Life Stories

This is a presentation that we use for Clinical Pastoral Education class. However, I it is quite relevant to missionaries. as well. It draws a bit from Narrative Counseling. “Bible Heroes,” as well as missionaries throughout history have complicated and painful lives. Part of their success was in embracing God’s perspective rather than their own. Some of that is also in my book “Theo-storying,” which is described in MY BOOKS.

The Problem of Forgiveness

Why should we forgive? In our counseling center, I have had so many tell me, we should forgive because God tells us we MUST. You might think that is enough. But it really isn’t, because when we are given a rule that we don’t like we look to how close we can get to the boundary– how close we can be to bad (vengeful, bitter, unforgiving–where we want to be) while still being good (where we are supposed to be). More effectively, we look for moral loopholes.the-changing-face-of-horse-racing-171

Loophole #1.  Forgiveness is only to be given if there is repentance (and some add confession). This answer is given by some.  This view is expressed HERE. The passage  that views is based on is Luke 17:3-4.

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sistersins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.
                                                                                 -Luke 17:3-4
But is repentance an absolute requirement for forgiveness? There are three problems with this interpretation.
  • This passage appears to provide a loophole (if it is a loophole) that the rest of the Bible doesn’t.  That should, at a minimum, give one pause for concern as to its interpretation.
  • The context (Luke 17) is about the dangers of a person erring, and another being complicit in that erring. Within the context the emphasis is on the importance of restoration, NOT on how to avoid forgiving. That is supported by the fact that the passage says what to do if the other person repents. It, however, gives NO explicit guidance on what to do if there is no (or “inadequate” demonstration of) repentance.
  • The Greek word that is translated forgive is apheisis (the form of the word in verse 4, a different form in verse 3) only loosely translates as forgive. The general idea of the term is to release, remit, let loose. As such, it goes beyond the English term “forgive,” except in certain specific contexts– such as “to forgive a debt.” Rather, the term is more like. “Forgive and Forget (and release from consequences, if possible)”.

In counseling, when we tell people to forgive, we are not telling people to revoke all issues of justice, or telling people to forget wrongs. We are talking about releasing bitterness and bitterness. Forgiveness of this type is done for the benefit of the one who was harmed, not the one who did the harm.

Loophole #2.  Forgiveness should be withheld for the sake of justice. The argument would be that God is a God of Justice. It may be granted that God is also a God of mercy… but mercy does not negate justice… perhaps.

The problem with this is, I hope pretty obvious and built off of the answer to the first loophole:

  • Forgiveness, as we are here using it, the wronged conscious choice to release bitterness and vengeance. It is not necessarily to hold someone unaccountable. To forgive does not necessarily mean to forget or fail to set up appropriate safeguards/boundaries.
  • When the wronged hold bitterness/vengeance in his or her heart, it is likely that appropriate justice will not be carried out. Revenge or unfocused lashing out is more likely.

For me, though, the reason to forgive is not so much about ethics, Biblical interpretation, or issues of justice. The biggest issue is what unforgiveness does to the wronged. It creates a second harming. I deal with people who are unwilling to forgive and those who are dealing with unforgiving people. It really does destroy lives and relationships… and the epicenter of the destruction is in the unforgiving victim rather than the wrongdoer.

Sometimes I almost want to tell people to forgive just to make sure that the wrongdoer is miserable. With unforgiveness, the wrongdoer is likely to suffer, but often less than the victim. I have seen it too many times.


A Minister’s Five Best Friends


Liz Ryan is one of my favorite columnists– a regular contributor to Forbe’s Magazine. She writes regarding business employment– hiring, firing, and managing people. Although I have been out of the corporate world for over a decade, I find much of what she says very applicable in ministry as well. Much of her guidance centers on the importance of mutuality, respect, and, well, humanity, in the corporate world. One might suspect that these principles are hardly needed to be meditated on in the ministerial world— but that is wrong. Sadly, it is often even more necessary. Rules for proper treatment of workers are commonly overlooked in the religious world– often under the guise of “freedom of religion” or that serving God is a 24/7 job. I worked as a banquet server, hardly a classic ministerial role, for a “Christian business” where poor treatment of workers was justified by toggling back and forth between “you need to sacrifice because we are doing God’s work” and “sorry, but this has to be done to be competitive in the market.” The terms SELF-SERVING and DUPLICITOUS come to mind

I strongly recommend her article, FIVE PEOPLE EVERYBODY NEED IN THEIR CORNER.

I could stop there, but would like to interpret it in terms of ministers– primarily pastors and missionaries.

A minister needs people that he/she (I will use he here due to laziness) can trust.

  1.  He needs one he can trust with his emotions. He needs an UNCRITICAL LISTENER. People in minister often struggle greatly because they are uncertain who they can talk to about their burdens or frustrations. Far to many in the religious profession have the awful tendency to be advice givers and experts; or worse, judge-ers and condemners. Sometimes one need to vent or even confess to someone who will simply listen and accept. However, as Liz Ryan noted, you need more than this. One needs more than the human equivalent of a fuzzy blanket to talk to.
  2. He needs one he can trust with the truth. He needs a BRUTALLY HONEST ADVISOR (or BHA, for short). The truth hurts, but sometimes we need to hear the truth… but from someone we trust. A BHA should be someone who we trust to know the truth, and trust that he/she has our best interests at heart. For example, a pastor who likes to lead corporate worship with an off-pitch voice, needs someone who cares enough to tell him the truth— that his singing voice and microphones don’t really mix. (I would like to add “You know who you are…,” but in fact, you probably don’t.)
  3. He needs one he can trust who has blazed the trail before him. He needs a MENTOR. This person is generally more experienced and commonly older. He has, generally, been there and done that. His primary strength is not drawn from books or articles but life experience. The advice given from a mentor is welcome because it is seen as trustworthy and based on reality. Commonly an older pastor or missionary is what is needed. However, age and experience are not enough. Good mentors are, sadly, a rare breed. If one is willing to help, think long and hard about it. A good mentor may be exactly what you need.
  4. He needs one he can trust to challenge him to grow. He needs a COACH. Like a mentor, a coach gives advice, but it may not be based on great experience. Rather it comes from a position of being a good listener, reflector, and reframer. A good coach is not always right, but should help the minister look at his life (holistically) from other perspectives.
  5. And speaking of other perspectives– He needs one he can trust to be a very different viewpoint. He needs a NON-MINISTRY FRIEND. A minister should have friends not in ministry. Frankly, he should have some not in the same denomination or organization. In fact, it would be good to have friends who are not even fellow-believers. He needs someone who doesn’t talk shop and, frankly, wouldn’t really understand shop-talk anyway.  He needs someone he knows who won’t give the same old “Christianese” or denominational formulae for specific concerns. And much like the Uncritical Listener, the non-ministry friend can listen without being religiously or professionally invested or biased.

Of course, if you need such friends, others do as well. Which roles can you serve for others?

Advice from Asian Missionaries

My “Missionary Member Care” Class at Philippine Baptist Theological Seminary questioned missionaries here in Asia about some of their challenges in missions. I have 11 students, and they each asked 3 missionaries 12 questions and recorded their answers. All of my students are from South Asia, East Asia, or Southeast Asia. From the 396 answers, I asked the students to break up into three groups and each group come up with 15 especially relevant statements from the answers.

We listed them (as seen in the picture below) and then started sub-categorizing them. I took the challenges and advice, and created a common response. the other categorizing, I will leave for my students in another week or so.

Serving in missions is challenging. It is difficult to live in a culture unlike my own, and adjusting my living to be in many ways like those around me. It is hard to serve God in places where the people and government are not sympathetic to what I am trying to do. This becomes even more difficult when churches and people at home are inconsistent with their support. It not only makes it hard to travel and minister, but often makes it uncertain that I can care for my family, and educate our children. Team-members can be a great help, but often we find ourselves in conflict with each other. I want people to whom I am ministering to come to God, but often I am so busy and distracted that I find it challenging to spend time with God myself.

My advice to others considering going into missions is to take good time to take care of yourselves. Invest in a healthy diet, exercise, and getting enough sleep. Don’t get so engrossed with the busy-ness of ministry that you fail to spend time with God. You need to regularly take time to pray, study God’s word, and meditate. Also invest in your relationships with others, especially your team-members. Make an effort to fellowship and worship together. You need to learn to work with others– work out conflicts, and seek to live at peace with others, even including local governments. You need to take time to understand the culture, and embrace any opportunity to learn more about the people and about how best to minister to them.

Still, sometimes things seem to get out of control, and problems build up. You need to bring these burdens to God. You also need to have some close friends to whom you can share your problems with. Writing down your burdens, taking some alone time, and even a good scream or cry now and then can help as well.”