” Many of us know from experience how these words can be used to avoid the natural consequences of bad action.
In contrast, true confession is about making a searching and fearless moral inventory. By seriously reflecting on the full scope of our wrongdoing, we gain a better understanding of the nature of our offense, what causes and motivates it, and what negative consequences ensue for everyone involved. Having done this, true repentance requires us to feel the pain we have caused others through genuine empathy, so when we say the words, “I’m sorry,” they are heartfelt. After connecting with the pain we’ve caused others, true repentance also requires us to fully accept the consequences of our actions, to become willing to make amends, and to commitment to addressing the roots of our problem so we can make lasting positive changes. Taken together, confession and repentance expose the character defects that drive our sin, putting us in a position to receive healing and liberation.
It’s important to note that repentance is not about self-hatred or beating ourselves up. Just as we seek to be compassionate with others, we also seek to be compassionate with ourselves. Just as we seek to forgive others, we also seek to forgive ourselves. This means that while we should accept the appropriate guilt that we deserve, we should not accept inappropriate guilt that we do not. This requires good boundaries because some people will try to blame us for things we haven’t done or manipulate us into assuming a disproportionate amount of the blame. But honesty cuts both ways. Just as we should not try to hide or deny our contribution (no matter how small), nor should we accept blame that does not belong to us, or the false narratives spun to legitimate the offering of inappropriate guilt.
True repentance is an exercise in honesty, a gift from God in the larger process of forgiveness that can heal our pain and set us free for deep spiritual transformation. So, if you are suffering today because of sin, either your own or someone else’s, then remember that God has given us a way out. It takes time to work through confession, repentance, and forgiveness, but if you stay close to Jesus and get the help you need, your pain will not last forever. As you heal you will experience fundamental changes that will serve you well on the path to freedom, peace, and joy.
How your pain changes you is partly dependent on your willingness to deal with it in God’s way.
Gracious God, help me to be honest about my own wrongdoing so that I can truly repent and be set free. Forgive my sin, heal my pain, and empower me to forgive others.
[i] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation (Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2017), 131.
(This post is the tenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
Context for the Gospel of Mark: The Burning of Rome
On July 19 in the year 64 C.E., a fire broke out in Rome. It lasted several days, killing many and reducing most of the great city to embers. The emperor at the time, Nero, had previously proposed to demolish and rebuild most of the city in a classical manner, so rumors spread that he started the fire to make it easier to proceed with his plans. As a result, Nero came under attack by his senators. He needed someone to blame, so he scapegoated the Jews. His ploy was believable because most Jews lived on the outskirts of town across a river, and because of their location were untouched by the fire.
Word spread quickly among the Jews and fear spiraled out of control as they anticipated mass suffering at the hand of brutal tyrant. Desperate to avoid Nero’s wrath, some Jews went to the emperor and accused a fringe group of setting the fire, the Messianic Jews who followed Jesus. Nero’s response was horrific. He demanded that the larger Jewish community collaborate with Roman soldiers to identity Christians, and to save their own families they agreed. “A mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on each door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Christ believer. The answer determined the fate of the householder and everyone else in that house.”[i] If a believer was identified, either by admission or someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. Most were led into the Circus Maximus, chained to the floor, splattered with blood, and eaten alive by starved dogs. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified as a Christian, then those living there were forced to name someone else, who was then seized and executed without trial. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day. In the end, the Christian community in Rome was destroyed.
It is hard to imagine this horror. The Messianic Jews were betrayed by their own people to mass murder. The Christians who escaped and those who lived in neighboring areas were isolated in a sea of terror, fear, persecution, and death. It must have been hard to believe in the promises of Jesus, especially since their slaughter was the result of their belief.
Most scholars date the Gospel of Mark to around 70 C.E., and while its audience is debated, it certainly fits the situation of the early Christians who were recovering from the aftermath of unimaginable cruelty. As such, it gives guidance to Jesus followers regarding how to faithfully navigate fear, resentment, hatred, persecution, and suffering.
The Gospel of Mark and the Second Path of the Quadratos.
As the Gospel of Mark addresses the question of how we move through suffering, thereby disclosing the second path of the Quadratos.[ii] Those who walk the road to transformation sometimes feel like they are in a small boat on a stormy sea. “The winds and water lash at us as we are tossed about in a gray, horizon less [sic.], directionless world.”[iii] We’ve gone too far to return to the beginning, but we’re not sure how to discern the best way forward either. As we stand facing the horizon, Mark reminds us of a hard truth: sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Suffering is to be expected and is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. But, Mark also reminds us that suffering is only for a season and that there are reliable spiritual practices that can help us along the way. We endure by praying, listening, and acting accordingly.
Good News in Suffering
Given all that we know about the context, audience, and theme of the Gospel of Mark, one might think that it would begin with a sobering word of caution, something like, “Buckle-up buttercup because it is about to get really bad!” But it doesn’t. In stark contrast, it reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis added). I can imagine a Christian living in Rome around 70 C.E. saying, “Good news? What good news?” The Messianic Jews didn’t appear to have much to celebrate. Even though they decided to follow Jesus, their obedience to the call threatened their lives and resulted in the senseless murder of family and friends.
Nevertheless, Mark begins with the proclamation of good news. While all the evidence may seem to suggest that the teachings of Jesus are an exercise in empty wishing, we hear the voice of a cloud of witnesses: God’s promises are true. It may not look like it or feel like it, but God is faithful, and your suffering will not have the last word—that is reserved for redemption. Mark reminds us that we follow one who not only shows us the way forward but also understands our pain, because he has experienced it too. He walks with us and suffers with us, so that we will have everything we need to move through it.
An important truth revealed in Mark is that we cannot bypass suffering. We must go through it. Suffering is a necessary part of our spiritual transformation because there are lessons that can only be learned as we wrestle with pain. But the good news is that God will see us through, and our faithfulness will be a contribution to God’s great rescue mission of this world. By beginning with the proclamation of good news, Mark is telling us to gather our strength and hope by remembering the promises of God, which help us understand our suffering as part of a larger divine process.
Although we will learn many important lessons and develop many helpful tools in our study of Mark, it is important to remember something from the very beginning. There is not only good news despite our suffering, or in the face of our suffering, or at the end of our suffering. There is also a gift in the suffering insofar as it helps us get in touch with what is most essential about our faith.
Since so many Christians in America experience a life of ease, which can function to distort the gospel message, it is often helpful to ask, for what are we willing to suffer? For what are we willing to be persecuted? For what are we willing to die?
Many of us are born, then born again, and die in comfort. As those living in a country founded on religious freedom, most of us will never face the terror of the early Christians. Indeed, the very idea of martyrdom has become unintelligible for most American Christians.[iv] This is not only the case for individual Christians, but the church has the luxury of dodging these questions too. Even though some influential Christian groups cry persecution as a political strategy, these claims smack with absurdity when considering what our brothers and sisters have endured through the ages, and even now in places like Syria.
It seems to me that we are most lax in our faith and divided in our beliefs when life is good. Individuals and churches that enjoy wealth and influence are tempted to misuse these gifts for selfish gain, squabbling over trivial matters and confusing the essentials of faith with political agendas. This can be clearly seen in our current context in which many people who profess to follow Jesus have all but completely abandoned his teachings and the value system of the Kingdom of God.
But persecution—real persecution—has a way of parsing, sifting, and separating that which is essential and non-essential in the Christian faith. When facing torture and death, you don’t have time to quibble over extraneous or peripheral issues. And while many of us will never face torture and death because of our faith, all of us will eventually suffer as a result of our decision to follow Jesus. Mark helps us to see that this suffering, understood in the right context, can be a gift insofar as it cuts to the core of what we really believe and shows us what we are made of.
Listening to the words of Jesus while enduring a season of suffering reminds us that Christianity is not a social club, a non-profit relief group, or a political action committee. It is not one collection of ancient teachings among others from which we can pick and choose to build our own philosophy of life. Rather, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he bids us to come and die.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[b] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mark 8:34-37)
Jesus is saying, I want you to base your entire life on the truths I am proclaiming and to believe it so deeply that you practice it even when it requires you to lose everything. Given the hostile environment in which these words were recorded, we can say that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. It is no coincidence that the word for witness in the early church was the same word for martyr, because being a Christian meant staking your life on the gospel of Jesus.
When we face the prospect of acute suffering because of our decision to follow Jesus, these teachings once again dawn on our consciousness, and if we do not quickly dismiss them they create an opportunity to wrestle with the question, “Do I really believe this stuff?” Human beings have an incredible capacity for self-deception. In terms of our faith, we often say that we believe something only for the truth of that claim to be questioned by the prospect of sacrifice. Suffering has a way of cutting through self-deception and getting us in touch with what we really believe in our heart of hearts, what we are willing to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for. Suffering can function as a kind of refining fire, separating the essentials from the non-essentials and giving us a gut check regarding our commitment to the essentials.
This is the way our ego is crucified so that our true self can be resurrected. This is the path to honesty, which is the path to humility, which makes true faithfulness possible. But this path is not easy. It is the most difficult part of our journey toward transformation, and we need the wisdom of the Gospel of Mark to illuminate our way and give us the tools we need to make it through. This will be the focus of our reflection in the weeks to come.
But for now, it is important to gather our strength by remembering that we live in the power of good news even when experiencing deep suffering, and that the suffering itself can help us get in touch with what is most important, true, and helpful about our faith. In this way, we gain sound footing on the difficult road that lies ahead.
Gracious God, as dark, rumbling clouds approach the horizon and waves begin to beat against the boat, remind us of your faithfulness and give us the courage to trust your ability to get us to the other side.
(This post is the ninth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)
[i] This account of the burning of Rome and the scapegoating of Christians is taken from Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind (Journey of Quadratos: Santa Fe, 2017) 130-132.