And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. [Luke 16:15 (ESV)]

chocolate cake“Chocolate comes from cacao beans. Beans are vegetables. Salads are made of vegetables. Therefore, chocolate is a salad!” said the sign in the bakery. “I like their logic!” I thought. If you’ve ever tried to lose weight you probably know the loopholes used by dieters. Broken cookies have no calories because they all fell out when the cookies broke, anything eaten with a diet soda has no calories and, if no one sees you eating, the calories don’t count. Anything licked off a spoon while preparing food isn’t eating—technically, it is cooking! Food eaten off someone else’s plate doesn’t count because the original calories belong to them. Moreover, calories are discounted if you ate dessert to keep from hurting your host’s feelings and, if you’re eating with someone else, no matter how much you consume, you’ve kept to your diet if the other person consumes more than you! Struggling dieters know all the excuses that can justify over indulging. The worst lies are the ones we tell ourselves and, unfortunately, most of them aren’t as silly or harmless as these.

When I first learned that Christians were justified, I thought about the kinds of excuses we all make to justify, validate or defend our less than stellar behavior. Like Adam (who justified his sin by blaming Eve), we continue to justify or excuse our sins. We rationalize that it wasn’t our fault, the other guy started it, that wasn’t really sex, we were only joking, they simply misunderstood, she made us do it, since it was true it wasn’t gossip, no one warned us, it was harmless fun, or nobody was hurt by it. Since we justify our bad behavior to avoid condemning it, the Christian term justification can be puzzling. Simply put, Christian justification is the removal and forgiveness of our sins and requires nothing more than faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ cleansing us of our sins, however, is a whole lot different than excusing or rationalizing them. When we justify ourselves and our sinful behavior, we claim to be innocent and continue to sin. On the other hand, when we are justified by Christ, there is no question of our guilt; it’s just that Jesus paid our penalty. He did the work regarding justification but the rest is our responsibility. When we received forgiveness through faith, we also were sanctified and received Jesus’ righteousness. Justification means that we have the responsibility to live as God wants us to live. With the power of His Holy Spirit, we are to grow more and more like Christ which, among other things, means that we can no longer justify or defend our sins. We can never separate the faith needed for justification from obedience; true faith entails obedience and true obedience needs faith. We may be able to lie to ourselves (especially when in a bakery) but we better remember that we can never lie to God!

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. [Romans 5:1-2 (ESV)]

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. [Romans 3:21-25 (ESV)]

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Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (NLT)]

married couple at Moraine HillsSeveral years ago, a neighbor’s husband quietly arranged for a week’s vacation from work, a wife arranged for a week off from her job, and they joined one another on a romantic getaway. Unfortunately, they weren’t married to one another and their respective spouses were blindsided by their heartless betrayal. Less than a week later, they returned home; apparently, the forbidden fruit wasn’t near as tasty as they’d expected. I don’t know what happened to the woman’s marriage but, amazingly, the deceived wife quietly allowed her repentant husband home and their marriage survived. “How could she forgive him?” asked a shocked (and gossipy) neighbor. “There’s just no excuse for his shameful behavior.” But isn’t that the point? If it could be excused, if extenuating circumstances justified it, if there was a valid explanation for it, there would be no need for forgiveness! Forgiveness is what God does and we should do when there is no excuse for the offense, no defense for the behavior, and no exception to the rule that was broken.

There was no excuse for that adulterous couple’s behavior but one woman, who chose love over hate, hope over despair, and mercy over retaliation, quietly forgave her repentant husband. There was no excuse for Gomer’s betrayal of Hosea and yet the loving prophet redeemed her from slavery, forgave her, and welcomed her back into their home. There was no excuse for the first sin and yet God loved us enough to redeem mankind with the blood of his Son, Jesus Christ. There is no excuse for the sins we continue to commit and yet, when we confess with repentant hearts, we are forgiven. It is precisely when there is no possible excuse that forgiveness is necessary. Let us never forget—as God forgives us so we are to forgive others, even when there is no excuse!

Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. [Colossians 3:13-14 (NLT)]

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Then Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound in graveclothes, his face wrapped in a headcloth. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him go!” [John 11:43-44 (NLT)]

red-spotted purple admiralWhen Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, the once dead man emerged from the tomb with his face wrapped in a head cloth and his body bound in burial garments. Jesus commanded people to unbind him and free him from the trappings of the grave. Something tells me that, after four days in a tomb, Lazarus left behind more than some linen cloth soiled with the detritus of the tomb and death. While we don’t know what he experienced during those days, He must have returned to life with a new perspective. As he walked into the sunlight he never expected seeing again and inhaled the air he never anticipated breathing again, can you imagine how much he appreciated his new lease on life? Given a second chance, he probably wasn’t about to bring any regrets, resentment, anger, or guilt with him. Raised from the dead, he probably shed much of his past along with that shroud as he stepped from the tomb’s gloom.

Unlike Lazarus, we haven’t physically died. Our family didn’t wash us with warm water, rub us with spices and oil, wrap us in a burial garment, lay us in a tomb, and mourn our passing. Like Lazarus, however, we were dead before answering Jesus’ call. Born again into a new spiritual life, we are no longer spiritually dead and our grave clothes are no longer necessary. Lazarus shed his, why can’t we? We tend to carry the detritus and debris of our yesterdays with us when we come to Christ. Instead of putting on the new clothes of salvation and righteousness, we stay wrapped in the shroud of the past that’s stained with betrayals, anger, disappointment, loss, and hurt and embellished with remorse and disgrace. Even when we think we’ve donned the fresh clothes of a new life in Christ, we often tuck a pang of guilt or shame into a pocket. We can’t believe we’ve been forgiven, but we have; we can’t believe we’re good enough, but we are; we can’t believe He could possibly love us, but He does!

When Lazarus stepped into the light from that dark tomb, he shed his shroud. When we accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we were given a new spiritual life; let us shed our past and clothe ourselves with joy and the presence of Jesus Christ.

And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. [Galatians 3:27 (NLT)]

You have turned my mourning into joyful dancing. You have taken away my clothes of mourning and clothed me with joy. [Psalm 30:11 (NLT)]

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I tell you the truth, all sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. This is a sin with eternal consequences. [Mark 3:28-29 (NLT)]

snowy egret“I’ll never forgive him!” I vowed in anger and fear. My husband and I had taken our three children shopping for school clothes. While I was busy with the eldest, my husband said he’d take the other two for a walk through the mall. Unknown to me, the four-year old had convinced his father that he’d stay at the store, sit quietly in a little cubbyhole by the entrance, and wait for his dad’s return. Unfortunately, having the attention span of a gnat, the little guy quickly grew bored watching shoppers. After wandering into the store to hide in the clothes racks, he looked for his brother and me. Not seeing us (since we were in a changing room), he decided we’d left without him and calmly went looking for us in the parking lot. While I was paying for our purchases, my husband returned with only one child in tow. Almost simultaneously, with panic in our voices, we asked one another, “Where’s Scooter?” While the saleswoman made the call to mall security, I thought, “I’ll never forgive him if something has happened to our child; our marriage will be over!” Fortunately, a concerned woman had spotted the boy and taken him to security where he was enjoying a red lollipop. Through God’s good graces, his misadventure had a happy ending but what if it hadn’t? While angrily deciding I’d never forgive my husband, it never occurred to me that he’d be hard put to forgive himself!

I thought of that incident when a friend’s grandchild died. Wanting to go on a ride with his dad, the toddler had quietly left the house. He was standing in the driveway behind the car when his father backed over the youngster. A tragic accident, it ended up destroying a family through divorce and then the father’s suicide. Apparently, neither parent could forgive the other nor could they forgive themselves. I sometimes think of how my husband and I narrowly escaped a similar ending.

Jesus spoke of only one unpardonable or unforgivable sin—blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. After seeing His miraculous works, the Pharisees had irrefutable evidence of Jesus’ power and yet they deliberately denied His identity and accused Him of being demon possessed. The only unpardonable sin today would be continued unbelief; for the repentant believer, all else is forgivable.

It is hypocritical for us to ask God to forgive our sins if we withhold forgiveness from anyone else. As mere mortals, we do not know the hearts of men nor do we have the privilege of deciding what, who or even when to forgive. Forgiveness isn’t easy; sometimes, it can seem nearly impossible. Nevertheless, we ask God to forgive us in the way we forgive others. Unless we want God to pick and choose among our sins and failings, we cannot pick and choose among the actions of those who’ve failed us. We don’t get to forgive the little transgressions and withhold forgiveness on the big ones unless we want God to do the same with us.

And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us. … If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. [Matthew 6:12,14-15 (NLT)]

Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. [Luke 6:37 (NLT)]

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O Lord, oppose those who oppose me. Fight those who fight against me. … Make their path dark and slippery, with the angel of the Lord pursuing them. [Psalm 35:1,6 (NLT)

Let death stalk my enemies; let the grave swallow them alive, for evil makes its home within them. [Psalm 55:15 (NLT)]

great blue heronA few nights ago, I had some unwelcome visitors—worry and anger—and they wouldn’t let me sleep. I responded to their visit with prayer and yet it seemed God had closed His office for the night. We’d just received an accusatory and demanding “do this or else” letter from an attorney and my prayers had been as accusing and vindictive as was the letter. No wonder God turned a deaf ear to them.

Throughout much of King David’s life, he was beset by enemies: Philistines, Babylonians, Moabites, Ammonites, King Saul, and even his own son Absalom. As a result, many of his Psalms include what are known as imprecatory prayers in which he asks God to punish and destroy his enemies, sometimes in quite horrible ways. Although David was asking God to settle the matter of evil, I find it hard to reconcile his words with Christianity’s love, forgiveness, meekness and peace. As Christians, no matter how much we dislike someone or how malicious or nasty he (or she) happens to be, we are never to curse them or wish evil upon anyone. In fact, Jesus tells us to do the exact opposite—we are to love, pray for and bless those who curse us. Moreover, we are to submit to God’s sovereignty and pray that His (not our) will be done. The only way to be at peace with God is to be at peace with his children.

I’ve encountered opposition several times, but having flesh and blood adversaries or enemies is new to me. Our integrity has never been questioned before this and I was wounded, confused and irate. I knew I had to pray for our legal enemies and, while I didn’t curse them with imprecatory prayer, I certainly wasn’t blessing them either. As I prayed that they would be reasonable, see the light, change their minds, concede the error of their ways, and go away quietly, I was really praying about me, not for them. Again, it seemed that God was deaf to my pleas. It took me awhile before I understood that my real enemy wasn’t human; he was right there in my mind, tormenting me with outraged, vengeful and worrisome thoughts. It was not until I stopped thinking of these people as foes and started to pray blessings for them that I felt God again open His door to me and my prayers. As I prayed for them, for their health and happiness and even their prosperity, my anger subsided and my worry disappeared.

While I think we’ve acted honorably and been honest and forthright, I’m sure the other party is as sure they’re justified in their accusations and demands. In actuality, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. I’ll leave it to the lawyers and God to figure out a sensible and peaceful solution. I’ve already lost one night’s sleep over this; I’m not about to lose my soul, as well. As for me, I’m going to love, forgive and pray blessings for my enemy and, if need be, even turn the other cheek.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. … Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone. Dear friends, never take revenge. [Romans 12:14,17-19a (NLT)]

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you. [Luke 6:27-31 (NLT)]

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When you talk, do not say harmful things, but say what people need—words that will help others become stronger. Then what you say will do good to those who listen to you. [Ephesians 4:29 (NCV)]

crinium lily

“What did she mean by that?” we might wonder. We know better than to make insensitive, unkind, or inappropriate remarks but what about when we think we’ve heard those same kinds of comments? Unfortunately, what we perceive is not necessarily what was meant or said. Sometimes, we over analyze the things we hear: the words chosen, the way they’re said, and even the speaker’s tone of voice. We may assign unkind intentions or hidden meanings that aren’t there. When we do that, we can easily find offense where none is intended.

Let’s face it, we all have had “foot in mouth” disease and said the wrong thing or the right thing the wrong way more than once. We’ve used poor choices of words, been politically incorrect, forgotten something we were supposed to remember or mentioned something we should have forgotten. We’ve called people by the wrong names and probably even asked a heavy-set woman when the baby’s due! We didn’t mean to hurt anyone; we were just being the imperfect people we are! I suspect most people are like me, not anywhere near clever enough for veiled messages and double meanings. Nevertheless, I can analyze someone else’s remarks as if they’ve spent hours choosing their words and practicing their delivery. When I think about it, if I’ve felt hurt or offended by another person’s words, it’s usually because of my own insecurities.

I never intend to say rude or thoughtless things but, unfortunately, it sometimes happens. Lord, let your Holy Spirit keep my foot out of my mouth. When in doubt, remind me that silence is always a good option. Just as I want others to give me the benefit of the doubt when I speak carelessly, show me how to be willing to do the same thing. May your Holy Spirit help me assume innocent intentions on the part of those whose words upset or offend me. Guide me so that I not only speak with love but listen with love, as well.

This does not mean that love is gullible, but that it does not think the worst (as is the way of the world). It retains its faith. Love is not deceived … but it is always ready to give the benefit of the doubt. [Leon Morris, in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 13]

Love patiently accepts all things. It always trusts, always hopes, and always endures. [1 Corinthians 13:7 (NCV)]

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