An Open Letter to Public Servants, Part I

Dear Public Servant,

You have already been long embarked on a mission to bring a political agenda to the municipal, state or national stage.  This path seems sometimes long and always arduous.  As a political student, spectator and sometimes participant (as a voter), I thank and commend you for choosing this area of service.  Having served in this nation’s military for years, I recognize the presence of the costs in many areas of your life.  Thank you.  Do not grow weary in this endeavor – see it through.  If you are headed into the November general elections, it seems that God, who rules both the realms of the Church and the State, may prosper your path and place you into a position of influence.  That is exciting!  As you continue your work toward that end, I wanted to write you; even to begin a conversation with you.

First, it is not necessary for you to agree with me that God rules both realms or that He is the one who may grant you success: this is what I believe (and, as a local talk show radio host says, “you’re welcome to it”).  We have for too long judged someone by virtue of his adherence to a religious manifesto (Christian or Secular).  The Founding Fathers saw something different.  Theirs was a commitment to found a country in part for religious freedom.  That really means something, namely, folks should be free to follow the dictates of their conscience.  (At what point did we lose this view?)  Surely their expectation was that men and women of principle (including religious principle) would bring those into governance.  But not so that they could pursue a Christian or Secular nation (any more than a French nation, for example).

It seems to a large degree our public servants have lost their nerve.  Is it because they have navigated away from principles that lead to good government?  “Principles?  Like what?”  Some would say biblical principles; others secular ones.  Something else.  How is it that our nation has prospered over this 200 years with such a varying degree of religious belief and practice? Has it been by force of arms that one group prevailed over another?  How can men and women of legitimate and real differences govern and be governed together?

This is one of those questions that has never been more important.  Scads of young people and other disaffected voters acted in 2008 to usher into political power those who were different than the status quo.  Maybe it was the Democratic Party platform that persuaded these voters; maybe not.  In fact, “hope” and “change” and whatever people annexed to those concepts is what won the day.

This is part of the reason for my letter to you: it is likely that God has prospered your path towards elected office irrespective of your religious beliefs.  That is, in spite of them rather than because of them. This is important for you to consider.  Long many have held that we need more Christians (or non-Christians) in public office simply because the broader goal of politics must surely be a Christian America (or Secular America).  I urge you to search the Bible and you will see that God has no such goal as a Christian or Secular America.  No.  His goals are far different when we start to consider what He has revealed to us in the Bible.  Nor must this encourage those of you who think that secularism should reign.  Neither is true.

I asked earlier how we have succeeded in forging out a national history that has involved men and women of almost every political stripe?  How are we to govern and be governed in our climate of uber-partisanship?  It is not wrong to answer that question by exploring what the founders initially saw as the pathway to governing.  Do we think that we alone live in a time of discord?  Let’s not be so arrogant as to think that our fathers wouldn’t (or didn’t) understand precisely the pressures to govern a disparate and independent people.  Surely, at the headwaters of our founding there were more factions than today!

So, secondly, the Declaration of Independence speaks of several concepts that can guide us and, I hope, you as well.  These are summed as the “laws of nature.”  Among them: distinction-making, decency, self-evident truth, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, justice, safety, prudence, definitions of evil and patience.  Each of these concepts drawn from the laws of nature were enshrined in our national origins.

Distinction-making.  You ask, “Where is that in the Declaration?”  It is the Declaration.  This document (as every document like it) is where distinction-making either takes place or is recorded.  The colonists categorize in the Declaration the ways in which the Crown acted tyrannically.  These included such things as making laws that were too difficult to obey, calling convocations in locations that made attendance impossible, quartering standing Army troops in peace, etc.  Experiences and burdens that all could agree where not necessary or right.  We wrongly fear distinction-making today.  We eschew calling nations to account for harboring terrorists, for calling out greedy capitalists, for dressing down corrupt government officials or even for equal treatment.  Yet, we cannot govern if we fear making distinctions.  For these things must be done.

Decency.  Turn on the TV and seek examples of decency; ask congressional staffers about examples of decency.  Indecency is rampant – even having touched the White House in years past.  Decency, according to Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary is that which is “morally praiseworthy.”  We go astray if we ask “whose morals?”  (We continue to prove my first point.)  Language, dress, decorum and vocations that advance honor to all men are decent.  That means prostitution, crime, corruption, immodesty, pornography, violence and vulgarity are not honorable and should be restricted by law.  For whom do these things produce decency?

Respectfully.

Forgiveness is…

Forgiveness might be one of the most significant concepts in relationships.  It also might be the most misunderstood.

First, we cannot discuss forgiveness if we depart from the basis of forgiveness with God: the death of Christ.  Christ’s blood has satisfied the justice of God, having broken down the walls between God and us.  Paul the apostle applies this in Ephesians 2:13-15 where he explains this means in Christ there is no barrier between us.  What is important to note is the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:13b) is the same basis of forgiveness between believers.  When I was brought near to God through Christ, I was also brought near to all others who were previously brought near to God through Christ; Paul highlights this in Ephesians 4:32.

But what is the nature of forgiveness?  It is the actual wiping away of our sins so that they no longer testify against us.  It is two-fold: event and process.

Event: asking and granting forgiveness on the basis of someone else’s work

Process: remembering and living in that event in the strength of someone else’s work

When are the “events” of forgiveness between God and us? When I first repent and believe in Him and each time I repent and believe (: 1 John 1:9)  What is the “process” of forgiveness for God and us?  He chooses to remember the blood of Christ on our behalf instead of our sins and we continue to repent when we sin.  Why does God keep doing this?  Because our forgiveness is not founded on our perfections but Christ’s; we have Christ’s perfection counted to us rather than our imperfections counted to us.

When we consider these things between men and women in the faith, it is functionally no different.  For the Christian, forgiveness is always a possibility.  We sometimes act as if what someone has done against us is so serious that it is beyond forgiveness.  There may be genuine and horrific sin against you but the Scripture tells us that it is not unforgivable. When are we typically unforgiving people?  In three cases: a) when we forget what God has done in forgiving us (Matthew 18:23-33); b) when we belittle our own transgressions against God and, c) when we forget just what had to happen so that we could live as free-people.  For the Christian, forgiveness is also a duty.  As we will see from passages like Luke 17:3-5 and Ephesians 4:32, we must choose forgiveness.  God clearly holds us to forgive even so that we might be forgiven:

Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not and you will not be condemned; forgive and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:37)

We may overlook offenses or we may only ever be able to adopt a disposition of forgiveness due to an unrepentant sinner, but these at least we must do.

For the Christian, forgiveness is a gift.  One of the two principal words for forgiveness in the Old Testament has as its core idea, “to lighten by lifting.”  We will discuss the nature of sin as incurring a debt.  Many know what it is like to carry debts: houses, cars, credit cards, etc., none of these is desirable and we long for a time when we are debt-free.

Forgiveness is the means that God has ordained that we would experience relationships debt-free.  In other words, through forgiveness we may have closeness, openness and safety that we would not have without it.

Forgiveness is not.

We often persist in sinful un-forgiveness because we don’t know what it means!  Or we have a view of it that makes forgiving too hard.  In the Bible, forgiveness is not a feeling.  Therefore it isn’t only required when someone has recovered a sense of affection or good will towards a sinner (how easy would that be?).  Instead, it is an act of the will after all God commands us to do so.  Forgiveness is not passive.  As we said above, to forgive involves someone sinned against canceling a live debt that he is owed.  It involves both the sinner and the one sinned against to think-speak-act.  It is also not forgetting.  Forgetting is passive and is never guaranteed.  We cannot think that until we have forgotten we have forgiven or that if we’ve forgotten we’ve forgiven.  It is not excusing.  As we will see, forgiveness is transactional and so it automatically assumes a wrong done for it to be valid.  Sin creates debts that we as humans instinctively recognize (cf. Romans 2:14-15).  We also recognize that as we sin against others we are saddled with a deepening burden for that debt over time.

Forgiveness does not allow this as it doesn’t automatically release a wrongdoer of the consequences.  Consequences are often our teachers that instruct us and keep us from repeating sins against God and other people.  Forgiveness takes the reality of sin into account and sets us on this path of learning (cf. Numbers 14:20-23 and 2 Samuel 12:11-14).

Forgiveness is.

As a process, it is keeping no active record.

Jeremiah 31:34b: “…For I will forgive their iniquity and I will remember their sin no more.”

Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am the one who wipes out your transgressions for My own sake, And I will not remember your sins.

Psalm 103:11-12: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”

Psalm 130:3-4: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord who could stand?  But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”

1 Corinthians 13:5: “…[love] does not take into account a wrong suffered” (NASB)

Forgiveness is canceling debts people owe you.  When people sin, they create a debt; they owe you.  Ken Sande writes that to forgive is, “To release from liability to suffer penalty or punishment and to bestow favor freely and unconditionally.”  How did the Matthew 18 parable depict this?  First, Jesus equates sin (18:15, “if your brother sins…”) with debts (18:23, “settle accounts with his servant”).  Secondly, Jesus equates forgiveness (Luke 17:3, “…and if he repents, forgive him”) with exacting payment (18:24-25, “one [servant] was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.  And since he could not pay…”).  Sin creates a debt while forgiveness cancels the debt.  In other words, forgiveness means that someone has done a wrong against you and they owe you / deserve punishment but you give up your right to recoup what they owe / punish them.

Forgiveness is costly.  Sin-debts are real: they violate the covenants between people.  Sin-debts are specific: those violations are never vague as they transgress real boundaries (see the Ten Commandments for example).  Sin-debts are costly: they weigh on both parties.  And sin-debts have lingering effects.  Forgiveness minimizes none of these things.

Forgiveness is hard work: Matthew 18:22. What must’ve the disciples thought when Jesus answered the way He did?

[Isn’t there a limit!  That’s too much!]

Forgiveness works.

There is a distinct process in forgiveness written in many places.  Luke 17:3-5 provides a condensed and effective summary.  First, forgiveness is an event that involves a confrontation: 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; if he repents, forgive him.”  In order to bring about forgiveness, there must be a confrontation.  It must either be initiated by the one sinned against as in this case (cf. Matthew 18:15) or by the one who committed the sin (Matthew 5:23-24). So, who has the burden of forgiveness?  The sinner and the saint.

Still, Jesus highlights that it is also a process: 17:4, “and if he sins against you seven times in the day and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent’ you must forgive him.”  Someone who commits sin and repents must be forgiven.  Lane and Tripp say, “The principle [of Luke 17:5] applies to countless offenses and even the same endlessly repeated offense.  We’re tempted to think that once we have forgiven someone we’re done.  But forgiving someone is not just a past event.  It’s something we must continue to practice even when we’re dealing with an offense we have already forgiven.”  In other words, the process of forgiveness is on-going or willful.  Or acts of our conscious choice each time we have the opportunity or the need.  Remember that God holds our sins against us no more when He forgives.  He certainly remembers, but chooses not to act on a past, forgiven incident.  It is a canceled debt.

  • Would it make sense if a bank, whose debt you paid off, came to you and wanted to keep talking about the debt you used to owe?

When we say, “I forgive you,” we are pledging ourselves to this process where we actively say to each other:

I will not think about this incident anymore;

I will not bring up this incident again and use it against you;

I will not talk to others about this incident;

I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.

For each incident “I forgive you” means an affirmative answer to each of these questions about the incident.  No one should suggest forgiveness is easy.  In order to absorb the wrongs done, God will have to strengthen the offended party.  Forgiveness in the strength of self-will lasts a very short time, if at all.  Each offense contains painful detail, a decision to absorb them, a looking past the urge to punish and a commitment to treat the offender almost as if he never did them!  Who is up to this task?!

Forgiveness’ language.

Language in forgiveness is very important. What is the difference between “I’m sorry” and “Please forgive me”?  Usually, “I’m sorry” involves accidents while “Please forgive me” addresses sins committed.  “I’m sorry” is sometimes very unrepentant; merely “I’m sorry I got caught” or “I’m sorry your such a wimp and you can’t handle this,” etc.  “Please forgive me for…” makes no mistaking that a debt settlement is underway!

Jay Adams says, “Seeking forgiveness is not apologizing.  There is nothing in the Bible about apologizing…[it is] the world’s substitute for forgiveness that doesn’t get the job done.  You apologize, and say “I’m sorry” but have not admitted your sin.  The offended party feels awkward, not knowing how to respond.  You are still holding the ball.  You have asked him to do nothing.”

The nature of sin is to create a debt, something objective.  The nature of forgiveness is to forgive that debt in detail.  Repentance and forgiveness must carry specificity in the language.  When we confront an offense, we must be specific.  We must be able to point to specific violations of God’s law (not preferences, remember?).  So, be specific:

“I believe you have sinned against me by your coarse language”

“I believe you have sinned against me by not leading our family and asking me to do so”

You see that to use this language does two things: a) points out a biblical wrong has been done – this isn’t just a preference that’s been violated and, b) it calls the offender to action.

The response mirrors the confrontation:

“Please forgive me for using coarse language and treating you as if you aren’t truly valuable to me”

“Please forgive me for failing to lead our family”

You see that to respond in this language admits to both points above: a) a sin’s been committed and, b) action is being taken.

Un-forgiveness.

An unrepentant sinner may not keep us from forgiveness.  Mark 11:25 says, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (see also Luke 6:28 and Acts 7:60).  God calls us to an attitude of forgiveness towards those who sin against us.  We may have to hold onto an attitude of forgiveness until the offender repents.  The attitude of forgiveness will transition into actual forgiveness when a sinner repents and asks for forgiveness.  However, this may never happen.  To fail to have an attitude of forgiveness violates Mark 11:25 and will inevitably lead to bitterness (Ephesians 4:31; Hebrews 12:15).

Why can we not endure our lives?

The longer I live and serve God’s people, the more I witness how we have come to love formulas and quick fixes for life’s issues.  We probably aren’t any different from people of other ages.  Yet, for us, the good life or good quality of life is often defined in terms of things fixed or avoided, like pain alleviated or problems solved.  The quicker the pace of life, the more intense the experience or the busier the calendar, the more we demand to be relieved from it all.  We elevate comfort and ease to god-like status and order our lives around attaining them.  This is a sad state.

We have become a culture – even a Christian culture – of traders and bargain-hunters.  This is most clearly seen in relationships.  Here’s what I mean:

  • We have traded in plenty for paucity.

Now, we are satisfied with hundreds of Facebook friends and hours of wasted time keeping up with them rather than a couple of close and personal friendships.

  • We have traded in intimacy for efficiency.

Now, drive-by relational investments, “doing the minimum,” has replaced the time consuming and rigorous interactions necessary for meaningful relationships.

  • We have traded in personal letters for status updates.

Forget the fact that we may have no more time than the 140 characters of a tweet; I wonder how many of our hands could hold a pen for more than 5 minutes.

We think we are making improvements.  Perhaps we are simply improving our ability to be shallow and short-tempered.  One casualty in all of this, perhaps the greatest one, is our ability to live the long haul.  Mostly gone is the ethic of standing firm in the mundane or day-to-day.  Now, the “mundane” (which is not a by-word) is considered monotonous (which is).

Perhaps our culture lacks no greater virtue than the ability and vision to endure.  This is as true inside the church as it is outside.  We have grown in our expectation that life should be manageable, workable, or controllable.  But at the same time, we have put down the very thing that would allow us to see those things: endurance.  The real gravity involved in considering this topic isn’t primarily pragmatic: if we don’t endure then we’ll all be like middle-aged children. No, the Bible tells us that endurance is yoked to hope and our inheritance in Christ.  We cannot have the latter without the former. That’s what makes this so urgent.

Jesus says, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22, 24:13; Mark 13:13).  He has a different view of life than we have adopted by and large; a different view than we are teaching our children at home, at church and at school.  Jesus was certainly not alone in speaking of the present in long-haul terms.  I mentioned our penchant for “formula” living.  Paul presents a formula that speaks to the topic we’ll be focusing on.  His formula is as shocking as it is short:

…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope (Romans 5:3-4)

Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope (Romans 15:4)

Jesus and Paul (and others) viewed life in terms of scope – a lifetime.  They saw it as a race that has no end but heaven itself.

Like the other general letters of the New Testament (like, for example, James, 1 Peter and Revelation), Hebrews speaks to long haul living.  There, like in Romans, the author says long haul living is a life of endurance.  Most prominently in Hebrews 10:36.  There it reads:

“For you have need of endurance so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised”

Most believers work hard to endure life’s circumstances.  Most only endure because they happen to rather than purpose to.  Perhaps it would help to consider endurance, however, as a result rather than a goal.  We will see from Hebrews that endurance has two primary elements to it: faith and patience.  The author of Hebrews argues in his book that to focus on faith and patience is the means to endure.

First, faith (see Hebrews 4:2, 11:6).  Faith is of course a prominent feature of Hebrews, especially in chapter 11.  But, perhaps a more significant occurrence is far earlier in the book: 3:16-19, 4:2

For who were those who heard and yet rebelled?  Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses?  And with whom was he provoked for forty years?  Was it not those whose bodies fell in the wilderness?  And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient?  So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

For good news came to us just as to them but the message they heard did not benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who listened.  For we who believed enter that rest…

The Israelites that Moses led out of Egypt had the opportunity to enter the Promised Land had they simply believed God and followed Moses.  God had pledged Himself to the nation to care for them – He proved His power in the plagues and the exodus.  They were unfaithful and they did not believe God.  And, as a result, they did not endure the process of inheriting what had been promised to them.

  • They were, after all, going to be required to do the walking, fighting and settling of the land.

We have seen the effects of unbelief, what, then, is faith?  We look to Hebrews 11:1,6:

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen…Believe that He exists and that he rewards those who seek him

Faith recognizes that something has been done for us but we haven’t seen it yet.  It assumes the truthfulness of the promises God has made.  It looks at the finished work of Jesus Christ that is ours who are in Him.  Faith is thoughtfully considering the gospel of God and its effectsHebrews exalts Christ and His work as our priest, prophet and king.  Our task is to drink all of that in:

  • It is saying “Yes” to what God promises without actually seeing what He promises.
  • It is saying “Yes” to God’s control of all things even though the interpretation of those things might escape us.

The effect of faith is to anchor our endurance outside of our circumstances.  Faith reels in the anchor and pulls us closer to heaven.

Secondly, patience (see Hebrews 6:12).  We know of patience from prominent places in the Bible.  Perhaps most notably as a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s presence in Galatians 5:22.  Or as love’s first character trait in 1 Corinthians 13:4.   Patience is only considered in light of testing.  It only makes sense in that light.  So, whereas someone might think faith ignores circumstances in favor of other things, patience doesn’t.  Patience looks at the burdens of life but considers the temporary nature of those burdens.  When it is united to faith, patience thinks on this life relative to eternity and says, with Paul:

This slight and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Patience is internal fortitude in the face life’s real challenges knowing they will end.  While faith reels in the anchor drawing us nearer to heaven, patience bears the work of the reeling knowing that one day the anchor will be in hand and heaven will be our experience.

We know this to be true from life experience.  Let me illustrate.  Child-bearing.  Now, I’ve been through that – as a spectator – several times.  As a junior participant (my wife thought that was an apt description), there was always a point in the process where I needed to endure.  If for no other reason (but importantly), she needed me to stay engaged with her so she could endure.  At that moment, I was confronted with the need to be faithful and patient.

  • Faith in God that my wife’s body could actually do what He designed it to do: deliver this baby and safeguarding her life.
  • Patience that though it sometimes took hours to happen, it would eventually be complete.

The combination of these two made me joyfully endure the process to see the wonderful results.  What would the opposite have looked like?

  • Without faith in God in the ways I mentioned, the whole process would be horrific for me: always wondering at what point the baby’s heart was going to stop beating or something awful was going to happen to my wife.
  • Without patience, I would have been no help to her.  I could potentially have been mean to her or the physicians or put out because I “had” to be with her when I’d rather be doing something else (like she wouldn’t also!).

I illustrate in this way so you can see what failures in either faith or patience can do to endurance.  Does the Bible really discuss endurance in these terms?  Are faith and patience united to create endurance as I have suggested?  Hebrews 6:12, prays:

“…you may not be sluggish but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises”

We see here that faith + patience = inheritance.  Or, are we saw from Hebrews 10:36:

“For you have need of endurance so that when you done the will of God you may receive what is promised”

In that case, faith + patience = endurance.  Endurance leads to inheritance.  Perhaps our lives lack no greater virtue than the ability and vision to endure.  And, as we fail to endure, we fail to have the hope won for us in Jesus Christ.  But, endurance is a result not a goal.  We may pray to endure, but we should back our prayers up a bit.

First, we must pray that God will grow our faith in His character and promises and the finished work of His Son, Jesus Christ.  We must ask Him to remind us of the ways that He has acted for our good and blessing.  We must have our view of who God is and what He has done for us deepened and strengthened.  The more we see Him, the more we trust Him.  The more we trust in Him, the more patience will yield the result of endurance.

Secondly, we must ask God for an increase in patience.  This is simply asking Him for more of what He has already given us in His Spirit.  Believers in Christ aren’t at zero balance in patience.  They simply need refilling.  But, I know what you’ll say since it’s what I say, “I’m afraid to pray for patience!”

  • To pray for patience is to ask God to help us to grow in seeing our experience as transient and temporary though we may be grieved by it at times.

Endurance will be ours as faith and patience are ours.  God is not stingy about giving us these gifts.  We must simply be diligent to ask Him for them and trust that we will receive them when we need them.