From Failure to Wisdom in the Safety of Forgiveness

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]

 

Failing Jesus

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.

 

Challenge

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.

 

Prayer

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 ShaiaEach 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).

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Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

_____________________________________

[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.