Forgiveness

“What is your earliest definition of forgiveness?”

I’ve asked this question of a couple different groups. In both cases, the conversation quickly moved to their earliest definitions of apologizing. Which makes sense. When I was little, a lot more emphasis was put on “if you do something wrong, apologize” then on “if someone does something wrong to you, forgive them”. “Saying you’re sorry” is a pretty simple behavior mod that can make children come off as well behaved. Not as much outward utility is gained from training them to forgive.

Still, many of the people I asked had at least a simple definition. “Say ‘I forgive you.'” “Hug and make up.” Some went a bit deeper: “Don’t hold it against them.” or “Let it go.”

The first of these definitions are actually examples of restoration. Restoration often goes hand in hand with forgiveness, but not always. And restoration, in and of itself, is not forgiveness. Restoration is what comes after forgiveness and mends the relationship between the offender and the victim. It is not always possible as it requires the desire of both parties. If the offender is absent or unrepentant, the victim cannot force them and restoration can not happen.

The victim should also assess their own side of the situation. In the Bible, God encourages restoration, but does not command it. This is because restoration is not always constructive. Perhaps the relationship needs to end or be reevaluated. Sometimes physical restitution needs to be made. Other times, we just need time to let off steam and recuperate from the effects of the offense. This is entirely fine. Rushing restoration can be dangerous. Perhaps time is needed to rebuild trust or start back at the beginning on a different foot.

But if the victim doesn’t restore the relationship, aren’t they holding something against the offender? Isn’t that a sign of unforgiveness? Not necessarily. Grudges are bad. Caution is not.

There is a story in the Bible where Peter (one of Jesus’ closest followers) denies three times that he knows or is even affiliated with Jesus. Several days later, Jesus is talking with Peter and asks, “Do you love me?” Jesus gives Peter the opportunity to say “Yes”: to reaffirm that he is indeed Jesus’ follower and friend. This is the restoration of Peter’s denial. It results in Peter and Jesus restoring their relationship to where it was prior to the offense.

But restoration is not forgiveness. Jesus was not forgiving Peter in the conversation above. Jesus had already completed the act of forgiveness. Forgiveness needs only the participation of the victim.

So what is forgiveness. The “deeper” set of definitions above are closer to what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is cancelling the debt. Debt? What debt? That’s a very key question. What is the debt that the offender owes you? Is it the offense itself? If so, how can the offender take it back? How can they undo what they did or unsay what they said? The debt is what we want from the offender in payment for the offense. And it can vary widely.

Most offenses have two parts: the observed offense and the ramification. Peter’s denial of Jesus was the observed offense. Peter rejecting Jesus and betraying his trust is the ramification. Often the debt we want repaid is for the ramification. It’s the underlying message or statement of the offense that usually pierces the deepest.

Cancelling the debt is not easy. It requires us to wipe the offense clean from the offender’s ledger. We separate them from the offense in how we view them. We voluntarily choose to love them for who they are. It does not mean we are forgetting, excusing, smothering conflict, accepting, tolerating, or denying. It means that we take the pain and the hurt and the debt onto our own shoulders. We write the offense on our own ledger. And we let the offender go. We let go of what we wish had happened and accept the offense for what it is.

Only then can we be free.

But there’s a problem. The offense is still on our ledger. Someone has to pay the price. And that someone unfortunately is us. The victim. We are not taking the blame, mind you. Victims are never to blame for the offenses done against them. We are simply taking the responsibility for what happens next.

But how do we get the offense off our ledger? Well, we need another step: regeneration. If cancellation is returning the offender to the standing they were in prior to the offense, regeneration is doing the same for us. Jesus died on the cross and cancelled the debt of Peter’s betrayal as well the wrongs of mankind. But at the end of that act, while Peter was released from his offense, Jesus was still in the grave. If he had stopped there, forgiveness would not have been complete. Jesus had to rise.

And so do we.

Without regeneration, forgiveness doesn’t stick. Many times I’ve “forgiven” someone for an offense a dozen times and yet still not been able to put it behind me. While I’m fully willing to cancel the offender’s debt, if I don’t deal with the debt now on my own ledger, there is still a record of the wrong. I’ll either blame myself for the wrong or try to give it back. Regeneration makes forgiveness permanent.

The first phase of regeneration is identifying the feeling. This is the feeling that arises when you hear the offender’s name or are reminded of the offense. It will most likely be a negative emotion. It could also be an attitude or behavior.

The second phase it to identify the truth claim made against your beliefs. (A truth claim is merely something that someone claims is true about you.) Feelings always stem from our beliefs. If we feel alone or scared or discarded, it is because a truth claim has breached our boundary and altered our beliefs about ourselves in some way. Mapping the feeling back to the belief can be easy. When the truth claim from the current offense gets entangled in other truth claims from prior offenses, however, it can be very difficult to draw a direct correlation. Give it time.

Once you know what was asserted against your beliefs and how it altered them, you can then complete the last phase of regeneration. The last phase is affirming God’s truth claim about you in that area of your life. You may need a positive experience to affirm it. You may need a community where God’s version of the truth claim is known and believed. You may need a more direct intervention from God. Ask for his help.

Resentment clings deeper the more isolated we are. When we are hurt we tend to withdraw and wall ourselves off for protection. However, it’s in the presence of grace and love that we are truly set free.

Note: If you’re not at a point in your life where you’re ready to place God as the basis for your value and identity, a supportive friend or family member can work. A word of caution, however. Humans change. If the relationship you base your value and identity on collapses, you will have to deal with all the offenses you regenerated with the failed relationship all over again.

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The Cliff Owner’s Fence

So I’ve chiseled a lot of self-ordained rules and standards out of my life. I’m free to do whatever I want and my want is growing in the right direction. Now what?

Well….temptation city. Huh. I guess molds were there for a reason! I’m going back to the old way and shutting down this blog. Thanks for reading!

Not quite. But the issue of temptation does need to be addressed. Imagine I’m walking along the edge of a cliff. There is a fence along the cliff’s edge and signs that read “Danger!” at regular intervals. Being the ever curious type, I want to just peek over the fence and see what’s there. So I do. I then see a twenty dollar bill just on the other side of the fence. I’m pretty sure that I can reach it, so I ever so carefully hop the fence and fall to my death. Since I’m Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow (a surprisingly enjoyable movie by the way), I wake up back at the top of the cliff. After about four to five more deaths, I conclude that I cannot in fact carefully collect the twenty dollars. For a while that is. Eventually, if I stare at it long enough I will rationalize yet another swift drop and sudden stop.

So it is with temptation. There is always a fence on the cliff or a line in the sand. Something that I know I shouldn’t do. Furthermore, for temptation to really arise there needs to be something on the other side of that line that we want. If it’s not wrong to do, it’s not temptation. If there’s no draw, temptation never shows up. But like all of the twenty dollar bills in our lives, we do want them and not all of them are permissible in our given moral code.

So what do I do about it? Well, I can’t vaporize the twenty dollar bill. I can’t remove the draw. I can remove an instance of the draw, but it’s just going to return in a different form or different time.

The option I would have reached for before was “Hey, let’s move the fence back from the edge. In fact, let’s move it back so far I can’t even see the twenty dollar bill anymore. That way I can’t stare at it. So I dig up the fence posts and relocate them much further back. And, indeed, over time I forget about the twenty dollar bill and I enjoy the view from the cliff just as I did before. Temptation cured? Well, not really. Eventually, I’ll want a slightly closer look. So I will hop the fence. No harm done. I’m still well out of danger. I get my closer look and then hop back over the fence.

I have a just now violated a rule that I set for myself that the owner of the cliff who built the original fence didn’t set. I don’t feel guilty about it, and that disturbs me. There has to be a consequence otherwise the fence means nothing. So I punish myself. I can’t induce guilt as that is a built in reaction of my conscience to doing something wrong. So I resort to shame. I condemn myself. Vengeance is mine.

Well, time goes by and I hop the fence again. And again. And again. Each time I’m condemning myself as a fence crosser. I confess each succumbing to the owner of the cliff, but I never really feel the wave of his forgiveness. This results in the conclusion that I am succumbing too much so I work extra hard at resisting. But the cliff owner doesn’t seem to be helping me. I build the fence higher and higher until I can’t even see the view from the clifftop.

This is the problem with making my own standards more strict than what God has commanded. If I violate my own rule, I haven’t sinned against God and therefore there is nothing to forgive. The wrong is “all in me ‘ead”. Also, God doesn’t help me resist the temptation to break my own standards because to him breaking them isn’t sin.  It’s my rule. I am the author and enforcer of it. I don’t get to add it to God’s list. Nor do I get to connect it to his blessing if I keep it and his wrath if I don’t. God alone writes the moral code. So I’ve invented a game that God is not interested  in playing and then become confused when he doesn’t partake.

By now, I’m in a long drawn out debate with my friends over how far back the fence should go. The top of the cliff is soon riddled this way and that with thirty-seven independent fences. I’m tripping over my friend’s fence. He can’t see over mine. God still isn’t giving us any feedback. It’s a disaster.

So what’s the answer? I would say, put the fence back where it was on the edge of the cliff (remove the molds). So…how do I avoid plummeting to my death? Self-control. Don’t stare at the twenty dollar bill. How? Stop being tempted? No. Self-control is, surprisingly, not really about me controlling myself. Self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit at work in my life. HE is controlling my self. Not me. I am actually utterly incapable (at least so far) of drawing a line and not crossing it.

Pursue God. Allow his forgiveness to wash over you when you fall from the cliff. Accept his consequences too. And as I grow molds free with the fences where the cliff owner intended them, I’m finding a greater and greater pause when I want to try it “just once more.” Again, God is not interested in how many times I have fallen or not fallen off the cliff. He is interested solely in the reality of our relationship. Relationship with God will result in self-control which will result in less falls from the cliff. Less falls from the cliff, however, do not result in a relationship with God.

Good vs. Real

“My church can make me good, but it can’t make me real.”

I started elaborating on this statement from my last post and got way off topic so I clipped out the rabbit trail and made a second post of it. First a definition of terms. We’ve all heard the phrase “good Christian”. A good Christian:

1. Attends church regularly

2. Reads their Bible daily

3. Prays

4. Has a ministry

5. Has a stable family

6. Tithes (gives 10% of his income to the church)

This is pretty much the charter I used for the first twenty-four years of my life. I’ve had a checkmark next to regular church attendance my entire life.  I’ve read my Bible almost every day since I was 11. I pray often (though this department has a long way to go). I’ve had 14 different ministries (that I can recall). Stable family…what’s a family? I’m not even married. I guess I’m a family of one. Well in that case, my family is getting stable. Moving on. I’ve tithed since my first job.

Woohoo, I’m a good Christian! But am I real? Am I the type of Christian I want to be? Am I the type of Christian God intended when he allowed his name to be affixed to something I could be? A real Christian:

1. Loves God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength

2. Loves their neighbor as themselves (gotta love yourself to get full credit for this one)

3. Is loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle and self controlled.

4. Feeds the hungry, gives water to the thirsty, invites in strangers, clothes the naked, visits the sick and the imprisoned

5. Looks after widows and orphans in their distress

6. Keeps oneself from being polluted by the world

It fascinates me how good I can be at the good list and still go 0 for 6 on the real one. With the exception of perhaps having a stable family, I can do the entire good list while wearing whatever mask I want. The real list grinds my mask to powder.

Church for me growing up was a mold for the good list. Even the church I currently attend pushes in that direction. It encourages us to pursue the real list in the heart of the sermons, but the applications lean more towards the good list. And I think that’s getting the cart ahead of the horse. Pour yourself into the real list and the good list will come along for the ride. Ministries do not need people. People need ministries. We don’t need well behaved families. We need connected families. We don’t need people to attend church every Sunday. We need people to become church Monday through Sunday.

But if we all just plunk our minds and hearts in the church pew for a couple hours a week, we’re actually doing the church and ourselves a disservice. We’re giving the church the responsibility to direct our path. And that is not the church’s job. The church is not the all knowing brain that mind controls a couple hundred souls together into a master plan. A church is a couple hundred actively participating souls working together.

You will never be satisfied if you just let your church, parent, elder, friend tell you how to live. You will be good. But you won’t be real. And you won’t feel real. Real comes when you’re your own person and you’re in the captain’s chair. “But Jesus should be in the driver’s seat!” No, Jesus indwells us. He guides us. He is our compass and our map. But he is not the one responsible for our half of the divine relationship. Like in a marriage, the wife is loved, cherished, counseled, heard, and led, but she is never to plop the reins to her heart and soul in her husband’s hands and say “Mold what you want with me.” That’s not submission, that’s abdication.

What I’m driving at here is that it’s very easy to just toss yourself into the river of Christianity and gradually get polished. But Christianity is more than just fitting molds and building walls. It’s an active activity. It requires input: thought, emotion, will, love, initiative, planning. Fight for what type of Christian you will become. Take possession of your faith. Become real.

Rebelling towards God

Well, I’ve spent the last few months or so practicing my rebellion skills. I’ve been digging up all the fenceposts of my beliefs. To name a few, in the past 6 months or so, I’ve:

1. Tried alcohol for the first time in my life.

2. Quit virtually all of my church ministries.

3. Gone church hopping.

4. Hung out with as many people who I disagree with as I can find.

5. Gotten angry with God.

Now, some of you are probably thinking: “Hey, that’s not really rebellion.” Well for me it was. Rebellion is the “the action or process of resisting authority, control, or convention”. And for me, all these things (and all the others I didn’t list) were the rule, the convention. Others of you are saying “Yikes, what’s happened to you?” Well….hopefully I can explain it.

Alcohol wasn’t evil to me. It was a substance that was easily abused, but it wasn’t a sin to drink it. So why hadn’t I before? Because I had a solid, unbroken record of never partaking in it and I didn’t want to break my streak. I wanted to go to my grave and say with pride “Alcohol consumed: zero”. I have a lot of other streaks (flossing, Bible reading, etc.). They’ve been broken a couple times but not many. I just love competing against myself I guess. And these commitments have kept me from a lot of temptations and procrastinations. There’ve been a lot of times I haven’t wanted to do this or that and I’ve done it because “I’m on a 264 day streak and I can’t stop now.” So why on earth would I break them? And on purpose? Aren’t they good, healthy habits?

They are habits yes. And they even arguably good. But they aren’t healthy because they are done for the wrong reasons. They have nothing to do with the relationship I want with God. They are just “points on  the board”. Scores. Grades. Stats. Metrics. If a man buys his wife flowers every week for 4.7 years because he’s seeing how many weeks he can go without missing one, he’s not loving his wife, he’s just playing a game with himself. He’s winning the game, but he’s missing what the flowers mean in the first place. And the same was true for me in several areas. I was doing good things (like abstaining from alcohol), not because doing so was drawing me closer to God, but because I was going for a hi score.

But no more. I’m identifying all the habits I have, good or bad, that I’m doing to “improve my stats” and wiping the slate: breaking the streak.

The second thing I’ve done is free myself from all my commitments (within the church and otherwise). Were these habits that I was just doing for “most consecutive years in ministry”? No. Then why quit them? Because I was doing them to please God. Wait, that’s a good thing! Well, not if I believe that not doing them displeases God. I needed to have a ministry or I wasn’t contributing to God for what He’d done for me both on the cross and in my life. I need to know that God loves me even when I’m not thoroughly entrenched in doing his work. If I died tonight, God would say “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” If Hitler himself had believed in Christ’s redemptive power on his deathbed, he would have heard the same words. What I “do for God” means absolutely nothing for my standing before him. I knew that in my head, but I didn’t believe it in my heart. So I’m releasing all the things that I do to “make him like me”. He likes me. End of story. Once again, I want my relationship to be a relationship.

Now, this isn’t to say I’m doing nothing these days. I just finished the first year of a three year counselor training course (the homework for which is a big reason this post is so delayed). And I will find things to do as God leads me. I’m just on sabbatical as it were.

Next, I’ve started church hopping. This arose from a variety of reasons. There aren’t a lot of people my age and more importantly life position and direction at my church. Also, due to some events which I may describe later (but which are off topic for this post), there are some people at my church who do not want me there. While this latter reason isn’t normally a showstopper (as not being wanted is not a nothing new for me), it does  interfere with my desire to become more relational. I can’t turn my emotions on and off on a whim. I can’t be warm and friendly to everyone else, but be uncaring and avoidant (as they have asked me to be) towards them. So I church hop now. I still hop back to my current church quite often, and am not yet convinced that I will leave there.

But even considering hopping was a big step. I’m an extremely loyal person. It takes me a while to build loyalty, but once I have it takes even longer to break. And I’m a team player. I always need a team. This wasn’t always the case, however. I used to be quite the independent entity. But during my years in Bible quizzing, I discovered the power of teamwork. Synergy between people. Mutuality. For many years now, my church has been my team. What are they up to? X, Y, and Z. Oh, I want to be a part of Z. So I join the Z ministry team. Sometimes, I’ve been gifted at Z and sometimes I just want to try it anyway. But I like not being a one man show anymore.

So why on earth would I step out of my team? Because I was letting my team (my church) define who I was. Were they making me bad? No. Messing me up? No. They were and are making a fine Christian man. They just weren’t making me. Only God and I can make me. I can’t just lean back in the mold of this church or that teacher and let them do the work. My church can make me good, but it can’t make me real. So do I think that other churches will do better? Not at all. But that’s not why I’m hopping around. I’m hopping around to force myself to take greater responsibility for defining myself (and also to find more people in my life position and direction).

And what better way to work on defining myself than to seek out relationships with people I disagree with? Do I want to find areas where I haven’t defined myself? I should leave the confines of people I agree with and go talk to someone who believes the opposite. I will learn a ton. I might even adopt what they believe. (But I need to keep it on a relational level. Don’t go all Duel of the Minds on them. That helps no one.) The goal here is to understand where I’m truly at and not run from the truth. Not paint it over with more church attendance or drown it out in a good book. Relationships don’t work if one of the people involved doesn’t know who they are and how to live as that person.

And finally I get angry with God now. I lay my case out and say “I don’t get X. What the heck? Why?” I can’t have true relationship if I mask my emotions out of reverence and fear. God is not interested in the white washed, Febreezed version of me. He wants me. He wants the me that he created.

If I succeed or fall, I want it to be by Christ alone. I don’t want to build up a scaffold of tricks and games and molds that contort me into a good person. I want to return to who I truly am and bring that person along. Even if I stumble along the way. Even if it looks like I’m taking a step or two or twenty backwards. I have to take everything back to where it is in order to move forward.

So I’m rebelling. I’m ripping out rules and authorities and conventions and getting back to the old, simplistic relationship of the gospel.

A Picture of God

A few days ago, I was in a class and the teacher asked everyone to draw a picture of how we see God. He asked us to be honest. He also asked us not to give a “religious answer”. So I took pen in hand, and began to think. And many “religious answers” sprang to mind. Savior. Redeemer. Shepherd. King. Shelter. Rock. I pushed them all aside and asked myself “What have you experienced? Say in the last year or couple of years.”

The first image that sprang to mind was the father in the story of the prodigal son. God welcomed me despite my tendency to judge others (and myself as well). The door to God’s favor is always open and He will never cast me out. I also wrote down ‘forgiving’ and ‘not condemning’. This is God’s nature. He is not standing over me with a rod waiting for me to mess up. I’ve learned that I frown more on my sins than God does.

No picture had come yet. Just more words. And now my mind was freeing itself of the “Sunday school answers”. I next wrote down ‘mysterious’, ‘confusing’, and ‘waiting for something’. In all honesty, these are the things I see most in God these days. I came out of college like a freight train, full of hopes and dreams and with God at my back. I was 100% looking forward to what God had in store. Where would he take me next? What would I be called to do? But the train had derailed.

I next wrote “asks me to trust Him”. The nature of trust is an interesting one. Trust is easy until it is broken. Then it’s very hard. We sit in a chair a hundred times fully trusting in it to hold our weight. If the chair breaks, we get a new chair. Our trust in chairs in general is not broken because chairs are not perfect. They can break just like everything else. When the new chair is set before us, we sit in it same as always. If the chair breaks again and again, we start to lose trust. If it breaks and we are badly hurt, perhaps we break an arm upon colliding with the floor, then we begin to doubt. We begin to question. It doesn’t mean we never sit in a chair again, but in the act of sitting down, the question of trust springs more and more often to mind. No child first looks at a chair and says “I’m not sure that will hold me.” They just climb right up. We don’t start from nothing when we build trust. Most of the time, we trust until we get hurt. Only then do we start to begin with less and less trust.

It’s the same with people. A child doesn’t question whether he is safe as long as he always is. It’s only when he experience a lack of safety that he starts to fear. When a big kid on the playground pushes him down or his mom is too busy to answer his question, only then does he begin to wonder “Am I safe?” Sometimes this happens at a very young age. Other times, a child may be quite a bit older before these questions begin to surface.

And so it is with God. Now, not everyone starts at full trust with God. Some people don’t grow up around God. They’ve never had the repeated opportunity to “climb into the chair” and see that he holds them up. So I’ll speak specifically about my own life. I grew up around God. He was everywhere. He was at church, at home, in public, in private. He watched over my family when my dad was unemployed when my mom had health issues and when each of my brothers and I hit adulthood. God was always there. I could pray to Him and stuff would happen.

All this to say, when I exited college I fully trusted that God was there and he was about to point me in the next direction. I’d found a cool job which God pretty much dumped in my lap. After 6 months of me praying and searching and interviewing and following leads and watching one door after another close, my classmate at college turns to me and says his dad is a software engineering (my field) manager and he’s hiring. I went and interviewed, but it was all but a done deal already. God had provided through none of my effort or contribution.

But even more awesome than that, I was on the verge of starting a relationship with an amazing young lady. I know I’m not unique in this, but relationships are on a way higher plane than money and…well…stuff. I’d been praying about this decision and talking to her dad who’d just given me permission to proceed. (The pros and cons of courtship are a topic for another time.) Suffice it to say life was REALLY looking up.

Well, then the chair disintegrated beneath me. And I fell pretty hard. And I got hurt. The girl and her family decided about 5 days after saying ‘yes’ to now say ‘no’ and not only ‘no’ but “we don’t want to talk to you ever again and we are not going to tell you why”. Well, that’s not entirely true. They were at least willing to give me a hint and say that it was my fault. What I hadn’t realized is that they’d been emotionally abusing me for the last three months. I was blind to it because…well…I was in love. And also, this family were some of my most trusted people in the world. They were my retreat: my home away from home. I didn’t regard them as a second family, but definitely close friends. And all of them. Not just the girl, but her parents and siblings as well. So, when the chair broke it didn’t just crack, it exploded.

So here I was in a strange town. I knew no one. And a shrapnel bomb has just gone off inside. I don’t think this event caused the problems I’m dealing with today, but they made them worse. A lot worse. I should’ve reached out to someone, but my trust in humans had just been called into question. “Am I safe?” was now the question of every moment. Trust had flown away. Trust of humans was zero. Trust of God had been shaken.

I prayed a ton in those months. “What did I do?” was the common question. I couldn’t fathom the idea that they would be that callous. They loved me too much. It had to be my fault. But I couldn’t figure out how. So I asked God. A lot.

As the months went by and I got no answer from God (I have since slowly been able to accept it wasn’t my fault and they really were that callous), the question morphed into “Can I not be so alone?” I’d made this or that friend, but no one really seemed to touch the void left by the girl and her family. Probably because I wouldn’t let them that deep. Trust at that level had been broken. Sure, I could trust them 100% on the surface. But no one attempted to push beneath and really get to know the boy inside the cage.

Then God seemed to answer my prayers. I met some friends, a couple, who understood my hurt. They had compassion on me, took me in, and pursued a relationship with me. It was heaven. Someone cared enough to not take “fine” for an answer to “How are you?” Someone knew there was a deeper level to me than a smile and quick joke. Someone wasn’t turned away by the real me. This was a super answer to prayer. Also, it was around this time that my best friend, Luke, moved up to live with me. Life was lookin’ up!

And then the chair exploded again. This couple who were ministering to me a mile a minute suddenly became convinced I was stalking their daughter to the point of obsession. To say I had zero  interest in their daughter whatsoever would be a lie. But to say I was interested in her at even remotely the same level I was interested in the girl from college would be a worse lie. What interest I did have was born out of a love for the parents and a sensing of a fellow “struggling soul” on the part of the daughter. So 2 + 2 = 4. I can bring a blessing to this couple by befriending their daughter. They had said she’d had trouble in the past with friends being loyal. Loyalty in friendship has always been a strong suit for me. I practically never drop a friendship. So it seemed like a no-brainer to befriend this girl. The chance of anything beyond friendship with her was next to nothing (as they expressly made clear on the outset), but that wasn’t the primary thrust of my endeavor. However, perception is nine tenths of reality and to the parents my efforts obviously came across as something bad. I do not blame them for their perception and pointing blame is really not the point of this post.

Suffice it to say, once again, a set of relationships I valued VERY highly came to a sudden and screeching end. On top of that, my best friend began dating a girl here almost immediately (in reality it was a couple months…but it seemed like immediately). I love Luke and his girlfriend (whom I’d known for a while) dearly, but suddenly romance was in the air on almost a daily basis and I have no part in it to call my own. So once again I prayed to God “Why is this happening? Is it too much to ask to just get a small group of friends that won’t stab me in the back and leave me for dead…and possibly a girlfriend. I’ve been here in this town almost four years now and nothings changed on a relationship level. If anything I’m worse now than I was then, because my hopes and dreams have faded and left.”

These were the thoughts streaming through my head for the rest of the class period. I never did come up with a picture. The next thing I wrote on my page were the following words: “The angry disapproving judge has been dispelled, but I don’t have a good sense of His loving, caring, personal, nurturing side”. In my dive into grace and what it means to be forgiven, I no longer see God as a harsh taskmaster or a creditor expecting repayment for his gifts. I am forgiven. I am set free. I am loved enough that the Creator of the universe would allow himself to be defiled, mocked, and killed by his own creation and still not seek vengeance on them.

But as far as trusting him, I struggle right now. I have no doubt in my mind that God can raise up caring friends that understand grace and love the way I want to exercise them. ‘Can’ is not the question. The question is ‘will’. Will God ever do it? He says in Scripture (Matthew 7:7-11), “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if you child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

The last thing I wrote on my page is “prayer is hard”. Talking to God is easy if you have trust that he’s listening. But in the absence of trust, doubt begins to grow. I’d asked for bread and gotten a stone. I’d asked for fish and got something that looked pretty close to a snake. And a lot of what I’ve asked for hadn’t been answered at all. For four years, when I pray for others my prayers are heard. Stuff happens. But when I kneel before God on behalf of myself, it seems like God doesn’t hear. Or else, as I wrote, he’s waiting for something.

And so I continue to wait. And pray. And plead. I’m learning a lot about myself and God in this waiting period. I’m unearthing all kinds of burned out timbers from my past and clearing them away. I’m growing emotionally. But I’m also weary of the journey. And there are still days when I just crumble inside.

I wish I had an answer to put a nice bow on this post, but I don’t. That’s where I’m at today. That’s my stripped down, real picture of God. And that I guess is a silver lining. God is not going to be angry with me for writing this. He knows full well what he’s up to. He also knows that I’m at a loss to know what it is. And he knows I’m human. He created me this way with a capacity to trust, a capacity to doubt, and a capacity to persevere.

“Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:4

What is your picture of God?

The Queen and I (Frozen Movie Review)

SPOILER ALERT! This post assumes you have seen the movie Frozen and are familiar with the characters and story. If you have not yet seen the movie, you shouldn’t be wasting your time reading blogs anyway.

NOTE: I will not do many movie reviews on this blog. Only movies that touch on the themes of this blog (and that I saw and liked) will get mentioned. Frozen falls into that category. Gravity also falls into that category and will likely get a review when it comes out on DVD (as I want to see it again to have it fresh in my mind).

Frozen will probably end up being my favorite movie of 2013 despite stiff competition. While Gravity matches Frozen in heart (and has one of the most amazing movie endings ever) and Despicable Me 2 is probably the funniest movie I’ve seen in quite a while, Frozen is a happy medium of the two. It blends deep emotion with lighthearted humor to make a very captivating (and fun) story. As I alluded in my promo post, Frozen is not a romance. It is also not about “girl power” as one critic put it. It is, however, a love story. It is the story of two sisters coming of age and “testing the ice”. It is a story of two emotional journeys.

And so, without further delay, here is my (heavily abridged) review/critique of Disney’s Frozen.

Frozen opens showing two girls with no emotional problems. They are happy. They are safe. They love each other and feel loved by each other. That and they’re darn cute. Anna wakes Elsa up in the middle of the night, intruding on her space, and Elsa doesn’t get mad. She, in turn, pushes Anna away (off the bed) and Anna isn’t crushed. Why? Because they have bonded. They trust in each other’s love and care for each other. They believe they belong and are valued.

It’s also important to note that Elsa is already showing signs of introversion and Anna is showing strong signs of extroversion. The thought of playing alone, even though it’s the middle of the night, has seemingly not even crossed Anna’s mind. This is important as these personality types are clearly natural bents not a result of the coming events.

Then the inciting moment happens. Elsa strikes Anna with her powers accidentally and the mood changes. The girls’ parents rush in and immediately react. Unfortunately, for everyone other than the audience (cause there’d have been no story), they react out of fear. They blame Elsa. They label part of who Elsa is as bad. As Elsa trusts her parents, she believes them. Part of her is bad. Part of her is unwanted.

They rush off to the troll, Pabbie, who begins with a very key question. At this point in the movie, I was already enjoying it as Tangled 2.0. But with this question, it began to dawn on me just how deep this movie was headed. The question Pabbie asks is “Born with the powers or cursed?” This is actually a pretty important distinction. A curse is something you fight to eliminate. It is foreign and not a part of your original self. Being born with something is a part of your design. You were intended that way…for a reason. If the king had answered “Cursed”, my interest in the story wouldn’t have risen. There are a lot of movies where people get cursed and go on a quest to lift the curse. But the prospect that this movie would be about dealing with the powers, not eliminating them really piqued my curiosity.

Pabbie then warns Elsa that her powers must be controlled. This is good advice. If the powers master Elsa, she will struggle. But if she can take charge of them, then they can be a force for good. This is also true of emotions. People who are controlled by their emotions struggle unceasingly, while people who are in control of their emotions can do amazing things.

Sadly, the king then steps in and redefines “control” as “suppress”. And that was the moment I decided this movie might just kick the pants off of Tangled. Because, now this story wasn’t going to be just “a rather fun story” (as Flynn Rider puts it). This story was going to be my story.

When I was as old as Elsa was in the scene where she visits the trolls, I also had a “power that I was born with”. I was off the charts good at school, learning, games, puzzles, etc. I was testing post high school level on my evaluation tests in virtually every subject, and I was nearly unbeatable at any game that involved strategy/reasoning/problem solving. I was homeschooled and so I was often learning in group situations with my brothers. It became a problem in the eyes of my parents that I was answering all the questions and everything so at one point they asked me to think up the answer silently and then keep it to myself and let the other boys answer.

This had two effects on the course of my life. One, I stopped saying what I was thinking. Instead of blurting out what came to mind, I was building a disconnect between my thoughts and my mouth. A filter is good. A disconnect is not. To this day, I struggle getting my thoughts into words. This is a large reason I write. I can give myself enough time for the words to make the jump. When I communicate orally, I open my mouth to speak and my mind is a dozen thoughts ahead and possibly already off topic. That and nothing in my head starts generating an answer until the question finishes. There is very rarely something that I’m “waiting to say”. I can’t hold more than a sentence or so in my mind at a time.

The other effect this had on my life was that I began to fear my smarts. What if I ended up smarter than my brothers? Especially my older brother, Craig? That would hurt him. Craig was my childhood hero. I wanted him to succeed so bad, I was paranoid about outshining him. Any activity Craig picked up and devoted himself to (ie. ham radios), I steered clear of so he could “be the best” in that area. I prayed many times as a child and even as a teenager that God would “make me dumber”. I also prayed for Craig nightly that he would succeed. I wrote PFC (pray for Craig) on the inside of my retainer case. If any success I had discouraged him, I would have counted it a failure. In short, I had a power I was born with and I had been taught (or taught myself) to fear. So when Elsa is isolated to shield her powers from her sibling, I was sitting up in my seat, glued to the screen. (Craig, by the way, is currently succeeding plenty with his life.)

Emotional suppression is a very hard thing to live with. Just as Elsa did, I believed that suppressing my talents was for the “greater good”. My family will be better off if… People will like me if… I’ll fit in better if… These people become the “glue” of their families. They are the sacrifice to keep the family functioning. They are worried about becoming a source of trouble and so they become very little of anything at all. This is true in Elsa’s case. Never does she protest her parents’ instructions. Each new rule they make (confinement, the gloves), she accepts as necessity. The safety and well-being of those around her becomes her responsibility. She mustn’t hurt anyone ever again. She mustn’t hurt Anna. It is out of love that Elsa closes the door and locks her powers (and her emotions) away.

Then the parents die. This cements their wishes in Elsa’s mind. And the parents’ fear is passed from one generation to the next. I want to note here that the parents are not bad parents. Compare them to Mother Gothel from Tangled. These parents care for their kids. They are doing what they think is best. And same goes for my own life. My parents have loved me since the day I was born and never once intended for me to become isolated. They gave me the absolute best they knew.

Three years pass and it’s the coronation day. Elsa is a reclusive hermit bent on honoring her parents’ wishes and keeping their rules. She fears people finding out. She believes people will reject her if they knew what she really was. Anna on the other hand has a restless, empty heart that she longs for someone to fill. Her love tank is on empty and she knows it. She also knows that young men are rumored to fill said love tanks, and this has become her mission. This is no “fairy tale princess flight of fancy”. This is a hunger at the core of her being to belong to someone. To be loved by someone. Her emotional attachment count is at zero. Prince Hans could have been an ugly, lazy alcoholic who made fun of her and she still would have fallen for him.

And here we have the first of several contrasts. When Hans and Anna show up in the banquet hall to ask Elsa’s permission to marry, we see two girls with serious hurts reacting to them in to very common yet different ways. Elsa’s isolation has shielded her from intimacy. Intimacy, in her book, is too dangerous. If you read my previous posts, she is the righteous rule follower. Anna on the other hand dives head first into intimacy. The faster the better. She is drinking till the well runs dry as fast as she can go. She is the reckless rebel.

We then have a telling repeat of the girls’ opening scene. Anna intrudes on Elsa’s space (by snatching off her glove) and Elsa recoils. Elsa pushes Anna away and she is crushed. Neither action was done in anger or even in frustration. Neither sister has any intent of hurting the other. And yet this time the reactions are way different. No longer do they have the bond of emotional attachment supporting their trust in each other’s love for them. The trust has turned to doubt and now these actions are signs: answers to the question “Does my sister love me?”

Elsa’s powers are then revealed and all her work at being the glue of her family is dashed. Her family is now well and truly broken apart and it’s her fault. She realizes that all the sacrifices she made for Anna have amounted to nothing. She is a failure. And she is no longer safe. She flees to protect herself. This is very common in emotionally suppressed people. When their emotions are laid bare, they flee until they’re safe again. They know no other course. Reason goes out the window. Anna’s pleading with her sister to wait, to stop, to come back, fell on deaf ears.

Anna also immediately assumes it’s her fault. She has had a decade or more to conclude why her sister would reject her. But to her credit she still clings to the hope that her sister still loves her. She rides off in search of Elsa and the arc of the story begins. I want to pause here and just say: Anna is not an airhead. She is driven by what she wants and stops at nothing to get it. WHAT she wants changes as her arc progresses, but she is not just blundering around aimlessly. She is also the only character to learn something by listening to another’s advice. She has a brain and it is processing from beginning to end. I would argue that though she has a lot to learn, she starts and ends the movie more emotionally stable than does Elsa.

Elsa arrives on the mountain and sings her big song “Let It Go” (which I’m pretty sure everyone who has been around me in the last month is sick of). What happens here is that she throws off the rules of her childhood. The righteous rule follower allows herself to rebel, to experience freedom. No more will she suppress who she really is. She’s going to let it go. Good or bad, she’s going to be real. And there is a moment here that I missed the significance of the first time I watched it. She builds a bridge and then crosses it. This is a direct contrast to the moment she freezes Anna. She is trusting her powers again. She is trusting herself. Next, she builds a fortress to protect herself. Within these walls, she is free. Outside, the world doesn’t matter. To her, it may as well not even exist. She is free. And, she is alone.

In my state of isolation, when I was alone, I often felt freedom. It is freeing to be away from the people you fear you will hurt. It allows you to relax. But it is far from a good solution. She is still alone. She has not cured the root of her problem: her lack of emotional attachment. She has only broken out of the mindset she was in that was keeping her from healing. But hey, there’s still popcorn to be eaten.

Anna meets Kristoff (woohoo! big summer blowout! ya?). Another critique I’ve heard against the movie is that Kristoff’s character arc is completely flat. Well, it is. He’s a foil. (That’s why it’s not a romance.) Anna describes Hans to Kristoff and it is clear that Hans has become Anna’s anchor: the well from which her thirst for belonging will be quenched. She has hope. This is something that Elsa does not have yet. Anna also has purpose. She doesn’t necessarily know what she needs, but she’s determined to find it.

Anna and Kristoff meet Olaf, another foil. He is pure comic relief until later, …so I will ignore him until that time.

Anna and Kristoff arrive at Elsa’s palace. I love this scene as it allows Anna to see Elsa without her mask. She gets the answer to her question of “Why did my sister shut me out?” And her response is “Heck yes, I forgive you. Let’s be sisters again.” She says all the right things. She is not condemnatory. She is vulnerable. She is loving. But Elsa triggers (recalling the childhood accident) and pulls back yet again. This is a darn good illustration of an emotional trigger. You can have love and relationship staring you in the face and yet, you can’t see it. Again, when one is emotionally triggered, reason is gone. As Anna pushes in more, Elsa only gets worse. Until she snaps and once again hurts her sister and pushes her away.

They go to visit the trolls. Anna is doubting her ability to bring her sister back. Words didn’t work. The trolls actually have some good advice this time. In the song “Fixer Upper”, there is a line that goes, “People make bad choices when they’re mad or scared or stressed, but throw a little love their way and you’ll bring out their best.” You can tell Anna is processing this and thinking of her sister. This advice tells her two things. One, Elsa’s fresh rejection is not because of her. And Elsa can yet be saved. Anna is learning some rules for love rather than just solely feeling her way along.

But Anna now has a more immediate problem. She is freezing solid. She needs some love of her own. And here we come to the ending which consists of four characters “saving the day” through love. And it’s interesting that it goes in order from most mature to least mature. Kristoff goes first and races Anna to her love (even though by now it’s clear he wishes that were him). He is willing (as Olaf puts it) to love Anna so much to give her what SHE wants most and let her go. Olaf then risks melting to warm Anna up and encourage her. These two acts fill Anna’s love tank. She gets a taste of genuine emotional attachment. When she arrives on the lake, she in turn chooses to give love to her sister even at the cost of the thing she has wanted most the entire movie: romantic love. Kristoff, the proven source of what she has been longing for for so long, is literally running towards her. Instead, she makes the ultimate sacrifice and takes the sword for her sister. This pierces Elsa’s shell. Elsa had previously let her sister see her as she really was with her hurts and her pain and her fear. Yet Anna responds to this reality with love. And this touches Elsa very deeply. She can feel this love. And she in turn loves Anna, thawing her and making her new (her hair doesn’t even have the mark of the original freezing).

And then we have the resolution of the various arcs. Anna and Kristoff get together. WOOHOO! I thought it was fine they didn’t have a guy for Elsa. I briefly hoped that Elsa and Kristoff would get together (since he was stable enough for her and he really likes ice). But to come from where she was to stable enough for a relationship would have been unrealistic. She is healing, but she has a long way to go. I also like that the ending scene is Anna and Elsa, not Anna and Kristoff once again affirming that this story is not about romance. It is a story of children overcoming obstacles and becoming adults. Of people learning to value themselves and to give and receive love. Of one sibling setting out to reach the heart of her sister and bring her home. The movie ends how it began with two sisters skating in the snow which they both love and which neither fears.

So what did I not like? The resolution of Prince Hans’ arc irks me every time. He has the same emotional wound that the sisters do, yet there is no effort made to show him love. He has responded to his hurt and powerlessness by becoming an abuser (not that uncommon). But if we could see beneath the surface, we would see a wound as deep as Elsa’s or Anna’s and we would have much more pity for him. Yes he still needs to be punished. He is still responsible for his actions. But I don’t see him as the villain in this movie.

The true villain is fear itself. Fear drove the parents to isolate Elsa. Fear drove the sisters to question each other’s love. Fear drove Elsa out away from the people that loved her. Fear drove Hans to try to marry into the throne. Fear drove Anna to fall for him. And on and on it goes. Hans should have had at least a scene of glimpsing beneath his shell if not a shot at redeeming himself.

Finally, what did I like best? Two things which in a way are related. First, the accurate portrayal of two big problems kids face today: emotional isolation and emotional rejection. There are a lot of Elsas in this world (I was one of them). There are also a lot of Annas. Most of them grew up in seemingly normal homes (though many regretfully did not). But emotional attachment was obstructed as they matured (perhaps out of fear, misunderstanding, false beliefs, past experiences, etc.). I think a lot of people are going to see themselves and their hurts in either of the sisters.

Secondly, I loved the message of the story’s resolution: people need emotional attachment, and that attachment does not have to be a romantic relationship. It does not have to be cool. It does not have to be with this person or that person. It doesn’t have to be with your parents. (It doesn’t have to be with your siblings either.) It needs to be with someone who sees you as you really are and loves you anyway. The entire story of Frozen is driven by Anna’s seemingly nonsensical notion that Elsa is still worthy of love and that the bond that they once shared can be reforged.

Emmanuel

The prince stood long his head bent down.

The host of heaven gathered round.

Their horns and lyres waiting still,

A multitude but not a sound.

..

His father joined him at the edge,

His gaze descending down below.

The earth was still and cold and dark.

“The hour has come. It’s time to go.”

..

The king embraced his son once more

For never had they been apart.

Yet from the dawn of time he’d known.

This farewell hug would rend his heart.

..

“I love you, Son.” the king declared.

“When it is finished, we’ll meet again.

Go swiftly now to do our work

And bring our peace, good will to men.”

..

The prince agreed and turned to go.

A tiny touch came on his sleeve.

The angel asked with stuttering voice,

“Why do you have…why must you leave?”

..

He stooped and met her eye to eye.

His hand reached out and pulled in hers.

“I choose to go.” the prince replied.

“My life alone can break their curse.”

..

“I do not have to go at all.

I could remain here up above.

But that would break the word I gave.

That would veil them from my love.”

..

The prince fell silent for a piece.

His mind had travelled to that day

When heav’n and earth would shut him out,

And his father’s voice would fade away.

..

The guilt would come vast as a flood,

The weight of wrongs he did not do.

And midst the swirling storm of shame

No father’s voice would puncture through.

..

For that at last was man’s dark curse:

Not just the fire and pain of hell,

But never to hear the father’s voice

And never with the king to dwell.

..

“I will not let them end alone.

I will suffer to break them free.

They and I will yet be one.

‘Emmanuel’ my name shall be.”

..

The little angel whispered back,

Warm tears streaming down her cheek,

“I’ll sing for you when you are born.

And comfort you when you are weak.”

..

The two embraced and then the prince

descended through the clouds to earth.

Born into a world of death.

Born to give us second birth.