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~ The Narrow Way Of Holiness~

        "And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way…Only the redeemed will walk there." (Isaiah 35:8a, 9b NIV)

        "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV)

        What is this talk about, of the narrow way that few travel when we so commonly hear many evangelical preachers on American television and radio and in churches and stadiums present an easy way?  "Just say this simple ‘sinner's prayer,’ accept Jesus in your heart, and regardless whether you feel differently or not, the Bible says you're saved so welcome into God's Kingdom!"

 Remember that Jesus was talking to the unredeemed when He instructed them to not approach God's altar without first being reconciled with others. (Matthew 5:24)  Our previous Weekly Reflection concerning the "Lord's Prayer"  mentioned that Jesus did not elaborate on any part of His instruction on praying except the request for forgiveness, specifically that we cannot expect that gift without giving it ourselves. Jesus stresses this with a rather long parable. (Matthew 18:21-35)

         Now let us reflect more deeply on this issue of forgiveness and my contention that many Christians have been praying the Lord's Prayer incorrectly for centuries. Most of us agree that we need repentance and reconciliation with God and others before approaching the Lord's table of His body and blood. The same is needed when we pray for forgiveness. Translating languages without distorting meaning is difficult not just due to vocabulary but grammatical forms of tenses. The original Greek word translated as "forgiven" also includes the actions of leaving behind, remitting, canceling debt and giving away resentment. Even more important is the tense of the original Greek, which is in the past. The Greek Amplified Version and the New International Version have it right: "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Matthew 6:12 NIV).  (The Luke account in the NIV, 11:4, reads "Forgive us our sins for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.") Thus we truly cannot pray this part of the prayer without first leaving, remitting, letting go of victimization, resentment and bitterness towards anyone. This is a narrow gate to enter, indeed!

        Like all of God's commandments, this mandate is for our own health and healing. The assaults, violence, and sins of others indeed causes us great pain. What shall we do with this pain? "Vengeance is mine" declares our Lord, not because He wants to take away a common outlet for our pain that even children are quick to use. Preventing us from  "getting back" or "getting our due" (our debt) is a loving action of protecting ourselves from continuous pain transmission and the self-destruction it brings. This is disguised as moral indignation. Jesus commented that "…a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God." (John 16: 2b) And remember, Jesus said that hatred is murder. The pain inflected by others is like a stone thrown in a pond. As the stone rests on the bottom, hidden, the ripples in the water keep spreading out disturbing the entire pond and life on shore as well.

        What is affected by the disturbance then must respond to it. The person we hate, resent or hold in contempt has gained power over us if we let him or her shape our response. But our God holds up pain, suffering and even death to our faces and, in effect, says, "You are afraid of this? You let the sins of others govern you? You let this determine how you feel about and treat one another? Let Me show you what I do with suffering and death! Let Me show you how to love with it and transform it into life!"

        Morality and right behavior does not lead to holiness or union with God. Many atheistic people live morally exemplary lives. Christian obedience and practices don't lead to redemption. "Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons, and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you!’" (Matthew 7: 22-23 NIV)  Our God uses death and pain to bring us life and transformation.
        An ancient Roman torture and execution device and a cup of God's blood and plate of God's flesh are indeed very strange and even disturbing images of the Divine to people of other religions. (Early Christians were even accused of cannibalism and drinking the blood of Jews in their sacramental practices.) Keep in mind that the body of the incarnate God on the cross was not clean, smooth, white, and draped with a clean white loincloth as in the paintings. Jesus was naked and completely red with blood. His skin was shredded from the floggings and carrying the rough cross timbers, exposing muscles and bones. One of the first acts of care God did for fallen humankind was to make clothes as a covering for their shame of sin. (Genesis 3: 21) But Christ, as the last Adam, hung naked and bloody, wounded and dying, rejected and demeaned, despised and weak, by His own choice of love, all the while oozing, expiring, bleeding out and breathing out forgiveness. In His last dying hours, hanging in pain and shame, being "made sin" for us, being us, Christ still spoke healing and transforming words of forgiveness to one criminal hanging beside Him and to the Roman soldiers who were carrying out the execution order. As God declared throughout the Scriptures, "Who is like Me?" Indeed, who is like our God, the One who tells us to call Him "Father"?

        Yes, God does this for us. That "us" includes those we hurt and those who hurt us. That "us" includes our enemies and persecutors. To not forgive and not love is to turn our backs to the message, the shout, the groan, the essential meaning and purpose of our God on the cross. How can we resist such a compelling mandate of forgiveness and love from the One we worship, from the One whose blood we drink and flesh we consume that becomes us?

        Yes, we must stand against hate, evil and injustice. But we must do so without becoming entangled in those things ourselves. (Galatians 6:1) A man, woman or child empowered by the Holy Spirit is indestructible, to the chagrin and frustration of the many world powers who tried, and are trying today, to destroy the faith and witness of millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ since the very first church based in Jerusalem in 30 AD. Death and suffering only sanctified and strengthened them.

        Christ died and resurrected so that all people might choose life in Him, our God. Every one of us can be a victor, but none of us are called to be a victor over others. Forgiveness isn't just about "getting right with God," but rather a fulfillment of the power and meaning of the cross. Forgiving others is proclaiming a healing and redeeming "Yes" to God's sacrifice, something far more different (and narrow) than "accepting Jesus." Who am I to "accept Jesus"? I am not in control. I am not God. The incarnate God does the dying and "accepting" of me and my fallen nature!  So who am I to withhold forgiveness? To hold onto that "right" because "I" was victimized is to claim a part of God's sovereignty. That was Lucifer's downfall, as well as that of the "first Adam."

        Forgiveness may be difficult as is loving God with all our strength, heart and mind. Narrow is the way and few find it. Faith is the unseen substance of things that will manifest, so it is pure positivism. In it is no room at all for doubt or fear. Jesus said we need just a tiny mustard seed worth, which will grow if nurtured and guarded with our lives. The Holy Spirit in us will forgive through us.  "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength," (Philippians 4:13 NIV) including forgive! "Forgive others or God won’t forgive you" is not spiritual blackmail or like a human parent ordering a child to "make up" or be punished. It is the very way to holiness and Christlikeness. It is the power of redemption and the cross, not just reserved for heaven but a grace and gift for us now, here on earth.

        "I pray that out of His glorious riches He may strengthen you with power through His Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the  love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled to the measure of  all the fullness of God! (Ephesians 3:16-19)

        What response can we have other than pure worship with a forgiving heart? We can live in that fullness of God by exclaiming, "You, Lord, are the victim and sacrificial Lamb of all sin and violence, including that which pained my heart, inflicted by others. I will not take from You even that, and risk letting even one drop of Your life-giving blood fall in vain!"

        "How awesome is the Lord Most High…How awesome His works in man's behalf!" (Psalm 47:2a; 66:5b NIV)

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services

Weekly Reflections © August 11, 2001

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