Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Forgive Often, Trust Once?

I never thought I had an issue with forgiveness.  (I mean, I don't hold grudges, if that counts.)  But, this past week, I realized that, while I'll forgive many times, I usually only trust once.  And once I stop trusting someone, it's nearly impossible to trust them again.

Under what circumstances is reinstated trust a wise thing?

The girl's Bible study that I attend is currently going through the book of Romans -- and for starters, we reviewed a bit of Paul's (then Saul) history.  Saul grew up in a Jewish family and belonged to a strict sect known as the Pharisees.  As he grew, he became a zealous leader of those determined to exterminate Christianity.  He was so zealous, in fact, that he was responsible for the brutal murder of hundreds upon thousands of Christians.

Remember the first recorded Christian martyr, Stephen?  Saul was responsible for his death.  If you read the account of Stephen's murder in Acts chapter 7, you'll see that "a young man named Saul" was the one who encouraged the town to riot and cast Stephen out, finally stoning him to death for his faith.

Do you know how horrific stoning really is?  It's not like Stephen had pebbles thrown at him repeatedly until one finally hit him at just the right velocity to enter his brain and kill him, as with David and Goliath.  No.  Imagine being crushed and bruised by massive rocks, hurled with a man's full strength at your head and chest.  How brutal!  And how gruesome.  And yet, this is the death that Saul ordered upon Stephen.  "And Saul was there, giving approval to his death."  (Acts 8:1)

As a side note, I find it incredible that, when Stephen knelt there outside the city, committing his spirit to God even as the life was being pounded from his body, he prayed that the Lord would not charge his murderers on account of his death.  What grace!  (I think his prayer was answered.  Read on.)

After overseeing the murder of Stephen, Saul began another riot in the city -- dragging Christians (regardless of age or gender) out of their houses and into the streets, treating them shamefully as he herded them together and drove them before the magistrates.  This was business as usual for Saul.

To be perfectly honest, Saul's bottomless, murderous hate towards Christians is difficult for me to understand.  (Sure, he disliked them.  But, enough to persecute them?  Explanation, please!)

Now, read Acts 9:1-2:  "Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem."

He got permission.  The warrant was in his hand.  He was already on his journey, traveling the famed road to Damascus.

Then suddenly, a light from heaven flashed around him.  A blinding light -- so bright that he fell to the ground and hid his face for the glory of it.  Then he heard a voice that said to him, "Saul, Saul: why do you persecute me?"

I love Saul's next question.  "Who are you, Lord?"  It's like when you ask a little kid to tell you their name:  "What's your name, Timothy?"  You know the answer (obviously); you just want to hear it from their own lips.  I think this is a good indicator of the work God already began in Saul's heart.  At this point, he knew God was calling him -- he just wanted to hear Him confirm it.

And the Lord humors Saul: "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."

Have you heard about Ananias?  He was a disciple of the Lord, living in Damascus -- one of the Christians doomed by Saul's mission.  Well, after Saul had been in Damascus in three days, still blinded from the exposure to God's glory, and weak from lack of food or water, the Lord called to Ananias in a vision.  And Ananias answered. 

Acts 9:11-16:  "The Lord told him, 'Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.  In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.'

" 'Lord,' Ananias answered, 'I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.  And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.' 

"But the Lord said to Ananias, 'Go!  This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.  I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."

Ananias knew who Saul was.  In fact, it was likely that Ananias had even lost family members or friends to Saul's ruthless regime.  Yet, the Lord directed him and he obeyed, albeit fearfully.  Can we blame Ananias for doubting?  Of course not!  Look at Saul's track record!  Ananias was fully justified in fearing for his life (after all, the Lord never promised him safety -- only directed him to go to Saul).

After the Lord healed Saul (through Ananias), he allowed him to spend several days with the disciples in Damascus, preaching in the synagogues, proclaiming Jesus Christ to be the Son of God.

But, the Christians weren't so quickly convinced.  "Isn't he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name?  And hasn't he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?"  (Acts 9:21)

As Saul became more powerful, the Jews were "baffled" -- and eventually conspired to kill him.  Distrusting, much?  But do you blame them?  Just in time, Saul learned of their plan to take his life and his loyal followers helped him escape the city in a basket, let down through an opening in the city wall.  He was on his way to Jerusalem.

We read on: "When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple."  (9:26)  Barnabas spoke up on Saul's behalf, recounting the story of the light from heaven and of Saul's fearless preaching in Damascus -- and for a short time, they accepted him, allowing him to preach and move freely about their city.  But it wasn't too long before the Grecian Jews also began to plot against his life.

Because Saul's conversion and repentance was true, (however hard it might have been), it was the duty of the Christians to forgive him.  But it was hardly Saul's place to demand forgiveness.  "Well, I said I was sorry, so you guys need to forgive me."  I'm so glad he didn't.

So often, I find that when a brother or sister sins against another brother or sister, they expect immediate forgiveness.  They're forever presuming upon their fellow believer's better qualities.  However, there are two parts to forgiveness: first, the agreement to withhold punishment from the wrongdoer (thereby, taking the suffering for the offense upon yourself) and second, the restoration and embracing of that person.  The second part of forgiveness is not so easy.  (And it by no means must be proven in some practical way as the newly-forgiven one often asserts.  On a rabbit trail: often, I think people ask for forgiveness in order to receive some form of personal gain -- the return of status, trust, responsibility.  Not merely because of heartfelt contrition.  (Or maybe barring contrition entirely).)

Look at it this way: when the Believers finally did forgive Saul, did that necessarily mean that they needed to prove it by entrusting the lives of their children to him, for example?  No.  That would be foolish.  They were under no obligations to prove their forgiveness for Saul in those ways.  (Also, is it true repentance and sorrow that demands the forgiveness be proven by the expenditure of something precious to the one who forgives?)

So, although forgiveness was required (and given, in some cases), they still needed time, with God's help, to wade through both steps.  And so did Saul.  Knowing this (and having other plans for Saul at that time), the Lord led Saul to Arabia, where he rested for about three years (according to some sources) -- receiving revelation from the Lord: being taught, strengthened, and giving everyone time to heal.

Personally, I find it difficult to swallow the fact that the story of Stephen's stoning is found only a few chapters before the story of Saul's conversion.  And then the very next book of the Bible is written by Saul himself -- containing God's plan of salvation for sinners, and then telling the church how to live: first as Christian servants, then as Christian citizens, then as Christian brothers.

This man was a murderer -- he was probably responsible for the death of people they knew and loved.  And now they were supposed to listen to him?  Accept him as their teacher?  Become his disciples?  Also, when Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome, he'd never even visited Rome yet (hence the letter).  How could they simply take him at his word, without seeing his changed life?

I'm not going to argue with God about how fast He can save and change a sinner.  But, after seeing horrendous sins repeated over and over, it can be a little hard to trust.

Think of Saul's conversion from the perspective of the Jews.  He entered their city in a weakened state, needing medical attention and care.  He was utterly helpless, having lost his sight.  The Jews had to help him.  But when he recovered, he could have easily faked a conversion experience, just to get out of the city safely (most of the Jews would have been anxious to take his life, knowing what a cruel and murderous man he'd been) -- he was already thoroughly at their mercy.

I'd have been one of the skeptics.

But look at how the Lord eventually used Paul!  I've often thought that, although the Lord redeemed and used Paul in ways we can't even begin to imagine, He also allowed him to undergo all manner of persecution and trials and imprisonment just to prove to the Believers that he had truly given his life to God.  Because truly, if he were leading everyone on and faking his conversion, there would be a limit to his endurance.  But, through Christ, he was able to endure all manner of sufferings in his body.

After his light-from-heaven experience, Paul was ready to jump head-first into the ministry: his heart burned with passion and conviction to do the Lord's work.  His mouth was filled with words and truth.  But, understandably, not every heart was ready to hear and receive it.  And so Paul had to be patient and wait.  He had to persevere in his good work.  In fact, he had to remove himself from the situation entirely -- sit at God's feet and learn, grow, and prove his repentance, through time and committed, consistent obedience.

So, perhaps I need to rethink my, "Forgive many times; trust once," policy.  While it's sometimes good to remain cautious, there is no end to what God can do in someone's heart.  Time can prove it.  Maybe even in less than three years.


Anonymous said...

You've brought out some very interesting points. (muses)

Andrew said...

A friend of mine recently got out of jail and I'm so proud of him because he knows that its gonna be hard for people to accept him at first so he's just being patient and being a good example and he's completely turned his life around so people will see that he's not the same person that he used to be.

Kami said...

Where else in the bible can we read about Paul or Saul (besides Acts)?

Katherine said...

What a blessing this post was! Just what I needed to hear today. (Facing a situation reg. some friend's acceptance of me after a series of unfortunate choices I made. They just need time and to see me set a worthy example). God bless you and your blog, Jen!

RandyGStoltzfus said...

Are you sure it was three years, some sources say it was quite possible less?

Anonymous said...

Some people never change.

Rick said...

And with all due respect to Anonymous, some people (like me) can change by God's grace. Never underestimate what God can do in a willing and repentent heart.