"If, because of one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man's obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more..." -- Romans 5:17 - 20
I've been thinking about discipline this last week or so, thinking about how I respond to wrong-doing in myself, my children, and other people. In the passage above, Paul looks back at Scripture to explain just how radically new was Jesus's way of responding. This passage resonates with my own musings.
When it's my own wrong-doing, I'll admit that I have sometimes responded like Adam and Eve. I may not have hid from God behind a bush, but I have tried to hide my transgressions in other ways, pretending to be better than I am. Like Adam and Eve, it's so much easier to blame someone else than to look in a mirror at my own poor choices. Unfortunately, the way we respond to our own wrong-doing can easily start a vicious cycle: we blame someone, and they in turn blame us, or someone else. Hiding mistakes and blaming others only leads to alienation and unnecessary conflict -- as it did for Adam and Eve. The cycle won't end until we start doing things differently. Jesus's first word as he began his ministry tells us how to start doing things differently: Repent. What does repentance require but that we look at ourselves, recognize our own transgressions, and admit our own responsibility?
How then do I respond to the wrong-doings of someone I have charge of? I'm a parent, so I'm thinking of my children. But if you lead a different kind of organization the response might be the same. Very often, like Moses, we make laws. Sometimes, more and more laws. Each one a response to the specific wrong-doing we see. The reasoning goes that since everyone is capable of the same bad behavior, the laws need to apply to everyone, and so we all are more and more strictly confined.
In "The Week," a news magazine I enjoy reading, one of my favorite columns is titled "Only in America." It usually describes some ridiculous restriction that's the result of this kind of over-zealous law-making. For example, a kindergartner is suspended for coming to school with a mohawk haircut because it distracts students from learning; or a middle school requires all students to be drug-tested before participating in extracurricular activities -- even something like chess club; or a preschool banns "super-hero play" to calm over-active imaginations. Seriously?
And yet, as a parent, I'm sure I'm guilty of a bit of this, too. In order to prevent bad behavior, I often have to make rules and enforce consequences. But, how far do I go? Do I really need to make specific rules about what you should wear to bed, about putting the lid back on the toothpaste, and about not sitting on your brother? I hope not. Do I really want to have consequence for every little thing they
do wrong? No, I do not. I would rather not have this kind of relationship with them, one overwhelmingly focused on rules and consequences.
I wonder if God felt the same way about his children when Jesus began his ministry. He saw how carried away the religious leaders had gotten: you must wash your hands before eating in this five-step method; on the Sabbath, you must not lift a finger to help anyone, not even yourself, etc.; with dire consequences for every mis-step. I, too, would much rather my children were governed by more important things, like kindness, integrity, generosity, and thoughtfulness.
Okay then, how do I respond to a person who is my equal when he or she does something wrong, to me or to someone else? How do I want my children to respond to each other, and to other people in their lives?
Well, one very common way is to respond in kind, an eye-for-an-eye or tit-for-tat, so to speak. The Golden Rule becomes: do unto others as they have done unto you. If someone is rude to you, be rude back. If someone treats you unfairly, hate them, hold a grudge, seek retaliation. The result is, however, an unending chain of revenge and heartache. The history of man, unfortunately, is littered with these chains. I don't want my children or me to create chains like this.
What other response is there? Well, there is Jesus's response: forgive.
Philip Yancy in his book "What's So Amazing About Grace?" writes eloquently that forgiveness is the only response that breaks the chain of retribution. He tells the story of Gordon Wilson, a devout Methodist, who went with his daughter to a Veteran's Day event in Belfast in 1987. An IRA bomb went off, killing eleven people, including his twenty-year-old daughter. Her last words to him were, "Daddy, I love you very much." Gordon Wilson responded to his daughter's murder with forgiveness: "I have lost my daughter, but I bear no grudge. Bitter talk is not going to bring Marie Wilson back to life. I shall pray, tonight and every night, that God will forgive them." His words were televised around the UK, and received such publicity that Protestant extremists decided it would be political suicide to retaliate against the IRA. Yancy writes, "The Irish Republic ultimately made Wilson a member of its Senate. When he died in 1995, the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland, and all of Great Britain honored this ordinary Christian citizen ... for his uncommon spirit of grace and forgiveness." (pg. 118)
I used to think that forgiveness was something I had to do, especially as a Christian. But now I think that forgiveness is a choice. I realized recently that responding negatively to negative people means that I am letting another person determine who I am. Do I want to be an angry, judgmental, vindictive person? No, I don't want those feelings to become a part of who I am. Neither did Mr. Wilson. His daughter's last words were of love, and he was determined to keep that love uppermost in his mind for the rest of his life. I would much rather be my own person. So, I will choose to respond to people in a way that is not based upon someone else's bad behavior, at all, but on my own moral compass.
Jesus's first words were of repentance. His last words were of forgiveness. The two go together. Knowing I too need forgiveness makes it much easier for me to forgive others. Perhaps that is why the central verse of The Lord's Prayer is, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive the trespasses of others."
But doesn't that mean that our own forgiveness comes at a cost? That we must give forgiveness in order to be forgiven? Doesn't that mean that God's grace actually does have a price?
Ah, but once again, God through Jesus defeats our logic: Jesus forgave even though he did not need to be forgiven. Here is where God intervened, making anything possible, even undeserved grace.
Dear God, I see the goal that I want to reach. I rely on you to keep guiding me forward. Love always, Pam