jasonbwatson

June 13, 2016

ὑστερέω

Back in 1992 I was thinking I was pretty big stuff. I was starting to drive and I was making some money. I had a paper route that I did with my brother, rising far earlier than any other kids I knew at school so that I could deliver my papers, get home, shower, watch SportsCenter and get to school in time for my early bird classes–a voluntary class period offered before the start of the regular school day. I also did some yard work for a few customers, mostly mowing, and seized other opportunities that came along to make some extra money. Then I got a part-time job working at the local drug store, which I did in addition to all of the above. My expenses were minimal and I had a goal in mind.

I wanted my own car. Not just any car, mind you. Despite not really being much of a “car guy”–when it came to the mechanics of an automobile I knew very little and even basic auto maintenance was beyond me–I had somehow developed a fondness for Porsche cars. I do not remember where that originated, or even when, but I knew I liked them. On the rare occasions when I would see one on the road it always caught my eye. I knew what I wanted and I was going to work hard and get it.

After a few years of the paper route, innumerable miles walked behind a lawn mower, driveways shoveled after snow storms and lots of change counted back to customers at the drug store I had accumulated a nice savings account. On top of that, I was a well-behaved young man, earned excellent grades and spent most of my free time playing sports or reading books. The most trouble I had ever been in was a police officer telling me I had to obey all traffic laws after I had failed to stop my 10-speed bicycle at a Stop sign coming home from work one day.

So, shortly after I turned 16, I went to the bank and withdrew my hard-earned $4,296.17 (including interest earned for letting it sit there!). I borrowed the family’s Chevy station wagon–you know, the one with the lining of the ceiling held up with thumb tacks–and set off for the Porsche dealer. There was not one in our town so I had to drive a ways to the big city to get there. I got a few looks when my dark blue wagon pulled onto the lot, but I didn’t care; I knew I would soon be saying goodbye to that car forever.

I walked into the showroom and there is was: a beautiful 911 Turbo S. It was a metallic navy blue, shiny chrome on the wheels and the spoiler was up, just how I liked it. I walked around the car and admired it from every angle. I think I avoided having drool spill out of the corner of my mouth, but it had to have been close. This was the car I had dreamed of and here it was. Behind me a sharply dressed man approached and said, less politely than I would have imagined from a Porsche salesman, “Can I help you?”

“I expect so,” I responded. “I am here to buy this car.”

“Is that right?” he said, the less-than-polite tone seeming to become even less polite, yet somehow mixed with a bit of incredulity.

“Yes it is,” I responded. “I have been dreaming of this car for a few years now, and I have worked hard and I am ready to make it mine.”

“Young man,” he said, “do you know how much money it would take to buy this car?”

“No I don’t,” I said. “I thought that was why you’re here.”

He smiled, but not a friendly smile. More of a you think that’s cute, kid? smile. “The list price on this car,” he then said in measured words, “is $118,935.”

I had been smiling up to this point, I am sure. Ear-to-ear smiling probably. But the smile disappeared in an instant. Somehow this caused his smile to grow wider. “Not quite what you have with you?” he asked, clearly condescending now.

“No,” I replied. “Not even close. But I have worked extremely hard for what I have. I have earned excellent grades in school, I have stayed out of trouble and I have saved every penny I could because I want this car. I have Porsche posters on the wall of my bedroom and pictures of Porsches in my locker. My favorite t-shirt has the Porsche logo on it and look,” I said, pulling it out of my back pocket, “so does my wallet.”

“That’s all very nice,” the man said, “but none of that matters much. We do appreciate your affinity for our automobiles, of course, but that does not entitle you to drive one.”

“But I have been telling everyone about this Porsche,” I told him. “Everyone! I can tell you the length of it, the wheel base, the horsepower! I know the name of the engineer who designed the original engine. I have been waiting, hoping and longing for this day. Anytime someone asked me I told them I was going to buy a Porsche! I have worked as hard as I can to save this money–almost $4,300. You can’t send me away without that car…”

“I’m afraid I can,” the man replied. “The money you have there is far short of what is required. You would need about twenty-five times more money than you have there to purchase this car. Your efforts are commendable, I suppose, but you’ve simply come up short. Waaaayyy short. Now I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

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The story above is just that–a story. There are elements of truth to it; I really did have those jobs, for example, and I really did have a police officer fuss at me for not stopping my bike at a Stop sign. I also am not a car guy, yet I do have a fondness for a Porsche 911 Turbo–especially with the spoiler up. But I am wise enough to know that I could never purchase one with forty-three hundred dollars. The point of the story is to (inadequately, I acknowledge) illustrate the meaning of ὑστερέω. That is a Greek word, rendered hustereó in English, that means “to fall short.” HELPS Word Studies says “This state of lack (insufficiency, privation) naturally results when a person misses out on what is vital.” I my story above I had missed out on the vital realization of exactly how much a Porsche would cost. But that same word appears in Romans 3:23, which says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (ESV).

The Voice paraphrases the verse this way: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” The standard God has is perfection. Absolute holiness and righteousness. Ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the garden we have all been born in sin and, try though we might, we cannot ever come close–not even one twenty-fifth as in my story above–of that standard. It does not matter how good we are, how hard we may work, how many people we tell about God, how many t-shirts or car magnets or wrist bands we have with crosses or fish symbols or John 3:16 on them. All of that combined and multiplied exponentially would still leave us infinitely short of God’s standard. Of our very best efforts the Bible uses some very vivid language–and not in a complimentary way, either! The cleaned up, suitable for polite conversation version says that all of our efforts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).

Romans 6:23 tells us that the just due for our sin is death–eternal separation from God. The good news is that that same verse tells us that the gift of God–the free gift which no one deserves but which all can receive–is the eternal life. In other words, God has set an impossible standard that none of us can meet, but He has also provided a way for it to be met for us. He did that through His Son Jesus, who died on the cross in our place as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23, KJV).

That would be, by way of pathetic example, as if the salesman in the story above looked at my savings and said, “You’re not even close to being able to pay for this car. However, because I love you, I will give it to you.”

God has looked at each and every human being and said, “You are ὑστερέω. You are not even close. You could do your very best from now until you die but you will be no closer then than you are now. You simply cannot do it. It is not possible. However, I love you. And if you will accept my love, acknowledge your own inadequacy and fallenness, and accept the sacrifice of my Son on your behalf, I will give you eternal life anyway. You cannot earn it, and you do not deserve it, but I will give it to you…because I love you.”

That is the wonder of God’s love.

November 30, 2015

Mercy is Messy

For the past eleven years I have been in positions that entail enforcing rules and administering discipline for young people. There have been many times when I have wrestled with making the right decision in situations when disciplinary consequences were necessary, hoping and praying that I would make the right decision. Balancing justice and mercy is not easy to do. For some reason, though, a recent situation prompted me to wrestle with this matter even more than I have in the past, or at least more than I have in a long time. I probably spent the better part of three days mulling over how to handle a situation, praying for guidance and wisdom. Here’s the conclusion I reached after all that mulling: mercy is messy.

It is easy to make a decision to impose consequences. When in an institutional setting, there are almost always guidelines in place that inform discipline. Nothing could be easier than finding the offense and following your finger across the chart to the predetermined penalty. That requires no thinking at all, though; a computer or a robot could be programmed to do that. People are more complicated than that, though. And when you are enforcing discipline in a ministry that claims to be following Christ, it gets exponentially more complicated. God does not use a cookie cutter approach to discipline. He does not kick us out of His family when we blow it. He does not revoke our salvation. He does not eliminate the consequences of our actions, either, of course. There are often very real, even very painful, consequences for sin. Dallas Willard wrote, “If you choose to step off the roof, you cannot then choose not to hit the ground.” His point was that our actions and choices all have consequences, and we cannot opt to avoid the consequences after we have made our choice. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and I do not want anything I am saying here to suggest that I think we should eliminate consequences. What I am saying, though, is that meaningful, effective, God-honoring consequences do not come in neat, clean packages.

Laura Coulter has written this: “I think when we aren’t being merciful, it’s because we aren’t seeing the wild mercy of God in our own lives. If we were, we couldn’t help but splash it everywhere we go, all over everything.” This is the rub, actually. When I stop and reflect on all of the mercy God has shown me, I am left wondering how in the world I could not show mercy to someone else. If being a Christian means being like Christ, showing mercy has to be an essential part of how I live my life. The reality, though, is it isn’t. I don’t really like mercy most of the time. When I have been offended or wronged or, let’s face it, even just irritated, I want justice. I want revenge. I want punishment inflicted and pain felt. I want to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth. I want to see fire fall from heaven and the offending party obliterated, blown into a billion tiny particles scattered across the universe. I want the offending party to get exactly what’s coming to him.

When I calm down and think about what I am really saying, however, I realize exactly how much like Jonah that sounds. Jonah got ticked off at God because He decided to show mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah wanted no part of mercy. He wanted to see cosmic destruction, up close and personal, from a front row seat on a hill overlooking town, enjoying the shade of a lovely plant that God provided for him. When God took away the plant and extended mercy on the Ninevites Jonah was so incensed he wanted to die. How many times have I read Jonah’s story and used him as a great example of the wrong kind of heart, the wrong kind of attitude? It’s not so fun when I look into the mirror of God’s Word and see Jonah staring back at me, though.

Being merciful means taking a huge risk. Multiple risks simultaneously, in fact. It means risking the comments that will come from others who see you as weak for not giving someone what they deserve. It means risking the behavior that others may engage in when they saw someone else “get away with it,” whatever “it” may have been. It means risking the possibility of having that mercy thrown back in your face by the very one to whom it was extended when, rather than seizing the opportunity to change his life, he decides instead to capitalize on the opportunity to do whatever he wants yet again. It means taking the risk of having to look back later and wonder if all of the trouble, headache and heartache that comes from the possibilities just enumerated could have been avoided by just saying “see ya” the first time someone messed up.

I have no idea if the decision I made in the instance that I alluded to at the start of this post will turn out well or not. It is too early to know for sure. I do know, though, that I have–for now anyway–peace about that decision. When I ponder why I have that peace I am left with a simple conclusion: if doing my best to treat someone the way God would treat them, I cannot be doing the wrong thing, even if it turns out to be a disaster. Phillip Holmes wrote recently on the grace of God, describing it like this:

God is neither motivated by his own sinfulness nor enabled by his ignorance. He is a holy and righteous God, completely void of sin and full of goodness and love. He’s never made a mistake and can do anything but fail. He is perfect in all his ways. If he were a doctor, he’d never lose a patient. If he were a lawyer, he’d never lose a case. There is no moral compass that could measure how upright and blameless he is.

Nevertheless, when we, his sinful and rebellious prodigal children, spit in his face, wallow in our sin, and grieve his Spirit, he calls us to repentance with open and loving arms saying, “Come home, child.”

He’s not ignorant of all the ways we’ve sinned against him. He knows everything we’ve ever done and is able to stomach it. His knowledge of who we really are will never hinder his love for us. He’s even aware of the evil behind our righteous deeds. The intimacy by which the Lord knows us but is able to lovingly embrace us as his children is supernatural. God’s grace is mind-blowing. Every time I think of this reality, I’m brought to tears because I serve a God whose love and grace baffle me.

I have to agree. God’s love and grace baffle me, too. So does His mercy. God gives me far more than I deserve, and, in His sovereignty, does not give me what I do deserve. I am not God. I am not perfect, I am not all-knowing and I surely make mistakes. I know all of that quite well. Here’s what else I know, though: If taking the opportunity to extend mercy to someone has even the slimmest chance of leading them to the Lord, or closer to the Lord, it’s worth it. Every time. All of the mess, the risk and the headache is worth it. I do not spend much time reading Rick Warren and I rarely quote him, but he got it right with his blog post on May 21, 2014 entitled “Don’t Be Reluctant to Show Mercy.” “The mercy God shows to us is the motivation for us to show mercy to others,” Warren wrote. That is certainly true, because in and of myself, there is no motivation for mercy. In and of myself I am just like Jonah. In and of myself I am like James and John in Luke 9–I want to call down fire from heaven. But I don’t really want to be like I am in and of myself. I want to be like Christ.

In a sermon entitled “Blessed Are the Merciful,” John Piper said the following about mercy:

[M]ercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, and has come to grief over its sin, and has learned to wait meekly for the timing of the Lord, and to cry out in hunger for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need.

The mercy that God blesses is itself the blessing of God. It grows up like fruit in a broken heart and a meek spirit and a soul that hungers and thirsts for God to be merciful. Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God’s mercy to us.

The key to becoming a merciful person is to become a broken person. You get the power to show mercy from the real feeling in your heart that you owe everything you are and have to sheer divine mercy. Therefore, if we want to become merciful people, it is imperative that we cultivate a view of God and ourselves that helps us to say with all our heart that every joy and virtue and distress of our lives is owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God.

That last sentence is a doozy, isn’t it? How transformational it is to understand that everything in our lives is “owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God”!

Importantly, Piper also points out that knowing when and how to show mercy is not easy. Note what he has to say…

If we ask, How shall we know when to do justice and how to show mercy? I would answer, by getting as close to Jesus as you possibly can. I know of no hard and fast rules in Scripture to dictate for every situation. And I don’t think this is an accident. The aim of Scripture is to produce a certain kind of person, not provide and exhaustive list of rules for every situation.

The beatitude says, “Blessed are the merciful,” not, “Blessed are those who know exactly when and how to show mercy in all circumstances.” We must be merciful people even when we act with severity in the service of justice.

That’s an insightful reminder to end with, I think. It seems contradictory, but sometimes mercy does require the effective administration of swift justice. Guess where that leaves me, though? Exactly where I started–with the point that knowing what to do and when is difficult. Mind-taxing, heart-wrenching, time-consuming and just plain hard. Like I said…mercy is messy.

September 1, 2015

Generational Apologies

In the September 2015 issue of Christianity Today Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra writes a column that asks a question I have been asking for years. The column is titled “Sins of Our Fathers,” and subtitled, “Should denominations apologize for acts they didn’t commit?” My position, for as long as I can remember ever considering the question, has always been no. I have usually referred to them as generational apologizes, when one generation apologizes for something a previous generation committed. I can see no point in it, no real substance or merit. In my mind, such apologies are hollow words. Dictionary.com defines apology as, “a written or spoken expression of one’s regret, remorse, or sorrow for having insulted, failed, injured, or wronged another.” I think that is a solid definition for apology, and that is exactly why a generational apology is, in my mind, worthless. For me to apologize to someone or to some group of people for something that happened to their ancestors before I was even born is as meaningful as Person A apologizing to me for something that was done to me, or said about me, by Person B. It might be a nice sentiment, but it ultimately does no good, costs nothing and therefore means little.

Zylstra’s column is centered around a vote held at this year’s general assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Ligon Duncan III, the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary, and Sean Lucas, a church historian, introduced a resolution that would apologize on behalf of the PCA for “involvement in and complicity with racial injustice” during the civil rights era. Duncan said the motion grew out of the relationships and friendships he has developed with African American pastors. According to Zylstra, supporters of the motion said it would be “an essential step toward reconciliation in a time of growing diversity.” The motion was deferred by a vote of 684-46, and it will come up for consideration again next year. But even if it passes, what good will it do?

I respect Ligon Duncan and I have learned from him in the past. He said, “When you become friends with a person who has experienced oppression, and you begin to love that person, you begin to care about the things that have hurt their heart.” I believe those are sincere words, and I agree with them. My position, however, remains the same. Caring about someone, empathizing with them, even wishing that something had not happened to them or expressing sorrow that it did happen are all fine, all understandable and all appropriate. They are also all different from apologizing.

If I become friends with a woman who has been raped, and she entrusts me with that fact, do I apologize to her on behalf of the male race for what happened to her? I would not. And while I do not know for certain, I think she would find it hollow and contrived if I did. I did not perpetrate the attack, so how could I sincerely and meaningfully apologize for it? I do not and cannot speak for the entire male race, so what good would that do? Even if I knew the specific individual responsible for the attack, I could not apologize for him. I do not see these generational apologies by groups or churches as any different.

In this specific case there is a bit of difference since there are still individuals alive who experienced the racial injustice of the civil rights era. This makes it different than other similar motions passed by groups, including the PCA, on slavery, since there are no individuals still living who experienced the forced slavery that ended more than a century ago. However, any motions or apologies should still only come from the individuals or churches who were involved in order to be meaningful. Interestingly, Zylstra reports that some PCA pastors question the need of Duncan’s motion because the PCA did not even exist as a body until nine years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. This raises a valid point, one that serves only to reinforce my position. Alex Shipman is the leader of the PCA’s African American Presbyterian Fellowship and to this point he argues that while the PCA did not exist, many of its member churches did, and some of them, he said, barred African Americans from joining their churches and did nothing to bring about an end to Jim Crow. Fine. Then those churches should apologize if there is going to be any apologizing done, not an entire body like the PCA, with the vote being made by hundreds of individuals who had nothing to do with the attitudes and actions of those churches and who may not even have been alive at the time.

Apparently some individuals were shocked that Duncan’s motion was delayed by such a resounding vote. “There was a sense of, ‘Why would you want to drag your feet on repenting?'” Duncan stated. Hmmm… I am not a member of the PCA and I was not at their general assembly. But at least one reason someone might want to drag their feet springs immediately to mind: how can I repent of something I did not do? To use a definition again, Dictionary.com defines repent this way: “to feel sorry, self-reproachful, or contrite for past conduct; regret or be conscience-stricken about a past action, attitude, etc.; to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better; be penitent.” I cannot be conscience-stricken over something I did not do; I cannot be disposed to change my life for the better when what I would be changing from is not something I have ever done. When I watch movies or documentaries, or when I read books, that deal with slavery, with the way Native Americans were largely treated by the United States government, of the Holocaust, of the way many African Americans were treated in the American south, I do feel remorse, I do feel anger, I do feel sorrow. I will not, however, apologize for any of it, because I cannot.

Simon Wiesenthal addresses with this dilemma in his book The Sunflower. In it, Wiesenthal, a Jew, recounts being asked by a German soldier who was near death to forgive him for what he had done to the Jews. Wiesenthal’s book is excellent reading, and it includes thoughts on this matter from some of the world’s leading thinkers. Wiesenthal’s own conclusion is that no one has a right to forgive for others. I read Wiesenthal’s book as a high school sophomore, and perhaps his conclusion has influenced my own thinking, I do not know. What I do know is that he and I are in agreement: no one has the right–nor, I would add, the ability–to forgive on behalf of anyone else.

Alex Shipman references biblical examples of the people of Israel confessing the sins of their fathers. Daniel 9 is one example given by PCA pastor Lane Keister. he also acknowledges, though, that Ezekiel 18 provides an example of the opposite, making it “clear that each person is only condemned for his own sin.” I think there is a difference between confession and apology. I see no problem with a person or a group acknowledging that the actions or attitudes of previous generations were wrong. If any church stood by and condoned Jim Crow laws or segregation, that church was wrong. I will acknowledge and confess that in a nanosecond. That wrong is not on me, though; I hold to guilt nor blame for it. Neither can I apologize for it, nor will I. Such apologies, whether from me or any other person or group, are useless, pointless and meaningless.

March 30, 2015

Not a Math Problem

Though I have not been able to find definitive evidence that she did so, I have seen this statement attributed to Hillary Rodham Clinton in a number of places: “In the bible it says you have to forgive seventy times seven. I want you all to know, I’m keeping a chart.” And while I have not found that definitive evidence, it does strike me, if you don’t mind me saying so, as something Clinton would say.

If she did say it, she was referring, of course, to Matthew 18, where Peter asked Jesus how many times he needed to forgive someone who sinned against him. Verse 21 says Peter asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter thought he was being quite magnanimous, of course, and, if understood in context, he was. The Pharisees, after all, taught that one need only forgive three times. So Peter doubled it and, for good measure, added one more. Knowing Peter as we do, we can easily imagine him asking the question with an air of confidence, thinking that he would be commended for his generosity. Jesus, however, had something else in mind. “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven,” Jesus told him.

Seventy times seven is a lot of forgiveness. Who could keep track of forgiving someone 490 times? That, of course, was Jesus’ point. He was teaching Peter that there is not to be an end to forgiveness. Even if you go with one of the translations that presents Matthew 18:22 as “seventy-seven times” the point is that we are to keep on forgiving. We are not to keep a list. If someone kept track of forgiveness, whether seventy-seven times or 490 times, the implication of that would be that once that magic number had been reached, all bets were off, and revenge was coming. That, of course, was what Hillary Clinton was implying in the quote above. She was suggesting that there would come an end to her forgiveness, and when that point was reached, watch out!

God, however, never stops forgiving us. If he did, I would have long ago exhausted by 490 chances, as would everyone else on the face of the earth. Jesus went on, after answering Peter, to deliver the parable of the master who forgave a servant an insurmountable debt that he could never have paid on his own. That is the forgiveness that God offers. There is only one unpardonable, or unforgivable, sin, and that is refusing to accept that Christ died on the cross as the only possible perfect sacrifice that would satisfy a holy God. Beyond that, there is nothing you can do, I can do, or anyone else can do, that God will not forgive.

As incredibly comforting as that should be, the inverse is just as incredible. Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus said that if we do not forgive others their sins, God will not forgive our sins. Followers of Christ are called to demonstrate God-like forgiveness when others offend or wrong them. We need not keep a list, because it isn’t a math problem anyway, it is a heart condition. And the heart that is surrendered to Christ and yielded to the Holy Spirit will forgive the offending brother–every time.

March 20, 2015

Cinderella

I do not usually post movie reviews. In fact, I do not think I have ever reviewed a movie in this space, though it is possible that I have forgotten one. In this post, though, I am going to review one, primarily because I find it interesting how different two people can view the same thing.

Last Friday my wife and I went to see Disney’s new live-action movie Cinderella. I was not quite sure what to expect; I was hoping for a well-done film that did not stray too far from the classic storyline or get too “cutesy” in its presentation. I was not disappointed, because Disney and director Kenneth Branagh stayed very true to the storyline we all know. That pleased me. Interestingly enough, it disappointed Jessica Gibson, who reviewed the movie for Christianity Today. I did not read Gibson’s review until the day after I saw the movie, so I was a bit surprised to read the heading on the online version of the review: “When it comes to remaking classics, Disney shouldn’t try so hard.” Gibson opens her review announcing that she is a big believer that the original is almost always better. With that in mind, she said that she has been noncommittal on her opinion about Disney’s plan to make live-action versions of their classic animated versions of fairy tales. “Should Disney mess with success?” Gibson asks, to which she responds, “Cinderella gave the answer I hoped I wouldn’t get: they shouldn’t.”

Gibson goes on to write, “To its credit, the movie is remarkably faithful to the plot and characters of the 1950 animated original; thus, it doesn’t have much material with which to distinguish itself. Director Kenneth Branagh and the filmmakers tried to make the story feel new again, and for the most part they succeeded. But oddly, the movie’s best moments are the ones that didn’t change at all.” What I find so fascinating is that in Gibson’s mind this is a negative, whereas I found it refreshing. Far too often those who remake movies feel the need to put their own unique twist on the story we all know, with the result being that we are not watching the story we expected to see. I never find this satisfying or even enjoyable. (In fact, as I write this, it occurs to me that if I have reviewed a movie here before it was quite possibly to take to task the makers of the most recent Alex Cross movie, based on the novels by James Patterson, since the movie bore almost no resemblance to the book).

Oddly enough, one of the things Gibson complains about (though complain might be too strong a term) is that the Grand Duke in the latest version apparently needed to improvement for his eyesight. Gibson bemoaned the fact that in Branagh’s version the Grand Duke “did not have his trademark pince-nez and it was very wrong.” This actually struck me too, but only in an “I wonder why they didn’t include that” moment, not because I found it “very wrong.” (And, if I may politely correct Gibson, the Grand Duke in the animated version wore a monocle, not a pince-nez). The other difference that struck me is that Cinderella has no dog in Branagh’s version, meaning there is no Bruno when it comes time to get Cinderella to the ball. The result is that the fairy godmother makes footmen out of two lizards, an odd twist in my opinion. Branagh also makes the Grand Duke a conniver and schemer with his own designs on whom the prince should marry, whereas the original version makes him out as more of a bumbling sycophant.

It turns out that my opinion of the movie was much more in line with that of Emily Whitten, who reviewed it for WORLD. In Whitten’s words, the movie “is a visual feast with a moral center that will delight and edify children of all ages.” Branagh’s Cinderella is, outwardly, incredibly patient and tolerant with her step-mother and step-sisters after the death of her father, yet the film also gives us a glimpse into the struggles she deals with internally (emphasis on the word “glimpse”). Cinderella confronts her step-mother and step-sisters when they destroy her gown before the ball, asking them why they are so mean. She gets no response, but I also thought it interesting that Branagh had the step-mother make the first rip, whereas in the animated version Lady Tremaine slyly points out to the girls that Cinderella’s dress utilizes some things they had discarded and lets them inflict the damage. Equally interesting is that Branagh gives no indication that Cinderella used any of her step-sisters castoffs. The result of Branagh’s approach is, in my mind, the realization that the step-sisters are modeling the behavior they see their mother display, as well as that the behavior of all three is motivated purely by envy, jealousy and fear. Yes, that’s right, fear. Branagh also allows us to see a bit more into the heart of Lady Tremaine and to understand that no small part of her treatment of Cinderella is jealousy and that no small part of her efforts to get her daughters married off to the prince is her fear of having no income and nothing to provide for her and her daughters in the future after the death of Cinderella’s father. (Branagh does not attempt to explain why Conderella’s father would choose Lady Tremaine of all the women in the world he could perhaps have pursued as a second wife, and this is an aspect of the tale that has never made sense to me).

From the time of her mother’s death, Cinderella is driven by her mother’s last instructions, to “have courage and be kind.” These are, even if a bit trite, excellent instructions for all of us, and often easier said than done. When the glass slipper is finally placed on Cinderella’s foot–by the prince himself, in Branagh’s version–following a kingdom-wide search for the slipper’s owner, Cinderella turns to her step-mother for one final remark before leaving for her “happily ever after.” We see Lady Tremaine standing on the staircase, realizing that the one she has so despised is about to get everything she has always wanted for herself or, at the very least, her daughter. Cinderella turns and the two lock eyes–leaving the audience wondering what she is about to say. There are many things that she could say, and no doubt many of them would be deserved and justifiable. Cinderella, though, chooses three simple but incredibly powerful words: “I forgive you.”

I am not suggesting that Branagh intentionally incorporated a biblical worldview into this version, and as Whitten wrote of the movie, “In typical American fashion, belief here is a force on its own”–and this is perhaps true for much of the film. However, Lady Tremaine did not ask for Cinderella’s forgiveness and she certainly did not deserve it. I find some powerful biblical principles in that, and it is low-hanging fruit for anyone who wants to use the movie as a catalyst for deeper discussions with their children.

If you want a dramatic remake of the Cinderella story you know so well, you will not find it here. If, instead, you want a well-crafted live-action version of a classic fairy tale, without even a hint of black magic or content otherwise inappropriate for children, then this is the movie for you.

December 6, 2012

What is forgiveness?

Filed under: Biblical Worldview — jbwatson @ 5:16 pm
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Janie B. Cheaney’s column in the December 1, 2012 issue of WORLD accomplished something for me that few other journalistic offerings have accomplished in recent memory. Her piece, entitled “Bound by blood: The perils of forgiveness,” has not only provided a catalyst for this blog post, but also resulted in good discussions in the two classes I teach when I shared it with students, prompted a discussion with a colleague (after one of the students shared the discussion with him), and, probably most importantly, was actually thought provoking! So, while I disagree with Cheaney’s conclusion, I thank her for accomplishing what so few seem to be able to.

The backdrop of Cheaney’s editorial is the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other men at the U.S. embassy in Libya on September 11 of this year. The father of Tyrone Woods, a former Navy SEAL who was a security guard at the embassy and was killed in the attack, appeared on Sean Hannity’s television show and extended forgiveness to those responsible for what many have come to see as an intelligence failure. Cheaney quotes Woods as saying, “I don’t know who [the responsible parties] are, but one of these days the truth will come out. I still forgive you, but you need to stand up.” According to Cheaney, Woods cited his Christian faith during the interview and as the reason why he was able to offer forgiveness, as did his daughters, who expressed their forgiveness in the same interview.

Interestingly, Cheaney uses this to address what she believes is a too-casual approach to forgiveness by many in the Christian community. At one point, she writes that those who she calls “vendors of blanket forgiveness” miss two important elements of forgiveness: “the involvement of the offender, and the Person who is ultimately offended.”

Cheaney provides a quick overview of her own look into the Scriptures to see what they have to say about forgiveness, and she concludes that “in no case is forgiveness offered without knowing who the perpetrator is, and Psalm 51:4 makes it clear that in every case the ultimate offended party is God.” She proceeds to ask about forgiving “unknown perpetrators” (like Woods did). The first problem, Cheaney says, is this: “I doubt it’s even possible to forgive someone who has not asked for it…. Forgiveness is not an initiative, but a response. Forgiveness on one side must be balanced by confession and repentance on the other….”

By way of agreement, let me say that I absolutely agree with Cheaney that God is always the One ultimately offended. Every sin is an offense to God. However, I just as absolutely disagree with her conclusion that an unknown person cannot be forgiven and that forgiveness requires someone asking for it before it can be granted. I disagree for several reasons. First, forgiveness is for the benefit of the one forgiving as much or even more than for the benefit of the one being forgiven. Cheaney alludes to this when she writes, “We can agree that to remain bitter and angry over unconfessed wrong isn’t healthy.” And she is right; if I am unwilling to forgive a wrong, I am most likely the one that will suffer. My refusal to forgive will hinder my relationship with the one who wronged me, but it will also hinder my relationship with the Lord and perhaps with others. But Cheaney doesn’t stop there. In fact, her very next sentence reads, “But forgiveness that wasn’t requested isn’t true.”

This statement–which is erroneous, in my opinion–leads to my second point. For all the examples that Cheaney does cite, she never mentions Luke 23:23, which reads, “And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'” Jesus is hanging on the cross, and nowhere does the Scripture indicate that anyone standing there asked for forgiveness for crucifying Him, but He offers it anyway. In fact, far from seeking forgiveness, the next verse says that “the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him….” Scoffing is a far cry from repentance! Furthermore, Scripture is clear that God provided forgiveness for my sins–and yours–long before I ever asked for it. Romans 5:8 says, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Furthermore, in Colossians, Paul writes, in 3:13, “if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” God does not forgive with condition! Now, God’s forgiveness is completed when the sinner accepts it, by accepting the death of Christ on the cross, and in that regard human-to-human forgiveness is also completed when an offending party asks the offended party for forgiveness (and it is granted). But Christ offered the forgiveness long ago…long before I asked for it!

Another problem with Cheaney’s position is that it would prevent anyone from ever forgiving someone who is dead (or, due to impairment, incapable of asking for forgiveness). Suppose a drunk driver hits and kills someone. If the drunk driver also dies, or is put permanently into a coma, can the parents/siblings/spouse/children/friends of the one who was hit never forgive the drunk driver? Or take a different scenario… Suppose I was wronged by someone–recently or years ago, it doesn’t matter–but I have not yet forgiven the offender. Maybe because I accept Christ later, or am convicted of my need to forgive later, but if my desire to forgive does not come unless after the offender has passed away am I then unable to forgive? To take the inverse of Cheaney’s question, can forgiveness be granted if forgiveness is requested but not granted prior to death? There have been many deathbed requests for forgiveness. If someone makes the request but the offended party is not present to hear it, and does not learn of it until the offender has passed, is it too late? Or if the offender is present, but cannot bring him/herself to forgive until after the offender has passed, it it too late?

And why do I need to know the identity of the offender anyway? What does that add to the situation that will benefit me? I cannot think of anything. It will enable me to put a face on the offense, perhaps, but to suggest that I cannot forgive if I do not know the identity of the offender doesn’t seem to make sense. When someone backed into my car and left a big dent in the fender, then drove off without leaving any information, I am precluded from forgiving that person if I understand Cheaney’s argument. I am probably never going to know who did it, but why can I not forgive “whoever dented my car”? The offender will never receive my forgiveness–which is his or her loss–but I will have forgiven, and I will benefit as a result.

I was wronged in high school by someone who should have known better. He was an adult, he was in a leadership position, and he abused a trust and confidence that had been placed in him. He is well aware of what he did, but he never apologized or asked for my forgiveness. I doubt seriously he ever thinks of what he did now. I have not seen him in almost twenty years, and I do not expect our paths will ever again cross. If they do, I doubt he will ask my forgiveness. So I know the offense and I know my offender, but forgiveness has not been requested. According to Cheaney, then, I cannot forgive him.

She writes, “Setting aside revenge and looking to God for vindication are proper Christian responses (I Peter 2:23), but they aren’t the same as forgiveness, and it doesn’t help to confuse one for the other.” I agree that they are not the same, and I agree that I could surrender my claim to revenge without forgiving, but I do not see any biblical support for suggesting that is what I should do.

In her conclusion Cheaney writes that God “forgives on one basis only: the blood of His Son. Only then can He grant forgiveness, and only for those who ask.” I would suggest otherwise. I believe God has already granted the forgiveness. It was granted when Christ bled, died, and rose again. Hebrews 10:10 says, “…we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” The payment was made, and the forgiveness was given. Only those who ask will receive God’s forgiveness–and those who do not ask will be separated from God for eternity–but offering and receiving are two different things. And it is my position that God offered forgiveness long before we asked, and we are called to offer forgiveness regardless of whether it is asked for. When it is asked for and received the process is complete, but we can only do our part.

August 1, 2012

Seventy Times Seven

Whether you are a baseball fan or not, you have undoubtedly heard the expression “three strikes and you’re out.” It turns out, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day took the same approach to forgiveness. They taught that, when wronged, individuals were obligated to forgive an offender up to three times. After the third time, however, there was no longer the need to forgive–the offender had “maxed out” and the forgiveness would not be forthcoming.

With this background in mind, it becomes clear that Peter thought he was being quite generous when he proposed forgiving up to seven times. In Matthew 18 Peter says to Jesus, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” in light of what we know about Peter it does not take a lot of imagination to picture an almost-smug look on his face as he asks this question. He may have hoped his colleagues would be impressed by his magnanimity or that Jesus would give him an “attaboy” for his generous approach to forgiveness.

Jesus, though, quickly corrected Peter by informing him that even seven times was not nearly enough. “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” Jesus answered.

A little quick math reveals that Jesus suggested 490 times was a more appropriate limit, but the reality is that Jesus was telling Peter, the other disciples, and you and me, that there is to be no limit to our forgiveness.

In Ephesians 4:32, Paul writes, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes, “[B]earing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive.”

That’s where it gets really tough. For me to forgive others the same way that God has forgiven me means two things: unlimited forgiveness, and unconditional forgiveness. There can be no end to the number of times I forgive, and there can be no offense for which I will not forgive.

I have experienced hurts in my life that were painful, as I am sure you have. I have been wronged by others, and seen how the careless or self-centered or misguided actions of some can wreak havoc on the lives of others impacted by their actions. There have been offenses which still hurt to think about years after they have happened. And the truth is, there are some offenses that I cannot forgive, in my flesh. More often than not my natural inclination is to get even, not to forgive. And if I do find it in my heart to forgive, it would be once, maybe twice, but rarely three times and certainly not seven.

Truth is, though, I am incredibly thankful that God has no limit to His forgiveness. If He did, I would have exceeded it long ago, whether the limit was 490 or seven times seven thousand. God is perfect and righteous and holy, and I, in myself, am anything but.

Three strikes is a good rule for baseball. It keeps the game moving. But it’s a lousy rule when it comes to forgiving others.

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