One summer during my high school years, I worked at Holly Lister’s General Store. It was a quintessential small-town general store that sold everything from fishing lures to fancy molasses. While the store had a little bit of almost everything—or so it seemed to this teenage boy—most customers stopped by to pick a few items. And they usually placed their purchases on a running tab. These were the days before the ubiquitous use of credit and debit cards. Instead of a credit card machine, the store had a large black cabinet designed to keep track of its customers’ credit slips.
When a purchase was made, the corresponding credit slip was clipped to the fold-out board holding the customer’s account. On payday customers came by the store to settle their accounts. Occasionally customers were unable or unwilling to keep their tab current and the relationship between the store and the customer changed. At the very least, interest was tacked onto the amount owed. Sometimes customers lost their charging privileges and were placed on a cash-only basis. The now-outstanding balance hung over the commercial relationship. It subtilty shifted from principally being a collaborative relationship to one that took on a more adversarial tone. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the writer of Proverbs cautioned against debt.Keep short lists. This means developing a proactive posture of forgiveness, setting an expectation that when I am wronged, I will intentionally lean into forgiveness. Click To Tweet
Our Understanding of God
But finances are just one of the ways people acquire debt. It is possible to have an interpersonal debt. When we are wronged in a relationship, it is easy to pull the metaphorical fold-out board we use to keep track of those who have offended us and add another chit to the collection. In Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture, Duke historian Grant Wacker told a story about a small boy who was staying overnight with his faraway grandparents. The bedroom was unfamiliar, the comforting sounds of home absent, and although the boy tried to be brave, he finally called for his grandmother. The grandmother gently reminded the boy he should not be frightened because God is everywhere. To which the boy replied, “Yes, I know, but sometimes I need a God with skin.”
For Wacker this story captured the central feature of the early Pentecostals’ view of the cosmos, one that blurred the boundaries between the invisible and visible worlds. I would argue that contemporary Pentecostals share this worldview.
Although we know better, we allow people to shape our understanding of God.
Our understanding of God is deeply colored by our relationship with other Christians. And just as financial debts alter the commercial relationship, emotional hurts harm our faith because we tend to project our relationship with people onto our relationship with God. This is especially true when it comes to people who hold spiritual leadership in our lives or people who are ministry colleagues. Although we know better, we allow people to shape our understanding of God.
Model Radical Forgiveness
Because God often comes with a human face and since our faith is formed in the crucible of human encounters, our faith is impacted when people fail us. Over the years I have observed that people who lose faith often—more times than not—had difficult relationships with a significant leader or ministry associate. Teens and young adults are too frequently the group with the largest percentage of casualties when a local church becomes involved in a protracted church fight. And it’s easy to understand why. Teens still possess enough idealistic vision to see the world as an increasingly better place, but if the vision gets tarnished with an ugly church fight, their faith often suffers. One could attempt to make them young cynics to inoculate them from disappointments. A much better way would be to model radical forgiveness. If they see us get over being wronged, then they have a way forward if and when they suffer the same fate.
Develop a Proactive Posture of Forgiveness
I suppose one could hope for no failures or disappointments and that everybody in your faith community would live out their faith with authenticity. However, that’s highly unlikely. We are still fallen image bearers and while we are striving to have Christ formed in us—and hopefully making progress—we are still human. A better strategy is to determine up front to keep short lists. This means developing a proactive posture of forgiveness, setting an expectation that when I am wronged, I will intentionally lean into forgiveness.
It was not without reason that Jesus called us to daily take up the cross. He modelled radical forgiveness.
Faith is not for the faint-hearted. It would be tragic to lose faith over an interpersonal dispute, yet too many Christians fall into this trap. It was not without reason that Jesus called us to daily take up the cross. He modelled radical forgiveness. We should too—it may be the only thing that keeps our faith alive. This means that on a regular basis we need to settle relational accounts. It is what Jesus was getting at when He insisted that we go to extraordinary lengths to grant forgiveness. We need to keep short accounts.
Dr. Robin Johnston | Editor in Chief and Publisher | UPCI
Resources and Links
For resources by Dr. Johnston, click here.
A version of this article was printed in Pentecostal Life