Message: Grace Rocks . . . . Our Relationships
Scripture: Colossians 3:12-17
Date: June 22, 2014
This is our second week of our Summer Makeover. Last week we talked about the essential role of grace and forgiveness in our relationship with God. We said that forgiveness is God’s answer to some of the most basic questions with which we are confronted in this life. And we introduced some spiritual exercises like repentance and confession which lead us towards accepting God’s grace. But as difficult as all that is, it is not nearly as hard as coming to a place of grace and forgiveness in our personal relationships. Because when compared with a perfect God, it is not hard to recognize when we have strayed from His path. However, this week we’re going to talk about the significant relationships of our lives, and it is not always so easy to recognize the place of grace and forgiveness in those.
Let us pray.
Who are the significant relationships in your life?
I read the other day in an article by a psychologist, that most people are extremely fortunate if we have as many as six or seven significant loving relationships in our lifetimes. Now we certainly have more acquaintances than that along the way. But what he meant by significant relationships are relationships that last a lifetime. They transcend place and time and circumstances and remain strong through everything that happens to us in this life. These are people that we are willing to share life with. For some of us, if we are married, hopefully our spouse is one of those relationships. Sometimes a sibling, a brother or a sister, is one of those significant relationships. But often times they are people that we have met along the way and developed a special bond with. They are truly a gift from God. But sustaining important and meaningful relationships is hard work. I remember talking with a couple in one of the church’s in the Ashland District that were getting ready to celebrate their 60th wedding and I asked what the secret to longevity was and the woman said: “You’ve got to work at it everyday.” There are times in any significant relationship when it is hard to maintain it. You’ve got to work at it. And most often the struggles in our relationships relate back to our sin.
Now that may seem to be an odd statement, but remember last week we said that the scriptural definition of sin is “straying from the path or missing the mark.” Well, in this letter to the Colossians, this third chapter in particular, the Apostle Paul is really laying out the path that we need to take if we are going to be in enduring relationships. Last week we talked about the 32nd Psalm in which David said, “Blessed are those whose sins are covered.” And in these words to the Colossians, Paul is telling them what they need to clothe their sins, cover their sins with, especially when it comes to our relationships. According to Paul there are five road signs on the path to a significant, God blessed, covered relationship with another.
The first marker is compassion. One of the dictionary definitions of compassion is “being able to see the world as another person sees it.” It is hard to stray from the path when you are walking in another person’s shoes.
And then according to Paul the second path marker is kindness. Quite simply kindnesses are blessings offered with no thought of return. It’s when we start acting kindly but our selfish motives are uncovered that we begin to stray from the path.
Thirdly Paul talks about humility, or working towards the needs of others before thought of your own needs. Ego uncovered causes us to stray from God’s path.
Fourthly, he talks about meekness, which is treating one another with a gentle spirit. When the gentleness goes out of our conversations and actions with one another, we will lose the path to a positive relationship.
And the fifth marker that Paul lifts up is patience. Significant relationships are ones that can endure a great deal of what the world has to throw at them. It’s when we lose that willingness to continue on no matter what that we become uncovered.
So Paul says the keys to living in community with one another are: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. As long as we remain clothed or covered by those, we will remain on the path and our relationships will thrive. But when the cover is ripped off in even one of those areas, then the relationship will begin to struggle. That’s when sin enters into our relationships. And we begin to hurt the people who mean the most to us. Our spouses and our most significant others.
Now sometimes it happens very gradually, even subtly. Little things begin to build up. Now if we return to our rock illustration from last week. The rocks represent the wrongs we do and the back pack represents our soul. Only in this case these are the sins we commit which effect our relationship with another. Imagine that the small stones are these little irritations that build up in any relationship. Minor annoyances. These are the habits that build up. When I do premarital counseling I always do a session on the small things that can lead to big trouble. Things like whether you squeeze the toothpaste tube in the middle or at the end. Who’s going to take out the trash or do the dishes. These are the small stones that by themselves won’t do much damage. In most relationships we deal with them and they are never added to our Back Pack. But the problem is that if we don’t really deal with the small things, they keep building up until they become something much larger. Or they piggy back on the larger stones and so they might not be the source of the problem but they certainly add to it. They keep adding up and adding up until they place a heavy burden on our relationships. They become a road block that sends us down other paths Last week we talked about sin as that space between the path of God and the path we choose. And we said that those sins place a heavy burden on us that we were never intended to carry. And forgiveness comes when we give those burdens that have filled up our soul to Jesus. He took our burdens to the cross. Well, I think what we need to see is that in the case of our most important relationships the back pack really becomes a “front” pack and the stones that we add become barriers between ourselves and our spouses or the other significant relationships in our lives. It’s hard to embrace one another when there are back packs full of stones between us. The Apostle Paul often speaks of forgiveness in accounting terms. And the word “reconciled” which is one of the products of forgiveness (in other words when we forgive or are forgiven we are reconciled one to the other). But here’s the thing. Offering and receiving forgiveness are really dependent on poor accounting practices. You see a good accountant has a spread sheet which lists our assets and then has a column for our credits and our debits and if they balance out then we are in good financial shape. But the reality is that in most relationships the credits and the debits column don’t always equal out. There are times when the debits far out number the credits. It is certainly true in our relationship with God. And it is true in our relationships with those we care about the most. But Jesus was a poor accountant and took on all of our debits in order to make the books balance. But Paul tells us that it is more than just poor accounting practice, that when we love God and our spouses and our closest friends, we, in essence, eliminate the debit column all together. When we truly love and are truly loved there is no sense of balancing the books. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth in what has come to be known as the love chapter of the Bible, that “love keeps no record of wrong.” When we love we live in a constant state of reconciliation because forgiveness erases the debit column. We don’t ignore the small stones. We just don’t let them become bigger ones. When we practice compassion, kindness, humility meekness and patience in our relationships, then our credits add up, and it’s not just that the debits are wiped clean, but rather they are never added in to the equation at all. Love makes poor accountants of us all, and because of that, these are lasting relationships. The key is to not let these little stones pile up until they become something much larger and come between us and the important people in our lives.
And then there are the medium stones. These are the hurtful things we do that can’t easily be dealt with. They are hard sins to be kept off the books. When we truly love another person we learn where they are most vulnerable. We all have those places in our lives where we are vulnerable and part of being in a loving relationship is trusting another with those. Often times the medium stones represent those times when we exploit those vulnerabilities and violate the trust of another. They are the intentional hurts that we inflict on those that we love. And so here’s what we need to understand – when we hurt one we love and who loves us – it is as though we are placing a stone in their back pack, in their soul, as well as ours because when we love someone, we are in essence saying that we are willing to do what Jesus has done for us, out of his great love, and that is take their burdens on ourselves. But our sin breaks down that trust and, so, the sin of our spouse or loved one toward us, becomes our burden to bear. Now there are basically two ways that we can choose to react when that happens.
First, we can seek to give the stone back. You hurt me, so now I’m going to hurt you even more. You must atone for the hurt that you have done to me. We can seek justice – to balance the books. An eye for an eye. Tooth for a tooth. Now most often what happens when we react in that way is that we begin a downward spiral of shifting the hurt back and forth until eventually the relationship is completely off the path and often irretrievably broken. Most of the relationships or our lives can not stand up to this idea of seeking justice. Before Jesus, humankind’s relationship with God became more and more strained, because it was based on atonement. If you sinned against God or your fellow man, you needed to atone for that before the relationship could be repaired. Bring your burden to the temple with a sacrifice for atonement. But when Jesus came and said place your sins, place your burdens on me, he redefined what a loving relationship was all about.
Love does not seek justice, or atonement. Love seeks mercy and grace. Which is the second way that we can choose to react when others hurt us. We can receive these rocks, but rather than add them to our back pack or theirs we choose to drop them on the ground. Not let them become a burden to anyone. Essentially give our relationships to Jesus and let Him carry these burdens also. Let His Grace pour over every part of our relationship. Because forgiveness is not based on what we deserve – or even think we’ve earned. Truly forgiveness is that which we don’t deserve.
And so to deal with these medium sized stones in our loving relationships there must be repentance. We must repent to one another. Now this term repentance has a pretty broad meaning in scripture. In general it refers to change.
But sometimes repent most clearly is referring to a change of mind. It is the awareness that what we have done has caused hurt to others. And so when we repent, we acknowledge that. Upon reflection we confess that “I know what I did – or I know what I said- or what I didn’t do or say – really hurt you.” It is the acknowledgement of the bad choices that we have made in the context of our relationship.
And then at other times repent refers to a change of heart. We come to the point of regretting what we have done. Sometimes in our relationships we want to play the blame game. “I know what I did was wrong, but the circumstances forced me into it.” Or we want to shift the blame to someone else. Or we want to shift the blame back to the other person. “I know what I did was wrong, but I was just reacting to what you had done to me.” But for forgiveness to be genuine, we have got to have a change of heart. Not only acknowledge what we’ve done, but take responsibility for it. Own it. Apologize. Seek to be forgiven.
And then sometimes repent is talked about in terms of turning our lives around. It’s a change of direction. If sin is abandoning the path that God has laid out for us and taking our own path, then it stands to reason that forgiveness must involve turning around. Retracing our steps until we come back to the right path. And not only turning around but resolving not to go in that direction again. Now that certainly doesn’t mean that we will never take a wrong path again, but true repentance must include a resolution to do all that we can to not go down that particular path again.
Now I believe that for forgiveness to happen in the context of our loving relationships, for us to deal with the medium sized stones – repentance needs to involve all of these – a change of mind, a change of heart and a change of direction. In laying out the path for us to live in community with one another, Paul says to the Colossians that you must “Bear with one another”. He knew that creating that kind of community would be hard work at times. I believe that it is the ability to navigate through the medium sized stones that transforms a mere friendship into a lasting, loving relationship. And lays the solid foundation for Christian community. I said a moment ago that we can choose to receive these rocks but that rather than place them in our back pack so that they become burdens, through grace and love we can toss them to the ground. (Place the bricks on the ground) Well you see, when we do that, they become a solid foundation upon which our lasting relationships are built.
But then there are the really large stones. These are those things that have the potential to add a crushing burden to our relationships. These are sins that shake the very foundation of love and trust upon which all lasting relationships are built. These are the sins of abuse which, whether it be physical abuse or emotional abuse or psychological abuse, is a crushing burden to bear. Or these are the sins of neglect often brought on by addictive behaviors. Or these are the sins of betrayal. In a marriage they are often the sin of infidelity and adultery. And here’s the thing. Many times these rocks are so large that they don’t really fit in our soul (our back pack) at all. Or if they do, if we somehow manage to take the burden on, there isn’t room for anything else. Often times those who carry these stones say things like: “I’ll never love anyone again.” Or “I’ll never trust anyone again.” The burden is so great that we feel isolated “no one knows the heavy burden I bear” and alone “no one can help me carry this.” When the truth is that even if we can somehow make this stone fit into our back pack it is too heavy to bear or even if we can pick it up, it won’t be too long before it tears the back pack apart. Often times under the weight of such a burden relationships end, marriages split apart. Sometimes the stones are too heavy for us, and if they are going to be carried at all, we can’t do it alone. These burdens require certainly that both parties in the relationship carry them equally and often times they require the assistance of others. Pastors and counselors and other loved ones. And most especially Jesus our Lord, who is ready to take on even the burdens of the largest of stones that weigh us down. Sometimes our relationships require a lot of extraordinary help if they are to find the right path again and move forward. The errant path that we have chosen to walk has been long and hard, and the way back is hard and long. In his book, Forgiveness, pastor Adam Hamilton shares a letter from a woman in his church whose husband had been unfaithful to her, in which she writes about how hard the path of Forgiveness had been. She wrote:
I wasn’t sure at first that I wanted to forgive my husband, but I decided to try. It helped that he admitted to the affair and said he wanted to work to rebuild our marriage. I thought at first that I should forgive him because it was the “right” and “Christian” thing to do, but at the same time, I argued with myself that I should walk away because it hurt too much. There wasn’t a moment when I could say, “Okay now, I’ve forgiven him.” Forgiving him was something that I had to decide to do daily. I don’t think that my forgiving him was necessarily only for his sake. I needed to forgive him for my sake as well, because if I didn’t bitterness, hurt and anger would have stayed in control.
If we are to deal with the largest stones in our lives, then forgiveness must come again and again, every step of the way, and so must repentance. So that even if the relationship does not survive, the individuals in that relationship can still forgive and be forgiven. Even if the largest stones crush our relationship, we can not let them crush our souls. Ultimately grace is about our souls. Paul Boese once observed that Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future. Surely that’s what Paul had in mind, when after listing those things that would provide the path to Christian community and relationships: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, Paul says “Above all let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” Forgiveness comes when there is genuine repentance and then we choose to carry the burden together until both are back on the path that God has planned for us. Forgiveness opens us up to the joy that God desires for the rest of our lives, whether that be life together or apart, but abundant life in the name of Jesus who ultimately bears all of our burdens. We can not truly deal with the largest stones in our life without the strength and grace and love that Jesus brings to each one of us who claim Him as our Lord.