If I were to write a sermon series, or an introduction to a sermon series about baggage, what would I say? What could I write about that could even begin to encapsulate the diverse amounts and types of pain experienced throughout the congregation? The gap between my knowledge and ability and the realities of life is made even more vast by the fact that this is not simply being spoken to a church of about 100-200, but an entire internet of diverse souls with diverse experiences and pains. Regardless, I think there are some things that God has for me to say, and I pray that it helps somebody. As I always say when I preach, if it helps just one person, then it was a success in my eyes.
"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
-The Lord's Prayer
If you have spent significant time in church, you might have rattled this line or a variation, hundreds, or maybe thousands, of times. We simply explain it as, "if you forgive others of their sins, God will forgive you of yours, but if you don't, then God won't." It's what the Bible says, right? This must mean that unforgiveness is some type of unpardonable sin of sorts, stamping your guaranteed ticket to damnation if you die with bitterness in your heart. The question that comes up for me, and probably many other curious individuals, is "what if I am trying to let go, but I am having a hard time forgiving and moving on? Will God still not forgive me then?"
There's probably not a scarier feeling than feeling unforgiven by God. It's what Jesus felt on the Cross when He said "Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?" This feeling can be made worse by baggages or trauma we have carried throughout our childhood. It is often said that our first representation of God is our parents. If our parents were strict and exacting, or cold and unemotional, we will likely see God the same way. If we were abused or neglected, we often direct some of that image towards God. We vastly underestimate how our personal experiences and mental state affect our spirituality and our religion. These things literally influence how we read the Bible and share it with others.
What was Jesus really saying when He spoke about this issue with forgiveness? In order to understand this statement, we need to understand its context. Jesus spoke this in context of the Lord's Prayer, which as many know, states:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from the evil one.’
Once I started to look at the Lord's Prayer in light of things God has been placing on my heart, it gave me a new perspective on it. This is by no means the only way of looking at it, or even the best way, but it may be helpful. Let's take a look:
Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name
This prayer starts of with an acknowledgement of who Jesus is praying to. He is speaking to His father in Heaven, whose name is holy. There is already a lot packed into this one line, which meant a lot to me when I read it for this blog. My wife and I were discussing prayer, and by extension, The Lord's Prayer, while driving through the Rocky Mountains for the first time. We were wowed and in awe by the largeness of the mountains, a testament to God's creation. It made us feel so small, and as a result, so safe. You see, there is an extent to which you need to let go when you are trusting a larger force than you to take over. It's what makes us feel in awe when we look up at the sky, or what made us feel safe when a parent or bigger sibling stepped in to protect us as a child. By acknowledging that we have a Big God up in Heaven who is holier than we are, we can let go of having anything to prove because we will never be as big as Him, or reach his levels of being magnified for our own holiness. We've lost the competition de facto, and that's a major relief that is embedded within the message of the Gospel. Jesus is holier than us, so He was able to die for us, and He did, and therefore we are now saved.
So what do I do with this?
Let go. Seriously. Let go of the need to be as holy as God, or as heavenly as Him. You will lose, because the system was rigged for you to lose, and that's how you win, by placing yourself under this holy God in Heaven. He did what we never could, and that's why he hallow (praise) His name.
You'll be amazed at how much pressure is relieved when you stop trying to be perfect. You may not check 365 days off your devotional calendar this year, but God saved you. You may continue to wrestle with addictions and substances, but God saved you. You'll be amazed at how this relief frees you a little bit more from these addictions, or helps you a little bit with those helpful habits.
Your Kingdom come, Your will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
In this statement, Jesus is asking His Father to do what He wishes, for what He wants to happen, to happen. Jesus has spent an eternity in Heaven, ruling with His Father over angels. God created the world by speaking everything into existence in Genesis 1. Jesus is asking and instructing us to ask God to do what He wants. Not what I want, or what I prefer, but what He wants. This is a moment where after acknowledging that God is big and great and more than us, letting go of our own agenda. There’s that letting go again! First we let go because God is great and holy, and now we let go because His bigger and holier agenda is better than ours and we can trust that He is already working in our best interest anyways.
This is something that can be made difficult based on traumas we experienced in our own lives. If the agendas of parents, churches, or other authorities have not truly been in our interest, it will not be natural to believe this and it will be even harder to let go. However, God invites us to test taste Him and try Him out. God is not afraid of your doubt or uncertainty. After all, He’s huge and holy, so why would little old me scare him? Don’t run from doubt or uncertainty, embrace it. Wouldn’t this be how you would create a more authentic relationship with a friend or loved one? It’s no less true here. Be honest with your feelings, acknowledge them because they’re real. By not fighting against reality, you are once again letting go and allowing God to work out His agenda. After all, it is the agenda that has worked so far to bring you to where you are currently.
Acceptance is the key word here. We are asking God to do what He wants, which is something we have no control over, or no idea what it will be. There is a wave of relief that comes with just letting things be what they are. Let God be who He is, and let go. And when you find yourself anxious, tense, keyed up, or trying to control things again, simply let go again. It's the old saying,
Let go, and let God.
Give us today our daily bread.
We often think of this statement as a grace over our food or simply pertaining to 3 square meals a day, but I believe this statement is much more than that. Most of us in the western world daily enjoy 3 hig-calorie, filling meals per day, but are some of the most miserable, medicated, unfulfilled people on earth. I read or hear countless stories of people leaving the oporate arena to travel the world, take up farming, or live a simpler life in some way. There is more to life than food and I feel that is communicated in this text. It sounds like a vague way to say "give me what I need, God." It's vague because we don't know what we need! I don't know what will truly satisfy or meet my needs. I don't know who will truly satisfy or meet my needs. I don't even fully know what all my needs are!
In giving God a blank check to provide for us, we are once again letting go! We are letting go of the need to know everything, or always be in control, or always have answers. The pressure to do these things often carries so much shame it cripples us and can take hold as anxiety, depression, or all sorts of addictions. Here, Jesus is encouraging us to just ask the Father for what we need and to leave it at that.
Furthermore, is the addition of the word today. Give us today our daily bread. What is the meaning of adding this word? Why can't we just take it out and pray once and for all, and then God will provide us our needs forever?
Jesus constantly brings up a theme of focusing on the present. Give us today our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11) Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34) Isn't this the same Jesus who said to look forward towards the future of his Second Coming?
I have the personal firm belief that God has spoken to all cultures and nations on this earth, and that He did not simply settle for spreading the Gospel through one set of European nations within a divine envelope of conquest and colonization. I just don't personally buy it. Based on this presupposition, I think that every belief system has been touched by the Gospel and is a witness to God and Christ.
There is a new emphasis in the mental health community on mindfulness. Through strategies such as meditation, individuals can find peace and rest from trauma, PTSD, and daily stresses and pressure to perform. The key that makes these practices effective is a focus on the present.
You see, our worries and stresses by and large reside in pain and trauma from events and interactions in the past, and/or worries and uncertainties about what is or could be coming in the future. By grounding ourselves in the present, we shield ourselves from the intrusion of issues in the past and protect ourselves from worries from the future. I think this is why Jesus said "today." We know it is often helpful to step back from a situation and look at it as a whole. Jesus is eternal. He existed before time. What kind of perspective do you think He has over everything? over our lives? He created us! He knows better than all of us that there is a need to take some time to be present in the current moment, in the current day, and try to handle life in one small, manageable chunk. Tomorrow is going to happen regardless, so why bother dealing with tomorrow and today, when you'll still have to deal with it again later anyway? This unnecessarily multiplies your work!
But, I have stuff to do!
"I'm a mom!"
"I have to work 2 jobs to support my family!"
"I'm a student working my way through school"
And so on, and so forth.
I make no attempt to even begin to guess what is going on in your life. Letting go might sound like some hoity-toity stuff that lazy hippies say as an excuse to be lazy. Or, maybe it's for the lucky, who sit back and everything just comes to them.
I'll be real, I struggle too, of course. Every time I'm faced with the Gospel, I'm like, "but there must be something for me to do." I'm very suspicious of free lunches, but the second I stop letting go is the actual moment I fall, feel ashamed, and often hesitate to reach out to God, or anyone, for that matter.
Look within yourself. Where do those thoughts come from? What in your childhood, experiences, or scars bring up these things? When we struggle to receive gifts, that means something.
Focus on today. Ask God to give you what you need, and you'll be surprised at what comes your way.
Even if it does still require some work.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
The big one.
We ask God to forgive us our sins, because we are not perfect. We may need to forgive others their sins against us, because they are not perfect. If God has been gracious to us, and has allowed us forgiveness, even though we don't deserve it and didn't earn it, then guess under what circumstance we need to forgive others?
When they don't deserve it, and when they have not earned it!
Now, anyone with any kind of life experience knows this isn't simple or easy at all. Having preached throughout my teens and 20s, I used to find it simple. Forgive others because God has forgiven you! I was never a fire and brimstone type of preacher so I never made it an or-else kind of thing, but boy, had I not lived life yet.
I had no idea the things people would do that would need forgiving.
And I am sure I still haven't felt the full gamut of hurt and trauma.
Switching from preaching to therapy exposed me to deep stories of hurt and abuse I couldn't have ever imagined. This made me feel so ignorant in how I've simplified this whole forgiveness thing. If it's taken me so long to work through hurts that pale in comparison to what others have gone through, how foolish is it to expect others to quickly turn around and forgive rape, false imprisonment, abuse, manipulative relationships, etc. and act as if nothing had happened?
To be honest, I don't think Jesus has that expectation of you, either.
When you read the Bible as a whole, God has a habut of playing the long game. He spent 39 books trying to recover Israel from their falling away from him. He took his time. He sent Moses, judges, prophets, and foreign armies, all in hopes of helping Israel to learn their lesson and turn things around. When none of that seemed to work, He sent God (if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself, right?). God spent 33 years trying to fulfill his mission, to die for our sins. Then, over the next 2,000 years, God has been trying to teach and prepare us, through apostles, missionaries and churches.
God is exceptionally patient. After all, He made time. He isn't exactly in a rush.
So, why would He pressure you into a quick, superficial "I forgive you," with a gun of eternal damnation to your head? It's not logical, and it isn't Biblical.
Everything with God is a journey. Exodus was a journey. Babylon was a journey. Coming back to Jerusalem was a journey. The Cross was a journey. There are no quick fixes in the Bible. Even the miracles therein were performed to serve a longer journey. The Lord's Prayer is a journey.
Forgiveness is a journey.
I'm not going to lie and pretend I know all of the steps to this journey, but I know for sure the biggest component.
And I don't mean letting go of the crime or the sin, or of your feelings. You need to let go of the pressure to hurry up and forgive. When we rush this process, we lie to ourselves, and to others. It's important to feel what you feel, to accept that, and to be honest with yourself. Resist the tendency to moralize your thoughts and feelings, labeling them "good" or "bad". They just are.
Are you mad? OK. Are you sad? OK. Do you hate the perpetrator? Fine. Do you hate the witnesses? OK. Are you made at God? He's big, He can handle it. Don't push back against them. Just exist in them. Just be, as long as you're safe from harming yourself or being harmed.
Some of the most effective meditations for anxiety don't try to change anxiety, they just acknowledge it. Ironically, your feelings are more likely to calm when simply being watched and acknowledged than when you try to suppress or resist them.
These are some pointers for the big things, but for the little ones, I'll keep it simple:
We aren't like God, and for that He forgives us. Therefore, let's try to forgive others for the ways they aren't like God, either.