Tuesday, March 25, 2014

No Weakness in Forgiveness

It had more sentimental value to Grace and Caleb Donnelly than anything else in the world—besides, of course, the couple’s wedding rings. It was a Cartier love bracelet that she bought in her hometown of Manilla, the capital of the Philippines. She couldn’t really afford it, but Grace wanted Caleb, who served in the Marines, to have something that represented her love for him.

The $9,500 bracelet had an engraved message: “You will always be in my heart wherever you go. I love you so much Caleb. Grace.” “I had that engraved to remind my husband that I will always love him and that I am the last thing he should worry about while he is deployed in Iraq,” she said.

But that precious token of love was stolen in the summer of 2011 when the Donnelly’s home was burglarized. When the thieves were caught, the judge sentenced them to make restitution to the couple—a lump sum of $15,000. Amazingly, the couple declined the money.

Instead, Grace wrote a letter of forgiveness to them, saying, "I have already forgiven you with or without an apology. . . . I will be praying for you." As Grace read the letter in the courtroom, the defendants all sat weeping. A lawyer involved in the case had practiced for 23 years and said he had “never met anyone as forgiving and truly Christian as Grace.”1

It has been said that forgiveness is the one supernatural act that humans can perform. In many ways that statement is true. We cannot raise the dead, or walk on water, but we can set someone free and overcome evil with good. One reason why forgiveness is so powerful is because it alters the destiny of both parties involved. Instead of justice, the offender receives mercy. Instead of bitterness, the forgiver receives freedom and healing.

Christian author Lewis Smedes described this phenomenon when he wrote, “When you forgive someone you slice away the wrong from the person who did it. You disengage that person from his hurtful act. You recreate him. At one moment you identify him ineradicably as the person who did you wrong. The next moment you change that identity. He is remade in your memory. You think if him now not as the person who hurt you, but a person who needs you. You feel him now not as the person who alienated you, but as the person who belongs to you. Once you branded him as a person powerful in evil, but now you see him as a person weak in his needs. You recreated your past by recreating there person whose wrong made you past painful.”2

While all that sounds high and lofty, let’s face it forgiveness is often the most difficult act to perform. Some of life’s hurts are so deep and painful that to forgive the people who caused them seems impossible. That’s what makes Jesus words so scandalous in Matthew 18:21-22, “Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Jesus’ answer was not meant to be taken as a literal number. What Jesus teaches us is that as His followers we have been forgiven far more than what we will ever be asked to forgive. We must cultivate a spirit of forgiveness, rather than a habit of counting offenses. Since we all need forgiveness, we should always be willing to forgive.

Forgiveness is not a case of ‘holy amnesia’ that wipes out the past. Instead, it is the experience of healing that drains the poison from the wound.” God asks us to do for others what He has done for us through Jesus Christ. If we are willing He’ll give us strength to forgive.    


Portsia Smith, “Letter of forgiveness,” February 21, 2013. news.fredericksburg.com/newsdesk/2013/02/21/letter-of-forgiveness-moves-caroline-court (accessed 3-8-2013)

Lewis Smedes, quoted by Philip Yancey, What’s so Amazing about Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 102-103. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

All It Takes Is One Verse

Recently, I came across a trio of stories each one with a common theme—they all reminded me how a single verse of Scripture can literally change a life for eternity.

Referring to Proverbs 1:10, which reads, “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent,” Barry Black, Chaplain of the United States Senate, wrote: “This simple Bible verse saved my life during my early teenage years when I refused to follow two friends who went out for a night of hard drinking and eventually murdered someone. The same morning I memorized this verse and later that evening I refused to go with them. The refusal kept me from going to jail for life—the penalty they received for the crime. I learned at a young age that God's warnings are designed to protect us, not to destroy our joy.”1

Then there is Ravi Zacharias, the Indian-born Christian apologist and evangelist, who was attempted suicide at the age of seventeen. After ingesting poison, Ravi was rushed to the hospital where an emergency procedure saved his life. A few days after he regained consciousness Ravi was visited by a man named Fred David, who directed Youth for Christ meetings in Madras. 

Ravi recollected the scene, “I’ve brought this for you,” Fred said, opening the book. He flipped through the pages until he came to a certain spot. It was a Bible opened to the fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel: It told of Jesus conversation with the apostle Thomas. ‘Because I live, you will live also.’ The words hit me like a ton of bricks. “This may be my only hope,” I thought. “A new way of living. Life as defined by the Author of Life.” “Jesus,” I prayed inwardly, “If you are the one who gives life as it was meant to be, I want it.” Ravi emerged from his death bed on fire for God and he never looked back.2

Finally there is the example of Augustine, who early in his life fell into the sins of drunkenness and sexual immorality. When he was only 17 years old, the same year his father died, he took a mistress, and a year later fathered a son. By the year 386 Augustine obtained a prestigious teaching position in Milan, however he was inwardly destitute. One day he sat weeping in a garden, distraught over his miserable lifestyle. He was almost persuaded to begin a new life, but lacked the final resolution to break with his pet sins. As he sat, he heard a child singing in Latin from a neighboring house, “Tolle, lege! Tolle, lege!” (“Take up and read! Take up and read!”)  Augustine thought to himself that these were strange words indeed for a child to be singing at play, and so he took them as from the Lord. 

Picking up a scroll of the New Testament which belonged to his friend, he let his eyes rest on the words: “. . . not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill it’s lusts.” (Rom 13:13-14). “No further would I read,” Augustine wrote later, “nor had I any need; instantly at the end of this sentence, a clear light flooded my heart and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”

Down through the centuries God’s Word, even as little as a single verse, has arrested and transformed the lives of men and women who went on to be great gospel soldiers. Romans 10:17 says “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” No one has ever been saved apart from understanding the Gospel as revealed in the Scriptures. Do you remember the text that brought YOU to trust in Christ? Or do you have a “life verse” — a Scripture that has become a special guiding motto to you? Are you currently memorizing a particular verse or passage from the Bible? If not, find a verse and begin today. You never know when the right verse at the right time will save your life or be the catalyst to lead someone else to faith in Christ.

1. Barry Black, The Blessing of Adversity (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2011), 100.

2. Ravi Zacharias, Walking from East to West (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 104-105.    

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Leaders Need Encouragement Too

There isn’t a school kid who hasn’t learned of Orville and Wilbur Wright, the obscure and uneducated bicycle mechanics who pioneered manned motorized flight. On December 17, 1903 they achieved flight three times and soared into the history books. However, as with many great moments in history, there is an untold story and names that are forgotten.

One such man was Dr. Samuel P. Langley. He was a respected scientist, and at the time, the director of the Smithsonian Institute. Like the Wright brothers he was very influential in the early days of aviation. He published several important works on aerodynamics and had achieved some success with large unmanned airplane models.

In 1898 Langley approached the U.S. War Department for funding to design and build the first airplane. He was awarded $50,000 to accomplish this task, which in those days was an incredible sum of money. The day came for his machine to test the laws of gravity—Oct. 8, 1903. He called his aircraft the Great Aerodrome and with the help of giant catapult it would be launched into the skies off the roof of a houseboat. However, when the aircraft was launched it plummeted like a bag of anvils off the launch pad and ended up in the Potomac River.

The national newspapers ridiculed Langley’s failure to no end. Undaunted, Langley repaired the Great Aerodrome and eight weeks later on Dec. 8, 1903 he tried again for another launch. But as before, disaster struck. This time the cable supports to the wings snapped as the plane was launched and found its way into the Potomac again. 

Again the criticism was fierce. The Great Aerodrome was called “Langley’s Folly” and the New York Times reported, “We hope that Prof. Langley will not put his substantial greatness as a scientist in further peril by continuing to waste his time, and the money involved, in further airship experiments.” And he didn’t.

The crushing defeat of his of Aerodrome and the public humiliation was too much to bear. Langley gave up the dream and abandoned his decades-long pursuit of flight without ever having seen one of his airplanes piloted successfully. Just days after Langley quit, the Wright brothers launched their unfunded and unknown Flyer 1 off the sand dunes in Kittyhawk, NC and the rest is history. As for Langly, he all but became a recluse and sadly, two years later he suffered a stroke and died. 

What happened to Samuel Langley occurs in the lives of too many believers today. They allow discouragement and setbacks to get the best of them. Instead of realizing their dreams they just fold up and quit. They give up on life and retreat into defeat. When you are discouraged, it’s easy to lose your head and you can even begin to question God’s plan.

This is where Moses found himself in in Numbers 11. The demands of being the leader of a stiff-necked and rebellious people almost made him snap. When the people began to complain about the inconveniences of being in the wilderness, longing for the comforts of Egypt, Moses wanted to give-up. He was tired of feeling like a failure and glorified babysitter. Like Langley, Mo’ wanted to crawl under a rock after taking intense criticism. 

“10 Moses heard the people weeping throughout their clans, everyone at the door of his tent. And the anger of the LORD blazed hotly, and Moses was displeased. 11 Moses said to the LORD, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? 12 Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,’ to the land that you swore to give their fathers? 13 Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, ‘Give us meat, that we may eat.’ 14 I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. 15 If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.”

Think of the immense pressure. Moses actually asked God to kill him. How do we respond to discouragement like this? I think the Bible gives at least one clue by telling us what the Lord did to help strengthen Moses at that desolating time. In next part of the passage we see that the Lord tells Moses to gather seventy men and assemble them at the Tabernacle (Num. 11:16).

In other words, God surrounded Moses with other people to help share the burden of leadership. For the person leading the way this may see counter-intuitive because he or she is accustomed to doing everything on their own. However, one of the dangers of discouragement is that it turns us inward, where pity parties are common and perspective is rare.

Let’s face it, no leader can handle everything that is thrown at them. Admitting that you can’t do everything perfectly the first time is not admitting moral weakness, but simply that you are human. This is why the Lord has given us each other in the body of Christ. God doesn’t want you to bear a burden alone. He wants you to be connected to a network of encouragement.

That’s why the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as we see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:25). You don’t have to face the challenges of life alone. Stay linked to God’s Word and God’s people.       

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The People God Uses

Not many people know the name George Smith. In fact, I had never heard of him until recently. There are few records that we have about his life, but from what we do know it’s obvious he was passionate about serving Christ. After accepting the call to the mission field, raising the necessary funds and preparing for years, finally Smith headed for the jungles of Africa.

However, when he arrived he faced incredible opposition. Sickness, starvation and persecution drove him back home to England just a few years later. When he left Africa he could count only one convert, a poor widow. It wasn’t long after returning home that Smith died suddenly, those who found his body, said he was kneeling, no doubt praying for Africa. By most standards his ministry was considered a failure.

Several years after Smith died another group of missionary explorers went back to Africa where Smith was stationed. They found his little hut and a copy of the Bible he had left. The men were also able to track down the woman who was his only convert. They were shocked to discover several small villages who converted to Christ because of this woman’s simple testimony. But the story doesn’t end there. A hundred years after the death of George Smith the Moravian missionaries counted more than 13,000 living converts who had sprung from the ministry of George Smith! Like a snowball rolling downhill, one converted was multiplied into thousands.   

A story like that should be encouraging to you and me, because its testimony to the fact that one person totally devoted to God can be used to accomplish great things. You don't have to be a super-star saint; many times all you must be is available. In fact, I see many parallels between George Smith and another relatively minor character in the book of Acts—Stephen. We know Stephen as the first martyr, but often times we miss his important connection to the overall advancement of the Gospel.

Just like George Smith, Stephen’s life could have been viewed as a failure. His message in front of the Sanhedrin fell on deaf ears (Acts 7). Eventually his boldness to proclaim the Gospel led to his stoning. However, while the angry mob pelted the life out of Stephen, there was one man there that day holding the cloaks of people who would later change the world for Christ—Saul of Tarsus.

What was it that Saul heard that day that shook him to the core? It was Stephen’s simple prayer, “And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Sound familiar? Stephen’s prayer was based off Jesus prayer from the cross (Luke 22:34).

Fast-forward now to the Damascus Road. Saul is on his way to snuff out more Christians. However, a blinding light puts him on his backside. It’s the risen Christ and he has a few questions, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:4-5).

In case you are agriculturally illiterate, a “goad” was a pole with a sharp metal tip that was used by a farmer to prod an ox or goat to pick up the pace.  Sometimes when a farmer would jab an animal with a goad, an animal would kick back with its powerful hind leg, which only dug the metal tip deeper into the flesh and intensified the pain.

The goad that Jesus was speaking of here was the guilty conscience of Saul who could not get the testimony of Steven out his head. The image of Steven’s face shining like an angel was burned into this memory and sound of Steven’s voice crying out for God to forgive his killers haunted him day and night. As the hooves of the horse hit the dusty road to Damascus, Saul had these images hammered into his soul. It was futile for Saul to resist the Hound of Heaven.

Augustine remarked, that “If Stephen had not prayed, the church would not have had Paul.” As far as we know, Stephen only played a role in the conversion of one person. Not all that different from George Smith. But look how that one conversion made ripples throughout eternity.

Don’t ever underestimate the influence of one “normal” person. God uses the words and actions of unknowns to direct the course of history. Moreover, time can only be judged from the perspective of eternity. You may think your life is a failure, but just remember faith only makes sense in reverse. You may not see the fruit of your labors until God shows you from heaven’s vantage point.