Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Bitter Pill -- and the Antidote

I've been a-tacked! (Get it?)
I just came down from a weekend of Family Reunion recently. Dozens upon dozens of Hungarians all together in one place. Let me tell you a little something about Hungarians if you're not aware. We love to feed you. Food = love. If you've gained 85 pounds since your wedding day, you might have married a Hungarian.

Let me tell you something else: we have tempers. We hop into a fiery rage in a split second, which isn't the greatest thing in the world, I'll admit. But we also are usually very quick to forgive and to love once again.

When I was four years old, my older brother and sister and I shared one bedroom for a short time. My brother was pretty cool; he was eleven, and liked Pac-man, and played croquet with me. My sister was in a whole different realm, though. She was... wait for it... A TEENAGER! She got to go places! Do things! See boys! And, on one particular evening, she was out rollerskating, and I was in our bedroom looking for a toy, probably Hungry, Hungry Hippos, when my sister perpetrated the most horrendous act imaginable. She cut me to the core. My joy had been sabotaged! I screamed in pain and looked down at my foot where a pushpin from her bulletin board had inadvertently been left on the floor and was now protruding from my bleeding arch.

I. Hated. Her.

After fixing the wound and soothing my sobs, my mother left me to my own devices which, for a rage-filled miniature Hungarian, might not have been the best choice. There was a great deal of silence while I hatched my plot. My mother walked in on me crouching in front of my sister's bed a while later. I had pulled all of her pushpins out of the bulletin board, and was lining them up, sharp side pointing toward the sky, in front of her bed.

"WHAT are you doing?" Mom asked, appalled at my vindictive nature, certainly.

Nonchalantly, I replied, "I want her to know what it feels like."

Four years old, and already I'd had a taste of the bitterness of resentment. I wanted my suffering to be noticed, and wanted an eye for an eye, a pushpin for a pushpin. I was not going to be satisfied until the ground was equal. She needed to know what she'd done, and she needed to pay for it.

Proverbs 12:14 says, "There is a way that appears to be right but, in the end, it leads to death."

Have you ever smelled vanilla extract? It has this incredible scent, evocative of richness, sweetness, and all things delicious. I remember making a batch of chocolate chip cookies on my own for the first time and I was just overcome by the aroma. I was about to pour a teaspoon of the extract into the bowl when, suddenly, the urge was too strong and I stuck the spoon, instead, into my mouth, letting the liquid drip over my tongue, as I was sure it was going to be the most wonderful thing I'd ever tasted. It seemed right...

I gagged. I ran to the sink and spat, and began shoveling water into my mouth directly from the running faucet, unable to cleanse the awfulness from my taste buds. I never made that mistake again.

But the funny thing is, even though I know how to avoid the taste of bitterness on my tongue, I still have a hard time leaving the shadows of bitterness out of my heart. Emotional bitterness can ruin friendships, end marriages, keep parents and children from speaking for decades. It takes very hard work in our hearts and our minds, but there is absolutely an antidote to the bitter pill of resentment.

It's called 'Forgiveness'.

Proverbs 25:21-22 is a very interesting, yet very misunderstood passage written by Solomon, the wisest man to ever live. It says, "If your enemy is hungry, give him food. If he is thirsty, give him water. For in doing so, you will heap coals of fire on his head and the Lord will reward you."

Whoa! That sounds pretty harsh! Like, 'Haha, you were mean and I was good and God loves me more, nyah nyah, doesn't that BURN?" Coals of fire on your enemy's head? Kind of goes against that whole 'Turn-the-Other-Cheek' thing that Jesus taught about, right?

Nope. Not if you know your history.

In the time of Solomon, the Israelites had the temple, the sacrifices, the Day of Atonement. During this, the priests would fill their censer with coals of fire and place incense inside, creating a pleasing aroma. The cloud of smoke would cover the Mercy Seat, and God would accept their offerings because of it.

So this verse doesn't mean you're doing nice things for your enemy so you can make yourself look good, or make them look bad. It means you're, in essence, becoming the way for them to come back to God. You're giving them the tools necessary to be pleasing to God. You're covering their sins with your love (because "love covers a multitude of sins" [1 Peter 4:8]) and presenting them to God as an unblemished sacrifice. You're the example for them to follow in love and in forgiveness and in mercy.

There's a great story in Matthew 18:21-35. We've all heard the whole 'forgive your brother 7 times 70 times' which is how it starts, but the rest of it is just as compelling.

21Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seven times seventy.g
23“Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of goldh was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26“At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.i He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29“His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30“But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32“Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’34In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Every one of us is a sinner. The bible is clear that all have fallen short of the glory of God. We're all in the same boat, and baby, that boat's going down like the Titanic. But we're all forgiven through Christ Jesus who died for our sins. He is our shining example when people ask us how often we're supposed to forgive. How much did HE forgive? Well, in the midst of being murdered on a cross for crimes He didn't commit, being beaten and tortured and becoming the ultimate sacrifice so that we may live eternally, what did He pray? Did He pray against them, "Father, kill them, for they're hurting me for no reason!" Did He pray, "Father, strike them with lightning, for this is unjust!" 

No. He prayed for them. "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

How often is that true, do you think? It's been said that holding onto anger and refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. It burns inside of us. It makes us sick, drives us crazy, puts tremendous pressure and stress on our daily lives. Forgiveness doesn't mean you disregard what was done. It doesn't mean you invalidate the pain it caused you. Forgiveness is simply a release from the punishment. We no longer hold it against our enemy. Now, don't get me wrong, there are certainly cases in which we just have to do this from afar. If the offender is dangerous or if they have passed away, we can still forgive but not let them back into our life. There's no problem with that. Forgiveness doesn't mean it's okay for them to walk all over you or to hurt you again and again. It's just a response different from 'an eye for an eye', different from 'I'm going to put tacks around your bed so you can get hurt and know what it feels like'. 

Instead, we place the sweet-smelling incense and the coals of fire for atonement in their direction, pray for them to do what is right from now on, and pave the way for reconciliation. 

When we say the Lord's prayer, we remember that it's exactly what Jesus said when He was asked how we should pray. In it, one of the simplest phrases is, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those two trespass against us." As freely as we accept God's forgiveness of us, we should be just as free to forgive others. Seven times, seven TIMES seventy times, it doesn't matter. It's a guideline to be forgiving because forgiveness and reconciliation is the entire reason for Jesus' existence. 

There is no other way for people to learn how to love and forgive than to BE loved and forgiven. 

Stephanie Jean

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