Last week I woke up to an intensely vivid dream. In comparison,
past dreams seemed like a hazy video on a scratchy black and white TV,
while this dream felt like an IMAX theater with
heart-throbbing surround sound and mountain-shaking sub-woofers.
I dreamt of a long-past betrayal, and I felt raw fury, pain, and shame
wash over me. Again.
Have you ever been betrayed? Few men and women I meet are unscathed.
Sooner or later—and most likely sooner—we will all experience a betrayal.
I don’t mean a stab in the back; I mean a face-to-face, kiss-on-the-cheek
treachery that leaves us reeling, bleeding, and bewildered; all this from
the former ally who afterward smilingly asks, “What’s the big deal?,” suggesting,
“Let’s grab a cup of coffee for old time’s sake.”
The depth of our former friendship increases the magnitude of our pain.
The friend whose betrayal most brutalizes us is the comrade whose care
most comforted us. As David once sang,
For it is not an enemy who taunts me—I could bear that; it
is not an adversary who deals twistedly with me—even that I could bear.
But it is you, my comrade, my companion, my close friend. We used to enjoy
sweet intimacy. (Psalm 55:12-14)
It may have been a wealthy parent who willed you one penny, a callous gym
teacher who called you a coward in front of other kids, or the partner
who embezzled your retirement funds. Probably the worst is an adulterous
How do we handle the pain, fury, and shame of a personal betrayal?
Let the meditations
of my heart...
Let the meditations of my heart…
After the dream, I lay wide-awake, outraged all over again, and wondering,
“How could he have done this? How could I have been so stupid? If only
his family knew of his heartlessness.”
Let’s just say, it was not visions of sugarplums that danced in my head.
All my anger, pain, and shame coalesced into one short declaration,
“I’d never do that.” I’d never treat a friend that way; I’d never be so
underhanded; and I’d never be so heartless.
Almost instantly I felt God say, “Oh yes you would, and you’re doing
it right now.”
I felt God say that my self-praising mantra, “I’d never do that,” was
stealing from God. If my claim had any truth (and that’s open to debate),
any good in me was itself just a gift from God. I was taking credit for
his work. It was plagiarism—exactly as if a friend wrote a great book,
and I stole it, published it, and put my name down as its author.
We are spiritual plagiarizers. We see friends divorce their childhood
sweetheart, scream at their kids, or buy luxury cars they can’t afford
… and we praise ourselves with, “I’d never do that.” (Or we read a writer
who admits his self-praising mantra, and we say, “I’d never think that.”)
It’s spiritual plagiarism. If we had their parents, their upbringing,
or if we were born with their temperament, we would do the exact same thing.
We might even do something worse.
I was betraying God. I knew my mantra was damaging, and I knew I should
forgive, but I felt God lead me to rest—to pause for a moment—in the sense
that I was a traitor.
As I floundered in the feelings of being betrayed, I remembered the
parable of the unmerciful servant. It’s the story of a man who is forgiven
about ten billion dollars. He, in turn, finds and beats up another man
who owes him the paltry sum (relatively) of fifteen thousand dollars.
I wondered how anyone could be so heartless. How could he justify such
harshness after receiving such a great release? There is only one answer.
Somehow, something inside the unmerciful man said he deserved that forgiveness.
He must have told himself, “I’m a good guy. The king made a wise choice.
I’m worth it.”
He couldn’t admit the depth of his own betrayal. And God said that man
It’s not about
forgiveness as much as forgiven-ness
I had tried to heal my heart with self-praise. Now, if I tried to forgive
him on my own, I would have appealed to that same flesh with another self-praise,
“I’m the kind of man who forgives.”
Our world has manipulated us. It tells us that the power we need most
is self-esteem. But the power of God is the cross; the way up is down.
We can only forgive with the power of being forgiven; and the more we need
to forgive, the more we need to know our own forgiven-ness.
Before “just forgiving” my betrayer, I felt God call me to understand
his forgiveness of me. And to know the heights of his forgiveness, I had
to begin with the depths of my betrayal of him.
Let the words
of my mouth and the meditations of my heart … be humble
God uses all kinds of metaphors for our relationship with him (potter,
king, vine, and friend); but his most intimate metaphor is when he calls
us his spouse. And almost every time he calls us his spouse, he also calls
us his adulterous spouse (see Hosea 1-3 and Jeremiah 2).
It’s hard to think of our actions as adulterous—sure we harbor a grudge
for a week, or we think ill thoughts of that weird woman at work—but adultery?
Have I really been that bad?
So I began to meditate on how bad I am. (Yeah, yeah, I know I’ve been
given a new heart and a white cloak, but I can’t rest on my deserving them—that
would be spiritual plagiarism.)
Thinking of my own badness was bizarre. I listed bad behaviors (and
thoughts) from the past few months (the rest will take a lifetime). I just
meditated on them, and then I admitted them.
As I said, it was bizarre. At first, all my self-esteem just evaporated,
disappearing in a whimper. And then God’s love—shown through his enormous
forgiveness—astonished me. I wasn’t just being forgiven for losing my temper;
I was being loved by the one I betrayed. I wasn’t forgiven of a few thousand
dollars, I was forgiven for tens of billions—maybe trillions—of dollars.
I began to sense a God-esteem take the place of my self-esteem. And
I began—slowly at first, but it picked up steam—I began to want
to forgive that person who betrayed me. Compared to my betrayal of God,
it was nothing.
And I would probably have done the exact same thing.