Ballafaqimi Biblik, një mjet i hirit – Pjesa e dytë

Ju po lexoni pjesën 2 të një blogu Koalicioni i Këshillimit Biblik Shqiptar.

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Nga Blair Alvidrez

Kur përkufizojmë ballafaqimin biblik, ne duhet të pranojmë, mbi të gjitha, që Perëndia është ballafaques—në çdo minutë të çdo dite. Çdo mëngjes dhe mbrëmje, Ai shpall lavdinë dhe drejtësinë e Tij, me anë të krijimit të Tij: prandaj njeriu nuk ka justifikim. (Psalmi 19:1, 50:6, Romakëve 1:19-20) Ka vetëm dy lloj njerëzish në botë. Ata ose i ngjajnë Abelit, ose Kainit; njëri me plot bindje bën atë që është e drejtë, duke fituar bekimin e Perëndisë, si Abeli, – duke marrë kështu gëzimin e përjetshëm, pra, për të njohur dhe për t’u kënaqur me Perëndinë. Tjetri, kokëfortë, armiqësor, rebel, duke përfunduar në një mallkim, si Kaini—i larguar nga prania e Perëndisë, duke grumbulluar për vete gjykim të përjetshëm, deri në vdekje përfundimtare dhe ndarje të plotë nga Perëndia (Zanafilla 4:16; Romakëve 2:4-11). Prandaj, ballafaqimi biblik u bën pritë pasojave të përjetshme të mëkatit dhe paralajmëron për pasojat që do të vijnë: vdekjen, ashtu si edhe shpërblimet e një jete vërtet të bindur ndaj Perëndisë, bashkim me Perëndinë përjetë. Nga një perspektivë e përjetshme ne nxjerrim përfundimin se ballafaqimi është një mision shpëtimi; për ta sjellë dikë tek Perëndia dhe tek njohja e Tij, që është jeta e përjetshme. Për më tepër, ballafaqimi duhet të ndërthuret si pjesë e pandarë e qenieve tona, si një stil jete, Ai nuk duhet të jetë një ngjarje e rastësishme apo e jashtëzakonshme. Ballafaqimi është aty ku dashuria për shërbesën personale banon në kontekstin e të gjitha marrëdhënieve tona. Për shembull, ne jemi të thirrur për të pasqyruar Jezus Krishtin, për të qenë mbajtësit e imazhit të Tij, në një botë në të cilën ekziston pak ose aspak njohje për ekzistencën e Perëndisë, për të zbuluar dashurinë vetëmohuese të Perëndisë. Ne jemi ambasadorët e Tij. Në fakt, nëse ne e kuptojmë ballafaqimin biblik saktë dhe qartë, ai i sjell shërim dhe nder atij që dëgjon, mjerim dhe turp atyre që “nuk pranojnë korrigjimin” (Fjalët e Urta 13:17-18).

Për të na ndihmuar që të kuptojmë se si të bëhemi imitues të Jezus Krishtit në një botë që po vdes dhe ndaj njëri-tjetrit si besimtarë, ne duhet të njohim dhe të pranojmë që ballafaqimi biblik nuk është fakultativ. Ai është ndërthurur në Urdhërimin e Parë dhe të Dytë më të rëndësishëm. Bibla na mëson që nuk ka asnjë terren neutral mbi këtë çështje. Letra e Parë e Gjonit 4:7-21 e përforcon këtë të vërtetë, veçanërisht vargu 20 që thotë: «Po të thotë dikush: “Unë e dua Perëndinë” dhe urren vëllanë e vet, është gënjeshtar; sepse ai që nuk do vëllanë e vet, të cilin e sheh, si mund të dojë Perëndinë, që nuk e sheh?». Për më tepër, kur ky lloj ballafaqimi nuk ndodh brenda kishës, ata brenda saj, të cilët supozohet që e njohin Perëndinë, veprojnë në të njëjtën mënyrë si ata jashtë kishës, të cilët nuk e njohin. Në të vërtetë ky fragment shpreh qartë dhe me qetësi jetën e re të cilën e kemi si besimtarë. Nëse ne e njohim Perëndinë, ne do të jetojmë një jetë me dashuri, sepse Perëndia banon në ne: “Ai që nuk ka dashuri, nuk e ka njohur Perëndinë, sepse Perëndia është dashuri.” Tek e 1 e Gjonit 4:8 kemi urdhërim prej Tij: “Kushdo që do Perëndinë duhet të dojë vëllanë e vet.” Fjalë të fuqishme. Fjalë bindëse. Kaini nuk mendonte se ishte përgjegjës për “vëllanë e vet”, por Perëndia e bëri atë përgjegjës.
Paul Tripp-i përdor vargjet tek Levitiku 19:15-19 për të përcaktuar se çfarë do të thotë kjo.

Nuk do të bësh padrejtësi gjatë gjykimit; nuk do të tregohesh i anshëm me të varfrin, as do të nderosh personat e fuqishëm; por do të gjykosh të afërmin tënd me drejtësi.
Nuk do të shkosh e të sillesh duke shpifur nëpër popullin tënd, as do të mbash qëndrim kundër jetës së të afërmit tënd. Unë jam Zoti.
Nuk do të urresh vëllanë tënd në zemrën tënde; qorto gjithashtu fqinjin tënd, por mos u ngarko me asnjë mëkat për shkak të tij.
Nuk do të hakmerresh dhe nuk do të mbash mëri kundër bijve të popullit tënd, por do ta duash të afërmin tënd si veten tënde. Unë jam Zoti.
Ne nuk mund të mos i marrim parasysh këto urdhërime të drejtpërdrejta të Perëndisë. Ai do që ne të mos jemi vetëm dëgjues të së vërtetës, por të veprojmë me një bindje të përzemërt ndaj së vërtetës; duke imituar Atë në planin e Tij të shpëtimit, përmes dashurisë vetëflijuese. Pa pjesëmarrje vetjake, përmes kohëve të ballafaqimit, një jetë e qëndrueshme dhe e frytshme për Perëndinë nuk mund të jetë realitet.

Pengesat ndaj ballafaqimit biblik

Pa dyshim, do të hasim pengesa për ta bërë ballafaqimin biblik një realitet në përditshmërinë e jetëve tona. Paul Tripp-i shpjegon shkakun kryesor për këtë: ne e duam veten tonë më shumë se të tjerët. Ndonjëherë, ne zgjedhim heshtje egocentrike kur e shohim vëllain ose motrën tonë në vështirësi dhe nuk bëjmë asgjë. Veç kësaj, ne mund të shprehim gjithfarë formash të urrejtjes: më pak të dukshme, pasive dhe aktive (faqet 222-224). Si shfaqen këto? 1. Formë më pak e dukshme urrejtjeje (favorizimi): pra t’i bësh favor dikujt, por që po atë favor t’ua refuzosh të tjerëve për shkak të pamjes fizike, dhuntive, gjendjes shoqërore ose personalitetit, duke refuzuar kështu të tregojmë dashurinë që Perëndia na ka treguar. 2) Formë pasive e urrejtjes (mbajtja mëri): përfshin të mbajturit shënim të atyre gjërave të gabuara që dikush na ka bërë. Me kalimin e kohës zemërimi rritet, duke shtuar përbuzjen, përçmimin dhe neverinë—edhe pse nuk është kryer ndonjë mëkat tjetër. Kjo çon në hidhësi. Ndërsa kjo rritet, bllokon rrugën me anë të së cilës mëkati mund të shkatë­rrohet. Pa dyshim, shumë njerëz përfundojnë këtu. Fyerjet grumbullohen në një nivel në të cilin ndodh një shpërthim i stërmadh i “mëkateve” të kryera—me inat, me ligësi dhe keqdashje. Rezultati përfundimtar e lë personin fyes të dëmtuar, të gjakosur dhe pa frymë. Për më tepër, dhe me shumë keqardhje, pak arrin të zgjidhet në një mjedis kaq armiqësor—më shumë është bërë dëm, marrëdhëniet janë përkeqësuar, ka pasur përçarje dhe uniteti që reflekton imazhin dhe ngjashmërinë me Perëndinë shuhet. Për më tepër, ata që zgjedhin të mos i bëjnë ballë inatit dhe hidhësisë, në mënyrën që Perëndia do, e fusin betejën brenda vetes—ata mbyllen në depresion dhe mbyllin çdo derë të shpresës për të ndryshuar.

Së fundmi, format aktive të urrejtjes (padrejtësi, urrejtje, hakmarrje): a)padrejtësia—lejon anësinë dhe padrejtësinë e pamoralshme të këmbë­ngulë pa pushim, duke mos siguruar vetëpërmbajtjen e domosdoshme, për të mos lejuar dhe për të frenuar përparimin e së keqes. Ajo lejon që lëndimi dhe keqtrajtimi i të tjerëve të shtohet, duke mos vepruar në mbrojtje të atyre që janë të pambrojtur dhe të pafajshëm nga të tjerët; b) thashethemet krijojnë një terren mbarështues, ku mëkati shtohet dhe përshkallëzohet, ku njerëz të cilët nuk janë të përfshirë në një fyerje bëhen pjesë e saj, jo si shpëtimtarë, por si paditës; c) hakmarrja kundërpërgjigjet duke sjellë lëndim dhe cenim ndaj dikujt tjetër, duke e kthyer të keqen me të keqe, në këtë mënyrë duke e dhunuar urdhërimin për të treguar dashurinë, natyrën dhe karakterin e mirë të Perëndisë. Hakmarrja kërkon të shkatërrojë, ndërsa Perëndia kërkon të restaurojë.
Veç këtyre, mënyra të tjera të cilat pengojnë ballafaqimin biblik përfshijnë:

Refuzim për të ballafaquar sipas mënyrës së Perëndisë,
Ne nuk iu kërkojmë njerëzve që të pendohen për mëkatet e tyre, sepse ne nuk i konsiderojmë mëkatet tona ashtu siç janë seriozisht—si një shkelje dhe fyerje ndaj Perëndisë
Ne kemi pikëpamje dhe besime të gabuara, me të cilat ndihemi rehat dhe nuk duam t’i ndryshojmë. Kur jemi në një situatë në të cilën sfidohemi nga e vërteta e Fjalës së Perëndisë, ne rezistojmë përmes shpagimit, duke iu përgjigjur personit me inat; ose tërhiqemi duke ikur, me qëllim që të shmangemi, duke lënë jashtë çdokënd dhe gjithçka, duke e mbajtur inatin dhe zemërimin brenda.

Vënia e ballafaqimit biblik në praktikë

Fatmirësisht, ka diçka që mund të bëjmë për të vendosur ballafaqimin biblik në qendër të jetëve tona në mënyrë të përditshme, ashtu siç Hebrenjve 3:12-13 na mëson.

Ta bëjmë dashurinë, qëllimin tonë (1Timoteut 1:5):
Ndaj Perëndisë (Luka 10:27).
Ndaj të tjerëve (2 Korintasve 13:11).
Të zhvillojmë dhe të praktikojmë komunikim të perëndishëm sipas Efesianëve 4:25-32;
Të përdorim 4 rregullat e komunikimit: “Ji i sinqertë”, “Merru me situatën aktuale”, “Sulmo problemin dhe jo personin” dhe “Vepro, mos kundërvepro”.
Të jemi të përkushtuar ndaj rritjes në shenjtërim përmes fjalës (Gjoni 17:17), duke e lexuar Biblën rregullisht, duke u lutur, duke pasur bashkësi me besimtarët e tjerë, frekuentim të kishës dhe adhurim.
Të praktikojmë dhe të stërvitemi në drejtësi (Efesianëve 4:22-32, Kolosianëve 3:12-17, 2 e Pjetrit 1:3-11).
Të jemi gati—të sigurohemi që motivet janë të pastra dhe janë sipas standardit të Perëndisë (Mateu 7:1-7; Romakëve 8:28-29; Filipianëve 2:3).
Të ruajmë si thesar ato që Perëndia ruan si thesar (Psalmi 51:17; Isaia 57:15).
Të jemi të mësueshëm—të kërkojmë ato që janë lart (Kolosianëve 3:1-3; Mateu 6:19-20).
Të vendosim ta bëjmë ballafaqimin biblik pjesë të jetëve tona të përditshme (Hebrenjve 3:12-13).
Të jemi të guximshëm—duhet kurajë që të shkojmë tek dikush që ka gabuar—“për ta fituar vëllain tonë”. Nëse ai nuk pendohet dhe nuk kthehet nga mëkati i tij, merr hapat dhe personat e duhur për ta ballafaquar me të vërtetën e Fjalës së Perëndisë, me dashuri, me qëllimin e restaurimit të marrëdhënies së personit me Perëndinë dhe të tjerët (Mateu 7:1-7; Mateu 18:15-20)

Si përfundim

Të kuptuarit e ballafaqimit biblik është thelbësor për rritjen frymërore, si vetjake, ashtu edhe në trupin e Krishtit. Ai është ndërthurur brenda të vërtetave të Shkrimit, duke përforcuar Urdhërimin e Parë dhe të Dytë më të rëndësishëm. Ai është mjeti me anë të të cilit Perëndia siguron të sjellë ndryshim që zgjat në jetët tona. Ai duhet të përvetësohet, përmes bindjes nga dashuria, për të pasqyruar se kush është Perëndia dhe çfarë ka bërë Ai në një botë të rënë, duke i thërritur njerëzit të kthehen tek Krishti dhe kryqi në çdo marrëdhënie. Pa dyshim, ballafaqimi biblik nuk prodhon gjithmonë pendimin dhe ndryshimin e perëndishëm që Perëndia ka ndër mend. Me keqardhje themi se jo të gjithë njerëzit pendohen, megjithatë ata duhen paralajmëruar. Shembulli i Jezusit ilustron dhe na fton që ta imitojmë atë. Dhe Zoti tek Zanafilla 3 dhe 4 bëri të njëjtën gjë, pavarësisht nga rezultatet. Ky është mandati që Zoti jep: “Nëse ju bëni të mirën, vallë nuk do të pranoheni? Dhe nëse ju nuk bëni të mirën, mëkati është strukur tek dera. Fokusi i tij jeni ju, por ju duhet të sundoni mbi të.” Së fundmi, ballafaqimi biblik ka pasoja të përjetshme, duke qarkuar ose vdekjen, ose jetën. Le të vendosim ta ftojmë veten dhe të tjerët të duam, së pari, Perëndinë, dhe, së dyti, të afërmin tonë, siç Shkrimi mëson qartësisht.

Përktheu Rudina Boçe

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Biblical Womenhood: Breaking Molds and Building Each Other Up

This article originally appeared on the Biblical Counseling for Women site on February 18, 2016. I do not think any other article I have ever written has stirred up the poop-storm of controversy this one has, eloquently making my point for me. My harshest critics were utterly incapable of explaining what, specifically, they disagreed with on biblical grounds. Emotional reactions and passive-aggressive non-responses from my detractors only served to better prove my point.  
Sometimes women themselves are afraid to think critically, and question whether all they’ve taught as being “biblical” truly is. How complicated legalism makes following Christ, when He has given so many and varied giftings to His daughters! 
Biblical Womanhood: Breaking Molds and Building Each Other Up

If you are an American* evangelical woman over the age of 30, chances are you have encountered at least some of the following:

  • Surprise that you cannot attend a mid-week ladies’ Bible study, because you’re at work at that time;
  • Disappointment from others that you don’t home school your children;
  • Mild feelings of inferiority because you do not bake your own bread (you tried….and failed);
  • Frustration at the poor exegesis in Bible study materials marketed to women;
  • Your husband being cornered by several men at a social gathering, who are grilling him on why he “lets” his wife work outside the home;
  • Nagging guilt because you rarely get home from work in time to drive your children to AWANA or Youth Group.

Stop the Guilt! It’s Not Biblical

Maybe you’ve even wondered at times about a “wardrobe makeover,” to better reflect how ‘biblical womanhood’ is portrayed in Christian magazines. As Elyse Fitzpatrick writes in her excellent book, Good News for Weary Women, “Many of the practices we Christian women pressure ourselves (and each other) to uphold are unnecessary and burdensome.” While drafting this article, I came across an online magazine called, Keepers at Home.  Dedicated to the idea that holy = cooking/sewing/cleaning, the site sells a Little Keepers at Home handbook “so that girls ages 4 to 6, can begin to be little keepers and future Christian homemakers!” (Emphasis mine.) Really? Do we really want to send our daughters the message that being a follower of Jesus essentially means cooking well and doing craft projects? Of course, some women love homeschooling their children, baking, and teaching Sunday School – and are good at it! These are great activities, and women who enjoy them should be encouraged.

But so should the women who don’t.

“Biblical womanhood” is an ambiguous catch-phrase which has gained popularity in recent years, often subjectively interpreted to mean “stay-at-home, homeschooling mom who sews and bakes.” As I mentioned in last week’s post, the resurgence of extreme patriarchal thought and overly-conservative gender roles is probably more in response to radical feminism than to the spirit of the Scriptures. What Christian women need to realize is that following Christ does not limit them strictly to homemaking duties, but rather frees them to embrace the unique gifts, abilities and calling He has placed on their lives. As author Sarah Bessey writes, “A man is most truly “helped” when a woman is walking in the fullness of her anointing and gifts and intelligence and strength, not when she reduces herself out of a misguided attempt at righteousness.”

‘Biblical Womanhood’ Takes Many Different Forms

To be sure, no serious student of Scripture would deny the God-ordained gender roles He has established. Nature itself, as well as both the Old and New Testament, inform us of responsibilities (including child-rearing; care of household; and spousal support). Candidly, I am a complementarian and am not arguing that women should seek to usurp their husbands, or fill a man’s role. But what is often instilled in evangelical women is that their gifts and abilities should be channeled only  into homemaking, and to seek to use them elsewhere does not honor God. This leads to needless guilt, which comes out both in the counseling room and in private. One source of depression among Christian women is feeling unable to live up to the expectations of being a perfectly ‘submissive wife’ and perfect homemaker.

This is a heavy burden to carry, but for a woman with a college degree it can be devastating – she may even be conditioned to feel guilt for having a career. Using the fine mind God has given her is a way of glorifying Him; and women need to be told this. The world needs more Christian women in medicine; in the hard sciences; and in other fields. Far from being unbiblical, God is greatly honored when His daughters work up to their highest potential. A woman can only serve God with joy if she is doing what she loves; and if she loves computer science more than doing crafts at women’s conferences, she has the freedom in Christ to pursue it. (My oldest daughter, 19, is a freshman at a secular university majoring in chemical engineering. Not only is she preparing academically for a very worthy career, but also, due to the discernment and critical thinking skills she has developed, she is able to discern the anti-God bias and unbiblical worldview inherent in any university). This is as valid a model of “biblical womanhood” as is learning any homemaking skills I have taught her.

The Balancing Act

A well-known celebrity pastor spoke at a conference several years ago on biblically-prescribed gender roles, and categorically claimed that women who pursue careers are outside of God’s will (ie sinning). His entire message was based on Titus 2:5, but he did not touch on the fact that the home can be “kept” by delegating some responsibilities, as the Proverbs 31 woman did. He cited an encounter he’d had with two female students at a Christian university who challenged his view. A law student and a medical student, they insisted they would be as good at motherhood as they would be at their perspective careers. “No you won’t,” the pastor rebutted. “The average physician or attorney works 60 hours per week. You will not be raising your children; you will be paying someone else to raise them.”

While the pastor’s point had some validity – most careers do demand long days and on-call status – it was his black-and-white thinking (and painting all career women everywhere as ‘outside of God’s will’) that was wrong. What he seemed to miss is that there are times and seasons; flexibility of schedules at certain points in careers; options to take unpaid leave. Doctors and lawyers, who are well-paid and will always have job security, have the option of cutting back on their hours during child-bearing years. One of the godliest women I know is a family physician in England. Having recently become a mother, she still practices medicine while raising her own child and being active in her church (where her husband is a deacon). Even after maternity leave ends, it is possible to pursue a career without becoming derelict in one’s duties as a mother.

Embracing Our God-Given Identity

What, then, is ‘biblical womanhood’? (Is it possible to read that phrase without an image of a long dress and head covering coming to mind?) It should be possible. Biblical womanhood means a woman, heart sold out to her King, pursuing the life He ordained for her, and her alone, to live. It means cultivating the passions and talents He has uniquely gifted her with. It means being a leader like Deborah; a businesswoman like Lydia; an instructor of her children like Lois and Eunice; and being actively engaged in charitable work like Dorcas. It can mean staying home and teaching her children full-time, if that’s her calling; it can mean becoming a nuclear physicist or isolating the cancer genome if that is the passion God has instilled in her heart. Just as there are “many members of the Body” (1 Cor. 12:12), there are many individual versions of womanhood that fall well within God’s blessing. Living up to their personal and academic potential to the glory of God is a message girls and women in the evangelical church desperately need to hear. Shake off others’ expectations (no matter how “holy” they may sound); and embrace who you – and only you – were meant to be in Christ. This is true ‘biblical womanhood’!

 

*Home schooling is illegal in most countries, and women electing not to be employed is not an economic option in most of the world. Even among conservative Christians, the expectation in the Western world is that women will receive higher education and pursue careers commensurate with men.

The Hi-jacking of Ephesians 5:22

The-Hijacking

 

A young woman in a Bible study read the following passage from the book of Ephesians: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5:22-24). “I don’t like that,” she said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”

Young lady, I don’t like it either when words are given new connotations that God never intended; when verses are wrenched out of context and used to justify selfish desires. And it definitely makes me uncomfortable when well-meaning Christians use “proof texts” to subjugate those weaker than themselves, or dismiss another human made in the image of God as inferior. This was never how marriage was designed. We need to see the beauty of the whole passage; what it means to submit to one another out of love and respect; and what God actually intended when He established the pattern of loving male leadership in the family (and in the Church).

The book of Ephesians is an outline of demonstrating Christ-like love in different relationships. Paul opens by exhorting the believers to avoid all forms of sexual immorality and indecent behavior, then zooms in on the nuclear family. After entrusting women to the authority of their husbands in the above passage, the Apostle then turns to the husbands and spends three times as much space commanding them to “love their wives as Christ loved the Church”. Neither a battle cry for feminism nor a return to draconian male-dominance, the entire passage simply reinforces Paul’s original plea for all to “walk in love”.

A Proof-Text for ‘Control Issues’?

In the 1991 thriller “Sleeping with the Enemy”, Julia Roberts plays a wife who flees a man so controlling that he lectured her for bathroom towels being hung unevenly, and berated her for spices not lined up symmetrically in the pantry. Although he never physically abused her, the woman was so brow-beaten by his excessive control that she lived in constant fear and humiliation. This is an exaggerated picture of how non-Christians view biblical submission. Unfortunately, even among believers, the sin nature has sometimes distorted God’s intention for submission and authority.

What often seems to be the case is that this passage is pulled out of context to force women into an unbiblical form of “submission” rooted not in sacrificial love, but rather in an egocentric desire for control. Verse 22 is often quoted as a conversation-stopper when wills collide, but verse 25 is often ignored. However inconvenient and embarrassing it may be, spiritual abuse is real – and is often rooted in an unbiblical application of Ephesians 5:22-24.

This is not to say, of course, that church-going men who autocratically rule their families are not “real Christians”. On the contrary. In an autocratic leadership, the person in charge has total authority and control over decision making. There are many committed Christian men who actually believe this is God’s will and model for family life, and are convinced it is their sacred responsibility to uphold the entire burden of doing, working, deciding – and even thinking. I have even seen an inflated sense of ‘patriarchy’ convince Christian husbands that their wives do not even have the right to think or make any decisions for the family, citing the principle of “submission” to rationalize their absolute power.

The Cycle of Abuse and Shame

This is not only poor exegesis, it is emotional abuse. A familial dictatorship is psychologically destructive, and is much more spiritually damaging to the woman than physical abuse. Here’s why:

  • Woman is being treated as second-class citizen at home; even if she holds academic degrees, may be subtly treated as of lower-intelligence;
  • Woman reads literature targeted towards Evangelical women, over-emphasizing “submission” in order to be a more ‘godly wife’;
  • Woman begins to believe abuse is her fault; feels guilty;
  • Woman gradually distances herself from God; feels she deserves the abuse and strives to be “better”.

While “mutual submission” is not biblical (the proverbial buck does need to stop somewhere, after all); the problem with over-emphasizing female “submission” is that when we lose sight of the heart-attitude Paul wants to instill – namely, sacrificial, agape love for one another – the true meaning of marriage is distorted. Everywhere in Scripture, we see Christ far more preoccupied with what’s going on inside the soul than with outward behavior, and marital interaction is no exception. Marriage is supposed to mirror the relationship of Christ and His Bride, the Church. When the sin nature twists surrender to another’s loving authority into a doormat theology, women suffer in silence; bitterness is fostered; abuse is legitimized; and those who slander Christianity gain more ammunition. (Last year’s Vision Forum sexual abuse scandal was a prime example of this dynamic).

“Did Your Husband Speak for You?”

Several years ago, my husband and I had a doctrinal question for the leadership of our church. In the course of events, I was dialoguing about it with another woman, who was part of a “family integrated” movement with a strong emphasis on male headship and a very strict interpretation of “biblical womanhood” (the subject of next week’s post). My husband, who is less theologically-interested than I, had delegated the discussion to me (as English is not his first language, and he knew I had good rapport with the counseling pastor). My friend was somewhat surprised that I, as a woman, would be “allowed” to “speak on my family’s behalf” to church leadership.

I was at first amused, then incredulous. As an adult in my forties, a certified biblical counselor with a college degree, having raised four children and written two books while holding a full-time career, I need permission from my husband to have a conversation with our pastor? Whether or not he had delegated the issue to me, have branches of American evangelicalism reverted so far back into medieval authoritarianism that a woman discussing theology with her pastor raises eyebrows? Where, exactly, is the biblical precedent for this?

If we return to the pages of the New Testament, we see that Jesus Himself held no such views of women having an inferior status. Several women travelled with Jesus and His disciples during His ministry, listened to His teaching and “provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:3, emphasis mine). We see the disciples surprised that Jesus would converse with a woman (John 4:27) and the dignity He afforded women that went far beyond the conventions of 1st Century Judea (John 8:11; Luke 7:48; Mark 14:6; etc.) And this does not even scratch the surface of the role women played in the Early Church.

The Pendulum Swing

Where, then, does the desire to return to an absolute patriarchy (with women forbidden a say in the family, or critical thinking, even if they have education) come from? It is possible that it is a knee-jerk reaction to the extremes of the feminist movement, which would deny the God-given differences (in nature and role) between men and women. This is a sociological explanation, and I believe it has some validity as liberalism has invaded the Church in the last three decades. However, it falls short and does not help us address the problem of spiritual abuse in the counseling room.

Love is not self-seeking, and it does not “lord it over” another individual – especially one perceived as weaker. Love protects, and it seeks the other’s best interest. While women are called to submit, it should never be done in slavish fear to an autocrat – but rather in joyful deference to the one she trusts above all else; who would lay down his life for her. When the call to ‘submit’ is wielded like a weapon, it is a sure sign that the follow-up verses on “loving [you] wife as Christ loved the Church” are not being obeyed. Christ never intimidates or threatens the Church; He encourages believers to use their gifts in His service; always heals; always protects.

While there are many causes of emotional abuse within Christian marriages, I believe that the misunderstanding and mis-use of this particular passage of Scripture is behind much of it. Women should not be conditioned either from the pulpit or by strong-willed men to think of themselves as “lesser”; but rather should be edified and uplifted by their true identity in Christ. One of the ways to break this stranglehold is to encourage the woman to develop and use her individual gifts and talents, not only within the family setting, but in the Church and culture as a whole. We will examine ways to do this, and break the stereotypical “biblical womanhood” myth in next week’s post.

The Humble King and His Blue-Collar Court

I wrote this article as a Christmas devotional in 2012. It originally appeared on “The Godly Woman” website.

by Marie Notcheva ©

king JesusIn the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)

Even while there is no one more powerful and mighty than the Lord Jesus Christ, there is no one more humble. Philippians 2:6 makes this point well, reminding us that Jesus, although God Incarnate, did not consider His deity a “thing to be grasped”, but rather condescended to come to earth as a human…and to serve His own creatures. The gentle humbleness exhibited by our own Lord and Savior is an attribute we acknowledge and strive to emulate, but often take for granted. It can fail to “wow” us. But when you really think on some details of Christ’s incarnation and earthly ministry, the lengths He went to in His humiliation are just stunning. No; I’m not talking about the fact He washed Judas’ feet before dying a horrible death on the Cross, although those moments are the pinnacle of God’s redeeming love and should not be minimized by any means. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth, beyond the fact that His earthly parents were working-class folks and He was born in a stable, also reveal God’s heart for the lowly and despised things of this world.

Luke’s Gospel tells us of the shepherds out tending their flocks in the fields near Bethlehem, and the angels’ apparition to them heralding the Messiah’s birth. What would a Nativity scene be without these wavy-haired, blue-eyed, Anglo-Saxon shepherds, genuflecting at the manger? We have greatly romanticized the role of the shepherds. Their part in the Christmas story, as relaters of the angels’ Gospel message, was integral. Their role in society, however, was despised. In first-century Israel, shepherd were pretty far down on the highly-stratified class ranking. Ironically enough, the Temple’s economy was highly dependent upon shepherds, although they probably wouldn’t have been allowed as far as the Outer Courts. Every Passover, with up to a quarter of a million Jews streaming into the city, between 30,000 and 40,000 lambs were needed for the sacrifices. Someone had to raise those lambs. (The whole scenario reminds me of the illegal immigrant outcry of a few years ago – a local hotel manager was quoted anonymously as admitting, “Without illegals, we’d be using paper plates and plastic forks…the whole hospitality industry is dependent upon them.”)

During the post-exilic stage of Israel’s history, which gave rise to Rabbinical Judaism, Jewish society had become very class-conscious. At the top of the heap were the Sadducees, the wealthy, theologically-liberal controllers of the temple (and by extension, the economic center of Jewish life). As you all probably know, the high priesthood was a dynastic office within this class. Right under the Sadducees were the uber-conservative Pharisees, the guardians of the Torah and the academic, learned talmide hakhamim (‘students of the wise’). Intermarriage with commoners was so discouraged that marrying the daughter of a Pharisee was an exclusive status symbol.

These upper class intellectuals looked upon the unlearned, unwashed masses of Judaism with scorn and derision (as even a surface reading of the gospels reveals). They had a particular name for these lower classes of Jews: “am ha-aretz”, literally “people of the land”. This derisive term, somewhat analogous to our slur “red-neck”, was further used for two sub-categories of blue collar folk: the Ê¿am ha-aretz le-mitzvot, Jews disparaged for not scrupulously observing the commandments, and Ê¿am ha-aretz la-Torah, those stigmatized as ignoramuses for not having studied the Torah at all. It was into this latter category that shepherds fell…they were the “trailer trash” of Judea at the time of Christ. Jewish texts compared marriage to one of their daughters to “crossbreeding of grapevine with wild wine, which is “unseemly and disagreeable”. This is in stark contrast to shepherding during the earlier, Patriarchal period – when it was a somewhat prestigious vocation.

By the time of Christ, Jewish shepherds would have been excluded from “polite society” for their ceremonial uncleanness as much as their unimpressive pedigree. Think about it: Luke mentions that they were living out in the fields, and there were no portable showers in those days. If the Pharisees chided the Apostles for omitting the ceremonial hand-washing, imagine what they would have thought about dudes who bathed perhaps once a month?

These were the people to whom God first announced His Son’s birth — through angelic host, no less! “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).

So here we have the Creator of the universe, God Incarnate from the foundation of the world, being born to a working-class mom, in a stable. The first people privileged with the “glad tidings” (read: really, really cool news) of the Savior’s arrival are some dirty, smelly dudes in a field. The religious establishment won’t give the time of day to these folks. They never go to Temple, and probably can’t read much Hebrew. Not many prospects in life, and not much chance of moving up in the world.

How exactly like God…to stoop down to the lowest, most disenfranchised and forgotten individuals, and say “I care! I love you! And I’ve got great news…you, too, can have peace with Me. My Son is ‘God with you’, and He’s here now. Go to Him!”

Empathy and Involvement – the “One Anothering” of Counseling

empathy-3by Marie Notcheva ©

Life is a messy business. Before kindergarden, most of us have figured that out – and life doesn’t stop being messy once Christ pours grace into our mess. Within the Church, real spiritual growth happens in community – what is commonly referred to as discipleship”. Sometimes, there is a “logjam” in a believer’s life, and in those seasons, the counsel of a more mature believer can be invaluable.

As biblical counselors, trained in diagrams, models, and Scriptural principles, how do we relate to the struggling brother or sister in our office? Is empathy enough? Should we remain detached, or get involved? And what is the difference between “empathy” and “involvement”?

Developing involvement with a counselee encompasses how the counselor relates to the person in front of him. How will he (or she) use Scripture and instill hope? The first session of counseling is geared towards how to develop this involvement, using biblical methods. Wayne Mack writes,

Ultimately and preeminently the purpose for that involvement [between counselor and counselee] is to enhance the counselee’s involvement with Christ. This vertical dimension is what makes biblical counseling different from all other forms of counseling.” (Wayne Mack, quoted in John Macarthur’s “Counseling”, p. 281).

This effective type of involvement demands a genuine compassion, such as that demonstrated by Christ towards the masses. We also see this characteristic in Paul, when he counseled and corrected people (i.e. 2 Cor. 11:28-29; Acts 20:31). Besides cultivating heartfelt compassion (recognizing how one would feel in counselee’s position; seeing him or her as a family member; humbly recognizing one’s own sinfulness and considering practical ways of showing compassion), a counselor must develop involvement with the counselee through respect. This includes proper verbal and non-verbal communication; trust and confidence in the counselee; and sincerity. The counselor must be honest and transparent about his or her qualifications, weaknesses, limitations and goals and agenda for counseling.

Empathy is far more limited than actual involvement, because empathy stops short of any action to solve the problem and help the counselee change. Empathy and “support” are synonymous – empathy feels another’s pain and sympathizes, but it is “passive”. Empathy offers understanding, which is important – both in friendships and counseling – but does nothing “active” to help.While the knowledge that one is cared about is important and can bring a measure of comfort, the biblical model of love goes a step further: it is always active when possible.

Offering empathy and assurances that you care, sympathize and understand helps the sufferer’s plight much more effectively when it is coupled with action. The book of James illustrates this principle well:

If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.” (James 2:15-17).

In a spiritual sense, this is what empathy is: it feels another’s pain, but does not seek to implement a solution to stop it.

When the Problem is “Unfixable”

The difference between passive empathy and involvement is significant, because Scripturally love is always active. It feels another’s need, and seeks to fill it. God is the ultimate example of this: He gives, seeks, restores (John 3:16; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:25) and commands the same from His followers. Naturally, there are many cases when nothing can be done directly to help a struggling friend or counselee (times when advice is not appropriate; no action can undo an unfortunate event or situation). When one suffers through no fault of their own (for example, the death of a child; a spouse leaving; the sting of rejection), no amount of counseling (no matter how biblically-sound) is going to rectify the situation – or stop the pain. Yet even in such situations, counselor or friend can both empathize and get involved by helping with day-to-day tasks.

Practical help, such as bringing meals; running errands; helping to organize finances can be a very beneficial part of bereavement counseling. However, most people seek biblical counseling because of a problem of sanctification in their life – something is “messed up”, and they don’t know what to do about it. When the extent of a counselor’s involvement in a situation is mere empathy, the counselee may take fleeting comfort from the appearance of compassion (“someone understands me”), but no change will occur because nothing is confronted (and subsequently changed).

When the Issue is Mental Illness

Many church-based counselors are not educated or trained enough to deal with clinical issues or the complexity of mental health problems that can give rise to deep-seated behavior and attitudes. Many individuals require deeper counsel and therapy from a licensed professional, while persona of faith may still benefit from spiritual counsel as well. What is the difference between a therapist and a psychologist? The online mental health/counseling resource BetterHelp answers that question in the featured article.

When the Problem is Sin

Many of the issues (such as addictions, pornography, and infidelity) we see in the counseling room are matters of life-dominating sin. When “support” is what is meant by “empathy”, it is the most unloving thing a counselor can offer. “Supporting” someone stuck in a sinful lifestyle is harmful, and indicates that there is no answer (and thus no hope) for the problem. The failure of behavioral psychology to address and change counselee’s problems is primarily rooted in the practice of “talk-therapy” – the idea that emoting about one’s problems is sufficient. In fact, simply talking about a problem and not addressing it biblically does more harm than good (Proverbs 14:23). Such empathy gives the counselee no impetus to change and live as God wants him to.

Both empathy and personal involvement are important aspects of Christ-like soul care. Counsel that is truly biblical does not remain detached; but rather rolls up its sleeves and gets involved in the messy business of life. We do this by offering compassion, empathy – and solutions rooted in the hard work of God-honoring change.

“The Bible is ‘Inspired’. What Does that Mean?”

breathed

Ok folks……I’m back into serious mode.

This weekend, I read an article on a Church Leaders website entitled “5 Things I Wish Christians Would Admit About the Bible” which was…..well…doctrinally problematic, to put it mildly. I am not familiar with the writer, John Pavlovitz, but the main problem in this piece seemed to be:

  1. He doesn’t correctly understand the Literal-Historical-Grammatical method we use to interpret Scripture; and
  2. He completely misunderstands what is meant by Scripture being “inspired”.

I’ll address the first issue in a later post, as I am teaching on basic principles of hermeneutics next month. (In my comment on the article, I explain point-by-point what was wrong with the author’s reasoning.) But first, understanding that the words of the Bible originate with the Holy Spirit, and not with the falible men who penned them, is the foundation on which we need to build any correct biblical interpretation.

Back in 2013, when I finished my Master’s course in biblical counseling, I wrote the theology and counseling sections of the ACBC (then NANC) exam/dissertation. The first question reads:

“The Bible is spoken of as “inspired.” What does this mean?” 

Several lectures were devoted to this topic, as well as the inerrancy of Scripture (not the same thing). This was my answer (now formatted with sub-headings):

“When the Bible is spoken of as being “inspired”, it literally means “God-breathed”. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul explains that “all Scripture is God-breathed” – meaning that it is the writings, not the writers which are “inspired”. The Greek term which translates to “given by inspiration of God”, theopneustos, appears elsewhere only once in Scripture – in Job 32:8, where it is translated “breath”: But it is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives them understanding.” This indicates that what is given as biblical revelation is straight from the mouth of God, and is not subject to the personal interpretation of those recording Scripture (as more liberal denominations may teach).

“Is it Literally ‘God’s Word’?”

Yes. Jay Adams notes that “inspiration” would be more correctly translated “expired”, in keeping with the “breathing out” meaning of the Greek term. This verse tells us that the Scriptures are “every bit as much God’s Word as if you could hear them spoken audibly (by breath).” (Jay Adams, notes on lecture four, “The Use of Scripture in Counseling”.) Therefore, to claim an extra-biblical writer as “inspired” (speaking for God) is actually heretical, since such a claim would put a non-biblical source on par with Scripture. Additionally, 2 Peter 1:19-21 affirms that while men prophesied and wrote Scripture, the origin was never with them – they were “moved” or “carried along” by the Spirit, the Divine Author. The Apocrypha, the additional texts written in the inter-testamental period, are thus not considered “inspired” since they contain geographical, historical, and even theological errors. (These books were never quoted by Christ or the Apostles, nor were they ever a part of the Jewish Torah.) Only the 66 books of the Canon may accurately be described as “God-breathed”.

Why Does this Matter?

The implications of the inspiration of Scripture are important to understand in relation to counseling, because after building his case for Scripture’s source of authority – God Himself – Paul goes on to state why biblical truth is therefore reliable: it is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (vs. 16-17; emphasis mine). Because it is divine in origin, Scriptural injunction is trustworthy and therefore effacious for training in holiness. Paul affirms that the Bible is a useful book, for teaching (revealing what God requires); for convicting (showing us where we fail to measure up to these); for correction (helping us get out of the problems we get into); and disciplined training in righteousness (helping us stay out of them in the future while obeying God).

Having established the “God-breathed” nature of Scripture, it follows that acceptance and adherence to the principles outlined therein are non-negotiable. Our sin nature will cause all of us to attempt to rationalize, justify and otherwise excuse behavior that is contrary to the commands of God given in the Bible, but if we believe Scripture is “God breathed” – coming verbatim from Him – we are not free to add to, ignore, or subjectively interpret what has been dictated by God (Rev. 22:18-19; Matt. 7:26; 2 Pet. 1:20).

Review: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Conclusion)

"Forgiven" by THomas Blackshear
“Forgiven” by Thomas Blackshear

This is the Conclusion of a 3-Part review and analysis of the points raised in Dr. John Macarthur’s “The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness”. You may read Part II here.

by Marie Notcheva ©

After laying the groundwork of the Atonement as the basis for our unmerited forgiveness, Macarthur opens his chapter “Just as God Has Forgiven You” by using the December 1997 Heath High School shooting in Kentucky as an example of Christians extending unilateral, Christ-like forgiveness. The Paducah students were meeting for prayer in a school corridor when a fourteen-year-old freshman opened fire, killing three students and seriously wounding five more. Macarthur notes that many of the survivors and families of victims expressed forgiveness and no desire for vengeance, including a girl with a severed spinal cord who sent the following message from her hospital bed: “Tell him [the assailant] I forgive him.”

This is unquestionably a case of Christ-like behavior on the part of those injured, but it was an interesting example for Macarthur to choose. A different aspect of the story undermines a condition for forgiveness, and was, in fact, unscriptural.

Not long after the shooting, I remember reading an article in the Reader’s Digest questioning the validity of the outpouring of forgiveness at the school following the murders. The author, an Orthodox Jew, made the valid point that the students immediately hanging up posters and signs in the high school proclaiming “We Forgive You” actually had no right to do so – the crime had not been against them. Furthermore, he asserted, it is not in God’s nature to let such a gross crime and unrepentant killer go unpunished (God is an avenger of injustice). If there were to be forgiveness, he contended, it could only be extended by the victims or families of the casualties themselves.

That Jewish journalist was absolutely right.

Macarthur lays out situations under which unconditional forgiveness is not appropriate, or even possible biblically. He writes:

“There are times when it is necessary to confront an offender. In such cases, unconditional forgiveness is not an option. These generally involve more serious sins – not petty or picayune complaints, but soul-threatening sins or transgressions that endanger the fellowship of saints. In such situations Luke 17:3 applies: “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.” In such cases, if a brother or sister in Christ refuses to repent, the discipline process outlined in Matthew 18 applies….”Some take the position that this [Eph. 4:32 & Col. 3:13] teaches forgiveness should always be conditional. Their rationale goes like this: God forgives only those who repent. Therefore, if we are going to forgive in the same manner as we have been forgiven, we should withhold forgiveness from all who are unrepentant. Some fine teachers hold this view. For example, Jay Adams writes:

‘It should go without saying that since our forgiveness is modeled after God’s (Eph. 4:32), it must be conditional. Forgiveness by God rests on clear, unmistakable conditions. The apostles did not merely announce that God had forgiven men…Paul and the apostles turned away from those who refused to meet the conditions, just as John and Jesus did earlier when the scribes and Pharisees would not repent.’ (page 34)

“There is some merit in Adam’s position. There are times when forgiveness must be conditional, and we shall discuss that issue before the close of this chapter.” (see below)

“I have great respect for Adams and have recommended his book on forgiveness as a helpful study on the subject. On this issue, however, I must disagree with the position he takes. To make conditionality the gist of Christlike forgiveness seems to miss the whole point of Scripture. When Scripture instructs us to forgive in the manner we have been forgiven, what is in view is not the idea of withholding forgiveness until the offender expresses repentance.”

A fellow Christian wrote (in response to the above – I’m re-posting the quote in full): I agree with Adams’ stance, especially in view of the Luke passage where Jesus say “IF” your brother repents then you are to forgive him. I don’t think we are precluded from forgiven an unrepentant person, but I also don’t think we are required to forgive someone who is not remorseful. For example, everyone says to forgive the 9/11 terrorists, but they wouldn’t even seek forgiveness had they lived.

Absolutely “forgiving” the 9/11 terrorists falls outside the biblical parameters, for several of the reasons listed below. On top of everything else, this was a matter of criminal law and the courts have the God-ordained authority to sentence them. However, generally these aren’t the types of situations where we’re tempted to be unforgiving.

Macarthur spends a full chapter discussing church discipline, emphasizing that it should always be done in love and seeking to restore the wayward Christian – it is not punitive or vengeful. I don’t want to spend time discussing the church discipline process, except to add that I completely agree with it, and if it were done correctly there would be fewer lukewarm believers and scandals in churches. However, for the purposes of this series on forgiveness, I’d rather focus on the interpersonal implications. So here are some guidelines for when confrontation is necessary, and things must be set right for forgiveness to be extended:

 If you observe a serious offense that is a sin against someone other than you, confront the offender. Justice does not permit a Christian to cover a sin against someone else. I can unilaterally and unconditionally forgive a personal offense when I am the victim, because it is I who then bears the wrong. But when I see that someone else has been sinned against, it is my duty to seek justice. (Exodus 23:6; Deut. 16:20; Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 59:15-16; Jeremiah 22:3; Lam. 3:35-36.

– When ignoring an offense might hurt the offender, confrontation is required. (Gal. 6:1-2).

– When a sin is scandalous or otherwise potentially damaging to the Body of Christ, confrontation is essential. (Hebrews 12:15).

– When there is a broken relationship between Christians, both parties have a responsibility to seek reconcilliation (Luke 17:3; Matt. 5:23-24).

Again, Macarthur emphasizes that Christians should be prepared to suffer wrong rather than cause reproach. Most of the cases where we are unforgiving are over personal affronts and hurt feelings; not over matters of eternal significance. (This theme resonated with me – this is the type of unforgiveness I’m prone to carry). Even knowing that the offender must ultimately repent to get right with God, in view of the enormous grace poured out on us, we should be ready to lay aside our grudges and “starve” those bitter feelings – even without a formal declaration of repentance. Confronting every little thing (even repeat offenses) will cause more relational problems than it will solve – just think of this dynamic in a marriage. (“Honey, you left your socks on the floor again. That’s the third time this week. You need to repent and seek my forgiveness.”)

Choosing to Lay Aside the “Right” to Vengeance

When I think of a gracious response and the ultimate “covering” (as opposed to confrontation), I recall Christ’s first post-resurrection words to the disciples in the Upper Room, after they had all left Him high and dry: “Peace be with you.” (If someone pulled a stunt like that on me, you’d better believe they’d be hearing about it!) Although the disciples were certainly repentant, we have no reason to believe Jesus brought up their cowardice to shame or confront them. He graciously forgave and instantly restored. That is to be our model, insofar as it depends on us (Romans 12:18).

Is it not possible that Christ’s words from the Cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” (Luke 23:34) stunned and softened the hearts of the soldiers and enraged crowd (many of whom repented and were saved 7 weeks later, on Pentecost)? Could not Stephan’s amazing plea in Acts 7:60 “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” so impressed the complicit Saul that he later would recall what selfless forgiveness looked like?

Undeserved forgiveness – when we willingly give up our “rights” for Christ’s sake – is often a way in which God will glorify Himself. In his sermon “Forgiveness Made Easy“, Spurgeon declares:

“Brother, the most splendid vengeance you can ever have is to do good to them who do you evil, and to speak well of them who speak ill of you. They will be ashamed to look at you; they will never hurt you again if they see that you cannot be provoked except to greater love and larger kindness.”

“Self-pity is an act of sinful pride. The wounded ego that cannot rise above an offense is the very antithesis of Christlikeness.” (Macarthur, p. 168) “Forgiveness frees us from the bitter chains of pride and self-pity.” (citing Joseph’s reaction to his brothers) Satan takes advantage of an unforgiving spirit and “devours” people. Sometimes, believers rationalize their unforgiving spirit over relatively minor offenses by reasoning that God (who hates injustice) would never want them to suffer injury and forgive offender unconditionally. But Christ had another point of view for His followers: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first….No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:18, 20).

Sin is an attack on the moral government of God; not just a personal affront. Yet Christ Himself was willing to lay aside His right to vengeance (the only One who truly had a claim to justice) on Calvary. Although He never relinquished His deity, He deferred judgment in order to glorify God – through some of them repenting and coming to salvation. That’s the perfect model right there (and we endure far less injustice than the Lord did in His suffering). Spurgeon says, in the same message:

“And this forgiveness on God’s part was most free. We did nothing to obtain it by merit, and we brought nothing wherewith to purchase it. He forgave us for Christ’s sake, not for aught that we had done. True, we did repent, and we did believe, but He gave us repentance and faith, so that He did not forgive us for the sake of them, but purely because of His own dear love, because He delights in mercy and is never more like Himself than when He forgives transgression, inequity, and sin.”

Repeat Offenders – Enough is Enough! 

I don’t know that I’ve ever had someone sin against me and then come back contrite, only to do it all over again….but hypothetically speaking, how would I react? As a former addict (set free only by the sheer grace of God, I might add), I have been on the receiving end of this kind of mercy myself, and therefore can easily concur with Macarthur on this point:

“Someone might ask, ‘Who in the world would commit the same offense seven times in one day and then profess repentance after each time? Here’s the point: this sort of behavior is precisely how we sin againstGod. We sin; then we express sorrow for our sin and seek God’s forgiveness; then we turn around and commit precisely the same sin again. Anyone who has ever been in bondage to a sinful habit knows precisely what the routine is like.

Does God forgive under such circumstances? Yes, He does. And since His forgiveness sets the criterion by which we are to forgive, the standard is set blessedly high. What may seem at first like an impossibly unfair and unattainable standard is in fact wonderful news for anyone who has ever needed to seek the forgiveness of God for repeat offenses. Jesus is teaching here that the forgiveness we extend to others should be as boundless as the mercy of God we desire for ourselves. That shatters all the limits anyone would try to place on human forgiveness.” (page 102).

Jesus understood and seemed to be alluding to the human propensity to want mercy for ourselves, but judgment for others. Hence His warning, “By the same measure you judge, you will be judged”.

Additional Benefits of Forgiveness

Towards the end of the book, Macarthur devotes a chapter to the blessings of forgiveness, although as stated at the beginning, emotional benefits to the obedient servant should not be the focal point of forgiving one another – submission to an all-holy God is the issue. He attributes all kinds of physical/social problems in an individual to unforgiveness, which he compares to “a toxin”. Macarthur candidly states that most of the counseling cases he has seen are related in some way to unforgiveness in the life of the counselee. Lastly, before an excellent appendix on correct understanding of the Atonement (why the Ransom and Governmental Theories are heretical), Macarthur includes a chapter entitled “Answering Hard Questions About Forgiveness.” He deals with queries such as “what is the difference between true repentance and a mere apology?” (genuine repentance entails an admission of wrongdoing and a plea for forgiveness); “To whom should we confess our sins?” (to God and the affected person or people); “should I confess my affair to my wife?” (yes); and “how should we handle repeat offenses?” (read Luke 17:3-4).

Quite honestly, I was a bit disappointed in this last chapter, as none of the questions seemed particularly “hard” to me and he just covered the same ground Jay Adams had in “From Forgiven to Forgiving“. I could think of much harder questions about forgiveness to ask, but fortunately the Bible (and Macarthur’s helpful exposition of key passages and principles) has helped me to answer them on my own. Overall, “The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness” is an excellent book, not only for biblical counselors but for all Christians to add to their libraries.

Review: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Part II)

"Forgiven" by THomas Blackshear
“Forgiven” by Thomas Blackshear

This is the second of a 3-Part review of Dr. John Macarthur’s “The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness.” You may read Part I here.

Marie Notcheva ©

Picking up from where I left off yesterday, let’s continue with a biblical look at horizontal forgiveness (“forgiving one another, just as in Christ God has forgiven you”, Eph. 4:32.  Beyond being obedient, or being painfully aware of the huge debt that was forgiven us by God, a form of forgiveness can be done for purely selfish reasons. To be free of anger – simply to be free of it – for yourself.

This is a point that both Macarthur and Jay Adams in “From Forgiven to Forgiving” touch upon. Prevailing “wisdom” in the Church today maintains that forgiveness is “a gift you give yourself” (Joyce Meyer et. al.) and is for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver. While it’s true that emotionally one will have an easier time if he/she is not nursing a grudge or cultivating bitterness, that is not the primary reason we are called to forgive. So what IS the impetus to be lavishly forgiving? Because God said so. He lays it on as a command.

Love that is Neither Humanistic nor Self-Serving

To make forgiveness into something we do to bless ourselves is to undermine the authority of God in our lives. It is to downplay the sovereignty of Christ. Turning a God-ordained command into a suggestion for feeling good about ourselves (self-esteem gospel, anyone?) is to cultivate a humanistic, man-centered outlook rather than a Christ-centered one. Adams, in particular, attacks the notion that we extend forgiveness to benefit ourselves. Again, let’s start from this premise: God commanded us to forgive. God’s in charge; not us. Therefore we do what He says and forgive.

When you resolve in your heart to obey God and forgive, don’t feel badly if you lack warm fuzzy feelings for your nemesis; just resolve in your heart to let the offense go and allow God to deal with both him and you. It is important not to let bitterness grow. Forgiveness is not a feeling – it is a deliberate choice that runs counter to our bitter feelings, which tell us to dwell on an offense.

Wow, five paragraphs in and I haven’t even gotten into specifics of the book yet. Let’s start with this quote:

“For a Christian to be willfully unforgiving is unthinkable. We who have been forgiven by God Himself have no right to withhold forgiveness from our fellow sinners.” (p. 97)

The Rod of Discipline

Macarthur then devotes 10 pages to exegeting the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-27). The point of that parable is the infinite enormity of our sin debt to God, how the “debt” our fellow sinners “owe” us pales in comparison, and how we are to reflect the King’s gracious character out of sheer gratitude. Since God’s judicial forgiveness is not conditional upon a sinner’s subsequent behavior (He does not “withdraw” salvation), the severity of the king’s punishment here actually illustrates how God will discipline unforgiving believers.

“Though the guilt of sin is forgiven so that it will never be an issue in eternal judgment, God may permit the consequences of sin to be even more severe, in order to motivate a sinning believer to obey. Because unforgivingness is so completely foreign to what Christians should be, Christ applies this threat particularly to that sin (v. 35).”

Scripture upholds that God does, indeed, discipline as sons those He loves.

Here are my notes on that chapter:

Parable of unforgiving servant – “10,000” (talents) – derived from same word in Greek as “myriad” – expresses idea of incalculable debt. Underscores infinite amount of debt, as in our sin-debt to God. We can’t repay it. King’s reaction = the very picture of what God does on behalf of every sinner who repents. When we realize the enormity of our debt, the hopelessness of our true spiritual condition before the King, the only appropriate response is to do as the servant did – fell prostrate before the king, in desperate plea for mercy (which neither he, nor we, deserve). King elevates him to position of unmerited favor (this is definition of grace).

So…unforgiveness of others represents lack of appreciation, an awareness of what we’ve truly been forgiven. We underestimate our own enormous debt to God, freely and compassionately forgiven, by “choking and demanding” our fellow sinners repay us. By the world’s standards, we do have a legitimate and rightful claim on what is “owed” us. Forgiveness makes no sense. But when we really see ourselves as the first servant, guilty of an infinitely more grave debt to the King, debts against us pale in comparison. It’s when we move away from the feet of the King – or the foot of the Cross – that the unforgiving, fleshly spirit which demands it’s “rights” to restitution sneaks in. Scripture makes clear that God takes this seriously.

This grace from God should make us “profoundly grateful, and also profoundly merciful” (p. 106) “In effect, the unforgiving servant had placed himself above the king….God Himself will employ harsh measures when necessary to correct a disobedient Christian. The harshness of His discipline is a measure of His love for His people and His concern for their purity.”

The “torturers” = rod of God’s discipline. So the lesson of parable is this: Christians who refuse to forgive others will be subject to the severest form of discipline until they learn to forgive as they have been forgiven. (pp. 110-111)

“Christians who fail to show mercy will be subject to divine chastisement without much mercy. That is the whole message of this parable. I am convinced that multitudes of Christians who suffer from stress, depression, discouragement, relationship problems, and all sorts of other hardships experience these things because of a refusal to forgive. Forgiveness from the heart would liberate the person immediately from such “torturers” – and glorify God in the process.” (P. 112)

Is Forgiveness Unconditional?

Now we need to tackle perhaps the toughest issue, and the one that has historically been the biggest obstacle to me: biblically, do we need to forgive when the offender does not repent? In a sense, yes; although there are certain situations where unconditional/unilateral forgiveness is not possible.

Macarthur and Adams somewhat differ on this point, as Adams views forgiveness as a bi-lateral transaction of sorts. He contends that “forgive as you have been forgiven” indicates that without repentance, no forgiveness can take place (no one would argue that repentance is a condition to our receiving God’s mercy and divine forgiveness). However, Macarthur points out that the point of that command, as well as similar exhortations throughout Scripture, is to be lavish and abundant in our forgiving (as our Father is), and thus glorify God. Furthermore, he points out, “covering another’s transgression is the very essence of forgiveness.” (p. 121). Mark 11:25-26 speaks of immediate, unilateral forgiveness – no formal meeting/transaction required. As Bill Fields writes, “God does NOT forgive where there is no repentance but God does show common grace and mercy as HE invites sinners to HIM through Godly repentance.”

This is probably the most difficult aspect of forgiveness to accept and allow to manifest in our lives. However, Scripture makes it clear that it is better to suffer a wrong patiently for the sake of righteousness than to exact re-payment. Before reading these two books, I was convicted on this point from a biblical counseling worksheet that listed all the verses dealing with anger, forgiveness, and how we are to relate to other people (believers as well as non). Although the word “forgiveness” does not appear in many of them, it is abundantly clear from the wording how God expects us to treat our enemies – with love and forbearance.

Where Macarthur and Adams Differ…..

The main difference between John Macarthur and Jay Adams’ view of forgiveness is that Macarthur believes, in the majority of cases, the Christ-like standard compels us to forgive unconditionally whether the offender repents or not. He is careful to explain that the offender is still under God’s judgment, as all sin is ultimately against God; but we are expected to relinquish him or her in our own hearts.

Macarthur points out that usually offenses are injurious to our pride and are personal disputes that an outsider might consider petty. Sometimes, particularly in the Body, it is necessary to confront in love, but in Macarthur’s view the vast majority of times confrontation is neither necessary nor desirable. The Bible urges us to “cover in love” such occasions. Jay Adams, the founder of the nouthetic counseling movement, takes a slightly different stance. He points to the Matthew 18 process as a standard for interpersonal confrontation (Macarthur says it relates primarily to the church discipline process) and believes loving confrontation followed by sincere repentance is a prerequisite to forgiving.

To be sure, while Adams contends that true forgiveness cannot take place until there is repentance (and it is technically not possible for a non-Christian to repent), the “to forgive or not to forgive?” question almost becomes a matter of semantics, because nowhere does he advocate shunning or mistreating an offender. Nor does he rationalize holding onto a grudge, nursing bitterness, or repaying in kind. To do so would, of course, be patently unbiblical. So, while he dismisses apologies as meaningless and precludes true (horizontal) forgiveness from the unrepentant, he would agree that we are to love our enemies and do good to those that hurt us.

The Heart of the Matter

On the surface, Adams’ “formula” sounds like a good loop-hole for the unforgiving…but riddle me this: how, exactly, do we love on the offender, do good to him or her, and refuse to allow resentment to take root in our heart, while not forgiving? Sounds pretty much like forgiveness to me, even if Adams chooses not to call it such. No matter how you slice it (and we are using the Sword – the Word of God to do the slicing), we cannot get around our call to love, pray for, and refuse to harbor ill will towards those who hurt us.

Tomorrow I’ll lay out circumstances where unconditional forgiveness does not apply. However, since most offenses we have to deal with are of the personal variety, I felt it important to discuss why God gives us no justification for being unforgiving over such affronts. (Even the “eye for an eye” command was given to prevent civic justice from becoming excessive; it was later perverted to apply to cases of personal vengeance.) It was this misapplication that Jesus was addressing in Matthew 5:38 when He laid down the Law of love.

Conclusion coming tomorrow…

Review: The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Part I)

929965The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (Dr. John Macarthur)

by Marie Notcheva

Some time ago, I read John Macarthur’s book on forgiveness, along with several appendixes and sermons on the subject by Charles Spurgeon and Alexander MacLaren.

This will not be a typical book review, as I’d like to get into some of the topics Macarthur brings up in a bit more depth and compare/contrast his views to what other Bible teachers have to say. As always, our ultimate authority is to be the Scripture, and fortunately systematic theology is an area in which Macarthur excels. Scripture must always be interpreted in light of other Scripture; a key point when discussing a matter such as forgiveness. Cherry-picking verses from here and there can give us a skewed view of God’s will. Unforgiveness and the human desire for vengeance is an age-old scourge – as much a part of our fleshly nature as it was 2,000 years ago.
In the first chapter, Macarthur lays out the truths of God’s mercy and justice as great virtues, and how through the Atonement both are satisfied. This is presumably not new to his readers, but it is impossible to get an accurate view of just how much we’ve been forgiven without looking at divine redemption. As Jerry Bridges writes elsewhere, ‘sin is cosmic treason’ and we are accountable to a thrice-holy God. Unable to seek God on our own initiative, God initiates and obtains the sinner’s reconciliation, while extending the offer to all.

All Are Called and Offered Mercy

Admittedly, Macarthur is more staunchly Calvinist than I (try as I might, I cannot become a true 5-pointer; it seems somewhat unbalanced to emphasize Romans 8:30 to the expense of Acts 2:2, John 5:40 and 2 Peter 3:9). It was very tempting to get caught up in the mental gymnastics of monergism vs. synergism once again, but the best explanation I’ve heard so far is that it is a mystery how our will works within the confines of God’s sovereignity. He elects, calls and does all of the saving; we are responsible for our own response and repentance. He gets all the glory, as repentance is a gift freely given anyway.

God has laid out very specific commands to His children in His Word, and understanding the nuances of Limited Atonement, fortunately, isn’t one of them. However, if we accept so great a salvation as fact, talking doctrine will get us nowhere in a hurry. Applying it (namely, forgiving as we’ve been forgiven) is a must. And NO, I’m not saying sound doctrine doesn’t matter – it’s crucial. But the main reason it is so important that we be doctrinally sound is so we can BE the salt and light God requires, from a heart that is pure, undeceived, and fully devoted to following Christ.

1 Peter 2:24 reminds us that God has redeemed us in order that we may live righteously. In view of this, and in light of the substitutionary atonement (linger at the Cross), unforgiveness = extreme ingratitude. My words; not Macarthur’s. In fact, I will probably quote him extensively as I write this series, but mostly the impressions God laid on my heart were insights into the deeper application of the truth he lays out. After discussing imputation (God put Christ’s righteousness to our credit), he states:

“That means our forgiveness is not dependent on some prior moral reform on our part. Every believer is forgiven immediately, just like the thief on the Cross. No works of penance are necessary, no meritorious rituals. Forgiveness costs us nothing, because it already cost Christ everything.”

He then goes on to explain how a true conversion will inevitably result in a changed life, as we are conformed to the image of Christ. The Bible makes no allowance for what’s sometimes called “cheap grace“, although naturally we still fall and require constant forgiveness. He discusses the need for ongoing forgiveness in light of 1 John 1:9 onward. The difference between judicial forgiveness (when we come to God for salvation) and parental forgiveness (restoration of fellowship, the “foot washing” Christ discussed at the Last Supper) is the fact that God does discipline His children in love. The difference between God’s wrath and fatherly displeasure should be apparent to the born-again believer, so I won’t spend extra space on it.

“As Christians, we should be obsessed with forgiveness, not vengeance.” 

After making the case for how much and how unilaterally God has forgiven us, Macarthur makes this striking statement. Looking at the whole of Scripture – not just the New Testament – we see that it is better to suffer a wrong for righteousness’ sake, not take offense, and be quick to forgive. Why? Because it is a reflection of the very heart of Christ, Who is One with the Father.

“Whereas Abel’s blood (and the blood of other martyrs) screams for vengeance, Christ’s blood pleads for mercy.”

Forgiveness is not a feeling – it is a deliberate choice that runs counter to our bitter feelings, which tell us to dwell on an offense. Tomorrow I want to discuss when forgiveness should be instantaneous and unilateral, in what sense it applies to unbelievers, and what Matthew 18 and Luke 17 mean. Stay tuned.

When Our Theology Stifles Our Compassion

Originally published on the Biblical Counseling Coalition in 2014. This was my most-read article ever. © Marie Notcheva

grace-compassion

I recently received a disturbing phone call. A young woman I had been counseling attempted suicide over the weekend.

In God’s mercy, He intervened before the overdose could do its lethal damage. But in the aftermath, “Mary’s” soul remains raw and bleeding. She doesn’t have the strength to fill in a “Discovering Problem Patterns” worksheet or memorize verses right now. Mary needs to grasp the biblical reality that she is precious to the Savior who will not let her go. The promises of Scripture—which are just words to her right now—need to be real in her life.

And I realized anew that I am utterly powerless.  

The training in systematic theology and hermeneutics we have is valuable, in terms of ministering the Scriptures to people who seek answers. Yet there are times, if we are not careful, when our “sound doctrine” may sound like a clanging cymbal and push hurting believers away. This can happen both in the counseling room and in our friendships.

Does this sound like a false dichotomy? It isn’t. One of the things God is teaching me lately is that while our words may be true, and biblical, and spoken in love, there is a depth of understanding and compassion that cannot always be expressed verbally … yet is crucially important.

Sometimes, when faced with another’s pain, one simply doesn’t know what to say. I have the opposite problem—I always know exactly what to say (and usually which verses to cite).

It’s knowing when to shut up that poses the problem for me.

Being Grace-Oriented Before Solutions-Oriented

The plumb line for all counsel is, of course, the Bible. Scripture dictates what we do; not culture. Sound doctrine matters. I want those words engraved on my tombstone!

However, a sticky truth is that people are not formulaic, like computers: We cannot simply reprogram them with a “string code” of certain verses and expect that their hearts will be automatically transformed. Unwittingly, the homework we give to help counselees think biblically may even add “performance pressure,” leading to additional condemnation.

As biblical counselors, trained to identify the problem and then apply the biblical solution, this can be frustrating. “Faith is not determined by feelings,” we want to protest. We think, “Empathizing with someone is not going to help them—the Word of God is what will fix their problems!” However, Christlike compassion never pits Truth against Love.

We want to help. We love our friends, our family, our counselees. In our desire to help, we need to understand that it is perfectly “theological” to minister to someone who is hurting just by moving toward them in their pain, without preaching. A phone call or email can simply communicate that we care, are praying and, above all, that we are there for them.

There is a time to give a theology lecture; and there is a time to give silent hugs.

Different situations call for different approaches, as Jesus demonstrated in His ministry. Of course, He is the only Counselor with perfect insight into a hurting heart, yet we can and must still learn from His example. In John 11, after the death of Lazarus, Jesus comforts Martha with the promises of God and bolsters her faith. Mary, however, threw herself at His feet weeping. The Lord, far from remaining emotionally detached, cried with her (John 11:32-35).

Mary needed compassionate empathy in the midst of her pain. Likewise, my suicidal counselee will not hear a theology lecture right now. She needs the Jesus who will pick her up off the floor, dry her tears and remind her that her life still has value—to Him, even if to no one else.

Encountering severely depressed believers requires a special patience and sensitivity that we need to seek from the heart of God. Yes, biblical encouragement includes using Scripture wisely. But when one is immobilized in their Christian walk, it is not the best time to unpack all of Ephesians 4. “Putting off” the sin nature and “putting on” the new man seems impossible when just getting out of bed is difficult. While it may be difficult, in these seasons showing Christlike love may mean just sitting next to our friend (or counselee) in the pit. Once they are strong enough to take the first tentative steps of faith, then we can come back to applicable doctrine.

What Does a Supportive, Christian Friend Look Like?

Most of the people we love are not counselees, and are not usually looking for cut-and-dried spiritual advice. Nevertheless, Scripture portrays the Christian life as one of mutual encouragement, correction and exhortation—both within our families and churches (where authority comes into play), and within friendship.

In these precious, rare Christian friendships reminiscent of David and Jonathan, “building up of one another” flows naturally. When a “log jam” in a friend’s life occurs, our first instinct is to get proactive and fix it. What better way than to point them to Scripture? Especially when we believe they may be—gasp—backsliding believers.

A popular catch-phrase among evangelicals a few years ago was “What Would Jesus Do?” This is a valid question, but there is just one problem when attempting to discern another’s heart: We are not Jesus. We do not have the benefit of His omniscience, nor His insight into all angles of a particular situation. Obviously, in cases of blatant sin (e.g., adultery; theft; habitual drunkenness; pre-marital sex), the loving response would be scriptural confrontation. Supporting someone in sin is neither loving nor Christlike.

But in real life, situations are rarely so clear-cut. What we may consider disobedience may simply be questionable judgment. In our minds, we may be discerning; in our friend’s, judgmental. If we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit, God shows us what it means to be “A friend [who] loves at all times” and a “brother in times of adversity” (Prov. 17:17).

Recently, a dear friend said to me, “If you know anything about me, you know I can line up all those Bible verses and teaching and the doctrine and all … so there is no point in telling me this, as if you’re saying something new. I just need to talk to God right now and listen to Him, because right now that preaching doesn’t help me.”

Love constrained me from retorting, “If you want to ‘listen to God,’ open the Bible!” I understood the heart behind my friend’s words. Where people’s lives, situations, emotions and biblical principles converge, a simple verse (or worse, a sense that they are being lectured in a self-righteous way) is not going to encourage them.

And the ultimate irony? I don’t want to “be right.” I don’t want to win an argument, prove a point or beat my friend at a game of Bible Trivia. What I really want is to have a coffee together, put an arm around her shoulder and, most of all, see the joy of Christ flowing in her life. Likewise, when I am confused or feel alone, knowing that a trusted friend is praying for me brings far more comfort than being hammered and peppered with confrontation.

Once God has “poured out His love in our hearts” (Rom. 5:5), loving people comes more naturally. While it is often not easy or automatic, we long to share the liberating truth of the gospel with others—and help those close to us apply it to their lives. Even when our motives are pure, godly counsel may not be received that way if we wield it without tenderness. It is far more difficult to patiently support, silently love and unceasingly pray than to exegete a passage of Scripture. We need to seek the Holy Spirit regularly for discernment in our approach, in order to be truly competent counselors and compassionate friends.