Forgiveness is Costly

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(Genesis 37-50)

Forgiveness is rarely easy, and it’s always costly.

When Joseph saw his brothers again, after twenty years in Egypt, he felt the pain of their betrayal all over again. To those who knew him, it looked like he had transcended the dysfunction and jealousy of his family. He was no longer the cowering boy they had sold into slavery. He was a powerful leader, Pharaoh’s right-hand man, the one who controlled the nation’s food supply in the midst of a terrible famine. If you stood before Joseph, begging to buy grain, your very life was in his hands.

Mistreated little brothers all dream of the day when they’re strong enough to take revenge. Joseph’s brothers had it coming, and he was finally in a position to pay them back.

Joseph wept like a child when he remembered what they did to him, how they turned a deaf ear when he begged for his life. After twenty years, the pain was still raw. Over and over and over, Joseph wept, the grief of his terrible past driving him to anguish.

But he didn’t take revenge. Joseph chose to forgive, to write off their debt to him facwith the words, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

Make no mistake: what his brothers did was evil. Joseph understood, though, that God’s plan and God’s justice are perfect. Joseph forgave because he understood that God is good, even though his brothers were not. Joseph forgave because he knew that his brothers were never really in control. God was in control.

Forgiveness does not require that we call evil good. Forgiveness springs instead from the knowledge that God will enforce His justice in His timing. You and I don’t have to even the scales in our own favor, because God never takes His eyes off of the balances.

What forgiveness costs us is control. It costs us the right to enforce our own brand of justice, to try to ensure that we are paid back for what another person did to us. It costs us the pleasure of seeing the other person suffer as we have suffered.

Forgiveness, by the way, is at the heart of the good news that God forgave us through Jesus.* God forgave us, so we forgive others. Joseph may not have known the name of Jesus, but he knew His Father. Forgiveness reflected Joseph’s belief that every sin was ultimately perpetrated against God, and God would find a way to even things out. Some 1,700 years later, God’s way became clear in the death and resurrection of His son.

Forgiveness is rarely easy, and it’s always costly. Yet Joseph trusted God to pay the price.

In the midst of our pain, in the face of injustice, when our families or friends or co-workers or neighbors betray us, will we trust that God has paid the price for their forgiveness and for ours? In the midst of our weeping, can we forgive? Or will we perpetuate the cycle of revenge and anger, insisting upon control?

Joseph forgave because He knew His God. We can forgive because we know our Savior.

(*I’m indebted to my friend Celestin Musekura for the comment that “forgiveness is at the heart of the good news.” He uses similar language in his book Forgiving as We’ve Been Forgiven.)

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Wrestling the Relentless God

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(Genesis 32)

When it comes to transforming His people, God is relentless. 

You might be the type of person who only learns through hard experience. Maybe you were that kid who just had to try all the vices your parents warned you about. You’ve learned that experience is instructive, but it’s not always the kindest teacher.

If you are that sort of person, then Jacob is your brother.

He was a master deceiver, trained by his mother to always look for the best angle in every relationship. He played his father for a fool, and took advantage of his brother’s natural stupidity. He was cruel, even in his pursuit of things that mattered, like the blessings of God’s covenant.

But Jacob met his match, not in another man, but in God Himself. At the culmination of Jacob’s spiritual journey, God met him on the east side of the Jordan River and broke him. Jacob was strong and stubborn, but God was stronger. Jacob could wrestle all night and refuse to give up, but God could simply touch his hip and stop him cold.

Jacob met his match in God, and for the first time he stopped trying to grasp at what God had not given him. Instead, Jacob begged God to bless him. He asked for the blessing from God that he had been trying to steal for his entire life.

For the first time, Jacob saw that the God who could so easily break him was the only one who could so lavishly bless him. He saw the face of God, who was relentless in transforming this deceiver, this sinner, into a man of humility and grace.

All those years of pain and trial, all those years of seeking to pave his own way, they all melted away when Jacob saw who was really in control.

He called the place Peniel, because there he saw the face of the all-powerful and merciful God, the God who doesn’t give up. Jacob was stubborn, but God was infinitely patient.

Maybe you’re Jacob. Maybe you look back on the years of your life and you see the pain of your own poor choices. You see the path of a person who has grasped at what God has not given, the devastation of a life dedicated to your own pursuits rather than God’s.

If that’s you, then Jacob is your brother, and God is your God.

God is relentless and patient and so much stronger than you are. He wants to bless you, but not with all the things you think you need. Instead, He will bless you with His very presence, with the assurance that His love is stronger than your rebellion. He will bless you with brokenness and the knowledge that He is in control.

If He has to, God will break your hip to save your life. You’ll emerge with a limp, but you’ll never be the same. Humble and broken, teachable and new, no longer stubborn but submitted to the will of the One who loves you more than you can imagine.

Jacob was never perfect, and the consequences of his sin were far-reaching and painful. Yet he was changed after that day. Every step he took, he was forced to remember that God was strong and merciful. He remembered the day He was broken and transformed by the one who relentlessly pursues His people.

Jacob is our brother, and his relentless God is the one we serve. He won’t give up on you, even if He has to break you to save your life.

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God Provides the Lamb

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(Genesis 22-27)

(This is the second post about Abraham and Isaac. The first one is here, if you missed it).

When Isaac heard the ram bleating, he knew he was saved. He climbed down from the altar, and the sheep took his place. Abraham had promised that God would provide a lamb, and God did. He always provides a lamb.

In the years that followed, Isaac wandered around in sin. He failed the God who saved him. Abraham’s promised son lied and fathered liars, two sons who tarnished the family name and fought over everything from their supper to their birthrights. He bickered with his wife, and even endangered her life to save his own. Rebekah repaid him in kind, by sending her favorite son Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing.

Isaac’s life was a mess, but God never revoked His Promise. On that terrible, wonderful day, when Isaac was only a boy, God proved His truthfulness by sending a ram. A sheep in place of a boy.

Isaac was no promise keeper, but he worshipped the One who was. God’s promise passed from Isaac to Jacob (another liar) to Jacob’s sons (murderers, rapists, liars). Despite their failure, God remained true.

You and I aren’t promise keepers, either, by the way. We talk about loyalty, we talk about faith, we talk about righteousness, but we fail. We sin, we break faith, we choose the wrong. Yet God stays true.

All of us live under the shadow of death. The knife has been raised, and our judgment stands near. But just like Isaac, we find reprieve. A perfect Lamb, slain in our place. A Lamb who rose again, fulfilling God’s promise of life and blessing for those who believe.

That Lamb calls out to us, offering His life in place of Our death, His forgiveness in place the condemnation we deserve. That Lamb is the One whose promise never fails, the One who gives life freely to all who trust Him. Even the worst promise breakers can find life through the Lamb. Even you and me.

Death is our birthright, but God provides the Lamb. 

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Stars and Sacrifice

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Genesis 12, 15, 22, Hebrews 11:8-20

(Note: This is the first of two posts about Abraham and Isaac. I’ll publish the second one next week, and you’ll want to read them both in order to get the whole picture). 

He had to kill the boy. It would be next in the line of innumerable deaths in the old man’s life. This would be no glorious death on the battlefield, no quiet death in bed. It would be close, just the old man, his son, the knife, and God.

Yes, God would be there too. He would ascend the mountain with Abraham, quiet yet present. He would see every violent and terrible moment. God would watch Isaac die by his father’s hand.

Abraham shifted his feet and looked at the sky. So many stars. He had tried to count them once. It seemed like a lifetime ago. Abraham had felt old at the time. Certainly too old to leave home, to fight wars, to start a family. Tonight, though, he was ancient. He was one of the stars, having no beginning and no end, his origin long forgotten and his future uncertain. So many stars, but he was only one of them. A lonely and dim star at that.

Ever since the Promise, death had hounded his steps. Every day in this life of faith was a new death. Death to dreams, death to safety, death to nations. Death to sons.

But there was no other way. Abraham knew it, as sure as the approaching sunrise. The God who gave the Promise would fulfill it. God was unpredictable and even dangerous, but He was true. For four decades, Abraham had watched his own life unravel, with a mixture of awe and despair. Despite everything Abraham had lost, God remained his only provider, the only Living God. So there was nobody else to trust. The gods of Chaldea were safe, but they were impotent. The God of Abraham was often terrifying, but real. There was nobody else to trust. So he had to kill the boy.

Abraham knew in his heart that death was not the end. He would slay Isaac, but God would raise him. But it was the slaying that troubled him. Before the next sunrise, he had to raise the knife and plunge it into the heart of his beloved son. Resurrection would console Abraham’s grief, but would it assuage his guilt? What would he say to Isaac in the moment before the knife entered his chest? How could he even look at him during the long and quiet climb up Mount Moriah?

God had promised him descendants as numerous as the stars. He had promised blessing and land and life. Abraham would be the father of a great nation, a nation that would multiply like the stars and bless every nation on earth. Abraham knew that God’s word was true, but the pain was still so real. Did he have the strength to endure this terrible death, for the sake of the life God had promised?

Enough. The dawn was approaching and Abraham needed to prepare. What do you take to a human sacrifice? Water. Wood. Rope. Isaac.

The sun was rising. The stars were disappearing now. Maybe they were an illusion all along.

Time to get moving.

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Washed Away

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(Genesis 4-9, Revelation 21-22)

“Where’s your brother Abel?” God asked Cain.

“I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked.

Even as he asked the question, Cain knew the answer. As surely as he inherited lies and     violence, he inherited the  ability to know they were wrong. He knew good from evil, but   chose evil, just as his father before him.

 Abel’s blood called from the ground, a witness against Cain and all mankind. We all  heap violence upon violence, lie upon lie, until judgment overwhelms us in a raging flood.

We shake our heads and we cluck our tongues. “What is this world coming to?” we ask. We look and we see arrogance and lust and violence all around us. We judge it in our hearts, even as we know that our own hearts deserve judgment. Sin isn’t “out there” somewhere. It’s in here, in me and you and every descendant of Adam who carries the serpent’s seed in our hearts. We choose to disobey, even as we feel powerless to choose otherwise.

Cain’s line produced Lamech, a man who didn’t need a good reason to hurt people. He hurt them because he felt like it, because hurting others made him feel stronger. We still see Lamechs today, at the store or on the highway, ready to yell, ready to hit, eager to hurt people at the slightest provocation. We’ve even been Lamechs at times, at least in our hearts. We’ve lain awake dreaming about how to hurt those who hurt us. We’ve been ready to fight, not for God’s sake, but for our own.

Each generation after Lamech repeated and amplified his sin, inventing new ways to do wrong. Evil was passed from father to son, a terrible heritage, until the day when every heart and mind focused on nothing but evil all the time.

So God washed them all away. The waters rose from the ground and poured from the sky and drowned out every living creature, except for Noah and his family and the animals in the boat. God’s mercy is patient, but He doesn’t wait forever. Sin must be washed away. Standing on the other side of the flood’s devastation, Noah knew God’s judgment was right.

His judgment is always right. Don’t doubt this for a moment: We all deserve to die. When the flood of God’s justice arrives, not a person among us can say we don’t deserve it. We choose the path of Adam, of Cain, of Lamech, and we deserve the consequences.

Yet as Noah stood on the mountain and looked into the sky, he saw more than judgment. He saw the mercy of God’s rainbow in the sky, and He knew that God is a compassionate and merciful God, slow to anger, abounding in loyal love. Maybe Noah even understood just a little bit about what God would do one day, how He would wash away our sin with blood instead of water.

The flood would rage again, and God would pour out his anger. But not on you or me or the animals or the land. Instead, God’s own Son would willingly drown in the river of judgment and come back alive.

Noah saw new life rise after the Flood’s devastation; we will see new life rise from sin’s defeat. All of God’s people will rise from the ground, never again to die. Plants and animals will burst into life in a brand new creation, infinitely better than the first. And we who know Him will forever drink pure water from the River of Life, never again to fear the flood of God’s wrath.

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Made to Shine

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(Genesis 1-3, Psalm 8)

We are broken and rebellious, but we were made to shine. 

From nothingness, from the empty dark, God shone His piercing and powerful light. His light and His breath permeated every corner of the universe. Seas and land, sun and moon and stars, plants and birds and fish and cows. He spoke, and the living Word imparted His blazing and brilliant life to God’s world.

Six days, each more astounding and wondrous than the last, every atom of creation singing praises to the One who made it.

And on the sixth day, he made people to shine. He made us to know Him and to reflect Him. No animal, plant, or mountain bears the very image of God. A little lower than the angels, you and I have been crowned with glory and honor, gifted with the potential to know and represent the One who breathed light and life from nothing.

We were made to shine, our bodies and spirits and minds created to reflect His light, to carry His Word, to relate to the Creator.

When we see our own reflections, we judge them in terms of abilities or appearance or intelligence. We look in the mirror or read our test scores or time our sprints and evaluate ourselves accordingly. All too often, what we see makes us want to turn off the lights, to hide our sadness and pain and sin and rebellion against God, because the weight of the Fall is far too heavy to bear. We want to shine, but living in the light hurts these days. 

It wasn’t always like this, and it won’t always be. The day will come when we see clearly again, when we know that our value derives from His image alone. The day will arrive when the darkness will be lifted and we will shine again, brighter than the very angels who surround the throne of God.

Meanwhile, we remember and we remind: all value derives from God. Every man, every woman, is made in His image, no matter how broken or obscured that image is at the moment. We treat others and ourselves with love and honor, not because our capabilities make us worthy of love, but because the light of God’s image rests on even the most shattered souls and broken bodies. Whether we’re looking in the mirror or looking at our neighbor, we behold the image of our Creator.

No matter how old or sinful or broken you are, you were made to shine. Those who know Him will one day shine again.

Genesis begins with the light of God piercing the darkness. One day the story will end with His light rendering the very sun obsolete, bouncing from the hills to the sea to you and me. We will blaze with the blinding radiance of God’s glory, and we will celebrate once again that He made us to shine from the inside out, with a light that will never again be extinguished or clouded.

“Let there be light.” And there was light.

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The ReDiscovered Word: A New Project

iStock_000000055650SmallI’m very excited to announce a brand new project on this blog, one that I feel God has been leading me toward for some time.

If you’ve been following my blog for the past few years, you’ve probably noticed a gradual transformation in my writing. I have been experimenting with a more imaginative and expressive form of writing, particularly in those posts derived directly from the Bible. One of my goals is to help my readers “re-discover” the Bible in a fresh way, to take old passages and make them feel new again. I am especially concerned for those of us who grew up reading and hearing the Scripture all the time. It’s so easy for us to forget how wondrous and divine God’s Word truly is.

In some cases, it’s not that we’ve grown tired of the Bible. It’s that we don’t know it at all. I can’t say for certain whether people are more or less biblically literate than when I was young. What I do know is that many Christians are unfamiliar with the stories and ideas of God’s Word. I believe deeply that spiritual transformation only occurs when we know and apply God’s Word, through the power of God’s Spirit.

Some of my most popular posts on this blog have centered around contemporary issues, like the recent movie about Noah or the dustup last year involving Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame. While I enjoy writing about those topics, I’m aware that nobody will remember those issues, or care about them, in a few short years. Television shows and movies are fleeting. I want my writing to center around something that will last, something more permanent.

For that reason, I’m launching a new initiative on my blog, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about a writing project. I’m calling it The ReDiscovered Word. It’s going to be part devotional, part imaginative story-telling, and part biblical exposition. If you enjoyed my post about the elder son from Luke 15 (“I Won’t Go In“) or my more recent post about Peter and John running to the empty tomb (“Good News Makes You Run“), you’re going to love The ReDiscovered Word. In some ways, this project is like a grown-up storybook Bible. Remember how, as a child, you enjoyed the Bible stories in those books, how they stirred your imagination? I hope to re-capture a bit of that wonder through this project.

Here’s how it will work: I plan to move through the Bible somewhat chronologically. I’ll begin in Genesis. Each post will provide an imaginative devotional perspective on the biblical text. At the top of each post, I plan to provide Scripture references, because, more than anything, I hope you’ll read the Bible and then use these posts simply to provoke further thought and reflection upon God’s Word. My hope is that you will be able to move through the Bible along with my blog and re-discover the grandeur of the God who made us and spoke to us in “many portions and many ways.” I’m hopeful that what I write will help bring the Word to life for you — whether for the first time or the hundredth time.

I will tag each post with the proper book of the Bible, so you can find specific readings by clicking on the appropriate tags. Once I have a few more posts in my storehouse, I’ll create a separate page on this blog to host the entire ReDiscovered Word project.

I’m not sure how long this will take — it could be months or it could be years. However long it takes, I hope to leave behind something of value, even if only a few people end up reading it. In the long run, what I hope to produce is a well-written biblical devotional

If you are a regular reader of my blog and you think this project will be of value to others, please consider sharing it on Facebook or Twitter, or emailing it to your friends. 

One more thought: I still plan to occasionally post about current events, movies, and cultural issues, but probably not quite as often. Those posts will not be tagged with the ReDiscovered Word label, and I’ll make sure to distinguish them for you.

Thanks for reading this, and I look forward to digging into God’s Word together with you!

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