Forgiveness and acknowledging sin

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.

Luke 17:3

Forgiveness is important, but we can’t really forgive someone until we’ve acknowledged — even if just to ourselves — that we’ve been sinned against.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a tendency to brush aside offences against me, and to act as though they didn’t happen. Maybe for the sake of keeping the peace. Or maybe because I don’t want to admit that someone’s managed to hurt me. Admitting hurt means admitting vulnerability, and showing vulnerability might make me look weak.

Or sometimes it might be because I’m all too conscious of my own sins and offences against others. This might leave me feeling as though I don’t have the right to speak out when someone else is at fault. But this is a false line of thinking that only leads to further deception and hurt down the track. The response to my own sin and guilt needs to be repentance, not covering up the sins of others.

The end result of all this soldiering on and pretending everything is fine is that resentment builds up without me noticing. Without realising, I end up holding on to unforgiveness towards my offender, because I didn’t acknowledge that forgiveness was necessary.

Sometimes it’s important to just take a step back and admit: yes, this hurt.

Maybe the next step might be to confront the person directly about their offence — or maybe not. What happens next really depends on the situation, and on the people involved. Maybe the next step might be to share the experience with another trusted person in your life. Or to talk honestly to God about your hurt.

Whatever follows, the important thing is that we need to acknowledge when someone sins against us. Admitting this doesn’t make us weak, or a victim. Nor does it mean we’re saying that we’re faultless in our own lives.

It does mean that we can begin the process of working through the hurt, of letting go, and of granting forgiveness, just as we’re called to do.

Today you will be with me in paradise

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43

Two thieves, suffering the same fate as Jesus — hanging on a cross, experiencing unimaginable pain.

Both men speak to him, but in very different ways.

To the second thief, Jesus speaks in return: offering a promise of hope.

We might have expected Jesus to speak to the first thief, as well; the one who “rails” at him and hurls insults. But there are no words for this first man — no words of hope, but no words of condemnation or judgement, either. Jesus only has silence to offer the first thief, and his own suffering alongside him.

It’s easy for us, I think, to pass our own judgement on this first man. In doing so, we tell ourselves that we’d never speak to Christ like that.

It’s easy to forget the pain this man was in was equal to that of Christ; that he suffered in the same way, that he also hung on a cross.

This man was speaking out of his pain.

Maybe you also know what that’s like. Have you ever railed at God out of a place of pain? Or perhaps not at God directly — perhaps it was at another person. But then, remember Christ says that “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”, so when we say hurtful things to one another, even if it’s because we’re in pain ourselves, we’re no different to that first thief on the cross.

And in the same way, when we do this, Jesus doesn’t speak to us harshly in response. He doesn’t give us any words of condemnation and judgement. Instead, He remains silent, and shares in our suffering, waiting for us to finish whatever it is we have to say.

Eventually, we’re done with our railing and our anger. We finally get to that point in our pain where there’s no more hurtful words left to say. We reach a place where the only thing left for us to cry out is, “Jesus — remember me!”

That’s the point when Christ finally speaks. That’s the point when He turns towards us, and He says, “Today — today, you’re with me.”

(Note: This article is adapted from a short message I delivered at my church on Good Friday, as part of a series on Jesus’ seven final sayings on the cross.)

Unanswered prayer: the bogeyman of Christian faith

I often remember this particular moment in a small group I was once a part of. We were talking about prayer, and the joy of answered prayers, and people were listing off various things they’d prayed for that had been answered by God. After a while, there was a pause, and I asked quietly, “Do you think we sometimes avoid praying for things we don’t believe will really happen?”

For a few moments, the room went dead quiet. Then after a while, people started to nod. The group then began to acknowledge and talk about that scary problem of unanswered prayer — one of those things that as Christians we don’t like to talk about or think about, to the extent that we might even not pray about certain things to avoid having to deal with the issue.

It’s one of those things that for Christians can be a real challenge to our faith. It’s a problem that we don’t really have a pat explanation for. There’s plenty of attempts at explaining, but none of them seem to be completely adequate for those times when God just… seems… silent.

Why are our prayers sometimes unanswered?

So why do some of our prayers seem to go “no higher than the ceiling”? Maybe you’ve heard some of the following explanations put forward for unanswered prayer. While I don’t think any of them are adequate for all circumstances, they can certainly be true in some instances. There are plenty of times when I’ve found one or more of these explanations to be helpful to my own situation.

  • Sometimes the answer is there, we just haven’t recognised it, because it’s in a form we don’t expect.
  • Sometimes the answer is “not yet”. Maybe it’s about learning patience; maybe it’s about growth of some other kind: being formed, being prepared. It might be about other factors that we can’t see; other people involved who need to go through their own process of growth.
  • We might be asking for something that’s not in God’s plan for us. Guess what: that’s ok, and it doesn’t mean your prayer was “wrong”. God’s not going to hold it against you. We don’t have a perfect knowledge of God’s will, and we don’t need to pretend that we do. The truth is, sometimes we do want things that aren’t what’s best for us. Healthy, honest prayer involves bringing those desires out in the open, so God can work with them.
  • Sometimes the prayer has been answered, but we didn’t like the answer all that much. So we pretend we didn’t hear, hoping for a different response. Does this sound familiar to you? I know I’ve been guilty of this. And I know, too, that God remains frustratingly silent until I deal with whatever it is God has already asked me to deal with, whether it’s giving up something that’s not good for me, or taking a leap of faith that scares me.

Trust God in the unknowing

Any of those explanations might be true for your particular situation. Or maybe they’re not. Sometimes, the uncomfortable truth is that we just can’t know the reason for our unanswered prayer. Maybe you’ve asked God why, over and over, and still, He just… seems… silent.

And that’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? That’s the part that gets painful, that can sometimes even tempt us to pack it all in and give up on prayer altogether.

Sometimes the reason for our unanswered prayer is simply that we live in a broken, messed up world. Romans 8 describes all of creation as groaning as in the pains of childbirth. Creation has been “subjected to frustration,” it says, in the hope that one day we will be liberated from all this frustration, and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”.1

God’s will is being worked out, but even so: not everything is going to be as it should be in this lifetime.

That doesn’t mean we give up on praying, though. We pray in spite of the brokenness — and we pray because of the brokenness. We pray because God is right there with us in the grieving and the hurting.

I don’t have all the answers about how prayer works, and why sometimes it feels like it doesn’t. But I will say this: Don’t let it stop you talking to God.

Trust God in the midst of the unknowing. Remember that prayer changes us, too, and that even in those periods of “no answer”, there is change happening in us and around us that we might not even be aware of.

Prayers of lament

There is a place in prayer for crying out and expressing our frustration — for lamenting. Many of the Psalms are psalms of lament. Look at this passage from Psalm 44:

You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.

Psalm 44:13-17

Wow… this psalmist certainly isn’t afraid to be upfront with God about their disappointment! What a great reminder that God doesn’t need our prayers to sound perfect, or for us to pretend our uglier feelings aren’t there. He just wants us to be honest; to give him our hurts and our grievances. He can take it.

God is with us

Even if we can’t see any change at all, even if it seems we’re still in that foggy, in-between place of unanswered prayer, remember that God is still listening. He never stops listening. He hears what we have to say, and he keeps on loving us, no matter how we express it, or how angry or hurt we get, or how many times we repeat ourselves.

God is with us. He’s with us in the dark places, as well as in the light. He’s with us even when he seems silent; even in the times when he feels most distant. He’s with us even when we’re not sure where we are ourselves, or where we’re going. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to carry us through.

When the prayers aren’t pretty

Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies—
    make your way straight before me.
Not a word from their mouth can be trusted;
    their heart is filled with malice.
Their throat is an open grave;
    with their tongues they tell lies.
10 Declare them guilty, O God!
    Let their intrigues be their downfall.
Banish them for their many sins,
    for they have rebelled against you.

Psalm 5:8-12

I have mixed feelings about this Psalm. On the one hand, sure, I can certainly relate to some of the emotions it describes. There are many times I’ve wanted to rant and rail at God to deal with that awful person, already!  Declare them guilty, Lord! Let them know how wrong they are! Give them enough rope to hang themselves, embarrass them and bring them to justice in front of everyone!

Sure, I’ve wanted to pray like that sometimes.

The problem is, it usually sticks in my throat. It’s a bit hard to pray, Lord, declare my enemies guilty! — when I’m all too aware of my own shortcomings, and of all the ways God has given me grace. Besides, isn’t this what the New Testament tells us: that we should love our enemy, not condemn them? That we should forgive, as we’ve been forgiven?

Yes, of course we should! So where does that leave us with Psalm 5? Do we toss it out as irrelevant, in light of Christ’s message of grace and redemption?

God can handle our angry prayers

Not so fast. I think we can still learn a great deal from Psalms like this one, although they might sit uncomfortably with us at first.

To me, Psalm 5 says that we can confess to God honestly, no matter what is on our minds. And it says that we should continue to do so, even during those times when what’s on our minds feels like the kind of stuff we’re not supposed to say. Psalm 5 says we can trust God to be big enough to handle our angry prayers, even if they’re not pretty. It says that we can trust Him to turn that anger into something good.

Trust Him with the outcome

Who knows what that good might be? Maybe that person you’re furious with really is in unrepentant sin — and perhaps God will remove them from your life, and allow you to move on. Or maybe they’ll come to repentance, and having allowed God to deal with your anger, you’ll be in a better position to offer them forgiveness and grace.

Or maybe, through praying, your own heart will be changed, and you’ll come to see this person with an empathy you didn’t have before, and realise the situation isn’t as straightforward as you thought.

“Loving our enemies” doesn’t just happen by pretending hurt isn’t there. Instead, we need to acknowledge the hurt, and work through it with God first. God doesn’t need us to pretend our feelings are “right” all the time. He just wants us to come as we are, angry prayers and all. Trust Him to take it from there.

God doesn't need us to pretend our feelings are right all the time. He just wants us to come as we are. Click To Tweet