Unforgivableness

Some things are just plain unforgivable. Everyone knows this and it’s hardly debatable. But the primary reason I hear for this truism from those participating in my prison classes might interest you:

“Unforgivable things can’t be forgiven because that would make them ok.”

I hear this often. Recently, twice in the same week, class participants in two different prisons interrupted me with objections to forgiveness based on the premise that forgiveness means that the awful thing or person we propose to forgive must not be so awful after all.

Child sexual abuse is always — and I mean “always” — top of the list of awful things prison inmates consider unforgivable.

So I show a video in which a woman who was sexually molested by her uncle for three years when she was a child says that she has now forgiven her uncle. Comments? Most of them can’t be reproduced here because it would require too many deleted expletives.

So I engage those who object the strongest: “Do you hear her saying that being raped as a 7-year old by her uncle was ok?” Well, no. “Did you not hear her say how traumatizing it was?” Well, yes. “Did you not hear her say that by not forgiving her uncle she was giving him power over her, and that that was unacceptable?” Well, yes.

How is it that forgiving, in the minds of many people, requires them to revise their opinion that the very awful and painful harm that someone did to them isn’t so awful after all? That the act of forgiveness requires them to accept as ok what truly might have been a despicably evil deed?

For some, unforgiveness seems like a reasonable and justifiable defense mechanism — a way of protecting oneself from further harm. Thus, even if forgiveness is an internal decision that isn’t communicated to the person who did the harm, it still is dangerous because it means that I will inevitably open myself to future harm.

For others, forgiving a serious harm is unthinkable because it would require them to address the anger within them they have allowed to go unresolved for such a long time. It is easier to stay focused on the bad thing someone else did than to look within myself and ask what kind of person I have become because of my own anger and bitterness. If we can make what someone else did the issue then we don’t have to face the uneasy question of whether I have now become the issue.

Forgiveness has probably been presented in many settings as a moral or spiritual obligation that one does unconditionally because God requires it. Under those rules, forgiveness can become a decision that is disconnected from the necessary process of finding healing for our pain, resolution of our anger and an end to our resentment. Any act we do because it is a moral or spiritual ‘ought’ that does not also acknowledge and legitimize our pain, anger and resentment is unhealthy and improper. Too many people see forgiveness, however, as just that kind of act. It isn’t.

There is surely a legitimate question about the message we are sending when we forgive someone for a despicable thing they did. Many worry that the message this sends is, one, that the despicable thing is ok or, two, that permission is thereby granted to the person to do that despicable thing again.

As to the first question, forgiveness, by its nature, is reserved for serious wrongdoing. No one forgives a person for something he has done that is benign or good. The decision to forgive necessarily includes a judgment that wrongdoing took place. Forgiveness never requires us to change our mind about that.

On the second question, I suppose it is possible a person who receives forgiveness could take that as permission to repeat the wrongdoing. Holocaust survivors have long argued that the extermination of six million Jews is unforgivable. A reason often cited is that the refusal to forgive is crucial in communicating the collective judgment of humanity that genocide is unacceptable. Forgiving, it is argued, creates just enough ambiguity to embolden a repeat performance or provide incentive for another observer to do the same.

I have serious doubts that this is true. As I see it, forgiveness is far less likely to embolden repeat offenses than the fact that the offender faces no consequences for his action. Forgiveness neither excuses wrongdoing nor removes the possibility of serious or painful consequences. Repeat offenders are not deterred by unforgiveness nor are they granted permission by being forgiven. Repeated wrongdoing, especially when it comes to criminal behavior, is informed by a different calculus that involves a determination that the risk is ultimately worth it. It may be informed, as well, by deep wounds related to trauma. But that is another blog.

 

 

 

 

Forgiveness of others often begins with loving ourselves

This past weekend, Rachel Martin, National Public Radio’s fill-in host for Saturday’s Weekend Edition, interviewed Bruce Lisker. Mr. Lisker had served 26 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, and was recently awarded a $7 million settlement by the city of Los Angeles. Mr. Lisker had gone to prison at the age of 17 after being convicted based on evidence presented by corrupt police officers. He won release in 2009 through the hard work of a private investigator, reporters at the LA Times, and a police sergeant. The multimillion dollar settlement came six years later.

When asked by Ms. Martin what life has been like since he left prison, Mr. Lisker talked about having to learn how to use an ATM, a cell phone, a credit card and the Internet.

“How do you negotiate anger?” she asked. Mr. Lisker’s response is worth quoting in full:

Well, yeah, that’s going to come up, isn’t it? I don’t do recrimination. I don’t do bitterness. I don’t do, you know, carrying that around because that would damage me. And I came up with something that I repeat as often as I have a voice. It’s impossible to travel the road of peace unless you first cross the bridge of forgiveness. And, you know, the only hope of peace and happiness that I have is to, the minute something like that comes up – and it does. Forgiveness is not a light switch; it is a dimmer. And you know, somebody keeps sneaking over and turning it up. But you have to be – you have to be mindful. You have to not go to the fear, not go to the anger, not go to that side, but go to the love of yourself, of your family.

Mr. Lisker rightly recognizes the role forgiveness plays in reducing anger and aiding the redevelopment of peace and happiness in the person who has been harmed.

Earlier in the interview, Ms. Martin asked him, “What happened to those [corrupt] officers?”

“They retired with full pensions,” said Mr. Lisker. He went on to talk about his volunteer work among juveniles and how he views the harm that was done to him:

And some of the children that I teach are the age that I was when I was framed. And I look at them, and I can’t conceive of how a human being, an adult, could look across an interview room table at a 17-year-old kid, scared – me, scared, having just found his mother – and decide, you know what? I’m going to – I’m going to shortcut this thing. I’m going to jump to a conclusion that because this kid has long hair, he’s got nothing coming from me and, you know, least of all an honest examination of the facts. And I’m going to frame him. I can’t conceive of harming a child like that. But it happened.

Forgiving police officers — authority figures with an enormous amount of power — for something like Mr. Lisker experienced is almost beyond comprehension. He did not say, however, that he forgave them out of compassion or kindness, or even out of religious obligation. He forgave them because he loved himself enough to refrain from renting out his brain to continuing anger and allowing the anger to harden into bitterness or hatred.

Often, that is the place where we have to start the journey to forgiveness. How much do I love myself? Enough to lay down the anger and bitterness? Enough to end the resentment? Enough to forego imagining (or carrying out) revenge?

One of the great commandments in the Judeo-Christian tradition is to love your neighbor as yourself. People often complain about how hard it is to love the neighbor. Perhaps learning how to love ourselves might make it easier to love our neighbor. Forgiving for our own sake can help begin that journey to love our neighbor.

Hoping — against hope — for a shorter sentence

I led the Protestant service last night at a federal  minimum-security prison facility. About a dozen inmates came out. At one point I asked, “What’s the good news?” I was met with some puzzled looks. I explained that, as Christians, we are people of good news because the gospel is good news. “So,” I asked again, “what’s the good news?”

After a pause, one inmate held up his hand. I invited him to share the good news.

He began with the statement that God is not limited or controlled by the will of humans. “I believe,” he said, “that God can do supernatural things even when there is no reason to believe that anything will change.”

The inmate proceeded to describe how, in response to President Obama’s invitation to nonviolent drug offenders to apply for a commutation of sentence, he had written a letter to the Justice Department. He said he was aware when he did so that he did not technically qualify because (1) he had less than 10 years left on his sentence, and (2) he was not convicted of a drug offense. But, with God, all things are possible, he affirmed.

He went on to note that he received an acknowledgment of his letter, saying what he already knew — that his situation did not qualify under the guidelines of the program. Still, he insisted, “I believe that God is going to shorten my sentence and that I will be leaving here before the end of this year.”

Lacking any faith at all, I replied, “God really has his hands full when it comes to the Justice Department processing these commutation requests.” Later in the service, I tried to recover by praying for justice on behalf of all who are victims of injustice.

Little did I know that I would find on the website of Politico this morning an article by Josh Gerstein, “Obama’s drug-sentencing quagmire,” that pretty much makes my faithless statement last night look too optimistic.

Amid all the protests over the killings of black men and boys by white police officers in recent weeks, one finds imbedded here and there in the news articles statements that crime rates in America are almost at historic lows. Everyone seems to be wondering why.

Some think they know why. It’s because we have about 2 million men incarcerated at the moment. In other words, crime rates will go down when you lock up all the criminals. Or so goes the supposition.

What worries me is that the prison-is-the-solution crowd will, once again, carry the day. And that when and if lots of prison inmates start receiving commutations, fear of rising crime rates will stir the keep-’em-locked-up true believers (especially within the Justice Department) to find a way to end Obama’s grand experiment with commutations.

As if it needs any more challenges than it already has. Just read the Politico article. It left me pretty deflated.

“I just don’t get it”

Over two sessions a group of inmates watched the video, “Forgiveness: Stories for Our Time.” A Canadian production, the film features four individuals who experienced horrific losses, shared their stories of pain and the challenge to find a way forward through forgiveness.

The first story is of Lesley Parrott, whose daughter, Allison, was brutally raped and murdered by a serial sex offender in Toronto. Ms. Parrott forgave the man and expressed her desire for him to find healing.

Set in Northern Ireland, the second story follows Alan McBride through the death of his wife, a victim of an IRA terrorist bombing in Belfast. Mr. McBride declines to describe his “letting go” of anger and enmity toward the bomber and the IRA as “forgiveness.” But he does find healing and commits himself to working for reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics.

Julie Nicholson is featured in the third story. An Anglican vicar, Reverend Nicholson loses her daughter to a jihadist terrorist bombing in London. She affirms that forgiving the suicide bomber would be inappropriate. She leaves the church’s ministry and becomes known as the pastor who can’t forgive.

The last story is of Anne Marie Hagan. Her father was killed in his living room and in the presence of his family by an axe-wielding neighbor suffering from an untreated mental illness. She recounts the impact on her life and a lengthy struggle with anger and desire for revenge. But she is later moved to forgive and experiences a profound change in her life.

So we watched these four stories. I gave the class members opportunity to journal their thoughts. One wrote these words:

“I don’t know how the woman could forgive the guy for killing her father… I don’t get the guy who forgave the bomber for killing his wife… I just don’t get it… I just don’t get it… I just don’t get them at all, how they can do it. I don’t think I can do it. Maybe one day. But I don’t think I can do it.”

I consider it unfair to show a video such as this and ask the viewers, “What would you do if you were the person suffering so great a loss?” How can we really know what we would do? So I don’t ask that question.

But I do want viewers to express what these stories cause them to think and feel. Some will say that such stories make them think the painful things they have experienced pale by comparison. Some say such stories are depressing. Some say such stories inspire them to try and be more forgiving.

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to teach and promote forgiveness to men in prison. And then I remember what learning how to forgive meant for my life. And I also remember that putting forgiveness on the table for public discussion in places like prisons just might contribute to…well…forgiveness, which can only but make the world a better place.

“This gets personal real quick”

I began a new series of forgiveness classes this week at two prison facilities — once again with revised material I seem to be endlessly revising. The first session is an introduction to forgiveness. Everyone has an opportunity to propose his own definition of forgiveness and to pose a vexing question about forgiveness. We also consider the first chapter in Helen Whitney’s excellent film, “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate.”

My previous revision of the handout printed material posed questions about the content of the video. I wanted to make sure everyone was paying attention. But I rewrote the questions to focus less on the facts of the video and more on the thoughts and feelings the video prompts in those watching it. I describe it as the characters in the video holding up a mirror and asking us to see ourselves in their shoes.

So the questions are designed to be personal. This was not lost on one of the participants who looked my way and whispered, “This gets personal real quick.”

I agreed, while also affirming that everyone’s answers could remain as private as they wished. No one had to share with the rest of the class. But as we went through the questions, some did share. One was raw and deep.

The participant, a military veteran who served several tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he had participated in so many awful things that he harbored grave doubts that he could ever be forgiven. He shared that his wife had told him that his current incarceration was punishment for what he’d done in war and that he deserved it. His eyes filled with tears as he revealed his greatest fear — that God would not forgiven him.

I responded out of my heart, saying back to him that I could hear the ache in his voice and see how tortured he was over this. I also assured him that in subsequent sessions we would give serious consideration to his desire to be forgiven. He seemed grateful.

I’m grateful too. It is an honor to be present with men who are willing to consider what place forgiveness can have in their lives.

“No memorable experience of forgiveness”

I recently began the forgiveness project with a new group of inmates. In the first session I asked everyone to share a memorable experience of forgiveness. It could be an experience of forgiving after a long time of holding a grudge. Or it could be an experience of being forgiven by someone you had harmed.

One participant immediately spoke of having forgiven his father, who had been a cruel parent for many years. Another spoke of being forgiven by a member of his family.

The next man to speak said, “I have no memorable experience of forgiveness.” He went on to say that his practice was to consistently end relationships with people who harmed him. “When someone breaks my trust, that’s it,” he said. “I don’t forgive them and I don’t give them another chance to do me wrong.”

“What about being forgiven?” I asked. He replied, “I can’t remember anyone ever forgiving me.”

Several long seconds of silence passed. He looked at the man who had spoken about forgiving his father. “Let me tell you about my father,” he said. He described a man with whom he had never enjoyed a pleasant moment, a man who never displayed affection of any kind, and a man who was absent and uninvolved.

Then he began to tell something that happened when he was nine years old. His mother had asked his father to take him shopping for school. On the list were several items of clothing and a pair of boots. The boots were a coveted brand and he really looked forward to having a pair. But at the store the father refused to buy any of the items except one very inexpensive piece of clothing. “But what about the boots?” he pleaded with his father. “I’m not buying you those boots,” was the angry response. He looked around at all of us in the circle. “I remember this as if it happened yesterday.”

“From that day,” he said, “I wrote my father off because I knew he did not love me.” After a pause, he added, “So I guess you can say that I only have memorable experiences of unforgiveness.”

Before the session began, this brother told me he would be released in nine weeks. So when he had finished, I looked at him and said, “So we’ve got nine weeks to work on this, right?” He smiled and nodded. And then he said, “I’m taking this forgiveness project because I really want to know if it’s possible for me to forgive someone like my father.”

It’s always nice to know what the challenge is. And how much time you’ve got to address it.

 

Who can forgive the unforgivable?

One of the sessions in the eight-week series on forgiveness — which I teach in a federal prison and county jail — is “The Case Against Forgiveness.” It might seem odd that I would include this topic in a series on forgiveness, the purpose of which is to help men in custody learn how to forgive. But early on in the development of the series I discovered that objections to forgiveness were many and often deeply held. An honest consideration of  forgiveness required an honest and sympathetic look at the unforgivable.

Last week at the county jail, we considered the case against forgiveness. I asked the participants to write a short paragraph about a wrong committed against them that they considered unforgivable. A follow-up question was, “Why do you consider it to be unforgivable?” The next question was broader: “Do you agree that some things are objectively unforgivable? If so, what things are on your list?”

Not every participant is able to describe a wrong he has experienced personally that he considers unforgivable. Others describe such things as sexual unfaithfulness by a partner, abandonment by a parent or a friend who turns them in to the police.

But on the second question, nearly everyone can quickly make a short list of wrongs they consider objectively unforgivable. At the top of the list for nine out of ten participants is child sexual abuse. Rape and murder are close seconds.

So last Wednesday, when the men finished writing, I asked for a few to share what they had written in answer to the first question about their own experience. There was a very long pause. Finally, an older man (I’ll call him Bill) offered his answer. He described being sexually abused as a child. Everyone on the cell block — even those not participating in the class — grew immediately silent.

As he came to the end of his story, another participant (I’ll call him Mark) — who often voiced his objections to forgiving — passionately affirmed his conviction that child sexual abuse can never be forgiven. No sooner had he stated this than Bill turned around, looked at the entire group and said, “But I did forgive him.”

Mark’s face spoke first. It was a look of astonishment. But he quickly retreated to his default setting of unforgiveness and reaffirmed his judgment that no one in his right mind should ever forgive something like that. I decided it was time for me to step in and seize this teachable moment.

I turned to Bill and asked if I he would be willing for me to interview him about his experience in front of the class. He agreed. He had already sufficiently described the abuse so I directed my questions to the impact on his life and how he ultimately ended up forgiving the abuser.

So in answer to a series of questions, Bill described extreme bouts of anger and depression, which he attempted to alleviate with alcohol, drugs, and sex. He spoke of repeated criminal activity and multiple incarcerations. He described numerous failed relationships. Though he was talking just about his own life, I knew that Bill was also describing, at least in part, what other men in the room had also experienced.

Eventually, we came to the question of forgiveness. I asked Bill to tell us how and why he forgave the abuser. He spoke of a sense of desperation borne out of watching himself repeat the same patterns of behavior over and over again. So he ended up in the confessional booth at a Catholic church, telling his story to a priest. It was all a bit too much for that setting, so he and the priest moved to another room for a lengthy conversation, which eventually arrived at the question of forgiveness — God’s and ours.

The priest assured Bill of God’s forgiveness of every wrong and sin he had committed. Then he spoke of Bill’s opportunity to now forgive his abuser. Bill described how he made that decision and how it has literally saved his life. He said something very similar to this: “When I went into the confessional booth that day, I felt I had no options left. It was either deal with all this darkness or die. Staying on the path I was on I knew would lead me next to death.”

I allowed that to sink in for a moment. I looked over at Mark who was shaking his head. I then looked back at Bill and decided to return to the point of the lesson. “So,” I said to Bill, “it sounds like you made a decision to forgive someone for a truly unforgivable wrong he had done to you.” Bill nodded. I looked again at Mark and invited him to respond.

He said something along this line: “I would never forgive someone who did something like that to one of my children. I would handle it with a gun. And I can assure you that no child of mine would ever forgive someone who hurt them in that way.” And he ended with this chilling statement: “Because I have taught my children to deal with things like this the same way I would.” Looking around the room, Mark was smiling.

But no one else was.

I think I know why. Every man in that cell block has experienced similar destructive cycles of anger and depression. Though the causes are different, and the pain may be less, the cycles are much the same — especially the use of alcohol and drugs as a kind of self-medication. Very few men ever resort to Mark’s solution of attempting to solve the problem with a gun. Revenge is a sweet thought, but few people ever act on such fantasies. And for good reason. So most of us try and live with our stress, our ulcers, our alcohol and drug abuse, our broken relationships and our sleepless nights.

Bill knows all about that. Intimately. But he also experienced — out of desperation, to be sure — a way forward. And according to his own analysis, a way forward that saved his life.

Can we truly forgive the unforgivable? At an individual level, yes. But there are other important questions wrapped up in this larger question of forgiving the unforgivable. I’ll save that for another post.

 

A rather disturbing class session

In the Forgiveness Project I use video material to help stimulate discussion. I try to insure that these discussions are not abstract. Rather, I want the video material to help all of us reflect on our own questions and issues surrounding forgiveness.

To this end I recently showed the chapter, “The Language of Anger,” from the video “Forgiveness: A Time to Love and a Time to Hate,” a film by Helen Whitney. (By the way, this entire video is just excellent, addressing so many of the relevant questions many people have about forgiveness).

The chapter I showed was about a brutal assault that took place in the late 1970s near Redmond, Oregon against Terri Jentz and her roommate, who were journeying across the country by bicycle. In the video, Terri Jentz describes the ordeal, the trauma she experienced, her anger and, ultimately, her effort to find some closure by returning to Redmond and trying to find the man who assaulted her. He had never been caught or prosecuted even though several members of the community felt sure they knew that he was guilty of the crime.

Terri Jentz’s story raises many important questions about the place of anger, evil, forgiveness that is granted too easily or quickly, and injustice. For the most part, the discussion following the video was constructive.

Toward the end, however, the conversation took an unexpected turn when one participant began to import into the discussion his doubts that Terri Jentz had told the truth about what happened to her. He admitted he had no basis other than his own speculations for doubting her story. But he suggested that she had known the perpetrator, meeting him in a bar and “rubbing up against him,” only to probably spurn his advances when he assumed she wanted to get intimate. Within a couple of minutes, the inmate had made Terri Jentz the cause of the man’s anger and violent action, which he implied were understandable, if not justified.

To be truthful, I sat there stunned. But it wasn’t over just yet. I looked around the table at nine other inmates, a few of whom were nodding in agreement. As I opened my mouth to respond with whatever came to my mind (and I had no idea what that was going to be) the recall announcement came over the public address system and the class abruptly ended. All I could say as they left the room was, “We shall continue this discussion next time.”

So now I have a week to ponder how someone can think  the victim deserved what she got and that her own story about a years-long journey wrestling with questions about anger, evil, forgiveness and justice is nothing more than an effort to shift responsibility onto someone else.

Stanton Samenow, in his seminal work, “Inside the Criminal Mind,” offers the thesis that irrational thinking is largely the basis of criminal activity. He dismisses, virtually out of hand, the popular idea that criminals are the products of environmental factors such as poverty, broken homes or lack of opportunity. Samenow’s extensive work with men in prison gives him confidence to assert that criminals can be reformed, but it takes a fairly radical change in the way they think. Samenow’s method is confrontation — criminals must be confronted with their irrational thinking and be helped to recognize it as the cause of their criminality and imprisonment.

Next week, I will dig a bit deeper with the class participant whose interpretation of the video so shocked me. Look for a follow-up blog post on it.

 

Sweet revenge isn’t so sweet after all

Just one week into a new Forgiveness Project series, revenge emerged as the subject the group of 12 wanted to discuss. Vent would be a better word, for nearly everyone had a tale of betrayal by a trusted associate or colleague. If seething can be felt, it soon was filling the room as many began to mentally revisit the past.

A high number of federal inmates are convicted, or decide to plead, on the testimony of an informant. Often these informants are business associates involved with the defendant in a legal business or an illegal drug trade. Prosecutors often bring enormous pressure on a criminal’s contacts or business partners to testify, usually in exchange for a lighter sentence. Many do.

The anger felt by those who end up in prison because of such “ratting” is usually very deep. Revenge, though it may never be carried out, is not far from the center of an inmate’s thinking. Today, one man said he thought about it every day since he was convicted.

Others agreed that they have often fantasized about how to repay those who turned against them. At least for a while, such thoughts are quite pleasurable. I described why, mentioning the brain studies that show how the so-called pleasure pathways in the brain light up when the subject contemplates paying someone back for the harm s/he has done. It is the same pleasurable effect cocaine brings to the brain. It’s no wonder the idea of “sweet revenge” has taken root in our thinking.

But, not surprisingly, the pleasure does not last. Not for cocaine and not for revenge. We talked about that today. A surprising number of those who spoke acknowledged that revenge was a dead-end street littered with pain and wrecked lives.

One inmate told a gripping story of joining his brother to seek retribution on a man who had insulted their father. They lured him to a parking lot late at night under false pretense, attacked and beat him, warning him never to so much as look at their father again. Afterward, he said, he had no satisfaction, realizing that his actions showed him to be no better than the man who started it all.

He told of another situation when he was serving time in a state prison. A fellow inmate who was involved with him in Bible studies learned that the man who murdered his brother was also serving time in the prison. He grew enraged and began to heat a cup of water to boiling in the microwave in the cellblock, intending to throw it in the face of the murderer before physically assaulting him.

As he took the boiling water from the microwave, his friend asked him if this was the response he had learned when studying the Bible. The question stopped the man cold. Pressing in, the friend reminded him of what they had learned about forgiveness and asked if that wouldn’t be the better response. The man broke down and wept, as did his friend. Later, he approached the murderer and extended his hand in friendship, saying that he had forgiven him. The murderer was so moved by this that he joined the Bible studies.

Everyone today in the circle was also moved. Several began to tell their stories of betrayal, pain, anger and contemplated revenge. I helped guide the conversation, but could add nothing more than background and context as these men – all of whom have been through the forgiveness classes – helped one another resist the urge to seek revenge and embrace the better response of forgiveness.

Are Christians not allowed to take any credit?

I received a circular email today from a church planter who has written several helpful books on house church. He used to be a high school teacher; now I think he writes for a living. His name is Frank Viola.

In the email he sent out today, Frank listed three failures in 2014. He had failed to work out three times a week, failed to lose inches off his waist, and failed to read four books by now.

Next, Frank listed “My Successes So Far.” He prefaced the list with this: “(I attribute all success to the Lord. So these are really “praise reports.”)”

I immediately lost interest in Frank’s successes as I tripped over the much larger question that was now begging for my attention: So let me get this straight. If Frank is right, then he must take full responsibility for his failures and no credit whatsoever for his successes?

Frank Viola is by no means the first Christian brother or sister I have heard say this sort of thing. Within the last year, I can safely say I have heard something quite similar from half-a-dozen of my Christian friends. Some of them will blurt out with great happiness a description of some wonderful thing they accomplished, but then very quickly catch themselves to say that of course they give the Lord full credit for it, taking none for themselves.

“Why not?” I feel compelled to ask.

I get it when it comes to failures; I’m quite happy to take credit for mine, all the multiple truckloads of them. But would God not want me to take any credit for success? Is there something in the mind or will of God that insists that I give him all credit for every good thing I accomplish while taking all the blame for my failures?

Doesn’t the parable of the talents suggest that even God commends us when we have done right (without first requiring us to give Him credit for it)? “His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25.21).

Don’t get me wrong. I have no problem giving God credit for the amazing grace that God has poured out on me and plenty of other people too. I can take no credit for saving myself, no credit for being forgiven of all my sins, and no credit for the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. But if God chooses to so manifest His grace in me, do I not have to agree to be so used? Do I not, as Paul put it in Romans 12, have to offer my body as a living sacrifice?

I don’t know. Maybe I am reacting against what I see as a false humility in those who must so quickly give God all the credit for the good while taking all the credit for the bad. I rather like what Job said to his wife: “What? shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” That’s a tough statement and I think it says something about a relationship with God that has a few wrinkles and twists in it. As I think mine does, at least at times.

This is probably just something I have to work through. Some might say that my strong reaction to the professed humility of others suggests that I have a real problem with pride. Maybe so. But until God lets me see it I will continue to be as irritated by this as by a fingernail dragged across a chalkboard.