Monthly Archives: February 2013

“Apparently You Couldn’t Be Bothered…” [Luke 4:1-13]

j-b-handelsman-i-asked-you-in-the-nicest-possible-way-to-make-me-a-better-person-but-new-yorker-cartoon–J. B. Handelsman, The New Yorker, September 14, 1998

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts a middle-aged man on his knees, praying at his bedside. Looking upward, he says to God, “I asked You, in the nicest possible way, to make me a better person, but apparently you couldn’t be bothered.”

That cartoon contains several sermons. There’s one in there about asking nicely, as if God were touchy about our tone, answering only prayers preceded by “please.”

There’s another one in there about blaming God for our imperfections, as if the fact that we are stubborn, greedy, irritable and dishonest were the result of divine dereliction of duty.

But the one that intrigues me most is the man’s prayer to become “a better person.”

I think the man on his knees is right about God’s attitude. God really can’t be bothered. No matter how nicely the man asks, or how often, it is unlikely that his prayer will get God’s attention because “becoming better persons” has so little to do with the divine project laid out in the Scriptures.

To be sure, the Bible contains plenty of commandments and rules that we are to live by. It has plenty of praise for the blameless and the upright, and plenty of condemnation for the wicked and the lawless; but the Bible is also persistent in acknowledging that no one, no matter how observant of God’s commandments, no matter how “good” a person he or she may become, can claim moral rectitude in God’s sight.

Even more, everywhere you look in Scripture a paradoxical undercutting of God’s own command to obey the commandments keeps cropping up. Some of the people who sin most often and most flagrantly in the Bible are people after God’s own heart whose sins seem only to bind them closer to God, even when God does not hesitate to punish them for what they’ve done.

The brazen sins of King David come immediately to mind, of course, but David is not alone. The Scriptures as a whole simply will not let us regard our lives or our God solely through the lens of morality. It seems that God has better things to do with us than to make us better, and much, much better things to do with us than to make us better according to our ideas of what it means to be “a better person.”

Personal makeovers used to be a hot thing on reality TV. These shows featured people who were massively unhappy with their bodies. They were whisked away from their family and friends for months on end and received tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of facelifts and nose jobs and tummy tucks and dental work. They returned home to a grand “reveal” and, they supposed, to the end of their problems, and a truly new life.

If it were up to the man in the cartoon, and if it were up to many of us, we would like God to be fully-employed in the business of personal moral makeovers. Somehow we have come to believe that the answer to our problems, to the human dilemma generally, and to the world’s sad mess, is for all of us to become “better persons.”

Because Lent is a time of repentance and conversion, we have been taught that it is also an opportune time to try to become a better person. Many people treat Lent as a time to re-make failed New Year’s resolutions to quit smoking, eat less, spend more time with the family, or take on some extra benevolence, some good deed. And if the turn of the calendar page to the Lenten season serves as a jump-start for self-improvement projects, so be it; but if the Scriptures are any indication, God will not be bothered to be of very much help to us in those projects as long as our sights remain so low and our expectations so small as to confine ourselves to becoming better persons.

What else is there, then? What is the larger horizon, the deeper quest? The thing that makes for sinning saints, for giants of God who were not always also giants of moral virtue? What other prayer can we make by our bedsides if not the prayer of the man in the cartoon “to become a better person?” And how might we spare ourselves perpetual disappointment in a God who can’t be bothered?

We could ask God, to paraphrase Eugene Peterson, to be made forever unwilling to be the subjects of our own little life projects, and to let ourselves instead be participants in who God is and what God is doing in us and in the world.

We could ask to be given the grace to step away from the center of our own self-preoccupied universes, even our religious and moral ones, and to be drawn instead into the mystery of divine action in, for, with, and through us.


–Temptations of Jesus, San Marco

We could ask to be led into a place empty of landmarks, a wilderness filled not only with wild beasts and wilder devils; a place not only of disorientation, temptation and moral danger; but also, as Scripture attests in many foundational stories, a place illumined by what Rowan Williams calls “a ray of darkness,” full of undreamed possibility. A place of the most profound re-making of a different kind, a time and a space for God to speak through uncluttered air not to our behaviors nor to our need for things to make moral sense, but simply to our hearts.

We could pray not to become better persons, but to live in Jesus and be assimilated to him:

He comes up out of the waters of the Jordan, having been baptized by John and confirmed in his identity by the voice from a cloud. Then the Spirit drives him in the wilderness for forty days, where he is tested by Satan to see what sort of “Son of God” we have here; and whether this Son of God will accept the vocation to be fully and dangerously transparent to the life of the God who loves him fiercely, whom he loves fiercely, and by whose moving Spirit he lives and acts for us and our salvation.

Out there, Jesus defeats the devil’s lie that he, and by extension any of us, can rightly seek a deeper, more meaningful, more successful and happier life – including a religious life – without being deeply immersed in the only true life there is, the life of God, a life that is mostly mystery.

Jesus’ victory over Satan in the wilderness was not a victory of moral virtue. To be sure, our traditions teach that Jesus was a sinless man, but it is not because he was sinless that he triumphed. He didn’t beat evil because he was good and getting better. Even though he is the protagonist, the story is not even about him—not Jesus as a tower or strength and the answer to every question, anyway.

It is rather about Jesus-in-God and God-in-Jesus. It is about the way Jesus has for forty days had his heart enraptured and refined so that it is fixed on God and God’s concerns in such a way that when the devil tempts, all Jesus can say in reply to every blandishment is “God” – we live by God’s word, we worship God alone, God is not to be tested.

The story is about God who is not responsible either for our sins or for our earnest acquisition of virtue, who is not in the business of moral makeovers or of things finally falling into place, but who is in the business of love and its cascades and cataclysms.

It is about God who does not want us so much to be better as to be lost – lost without a compass in the wilderness of God; lost, as the great hymn says, “in wonder, love, and praise,” disoriented to ourselves and reoriented to the One who is all in all.

Going Somewhere Special

After college, some of my high school friends settled down in their hometown of Concord, New Hampshire. They married and raised kids there, never venturing much beyond the Merrimack Valley. They rarely go anyplace special now either, except maybe to Manchester or Boston for a concert or a show once or twice a year.

The teenage kids I once taught in the Lower Mills section of Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston, were even more circumscribed. Their known world dropped away as the MBTA’s Red Line reached Ashmont Station, Boston’ downtown as distant and daunting as the Indies. They had to be bribed to take a field trip with me to the Fine Arts Museum in the Fens. That trip, no more than 15 miles total, was about as far as any of them will ever travel in their lifetimes.

This sort of localized living was the norm in past generations. People died in the houses they were born in, stayed put in the same congregation, and accomplished the purpose of their existence in a few square miles.

I used to think that local lives were lesser lives for never having seen the world. Not so. Writer Richard Lischer puts it this way:

In my first parish, I ministered in a small rural community 50 miles from St. Louis. Most of my members rarely traveled as far as St, Louis, and their lives did not reflect the frenetic shifts so characteristic of American culture. In my three years in that parish, I never met anyone who was going someplace as the world measures mobility or advancement, but the whole congregation was rife with a sense of journey, and most accounted their life a great adventure. A woman named Annie was dying in the bedroom in which she was born, almost within view of the church cemetery where she would be buried. She had farmed her land, raised her kids and served her church. She had fought the good fight. What a ride! she seemed to say to me. All the way from baptism in Emmaus Lutheran Church to burial in Emmaus Lutheran Cemetery. What a journey my life has been!

This, he concludes, is the journey that counts.

Despite my own wanderings and multiple careers, I’ve rarely gone anyplace special myself, nor has any of us who moves from city to city, profession to profession, relationship to relationship, church to church, if we don’t know where we’re really headed and what it means to be going there. We all go no place special if what counts as travel is only the well-worn route up the ladder of success or down the road of self-preoccupation.

The season of Lent invites us to accompany Jesus (who spent 33 years in a place the size of New Jersey) on his journey to resurrection. Here is a different kind of mobility, a progress from starving hearts to milk and honey, from false selves to real ones, from estrangement to embrace.

It’s a group tour too, which is its special grace. Together, the whole church will make its way towards someplace really special. Through the mystery of self-gift, suffering, and death, we’ll rendezvous at an empty grave.

It’s the trip of a lifetime. Everyone can take it, without leaving home.

Practicing in Lent


In 2002, I was on vacation in Spain during the first week in which the peseta was retired and the Euro introduced as the official currency. ATM machines dispensed only Euros, taxi meters displayed fares in Euros, restaurant menus listed prices in Euros  – everyone was using Euros, but it was far too soon for anyone to be at ease with them.

I saw a woman who’d been walking briskly down the street suddenly stop short, take a handful of coins out of her purse, stare at them for a while, move them around on her palm, arrange them in different ways –by size or value – trying to get a literal feel for the new tender.

I saw grown men huddled over pocket calculators at kiosks and in bars talking themselves through simple transactions aloud, like children learning to count.

Whenever it was time to pay for something, the world slowed down, and everyone became a learner. What had been a reflex the week before, when pesetas were the common coin, had suddenly to be practiced as a deliberate act.

When people in the ancient world asked to be baptized into the church, they were not marched straight to the font. They first underwent a lengthy period of instruction and moral reorientation. The human life they thought they had mastered had to be re-learned in the light of the Gospel.

2EuroCentsLike people with a new currency, neophytes practiced  – they turned over coins of grace in their palms day after day, took time to count aloud each transaction of mercy, attended to the tasks of being a new kind of human with purpose, and approached the ordinary with discipline, with an intention of excellence.

Only thus, over time, did the disorienting shock of Gospel living became second-nature. Only thus did the faith they had received root deeply, and their witness flower in the world.

The season of Lent originated in these preparations for baptism, a ritual that signaled the end of one life and the start of another. For us, Lent is a holy opportunity to adopt and undergo a similar converting discipline, to learn anew what some of us thought we’d already mastered – a fully human life in Christ, facility with the new coinage of grace.

Perhaps this year, with the world as grimly attached to a currency of violence and exclusion as ever, we might use these forty days to practice some of the things required for a successful introduction of a new tender — slowing down, cultivating a learner’s pose, taking deliberate care with mundane transactions, paying attention to the sacred potential of the ordinary, maintaining an intention of excellence, practicing the faith.

1EuroThe example of the saints, living and dead, declares that if we practice gratefully over time, by God’s help we will eventually come to transact life with ease and poise, and with such graceful mastery that the dying world will know a resurrection and a life beyond its wildest dreams.

A Communion Liturgy for Lent



Dear friends, we are going to Jerusalem with Jesus.

He is our pardon, our healing, and our peace!

We will suffer the trial with him, resisting evil.

With him, we will walk the path to life.

But come first to the table where there is food for the journey.

With hearts full of joy we come,

giving thanks to God, our maker,

and offering our praise!


We are right to praise you, faithful God!

You answer sin with grace;

you guide our wayward steps toward home.

You are mending for the broken,

safety for the poor, belonging for the outcast,

strength for the weak, and pardon for the sinner.

You reveal your kindness in every sorrow,

your mercy even in death.

All your creatures see your works;

they sing your steadfast love.

We too declare your wonder and grace

as with angels and saints we sing:

*Holy, holy, holy…

Remembering and Giving Thanks

Now, O God, we remember Jesus.


He fasted and prayed; he was tempted and tried.

He relied on you for everything.

He was obedient to you and scorned by the powers of this world.

He confounded the haughty and gave hope to the humble.

He was betrayed and deserted. He died between thieves and was buried in a borrowed grave.

You gave him new life. He lives even now, our healer and friend.

He loved us well, loved us to the end, and loves us still.

Even on the night of betrayal, he ate supper with his friends.

Words of Institution…

Prayer to the Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit, come! Make all things new.

Bless this bread which you have given

and human hands have made.

Let it become for us the bread of life.

Bless also this cup, fruit of the vine

and work of human hands.

Let it become for us the cup of salvation.

Bless us also who eat and drink,

that in this sharing we may know the living Christ

who is with us now, and to the end of the age.

Nourish us by these gifts to be willing servants of your world

until the new age [or, kingdom] comes, and every creature beholds it.

We pray in the name of Jesus, who taught us to say:

Our Father….

Breaking Bread

Sharing Bread and Cup…


Let us give thanks!

Thank you, merciful God,

for gladness in this bread and cup,

for love that cannot die,

for peace the world cannot give,

for joy in the company of friends,

for the splendors of creation,

and for the mission of justice

you have made our own.

Give us the gifts of this holy communion —

oneness of heart, love for neighbors,

forgiveness of enemies,

the will to serve you every day,

and life that never ends.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Prayer of Praise Lent I

The Third Temptation by William Blake

–The Third Temptation of Christ, William Blake

You call us to the desert to sojourn for a while

with wild creatures, to leave the land of markers;

but your eye does not close, you know where we are.

In restive night, you are near.

In dreams disturbed by demons, you are near.

In the heart’s decisive turning, through testing, you abide.

And when it is over (until another time), the angels come from you,

oil in their flasks, food in their baskets, bandages in hand.

Then let the fast begin, this journey alone and never alone.

Let it begin, this time of refusal, this time of embrace;

this winnowing of wheat, this clearing of the eye.

And all the while, let grateful praise arise

from breadstone and pinnacle, city and treasure,

companion beasts and ministering angels—

even from tempters who play their part.

Throughout these forty days, your praise be sung,

and in the endless age to come. Amen.

Blessing Ashes


O Mercy, bless these ashes,

the cooling residue of victory songs,

all our abandoned hosannas.

Bless us, too, for without this grace,

our shame may snub the smear of truth,

the public gray untidiness that signs us up

for pride’s procession to the grave;

and we may spend another year in hiding,

uncrossed by wisdom burning

in the counting of our days.

Feast of the Transfiguration: It Is Good for Us to Be Here [Luke 9:28-36]


–Icons of the Transfiguration from the Spaso-Preobrazhensky Monastery

A sermon for pastors and preachers

We’ve heard and preached on this story many times, we know how it goes. Jesus hauls Peter, James, and John up a mountain to pray. As we watch the trio ascend, we think about an earlier climb when Moses went up Mount Sinai to talk to God. There was glory shining all around in that story, too – lightning, thunder, and clouds. When Moses came down, his face was aflame with God’s brilliance, and he was lugging those big stone tablets that eventually ended up in Judge Roy Moore’s courthouse down in Alabama. In this episode, Jesus lights up with that same brilliance. Just like back then, God speaks from the cloud. God issue a commandment in this story too—“Listen to him.”

It’s an amazing scene. The disciples are overcome with what the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.” Then Peter blurts out his desire to set up three tents there to capture the experience. He wants to stay. But the glory dissipates as fast as it gathered, and Jesus doesn’t linger. He gets the disciples off their face and onto their feet, and they all trudge back down the mountain, back to “real life.”

And we feel sorry for poor, impulsive, clueless Peter. His desire to stay up there, indulging in radiant stupefaction, is an escapist, self-seeking temptation. Jesus knows better. Mountaintop epiphanies, it seems, are not meant to last. They are at best rest stops, gas for empty tanks, carrots to keep us going through challenging lives. When the disciples have to suffer, as they one day surely will, maybe the memory of this glorious moment will warm them and make their agony less awful. But you misunderstand Jesus if you think the point of following him is to bask in his light.

The disciples have a hard enough time grasping the odd, counter-intuitive sort of Lord and King Jesus is; if they stay up there they might never learn that he came to serve.  Down on the ground, suffering is everywhere. Jesus could not escape his own, but he tried hard to alleviate everybody else’s. And that’s what disciples must also learn to do. We should consider ourselves blessed if we get an occasional peek at glory, but we can’t rest in it any more than the disciples could. We have to go down the mountain and shoulder our ministry. Glory is fine, but only after you pay your dues. Peas first, then cake.

Now, that is a good way to interpret this text, and it can be a necessary corrective to “bliss ninnies” who think the best way to be religious is to gaze at your navel. The great 16th century mystical saint Teresa of Avila was always on the lookout for this kind of evasion in her convents. Whenever a goose-bumpy novice, languid with love and hoping to levitate, tried making permanent camp in the chapel, a no-nonsense Teresa laid down the law—nix the theatrics, eat something solid, and go help out in the laundry. Visions and voices are all well and good, but only if they don’t render you indifferent to the needs of your neighbor.

The only problem with this way of reading the story is that in our zeal to warn people away from evasion, we tend to moralize the Christian life almost to death. We make it a series of shoulds and oughts, and suggest in more than sideways fashion that worship or prayer or simple divine enjoyment is all well and good, but none of that has any value in and of itself unless we are also getting our prayerfully clasped hands dirty in the trenches of active mission.

Our repeated messages about coming down the mountain–getting back to work, doing our duty, loving God not directly but by loving our neighbors, measuring the size and strength of that love by our holy productivity–seem to assume that if we didn’t constantly exhort our people to do things, they would slide into a fog of contemplative rapture, never to be seen or heard from again. The truth is that things are exactly the opposite in most justice-aware, liberal-leaning, activist congregations. It’s a lot easier to get people on the picket line than down on their knees. Most people don’t even know what we’re talking about when we moralize about the dangers of being awestruck with divine beauty.

What a shame if we fall into the trap of telling people they must live the one sacred life they have been given according to a faith that regards ecstasy as some sort of temptation. What a shame if we fall into the trap of asking people to live by a gospel that turns out to be, in the end, just another taskmaster, just another voice among the many voices that remind us all constantly that we have not done right enough or well enough or just plain enough enough to measure up to expectation and merit approval and reward. What a shame if we take texts like this one and turn them into so much finger-wagging.


Yes, it is plain from the text that Jesus didn’t want his friends to put up those three tents. Yes, Peter was befuddled by the strange experience and “did not know what he said” when he blurted out, “It is good for us to be here.” Yes, Jesus took them right back down and yes, they plunged into the hard work of healing and teaching. There’s no question that engagement with the world is an essential component of discipleship, and that the suffering it brings requires of disciples courage, determination, and perseverance – none of them glamorous things.  But we should also want to know why Jesus would show his friends the unutterable glory of God radiating through him and not mean for them to enjoy it. And why should we label Peter obtuse and ridiculous because he wants to make such beauty and such glory –  the very pleasure of God – last and last and last?

What the disciples received that day on the mountain was not a gallon of emergency gas or a quick breather for the work crew. It was a gift of mercy, pleasure and love. They were given a glimpse of the richest and most fundamental truth about our lives, and they were meant to react to it precisely in the way they did, with awe. Just because it wasn’t time for them to enjoy it permanently doesn’t mean that they were wrong to want it permanently, or that by wanting it so much they somehow missed the meaning of the event.

Peter saw that the glory of God’s mercy and deep pleasure rested uniquely upon Jesus. This story is an epiphany, after all—a story meant to reveal something of the character of God. Its main point is clarifying the identity of Jesus, and it does so in part through the awe-struck wonder this revelation causes in the disciples. But Peter must also haves sensed that this transfiguring light was in some measure also about him. About us all. And for us all. The merciful pleasure God takes in Jesus, the joy of God’s goodness that glows like a million suns, is Peter’s origin and destiny too. It is the origin and destiny of the whole creation. We were all made in ecstasy and intended for ecstasy. Glory, and its lovely twin, Joy, is the permanent subtext of our lives.

Why does preaching so often seem to say that the only permanent thing we were made for is duty, when the truth is that we were made for delight? Why do we imply that people were made only for purpose and production, when the truth is that we were made for pleasure? Why do we help people think that the church was called and gathered only for relentless hard labor in the vineyard of Christ, when the truth is that we were called and gathered for praise, thanksgiving, and freedom – for visions, for dreams, and for the ‘royal waste of time’ we call ‘worship’?

In moments when God’s glory breaks through our flat world of fact and rationality; in times when God’s mercy transports us to the real real world, the one Jesus called the kingdom, full of justice and reconciliation, forbearance and peace; in moments, as another preacher put it, when the dazzle of God’s love squeezes through the fissures in our denial and defenses and explodes into our lives – in those moments we are drawn inexorably to God like people who have been living sun-starved for years in caves, and we too want to pitch tents on the mountain. We too want to stay and stay and stay.

We know those moments. The flood of confusion the first time someone loves you – yes, you. The time you were forgiven when you should never have been forgiven. The day you got through the whole of it without a drink. The night your first child was born. The moment you really heard the poet’s question, “What will I do with my one precious life?” The time you turned on the news and found out that that the wall was down and the tyrants were dead and people were crossing borders, singing. Or the morning early when you went for a hike, and the cloud that had threatened rain lifted suddenly, and from the top of the mountain you saw clear to Canada, and it took your breath away; and in the strange slanting light you felt somehow held, beloved, alive, and it was like The First Morning, and you believed it was possible to be new. Even in the midst of the hardest grief, it comes to us, this glory, in some stillness, in a face, a touch, a place, a smell. We know those moments. And we have all wanted to pitch a tent on those heights and stay and stay and stay.

It turns out that we cannot stay – the traditional interpretation of our story is correct about that. But the reason we cannot stay is not because it isn’t good for us to be on the summit and desire such glory. It is in fact the supreme good. To want that glory is to desire God. It is also true that while we await the final, full breakthrough of divine pleasure upon the world, we have much work to do. But this work is not the busyness and effort, the demand and expectation, the dread and drudgery, or the purpose and plan that we have been taught is pleasing to God. The work of people of faith is more wonder than competence, more surrender than skill, more beauty and imagination than plans and programs, more gratitude and praise than effort and exhaustion, more tryst than task.

The call to discipleship is not to save the world: that’s God’s job. It is rather to witness in word, deed, and in awed silence to the fact that God is in fact saving and re-creating everything, even now. Our calling is to become increasingly alert to the places where transformation has already secretly begun, and to point them out and tell the truth about what we see (often at the risk of our lives) to those who cannot see them or do not believe what they see, and who therefore languish in cynicism, sorrow and despair.  The mission of the church is to testify by overt gesture and by secret resistance, in private and in public (“in all places, everywhere and without ceasing”) that grace is even now sparking in the stubble, glory is already lighting up the mountain, and all people, strangers, kin and enemies, are even now being plucked from death, included in the sweep of mercy, and brought home to sit at the table of peace.

Our calling is therefore also to develop a capacity to see beyond common sense and ordinary sight. To see the world’s suffering unflinchingly, exactly as it is, and to see God already working right there a someday resurrection. To spot the tracers of love in the bloodstained firmament and to announce them like watchers on the wall at daybreak, and by our fearless announcement bring hope to everyone who swears all hope is lost. And this means we must learn to pray and to pray contemplatively, to re-calibrate the eyes of the heart by gazing on God. It means we must open ourselves to fire.


The calling of the church, our calling, is the hardest work there is – stubbornly to trust the un-evident more than the evidence at hand. To resist the caution of the earnest, the sensible, and the balanced. To be glad that God is full of the kind of generosity that mocks our guilt-ridden, self-important social action strategies, unhinges our anxious time management techniques, and beats the heck out of our prudent long-range goals. The mission of the church is to be delighted by this odd God who pays latecomers the same wage as those who grunt all day in the sun. The gospel of Jesus Christ is all about the strange pleasure of largesse, and it is our calling not to be ashamed of this gospel.

God’s will is to love the sinner, love the sinned against, empty the haughty, fill the poor, mend the brokenhearted, abide the unacceptable, bless the weak and inadequate church. And in the face of all this divine nonsense, our calling is to lose our senses too, to be like this God. It is a very hard calling, make no mistake, because it feels so much like doing nothing, and we have a terrible time shaking the notion that if we aren’t doing something, than neither is God. And yet our ministry is in the end to be the fools who understand that the very best thing we can do for the world is simply to strike a fascinated pose before the alien beauty of grace.

In the late 4th century in the Syrian desert, a young monk named Lot went out from his cave to consult and older, wiser monk whose name was Joseph. Lot said to Joseph, “Abba, the best I can, I say my prayers, I fast, I meditate, and I serve my neighbor. What else is there to do?” The old man stood up and stretched his hands toward heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire, and he said, “To do? Nothing more. But you could become all flame.”

All flame…

It would be good, it would be very good, for us to be there.

Seventy Times Seven (Matthew 18:22)


A professor of world religions tells a story about one of her students, a young Muslim from Morocco, who worked part time as a waiter in a Boston hotel. Abdul, who went by ‘Mike’ to keep things simple, was an avid and attentive student, always bringing in news clippings and other tidbits related to the religions the class was studying. One day he came to class and reported on a nasty fight that had erupted among some of his coworkers at the hotel. Among other things, insults were uttered in which the integrity of mothers and sisters had been impugned. Afraid the tension would turn physical, Mike intervened. He sat his fuming coworkers down and informed them that they had a duty to forgive one another because they were Christians, and forgiveness was what Christianity was all about. “I know,” he said, “because I am taking a course.”

I don’t know whether Mike’s instruction had any impact on his Christian friends, but he was right about one thing: forgiveness is what Christianity is all about. It’s about lots of other things too, of course. I expect that if pressed most people would name love as its distinctive practice, or perhaps justice; but love is not love in the full Christian sense, nor is justice, until it has confronted the hard and terrible imperative of forgiveness and met the challenge.

Although the other two Abrahamic traditions also enjoin forgiveness on their adherents, I think it’s fair to say that neither has posed the requirement to forgive in quite the same way as Christianity. The Christian practice extends from everyday making nice among intimates to the forbearance of enemies, the pardon of persecutors, and reconciliation among nations. It hopes for, expects, and demands repentance and reparation, but does not always condition itself on either, and is to be offered even in their absence. Thus it stands at the center of Christian faith as its glory and its stumbling block, a gracious miracle and an awful scandal. If Paul is right that when all is ended, love will be the last and greatest virtue standing, it will likely have the look of an astonished enemy forgiven.

The commandment to forgive is baffling and even upsetting to many people who are not Christians. Some of my Jewish and Muslim friends are not fond of the parable of the prodigal son, for example. The pardon of the reckless son and the apparent neglect of his dutiful brother seem arbitrary and unjust. They find it hard to grasp why Christians think such a patently unfair story is so heartening. The truth is that many Christians find this story hard to fathom as well. At the same time that we secretly hope God will receive and pardon us just as the father embraces the prodigal, our hackles are raised by how easy it all seems. The kid has gotten away with murder—no questions asked, no groveling required, no penance imposed. And the elder boy gets our immediate sympathy: he deserves better.

There is no doubt that the Christian understanding of forgiveness is a touchy and complicated matter. On the interpersonal level, it is complicated especially by the assumptions of the age in which we live, a time when the human psyche is center-stage and the knowledge derived from its exploration informs much of the church’s pastoral practice. This is, of course, a good thing. I could list a thousand ways in which it is so, but suffice it to say that anything that affords insight into, instills compassion for, and contributes to the healing of a human being, mind and body, is unmistakably of God. I do not want to be misunderstood, then, when I say that in the case of the Christian practice of forgiveness, our therapeutic reflex may be helping disciples miss the peculiarly Christian mystery, and the point.

It has become commonplace in the therapist’s office and from the pulpits of Christian churches to note that forgiveness has the power to heal the one who forgives. We often hear it said that to withhold forgiveness is to harm ourselves, that forgiveness relieves us of the burden of anger and hate, and that it is therefore as much, if not more, a gift for us as it is for the person forgiven. A well-circulated Facebook meme sums it up: “Forgive others not because they deserve forgiveness, but because you deserve peace.” Forgiveness from this standpoint is about the well-being of the forgiver, not the one forgiven.

This sounds right to our psychologically-attuned ears. And in an important way it is. Psychological studies and personal experience teach that forgiveness can and does make us feel better, and that the long, fraught process of forgiving someone yields immense benefits for the one who engages it with purpose. Holding onto hate and hurt, allowing blame and anger to fester, corrodes the psyche and has an adverse impact on both body and soul. Again, this is indisputable, and anything we can do to lessen this pain and relieve this burden is too little. However, to posit personal peace as the reason we need to learn to forgive, or even as the implied goal of forgiveness, is to miss the transforming power of the particularly Christian practice of pardon.

We do not forgive because we deserve peace; we forgive because Jesus told us to forgive. We do not forgive because forgiving will heal us; we forgive because it is what Christians do. Our practice of forgiveness is before all else a practice of obedience. In other words, it is a mark of discipleship, a characteristic of the sequela Christi. If they know we are Christians by our love, they will know it unmistakably by the patient, responsive, and obedient practice of the kind of love that ideally pardons even the unpardonable, that seeks the good of the enemy, the healing and well-being of the all who sin against us. And because pardoning, especially pardoning enemies and persecutors, does not come naturally to us, we need to learn it by being obedient to a commandment that compels us to do what we would never do left to our own devices.

When people forgive their offenders soon after the offense, as in the memorable case of the Amish parents of murdered schoolchildren, we often recoil. It feels too soon. But such folk are not forgiving once and for all. They are instead starting someplace. They are obediently saying the words of forgiveness, knowing that by saying them they are beginning a practice that, they trust, will eventually help them feel and live what they say. We forgive our way into forgiving–this is the nature of practice, and it is the nature of obedience.


–Rubens, Return of the Prodigal

Now, if forgiving were a commandment  that enjoins us only to obey, we might rightly chafe under it; but it is more than a commandment—it is a person, “it is the Lord”—the same Lord who taught (ah, the parables of Luke!) that God’s joy increases when the lost are found and sinners are restored; the same Lord who embodied his teaching in his person and practice, a practice of mercy that included us. And because we love him gratefully for the mercy we have known, it is to this Lord and no other that we respond in obedience when we set out on the path of pardon to benefit our enemies, as he did his, and to seek their good.

We forgive because Jesus, whom we love, commanded it. We forgive as he did also because we know from our own experience of being forgiven that it is good to be forgiven. We want offenders and enemies and persecutors to know what we have known. To love someone who does not love us or who has caused us harm and grief is something we do for that other, not for ourselves. It’s her peace we are after, not our own.

I am not saying that this is easy, pleasant, straightforward, or quick. I am saying that it is the kenotic pattern we have been given, the pattern faith tells us will save. We love and are children of a God who does not shrink from humiliation. We follow a self-emptying Christ. Our practice is meant to conform to this divine impulse: it was to heal and restore that God’s life was poured out in other-directed and sacrificial compassion. It is hard to imagine that Jesus ever considered what was in it for him to pardon the tormentors who nailed him to the cross.

This is not to say that his practice on the cross did not affect him in any way. For all we know, it made him even more human, even more complete, even more lovely and whole than he was before he extended that amazing grace. The point is not that forgiveness doesn’t benefit us who forgive; it’s not even that we should not hope it will benefit us, or be grateful when it does, or help others see that pardoning is a process that does good to the one who pardons. The point is that a disciple of Jesus is content to forgive because Jesus did, because we were the objects of that largess, and because he told us to go and do likewise. That is enough. That there are side effects and consequences for us—things that are rich and good and human and welcome—is grace upon grace.

The idea that we forgive as much or more for ourselves than for the one forgiven is not a Christian idea. It has merit and therapeutic value, and that value cannot be discounted in the large discussion of forgiveness as a human process, difficult and prolonged, rewarding and needed. I am not aiming to drive an artificial wedge between Christian faith and human experience. I mean only to affirm that for disciples, because we are in the image of the self-emptying Christ, the goal of pardoning cannot be expressly or primarily self-seeking, even as it is true that our practice of pardoning delivers blessings of wholeness and peace to us that are in themselves desirable and good.

In the end, of course, the Christian wisdom is that the offender deserves forgiveness every bit as much as the offended against deserves healing, unburdening, and peace—which is to say, not at all. No one deserves anything in Christ’s economy of grace. We simply and unaccountably receive; we get to share in every good that Christ has to offer because God is like that—generous, compassionate, merciful, and good. We forgive and we accept forgiveness (a practice every bit as difficult and demanding and, without grace, impossible as forgiving is) because as partakers of the kingdom’s largess we move in a gracious universe–in theologian Mark Heim’s felicitous words, “the vast accomplished grace around us.”

In this resurrection cosmos, deserving drops away as a frame of reference. What takes its place is the kind of solidarity that makes it increasingly difficult to distinguish hurt from hurt. Our enemy, we discover to our own pain, is also a sufferer: someone has harmed, hated, and feared him too. And we who forgive also need forgiving for our countless offenses against the other.

There is no innocence in the kingdom, only mercy; and a revolutionary vision, available to anyone who desires it, by which—after a lifetime of hard and painful practice, our hearts fixed on Christ’s compassion–we may come to see at last the profound common suffering of our common human condition, the breathtaking truth that the sinner and the sinned against share one flesh, one damaged human heart.