Free To Forgive





When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won’t give up in despair. You should make them sure of your love for them.  (2 Corinthians 2:4)

“If a believer sins, correct him. If he changes the way he thinks and acts, forgive him.”  (Jesus, in Luke 17:3)


What are Paul and Jesus actually asking of Christians here? Is this forgive and forget? Do I have to feel really good about the perpetrator? Do I have to like them in order to forgive them? Do we have to be friends? Must we hang out? Am I supposed to move on and act like nothing happened?  Let’s look to Scripture…

1) Jesus sets the standard for forgiveness. Paul wrote elsewhere,

“For he [Jesus] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. “ (Colossians 1:13-14)

“ In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished upon us…” (Ephesians 1:7-8)

We were all in in the dominion of darkness.  We have so much sin that we deserve death. Jesus in his mercy paid the penalty for us.  We are hardly in a position not to extend forgiveness.

“Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13)

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”– C.S. Lewis

How many times has my anger been inexcusable? My judgment, my lust, my greed, my harsh and cutting words, my failure to respect and honor my parents, my wife and my kids; my laziness, my pride? How many times have they been inexcusable? All of them. And yet I have repented, and God has forgiven – and the people around me have forgiven me over and over. Christians forgive the inexcusable, because Jesus has forgiven the inexcusable in us.

2) Forgiveness is mandatory.

“But if you don't forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failures.” (Matthew 6:15)

“But when you are praying, first forgive anyone you are holding a grudge against, so that your Father in heaven will forgive your sins, too." (Mark 11:25)

As an idea, that sounds really good. I really want other people to get this.  But what if I was personally were the one damaged by sin? “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”  C.S. Lewis

Peter once asked Jesus if forgiveness was to be offered seven times. The Jewish rabbis at the time taught that forgiving someone more than three times was unnecessary. Peter was suggesting more than double the mandated maximum. They would have been stunned by Jesus’ lavish answer of 70x7 (which was a very Jewish way of saying there is no end). They were used to a law that had limits, not a grace that did not.

Jesus followed that up with the  parable of the unforgiving servant. God has forgiven us an enormous debt; how ungrateful must we be if we don’t do the same for others?

If I may note the wisdom of this on a practical level: we will probably assume God and others forgive us in the same way we forgive others. If we forgive partially and reluctantly and keep score somewhere, that’s probably how we view the forgiveness of God and others. This is the advice of a loving Father: forgive as God forgives. Forgive fully and freely. It will help us understand the nature of God’s forgiveness.

3) Forgiveness is patiently anticipatory

The Parable of the Two Sons (or the Prodigal Son) in Luke 15 reminds us that it is God who will wake people up in the midst of their sin. We may be the instrument God uses, but we may not be also. And I can almost guarantee that people who sin against you won’t respond with your sense of timing.

We can be so quick to want people to repent NOW. Did you? Or did it take some time to really see and understand your sin? How long did people faithfully invest in you before, like the Prodigal Son, you “came to your senses” by the grace of God?

Meanwhile, the father was alertly watching and waiting for the return of his son. The father had not closed the gates and turned his back. He wanted his son to come home. His heart was for his son’s healing. In spite of the hurt and humiliation he had experienced, one of his greatest joys would be having his son come home.

He was eagerly anticipating the moment of restoration and the life that would follow. When the prodigal moved toward the father, the father moved toward him. I would find it easy to defend the father if he just sat on the porch and waited; maybe even had a servant tell the son that he was in the back 40 and the son would have to wait. Or not respond to the son’s email for weeks. None of this happened. The father was watching; he saw the son returning, and he ran to meet him.

Do we move with forgiveness toward those who are moving toward us with broken repentance? Or do we wait, passively at best and defiantly at worst? How many times do people around us make gestures of repentance that we ignore because we don’t think it’s enough?

When I was coaching, there was a parent who really didn’t like me.  He would write me letters several pages long chronicling all the ways I failed. He would glare at me all the time. He disinvited me from his son’s wedding. Then Braden decided that this man was the coolest guy in the room during basketball games, and would climb to the top of the bleachers to sit with him game after game (Braden was probably 3 or 4).  One night after a game this man was waiting for me. I braced myself. All he said was, “You and I have had our differences, but you must be doing something right as a father.” That was the most I was going to get. I took it. We’ve been good ever since.

Do we move toward that offer of connection? My wife and I have an unspoken “connector” when there is tension or distance between us. We have to sit on the couch together rather than on separate chairs (that’s step one), and then we have to have physical contact (that’s step two). That’s the peace offering: “I know things are not well. They will be okay. We will work this out.” And in those moments the one of us who feels most offended – and we take turns on this – has a choice: do I move toward the one who is moving toward me, or do I make them do all the work?

There’s an entirely different discussion to be had about not staying in damaging, manipulative cycles of abuse where the supposedly repentant people are manipulating people around them.  If you think that’s what’s happening, talk to someone you trust who has wisdom in this area. But generally speaking, I believe we are called to move toward those who move toward us.

4) Forgiveness does not delete our history; it covers our history. The Bible uses language of God’s forgiveness that at a quick glance appears to say that God forgets our sin.

  • “All their sins and iniquities I will remember no more.” (Hebrews 8:12)
  • “As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)
  • “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34)

Every commentary I read noted that this is not literal amnesia. It’s the best human language we have to explain that God does not hold our sins against us when our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus.  Paul remembered his sins and wrote about them to churches. If God had forgotten, then Paul remembered something about history that God does not. If I pray and ask God for ongoing healing for my past forgiven sins, God is not confused by my request. He knows why I’m asking.  He just does not hold them against me.

Memory was not part of the fall. It’s one of the good gifts God has given us. We are meant to learn from our past successes and failures. It’s part of how we mature. 

  • We will never gain necessary wisdom if we forget what it was like to be in chains to sin. 
  • We will not appreciate the forgiveness God and others show us if we forget how much we gave them to forgive.
  • We will not be able to encourage others with our testimonies of God’s grace if we can’t remember why God showed us grace in the first place.

5) Forgiveness does not cancel ongoing accountability. Extending forgiveness is not the same as overlooking the impact of sin. Accountability and protection can go along with forgiveness. Charles Stanley wrote, “Forgiveness is relational; consequences are circumstantial.”

  • After Adam and Eve sinned, God provided a means of forgiveness…but also explained what the fallout was going to look like.
  • God forgave Moses…but Moses did not enter the Promised Land.
  • Jesus forgave the thief on the cross…but the thief still died that day.

Paul noted in Galatians 6 that we will always harvest what we plant. It’s a principle God has embedded in the world, and God will not be mocked.

  • If I steal your wallet, but return the wallet and ask for forgiveness, forgiveness should be granted. But are you going to leave your wallet out again when I am around?  Wisdom would suggest you keep your wallet close, at least until I have shown myself to be trustworthy.  
  • If I share a deep secret you told me in confidence, and I repent and ask you to forgive me, you should extend forgiveness. But you probably shouldn’t tell me a deep secret again until I have shown myself to be trustworthy.
  • If you hurt or offend your spouse or a friend, ask for forgiveness. But don’t become annoyed if they put up some boundaries so they don’t get hurt again.

Life is not an etch-o-sketch. We can’t just shake the picture that we’ve drawn and pretend it never happened. We have hurt people. Our actions have consequences. It’s going to take time to draw a new and better picture.The goal of forgiveness is to restore fellowship with God and others. Circumstantial consequences may or may not adjust in connection with the forgiveness; if they don’t, it does not mean no one was forgiven.  It might just mean those who forgive are also wise.

6) Forgiveness is worth celebrating.

The father of the Prodigal Son was overjoyed the son had returned. It was the legalistic brother who said, “How dare you celebrate the lost.” How easy is it for us to think that if we forgive too lavishly we are somehow overlooking or enabling or smoothing over whatever sin someone is leaving? The celebration doesn’t deny the past; the celebration revels in the present and the future. There are still consequences that will play out because God has made a world of cause and effect, but in that moment, and (if the parable continued) for many days to come, the father would celebrate, because his child who was lost has come home. 

This one is hard, especially if you are the one who has been wounded by someone else’s sin. Yet I think our reaction to other situations are instructive here. Don't we love that the Amish community forgave the shooter? Don’t we love the stories of parents who forgive their child’s killer? We applaud, as we should. We aren’t opposed to the principle. It’s just hard when it applies to us. This is the cross we take up; this is cost of discipleship; this is what God commands – and equips us to do.



“’Will I remember no more’ - This is evidently spoken after the manner of men, and in accordance with human apprehension. It cannot mean literally that God forgets that people are sinners, but it means that he treats them as if this were forgotten. Their sins are not charged upon them, and they are no more punished than if they had passed entirely out of the recollection. God treats them with just as much kindness, and regards them with as sincere affection, as if their sins ceased wholly to be remembered, or which is the same thing, as if they had never sinned.” – Matthew Henry, on Hebrews 8:12

“’And their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more’; by which are meant all kind of sin, original and actual; sins before and after conversion; every sin but that against the Holy Ghost, and that God's covenant people are never guilty of; these God remembers no more; he casts them behind his back, and into the depths of the sea, so that when they are sought for, they shall not be found; God will never charge them with them, or punish them for them: this is another phrase to express the forgiveness of sins, and distinguishes the new covenant from the old one, or the former dispensation; in which, though there were many typical sacrifices, and a typical removal of sin, yet there was a remembrance of it every year.” Gill’s Exposition Of The Bible, on Hebrews 8:12

“’As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.’ God's mercy is the cause, the removal of sin the result. The two are commensurate, and are "described by the largest measures which the earth can afford." Pulpit Commentary, on Psalm 103:12

“’As far as the east is from the west’ - As far as possible; as far as we can imagine. These are the points in our apprehension most distant from each other, and as we can conceive nothing beyond them, so the meaning is, that we cannot imagine our sins could be more effectually removed than they are. “ Barne’s Notes On The Bible

“Christ engaged as a surety for his people; Jehovah the Father considered him as such; and therefore did not impute their sins to them, but to him; and when he sent him in the likeness of sinful flesh, he removed them from them, and laid them upon him; who voluntarily took them on himself, cheerfully bore them, and, by bearing them, removed the iniquity of the land in one day; and carried them away to the greatest distance, and even put them away for ever by the sacrifice of himself; and upon the satisfaction he gave to divine justice, the Lord removed them both from him and them; justified and acquitted him, and his people in him: and by this means so effectually, and so far, are their transgressions removed, that they shall never be seen any more, nor ever be imputed to them, nor be brought against them to their condemnation; in consequence of which, pardon is applied to them, and so sin is removed from their consciences, as before observed; see Leviticus 16:21.”  - Gill’s Exposition Of The Entire Bible

“Our thoughts of God as the All knowing preclude the idea of any limitation of His knowledge, such as the words “I will remember no more” imply. What is meant is that He will be to him who repents and knows Him as indeed He is, in His essential righteousness and love, as men are to men when they “forget and forgive.” He will treat the past offences, even though their inevitable consequences may continue, as though they had never been, so far as they affect the communion of the soul with God. He will, in the language of another prophet, “blot out” the sins which yet belong to the indelible and irrevocable past (Isaiah 43:25Isaiah 44:22).”  Elliot’s Commentary For English Readers, on Jeremiah 31:34

“’For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’; there was forgiveness of sin under the former covenant, but the blood of Christ was not then actually shed for it; it was held forth under types; and there was a remembrance of sin made every year; and saints had not such a clear and comfortable sight of pardon in common as now; and it was known and applied but to a few. This is the staple blessing of the covenant, and the evidence of all the rest.”  - Gill’s Exposition Of The Entire Bible

Free To Repent




• “Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations...” (Jesus, in Luke 24:45-47). • “They… glorified God, saying, ’God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.’” (Acts 11:18). • “The sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation…”(2 Corinthians 7:9-10). • 'Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first...” (Revelation 2:5).

This week, I’m talking to me and you as the offenders, the sinners, the ones who have helped make the world a little more broken. The question we are going to ask is, “How do we genuinely, healthily repent??” ______________________________________________________________________

1) Own our offense

People try to find creative ways to say “I’m sorry” that can sound good but often conceal a deflection of blame. A popular phrase going around right now is ‘fauxpology,’ words that sound apologetic but really aren’t.

“I’m sorry I’m not perfect.” (the other person’s standard is too high) “ I am sorry that you were hurt.”(the other person is too sensitive) “I’m sorry that I don’t meet your expectations.” (the other person is too judgmental) “I’m sorry that I was not more self-aware.” (my stupidity is too blame)

Now all of these things might in some sense be true, and it doesn’t mean this should not be part of what you say if you have sinned against someone. But there is a far more important thing to acknowledge. The heart of the biblical words of genuine repentance are as follows: “I have sinned against God and you.” Repentance requires you to own what you need to own. Repentance does not excuse, justify, avoid, deny or cover up. I read an article a number of years ago about Lance Armstrong’s attempt at an apology for the performance enhancing drugs he used:

More than once in the interview Armstrong indicated that his hyper-competitiveness fueled his toxic need to control every outcome. That control was much in display throughout the confession. At one point, Oprah mentioned Betsy Andreu, one of the honest critics that Armstrong smeared. Armstrong acknowledged that he called her a b**** and crazy, but disputed that he ever called her fat. Such defensiveness undermines the whole apology.

An effective apology means giving up your argument with history. It means letting the victims have the last word. But throughout the interview, Armstrong displayed a constant need to have the last word for himself. It’s clear that he is not quite ready to do the heavy lifting of apology. (

Repentant people face a hard truth — they have offended God and others. It’s the hardest thing in the world to just take a deep breath and say, “God, I have sinned against you. And my friend, I have sinned against you and really hurt you. I’m sorry.”

Some of you were interacting with me on Facbook this week about this issue and pointed out that our rational, decision-making capacity can be deeply, deeply influenced by our environment. I was introduced to a new term last week: “epigenetic trauma,” which is a fancy way of saying that experiences change our DNA, which effects our genetics. In other words, experiences change our very biology. Or consider that our memory is not stored just in our brains; memory is stored in organs like the heart and can be passed on to heart transplant recipients.

So the impact of our influences should not be overlooked, because they certainly form us and incline us certain directions. “Hurt people hurt people” is a proverb that reflects the reality that we often pass on our woundedness either intentionally or unintentionally. The impact of mental or emotional health issues are important as well. Our bodies reflect the broken reality of this broken world in many ways.

Ideally, when we face this reality, we develop a longing for God to bring us freedom from the damage and sin in our past, at whatever level that has impacted us. And while there are helpful ways to address this with medicine or counseling, we can only be truly healed by the transformation of our hearts and minds that only Christ can bring.

So should we ever give ourselves a pass when it comes to our sin? In Luke 12, Jesus offers a clear principle: “If you are given much, much will be required of you. If much is entrusted to you, much will be expected of you. (Luke 12:48). I think this is a broad way of saying that we are held responsible for what we do with who we are or with what we have been given.

The Bible does not allow followers of Jesus to passively shrug off our patterns of sin because we have found an explanation for “the sin that so easily besets us” (Hebrews 12:1). It demands that on the one hand we repent for the sinful things we have done. Then we beg for the God’s healing mercy, knowing this is our only hope. Then we ask for the forgiveness of others, because no matter the reason we did these things, we hurt them, and we must own our offense.

2) Turn Around “They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, [John] said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance…” (Matthew 3:5-8).

Being emotionally undone is not the same as repentance. It might be part of the process, but tears do not equal repentance. Repentance requires a reorientation, a fundamental transformation in one’s relationship with God and others.

“Some tax-gatherers came to be baptized, and they said, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what you have been ordered to.” And some soldiers were questioning him, saying, “And what about us, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” (John the Baptizer, in Luke 3:11b-14)

Once again, you see this idea of a change of direction – a change of life.

By the grace and power of God, the truly repentant will surrender to God’s will and proactively reject their former patterns of sin.

If someone says to you, “I appreciate your repentance, but it’s going to be hard for me to believe that you will not lie to me again/keep watching porn/stop demeaning me with your words,” mere words are not going to do the trick. You need to establish a commitment to changed patterns in your life to show that you meant what you said.

The truly repentant surrender themselves to God’s will, submit themselves to the accountability of others, and deliberately plan to not do what they did before.

This requires God’s strength because we’ve already shown our strength is not enough. This should make us really, really humble. This also requires a community of accountability, a plan where we put people around us who can be strong when we are weak, or who have understanding when we don’t.

Only God can do the necessary interior work in our hearts and minds that genuinely brings about righteousness in what we think and what we love. Meanwhile, we can put safeguards in place to restrain and maybe even retrain us. This does not save us, but investing whatever sweat equity we are capable of shows our honor of God’s desire for our lives.

3) Brace Yourself

After his adultery with Bathsheba, David wrote:

“For I know my transgressions, And my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight. You are justified when You speak, and blameless when You judge. “ (Psalm 51:3-4)

David repented - then asked for nothing. He knew what he deserved, and he did not ask God to remove the consequences.

Be ready to harvest what you planted. There is a principle of sowing and reaping God has placed in the world (Galatians 6:7). If you drive drunk and have an accident, God and others will forgive you, but you will still do time. Repentance is not a ‘get our of jail free’ card in a very practical sense. And God designed the world to work that way.

More personally, brace yourself for the intensity of emotions from those you have wronged—anger, hurt, grief, disappointment, and distrust. The truly repentant don’t pressure people to move on. They don’t ask why the other person just can’t get over it. They simply ask for forgiveness, turn around, and patiently wait as God uses His Holy Spirit, time, and our new way of life to heal the wounds. (We will talk about forgiveness next week)

In addition, repentant people accept boundaries. They recognize that they have created distrust and earned caution. Their offense may be of such a nature that trust can be regained – or it might not. That’s the reality of their situation, and they accept their boundaries. To be sure they do this well, they become accountable. They invite people into their lives, and they embrace correction, direction, and encouragement.

4) Pursue Life Together

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24).

If you are right in the middle of focused worship, and you know that you have hurt someone else, Jesus would rather have you try to mend that relationship than continue in your worship. If you show up on a Sunday and see someone across the room who has something against you – that is, you have sinned against them, wounded them, offended them – you should skip music and the sermon and take them into the prayer room and be reconciled before you sing or ‘amen’ as if nothing is wrong. It’s more important.

Once that community has been restored, there is more. David did not see repentance and forgiveness as the whole story. He desired to teach others:

“Then I will teach transgressors Your ways, And sinners will be converted to You.” (Psalm 51:13).

David would be teaching sinners as a repentant sinner. His teaching would seek to turn sinners from their sin. Why waste forgiveness and repentance on just ourselves?

Repentant people should be bold. Stories of repentance and forgiveness make beautiful testimonies, but no one can benefit from your experience if no one knows. If you say, “Forgiveness and grace are beautiful things,” and someone says, “Why?” What will you say? “Oh, just because…”

Jesus said to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).

Paul wrote without shame: ”For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10)

From The Great Physician To The Great Commission (Part 3)

Here is today’s leading question: how do we reorder our loves and experience what David called ‘the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living’ (Psalm 27:13)? I would like to offer general principles about what I think is the God-ordained path by which our hearts flourish in their new life – and by flourish I mean our hearts increasingly begin to resemble that heart of Jesus.

First, pray for God to do the work only God can do.

He must create a new heart in you (salvation and regeneration), and he must be the foundation of our ongoing heart health (sanctification). I hope my list last week didn’t drive you to despair. It was meant to drive you toward Jesus. Even if we have a sliding scale that showed us how close we were to the right side, it would always remind us of the need for Jesus. No matter how close we get, we will fail. This reality is not meant discourage us. Godly sorrow is intended to bring repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).

I am reminded of the times when it is clear to me that I fail my wife or friends. I have two choices: I can retreat in frustration and depression (maybe even anger), or I can appreciate how much they must love me to continue to do life with me. So my failure, properly processed, increases my awe at their faithful love. It is often when I am most aware of my sin that I am in awe of God’s love. When I am most aware of my weakness, I marvel at His power. When I am asking others and God to forgive me, I see the cost and beauty of their love as they forgive and remain faithful.

Let your failures increase your awe of God’s love and inspire you even more to press toward the kind of heart that loves like that.

Second, repent of your disordered loves and commit your ways to Jesus.  

To understand this, we need to talk about the biblical definitions of “love” and “repent”.


I talked last week about loving the world or loving God. Love, in the Bible, is not usually used in the sense that we use it in 21st century America.[i] We think of falling in and out of love, of passionate feelings, of overwhelming emotions. We use love to mean like, lust, enjoy, approve…we use it far more widely than the Bible does. The Bible is far more pointed.

We often talk about agape, phileo and eros, three Greek words that show up a lot to define different kinds of loves.[1] Agape is the word most often used for how God loves us; it’s also used a LOT to tell us how to love God and others. It has to do with a commitment to self-sacrifice for the sake of the other. We almost always use it to talk about our relationship to God or other people, but it is used in other ways in the Bible as well.

  • I John 2:15 “Do not love (agapao) the world.”
  • 2 Timothy 4:10 “Demas has deserted me, because he loved (agapao) this present world…”
  • Matthew 6:24 “No man can serve two masters…he will love (agapao) the one…”
  • "…men loved (agapao) darkness rather than light." — John 3:19 
  • "For they loved (agapao) the praise of men more than the praise of God." — John 12:43

This is a usage of agape (the verb form is agapao) that is often overlooked. In this kind of context, there is a different emphasis that emerges (which is true of many Greek words).

  • “Agape has to do with the mind: it is not simply an emotion which rises unbidden in our hearts; it is a principle by which we deliberately live.” – William Barclay
  • “Agape is called out of one’s heart by the preciousness of the object loved. It is a love of esteem, of evaluation. It has the idea of prizing.”]
  •  Agapao is a "discriminating affection which involves choice and selection." (

So when I talk about love in this context, I’m talking about deliberately living in a way that shows esteem or value of something or someone as a precious, beloved prize. Here are some (admittedly weak) analogies:

  • I have some Michael Jordan cards that I value. I take good care of them; I protect them. I also have cards of no name journeyman and I don’t care a bit about them.
  • I have a puzzle in my office – a picture of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling - that I shellacked and framed and have it sitting where I can see it every time I walk in to the office.
  • I have family photo albums at home. If there is a fire, I want those first.

I deliberately live in a way that shows esteem or value of a precious, beloved prize. In terms of my lifestyle, there are things I love in this sense as well.

  • I value my health, so I go to the gym regularly. I spend money for a membership. I buy clothes and accessories that help me. I study. I get advice from other lifters (#AJ).
  • I value this job, so I study the Bible, I prepare, I pray, I live submitted to others for accountability, I rest, I listen to podcasts, I buy books, I ask for wisdom from others when I’m in over my head.
  • I value my marriage, so I invest time, energy, and money in my marriage constantly. We spend money on dates nights, on counseling, on vacation together. We listen to sermons and podcasts. We've been to conferences. We seek counsel from others.

In all these things, I am deliberately living in a way that shows esteem or value for something I prize. And the Bible is clear: We can do this for the things of God or the world. We can deliberately make choices to value pornography over purity; wrath over gentleness; gossip over self-control; greed over generosity; hatred over love; resentment over forgiveness.

I’m sure we don’t think of these things as a something we prize, but when we choose them - or when we choose to stay in them - we deliberately live in a way that shows that we esteem or values that over something else.

You might say, “But I don’t like that I use pornography; I don’t like that I keep giving in to gossip; I don’t like that I nourish resentment.” I hear you. We do things we don’t like or that makes us dislike ourselves all the time. That’s because this isn’t about what we like (an emotional response). It’s about what we love (a purposeful choice to value one thing over another).

What we habitually do reveals who or what we consistently love. Our habits reveal our hearts.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you are not a slave to sin (Galatians 4:7; Romans 6:18). In other words, God is stronger than habitual, ongoing sins. The process of living in God-given freedom may be a long and arduous journey as you deal with influences that have formed you (and sometimes formed you deeply), but you don’t have to be stuck in repeated, habitual patterns of sin.

God did not make you a puppet; He has given you the agency to decide what you value more: the freedom that comes from serving Christ, or the continued bondage to habitual patterns of sin. And you will choose a path, and that path will show what you value. It will show what you love. Joshua told the children of Israel:

“Now therefore fear the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods which your fathers served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if you be unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”(Joshua 24:14-15)

You will choose a path for your life, and that path will show what you value. Elisabeth Elliot, whose husband was killed while on mission work (read Through Gates Of Splendor) once wrote:“When obedience to God contradicts what I think will bring me pleasure, let me ask myself if I love him.”

This isn’t a word about perfection. It can’t be. Look in the Bible: David was “after God’s heart” and he was at times a hot mess. Peter denied his faith at one point. Abraham was willing to let Abimelech add Sarah to his harem to save his skin. But they repented, and re-committed themselves to esteeming and valuing God as their precious, beloved prize. So this is not about the perfection of every moment. It’s about a direction, a trajectory, a commitment of your life in spite of times of failure. 

Agape love describes a chosen commitment and focus. It’s about habits and patterns. It’s about taking up our cross, dying daily, and presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice because we believe in Jesus and we want to give our life to him as an act of honor in worship.[ii] And if we are who we love (or we become like that which we love), we are in the midst of the life-long process of being transformed into the image of Jesus.


Loving God is deliberately living in a way that shows that we esteem or value Jesus and righteousness as a precious, beloved prize. It means we orient our life around Jesus (“What did Jesus do? What would he have me do?”)

Repentance is a call to transfer our agape love to God from anything else and keep it there. It’s turning from sin, shifting our gaze, focusing on Jesus. It means we value and prize not just the person of Jesus but also the path of Jesus. In the Bible, obedience to God and love of God are very tightly connected.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you. I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you…

He who has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him… If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me does not keep my words…” (John 14:15-24, excerpted)

I don’t know how many times I went up to the altar to rededicate my life to Jesus when I was in my teens and 20’s. I think the reason I kept going back was that I never really repented. I felt sorry in an emotional moment, which is a different thing. I never turned around from following my own law and kept God’s commandments – or I did for a couple weeks, and then slipped right back into those old habits. My life was changed when I realized how closely intertwined repentance was with obedience, that love could not be separated from the orientation of the habits of my life. 

We say “I’m sorry” pretty casually at times. If we really mean it, we stop doing the thing that we said we were sorry for. Or at least – imperfect people that we are – we commit our lives to turning the ship. We pray, we get counseling, we put ourselves in accountability, we study, we do the hard work of repentance. It doesn’t mean we will be perfect, but we demonstrate the reality of our repentance by our re-commitment to obedience to God. We can’t do it alone; we will stumble along the way. Be at peace. God, who is rich in mercy and full of grace, will be faithful to keep doing the things only God can do in our hearts and minds.

Third, focus on Jesus. Read the gospels. Study the person and work of Jesus. Sing about Jesus. Pray in worship of Jesus. Commit yourself to living in the path of life that Jesus has laid out for us. That must include filling yourself with truth, which is can be found not just in Scripture but in teachings, books, podcasts, counseling, and mentoring. [iii] I hope this is something you see happening at CLG consistently, but we can’t do it enough. You are going to need to “feed yourselves” too.

One thing that stands out to me: a life characterized by love of God looks very, very compelling: responsible, open, forgiving, humble, self-controlled, loving, generous, content. That’s why Jesus said his yoke of obedience is easy, and his burden of sacrifice is light (Matthew 11:30). It brings abundant goodness and life (John 10:10).

God’s desire is that we flourish as His children in His Kingdom for His glory. His path is for us; it is the ‘after care’ plan that leads us ever more deeply into the spiritual healing and transformed life that only Jesus can bring. I will close with David’s encouragement: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good (really dive in and experience it!); blessed are those who trust in him.” (Psalm 34:8)


[1] There’s more but these are the big three!

[i] Read a book called Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes for more examples.

[ii] Obedience is ideally meant to point us toward the goodness of the one to whom we are obedient.

  • My Crossfit training pointed me toward my instructor’s wisdom.
  • Following a coach’s instruction reveals a coach’s good plan. ‘Buying in’ to the coach’s system is the same as ‘buying in’ to the coach.
  • Following the directions and creating a tasty dish – especially when I am skeptical about the combination of ingredients - points me toward the creative wonder of a good chef.

There is something about the process of obedience that points us to the one who gave the commands. Walking in the path of Jesus helps us to appreciate the person of Jesus. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8) carries with it the idea of experiencing God, and in the context of the Psalms it so often has to do with obedience.

[iii] I really recommend starting with Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew.

Runners and Rulers (Insights From Philemon)

Paul  wrote to Philemon, “So if you look upon me as your partner in this mission, then I ask you to open your heart to him as you would welcome me.” When Paul talks about partnership in a mission, he uses the word koinonos - one with common interests, feelings, work and heart (v.17)). There is a mutual partnership aspect. It’s an active word, an event word, a group word. It is not passive or solo.  It’s about life together in Christ within a church community.

Disunity is not an option for followers of Christ. Unfortunately, Philemon and Onesimus were undermining this project. Through them, we learn two important things: If you are a follower of Christ committed to doing life together, you shouldn’t run, and you shouldn’t rule.


Don't Run

Onesimus is a runner. He apparently stole from Philemon, took off, was captured, and ended up in prison. The Bible doesn’t say if he knew Paul before or if he just happened to meet him in jail, but there they are. While in captivity, Onesimus commits his life to following Christ. Paul says he’s now a “dear brother in the Lord” who lives up to his name (“useful”) and ministers to Paul.

 If I were Onesimus, I would be thinking, “Awesome! I’ve got Paul on my side. Paul will set Philemon straight on the whole ‘servant’ thing, pacify him, and tell him to give me what I deserve now!”  But Paul’s apparently thinking, “Awesome! Onesimus is a follower of Christ now. He’s in the family. Now he can fix the relationship he broke!”

 It seems much easier to run away after we offend someone, especially if the consequences are daunting.  It's hard to fault Onesimus on this point, especially considering the way in which runaway doulos were handled at that time. Philemon was apparently well respected for his kindness and generosity, but it's hard to envision a scenario in which Onesimus could have just returned without there being significant consequences (see my previous post for the life of a doulos).

But Paul knew what he was doing. If Onesimus was truly a follower of Christ, then he had committed to a particular way of doing life.  We'll look at how Paul handles Philemon as well, but for now let's focus on Paul's challenge to Onesimus: Followers of Christ cannot run from conflict. Onesimus ran physically; we can run just as far in other ways as well.

 1. We run from the reality of our actions

I was sitting at a coffee shop a couple months ago when I overheard a someone tell a friend about some interaction between her and her boyfriend. From what I could tell from her own very confident presentation of herself, they were both jerks in that situation. But her conclusion was: “I’m a lot of woman. If he can’t handle me, that’s his problem.”  That’s running away from your actions. Any time we say,“They started it. I had a bad day. I wasn’t feeling well. It’s just my personality!” we are running away from the reality of the impact our actions have on others.  

2. We run from our emotions

First, we can do this by minimizing an issue.  “Oh, it’s not that big of a deal. They’re tough – they can handle it.”  Sometimes, other people do need to learn how to let things go. But other times, this reaction shows how we are able to minimize significant issues – usually when we were the one at fault. If our life was a movie, we would star in “Honey, I Shrunk The Problem!”

 I’ve noticed a tendency to do this in the mornings when I’m tired.  I become critical and snappy, and it’s so easy to drive my boys to school in awkward silence thinking, “My boys are upset because they can’t handle it when I’m just trying to help them become men.”  Actually, I am passive-aggressively whining about every little thing that’s out of place and didn’t annoy me last night when I wasn’t tired but became the most important thing of the morning.”  If I want a good life together with my boys, I can’t deflect and minimize. I have to be an honest person.

 Second, I can pretend something didn’t matter to me when it really did. The other night, my wife and and I were talking about a situation in the community in which I felt I needed to be involved.  She said, “Why do you feel obligated to be involved in that? You don’t have time!”  And I said, “How can you lack so much empathy?” It was not one of my better moments.

 At that point, we both wanted the conversation to end. I was watching an NBA playoff game and Sheila had a book. We both thought about running away into those diversions. Five years ago, we might have sprinted into the safety of our own little worlds. But we are trying not to be runners, and we stayed there, which forced some introspection.

 I realized I had lashed out with an unfair criticism because I wanted to avoid what I was really feeling. I had run from myself, then tried to deflect my failure onto her. So I had to acknowledge to Sheila: “You know what? That wasn’t fair. I wasn’t honest.  I don’t have time to get involved in this thing. You’re right. I said what I did so I didn’t have to acknowledge something else I am struggling with.” And then it was time for the hard work of honesty.

We can’t run away from reality emotionally by minimizing our impact on others or hiding from ourselves. It will kill relationships.

 3. We run from the situation

We think, “If I just go here – in another room, in another house, with another friend, to another job or church – this problem will go away. “ Don’t misunderstand: there are some problems that require distance, in particular situations of abuse or volatile emotional conflict. Space can be a blessing in certain situations if it is uses wisely and purposefully.

 But in general, running away from conflict won’t resolve the situation or the heart of the problem.  Running might feel good – ah, peace! – but whatever instigated the conflict will probably just pop up in another situation, because all the core reasons the conflict happened in the first place have not been dealt with.

  • Why do my friendships keep eroding?
  • Why is every boss such a jerk?
  • Why am I getting consistent critical feedback in this area?
  • Why did I feel comfortable saying something so mean?
  • Why did I think it was okay to act so selfishly?
  • What is causing me to believe that I am owed something by others?

There’s a common denominator in all the situations we are in: us.  If we keep running when we should be staying, we will never see ourselves clearly, we won’t change, situations won’t change, and we will never stop running. Staying means revisiting the situation, revisiting the people, swallowing hard and being just as honest in self-confrontation as we are in confronting others.

That’s hard – but so is not changing. “Staying” has the potential to bring life. Paul said, “I am sending Onesimus to stand before you” with this goal: “You will have him back forever.” We can’t run.  We must stand.  It’s the only way to genuinely build relationships and a community that will stand the test of time.

Don't Rule

If Onesimus’s problem was that he Ran, Philemon’s problem was that he Ruled.  

Paul does not say this directly, but the letters to Philemon (and to the Colossian church of which he was a part) offer reminders about what ought to be happening – and you usually don’t have to correct things people are doing right. In this case, Philemon had some work to do. He is fighting to overcome a lifetime of social, emotional, relational, and spiritual baggage. This may be a trickier issue for Paul to handle, because Philemon probably didn’t even see it in himself. He grew up in a culture in which the following mindset was pervasive:

  •  “The Greek finds his personal dignity in the fact that he is free.” (Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). They scorned anyone who did not have freedom – in this case, the doulos, servants or slaves.
  •  Aristotle said slaves were “living tools,“ slaves by nature, almost like animals.  “The doulos belonged by nature not to himself, but to someone else” (The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). The Romans had a saying translated as “a slave has no persona," no personality. He has no identity or status apart from what his master and his usefulness granted him.  In fact, in legal cases, the “character” of the doulos was considered representative of the master's character.
  •  When we read the dramas and poetry that has survived from Paul’s time, we see that the Athenians viewed people like Onesimus as skilled and productive, but assumed they were con artist acting nice but planning devious things.

Philemon was used to being one of the free Greek citizens whose worth and dignity was defined by freedom (except his doulos to the civil law – that was the only way that word was used for free Greek citizens).  He had been raised to simply accept his culture’s perspective, probably without thought.  That kind of indoctrination does not go away overnight. He had given his life to follow Christ, but how easy it must have been for him to default to his former perspective:

  • “Onesimus has no rights; he’s not my equal.”
  • “Onesimus is by nature meant to serve me.”
  • “Onesimus betrayed me – he is a con artist.”

We we see in Paul’s letter a call to face our sinful attitudes and the way they impact others. It seems much easier to ignore our ingrained pride or elitism, or simply refuse to hear that we could possibly be contributing to the problem.  An obvious connection is the sinfulness of thinking we are better than others because of their race or gender.  Other forms of elitism are more subtle. But when we refuse to deal with the pride within us, we take on the mindset of rulers.  It’s not pretty. I suspect we all struggle in some area of our life with “ruling”, believing that we are intrinsically just better than other people in certain areas. Christian rulers have certain attitudes in common:

  • They think people who don’t have as much money or things must be lazy or dumb or bad Christians.
  • They think people who struggle with a sin they don’t are more deserving of judgment by both God and other people.
  • They believe usefulness is a marker of worth.
  • They assume people who don’t experience God the same way they do are automatically not as spiritual as they are.
  • They elevate or disdain certain people based on class, skill set, personality, or interests. It’s no surprise that the most important people are just like them.

Paul didn't’ let Onesimus run, but he’s not going to send a Runner back to a Ruler. Paul says of Onesimus, “receive him” (v.17) – literally, “take him into your home with kindness.” Onesimus is Philemon’s “brother,” a term the Greeks NEVER applied to anyone other than a blood brother – until now.  Paul said Philemon was a doulos to God – an idea which the Greeks NEVER applied to someone’s relationship to the gods – until now.

 Paul was saying (and I paraphrase), “Philemon – your view of people is deeply wrong. You think others aren’t as good or deserving or useful as you are. You and Onesimus are brothers, so you should protect, defend and honor him. You are both doulos to God, so your character needs to match your master - forgive and receive Onesimus as Christ has forgiven and accepted you.” 

If Philemon takes Paul seriously, there is no way Onesimus – or Philemon’s other servants – will be treated as “living tools” lacking intrinsic value or worth.  In fact, if the early Christians reading this letter took Paul seriously, any system of slavery, exploitive servitude or arrogant elitism would only whither and die. If all followers of Christ are truly brothers and sisters, a community of compassion, service, honor and love is the only way the God's spiritual kingdom can be embodied on earth (see the quotes about the early church at the end of my previous post to see how this played out in the 1st and 2nd century). 

Don’t run. Don’t rule.

Live bound together as brothers and sisters, servants of Christ.  Commit to being part of a spiritual family that loves deeply and sacrificially.  It won't be easy – but life together never is. It’s risky, vulnerable, and humbling. But it’s the only way to truly build a church, and it’s the only way to experience genuine life together in Christ.  



The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary , N.T. Wright

The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon,  Douglas Moo

"New Testament: Philemon," (

"Philemon: Introduction, Argument and Outline," (

"The Epistle to Philemon," (

“The Unique Characteristics of Christian Forgiveness,” by Eric McKiddie (

 “Keller and Carson: Greco-Roman Slavery and Race Based Slavery,” by Andy Naselli,

“What Were Early Christians Like?” at

Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

"Philemon and Its Connection to Colossians," by Mike Rogers (

“Resisting Slaver in Ancient Rome,” (

"Women, Children, and Slaves,"


Live in Brokenness (Emotionally Healthy Church Part 3)

When Paul wrote about being “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:2), he used the word for the metamorphosis a butterfly experiences when it leaves the cocoon. When we give our life to Christ, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and convicts us, we develop a longing to be free of harmful traditions and habits and experience freedom.

Here’s the thing: if a butterfly is robbed of the struggle, it will never be able to fly. If God’s creation gives us insight into the mind of the Creator – and I think it often does – there are times that He is going to let us struggle. He will do all the things only God can do – but there is purpose to the struggles he allows us to have (or perhaps even wants us to have).  

Today we are going to talk about the importance of living in brokenness. This is not a call to shame and depression; it’s a look at the metamorphosis, the struggle to break free of all kinds of things that threaten to wrap us in sin and failure. Our text is the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.

 “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.

When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to his senses he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father.

But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.

But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


The Lost Younger Brother

  • He basically tells his father, “I want to live as if you were dead.”
  • He sells his inheritance at a loss; he has no sense of the life that has been offered to him
  • He moves to a country that is “far away” in more ways than one
  • He loses everything the father gave him
  • He settles for the most “unclean” work imaginable rather than go home.

He is arrogant, rude, selfish, irresponsible, and blind to his path to destruction. He is content to be degraded and used to live far from the Father. Jesus’ Jewish audience was probably tracking with him so far – yeah, that’s a bad kid.  His heart and soul are a wreck and his life followed.

The Lost Older Brother

  • The older brother should have helped heal the broken relationship between his father and brother. Instead, he apparently does nothing. He lets his younger brother publically shame himself so he can benefit.
  • He keeps everything his father gave him with entitlement instead of gratitude. “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.”
  • He becomes combative and argumentative, bitter that a sinner like his brother would be celebrated when they came back home.
  • He brings out a scorecard: “What? Not even a goat for me?”  
  • The story begins with the younger brother insulting his father leaving the house; it ends with the older brother dishonoring his father by refusing to enter.

 He is arrogant, rude, selfish, judgmental, and blind to the corruption in his heart. Jesus’ audience was probably a little more surprised by this twist. The older son was supposed to be the good guy, but his heart and soul were a wreck also. 

Two brothers in two fields. Both far from the Father in ways that look very different. One is wildly sinful, the other properly sinful.  One is obviously rebellious, the other subtly so. One shames his father by challenging him, the other by failing to defend him.  Only one makes it back home. What changes? What’s the difference between the two? 

One of them was willing to reveal his brokenness with the hope of recovery and restoration.

  • “I have sinned against heaven and earth” vs. “I have never disobeyed.”
  • “Just make me a slave!” vs. “All these years I’ve slaved for you!”
  • “I’m not worthy to be your son” vs. “You’ve never given me what I deserve!”

 One sees his sin and is driven to repentance; the other refuses to see his sin and responds with judgment. One is humble and vulnerable before God and others; the other refuses to concede he could have done anything wrong. One longs to return home; the other refuses to enter his house. One knows what it’s like to be found; the other never knew what it was like to be lost.

The younger brother reached a point where he said, “This is who I am - and it’s not good.”  He “came to his senses” and saw himself as he truly was – through the eyes of the Father. The older brother  never saw himself as he actually was. He never comes to his senses.  At this point in the story he remains blind to his sin, unbroken and unrepentant. 

 Did you notice that nobody went to get the older brother for the party?

  • the village would certainly be buzzing with the news of the returned sons
  • a party had started for his long lost brother on his property
  • his father had to butcher one of the older brother’s cattle and go through the process of preparing it, which I assume took a while.
  • there were servants who were certainly a part of all of this

And nobody goes to get him. 

 But why would they? What would he bring to a party like that? Well, we know what he brought to his father. Judgment. Anger. Jealousy. Accusations. Unhappiness. Pride. Grudges.

Luke records a story where Jesus was in the house of a Jewish religious leader when a “sinful woman” shows up to wash his feet with very expensive perfume.  They criticized him, but he responded:  “Whoever has been forgiven little, loves little.”  (Luke 7:47).  It's not that the Pharisees didn’t need forgiveness –they just didn’t think they did. They didn’t know what it was like to feel the weight and the cost of their sin – and then find forgiveness, healing and hope.

 Genuine brokenness brings repentance and transformation.

Brokenness and repentance are not important just because they restore our relationship to God – it is in this struggle that we grow to understand grace and forgiveness. The younger brother and the sinful woman were changed.  Even while they were “the worst of sinners” (to quote the Apostle Paul), God the Father extends his forgiveness, grace, love, and restoration.  I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience… (1 Timothy 1:16)

 Kenneth Bailey, author of The Cross & the Prodigal, notes that a Jewish son who lost his inheritance among Gentiles and returned home would meet a community group that would break a large pot in front of him and yell, “You are now cut off from your people!”  The father probably ran in order to get to his son before he entered the village so that his son does not experience the shame he deserved. The village would probably have seen this emotional reunion and realized they would have to do what the father did and accept the lost younger son in spite of what he had done.

This is where brokenness and repentance sends us – back to the Father who loves us, runs to us, embraces us, cleans us up, restores us, invites all of us to celebrate with him. 


**The posts in this series (Look Beneath The Surface, Break the Power of the Past) are built from a summary of notes I used when preaching a sermon series based on Peter Scazzero's Emotionally Healthy Church and Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (both the books and the study guides). Most of the main points comes from his work. I note when I quote him directly, but most of what you read are this insights paraphrased or adjusted to fit my audience and venue. Learn more at his website and his blog, and by all means order his books and read them thoroughly.