In a world filled with unspeakable violence and unreasonable prejudice, forgiveness may be the most important thing we can teach our young people. We are so easily offended and so quick to seek revenge. Words escalate into bitter hatred and mob mentality, and then acts of brutal cruelty follow.
I have just finished reading two books about the Rwandan genocide that ravaged the people of that country just twenty years ago. And in two short weeks, I will visit that country and meet some of its people. Survivors now reconciling with those who murdered their friends and families. When reading about these things, two ideas push themselves forward. First: How inhumanly cruel people can be. Second: How only God helps people forgive and find new life.
We all know that forgiveness is the reason Jesus came willingly to die for us. Jesus, God incarnate, showed us what forgiveness looks like. He forgave Zaccheas. He forgave the sins of the paralytic. He forgave Peter for denying him. He forgave even his torturing killers. Peter asked, “How many times must I forgive my brother?” and Jesus answered “Seventy times seven.” (Matthew 12: 21-22)
And it is still very hard to do on an individual basis. Especially when injustice seems so powerful and forgiveness seems so weak.
“There is power in forgiveness.” I heard this man Andrew describing the new friendship he has built with his childhood friend, Callixte, after the friend had turned against his family during the Rwandan genocide.
“Forgiveness is all I have to give.” This is what Immaculee Ilibagiza said to the man who led the gang murder of her brother and mother and who had taunted her while she hid in a tiny bathroom.
If these individuals can forgive such atrocities, looking into the eyes that looked on them with murderous intent, and still offer forgiveness, what can possibly stand in the way of peace?
Teens who do not learn the power of forgiveness will grow up afraid and vengeful. How can we help them?
This should be a challenge for every parent and leader. Especially when it is hard, let us show teens how with God’s help, we can simply forgive, thereby releasing both ourselves and the offender. This is not easy for me. I have a weakness for judgment and have a hard time forgetting. But when I focus on others who have forgiven the unforgivable, I am inspired to do the same.
We talked about some of Jesus’ memorable forgiveness stories. Paul, too, forgave his tormentors, like the Philippian jailer, and the ones who persecuted him in every city. And what about Joseph, who famously forgave his brothers after they sold him to a passing Midianite caravan and told Jacob that Joseph was dead.
God is able to do exceedingly more than we ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:20) By simply asking God to help them forgive, teens will begin to unleash the amazing power of God to fill our hearts with love. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that their action was right, or good, or just. It just means that you don’t hold on to the hurt and judgment that you placed between you and the other person. If we always wait for the other person to apologize, we may sink into bitterness, and become even more offended.
In this new year, let’s all strive to forgive more and show others how to forgive as well. God wants to fill us with love and mercy every day. This is the way that leads to peace.
Paul writes of joy in a letter to the Philippian church while he is imprisoned. He mentions joy or some form of the word 15 times. Paul, perhaps more than any other Bible character, understands joy. Joy is deeper than happiness; it is far more than feeling good; it brings a smile to your face and a sense of peace. When asked recently what is my favorite emotion, I answered: joy.
Music transcends the physical. I love jazz, blues, praise music, classical music, piano music. I notice that when a tune is playing over and over in my head, I am generally happier. Music crowds out other noises and thoughts. No wonder so many teenagers keep their earplugs in and iPods turned up. Singing adds another dimension of joy, no matter how untrained your voice. So turn on some music or get out the instrument you used to play. Sing along to the radio.
When Paul was in the Philippian jail in Acts 16, he and Silas were singing and praising God. Singing through pain proved to be a tremendous witness to the rest of the prisoners and staff.
I have invested time in leading small groups of teens in Bible study. Getting to know middle school kids is easy and rewarding. They are full of energy and they are willing to share their ideas, some of which are pretty wild. They are eager to understand human relationships and there is no better source for good material than the Bible. This is joy: walking into church on Sunday only to be surrounded in a group hug by a bunch of smiling middle schoolers. True joy.
Paul loved his church plant in Philippi. He no doubt remembered the parties at the home of the jailer (Acts 16:34) and the hospitality of Lydia (Acts 16:40) He loved those people. So while jotting his letter to them, he couldn’t help talking about rejoicing. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4: 4)
Joy is found in thanksgiving. Literally. The Greek word for joy is smack in the middle of the Greek word for thanksgiving. Chara. Eucharistia. It is so very true. No blessing should be taken for granted. This morning I was thankful as I washed my hair in a clean hot shower, probably using more than the American average of 17 gallons. As I sit here writing in my New Orleans cottage, I am thankful for the way the sun falls through our trees, and for the birdsong before dawn. I slept well last night partly because my son called yesterday. I love to hear from our children. Find ordinary things that make you smile. Write them down. Counting your blessings can be a wonderful joy-building exercise.
Paul expressed his thanks to the Philippians for their generous monetary support. He also talked about being thankful that people were talking about Jesus Christ, whether or not their motives were selfless. He was thankful for the service of Epaphoroditus, who came from Philippi, but fell ill. He also bragged on Timothy and his work in sharing the gospel. Paul was content no matter the circumstances; he had learned how to be thankful in the little things. (Phil 4:11-13)
Big things like knowing Jesus. There is always more to learn about God and his love for us. But I KNOW whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto him until the end of time. Big things like knowing my life is eternal and that I will see my mother again in heaven. It makes me smile to know that God works all things together for good. It is a settled feeling of joy. This assurance of God’s love and power and grace produces joy that cannot be shaken, even amid frightening circumstances. If you are not certain of your salvation, talk with someone. Ask questions.
Paul had this kind of assurance. Philippians 1:21 says, “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.” And Philippians 3: 20-21 says, “Our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.” When your eternal fate is secure, why not be joyful?
Laughter is good for the soul. I have a group of friends who met on the tennis courts. We play less tennis these days as our knees and hips scream at us insistently. We have supported one another through cancer and illnesses of our children and deaths of parents. But we really know how to laugh. Smiles make life’s drudgery much more pleasant. Sharing your music, your love, your thankfulness, your assurance is a way of making more joy. Tell someone. Post your smiling pictures on facebook, call a friend or family member, write someone a letter or email.
Paul knew how to share his joy. He wrote about it in his many letters. He praised and thanked others for their prayers and gifts. He sang. He laughed. He ended all his letters similarly: Grace and Peace. What makes you joyful? Please share in a comment.