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Gripped by Grace: Over My Broken Relationships (Gen. 33:1-17)

In his book, Everybody’s Normal Until You Get To Know Them, John Ortberg uses the analogy of a porcupine to describe the dilemma we find ourselves in as imperfect people craving relational intimacy.  He writes:

“The North American Porcupine is a member of the rodent family that has around 30,000 quills attached to his body.  Each quill can be driven into an enemy, and the enemy’s body heat will cause the microscopic barb to expand and become more firmly embedded.  The wounds can fester; the more dangerous ones, affecting vital organs can be fatal.

The porcupine is not generally regarded as a lovable animal. Even skunks have Pepe Le Pew, but I don’t know any famous porcupine. As a general rule, porcupines have two methods for handling relationships: withdrawal and attack.  They either head for a tree or stick out their quills.  They are generally solitary animals.  Wolves run in packs; sheep huddle in flocks; we speak of herds of elephants and gaggles of geese and even a murder of crows.  But there is no special name for a group of porcupines.  They travel alone.

Porcupines don’t always want to be alone.  In the late autumn, a young porcupine’s thoughts turn to love.  But love turns out to be a risky business when you’re a porcupine.  Females are open to dinner and a movie only once a year; the window of opportunity closes quickly.  And a girl’s porcupine’s “no” is the most widely respected turndown in all the animal kingdom.  Fear and anger make them dangerous little creatures to be around.

This is the porcupine’s dilemma: How do you get close without getting hurt?  This is our dilemma, too.  Every one of us carries our own little arsenal.  Our barbs have names like rejection, condemnation, resentment, arrogance, selfishness, envy, and contempt.  Some people hide them better than others, but you get close enough and you will find out they’re there.  They burrow under the skin of our enemies; they can wound and fester and even kill.  We, too learn to survive through a combination of withdrawal and attack.  We, too, find ourselves hurting and being hurt by those we long to be closest to.

Yet we, too, want to get close.  We meet neighbors, go on dates, join churches, form friendships, get married and have children.  We try to figure out how to get close without getting hurt.  We wonder if there isn’t a softer, less-barbed creature out there – a mink or an otter, perhaps. And of course, we can usually think of a number of particularly prickly porcupines in our lives.  But the problem is not just them.  I’m somebody’s porcupine.  So are you.”[1]

Someone once said that the more I get to know people, the more I love my dog. Part of the risk of getting to know and love people is that you are giving them the opportunity to hurt you. How do you get close enough without getting hurt? How? Through one of the hardest ways ever created: forgiveness and reconciliation. Some of us right now are harboring unforgiveness and bitterness. It could even be with others in this room. It could be with a coworker, a friend, a sibling or a parent. We are someone’s porcupine and others are ours.

Sometimes we are in denial about it because we are good at hiding our barbs from each other. Some of us have been carrying wounds for years, still bleeding, still suffering, still hearing the words, still seeing the offenses and still having a hard time getting over what happened.[2] Some of us have perhaps never dealt with it and as a result have become numb, detached and indifferent, putting up walls so that we will never get hurt again by anyone’s quills. We try to hide behind our laughter or bury it with busyness. But if we are honest with ourselves and God, we know that we are not free.

As we are growing as a church in breadth, we know God is far more interested in our depth. If we take care of the depth of this ministry, we can trust God with the breadth. But part of that will mean we learn what it means to be a gospel-centered community of porcupines who are growing in forgiveness. Even as we prepare for Amplify, it is great that we want people to come into this community, but as Steve once asked, what kind of community are we bringing them into? If we are going to be a family of faith that has long lasting, Gospel-centered, Jesus-exalting faith, we cannot do it unless we grow in forgiveness.

We have been learning a lot about a porcupine named Jacob. He has hurt many with his sharp quills. And no one has been hurt more in his life than his brother Esau. Twice he stabbed him and left him with nothing. The last time Jacob heard of Esau, his brother was planning on killing him. He figures Esau his brother too, is a fellow porcupine, sharpening his barbs for twenty years to get revenge.

But Jacob is not the same Jacob as we saw a couple of weeks ago. God has finally broken the self-sufficient runner in an overnight wrestling match. So now Jacob no longer struts or swags, but he limps. But has he truly changed? How will we know? We can look at his relationships, namely his relationship with his estranged brother. Remember again this is a message to Israel, made up of a band of brothers who must learn to pull in their quills and learn to forgive if they are going to move forward in the Promised Land. Let’s explore this today with this one thought:

I.  Forgiveness is always a choice (Gen. 33:1-17)

This chapter is closely tied to the previous one. It is Jacob   being broken by God that helps him be broken before his brother. Remember the cross has two beams: One vertical and one horizontal. Jesus did not simply bring us to be reconciled to God, but also created a new community of followers reconciled and constantly reconciling to each other. And it is when Jacob sees God’s face and is humbled and forgiven by Him that he can see Esau’s face and restore that relationship as well. And Jacob chooses to move forward to meet his estranged brother.

Several aspects of this are here in this section. Forgiveness is a choice to:

a)    Courageously Confront

Finally the dreaded encounter between the two brothers is about to happen. Jacob, exhausted from his overnight wrestling match with God, limps out in the morning and wouldn’t you know it, Esau comes with 400 men. This is like a scene out of the Lord of the Rings. Jacob is cautious and perhaps fearful again as he starts to divide up his camp again, putting those he especially loves, Rachel and Joseph at the back of the line. Wait a minute? Didn’t he just see God’s face and live? Is he full of fear again?

Because he is just like us. We are full of paradoxes. We are full of fear one minute and full of faith the next. So how do we know he has been changed and wants this reconciliation? Look at Gen. 33:3: “He himself went on before them.” Remember in Gen. 32, before the encounter with God, Jacob was scheming and hiding in the back and sending everyone in front? Now he goes, though he’s probably trembling in his sandals so to speak. He courageously confronts. Is he scared? Yes! There can be no courage unless you’re scared! It is doing what you are afraid to do. Tim Keller says,

Courage is the ability to do the right thing regardless of the consequences and regardless of the dangers.”[3]

And by putting himself in the front, limping in fear toward his brother, he shows us that it takes courage to confront. Esau is not a believer here, though he acts like one by his quick love for Jacob who has hurt him.

Listen to two passages that Jesus gives on confronting brothers and sisters in conflict: Matt. 5:23-24 and Matt. 18:15. In the first case, if you have hurt someone, initiate reconciliation. That makes sense. You are the offender, so go to the offended. In the second case, someone has offended you, but Jesus says, “You go.” That’s not fair?! Shouldn’t that person come to me? So we must then take the initiative if we hurt someone or if someone has hurt us. Why? Because God is not asking us to do anything He hasn’t done. The older you get in your walk, the more you see that it was not that you first started seeking God and you found God, but that He was seeking you all of this time and He found you! He is always the initiator.  He is calling us to live for something bigger than our name and how we feel.

So we must always initiate.  If we are thinking, “I will wait until she says she’s sorry to forgive her,” that is probably not going to happen any time soon. God calls us to make the move. So if any relationship has cooled off or has weakened in any way, it is always your move. It doesn’t matter “who started it:” God always holds you responsible to reach out to repair a tattered relationship. A Christian is responsible to begin the process of reconciliation, regardless of how the distance or the alienation began.

But you say, “I don’t feel like I want to forgive her!” When Jesus makes a command, He never commands a feeling. You cannot command feelings. You can only command an action. Listen to Mark 11:25: “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone…” He’s not commanding a feeling. He’s asking us to take the initiative and be like God and take responsibility for His name’s sake. You don’t grant forgiveness after you feel like forgiving. You grant it before you feel it because if you wait to feel it, you’ll never do it. But if you grant it before you feel, the Lord, over time, will allow your feelings to follow your obedience.

Pastor James MacDonald says that “forgiveness happens in a moment of crisis, and it continues in a process.” It always starts in front of God admitting our sin of unforgiveness. We have a crisis with God where we stop explaining, defending, cherishing, reviewing and holding on it. And we have God’s forgiveness and accept His love. We move forward. But what happens on Thursday when you see that person? You were doing well but then all the feelings come back like a flood and you are back to brooding over it all again. What happened? You failed in the process of forgiveness. When you fail in the process, you have to return to the crisis. You go back on your knees and have a crisis with God. Crisis/process. Crisis/process and “over time, with God’s help, you’ll let go of the offense and God’s mercy will wash over you and give you release.”[4] It takes courage to keep doing this!

Interestingly, Esau in Gen. 33:12-17, Esau suggests he and Jacob go together back home. Jacob refuses giving a lame excuse, “Kids are too weak.” Jacob tells him to go on ahead and we’ll catch up to your hometown in Seir. Jacob actually never goes there. Jacob also refuses any help of protection from Esau’s men. Does Jacob not trust Esau? Have they truly reconciled? Or is Jacob recognizing that though he is his brother, he is still an unbeliever and need to keep his distance because they are about two different agendas.

By the way, forgiveness does not always mean you reconcile. Someone may have hurt you who have died (hopefully you don’t kill that person). You can forgive that person though you may never reconcile. Reconciliation requires the rebuilding of trust, and that means good faith on the part of both parties.[5]

I have been in enough church splits and church drama to know that what has killed community is not so much the one meeting where everything erupted and three churches were formed, but a bunch of people choosing to avoid conflict and letting that build up over time that led up to the eruption. Avoidance that festers resentment to fester and grow is what kills community. Are there relationships that are fractured in your life right now that the Lord is calling you in obedience to courageously confront? Time does not cancel sin. It’s never too late to reconcile.

Remember it is not that your feelings are right or that you are not scared, but despite being scared and despite not knowing what to do with your feelings and knowing you don’t really know what you are doing or saying, you take a courageous step because it is the right thing to do despite the consequences and dangers. Secondly, forgiveness is a choice to:

b) Humbly Absorb the Debt

Remember that Esau had originally been harboring a deep grudge against his brother, hating him and wanting to kill him (Gen. 27:41). This is a good picture of unforgiveness. When you hold a grudge, it makes you feel self-righteous. Our woundedness makes us self-absorbed and full of self-pity. We raise ourselves as better than the other person. We don’t know if all of this unforgiveness had done to Esau, but I am sure it made him crazy. As William Walton said, “To carry a grudge is like being stung to death by one bee.”[6]

 But notice here that Jacob shows humility in bowing down seven times and calling himself “your servant.” He is admitting that he is in debt. He has cheated and stolen from his brother. And when Jacob later tries to pay back and show restitution, Esau replies, “I have enough.” He may have material stuff, but he had to absorb the rest of the cost of losing all that he lost through Jacob’s deception. The birthright and father’s deathbed blessing are all priceless items that were lost.

Actually in the New Testament, the word forgiveness is used 143 times. It is a legal term that means, “to release a person from an obligation.”[7] Forgiveness means giving up the right to seek repayment from the one who harmed you.[8] So if we are unforgiving, we are putting the other person in jail. And ourselves! Remember when Peter asked Jesus how many times should we forgive people? Seven? And Jesus said, “seventy times seven” (Matt. 18:22). By the way, I don’t think Jesus means 490x is the limit. I think Jesus is saying, “There is no limit. It’s a way of life, like breathing.” So No Peter, forgiveness is not an occasional act: it is an attitude.

ImageAnd then Jesus shared a parable about a guy who was forgiven of a huge debt, but he himself couldn’t forgive a smaller debt that someone owed him. In fact, when the guy couldn’t pay the smaller debt, this guy who was forgiven such a large amount, seized his debtor and was choking him (Matt. 18:28). That is a picture of unforgiveness. You are grabbing the person who has hurt you by the neck and saying, “Pay back what you owe me!” I’m going to put you in this prison until you do so. In the end, guess what happens? The choker who put the debtor in jail, gets thrown in jail himself, being tormented in the very way he treated his debtor. Lots of studies show how bitterness, anger and rage are being linked to blood pressure increases, hormonal changes, impaired immune function and memory loss.[9] Unforgiveness is a cancer which if left in our heart, it will eat away at you from the inside out. It’s a jail that we are putting ourselves into.

Pastor Tim Keller uses this example. If a friend breaks my lamp, and if the lamp costs fifty dollars to replace, then the act of lamp breaking incurs a debt of fifty dollars. If I let him pay for and replace the lamp, I get my lamp back and he’s out fifty dollars. But if I forgive him for what he did, the debt does not somehow vanish into thin air. When I forgive him, I absorb the cost and payment for the lamp: either I will pay the fifty dollars to replace it or I will lose the lighting in that room. To forgive is to cancel a debt by paying it or absorbing it yourself. Someone always pays every debt. To humbly release the debt means that you are also choosing to absorb the debt yourself. In all cases when wrong is done there is a debt, and there is no way to deal with it without suffering: either you make the perpetrator suffer for it or you forgive and suffer for it yourself.

This does not mean that you ignore the cost. Forgiving does not mean forgetting. The whole, “Forgive and forget” thing is not in the Bible. When God says He remembers our sins no more, it doesn’t mean He’s literally forgotten them. It means that He chooses never to hold them against us. Though when God forgives us, it does not mean the cancellation of all consequences of wrongdoing, but it does mean the refusal on God’s part to let our guilty past affect His relationship with us. So don’t excuse the offense or forget it. Just don’t hold it against the person. Also, lost trust will take time to earn it back.

So forgiveness does not mean forgetting and it does not mean excusing. We don’t pretend that what someone did was not so bad. “Oh, he’s always mean and critical. Just ignore it.” There is a cost. There is a real cost. There was a loss. Sometimes the cost is small, though we make it big. Like someone took your place in traffic. Someone borrowed your nose clipper and didn’t return it. Someone didn’t say hi to you. We can let some things roll off our backs and do not need to always confront. We are all irritating to someone. However, there are intangible losses, which makes it harder to release the debt. There were quills that stabbed us very deeply. Someone destroyed your reputation, your dream of a good marriage, your safety, your child, your purity, etc. Those things can be devastating and horrific, unspeakable pain. And it is only by the grace of God, we can still forgive.

So you are not forgetting the cost. You are choosing not to hold it against the person. When you want to gossip and slander that person and Christians sometimes do that by “sharing a prayer request,” you refuse to do so. You are absorbing the debt. When you want to berate them and root for them to have a bad life and refuse to do so, you are absorbing the debt. When everything in you wants to recruit other people into your bitterness and create a “triangulation” against that person and you avoid that, you are absorbing the debt. Sometimes restitution must be done and justice must be served. But before that, we must forgive.

 When we forgive, we give up the right to hurt someone back. We humbly release the debt by absorbing the cost. What’s the alternative? There is only one thing that costs more than forgiving someone: Not forgiving. Non-forgiveness costs your heart.[10] So to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was not just your offender, but also, you.[11]

Listen to Frederick Buechner:

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.” [12]

You start out holding a grudge, but in the end the grudge holds you. As Anne Lamont says, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die.”[13]Choose to forgive and choose to live. And long before your body starts to shrivel up, your heart would have shriveled up. Living in unforgiveness is a tortured, barren way to live.[14] Release yourself and your captive from prison. Thirdly,

c)   Lovingly empathize

Though Jacob says, “My lord,” and calls himself “my servant,” what does Esau calls him in Gen. 33:9? “My brother.” We are on equal ground now. I am not standing above you as a morally superior person. In other words, I forgive you. And when Jacob first offers all this stuff, Esau refuses (though upon urging of Jacob he eventually takes it), saying, “I have enough.” I’ve absorbed the debt. Keep the birthright. Keep the blessing. I’m not demanding you pay.

Notice also how quickly Esau runs to Jacob and the embrace, the falling on the neck, the kiss and the weeping. Does this remind you of something else? I think Jesus was thinking of this story when he was teaching on the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15! Esau’s heart goes out to Jacob. For us, this idea of having compassion and our hearts “going out” to someone is a lot deeper. When someone has wounded us, our heart tells us that to accentuate the differences between you and them. You tell yourself you are superior to them.

Has anyone ever had their caricature/cartoon sketch done of them on the street? Why? It’s a humbling ordeal. What they do, they exaggerate something about you that sticks out. So if you have big ears, they make you look like an elephant. They reduce you. They take one or two features and they blow it up. That’s what we do when we stay angry at someone. We create distorted views of the person. So if someone lies to you, you get angry and every time you think about them or see them, all you see is, “Hmm. Look at that liar drinking water.” You reduced that person to a lie. But do you ever lie? Yeah, why? Well, it’s complicated. I shouldn’t have done it. You never say if someone asks you why you lie: “Cuz I’m a liar!” In doing this, we have a sense that we are superior to that person. We think we’re better than them.

But empathy says, “I am like my perpetrator in a lot of ways.” You have to identify with them deliberately. No, I’m not much different. I lie too. I too am angry person. I too am impatient. I too have a critical spirit. The other day, I got frustrated with my 4-year-old when she is impatient with her 2-year-old sister. And I remember yelling at her one day, “Why are you so impatient with her?!” Only to be reminded as I saw that I was just like her.

This is why Jesus says do log surgery in your own eye first before you do speck surgery in someone else’s eye (Matt. 7:3-5). Because you can’t see clearly when you are standing above someone in superiority. When you look at your own heart and see that you are not any different of an offender, you can start to approach the offender with tenderness. I am sure the most effective counselors in a hospital are those who let’s say are going into surgery for a heart transplant, are those who also had a heart transplant. There will be a tenderness toward that person. Lastly, forgiveness is a choice to:

d)  Deeply Bathe in God’s Forgiveness

Notice three times Jacob connecting God into this whole reconciliation process. Esau says nothing about God. He says the children are there because “God has graciously” given them to him (Gen. 33:5). Jacob is generous because “God has dealt graciously with me” (Gen. 33:11).  No mention of scheming. He says all of his life is a gift of grace. He also says, “For I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of God, and you have accepted me” (Gen. 33:10). What is he saying? He’s not saying Esau has a glow about him, but that Esau did not treat him as his sins deserved. Esau absorbed the payment of Jacob’s sin and did not hold it against him or use it against him. In this way, Esau was just like God, who also spared Jacob (Gen. 32:30).

Jacob connects his reconciliation with God with the reconciliation with his brothers. Whenever you read the Gospels and Epistles we see the same language: Eph. 4:32: “Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Col. 3:13: “As the Lord as forgiven you, so you must also forgive.” Luke 11:4: “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.” Jesus is not saying we earn the forgiveness of God when we forgive others. We do not get forgiven by forgiving. He’s saying people who are forgiven by God become increasingly forgiving people.[15] And if that is not happening in your life, perhaps you have to ask if you have even truly understood the forgiveness of the incredible debt we owe God through Jesus Christ.

For the reconciliation of two estranged brothers, there was a cost. Jacob gave up a lot to pay for his sins. Esau had to absorb all the costs of his personal hurts and losses because of Jacob’s sin and his own foolishness. Jacob said, “I owe you. I will pay.” But in the greatest act of reconciliation, God Himself will turn the tables. We all owe an incredible debt to God. Every time we are less than honest, or fudge an expense account, or treat a child harshly or make a cutting remark or don’t speak the truth in love, harbor anger and bitterness, gossip or tell a racist joke or have an impure thought, each act adds to the a mountain of debt.

Instead of saying, “You owe me. You must pay.” God steps in and says, “You owe. I will pay.” All of the punishment for our debt was poured out upon Christ so we could be set free. He paid the debt He did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay. Jacob gave gifts to appease Esau. God gave us the greatest gift, Himself. The Father gave up his Son, and the Son gave up his life. God absorbed the cost in Himself. In a greater act of empathy, He who knew no sin became sin for us. The Father forgives us, runs towards us, falls upon our neck, welcomes and embraces us back home. Jesus lost the welcome of His Father’s embrace so we can have His. Jesus accomplished the greatest reconciliation of all time. He gave up His rights to reconcile the world to Himself! (2 Cor. 5:16-21; Phil. 2:6-8). Christians ought to be the most forgiving people on earth, because they have been forgiven as no one else has.[16]

Gary Preston shares a story about a traveler making his way with a guide through the jungles of Burma. They came to a shallow but wide river and waded through it to the other side. When the traveler came out of the river, numerous leeches had attached to his torso and legs. His first instinct was to grab them and pull them off.

This guide stopped him, warning that pulling the leeches off would only leave tiny pieces of them under the skin. Eventually, infection would set in. The best way to rid the body of the leeches, the guide advised, was to bathe in a warm balsam bath for several minutes. This would soak the leeches, and soon they would release their hold on the man’s body.

Preston observes, ‘When I’ve been significantly injured by another person, I cannot simply yank the injury from myself and expect that all bitterness, malice, and emotion will be gone. Resentment still hides under the surface. The only way to become truly free of the offense and to forgive others is to bathe in the soothing bath of God’s forgiveness of me. When I finally fathom the extent of God’s love in Jesus Christ, forgiveness of others is a natural outflow.’”[17]

Miracle of miracles, relationship does happen—even for porcupines. On rare occasions, one porcupine will share space with another, and they become friends. And when it’s time to make sure another generation of porcupines will come along, they learn to keep their barbs to themselves. How? Males and females may remain together for some days before mating. They may touch paws and even walk on their hind feet in the so-called ‘dance of the porcupines.’ Ortberg notes, “Only God could have thought up two porcupines fox-trotting paw-to-paw, where no one but they and He will ever see. It turns out there really is an answer to the ancient question, how do porcupines make love? They pull in their quills and learn to dance.”[18] As Lewis Smedes writes, “When you forgive someone, you are dancing to the rhythm of the divine heartbeat…God invented forgiveness as the only way to keep his romance with the human race alive.”[19]


[1]Ortberg, J. (2003). Everyone’s Normal Until You Get to Know Them (21-22). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2]DeMoss, Nancy Leigh (2006). Choosing Forgiveness (34). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.

[4]MacDonald, James (2008). Ten Choices: A Proven Plan to Change Your Life Forever (125-26).

Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.

[5]Ortberg, J. (158).

[6]Water, M.(2000). The New Encyclopedia of Christian Quotations (376). Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd.

[7]MacDonald, James (120).

[8]Keller, T. “Serving Each Other Through Forgiveness and Reconciliation,” http://theresurgence.com/files/2011/04/10/Keller-Forgiveness_and_Reconciliation.pdf accessed 10 August 2012.

[9]DeMoss, N. (66).

[10]Ortberg, J. (165).

[11]Water, M. (374).

[13]Ortberg, J. (166).

[14]MacDonald, J. (138).

[15]MacDonald, J. (120).

[16]MacArthur, J. F. (1998). The Freedom and Power of Forgiveness (electronic ed.) (111). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[17]Preston, G. D. (1999). Character Forged from Conflict: Staying Connected to God During Controversy. The Pastor’s Soul Series (70). Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.

[18]Ortberg, O. (25).

[19]Ortberg, J. (149).

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