There are certain things you can be absolutely sure of. The Cleveland Browns will always be the cellar dwellers of the AFC North. Rocky I will always be a great movie. People in Tallahassee will always drive too slow (since moving here, I’ve discovered this phenomenon rarely glimpsed in the Northeast; it’s called driving-the-speed-limit). Paul McCartney will always be a great songwriter.
And, if you’re a pastor (or plan to be one), you will sin and you will be sinned against. To quote Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is.” Toss a bunch of sinners together in a church, appoint someone to lead them and, as predictable as taxes and death, sin happens.
So here’s the thing: If you’re going to be fruitful and effective in pastoral ministry, you must learn the Biblical art of forgiveness. Being unable to forgive will seriously hamstring you in ministry.
Because forgiveness is such a crucial aspect of pastoral ministry, Satan and your sin nature will conspire together to keep you from forgiveness. Specifically, they will employ three distortions in an effort to steer you off the path of forgiveness and into the swamp of bitterness.
Distortion 1: “I’m not a sinner, I’m a victim.”
In Matthew 18:28, a servant who had just been forgiven a massive debt (10,000 talents), encountered someone who owed him a small amount of money. When he saw that servant, a switch was flipped in his head, and then he flipped on his fellow servant:
But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’
The first servant was forgiven a great debt, but he forgot all of that when he saw the second servant, who owed him a relatively small amount. His first thought was, He has harmed me, defrauded me, and victimized me. Therefore, he owes me! He grabbed the aggrieved status, played the victim card, and left orbit in a manic fury.
As an aspiring pastor, you must always remember: The status we assign ourselves must start with the gospel, not our experiences, our pain, our history, or the actions or omissions of others. This is a difficult reality because, let’s face it, sin can be horrific! We live in a world of abuse, molestation, rape, and murder. Maybe you’ve been touched by one of these tragedies, and if I heard your story I would weep with you. These tragedies are real, painful, and significant.
But, in Scripture, “sinned against” is not the first and primary status of the Christian. Rather, our primary status is first and foremost: “Loved by God, yet sinful”. This status is important to affirm because it defines us in relation to God. This status particularly brings us face to face with a theological reality that offers perspective as we ponder how we’ve been sinned against. We have sinned against God far more than any person has sinned against us. Read that again, this time slower. It means that our deepest problem is not that others have sinned against us, but that we have sinned first against God.
Have you ever noticed that when we think of our stories, we are always standing sinless at center stage? Other people join our drama by entering our story and committing sins or omitting things they should have done. But us? We’re just a bundle of good intentions, blessing others and speaking cheer. We are good people who always seem to have bad things happen to us. We live as if we are perpetually being sinned against!
But Scripture doesn’t describe us primarily as people who have been sinned against. In 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul says the following about himself: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
Even though Paul was sinned against by many people (including being nearly stoned to death and beaten with rods!), he didn’t see himself primarily as a victim. Rather, he identified himself as sinner who had been saved by Christ.
If you see yourself primarily as a victim rather than a sinner saved by grace, you’ll never learn how to help people entrenched in bitterness or caged by their own sense of victimization. The gospel won’t flow through you until it’s first applied to you.
Distortion 2: “Sure I’m a sinner, but your sins are worse than mine!”
At the heart of resentment lies a status we assign to ourselves (I have been sinned against!) and a debt we deny (Sure, I’ve sinned against God, but did you see how they sinned against me?). This distortion makes other people’s sins seem big and our sins seem small. More significantly, it waters the seeds of self righteousness within our own soul.
The self-righteous man says, “Sure, I’m a sinner, but I am better than you. In fact my moral superiority provides me a vantage point to authoritatively diagnose and evaluate your heart.” Actually, it can get pretty ugly. Self-righteousness converts Christians into Pharisees. Or, self-righteousness infiltrates the arena of discernment. This is the area where I’m most often guilty. My sinful self-righteousness causes me to elevate my own interpretation of a situation and dismiss someone else’s opinion.
Self-righteousness creates a swap where we become the judge instead of God. Our opinions morph from charitable into an “objective” standard by which other people are measured.
It’s the boss who will only see an employee as lazy because the employee was late once and the boss is never late. It’s the parent who believes all of her children should agree with her opinions, and if they don’t, they feel her disapproval. It’s the man who refuses to forgive someone, even after that person has confessed his sin, because the confession didn’t seem “sincere enough”.
Self-righteousness distorts our perspective. Rather than living out of, “I have been forgiven a great debt,” we live out of, “Sure, I’ve sinned, but look at you!” Few things will sink a pastor faster than self-righteousness. If you are going to be fruitful in pastoral ministry, you must learn to see people more through God’s grace rather than their sin. And you must learn to agree with Paul, “…that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
Distortion 3: “I’m not a sinner, I’m an enforcer.”
At the heart of unforgiveness is the assumption that we have the right to assign blame and then enforce a penalty. We assume that our aggrieved status gives us the right to exact vengeance. This is exactly what the unforgiving servant did in Matthew 18:28. The unforgiving servant had just been forgiven an enormous debt, but when he encountered a fellow servant who owed him a smaller amount, he enforced the penalty for the lesser debt. The unforgiving servant assumed that he had the right to take vengeance.
What we must understand is that the cross relieves us of our bondage to enforce punishment for smaller debts. How does it do this? By leveling the playing field. The cross reminds us that God has forgiven us an incomprehensible debt. Because of His astounding love, God now sends us to one another to pass along the same blessing, not the punishment, we’ve received.
We are not the arbiter of penalties, we are debtors who have been forgiven a great debt. It is because we are forgiven sinners that we forgive.
The only way to dispel the distortions from our lives is by the cleansing power of the gospel. Constantly being aware that you have been forgiven of the greatest debt will set you free from feeling like you must exact vengeance for the sins that have been inflicted on you.
At the heart of the gospel is a great injustice. The One who truly was the enforcer chose not to enforce the penalty for our sins, but chose instead bear them penalty himself on the cross. 2 Corinthians 5:21 puts it this way:
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Dispelling the Distortions
The cross doesn’t ignore or deny sin. On the contrary, it stares courageously at our worst moments and says, “Your story doesn’t end there.” To move forward from the distortions that can plague your ministry, you must come to grips with the great debt you owed which God forgave.
If you enter pastoral ministry, you will be sinned against, but those moments don’t need to define you. Why? Because they are part of God’s work in your soul and call upon your life. Forgiven sinners forgive sin. And forgiven pastors love them and help them as they do.