During the first 44 years after I graduated from the University of Oklahoma, I self-consciously did my very best to serve Jesus Christ—first as a campus evangelist with a para church organization, then as a teaching elder in the church and finally as a conference speaker and author of Christian books.
Thirty-four of those years were spent in Seattle, Washington, involved in three different churches, experiencing all the relational difficulties that church life invariably includes. As I shared last week, in the last few years I have begun to see my own culpability in those relational difficulties for the first time.
No, I was not on the white horse wearing the white hat in personal conflicts with others as I had imagined and as all genuine Pharisees believe about themselves. Actually, all of us, Pharisees or rebels, are riding black horses wearing black hats. We are all wicked sinners, and rather than be concerned about the sins of others, which has always been my penchant, my own sin is the only sin for which I am responsible.
My responsibility is to pray Essential Parenting Prayer #2—“Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner (not my wife, not my husband, not the brother or sister in the church with whom I have a disagreement).” As I began to see myself as a sinner in all these broken relationships, with personal responsibility in every case, amazing things began to happen. I want to share one of them with you.
As my daughter was entering her first year in college, she entered into a courtship relationship, with marriage as the goal, with a young man in our church. However, it soon became obvious that he was having significant difficulty following the instructions I had given him concerning his conduct with my daughter. He did not understand or agree with my place of authority in Ramah’s life. As a result, the strain on all the relationships involved became unbearable.
The ensuing breaking off of the courtship left animosity in the hearts of all parties concerned. I believed (as I can see now, falsely) that the young man’s father had a cavalier attitude about his son’s failure to obey me in regards to his behavior with my daughter, that he thought my demands upon his son were unreasonable (that too was false) and that (again, falsely) his son’s attitude and actions were justified.
I saw red: “How dare he question my authority in my own daughter’s life?” The family soon left the church, and my unspoken, unrecognized attitude was, “Good riddance!” In my heart I unconsciously harbored hatred for them both.
The issue was not “As a father, do I have authority in my daughter’s life?” Of course I do, and the young man was at fault for not recognizing and honoring it. However, the issue for me to face was my attitude of intolerance, rejection and even hatred for him and his father.
The courtship could have ended amicably when it was obvious that the young man was not ready for marriage. We could have had an unemotional, firm, loving discussion with both father and son about why Ramah and I both felt as we did, with the unspoken recognition that he is still young and will learn from this experience.
However, that was definitely not what transpired. For years, whenever they were mentioned I could feel bitterness welling up in my heart. I was harboring hatred for them of which I was not conscious. I heard rumors that the father was expressing publicly that our church was a “cult,” which only added to my bitterness.
We eventually moved to the country in Eastern Washington and planted a church, some 300 miles away. This young man and his father, who continued to live in Western Washington, were long forgotten, with an unresolved, broken relationship and bitterness and hatred unconsciously buried deep within my heart. I continued along my merry way of “serving Jesus”—ironically preaching and teaching about love, mercy and forgiveness. My blindness and hypocrisy were absolutely amazing.
One day, out of the blue, now some 15 years after the family left the church, I came home to find a note on my door from the father. He and his wife were on vacation in Eastern Washington and were on their way home, were in the area where they knew we then lived, found our house and dropped by to say hello.
I was beginning to learn about facing my own sin, sin of which I had been previously ignorant. As I read the note, my heart was stricken by the Holy Spirit. With a flash of insight my eyes were opened for the first time to see what I had done 15 years ago to my brother for whom Christ had died. I had murdered him with my hatred (Matthew 5:22)!
I could not wait to repent to him. He had left his cell number and I called him immediately. They were about 20 miles away on their way home and I told him that he had to turn around and come back immediately. He did so, and my first words to him as he came in the door were, “I am so sorry for what I did to you and your son. Please, please forgive me.” I confessed the hatred that was hidden in my heart for 15 years, thereby, in the words of Jesus, murdering him, and he forgave me. There were tears all around.
What happened was a miracle. During the next two years, my ministry took me to Seattle regularly and the father and I met for lunch each time. Our relationship has not only been restored but is much stronger and more intimate than it ever was. I count him as one of my dearest brothers and can say that, based on my repentance for my wicked sin of hatred, the Lord has exchanged that hatred with incredible love for him. We continue to correspond regularly and meet whenever possible. I would trust him with my life. “He that is forgiven much (hatred for my brother) loves much. He that is forgiven little (refusing to embrace his sin and the Lord’s accompanying forgiveness) loves little” (Luke 7:47).
As Martin Luther said, God works in opposites. If I want to live, I must die. If I want to be first, I must be last. If I want to lead, I must serve. And if I want to love, I must recognize and embrace the fact that I don’t and then repent, and the love of God will fill my heart until it overflows to all around me!