Tuesday, 04 October 2011
One of my all-time favorite sayings is "To glorify God is to enhance God's reputation among those who don't believe." It's one thing for me to preach to crowds of Christ-followers, but it's an entirely different matter for me to be invited to address a room full of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons. I'm guessing that some of them would call themselves Christians or at least grew up in Christian surroundings. But it's a safe bet that most of them wouldn't call themselves Christ-followers and probably 100% of them are pretty freaked out that a Baptist (albeit an American Baptist) minister will be in front of a microphone on October 15th at their 27th Annual Awards Banquet and Pacific Bridge Awards in Chinatown, LA.
So how in the world did the GAPSN board of directors end up nominating me to be a recipient this year of one of their Pacific Bridge Awards? I'm not sure I know all the details, but I'll tell you what I know.
According to their website, the Gay Asian Support Network got its start in October, 1984, as GARP (Gay Asian Rap) on the campus of Calfornia State University, Long Beach. It's mission today is "to provide [a] supportive environment for gay and bisexual Asian Pacific Islander men to meet, network, voice concerns, foster self-empowerment, and to advocate on issues of significance to the gay Asian Pacific Islander community."
Previous recipients of the PB Award have been pro-LGBT politicians, e.g., Congresswoman Judy Chu, LGBT activists, e.g., Harold Kameya (father of a lesbian and PFLAG leader), and prominent gay celebrities, e.g., Star Trek's George Takei ("Mr. Sulu"). This year's recipients are yours truly (hardly a hardcore LGBT advocate) and the Hon. John Chiang, California's State Controller. I've never heard or read anything about his position on all things LGBT but I'm guessing he must be quite supportive if he's been nominated to receive the PB award. Then again, somebody on the GAPSN board nominated me.
In fact, one of the board members came up to me as I was leaving a church-related potluck. Hosted by one of our young adult deacons, his idea was to foster civil conversations among some of our church's young adults and several handfuls of gay or lesbian Asian Pacific Islanders (including one or two who are long-time church members but who keep their sexual orientation way below the church's radar). Speech-making wasn't allowed nor were any petitions circulated. It really was about having rare, honest conversations with API gays and lesbians, the majority of whom identified themselves as Christians, even evangelical ones. I had left Sacramento early that same day in order to make it back in time for this. Part of me wanted to support this effort of my deacon and part of me wanted to make a statement by merely being there that I too believed that this dialogue is really important, especially because it rarely occurs. At least when evangelical Christians are the majority.
Maybe my making it such a priority to attend this dinner and my not putting any of the gays or lesbians on the hot seat that night are representative of why the GAPSN board nominated me to receive one of this year's awards. Having just driven six hours down I-5, even my normally legendary energy levels began to wane, so I excused myself from my conversation circle, thanked the host couple, and headed towards the front door. That's when Alex headed me off.
I'd met Alex a few years back through his work with API California Faith for Equality. So I was a bit surprised when he spoke to me as a trustee of a gay organization that I'd never heard of before. "Pastor Ken, as a member of GAPSN's board, I wanted you to know that you've been nominated to receive one of this year's Pacific Bridge Awards. The banquet will be on October 15th in Chinatown and, well, we wanted to know if you'd even show up to receive your award."
Okay, at that point I was feeling a bit awkward. "Huh? Why have I been nominated to get this award? Do they realize that I'm far from being an outspoken advocate for all LGBT issues?"
He replied, "Oh yes, the rest of the board understands that about you. But they also have heard how, in spite of that being true, you had your church host that event several years back where you invited a former staff member who's now openly gay and a church member who's been a champion of allowing gay men and women to attend your church to dialogue with you in front of about 500 people. You've been willing to meet with some of us, especially some who are Christians and who are wrestling with being part of API churches. Even though you don't agree with all of our agendas, you clearly care about us as people. In short, you're a Bridge Builder between the API Christian Church and the API LGBT communities. Which is why we want to recognize you at our October banquet. But we're not sure that you'd be willing to come so we could give you the award."
To tell you the truth, a significant part of me lives for unsolicited, completely unexpected moments like this. It's one thing to be recognized within your own circle of influence or interest. In my 30+ years in full-time Christian ministry, I've been on the receiving end of enough of those. But until now, I've only received one significant acknowledgment from a nonChristian. Al was then the director of the secular residential drug treatment center where I'd been volunteering as a Bible study teacher for six years (It's now been 20 years and I'm on the agency's board.) I was being installed by EBCLA as their new senior pastor as a result of our historic church 'hive.' Normally, the new senior pastor invites a handful of other senior pastors to put on their regalia and to take turns at the mic welcoming me to their ranks. The five or six friends that I invited all said very nice things to me that afternoon. But for the life of me, I can only remember what Al said. I'd invited Al to give greetings from where I'd been volunteering since 1991. Heck, I invited all my recovering addict friends who were part of my Bible study to be there too. They were bunched in the back of the sanctuary, watched over by their rehab counselors. When it was finally Al's turn, this is what I remember him saying: "Hey man, so I'm not wearing one of those black robes. Heck, I'm not even a pastor. I'm not even sure what all this is. I think Pastor Ken is getting a promotion, which is cool. He deserves it. But to be honest, I came here with some mixed feelings. When I saw him earlier in the parking lot, I wanted to know if his getting promoted now means that he won't have time to come down to the house. But he told me that he's gonna keep coming every month. [I swear, I think I saw a tear start the slow descent down one of Al's cheeks!] And I was glad to hear that, because, you know what? Rev. Fong brings light into our darkness, but he always leaves room for other people."
To me, that was the moment when God was glorified. Unsolicited. Unexpected. And from a person who doesn't share my Christian beliefs. What?
GAPSN's Alex has reassured me that, like all awardees, I will have 3 minutes in front of a mic to share with their members and supporters where I'm coming from and why I'm so proud to be receiving this award from them. While some will clearly be aghast that I would (a) accept this award, and (b) accept it so publicly, I see this as an opportunity to demonstrate to a room full of skeptics and those who've, sad to say, been deeply damaged by the church that the God I believe in enables me to love all kinds of people, even if we don't see eye-to-eye on everything. That same Jesus encourages me to risk whatever my reputation is by spending time with outcasts and even 'known sinners.' The way I see it, when those who've voted themselves "least likely to be in church" decide to thank a Baptist pastor for building a bridge of compassion and respect instead of perpetuating a dividing wall of hostility, I've definitely got to show up for that.
Besides, as I told my wife, this is one of those rare events where I can arrive attired in my Hugo Boss 'metrosexual' finery and be appreciated for my fashion sense, not criticized for dressing too nice to be a pastor. LOL
Saturday, 21 May 2011
One of the great privileges and joys in my life these days is getting to partner with Rev. Dr. Mark Labberton through our alma mater Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. Mark recently retired as the senior pastor of venerable First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, CA, to join the preaching faculty @ Fuller. On Friday, May 20, he sent out this email to the pastors who are members of one of the several Micah Groups. Now that the "rapture hour" has come and gone, I thought you all would still have much to learn and gain from my wise friend's counsel.
I have every expectation that May 21, 2011, will not be Judgment Day. Of course, I could be wrong, but not because Harold Camping of Family Radio will be right. May 21 may be Judgment Day simply because God has the freedom to do whatever and whenever God chooses (but that’s a more central point in the end-time teaching of Scripture than the timing itself ever has been.)
Camping expresses his prediction with the authority of a prophet. He makes absolute and particular truth-claims. Two things belie his case, however. In the name of the Bible, he silences the Bible; and in the name of the self-revealing God, he hides in special revelation.
These two moves are classic, and epoch by epoch, the voices of false prophets have offered them up. They sound like the right grounds, but they are far from sound. In a cloud of biblical words and quotations he conjures a theological paradigm that bears little resemblence to what the Bible teaches. When asked to justify, clarify, or defend his claim, he simply states that this requires God’s action to remove the scales from the eyes of dis-believers. Safe inside the shroud of mystical knowledge, Camping claims to know the mind of God.
To declare that the Bible teaches us that May 21, 2011 is Judgment day is, of course, a problem in itself. Besides being unable to find May 21, 2011, in the Bible, there is the expressed conviction of Jesus himself that no one knows that day or the time when history will reach its culmination. The teaching of the Bible that Camping offers is so much the construction of a personal theological grid laid over the Bible that the Scripture’s actual witness to God’s ultimate judgment is silenced.
By taking the second step, claiming special knowledge, Camping closes out the possibility of any accountability or engagement with him about the assertion he makes. “Thus sayeth the Lord” is not uncommon in Scripture itself. But an extra-canonical claim to equal or even superior authority to that of the Bible itself has been considered the path of folly not wisdom.
It’s possible to think of this as the work of a mystical terrorist, or of a person who is simply unstable. Either way, the implications for proclaiming faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ for the sake of the world, and before whom one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, has now been made harder still because of Harold Camping. When preachers step into their pulpits on May 22, the invalidation of Camping’s predictions will not lay to rest the extended cynicism and trivialization of the faith or of the God before whom we are all finally accountable.
So what is new or changed then, really? Not much. But what the Camping kerfuffle does is help reinforce and intensify our call to be “watchful . . . ready . . . prepared” for the coming King. In Jesus’ language that does not mean speculation about the timing of his return. It does mean getting on with the work of the Kingdom, living lives now that look like the King who is coming, attending to things that matter so we can be prepared for the King’s return, showing in every way that the King’s way will be established, the way of justice, truth, and peace. This is what we must preach because this is what we must do. So preaching the day after the end of the world, then, is as urgent and as hopeful as ever.
Thursday, 19 May 2011
[This is the second installment in my ongoing musings on pastoring/shepherding Christians who are also gay or lesbian.]
Back in 1979, when I first began dating 'Snoopy,' she warned me that she never wanted to marry a pastor for two reasons. First, because pastors back then were made to change churches every 5-7 years. And second, because pastors (and their families) were exposed to much more of the pain and chaos of sinful people than normal. In spite of her dual misgivings, we kept seeing each other and, this July 2011, we will be marking our 30th anniversary since getting married. Over these past three decades of being a pastor, by God's grace, I have disproved her first fear (still at the same church!) and have definitely experienced her second fear many times over. However, I have come to appreciate really knowing what people are struggling with as an immense privilege AND responsibility. Now, more than ever, I am most motivated by the question of how best to pastor or shepherd my fellow fallible and vulnerable people of God. I am especially inspired when it comes to pastoring gay or lesbian people and, increasingly, their families.
Pastors who change churches frequently might experience a sort of congregational amnesia. With each new church, she or he must begin to bond with the new 'flock,' which usually also entails beginning to detach from the previous ones. The myriad details of past people's peculiar sins and problems start to fade into the background as the new people's proclivities and peccadilloes take center stage in the pastor's heart and mind. However, my having served non-stop at the same church since 1978 makes it easier for me to recall--albeit with some effort these days--the thousands of people that have called EvergreenLA their church 'home.' Given my long-perspective, I can tell you with the highest degree of certainty that there have almost always been a few Christian lesbians and gays here.
In spite of the fact that we embraced a strict "don't ask, don't tell" unspoken policy for the vast majority of my years on staff, we pastors knew some were gay or lesbian because they shared this in confidence with us or we quietly suspected that some were but we chose not to bring this up to them. And then there were the people whom we presumed were straight but, years later--long after they'd moved on--we were told that they'd come out of the closet.
It is therefore a historical fact that God has used Christians who were gay or lesbian to help lead this church to bless and heal this world in the name of Jesus. Looking back, I can attest that we have had staff members, deacons, Scoutmasters, worship leaders, and even an organist who were lesbian or gay. They have been school teachers, medical doctors, scientists, tenured professors, paramedics, and number-crunchers. They have led our choirs, taught our children, and organized church-wide events. Some have visited us when we were sick, prayed for us when we were down, and preached God's Word to us with conviction and compassion. They have led or been part of our Sedaqah Groups. And all this while typically either struggling privately to make peace with their sexuality or wondering if there would ever come a time when they could share this secret with the rest of us and not be shunned.
I certainly can't claim that I knew then or even know now every member who is gay or lesbian. But the majority of those I did know about eventually left our church. Probably because that felt like the only way to pursue true congruence and integrity. To choose to stay with the rest of us at some point must have felt like choosing to be less than whole. Less than honest. With themselves and everyone else. And in some cases, their families left with them without feeling safe enough to tell us the reason.
As this cycle has continued to repeat itself at EvergreenLA and in many other evangelical churches, us straight Christians are left with the false impression that there has never been a time when Christians who are gay or lesbian have ever been part of our fellowship. Their and their families' silence and/or our blissful opacity have contributed greatly to the fact that today, we pastors and church leaders still don't know how to provide spiritual guidance and care to them. Their ongoing fear of our condemning and rejecting them either keeps them extremely closeted or motivates them to drift away. While it might prove to be uncomfortable to some Christians who are straight, we at least need to remember how many Christian brothers and sisters who are gay or lesbian have contributed to the well-being of our church throughout the years. Acknowledging this is a far cry from "embracing an agenda" that promotes lifestyles that seem antithetical to any serious, sanctified follower of Jesus. Rather, remembering that God has chosen to use them and realizing that God is continuing to use them can provide a necessary jolt to our thinking, making us marvel anew at the generosity of God's spirit.
God has used renowned and respected author and contemplative Henri Nouwen to touch and shape manifold Christians around the world. Yet many of us until recently had no clue that Nouwen was gay. While there are conflicting reports whether or not he had a gay lifestyle, it is safe to say that his ongoing struggles to be a fervent and faithful follower of Christ included his grappling with his sexuality. His own suffering fueled his desire to identify with the chronic suffering of a community of mentally-challenged adults. Without a doubt, countless Christians have been helped to go deeper with God in exploring our own suffering because of Nouwen's suffering and how he was enabled to use it as a crucible for understanding God and our human condition. Given the historic disenfranchisement with the majority of our Christian gay or lesbian brothers and sisters, I can only wonder how much has been missed or lost in this regard. Going forward, I will definitely let others know about their significant and sacrificial contributions to EBCLA. And I will continue looking for healthy ways to coax them out of the shadows so that we can spur one another on toward love and good deeds.
Wednesday, 06 April 2011
For the past several years, as a human being, as a Christian, and as a pastor, I've been wrestling with how to relate to people who are gay AND Christian. I know that some of you who believe that same-sex attraction is ALWAYS a sinful choice and NEVER something that anyone is born with think that a person can't really be a follower of Christ AND gay. But even following your conviction that SSA is a sin, this must be possible because all of us Christians who aren't gay are still hapless sinners, too. I think what you really mean to say is that a person can't keep choosing to sin AND still be a follower of Jesus. Curiously, the Apostle Paul confessed to being both a wretched sinner and a blessed saint:
Romans 7 21 So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? 25 Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature[d] a slave to the law of sin.
Just the other day, a long-time Christian friend and former co-worker came out of the closet. He thought enough of me and our relationship to tell me himself. Which was very courageous and cool of him. "Ken, I wanted you to know that I'm now affirming that I'm gay. I've always been gay but this is the first time I'm finally admitting that publicly." I responded by saying that I wasn't at all surprised because I'd always figured he was gay but non-practicing (celibate). And if that were the case, I have always believed that God blessed "eunuchs" (effeminate males) who served God without telling them that they would have to stop being effeminate.
Isaiah 56 3 Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
4 For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
5 to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
Jesus himself taught that some effeminate men were made that way in the womb (implied, by God):
Matthew 19 11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Again, it appears that Jesus is NOT calling these effeminate men to become heterosexuals but to CHOOSE TO LIVE like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. What is Jesus saying here? Doesn't the plain reading of this text indicate that it's entirely possible for some effeminate men (not sure how this would apply to lesbians or even masculine gays) to decide to live God-pleasing and kingdom-bringing lives?
If that's the case, what would that look like? How do any of us who always fall short of the glory of God still make choices consistent with being committed followers of Christ? This is where I get flummoxed in talking with openly gay Christians who apparently believe that, because they don't remember ever choosing SSA, they are free to follow their impulses and God is totally cool with that. My response has always been, "Look. I'm not going to spend a single second arguing whether you chose to be gay. I clearly didn't choose to be straight. But can we instead focus 100% of our energy on the clear choice (sorry, Calvinists) to believe in Christ and follow him? Whether gay or straight, when a person chooses to follow Christ, that person is also choosing to resist temptation, to pursue the narrower life-path prescribed by Jesus. A non-believing gay OR straight person will often choose to do whatever feels good or right at the time. But any of us who have made the choice to follow Jesus has made a commitment to letting the Holy Spirit show us a better and more holy way to live:
Romans 12 1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
Let me try to illustrate this point by fabricating a conversation:
Me: "So, Perry, what's so important that you had to meet with me today?"
Perry: "Well, Pastor Ken, let me see if I can get right to the point. I'm a sexually-attuned straight male. I've been in denial about this for years, especially after becoming a Christian. But God convicted me last week just to be honest about who I've always known myself to be. So I wanted you to know that I find myself naturally attracted to women and I'm no longer going to deny that."
Me: "Okay. So let me see if I understand what you're telling me. You don't remember ever choosing to be attracted to girls, and now women. But when you became a Christian, you felt pressure to hide or deny your heterosexuality for fear that your fellow Christians would condemn you or would doubt your faith. However, you're at a point in your life where you feel ready to embrace all of who you've always been."
Perry: "Exactly. So even as I'm a Christian, I'm now going to pursue openly living as a sexually-attuned straight male. Because I never chose to be straight, I should have the right before God to follow my natural desires."
Me: "Wait. Where are you going with this, Perry?"
Perry: "As a hetero-guy who's still single, I want to pursue relationships with women. And I want to have sex with as many of them who will let me. Oh, and I don't think that my church friends should come down on me for this behavior because, well, because God apparently made me with these impulses. So are we cool?"
Me: "First of all, Perry, the majority of straight men in the world aren't Christians and many (most?) of them are following their sexual impulses, just like you described. They're going to strip clubs, they're downloading porn, they're using prostitutes, and some of the married ones are cheating on their wives. And as fellow heterosexual men, both of us would do the same things, too. If not for the choice to follow in Christ's footsteps. That doesn't mean that Christian straight men never mess up, never engage in some of that lust-driven activity. But even if or when we do, we eventually come around to confessing that behavior as sin, receive God's forgiveness, and then recommit ourselves to a lifestyle that reflects Christ-transformed minds. We Christians have renounced how the world lives in order to follow Jesus. Does any of this ring a bell?"
Perry: "Sure it does. So as a red-blooded, straight guy who instinctively wants to bed any willing woman, how can I choose to live for sake of the kingdom of God?"
Me: "Well, part of me has a definite direction for you. And part of me is willing to journey with you to figure out how that might look or work for you."
Perry: "I'm all ears, Pastor."
Me: "Well, if we can agree that one of the commitments that follows the choice to follow Christ is to refrain from sexual intercourse outside of marriage, then you mustn't allow your libido to dictate your life. Straight or gay, all of our human sexuality is twisted and tainted by sin. Quite often, what we 'naturally' want to do isn't what God wants us to do. So if we are going to land harder on your Christian identity than your sexual impulses, you must abstain from premarital sex."
Perry: "Bummer. But what if I don't have the gift of celibacy? Don't those with that gift lack a libido? What if the sexual energy inside me explodes and I let myself watch porn or sleep with someone?"
Me: "I'd say that the vast majority of Christian single adults DON'T have the gift of celibacy, so it's often a struggle. And people mess up. But we all know what to do when we sin. Confess it, repent of it, enjoy God's forgiveness, and then get back on track."
Perry: "But what if that track never sees me finding anyone to marry? Are you saying that my choice to trust Jesus might turn out to mean being celibate the rest of my life? How is that not cruel and unusual punishment?"
Me: "I didn't make up the rules, Perry. But I think that God wants us to realize that who we are is so much more than our sexuality. In fact, it might be that we won't even have our sexuality in heaven. Yet we focus so much energy on it now."
Perry: "Easy for you to say. You're married. You get to have sex."
Me: "Remember I also said that I'm willing to go on this journey with you. If you never find a marriage partner, that doesn't mean that you have to be utterly without companionship or that you have to grow old alone. There might be a cluster of like-minded and like-committed Christians who would be open to forming a community, even to purchase a big place and share life together. I don't claim to know what alternatives might be out there for committed Christian single straight men or women. But I do know that we all signed up to live God-pleasing and kingdom-bringing lives."
By using a straight Christian guy in this example, I'm hoping that I've demonstrated how it sounds to some of our ears when our gay Christian friends want us to accept behavioral choices that wouldn't be accepted if straight Christian friends made them. All of us--straight or gay--who choose to follow Christ should be dedicated to making concomitant choices that clearly align us with Christ. That doesn't mean that there's a single way to do that. But it does mean choosing to do things that the rest of the world often finds quaint, unnecessary, or dumb.
Finally, I realize that my imaginary example is far from being a perfect parallel if Perry were a gay Christian. What if Perry were a gay Christian and was committed to refraining from premarital sex? Could Perry still go on non-sexual same-sex dates? If it were never possible or legal for Perry to marry the person he loved, could both of them pledge to live in a non-sexual but intimate relationship?
If more evangelical but humble churches are ever going to welcome gay Christians to join them, I believe that they will need to see that their gay brothers and sisters aren't asking them to accept or even celebrate lifestyle choices that straight Christians would never think to do. As much as I can understand this standoff now, straight Christians must be willing to love and live with all kinds of fellow sinners. And gay Christians must be willing to admit that some of how they want to express their sexuality has been nailed to the cross of Christ. Along with much of the libidinous desires of all the straight Christians.
Tuesday, 05 April 2011
Our ability to love others who have sinned against us flows out of our real experience of Jesus forgiving our own sins. If we find it impossible to love one who has hurt or wronged us, it is probably because we refuse to forgive that person.
It shouldn’t surprise us, but Jesus had it right all along. Throughout his brief tenure of public ministry, Jesus demonstrated and emphasized the power and necessity of forgiveness. In John 7, as a woman with a sinful reputation wept unashamedly at his feet, he declared to the scandalized guests at the party, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little” (John 7:47). With his very next breath, Jesus reiterated that given the extravagant and selfless extent of her love for him, her sins had indeed been forgiven.
Have you ever considered how much our ability to love someone else is often tied directly to our ability to forgive that person? The essence of what Jesus is saying, I believe, is twofold. First, our ability to love others who have sinned against us flows out of our real experience of Jesus forgiving our own sins. Second, if we find it impossible to love one who has hurt or wronged us, it is probably because we refuse to forgive that person.
Notice I said “we refuse to forgive that person” rather than “we are unable to forgive that person.” No doubt, there are extreme cases, but as a matter of fact, most people possess the power to forgive nearly any trespass. So the failure to forgive is because we typically lack the desire or motivation, not because we lack the ability.
“Why should I forgive my father? His addiction destroyed my mother and ruined our home life.” “Why should I forgive the person who raped me?” “Why should I forgive my pastor? He or she violated my trust.” “Why should I forgive those people when they declared war against innocent people?” “Why should I forgive my spouse for cheating on me?” “Why should I forgive my parents for divorcing each other?” “How can I forgive myself for being the one who broke the trust, who violated another human being, who victimized others, or who was simply too weak or too imperfect?”
There clearly is a theological reason for choosing to forgive: since Jesus died to forgive us our sins, who are we to refuse to forgive the sins of others? That should be all the motivation we need, right? However, even though we know what the Bible teaches about this, we still choose not to forgive. And in failing to forgive, oftentimes for years and years, we unknowingly poison our own souls and sabotage our own happiness.
As author and seminary professor emeritus Lewis Smedes reflected on the gospel, it jumped out at him that “forgiving fellow human beings for wrongs done to them was close to the quintessence of Christian experience” (Forgive and Forget, HarperSanFrancisco). Even more, he concluded that the refusal to forgive other people was a cause of added misery to the one who was wronged in the first place. In the past, he writes, “human forgiveness had been seen as a religious obligation of love that we owe to the person who has offended us. The discovery that I made was the important benefit that forgiving is to the forgiver.”
Recent psychological research on forgiveness is beginning to substantiate that this giving of grace and release to another promotes personal, relational, and social well-being. Dr. Glen Mack Harnden of the University of Kansas enthusiastically trumpets the benefits of forgiveness. “It not only heightens the potential for reconciliation, but also releases the offended from prolonged anger, rage, and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure and other psychosomatic illnesses” (Christianity Today, January 10, 2000).
Sound good? Okay, so how does one go about forgiving? Here is a practical outline of the process of forgiveness:
- Don’t deny feelings of hurt, anger or shame. Rather, acknowledge these feelings and commit yourself to doing something about them.
- Don’t just focus on the person who has harmed you, but also identify the specific offensive behavior.
- Make a conscious decision not to seek revenge or nurse a grudge and decide instead to forgive. This conversion of the heart is a critical stage toward forgiveness.
- Formulate a rationale for forgiving. For example: “By forgiving I can experience inner healing and move on with my life.”
- Think differently about the offender. Try to see things from the offender’s perspective.
- Accept the pain you’ve experienced without passing it off to others, including the offender.
- Choose to extend goodwill and mercy toward the other; wish for the well-being of that person.
- Think about how it feels to be released from a burden or grudge.
- Realize the paradox of forgiveness: as you let go and forgive the offender, you are experiencing release and healing.
(Adapted from Robert D. Enright, in Scott Heller’s “Emerging Field of Forgiveness Studies Explores How We Let Go of Grudges,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 17, 1998.)
All of this is not to claim that forgiving others should be automatic and easy. However, as Jesus pointed out, it is absolutely essential for reconciliation to occur and, in light of recent studies, for all of us to be freed up to embrace others once again.
And while we’re at it, let’s not forget to forgive ourselves.
—Ken Fong is senior pastor of Evergreen Baptist Church of L.A. in Rosemead, CA.
Copyright 2005 by Ken Fong.
3rd Gen ABC from Sactown Came south to go to Fuller Seminary in 1978, became pastoral intern that same year, joined the staff in 1981 and, after a 'hive' in 1997, was called to be the senior pastor. I love playing golf even if I'm inconsistent. I've got the best wife in the world and an amazing daughter ('99). I'm a contributing editor to Leadership Journal, have authored 2 books, and am frequently consulted about the future of Christian organizations, especially in regards to biblical reconciliation.