Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Lambs and Wolves: Sexual Abuse in the Church

For the past several years, the whole subject of sexual abuse in the church has been a sensitive topic. But there is a need in churches today to take this topic seriously, because the Bible takes this subject seriously.

Scripture addresses the roles of church leaders in protecting their flocks from wolves. It also has a lot to say about the compassion of God toward those who’ve been unjustly mistreated and bruised. 

The story of the Gospel is the story of redemption and healing the broken. Christians are called to live out the Gospel not only in their personal lives, but also within the church. Church leaders are called to reflect Christ in a unique way as guardians and shepherds as they disciple the congregation, enforce protection, and address sin within the church. This includes protecting the innocent, whether those involved have been accused of gross sin or claim to be the recipients of it.

Due to the nature of the authority structure God has place in the church and the complexities of church discipline, it’s not always a cut-and-dry procedure. The Bible contains the basic structure of gospel-centered confrontation, restoration, repentance, excommunication, and true healing, as well as the underlying principles of love and compassion that must be involved every step of the way. But for me to outline how it should be done would be overstepping my role as a woman in the church and communicate oversimplification on a topic which requires much prayer, humility, and discernment.

God has given more wisdom to many pastors who have traveled this road already. This short post is simply intended to provide a brief list of resources as a springboard in aiding this discussion without overstepping the biblical boundaries.

Bible Study:
Church Discipline - Matthew 18; 1 Corinthians 5-6; Galatians 6:1-5; James 4:4-10, 5:16-20
Elder and Deacon Qualifications – Acts 20:28-31a; 1 Timothy 3; Titus 1:5-16
Repentance – 2 Corinthians 7:9-10; Hebrews 12:6-11; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15

Safeguarding the Church:
G. R. A. C. E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) –
Hammett, John, Those Who Must Give an Account: A Study of Church Membership and Church Discipline

Church Life:

Biblical Counseling:
Pink, A.W., The Nature of God

Dealing with Abuse:
(Spanish edition of Putting Your Past in Its Place)

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Problem with Men

Men. The word triggers conflicting emotions. My mind automatically freezes as I struggle to sort prejudice from truth, and truth from experience.

On the one hand, I’ve had positive experiences with my Dad, older brother, and numerous brothers in Christ. My uncles, grandpas, and cousins never did anything to harm me. But all it took was one young man in the context of childhood sexual abuse and my five-year-old mind immediately drew the connection between gender and fear. After that, I was never 100% sure that any man was safe. It was like being hit by a car and knowing better than to play near the road again. Or be near a car, for that matter.

At first, I pushed all men away, including the respectful ones, determined to put up a safe distance so I didn’t get hurt again. But it wasn’t that simple. In pushing men away, I grew up with a skewed perception that no men could not be trusted no matter what they said or did. The more they tried to be friendly, the more I thought they were trying to trick me. As I grew older, I learned to be awkwardly polite, but to be alone with a man was at the top of my list of Top 10 Things to Avoid, along with crocodiles and drowning.

By pushing away truly honorable men, I also pushed away the spheres in which a young woman should naturally feel treasured and safe. I cared about many of them, but was constantly on guard simply because they were men. It was easy to pretend normality in a crowd where I could fake busyness or silently observe from the corner. But if a man’s attention suddenly zeroed in on me for polite chit-chat (as they so often did in the friendly church I grew up in), it took all my willpower not to have a meltdown in front of them (and sometimes willpower wasn’t even enough). It was exhausting, this constant watchfulness for danger, because men existed everywhere I went.

In the meantime, I was starving for male attention and love. I longed to be pursued, but dreaded the moment when a man would. It was like a cyclic nightmare. A word, a gesture of kindness, a smile, and I was over the moon. But let one get too close meant vulnerability, and vulnerability meant exposure and pain. The thought of rejection was too much to bear and my prison of fear grew stronger.

Until one young man saw the challenge and accepted it. He pursued me and loved me even when baby steps of trust took months and years. As my confidence grew, my fear of men retreated to the background. Here was a man who truly loved me despite my quirks. I was so sure that this man would put my fear of men to rest.

But the honeymoon was short and marriage was hard. I discovered I was married to a man who wasn’t perfect, whose love wasn’t enough to cast out my fears. Vulnerability wasn’t easy, and I couldn’t escape into a corner anymore.

For the first few years of our marriage, I struggled as my strong distrust of men returned and marriage triggered things from my past. The old panic reappeared, and with it, shame directed at my beloved husband who had never been part of that chapter. I was falling apart, but I refused to tell my husband anything because I was afraid to lose him. Old patterns of dissociation and pushing people away kept me locked in another reality as I fought to keep the past out of the present.

But I could not truly escape. At night, I had recurring nightmares of being raped, pursued, seduced, and betrayed. I often woke up disoriented which affected my perception of men during the day while fear attacked on so many levels. You never told your husband about the abuse before you got married; if he finds out, he’s going to divorce you for living a lie. You’re deceiving so many people who care about you; no good churchgoer wants to be friends with a hypocrite. Your fears are immature; it’s time to grow up and get over them. You’ve lived this long without telling anyone and survived; what’s a few more years?

It was as though God was making my life miserable on purpose. Like He was trying to tell me something but I was afraid of what it would cost. I had been fostering this fear of men all my life, justifying it because I’d been victimized. But I also knew the damage it was doing. The pain was so great that I found myself fantasizing about being abused again because I thought it would be easier to live with reality than the torment of waiting for the inevitable.

But thank God, He is not content to give up on His children. Thank God, He responds to brokenness by taking initiative and doing something about it, rather than passively waiting for them to accept His terms. In recent years, God has forced me to walk through the fiery furnace, but I have not been alone. He has shown me that the problem is rooted in something much bigger than gender.

I was raised by Christian parents who took the Bible very seriously. I heard the Gospel regularly at church and home. God mercifully saved me when I was around fourteen years old and I was baptized shortly after. But there was an experiential gap.

I never completely trusted God. I could not see Him, but I knew He was real which was unnerving, like a presence I could never escape. I knew what it felt like to be out of control, but no matter how well I tried to organize my life, somehow the circumstances never happened according to my plans. My life felt so unstable and fragile, and I was afraid to love anything or anyone because people were also changing. Constant change fueled the fear that God wasn’t who He said He was. That everything I believed was a lie.

Even so, I was drawn to God, to the fact that everything the Bible said about Him was nothing I’d ever experienced in a male. And it intrigued me. God is not like us.

From Genesis to Revelation and everything in between, God never responded to circumstances like people did. His response was always bigger, His perspective always broader. It was as though He was working on a completely different level at all times. But it was the way He related to people that always made me hesitate in fully trusting Him because my experiences didn’t line up with who He claimed to be.

He is the Creator of all things in this universe (Isa. 45:18). He is the Father of those whom He has caused to be born again (Rom. 8:14-15). He is the Redeemer of souls in bondage to sin (Isa. 47:4). He is the Head of the church, the promised Husband of the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:23).

The problem is when these relationships are distorted in our experience. How I initially responded to men after my abuse is a perfectly natural human response. It’s natural to point the finger at the opposite sex just because there are certain tendencies within genders that emerge. Men are often stronger and see life as one giant competition between the sexes and amongst themselves. Men are wired differently and often take advantage of women and children. Fathers fail, and even provoke the very ones they are supposed to care for and protect. Those of us who’ve experienced freedom from bondage often become enslaved to other manipulators. Husbands don’t consistently love the woman they’ve promised to cherish until death. Many times, men take advantage of those who are weaker, even within the local church.

But when God originally created a good and perfect world, He also created the beauty of male and female gender when He made a perfect Adam and Eve. Moments later, Adam imitates God’s enthusiasm when he says, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:23) Adam and Eve’s gender differences were designed to complement one another, not destroy each other. 

But with the first sin came conflict.

Instead of confessing his fault, Adam blame-shifted, saying, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:12a). Immediately there was a barrier between the sexes. He tried to excuse his actions by throwing his wife under the bus. Ultimately, Adam blamed God who had created them. And by blaming God, he also twisted everything God had revealed Himself to be.

In spite of Adam and Eve’s sin, God’s standards of truth and obedience never changed. There were consequences for their actions, including separation from God. Sin continues to separate every person from the presence of God. Gender is simply one of the systems through which the overflow of the heart is channeled.

Romans 3:10-12, 23 emphasizes this point: As it is written, “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.”
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

Both men and women abuse children. Men and women murder others. Both rebel against their parents. Both twist the truth and tell lies. Both commit adultery and immorality. Both are selfish and fight for their rights at the expense of others. Both hate God. Both indulge in pornography and human trafficking. Both use His holy name as curse words. Both have hearts full of bitterness, malice, and gossip. Both ignore God’s special day of rest. Both abandon their families. Both steal what doesn’t belong to them. Both ignore what the Bible says. Both are equally deserving of eternal punishment in Hell for their sins.

My problem with men is not their gender. It is rooted in my first-hand fear of evil. I’d tasted it at an age that could not comprehend its darkness, only its effects. I understood the depravity of mankind, but very quickly that good fear of evil morphed into terrified distrust of men. 
Which gradually turned into a distorted fear of God who was also male. 
Which in turn, alienated me from the very relationship my soul needed and longed for.

I was no different than Adam and Eve who blame-shifted rather than holding each other accountable for actual sins. Yes, I had done nothing to deserve abuse, but my good response of fear of evil quickly merged into fear consuming me and judging people based on their gender. It was humbling for me to see how quickly a good thing had slid into a bad thing. My fears needed to be reconciled with the truth.

Whenever the Bible talks about truth, it does so within the scope of the bigger picture. Our shame and guilt are not limited to what we’ve done or had done against us. It also impacts our relationship with our Creator. Even though God compares Himself to male relationships we can relate to, He is not limited to our understanding. God is unlike anyone we will ever know. He is the standard through whom our experiences must be viewed, not the other way around. He is the true Father, Redeemer, and Husband. To know truth starts with having a right understanding of who God is. Only then will our broken experiences start to make sense.

Proverbs 3:5-6, Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding [including experience!]. In all your ways, acknowledge Him and He will make your paths straight.
Romans 11:33-36, Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Who better to show what God is like than God Himself? And yet He had to do it in such a way that would get close to sinners without also consuming them in His wrath. This is exactly what God did. The word of God is truth, and the Word of God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

John 1:14 says, And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus is God with us, Immanuel. To know what God is like, I cannot compare God to every male sinner I’ve ever known. This is a road of fear. I must look to Christ who is the perfect representative of God because He is fully God. As our perfect representative, He is also a fully male yet sinless human being, and unlike any Man I will ever know.

Even though He is God, Jesus did not wield His power in a macho display of chauvinism, but emptied Himself, becoming a servant of both men and women in order to save them. Out of His love and compassion, Jesus accomplished everything necessary on our behalf through His perfect life, death, and resurrection. 
Out of His holiness and justice, Jesus holds every sinner responsible for their sin. 
Out of His grace and mercy, He offers Himself as their only hope, and changes people from sinners to saints through the power of the Holy Spirit. 
Out of the bigger picture, He does all to the glory of God.

John 3:16, For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

Because of Jesus, I have also experienced that God is unlike any man I’ll ever know. When I realized this, I found myself at a crossroad. Throughout my life, my fear of men had distorted how I viewed God, but now I needed to confront my past with the truth of who Christ is and what He’d done for me.

Let me just say that first baby step was the hardest. I didn’t know how it would end. I’d been trying to escape from my past since I was a child, but now I knew God wanted me to turn around and face that nightmare with Him.

So I went to the very beginning. The distorted thinking regarding men had started with my abuser. Because of him, I grew up thinking all men wanted to hurt me. It spread to the way I viewed my father when he didn’t believe me about the abuse, so I couldn’t trust any man in authority to protect me. It spread to the way I viewed other men when my fear pushed away the male companionship I longed for. It idolized my husband to the point where I lived a lie and was more afraid of losing him than giving him the opportunity to show compassion when he discovered the truth. Ultimately, it contaminated my view of God because the tangled mess deceived me into thinking I was too broken for God to love.

I realized the problem was never men. The problem lay deep, even deeper than what had been done to me by men. I’d been afraid of the pain involved in trusting God with my past, just as I’d experienced pain in trusting people. I was afraid He was just like them. And just as I’d feared, the pain came.

But this pain was different. It was the pain of eyes squinting against the brightness of a sunrise after shivering so long in the night. Like growing pains, it had purpose and hope. And joy upon joy, I saw the bigger picture of the truth, that God had always been there in every moment of my life working all things together for my good and not harm.

He was there in the darkness as well as the light. He was there in the pain as well as the joy. People had failed me. People had sinned against me. People came and went. I had been walking in the shadows of fear for so long, focused on surviving circumstances that insisted on being out of my control. But now I saw the bigger picture, the winding path God led me on from place to place, and the lessons He showed me about His character. It was here that I saw once again that it’s not about me. It never has been.

God has always been there. His goodness, mercy, and love never change. Throughout the years, His faithfulness continually focused and re-focused my gaze on Jesus. He knew about my past. He included my story within the scope of His in order to lead me to true comfort in Him. God’s fingerprints are scattered over my entire life and I can trust His orchestration for my future. He is the One in control. And the more I see Him, the more I trust Him.

Now as I look forward, it is freeing to know that my problem with men is so much bigger than gender. God calls both men and women to repent of their sins and believe in Jesus Christ. Through Christ, there is no distinction between male and female in the offer of salvation (Gal. 3:28). Through Christ, gender receives purpose again as brothers and sisters in the greater organism of the church (1 Tim. 5:1-15; Titus 2). Through Christ, the power of fear is overthrown as God’s love proves stronger (1 John 4:18-19).

The problem with man is sin. My problem with men is fear. 

Jesus is the perfect solution to both.

Further Resources:
Read Psalm 118. Notice how the Psalmist focuses his heart on who God is (verses 1-4) before addressing his own fears (verses 5-14). He then redirects those fears to hope in the Savior which God would provide (verses 15-24). The Psalmist ends with a prayer and places his fears in the hands of God who loves him (verses 25-29). Spend a few moments praying this Psalm to God in light of your deepest fears.

Bridges, Jerry, Trusting God
Packer, J. I., Knowing God
Pink, A. W., The Attributes of God

Note: All Scripture references used from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) unless otherwise noted.

Public Domain Photo Credits:
Man in the Hat – George Hodan
Statue of Man – George Hodan

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Fighting Bitterness: Making Peace – Part 2

Many families have traditions. These traditions give a sense of belonging, a reassurance of stability. Some families get up before the sun rises on Christmas morning to read the story of Jesus’ birth by the light of a decorated evergreen tree. Some serve pie for birthdays instead of cake. Others go camping at the same campsite on the same day every year. Traditions are a way of keeping memories alive.

But there are infamous family traditions as well. Some children grow up hating others of different colors or nationalities simply because their parents or relatives do. Some cling to historical wrongs like it happened yesterday because letting go would mean they had forsaken the core purpose of their tribe or clan. Sometimes misunderstandings or wrongs are done within a family and it tears the family apart as bitterness and retaliation are passed on generation after generation.

Bitterness is a complex sin. It corrodes marriages, divides siblings, and splits churches. Sports team loyalties get nasty. Small town feuds turn ugly. Passionate convictions in political parties, rights, and denominations easily erupt into malicious hatred against those who get in the way.

Bitterness is not something that disappears overnight, even after a person is saved. It’s a battle against the pain of unwarranted consequences, against the reminders of ongoing difficult relationships. It doesn’t matter if we are on vacation, or change relationships, or receive the desires of our heart. Bitterness clings to a person like a cloak. Its poison seeps out in the mundane through grumbling and complaining, hostility, and resentment. And since we share this sin-cursed world with other sinners, pain and undeserved suffering will continue until we draw our last breath.

In my last post (see Bitterness: Caught in the Middle – Part 1), I showed the importance of receiving peace with our Creator before we can ever hope to have peace with other people or the past. Bitterness elevates wrongs and injustice so that we feel justified in suppressed anger, even murder. But God levels the standard so that everyone who sins is guilty before Him (Rom. 3:23).

It is humbling to be placed in the same category as the ones who wrong us, but our sin against God is infinitely more wrong than anything anyone can do to us. Jesus Christ is the answer to our separation from God. He is the Peacemaker who endured hostility and abuse from sinners and willingly took the consequences their sins deserved so that He could grant eternal life through His amazing grace. The love and compassion of our Creator is a great example of how we should interact with our own enemies. But He is more than an example, Jesus must be our everything.

Ephesians 2:4-10, But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

If you have been changed by the power of the Holy Spirit in salvation, the battle against the sin of bitterness is just beginning. Bitterness is inextricably linked with our former identity as a sinner. As children of God, we are called to put off the old self (Col. 3:5-10) and put on Christ (vv. 12-17).

Recently I was pulling weeds with my daughters. The sun was hot. There were ants and spiders. We were sweaty and our hands were tender from thorns and slivers. I confess it was frustrating that we’d waited so long. How were these dumb weeds thriving in the middle of ants’ nests and gravel while my basil and tomatoes wilted if I missed one day of watering? They were brown and gnarly from weeks without a good downpour. I purposefully drove over them every time I came up the driveway. My husband chopped them to grass level with the weed-whacker. It went against all reason, yet somehow they flourished (and multiplied!) with neglect while my vegetables needed to be babied and watered constantly.

As I sat on the edge of the driveway that hot June day, the tops of the weeds kept snapping off in my hand leaving stubborn taproots behind. Pulling weeds from the cultivated soil of a garden is much easier than from a desert wasteland baking in the hot sun, I discovered. But I was too lazy to find the shovel in our messy shed. Before long, the job was done – or so it appeared. A few days later, the weeds reappeared along the driveway because the roots had not been dealt with.

In Mark 4:3-20, Jesus compares people’s hearts to different fields. Every heart begins as a depraved, hardened field full of weeds. When God saves a person, He softens their heart with the water of the Holy Spirit and causes the good seed of His Word to come alive in their heart. But this is when the real difficulty begins.

Even though God changes the hard soil of a person’s heart into soft soil, the weeds must still be pulled. As long as a Christian is pursuing Christ, their heart will remain sensitive to temptation and desperate for God’s grace. Weeds will be addressed sooner rather than later. But if sin is passively allowed to remain, it will slowly choke out the good fruits of repentance and faith.

Often it is difficult to recognize weeds until they have already taken root. Bitterness is like this. It is human to grumble about the weather, abuse, pain, or stress. But it is also  sin when we shake our fist at God who created the circumstances or slander people who hurt us. The more grumbling is tolerated, the deeper bitterness takes root. As the conviction to repent is ignored and the grace of God is taken for granted, the harder the soil of our heart becomes, making it that much harder to pull out the root of bitterness.

If you are a child of God, there are serious long-term spiritual consequences when bitterness is allowed to stay. Consider four of the most serious consequences:

Bitterness attempts to quench the Holy Spirit. If you have been made alive through Jesus Christ, God has given you something greater than a conscience to ensure that the soil of your heart produces fruit. The Holy Spirit produces life in each of God’s children through the water of God’s word and the sunlight of God’s means of grace. To ignore this Helper – even blatantly disregarding what the Bible says – is to “quench”, or attempt to extinguish, the Holy Spirit Himself. It is to deny life to our very soul. As long as the Holy Spirit is actively cherished, bitterness cannot endure for long.

1 Thessalonians 5:15-19, See that no one repays another with evil for evil, but always seek after that which is good for one another and for all people. Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit.

Bitterness grieves the Holy Spirit. Many times we forget that God has emotions. But in the midst of sovereignly-planned circumstances, God responds with righteous emotions, including grief when His children stubbornly cling to bitterness and sin. God deeply loves His children and earnestly desires their holiness. If you have experienced true regeneration yet refuse to fight against bitterness, this defiance grieves the Holy Spirit who actively ensures your salvation before God. He grieves because He deeply loves God’s beloved children and desires their good.

Ephesians 4:30-31, Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.

Bitterness spreads like poison. It overflows in conversation and snide comments. It spreads rumors and wants others to feel sorry for it. But when we allow bitterness to spread through malice, slander, or gossip, we are actually heaping sin upon sin by causing trouble. Hebrews 12:15 gives a sobering warning on the seriousness of allowing bitterness to bear fruit. To “come short of the grace of God” is to react to difficulty according to selfishness, rather than showing grace as God has shown even to someone who deserves the opposite.

Hebrews 12:15, See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springing up causes trouble, and by it many be defiled.

Bitterness hardens the heart. In the Old Testament, the Israelites missed the point of their redemption from slavery. They thought God would lead them immediately to the Promised Land. They expected Him to give them bread and water whenever they wanted. They wanted God to conquer their enemies for them and were surprised when He allowed their enemies to subdue them every time they rebelled. Rather than responding in faith, they responded in bitterness which eventually led to a hardened heart. They were so focused on their expectations that they were willing to forfeit the blessings of the bigger picture of walking in a relationship with the One who loved them. This warning holds true for all God’s people today. The bigger picture is learning what it means to love and be loved by Jesus Christ as we follow Him in faith for the rest of our life – no matter the cost!

Hebrews 3:14-15, For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end, while it is said, “Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, as when they provoked Me.”

Uprooting bitterness is often discouraging because it takes more blood, sweat, and tears to uproot than if we just let it go. But life is filled with pain and injustice. It’s not a matter of if I’m tempted, but when. In fighting against the weeds of bitterness, I have found it encouraging to consider God’s provision. If we are to put off sin, how does God tell us to respond instead?

To “dwell on” is a familiar phrase to those who struggle with bitterness. Bitterness regurgitates and ruminates on past wrongs. It is no accident that God uses the phrase “dwell on” in Philippians 4:7-8 as to where our thoughts ought to be, And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.

As a practical exercise in redirecting our thoughts and emotions, consider the principles from Romans 12:14-21:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly.
Do not be wise in your own estimation.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone.
Respect what is right in the sight of all men.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.

During the time of the Roman Empire, painful circumstances were a daily occurrence in the early church. They were despised and hated by the authorities, burned at the stake, and fed to wild animals for the entertainment of the mob. Families were torn apart, women raped, children enslaved, and fathers crucified. Their land was taken away, their possessions plundered, and houses burned. Yet God never gave them a hall pass for bitterness. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul penned these verses to the suffering church in Rome to encourage them to dwell on the right things.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse (v. 14). To curse someone is to wish evil upon them, that they would burn in hell, that they would get cancer or that they would experience the same pain they’ve inflicted on others. Blessing our persecutor does not mean faking a smile and wishing them happiness in their current state of sin. It means to pray for their salvation, that they would receive mercy from God through Jesus before it’s too late. The first time I tried praying specifically for my abuser and other people who had wronged me, I was surprised at how difficult it was to get those first words out. I wrestled against the pain, mostly just regurgitating it at the feet of Christ. I was faced with the need to forgive and let it sit in God’s hands where it belonged. I realized praying for my enemies was not only for their sakes but also for my own in the fight against bitterness.

Matthew 5:44-45, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep (v. 15). This phrase hits home when something good is withheld and given to someone else, or when suffering comes into another’s life after they’ve inflicted much suffering on others. Emotions are severely tested in this command to celebrate in their joy or grieve in their loss. It’s eye-opening to realize how much bitterness has taken hold when we cannot sincerely follow through with this command. God sovereignly orchestrates circumstances to reveal whether our hearts are at peace in Him or harboring bitterness.

Matthew 6:21, 33, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation (v. 16). Bitterness prefers to be around those who agree and shuns those who disagree. It judges based on appearances, nationality, race, class in society, IQ, and sex. But here we are reminded of our identity in Christ. God has placed the standard of redemption at a level that eliminates cultural categorization and self-righteousness. Salvation is based on Jesus Christ, not anything that might be brought to the table. Our interactions with others should be humble, saturated with undeserved grace and kindness, because this is how God interacts with us.

Ephesians 5:2, And walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.

Never pay back evil for evil to anyone (v. 17). Often a person who has been taken advantage of harbors deep resentment, longing to hurt those who have wronged them. The problem is it often backfires. If you’ve ever seen children fighting, you will understand what I mean. The wronged child smacks the one who wronged them, who smacks them back, and soon there’s a full-blown war going on while the original crime lays forgotten in the dust. Bitterness involves rash anger in which the end (vengeance) justifies the means (whatever it takes). But God tests our heart by eliminating the option of repaying evil altogether. He sees our plight. If you are His child, He is your Protector and will not stand by forever.

Proverbs 20:22, Do not say, “I will repay evil”; wait for the Lord, and He will save you.

If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men (v. 18). Earlier we looked at the important role of Jesus as our Peacemaker. He did not pretend our sins were no big deal (peace-faking) or get fed up with the injustice He experienced and throw in the towel (peace-breaking). Rather, He persevered and accomplished peace between God and man through redemption and forgiveness, even under much loss and pain. We are to reflect Christ in being peacemakers “as far as it depends on us”. This peacemaking is seen when we interact with others on a level that holds them accountable for the sake of their salvation, but refuses to hold their sins against them. We represent the undeserved grace of Jesus Christ before anything else, even before wrongs done against us.

2 Corinthians 5:20-21, Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (v. 20). To be overcome by something gives the idea of the loser in a battle. Our instinctive reaction to evil is to end its effects as soon as possible through escaping or retaliation. But God is calling us to go deeper and address the source. To “overcome evil with good” is to show the same basic dignity to our enemies as fellow recipients of God’s mercy by not withholding their basic needs (Rom. 5:8). Rather than escape or retaliation, we are called to compassion which God often uses as a means to humble sinners, or “heap burning coals upon his head” (v. 20b).

Romans 12:19-21, Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

If your heart has been softened through salvation, you are safe in the love of Jesus Christ even in the midst of ongoing struggle. The same Creator who created the universe “very good” is actively redeeming His children and making all things beautiful in its time. May you be encouraged to fight against bitterness and receive the peace God has promised through faith in Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 4:19, Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

Further Resources:
The book of James was written to Jewish Christians who experienced great persecution because of their faith in Jesus Christ. It was written regarding sanctification – how regeneration is worked out practically in the daily life of true believers. I would recommend reading the entire book and memorizing James chapter 1.

Lane, Tim and Paul David Tripp, Relationships: A Mess Worth Making

Note: All Scripture referenced from the New American Standard Bible (NASB), unless otherwise noted.

Public Domain Photo credits:
Wild Horses – Jean Beaufort
Man in the Shadow – George Hodan