THE UNFORGIVABLE SIN

So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven—except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come. [Matthew 12:31-32 (NLT)]

blue jayWhen speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus delivers what could be called the ultimate good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that, no matter how evil, vicious or long-lasting the sin, any sin (even blasphemy) is forgivable. The good news, however, comes with a “but” when Jesus says blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven.

Reading Jesus’ words—words said by the One whose blood was shed so our sins would be forgiven—is perplexing. If Jesus could forgive the many unnamed sins of those he healed, the soldiers who gambled for his clothing at the foot of the cross, and Peter’s three denials, what sin is so great that even His blood would not cover it? What exactly is blasphemy against the Spirit and how does it differ from speaking against the “Son of Man” (who we know to be Jesus)?

This good news/bad news scenario was delivered right after Jesus made it clear that there was no neutral ground when it came to Him—either people were with Jesus on God’s side or without Him on Satan’s side. He was directly speaking to Pharisees—people clearly not on Jesus’s side! They hated Him, were plotting His death, and just had denied proof of Christ’s divinity by attributing His healing miracles to Satan. Theirs wasn’t an act so horrendous that Jesus could not forgive them. Rather, their sin was one of attitude. What was unforgivable was their continual rejection of Jesus and their deliberate choice of Satan over Him.

As shocking as it seems, Jesus even says that blasphemy against Him can be forgiven. The Apostle Paul, for example, freely admitted to blaspheming the name of Christ while persecuting Christians. Yet, he experienced God’s mercy and forgiveness because he did so in ignorance and unbelief. If, however, after encountering the living Jesus on the road to Damascus, being supernaturally blinded, meeting Ananias, and having the scales fall from his eyes so that he knew the truth, Paul had never repented and come to believe in Christ, like the Pharisees, he would have committed the unforgivable sin. It would have become unpardonable blasphemy against the Spirit only if, after seeing the Truth incarnate, Paul continued to disparage, attack, and reject Jesus. Fortunately for us, after seeing the truth, Paul did repent and his “blasphemy” was forgiven.

Even scholars and theologians disagree on the exact meaning of this difficult text and I am neither scholar nor theologian. Nevertheless, the unpardonable sin appears to be what those Pharisees exhibited: a deliberate. obstinate, resolute, and tenacious resistance to the Spirit’s pursuit and voice. Even the demons recognized Jesus as the Son of God but the religious leaders, people who knew the prophecies and witnessed His miracles first-hand, blatantly refused to acknowledge Him. They didn’t even bother to dispute the miracles; they chose instead to dispute the source of Jesus’ power by attributing the works of God to Satan. That was unforgivable.

Some theologians think this warning applies only to those people of the 1st century who, like the Pharisees, actually witnessed the irrefutable proof that Jesus was empowered by the Holy Spirit and then denied the overwhelming evidence of His divinity. Only God knows for sure. The important thing for us to understand is that, like the unbelieving Pharisees, people freely choose how they will spend eternity and, like Paul, no matter how shameful the sin, when we sincerely seek God’s forgiveness through Christ, we can be certain that He will forgive us.

Even though I used to blaspheme the name of Christ. In my insolence, I persecuted his people. But God had mercy on me because I did it in ignorance and unbelief. Oh, how generous and gracious our Lord was! He filled me with the faith and love that come from Christ Jesus. This is a trustworthy saying, and everyone should accept it: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life. [1 Timothy 1:13-16 (NLT)]

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TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE (The Great Divorce – 1)

“I am the resurrection and the life,” replied Jesus. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even if they die. And anyone who lives and believes in me will never, ever die.” [John 11:25-26 (NTE)]

sandhill crane - canadian gooseI thought of that great fixed chasm between heaven and hell again after reading C.S. Lewis’ fantasy, The Great Divorce. Lewis clearly warns his readers that the book is a fantasy, what he calls “imaginative supposal,” and should be read that way. He does, however, add that it does have a moral. The book’s unnamed narrator (presumed to be Lewis) describes what seems to be hell as a grey, dingy, and utterly joyless place where quarrelsome souls continually argue with one another and move further and further apart. Finding himself there, the narrator joins others as they take a bus ride from this grey world to a vibrant, beautiful, and substantial place that appears to be heaven.

Although they aren’t ghosts, his fellow travelers appear insubstantial, almost wraithlike, in comparison to this new world—a place more real than anything he’d ever known—and the solid radiant people they see there. Full of life, love, and joy, each vivid being tries to convince one of the ghostlike travelers to stay. Those who choose to remain may do so and are reassured that they will gradually become more substantial as they drink from the fountain and journey up the mountain. Those who choose to reject the offer are free to return to the bus and their joyless lives.

The narrator’s travelling companions are people like us. Some are self-absorbed or greedy while others are embittered or selfish. One traveler is sure he’s better than the “riff-raff” around him and another, sure that he’s earned his way there, demands his rights. One wants to be assured of his position before staying, another remains skeptical of its promise, and still another person refuses to stay because of shame. One refuses to forgive, one wishes to live in the past, and one prefers wallowing in misery and self-pity. When none of these choose to stay, the narrator’s guide explains that the choice of those “lost souls” is best expressed in the phrase, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” He adds, “there is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery…always something they prefer to joy.” Only one traveler chooses to give up the lust that controlled his life and stay. When he does so, the narrator watches as he solidifies into a new-made man.

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote: “The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. … It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.” The contrast between the ghostlike non-believing souls with the vibrant solid people they meet is a perfect illustration of Lewis’ point. Indeed, it is only when we die to ourselves that we truly become alive and complete. Giving up oneself to follow Jesus is a real choice each person must make!

Even though the narrator takes a bus ride from hell to heaven, this fantasy really isn’t about heaven or hell. It merely answers the question so many people ask: how can a loving God send someone to Hell? The simple answer is that He doesn’t! Rather than being condemned to hell as punishment, each person freely chooses how they will spend both life in the here-and now and in eternity. The narrator is told by his guide, “All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.”

When the narrator wonders if he’d actually witnessed choices made long before death, his guide doesn’t answer. Instead, he explains it was just a dream and cautions the man to make that clear should he ever write of it. As Lewis said in the book’s preface, the story is just a fantasy but, as he promised in the preface, it does have a moral: our loving God never sends people to hell—they do that of their own free will!

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened. [C.S. Lewis]

He then spoke to them all. “If any of you want to come after me,” he said, “you must say No to yourselves, and pick up your cross every day, and follow me. If you want to save your life, you’ll lose it; but if you lose your life because of me, you’ll save it. What good will it do you if you win the entire world, but lose or forfeit your own self?” [Luke 9:23-25 (NTE)]

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PRAY FOR THEM – (Matthew 5:38-48 – Part 3)

You know that you have been taught, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to try to get even with a person who has done something to you. When someone slaps your right cheek, turn and let that person slap your other cheek. If someone sues you for your shirt, give up your coat as well. If a soldier forces you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two miles. When people ask you for something, give it to them. When they want to borrow money, lend it to them. [Matthew 5:38-42 (CEV)]

turk's cap lilyIn a sermon, J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) called Matthew 5:38-48 “our Lord Jesus Christ’s rules for our conduct towards one another.” The Anglican bishop added, “They deserve to be written in letters of gold: they have extorted praise even from the enemies of Christianity. Let us mark well what they contain. The Lord Jesus forbids everything like an unforgiving and revengeful spirit.” Indeed, these ten verses describe a Christian as he or she is meant to be (which explains why I’ve spent the last three days writing about them).

When Jesus spoke of nonretaliation, He wasn’t speaking of criminal offense or military aggression but of personal nonretaliation—our relationship with our fellow travelers on this planet. He applied this principle of nonretaliation to personal insults and slights, lawsuits to gain your personal assets, interference with your personal rights, and intrusions on your personal property. His call to willingly surrender what we call ours and not to take revenge is radical but isn’t that what Christian love is all about?

Non-retaliation, however, is just part of Jesus’ radical call. It’s not enough to not hit back; Jesus calls us to love our enemies and even to pray for them. Now, praying for them is easy if it means to pray for their comeuppance—their just deserts or punishment—but vengeful prayers that ask God to give them some of their own are not what Jesus meant. When we love our enemies, we pray the same kind of prayers we do for our friends—unselfish prayers for their welfare and good. It’s not easy; nevertheless, blessings on those that curse, afflict, aggravate, take advantage, or just plain annoy us is what we are called to do.

The story is told of a monk in the desert who, upon returning to his hut, found it being ransacked by bandits. The monk simply knelt and prayed for them as the thieves looted the hut of his few possessions. Once they’d departed, the monk realized they’d not taken his walking stick so he pursued them for several days until he could give them the stick, as well. Seeing the monk’s humility and forgiving nature, the bandits returned the monk’s possessions and became followers of Jesus. Although I found this story in a Bible commentary on Matthew 5, I can’t vouch for its truth. Nevertheless, it could be and I’d like to think it is!

That story illustrates Bishop Ryle’s points that, “if the spirit of these ten verses were more continually remembered by true believers, they would recommend Christianity to the world far more than they do,” and, “if the spirit of these ten verses had more dominion and power in the world, how much happier the world would be than it is.” Indeed, it would.

You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.” But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you. Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong. If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends. If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that? But you must always act like your Father in heaven. [Matthew 5:43-48 (CEV)]

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NOTHING PERSONAL

I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind. [Luke 6:35-36 (MSG)]

great egret - breeding lores“There is nothing personal going on here,” were the words that helped author Jane Smiley get through her acrimonious divorce. Although no divorce is pretty, the circumstances surrounding hers were especially ugly. Realizing that her husband was acting out his own drama helped her to better understand and deal with his dreadful behavior and hurtful actions. Smiley explained, “This is a wiser way of understanding the people around you … how they have their own passions, motivations, and histories, that sometimes (always) grip them in ways, that even they do not grasp—ways you don’t have to respond to automatically.” Her words impressed me so much that I wrote them down after reading them several years ago. The author wrote that remembering the phrase, “There’s nothing personal going on here,” has helped her deal with other difficult people and situations in her life. I find them useful, as well.

When Pulitzer Prize winning author Jane Smiley writes fiction, she is the creator of each character. As such, she knows their back story, needs, fears, and issues. She invents the baggage they’re carrying and understands the reasons for their behavior. In real life, however, people have their own private history. Although people’s past hurts or present problems are never an excuse for thoughtless words or bad conduct, they do affect them. Carrying hidden scars, people have passions, fears, insecurities, prejudices, and forces that control them in ways that even they may not understand. We don’t know much about other people’s pasts (or their present circumstances) nor do they know ours. Realizing this makes it easier to step back and not take their hurtful words and actions so personally.

In this day and age of insults, boorishness, and unpleasantry, we have plenty of opportunities to take offense. More often than not, we’ve done nothing deliberately to deserve whatever nastiness has been dished out to us; nevertheless, let us remember than taking offense is a choice. We are accountable to God only for what we do, not for what is said and done to us.

It is hurting people who hurt people; remembering that hurtful behavior is more the result of other people’s issues than our behavior keeps us from retaliating. It certainly makes forgiveness much easier. Rather than taking it personally, let us pray for those who upset, offend, fail, or hurt us. Bearing in mind that everyone has a history and their own unique story known only by God, we can say, “There is nothing personal going on here,” and get on with our lives.

What can you ever really know of other people’s souls – of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. [C.S. Lewis]

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults—unless, of course, you want the same treatment. Don’t condemn those who are down; that hardness can boomerang. Be easy on people; you’ll find life a lot easier. Give away your life; you’ll find life given back, but not merely given back—given back with bonus and blessing. Giving, not getting, is the way. Generosity begets generosity. [Luke 6:37-38 (MSG)]

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THE APOLOGY

He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding. [Ephesians 1:7 (NLT)]

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? [Romans 6:1-2 (NLT)]

golden mantled ground squirrelI’m not sure if Hammie MacPherson, the mischievous little boy mentioned in yesterday’s devotion, ever made his annoying noise again but, in another “Baby Blues” comic by Kirkman and Scott, he tells his mother, “I’m sorry and I promise it will never happen again.” When she asks what he’s done, he says he doesn’t yet know. “It’s still early,” he adds, “so I thought I’d get the apology out of the way first.”

Contemplating the day’s mischief, Hammie apologized in advance. I’m not so sure our forgiving God welcomes that approach to forgiveness. After all, an apology is merely an excuse. The word “apology” comes from the Greek apologia, meaning a speech in one’s defense. The original English sense of the word “apology” was self-justification. Most definitely, either in advance or after the fact, God is not interested in any defense of our indefensible actions.

Granted, Christ died for all of our sins—past, present, and future—but I’m pretty sure God’s promise of forgiveness doesn’t give us free rein to do as we please. Although Christ’s sacrifice paid our debt, we haven’t been given carte blanche to deliberately live sinfully. God’s forgiveness involves repentance on our part and genuine repentance includes not just a confession of wrongdoing but also a willingness to make things right and to do better in the future. Confessing our unnamed sins in advance of their commission indicates neither remorse nor repentance.

When the comic strip’s Hammie does something naughty, as he surely will, his loving mother will forgive him. His disobedience, however, will disappoint her, incur her anger, and cause him to be disciplined (the “or else” in yesterday’s message). When we accepted Christ, we may have been declared righteous but we still have a long way to go before we act righteously. Like the little boy, we continue to go astray. Fortunately, our salvation is secure in Christ and our sins have been forgiven in advance. Nevertheless, we must remember that they truly grieve God. With our sins, we risk both God’s divine displeasure and discipline. I doubt that apologizing in advance for willful disobedience will be successful in the MacPherson house; I know it won’t work in God’s!

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. [1 John 1:8-9 (NLT)]

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OR ELSE

My child, do not reject the Lord’s discipline, and don’t get angry when he corrects you. The Lord corrects those he loves, just as parents correct the child they delight in. [Proverbs 3:11-12 (NCV)]

little blue heron“Baby Blues,” a comic strip by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, portrays the MacPherson family and the frustration, craziness, and humor that come with parenthood. Perhaps because I had a boy like him, my favorite character is the middle child, Hammie. Without a doubt, the inventive boy is a handful but he’s delightful in his own special way. When Zoe, his older sister, comments that he’s stopped making his usual annoying noise, he explains: “Mom used the three magic words.” When Zoe asks, “Please and thank you?” he clarifies, “Stop or else!”

Like the MacPhersons, the three magic words at our house were “please” and “thank you.” However, like Hammie’s mother, there were times I gave my children the option of obedience or facing the consequences with the other three: “Stop, or else!” Of course, the “or else” is an empty caution unless there’s an understanding of what “or else” entails.

The Old Testament is filled with God’s warnings of “or else” to the Israelites; sadly, it’s also a chronicle of their repeated failure to listen and obey Him. Time and time again, they disregarded God’s law, rejected His prophets, fought among themselves, worshipped other gods, and participated in pagan practices. They couldn’t say they weren’t warned by all the judges, kings, and prophets God sent to them so they shouldn’t have been surprised by the famines, floods, droughts, wars, exile, and oppression that resulted from their disobedience. Those afflictions, however, didn’t mean God had been unfaithful to His people. On the contrary, He was completely faithful to his words of warning. By withholding His blessings, the people got exactly what God said they would.

The book of Judges is a series of “Stop or else!” stories. Time and time again, after their disobedience, the Israelites faced the consequences of oppression by people like the Philistines and Ammonites. They eventually repented, called to God for help, and were granted relief. Although a period of peace followed, they were slow learners and the cycle would repeat: obedience gave way to disobedience and they again faced God’s “or else.” Nevertheless, just like Hammie’s patient and loving mother in the comic strip, God never gave up on His people.

Like a good parent, God gives fair warning and provides his people with plenty of opportunities to change their ways. Jesus warned us about sin, Satan, hypocrisy, pride, selfishness, materialism, greed, and false teachings. He clearly told us there are consequences to sinful behavior: the wages of sin is death, there will be a day of judgment, the unrighteous won’t enter the Kingdom, unbelief brings death but belief brings life, and the day of His return will come without warning. Scripture tells us how it will end—we can’t say we haven’t been warned!

It is the wonder of the grace of God that he has given such warnings. If we do not listen and turn from our evil ways, and so suffer awful judgment, then it is not the grace and love of God that is lacking, but the fault of our unrepentant hearts which refuse to heed the revelation of God, and spurn his love. [Georgina W. Everingham]

Our fathers on earth disciplined us for a short time in the way they thought was best. But God disciplines us to help us, so we can become holy as he is. We do not enjoy being disciplined. It is painful at the time, but later, after we have learned from it, we have peace, because we start living in the right way. … So be careful and do not refuse to listen when God speaks. Others refused to listen to him when he warned them on earth, and they did not escape. So it will be worse for us if we refuse to listen to God who warns us from heaven. [Hebrews 12:10-11, 25 (NCV)]

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