Forgiving God #2

Your disciple is not the first child of God to encounter unfair circumstances in his youth. Joseph, David, and Daniel all faced unjust situations as teens. Rather than becoming bitter towards God, by faith they embraced the goodness, love, power, and faithfulness of God in spite of their circumstances. (As I have written in other places, I believe God expects much from teenagers and often requires of them a faith that not even their parents understand.)

Recorded for us in Daniel Chapter 2 is a prayer Daniel prayed as a teenager. This prayer gives us insight into his deep trust in the nature and ways of God even though he was young and in the middle of life threatening conditions.

Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his.
He changes times and seasons; he deposes kings and raises up others.
He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the discerning.
He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness,
and light dwells with him. (Daniel 2:20-22)

Here is how I approach bitterness with my disciple:

  1. Use the lives of Joseph, David, and Daniel as a backdrop to talk through with your disciple his history to help him understand that God’s wisdom and grace takes this history, no matter how painful or unjust, and uses it for His glory and the fulfillment of His purpose.
  2. Exhort your disciple to release God and others from his bitterness. There is no justification for the behavior of Joseph’s brothers toward him, but through the lens of faith Joseph was able to forgive and embrace his brothers and not hold their actions against them. (As Anne Lamott has said, “Not forgiving is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.” [1])
  3. Bitterness, ingratitude, and discontentment are related and your disciple can counter these with thanksgiving. Have your disciple write out his points of bitterness (both circumstances and individuals) and then have him thank God for each of the situations.
  4. The best dad, mom, siblings, education, body, brain, etc. for him to have are the ones he has.

[1] Anne Lamott, “Bird by Bird”, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994)

Forgiving God #1

Early on you may need to teach your disciple how to forgive God. I am not suggesting that God has ever done anything wrong to anyone. I understand the absurdity of a man forgiving God, but what I am suggesting is that your disciple may be bitter at the Lord, though unfairly, just as he would be at any person.

Man holds captive those who have wronged him in a debtor’s prison in his heart because he believes they “owe” him something.  He will even say, “They owe me an apology.”  He convinces himself that it would be “unjust” to forgive them for what they have done to him, or his family, or his friend.

As futile as it is for a human to try to hold God hostage in his tiny heart and tiny mind he still attempts it. He seeks revenge against the Lord so he withdraws relationally from him.  It maybe never going to church again, or to behave in a way that he believes is especially defiant in order to get the Lord’s attention, even though it is self-destructive. Not too different from what Harry Emerson Fosdick has said, “Hating people is like burning down your own house to get rid of a rat.”

Bitter at God #3

The absence of prayer and meditation on the Word of God in the life of your disciple is an indicator that he may be bitter at the Lord.  The lack of a quiet time is not a discipline issue but a relational one.

Our ministry has many young adults, which means a lot of dating. I am humored at how the same young man who struggles to find time for devotions will discover plenty of time for his new girlfriend. What motivates these couples to make time for one another is not a newfound discipline but love. We spend time with those we love and we make time to do the things that we love.

Man is created in the image of God and therefore we relate to him in a similar way that we do with our fellow humans. As we withdraw emotionally from those who have wronged or disappointed us so we withhold our hearts from the Lord when disillusioned with him. We are usually ill at ease around those who have hurt us and so it is awkward to spend time in prayer with the God whom we believe has let us down.

In closing:

  • The type of people with whom your disciple spends his time is an indicator of his heart condition. Bitter people usually do not spend time with Godly people.
  • Help your disciple understand that his relationship with the Lord is love centered and not just a discipline.
  • When your disciple is struggling with prayer and time meditating on the Bible check to see if he may be disappointed with some circumstance of his life that he has carried over into his relationship with the Lord.

Bitter at God #1

To discover bitterness at God in my own heart or in the life of my disciple should not come as a surprise. There is biblical precedent of the Lord’s children resenting him even while experiencing daily expressions of his love. Throughout the Exodus the Israelites openly grumbled against the Lord saying things like:

The Lord hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us. (Deuteronomy 1:26)

Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? (Numbers 14:3)

What makes Israel’s statements astounding is that they come from the lips of those who were eyewitnesses to the great miracles of the Egyptian plagues, the parting of the Red Sea (my favorite Bible miracle), water from rocks, manna each morning, quail each evening, sandals that did not wear out, not to mention the constant presence of the pillars of smoke and fire.

The apostle Paul tells us that the reason that the Exodus stories have been written down is to serve as a warning for our own attitude and behavior today. We are in danger of harboring contempt for the Lord just as the Israelites did thousands of years ago. He writes:

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. (1 Corinthians 10:6)

These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. (1 Corinthians 10:11)

I remember as a teenager thinking “If only I could see the Lord do one miracle then I could believe him for anything.” I am now convinced that even if I (or any anyone else) were to see a miracle it would not alter my basic attitude towards the Lord because the witnessing of a miracle alone is not enough to change a heart as seen in Pharaoh and the Israelites. The Bible records for us God’s amazement at Israel’s defiant attitude even after all the miracles he preformed before them:

The LORD said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? (Numbers 14:11)

In closing:

  • Your disciple’s bitterness towards the Lord will not necessarily make sense.  A good home, a good church, and a blest life do not insulate your disciple from bitterness.
  • A discontented attitude from your disciple is an indicator of bitterness towards the Lord.
  • A relational distance between your disciple and the Lord (difficulty with prayer and reading the word) is evidence of bitterness in his heart towards the Lord.

Teaching Your Disciple How to Forgive #5

The problem may be that your disciple is bitter at God. Although he may be uncomfortable admitting it (because the idea does have a hint of blasphemy in it), as you dig into the recesses of his heart you will often find resentment towards the Lord.

Over Christmas break I spoke at the Christian Fellowship Church, which is the church in which I grew up and where my parents have attended for 55 years. I took a few minutes after the service and walked through the Sunday school rooms to reminisce. Lillian DeBoer’s preschool department has always held a special place in my heart. It had flannel graph, a table that converted into a sandbox, a goldfish bowl, and an endless supply of Kool-Aid and vanilla wafers.  It was in this room that the foundations for my theology and worldview were laid. Mrs. DeBoer would ask our class, “Boys and girls who made the flowers?” and we would answer “Jesus!” “And who made the trees?” “Jesus!” “And the birds?” “Jesus!” Each question was answered with an increasing enthusiasm until we reached the crescendo, “And who made me?” And we would shout “Jesus!!!”

It was and still is solid theology, but as I got older I was able to string concepts together and it occurred to me “So if God made me, then it his fault that I have the body that I do and the brain that I don’t.” Later other questions puzzled me, “Why would a loving God allow bad things to happen to me and could he not have protected me?”

We are created in the image of God and therefore we relate to him in a personal way not dissimilar to the way we relate to others as John describes:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:20)

When I am hurt or disappointed with someone I can easily become resentful towards him or her.  When I hurt or disappointed with God I too can become bitter towards him as I would anyone, but maybe even more so. I say even more so because if God is all-powerful, loving, and wise why did he not intervene on my behalf?

Keep in mind that your disciple’s view of God was formed while he was a young child. Andrew said to me, “I pled with God when I was 7 years old to not let my parents get a divorce but he didn’t answer my prayer.” From that point on there was a wedge between Andrew and the Lord.

In closing:

  • The seed of bitterness could have been implanted in your disciple’s heart at a young age.
  • Usually if your disciple is bitter at someone or something you can be pretty sure he is also bitter towards God.
  • Distance from the Lord and having a hard time drawing close to him is a good indication of bitterness towards the Lord. (It is difficult to be intimate with someone at whom I am bitter.)

Teaching Your Disciple How to Forgive #3

Most people are unaware of their bitterness. As a parasite keeps itself undetectable to its host so bitterness eludes your disciple. Together you and he must diligently search for the bitterness in his heart because if not dealt with properly it will destroy him.  Oh, he may live to an old age but his inner-man will shrivel up, harden, and contaminate those around him. Bitterness in never confined to the individual, it is an infectious disease that will adversely affect others around him as told in Hebrews 12:15, “ …that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” It will devastate his marriage, family, and friendships.

One reason that a person is unaware of the bitterness in his life is because of his misconception of the characteristics of bitterness.  We tend to think of a bitter person as cantankerous, resentful, hateful, and negative. Your disciple compares himself to those he considers bitter and is convinced that though others may be bitter, he certainly is not.

I have found that the best way to ease into the topic of bitterness is by having my disciple tell me his life story. I begin the process by having him draw a timeline of his life on a piece of paper.  Over weeks we build the timeline as he tells me of the events of his life from birth until the present. As your disciple tells his story you are listening for the hurt and disappointments no matter how young he was at the time or how seemingly insignificant the incident.

A couple of insights about bitterness:

  • For many the years immediately after college is a time when they struggle with bitterness. (I will explain more in a later post.)
  • Bitterness has the intent of revenge aimed toward a particular individual or organization.
  • Whenever you find bitterness you can usually uncover a disappointment.

Teaching Your Disciple How to Forgive #2

Digging up the roots of any tree is a labor-intensive task. (It is difficult enough pulling on the root of a stubborn weed.) As tedious as it may be to pick up the fruit from the ground day after day it is a seemingly better alternative than the daunting prospect of rooting up the tree. For many they would rather pick the fruit of their sinful behavior year after year than face the dread of getting at its root. Even for the discipler it is much easier and less intimidating to continue dealing with the fruit of his disciple’s life rather than having to struggle with the cause.

After 30 years of making disciples I have observed that if there is one consistent sin in the lives of people it would be bitterness. Most people have at least one person or organization that has deeply hurt or disappointed them. It could be a coach, parent, teacher, friend, pastor, youth pastor, girlfriend, boyfriend, boss, school, company, and even a church.  In Hebrews 12:15 the author describes bitterness as a root:

See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.

In 2010 I was diagnosed with cancer. My surgeon said to me that the best way to deal with cancer is to get it out of there. I was willing to go through major surgery in order to rid myself of the cancer knowing that if I did not it would eventually kill me. The reason a discipler must relentlessly pursue the root cause in your disciple is because bitterness is a spiritual cancer and it will slowly eat away at him until it destroys him.

In closing:

  • Self-destructive behavior is the fruit of a deeper cause, which is usually bitterness.
  • The door leading to the root of bitterness in your disciple will be found in the stories of hurt and disappointment from his life.

Teaching Your Disciple How to Forgive #1

Sin generates tragedy. Gerald wept openly in the IHOP as he told me that he had gotten two women pregnant within a month, neither of whom he wanted to marry, and both mothers wanted to keep the baby. He said to me, “Do you know how scary it is to have your behavior out of control?”

It is easy to be preoccupied with your disciple’s destructive behavior and its consequences (How to pay child support for two babies for 18 years?) and miss its cause. The drama of his escapades can become a welcome diversion for both you and your disciple from the more difficult challenge of dealing with the root cause. I say a welcome diversion because to face the cause behind his injurious behavior will require trust, fortitude, perseverance, and courage for both of you.

For you there is the risk of your disciple pushing you away or rejecting you, as you edge closer to the shame that he has covered for years. For the disciple you are asking him to place himself in the vulnerable position of trusting you and the Lord as he faces his greatest fears and most painful memories. Many will choose to continue on the path of destructive behavior, no matter how grave the consequences, rather than to face the cause.   The root in most cases is bitterness that is tied to their hurt.

In closing:

  1. Expect your disciple to either lash out at you or to disappear as you begin to explore the hurt and fear in his life. This is normal.
  2. Although you have to deal with the consequences of his behavior, you must also keep a balanced approach of searching for the root cause.
  3. The process of discovering root causes will take months and years rather than days and weeks.