Letter From a Friend
March 6, 2007
“I need to ask your forgiveness.”
Thus began a letter from a friend. The letter went on to describe a situation that was very understandable to me. During a phone call with someone else, my friend made a comment that he now regretted. And so he now wrote to ask my forgiveness.
In his letter my friend said that after the phone call, he felt very much saddened by what he had said. The Holy Spirit had shown him that he must seek my forgiveness. “So I ask of you mercy and appeal to you for forgiveness if you might find it in your heart. My sin is against God (and) against you … I am like the man who cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, the sinner.”
As soon as I read the letter, I knew I must give my friend a phone call. As soon as he heard my voice, he said, “You’re not mad at me, are you?” He truly felt terrible over what he had said, and he earnestly sought my forgiveness. I told him that I would be glad to forgive him, instantly and completely. And then we had a very good conversation.
As I pondered the conversation later, two thoughts came to mind:
1) The man who felt so bad about what he had said is a fine Christian man. Everyone who knows him knows that he is good and gentle and full of the grace of our Lord.
2) His tone over the phone was the same as in his letter. He was eager to make things right between us. He had no excuses to make, offered no defense, and made no alibis.
But here is what struck me the most. What he said was a very small thing indeed. It didn’t seem very large to me at all. I understood what he said and why he said it. I do not say that to make light of his letter or his sincere repentance but rather to highlight his sensitive conscience before the Lord. What he said to a third party (which ordinarily I would never even have known about) bothered him so much that he felt like he must write and ask my forgiveness.
I wonder how many of us would do something like that?
There is always a danger of going to extremes so we must be careful in our thinking. There is such a thing as being overly sensitive on both sides of the equation. Because “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8), we must many times simply decide to forget about the small slights of life. And it would not be helpful to spend hours analyzing our conversations to make sure we have not said anything offensive to anyone. It is possible to be overly introspective and end up navel-gazing instead of seeking to honor the Lord in all that we do.
But I am persuaded that my friend was truly motivated by the Lord. He felt that his comment had been a sin against the Lord, against me and against the person to whom he was speaking. Thus the letter and his truly repentant heart when we spoke on the phone. And though it was a small thing to me, it was a large thing to him, and therefore by clearing it up, nothing remained between us, even though in the nature of the case, I wouldn’t normally hear about a casual comment someone else made about me. He repaired a breach in the wall of Christian love that perhaps would have seemed like a hairline fracture to me. But structural engineers tell us that every vast break starts as exactly that sort of minute fissure. My friend “filled the gap” with his love and concern.
And I respect him all the more for what he did.
Ten Thousand Angels
This, I think, is the spirit in which we must read Paul’s words in Romans 15:1-3.
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”
I can tell you right up front that I am mostly struck by his quotation of Psalm 69:9 in verse 3. First, he takes an Old Testament psalm where a righteous man speaks about his unjust sufferings. Second, he applies that psalm to the suffering of our Lord. In this context, the “reproaches” of Christ speak of the hostility he endured from the religious leaders of his day.
They hated him with a fierce and furious hatred.
They attacked his character.
They mocked his claims.
They claimed his miracles came from demonic power.
They denied his deity.
They plotted his death.
They paid off his betrayer.
They scourged him.
They tried him.
They falsely accused him.
They insulted him.
They beat him mercilessly.
They humiliated him.
They tortured him.
They laughed at him.
They crucified him.
They jeered as he died.
They lied about him after he was dead.
In thinking about all that our Lord endured, Paul says simply, Christ did not please himself.” Years ago I heard a gospel song called “Ten Thousand Angels” that contained this verse:
They bound the hands of Jesus
In the garden where He prayed
They led Him through the streets in shame
They spat upon the Saviour
So pure and free from sin
They said, “Crucify Him He’s to blame”
And the chorus goes like this:
He could have called ten thousand angels
To destroy the world and set Him free
He could have called ten thousand angels
But He died alone for you and me
Something like this is exactly what Paul has in mind. If Christ had pleased himself, he would not have endured such mockery from sinful men. At this point we must think very clearly. Paul is not suggesting that Christ went unwillingly to the cross. He repeatedly said that he came to the earth for “this hour” (John 12:23, 27; 13:1; 17:1). He came to do the Father’s will. He was not an unwilling or rebellious lamb being led to the slaughter. But on the night before his crucifixion, as he pondered the horror of what lay before, not merely the physical suffering, but the much greater pain of bearing the sins of the world, he cried out, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). He was not unwilling, but though he was truly the Son of God, he “learned obedience though what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8) and prayed with loud cries and tears to his Father who was able to save him from death. And his Father heard him, but the answer did not spare him the unjust suffering at the hands of evil men.
He did not take the easy way out.
He did not please himself.
He did not try to escape the cross.
High Doctrines for Humble Duties
This is what Paul means for us to ponder. When W. H. Griffith-Thomas wrote about Romans 14:13-23, he called his chapter “High Doctrines for Humble Duties.” And when he wrote about Romans 15:1-7, he titled it, simply, “The Imitation of Christ.” I mention both titles because they seem to precisely grasp the flavor of the opening verses of Romans 15.
The strong must bear with the failings of the weak (v. 1).
We must not please ourselves (v. 2).
Christ did not please himself (v. 3a).
He bore the reproaches of sinful men (v. 3b).
So I pondered this some more, and asked myself, “What does this mean for the life of the church today?”
1) Every church will be a mixture of both strong and weak believers.
This is both inevitable and even desirable. It was certainly true in Rome that the church consisted of meat-eaters and vegetarians, wine-drinkers and teetotalers, and those who observed no special days and those who observed many special days. So it will be in every local church. There will be many opinions on many topics, and we can’t expect everyone to agree with our own point of view. We must be careful about “evangelizing” for secondary issues that take us away from the main thrust of preaching the gospel.
2) All of us are likely to be both strong and weak at the same time.
That is, we are all likely to have opinions and preferences that matter greatly to us, and which we would wish others would share with us. It may even be that those preferences become so important that we may have to leave a church and find a more suitable fellowship. Sad though that may be, it is better to leave in peace than to stay and become the focus of controversy.
I suppose there will be many times for all of us when we cannot tell whether we are “strong” or “weak.” Most of the time, I don’t feel very strong. Years ago I head the pastor of a huge church remark that when people came for a conference, they were always mightily impressed with all the church was doing. But, he said, that image was deceiving. “We do pretty well for two or three weeks a year. The rest of the time we’re just struggling to keep our head above water.” I suspect that would be true of almost every church in world. Even the “great churches,” the ones that get written up and visited and debated and discussed, the ones whose pastors have become household names in evangelical circles, even those churches aren’t as strong as they appear on the outside. I said that not as any sort of criticism, but simply to observe that we are all made of the same clay.
3) If the church is to stick together, we must “bear with” others with whom we disagree.
This is easy to say but exceedingly hard to put into practice. After all, if the church is growing, it will constantly be adding those who are new to the faith–or at least those who are new to your church. Perhaps they come from a vastly different background. Maybe they were born in Brazil or China or Italy and they think about things through the lens of their own culture. Or perhaps they were raised Catholic and now attend a Baptist church. That’s a huge switch, to say the least. Maybe they are crossing cultural or ethnic lines to attend your congregation. Perhaps they are accustomed to a different style of music, a different sort of preaching, and a different way of giving money. The possibilities for disagreements are endless. And if your church becomes as diverse as the church at Rome, how will you handle that diversity? It’s easy to say, “Celebrate it,” but that’s often a nave answer. So how do you handle increasing diversity? Many answers to come to mind, but let me confine myself to the point Paul makes in Romans 15:1. If the church is to stick together, those who are strong must “bear with” those who are weak, remembering that we are all strong in some areas and weak in others. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases verses 1-2:
Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, “How can I help?”
4) As long as we focus on pleasing ourselves, we are not following Christ.
I am always happy to work with other Christians–especially when they see things my way! I am sure that’s true of most of us by nature. Selfishness lies at the heart of most local church problems, even those that may be cloaked with a thick layer of pious propaganda. It is hard to give up the desire to be right, especially when you know you are right, which is most of the time because why would you argue about something if you knew you were wrong?
We often sing about following Jesus, but if we follow him, the road always leads to the cross. There we must
Crucify our desires,
Release our animosity,
Give up our right to be right,
Yield our will to the greater good,
Listen instead of talking incessantly,
Try to find common ground,
Sow seeds of peace,
Seek first the Kingdom of God,
Stop trying to win every battle,
Work for unity,
Pray for wisdom,
Lay down our personal agenda,
Forgive those who have offended us,
Ask forgiveness when we have offended others.
Let me say it clearly–very clearly–so I won’t be misunderstood. Doing these things is not easy, but it is a necessary part of living together with other Christians in the local church. I have already pointed out that sometimes our disagreements will be so great that we can’t live together amicably. When that happens, then may God give us grace to gracefully go our separate ways, seeking to serve God without strife and working to keep peace wherever we can. But that extreme step ought to be the last resort, the final step we take, with deep regret and only after much prayer and much effort. Romans 15:1-3 speaks much more to the daily struggles of getting along with people who don’t see things the way we do. If we do not take these words to heart, the church will become factionalized, fractured, and filled with tension and dissension. And soon it ceases to be effective in its witness because even unbelievers (and casual visitors) can tell when something is wrong in a church. Jess Moody says that people choose a church with their noses. “They can smell they joy.” And they can also smell the manure of unresolved conflict that fills many congregations. They may not know the details, but the unhealthy odor tells them that something is wrong.
Look to the Cross
How can we ever get along when we disagree?
Look to the cross.
Stand beneath the bleeding form of the Son of God.
Linger there for a while.
Can you hear the reproaches of the “howling mob” cheering his suffering? They are happy with their evil deed. Having crucified the Lord of Glory, they make light of it. Finally, the troublemaker from Galilee gets what he deserves.
Shouting with derision.
Cheering his agony.
Laughing at his tears.
“If you are the Christ, come down from the cross.”
“Hail! Blood-soaked King of the Jews.”
“Hit him again!”
“Go to hell, Jesus!”
One question begs for an answer. If he is the Son of God, why doesn’t he stop this? How could the Father let is Son suffer such indignity? Why doesn’t he call ten thousand angels?
Won’t they come?
Why must the Holy One die like this?
Listen! Shhh! The Savior is about to speak. Hush now, and hear the voice of the Man from Heaven. He had already been severely beaten. In fact, it looked like four or five soldiers have taken turns working him over. His skin hung from his back in tatters, his face was bruised and swollen, his eyes nearly shut. Blood trickled from a dozen open wounds. He was an awful sight to behold. Every breath now is huge effort. Heaving, gasping, fighting for oxygen. Resting upon the nail holes while he inhales. Sweat pouring off of him. Finally, he speaks.
When he hung on the cross, condemned to death by evil men who plotted to murder him, who produced lying witnesses to convict him, as he surveyed the howling mob assembled to cheer his suffering, Jesus the Son of God, the One who knew no sin, the only truly innocent man who ever walked this sin-cursed planet, in his dying moments uttered words that still ring across the centuries: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34). Those 10 tortured words sweep away all our shabby excuses. They reveal the barrenness of our heart; they rip the cover off our unrighteous anger and show it for what it is. Many of us say, “If only the people who hurt me would show some remorse, some sorrow, then maybe I would forgive them.” But since that rarely happens, we use that as an excuse to continue in our bitterness, our anger, and our desire to get even.
Consider Jesus on the cross. No one seemed very sorry. Even as he said those words, the crowd laughed, mocked, cheered, jeered. Those who passed by hurled insults at him. They taunted him. Let us be clear on this point. When he died, the people who put him to death were quite pleased with themselves. Pilate washed his hands of the whole sordid affair. The Jewish leaders hated him with a fierce, irrational hatred. They were happy to see him suffer and die. Evil was in the air that day. The forces of darkness had done their work and the Son of God would soon be in the tomb. No one said, “I was wrong. This is a mistake. We were such fools.” And yet he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
That is precisely what we must say if we are going to follow Jesus. We must say it to people who hurt us deliberately and repeatedly. We must say it to those who intentionally attack us. We must say it to those who casually and thoughtlessly wound us. We must say it to those closest to us, to our husband or wife, to our children, to our parents, to our friends, to our neighbors, to our brothers and sisters, to our fellow Christians.
Griffith-Thomas was right. If you read Romans 15:1-3 with an open heart, you will see that it is “high doctrine for humble duties.” Most of think of the cross only in terms of salvation, but in dying for our sins Christ also showed us to live.
That is why my friend wrote me, asking forgiveness for something that seemed so small. He did what I would not ordinarily do, which leads me to conclude that he is more like Christ than I am. I do not feel ashamed to say that, in fact somehow it makes me feel better to say it. I want to be like Christ, and I thank my friend for showing me the way.