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Life Notes

Poor Decisions

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.  Romans 8:26, 28

I first saw the message on a billboard. It read: “Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes the reason is you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” While the word stupid is harsh, I laughed at the message – until I began thinking more deeply about it. How many times do I attribute the consequences of my behavior to others or to circumstance, instead of accepting responsibility for my own lack of foresight or intellectual lapses? Bad luck? Someone else’s incompetence? Sometimes these may be plausible excuses, but my ego generally does not deal maturely with my shortcomings, and so it seeks a scapegoat – even a self-denigrating scapegoat. Surely, I did not bring this onto myself – I am not that dumb. Yet, I cannot count the times poorly chosen or unfortunate words have escaped from my mouth, or I have acted in ways I later regretted. Yes, everything happens for a reason, and sometimes that reason is my stupidity.

Stupidity and bad decision-making can be used as excuses, however, and reasons for not being fully present to and accountable for an unfortunate situation. Hiding behind these self-deprecating masks can be a defense mechanism – no one will criticize me if I confess to being stupid, will they? People don’t kick a dead horse, do they? Surely, they will seek to lift me up, praise and flatter me by professing how intelligent I am. If I plead nolo contendre by reason of my own ignorance, others will pity me and let me off the hook.

The truth is that we all make poor decisions and suffer lapses in judgement. Just because we act in stupid ways, at times, does not make us stupid – it makes us human. The sin is not in making poor decisions but in how we react to the poor decisions we make. We can easily make situations worse if we do not accept responsibility, apologize as appropriate, and make a sincere effort to atone for our mistakes.

Certainly, we should take care not to confuse stupidity with being unworthy of love and acceptance. Just because we make a bad decision does not disqualify us from receiving the love of God and others. We are children, in God’s eyes, and children make childish mistakes. God’s forgiveness is given more readily than is usually true with others or ourselves. Sometimes the best we can do is to own up to the sometimes unpleasant consequences of our humanity, forgiving ourselves and forgiving others.

Come home to church this Sunday. Good things happen for a reason, too!

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Rules of Forgiveness

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:12-14

There is a popular saying that I do not care for. It goes like this: “It is easier to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.” Perhaps the reason I am not fond of this philosophy is that I usually hear it from an employee or child after they have done something I wish they had discussed with me first. I believe forgiveness is appropriate for anyone who is sorry for what has been done. If one continues to do something they know is not right, however, it is difficult to believe they are truly sorry for it. Perhaps they are not sorry for what they did, but only regret they were caught. Of course, there are others times when forgiving someone is in our best interest, even if the other person is not seeking our forgiveness.

The comedian Emo Phillips said, “I asked God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked for forgiveness.” While I agree that God willingly and repeatedly grants forgiveness, I also believe there are expectations attached to forgiveness. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul advises us to forgive others as we have been forgiven. He also says to be compassionate, kind, humble, meek, and patient in our dealings with others.

Repentance – literally to turn around – is a common expectation for forgiveness. When we repent of our sin, we acknowledge a need to change something within, and so we seek to turn around. Confession of our sins is another expectation for forgiveness. When we confess, we accept responsibility for our actions. If there are rules of forgiveness, they likely include accepting responsibility for our actions and being willing to change.

Paul, however, sums up forgiveness in a word, love. In typical Paul-style, he uses many words to get to the point, but love is clearly there. Our need to forgive or to be forgiven always occurs in relationship to another – to God, to a family member, to a friend or co-worker. If we love that person, or at least if we value the relationship, we will not intentionally do them harm. When we say or do something harmful, we want to make it right. Thus, we seek forgiveness out of love. Likewise, we are more likely to grant forgiveness when we have been wronged if we love another or value our relationship with them. The rule of forgiveness, then, is actually very simple: love one another.

Come home to church this Sunday. If you must steal a bicycle to go, seek forgiveness.

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Owning Our Sin

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. –Psalm 32:5

I do not like to be reminded of my sinful nature. I fear that by acknowledging my sin I appear as a weak and undesirable person, and others will think less of me. I can easily recognize sin in those around me, and I too often comment – if only to myself – on their feebleness. Sinners murder and lie and steal. They commit adultery and take the Lord’s name in vain. Surely my shortcomings are not, well, that short. I like to believe I am above such dreadful behaviors.

Although I have never committed murder, physically, when I am honest with myself I know my words and actions sometimes injure others. Is causing mental or emotional anguish less of a sin than causing physical injury? I fear it is not. Just because our legal system does not prosecute mental and emotional harm in the same way it does physical harm does not mean the sins are not comparable when viewed from heaven – or from the heart of a wounded soul. Indeed, physical wounds often heal more quickly and completely than emotional wounds.

We lull ourselves into believing we have only sinned if we get caught, or if there is some direct and negative consequence of our behavior, or if there is no one else to blame it on. We forget that we reap what we sow, and the seeds we sow grow from our thoughts, words, and actions. When we sow harmful behaviors towards others, the resulting pain stems from us, regardless of whether we are identified as its source. Our sins are actions that separate us from God, as well as those that separate us from others. We all sin and need forgiveness, so being a sinner is not something we can truthfully hold against another anymore than being a sinner is something we can realistically deny in ourselves. Recognizing and confessing our sin, however, is healing both for ourselves and those impacted by our sin. Taking responsibility for our actions is an important stage in our growth as human beings and as children of God. Accepting responsibility is also the critical first step in addressing our sins and moving past them.

“The importance of recognizing our sin cannot be overstated. Until we accept responsibility for something, we cannot do anything about it. We must therefore accept our status as sinners before we can begin to deal effectively with the sin in our lives. We need to reach out to God. To do so, we must lessen that which separates us from God – our sin – and we cannot begin to weed out our sinful, separating traits until we admit to possessing them.” Excerpt from Finding Grace in an Imperfect World, available at the FUMC-Lawrence office, my website (www.ContemplatingGrace.Com) and other outlets.

Come home to church this Sunday. You will find that confession is good for the soul!

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