Free to Forgive
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Ephesians 4:32
Read Ephesians 4:32-5:9
Our family travelled to Uganda this year to visit relatives who live there. One night in Entebbe we went to a fantastic wood-fired pizza restaurant right on the beach owned by a Rwandan woman, Goretti, married to a Dutch diplomat (Classic! An Italian restaurant run by a Rwandan married to a Dutchman living in Uganda!). She has an amazing story. Living in Europe when the genocide began in Rwanda, she returned to find 63 family members had been killed. How could she go on after that tragedy? She says, “You must forgive, or your life is over.”
These sorts of stories about radical forgiveness intrigue me. What motivates some to seek revenge while others spread mercy?
Perhaps the most haunting snapshot of the Vietnam War was a widely publicized photograph of a little girl running naked down the street, screaming in pain. She was burning from the effects of a napalm bomb. The girl was Kim Phuc. Years later, as a grown woman she was a guest of honor at the Vietnam Memorial on Veteran’s Day. She laid a wreath at the monument and then gave a short speech: “As you know, I am the little girl who was running in the famous picture… I have suffered a lot from both physical and emotional pain… but God saved my life and gave me faith and hope.”
She told how, in the moments after the attack, the photographer who took her picture brought her to a hospital. Years of painful burn therapy followed. Later the Vietnamese government sent Kim to Cuba to study. There she met and married Bui Huy Toan, a Christian, and became a believer herself. On their way home from their honeymoon in Moscow the couple defected to Canada, where they now live with their son. Their goal is to go back to Vietnam to share the gospel of grace with their people.
At the Veteran’s Day ceremony, Kim publicly forgave the unknown pilot whose load of napalm seared her skin and killed her grandmother and two younger brothers: “Even if I could talk face to face… I would tell him we cannot change history, but we should try to do good things for the present and for the future to promote peace.”
At that point, according to newspaper accounts, many of the veterans present began to openly weep.
The more amazed you are at God’s grace to you, the more you’ll find yourself inspired to give grace to others. This is such an important result of grace that Paul says in 2 Corinthians:
As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. 2 Corinthians 6:1
What a haunting sentence! What does he mean, “receive God’s grace in vain”? In the previous verses we see the specific context: This is about forgiving a brother who sinned.
Earlier in the epistle Paul talks about how the Corinthian congregation had put out of its fellowship a person who had done something terrible — it may be the same man Paul discussed in First Corinthians who was openly living in sin with his own step-mother. In any case, a man had committed some kind of sin, had been put out of the fellowship, and had now repented.
Paul wants the church to receive this guy back, but the church leadership is apparently unwilling. They’re suspicious of his motives and mindful of his past. But then Paul says in Christ we’re all new creations; the old is gone, the new is come.
Then in 2 Corinthians 6:1 Paul says he fears that the Corinthians have essentially received God’s grace “in vain”; that is, they believe in God’s grace for themselves but apparently it is not changing their hearts to the point they are willing to extend grace to another.
What about you? Are you still stingy with forgiveness even after it’s been richly lavished on you? Are you secretly annoyed that God will probably forgive someone more easily than you might? Anyone who hasn’t done quite enough to receive your mercy?
I have had to wrestle with this myself. For years I felt white-hot anger whenever I thought of the man who molested me when I was his 9-year-old piano student. His identity was lost to our family after all those years, but I still fantasized vengeance periodically. I had to learn to give my hurts to God and release anger that was only poisoning me. This decision began a process of healing in my life that truly set me free.
Have you found it easy or difficult to forgive others?
Is there someone you need to forgive?
Bring to God any grievances you hold. Ask Him to help you show grace as you have received grace. Ask God to help you not receive His grace in vain. Ask Him to help you know how to show radical grace to others in a way that is wise and godly.
Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt,
so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6
Read Ephesians 4:25-31
I love that phrase: “Let your conversation be always full of grace.” It reminds me of a slogan I saw in Hawaii: “Spread the aloha spirit.” Spread the grace spirit! How? As always, Jesus is your guide.
Think of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4). When she says, “I have no husband,” Jesus could have attacked her for her immorality (turns out she has had several husbands and is not married to the guy she is living with) but instead He compliments her for her candor!
Think of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8). By all rights, He could have condemned her. Instead He reminds everyone in the crowd that they too have sinned — and then says to her, “Neither do I condemn you.”
Think of Jesus and Peter after the resurrection (John 21). He gently restores him with the question, “Do you love me?” and then the simple phrase, “Feed my sheep.”
“Full of grace” means “gracious” and “graceful” speech, but it means more than that. As James Montgomery Boice points out, the way Paul uses the words in this verse could also mean “let your conversation be full of the doctrines of grace.” In other words, “Let a lot of what you talk about be God’s grace.” What an encouraging subject!
Now think of conversations you hear in our society, on radio talk shows, or at work or school. Too often they’re full of insults, seasoned with sarcasm; or full of judgment, seasoned with self-righteousness; or full of anger, seasoned with crudity.
As poet Maya Angelou said on the Today show:
There is a blight in American society which has taken root in our souls and in our mouths: Vulgarity. Whether it comes from white shock-jocks or black hip-hop artists, vulgarity demeans people, robs them of dignity. How have we come to this place?
What about you? Let’s start a movement to change vulgar language and harsh language to grace-filled language. As part of this Grace Immersion, try this: For at least the next fifteen days, until the end of this study, only speak grace-filled words. After all, Paul says to let your conversation be always full of grace. That means more than just good manners (although that’s included!).
Seven ways to fill your conversation with grace:
Do this not as a duty; do this as a response to God’s grace to you! In simple terms: You give the grace you got from God!
The Grace Immersion means more than just learning about grace. It’s about really immersingyourself in a grace-filled lifestyle, and your words are part of that immersion!
As Justin Taylor puts it, “We think words, hear words, speak words, sing words, write words, and read words — all the time. Every day.” So the words you choose to use will shape your life and the lives of others more than almost any other single factor.
Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” What kind of “word-drugs” are we using in our culture today: Words that heal, or words that addict and destroy? How so?
Do you agree with Maya Angelou’s comments? Why?
How would you complete this sentence: “My words tend to be full of ____________________, seasoned with _____________?”
Again, ask God to help you show grace specifically through your words for the next 15 days!
If I Get Grace, I'll Get Gracious
Read Ephesians 4:17-24
One under-taught aspect of the doctrine of grace: If you’ve received grace, it should be making you gracious. In fact, Christians, if they are really immersed in their doctrine of grace, will be the most gracious people on the planet!
Our world needs this!
Columnist Martin Smith asks, “What social pathology explains the reluctance of so many people to pull over for passing funeral processions, to make small talk with fellow passengers, to exchange the pleasantries that for generations helped lubricate social discourse?”
Ours is a combative, aggressive, vulgar culture. But the kingdom of God’s culture is a gracious, forgiving, beautiful one. And we, as its ambassadors, should reflect that culture to everyone we meet.
John Vawter wrote a great book about this called Uncommon Graces. He talks about listening well, treating people with gentleness, showing mercy, and being kind. This kind of graciousness opens people’s hearts to hear the story of a gracious God.
In his book he talks about how Andy Rooney, the commentator from 60 Minutes, got into a New York taxi one day. He expected the typical New York abrasiveness from the cab driver, but instead he got a cheerful “Hello!” and a warm smile. And that was just the start! The driver was gracious and talkative during the whole trip.
It was such an unusual experience that before he got out of the cab, Rooney asked the guy why he was so polite and courteous.
“I’m out to change New York!” the driver said.
“But… you’re just one guy,” said Rooney.
“I know, but I figure if I show kindness to you, you’ll show it to the next person you meet, and they’ll pass it on to someone else. It’ll be like a big, expanding ripple, spreading out through the whole city!”
That’s a guy with vision about the power of graciousness!
There is a ripple effect and that’s one reason 1 Peter 3:16 says to share your hope “with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.”
Gracious behavior helps pave the way for the doctrine of grace.
Psalm 103:8 says that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”These characteristics of a gracious God can be reflected in you!
But does being grace-filled toward others mean I’m a mealy-mouthed weak-willed pushover? Does it mean I’m always mumbling apologies? More tomorrow!
How are you at being gracious? To whom is it most difficult to be gracious?
How does your graciousness level reflect an awareness of God’s grace?
Thank God today that He is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in love. Ask Him to help you be like that too — starting with your next interaction today!
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)… Ephesians 5:8–9
“This church is so different!” the woman rushed up after the worship service to tell me. Whenever I hear that I think, “Oh, no. This person just doesn’t know us that well yet! We’re full of the same kinds of knuckleheads — including me — as every other church!” (Sorry if you attend our church and don’t think you’re a knucklehead, but, hey: I call it like I see it.)
But as I listened further she went on: “As a kid I was dragged to a church that preached ‘hellfire and brimstone’ sermons. I left every service feeling guilty and condemned. But I’ve been here for the last two months, and I love how the preaching’s positive and upbeat!”
Again I was cautious and asked, “So how do you see God changing your life here?” I guess I was worried she saw us as a generic positive-thinking church that endorsed anything and everything.
“Well, everything about my life has changed,” she said. “If I can just be real candid, I have stopped sleeping around. I start and end every day with Bible reading and prayer and I love it. I’m in the women’s Bible study here. And I even stopped smoking pot!” Honestly I was stunned and stammered out something like, “Uh — I don’t remember preaching about pot lately!”
She laughed, “I know! But my first week here I prayed to receive Jesus into my heart, and that day I went home and just knew what I had to do!”
Now I don’t want to give you the impression it always happens this way, but you need to know that I see this sort of thing more often than not. I also do not want to give you the impression that this woman is now sinless and will have no further struggles. But when you get grace, you begin to change internally. Once you feel free, you don’t want to be a prisoner again, neither to legalism nor to sin.
I was seeing in that woman’s life exactly what Paul talks about here:
“Therefore, as God’s children, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Colossians 3:12
I used to see this as meaning, basically, “So since you’re Christians, act like Christians!” But that’s not exactly what Paul’s saying here, is it?
Zoom in on the phrase “dearly loved.” You are loved. Dearly loved. By God Himself! He has made you His child! Everything Paul says next is grounded in this act of grace.
Now you are compassionate… because you understand how infinitely compassionate God is to you. Now you are kind… because God’s kindness to you has led you to repentance. Now you can be humble… because you know you have not done anything to earn God’s love. Now you can be gentle… because God was gentle with you. Now you are patient… because you are aware of how amazingly patient God has been and continues to be with you.
And this is extremely, world-changing-level important: notice how Paul doesn’t really give out various religious rules in these verses when he describes the life of a Christian — he is describing character traits that develop in a heart that has been “graced.”
Funny thing is, that woman’s “hellfire and brimstone” childhood church probably preached the exact same biblical morality our church preaches. But they apparently used guilt as a motivator, not grace. One problem with guilt motivation: It only lasts as long as the guilt. So to keep people motivated, pastors in churches like that one have to keep preaching guilt.
Grace, though, never ends! It is infinitely fascinating and rewarding, as long as you stay focused on Jesus and not your own efforts.
How does an understanding of grace help give you a lasting motivation for changing the way you live?
What is one positive way your understanding of grace has changed your behavior?
Today pray, “Thank you Heavenly Father, that I am Your child, holy and dearly loved! Let me be as gracious to others as You have been to me.”
The Gospel According to LOST
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8–9
Read Ephesians 2:1-10
For six years the TV show Lost spun the yarn of several plane crash survivors on a mysterious island somewhere in the South Pacific. This masterfully made series captivated the imaginations of millions, including me.
The last show was an excellent parable for what passes for Christianity — or at least spirituality — in America today. In the afterlife the show’s characters all gather for passage into some sort of heaven. They meet in a place dominated by Christian symbolism: there are several shots of a statue of Christ; a character leading them is named “Christian Shepherd”; they sit in church-like pews… and there are also many symbols of other religions. But the real point of the episode is revealed in several comments about how characters had redeemed themselves.
As Maureen Ryan, the TV columnist for the Chicago Tribune, wrote, the last episode was “a testament to what the show was about: creating your own world. Creating your own fate.” She went on:
Sorry to get all religious on you, but… these lyrics came to mind:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
They once were lost, but now they’re found. They got to leave on their own terms. It just felt true to the show and [its] themes: It’s never too late. You can always remake your fate. No one is eternally good or bad. You can… redeem your character through your actions.
She’s right about the themes of the show, and I found it interesting they reminded her of ‘Amazing Grace.” But the song doesn’t say “I saved a wretch like me.” It says “Amazing grace saved a wretch like me.” The Lost finale was an emotionally moving demonstration of what you could call America’s pop culture religion: You may be “lost” but you can save yourself and go to heaven if you’re good enough.
It’s all so close to what the Bible teaches that a Christian friend asked me the day after the Lostfinale, “That’s not what we believe… is it?”
Well, I do think that’s exactly what a lot of us believe, but that’s not what the Bible teaches. Biblically, the lost are more like drowning people who can’t save themselves. In fact, the Bible puts it in even starker terms: Before God’s grace rescued you, you were dead. How much can a dead man do to save himself? Absolutely zero.
So why do we seem to want to believe we can redeem ourselves? In today’s passage from Ephesians — which reads like a summary of the whole book of Romans — the Apostle Paul implies this way of thinking gives me reason to “boast”: It makes me feel good about myself!
At first it’s soothing and hopeful when I believe I can turn my life around. It’s inspiring, in a self-help, Horatio Alger “Go west, young man!” kind of way, except the cry is, “Go to Heaven, young man!”
This last effect is the most dangerous of all. Pride has poisoned everything we humans have done here on earth, especially religion. The only way for human pride not to taint heaven is for salvation to come as a gift of love from a gracious God.
I still loved the Lost finale, but I know this: I once was lost, and when I go to heaven it will be because the true Christian Shepherd found me and will lead me home!
How would you describe the way our popular culture believes we get to heaven?
How would you describe the Bible’s teaching?
Thank God that you did not have to depend on your own works to get you to heaven, but were saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ! Ask God to help you spread that good news!
The Treasure You Already Have
In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. Ephesians 1:7–8
Read Ephesians 1:3-23
William Randolph Hearst invested a fortune in collecting works of art for his fabled home, Hearst Castle. The story goes that one day he read about some valuable pieces of art he just had to have. So he sent his art agent to Europe to find them. The agent looks high and low. Months go by. Finally he returns to California and reports to Hearst that the items have at last been found – but that Hearst absolutely cannot purchase them. Hearst is furious. “Name the price!” he says, “I must buy them!” “I am sorry sir,” the agent answers, “but that is impossible!”
Hearst is confused until the agent explains why: They’re already stored in his own warehouse. Hearst had purchased them years before! He’d owned them all along but was still seeking them, because they were hidden away, out of sight.
What a parallel to the way many Christians live! We have the riches of every blessing from God already “lavished on us” as Paul says in today’s reading, but many of us are still out looking for them! That’s because our riches, like Hearst’s art, are often hidden away, out of sight. It’s not that we don’t have God’s blessings — it’s just that we have forgotten! We need to frame them and display them — remind ourselves daily of our spiritual wealth!
Some of the riches you already own…
This is just the tip of the iceberg! And don’t forget it’s all “to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One he loves.” (Ephesians 1:6)
That’s why Paul says, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know …the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” (Ephesians 1:18)
Here’s an action step: This week, read the bullet points on the previous page of this devotion every day!
See, it’s when you understand the lavish grace you already have that you stop vainly trying to justify yourself, and begin to really change from the inside-out, as we’ll see tomorrow!
Why do we Christians forget about the treasure we already have?
Which of the bullet points is most difficult for you to believe? Easiest? Why?
Go through Ephesians 1 and thank God specifically for the many things that are true of you — by His grace!
Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:5 [the message]
I was so burned out by my obsession with performance and my drift into legalism that I knew that wasn’t the secret to living a changed, Christian life.
But when I started getting into the concept of grace, my old performance mentality sounded some major alarm bells: If I really owned the idea that I was forgiven and accepted totally by grace, wouldn’t I just sin like crazy? The fear of punishment had been my major motivator, so was there a better alternative?
One author has a great way to illustrate this. Imagine a kingdom where the king decreed that all prostitutes and thieves in the land would receive a royal pardon. Great news if you’re a prostitute or a thief. No more worries about your criminal record. No more anxiety every time you see a police officer. But you wouldn’t necessarily be motivated to change your lifestyle. In fact, maybe you’d even use the pardon as an excuse to continue your reckless behavior.
But now imagine that in addition to the pardon, the monarch came to a prostitute personally and asked her to be his wife. She’d be the queen, the royal representative of the kingdom. Would she be motivated to change? How could she not be?
Or imagine the king picking a thief off the streets and adopting him as a prince, the heir to all the riches of the kingdom. Why would that guy ever go back to thievery when he’s now a zillionaire?
Well, the Bible describes you as part of “The Bride of Christ,” the church. It also says you’ve been adopted into the family as an heir. Both descriptions mean that your identity has been altered.
When you became a Christian, you probably believed that because of the sacrifice of Christ your sins were forgiven. But do you understand that you are now also an heir, a bride, with all of the love and all of the riches of the Great King lavished on you? How could I have missed this? It’s a teaching throughout the Bible:
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! 1 John 3:1a
Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ… Romans 8:17
You are not a slave, but a child… And if you are a child, you’re also an heir, with complete access to the inheritance. Galatians 4:7 [the message]
So this week we’ll focus on erasing and replacing the old tapes playing in your head (“I am a loser!” “I am destined to disappoint and fail!” “I am a reject!”) with new tapes (“I am a child of the King!” “I am the royal representative of the new kingdom!” “I have a God-given role and destiny!”).
For true internal (and not just external) change it is vital to keep reminding yourself of the vast riches lavished on you by God’s grace. This is why the Apostle Paul starts most of his epistles with a wonder-filled meditation on the generosity of God. He is putting the horse before the cart when it comes to change — first you need to really have your eyes open to your blessed status; only then do you find motivation and inspiration to live a changed life!
I heard someone say it’s like taking away a toddler’s favorite stuffed animal. That kid is going to scream because he’s focused on what he’s losing. Now imagine replacing that stuffed animal with a puppy: The toddler’s got a new focus now!
That’s what you could call the grace method to overcoming sin. We are focused on what we’ve gained; our previous lives we count as loss. In other words, instead of saying “Do not sin,” Paul’s message is “Live freely!”
I’m not saying you’ll be a sinless, perfect person. But I guarantee you’ll spend less fruitless time wallowing in guilt and delayed by perfectionism, and more time being an ambassador for the kingdom and relaxing in the serenity and peace that come from living a new, righteous life!
Would you say most Christians are focused on sin (even trying hard not to sin), or are focused on their newness of life in Christ? Or something else? Why? What about you?
How can the concept of my new identity — given to me as a gift by God, not earned — help me change my behavior?
Thank God today for bringing you into His family. Pray for Christians who do not see themselves this way yet — that their eyes would be opened to the truth! (See Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1:15–19) Read Romans 6:13 and make it into a personal prayer as you offer each part of yourself to God as an instrument of righteousness.