We can’t change the past but we can at least pick up the trash we left behind

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.” – Matthew 5:9

 

Up till now most of our recovery principles and steps have been focused on taking an unflinching inward look.  That is, an indiscriminate and thorough examination of ourselves to discover what’s behind our hurts, hang-ups and habits.  Now it’s time to turn our attention outward as we move forward to Principle 6:  “Evaluate all my relationships.  Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me and make amends for harm I’ve done to others, except when to do so would harm them or others.”  That statement contains the two distinct sides of the forgiveness coin so, as usual, we’ll take them on one at a time.  Step 8 says, “We made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.”  The moral inventory you took of your life (as it has unfolded so far) undoubtedly revealed several individuals in your past who’ve suffered the consequences of your sinful nature.  Indeed, some suffered more than others.  In all cases our trespasses against them came about because we failed to obey the fundamental, common sense commandment that Jesus delivered to a crowd in Luke 6:31; “Treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.” Before we gave our minds and hearts over to Christ the “old us” probably hoped we’d gotten away with our crimes against humans but now, with the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, our once-dormant conscience convicts us via sharp pangs of remorse and regret.  While we were “of this world” our past didn’t bother us so much because modern society constantly tells us to forget it and move on.  Gail Godwin said, “Remorse went out of fashion around the same time that ‘Stop feeling guilty,’ and ‘You’re too hard on yourself,’ and ‘You need to love yourself more’ came into fashion.”  But, as saved believers, we know better.  We acknowledge we’ve been whistling past the graveyard.  For perhaps the first time in our lives we have a strong yearning to say, “I’m sorry.”  Unfortunately that two-word phrase gets tossed around like popcorn these days.  Novelist Stephen King wrote, “Sorry is the Kool-Aid of human emotions.  True sorrow is as rare as true love.”  But when we put God the Father in the pilot’s seat He makes it crystal clear that we owe many folks a sincere apology for our actions.  Amendments are a huge part of the reconstruction project we’ve undertaken.  The transformation has begun.  J.I. Packer preached, “Repentance, as we know, is basically not moaning and remorse, but turning and change.”

 

Yet remorse over what we’ve done to others prods us to do something about it.  Otherwise ravenous guilt will slowly but surely eat us alive.  Our inventory brought formerly-entombed ghosts back to life with good reason and we’d best not ignore them.  The revered Scottish preacher James Stalker said, “Conscience comes to us in lonely hours; it wakens us in the night; it stands at the side of the bed and says, ‘Come, wake up and listen to me!’  And there it holds us with its remorseless eye; our buried sins rise up out of the grave of the past; they march in by melancholy procession; and we lie in terror looking at them.  Nobody knows but ourselves.  Next morning we go forth to business with a smiling face; but conscience has had its revenge.”  (Overly dramatic, yes, but it was too cool a quote to pass up.)  Kahlil Gibran put it more succinctly: “How shall you punish those whose remorse is already greater than their misdeeds?”  The eighth and ninth steps of the Celebrate Recovery program are not to be entered into lightly.  They serve a very important purpose.  As implied in the serenity prayer, we need God to grant us the courage to change the things we can.  Yann Martel said, “It’s important in life to conclude things properly.  Only then can you let go.  Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.”  It’s a matter of standing tall and taking full responsibility for mistakes you’ve made, especially those that came after your conversion.  Israelmore Ayivor wrote, “Peter denied Jesus; Judas betrayed Jesus.  The bad news was that both of them fell off the track and were both filled with regrets, remorse and anguish for their mischievous behaviors.  However it was only Peter who chose to rise again after falling!  Judas chose to end it with suicide!  If you fall, you can rise again.”  That’s why at every CR meeting we offer a blue surrender chip to anyone who has relapsed into sin so they can have reassurance that Jesus will help them back to their feet, dust them off and encourage them to continue down the recovery road.  For a Christian stumbling is no disgrace but staying down is.

 

It’s vital that we pay close attention to what Step 9 says: “We made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”  In our zeal to “set things right” we have the potential to cause a lot of unintended havoc.  It’s all too true that the path to disaster is paved with righteous intentions.  Philippians 2:4 says, “Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others, as well.” We must be careful not to barge into another person’s life just so we can check off another step.  We could unwittingly inject complications into their relationship situations as well as invite troubles into our own.  That’s why a sponsor’s recommendations, gleaned from training and experience, are essential to working this step.  Hebrews 10:24 states, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” They can advise you on how, when and whether or not you should approach someone with an apology.  Even more crucial is that you consult your Bible and pray for the Holy Spirit to light your way.  Sinclair Ferguson said, “We learn about guidance primarily by learning about the Guide.  It is the knowledge of God and His ways which ultimately gives us stability in doing His will.”  We can’t see far down the highway but God can.  Watchman Nee wrote, “How true it is that without the guidance of the Holy Spirit our intellect not only is undependable but also extremely dangerous because it often confuses the issue of right and wrong.”  If we’re not careful we can walk right into the devil’s sticky web that can corrupt the most righteous of endeavors.  Keep in mind that we’re not told to make our amends this very instant.  Allow God to arrange things in such a way that your amends are accomplished at the proper time and place.  As William Thrasher preached, “As we seek to obey the Spirit’s guidance in prayer, let me tell you what will often happen – nothing! But sometimes ‘nothing’ means that the Spirit desires to slow us down and lead us into silence.  Our society is addicted to noise, and for that reason we’re often insensitive to the Spirit of God.”  Stop and listen.

 

Speaking of, one of the many things I’ve acquired from years of sitting with men in small groups is a previously-inadequate ability to actually listen to what others are sharing.  I was never a skilled listener before because the whole time someone was talking I was concentrating on what clever, astute or sarcastic thing I would respond with.  Because there is no cross-talk allowed in CR small groups it forced me to curb that selfish habit and finally reap the benefits of concentrating on what others have to tell me.  Eventually it bled over into my everyday life and it’s made a big difference in all my relationships.  During one of my church’s Bible study classes the leader divided the room into four separate groups to discuss aspects of the topic we were dissecting.  The circle I was in just happened to be populated by men and women involved in our Celebrate Recovery ministry.  While at the other tables the participants were excitedly talking over each other, in our group we politely took turns voicing our opinions.  At one point a lady at our table laughed out loud and exclaimed, “You can sure tell who the CR folks are in this room!”  She wasn’t judging or criticizing the other groups; she was just pointing out the fact that we had learned, through weekly practice, how to listen to each other without interrupting.

 

Having related that anecdote about patience acquired, I caution you against thinking that, because the Lord is sometimes slow to open doors that’ll allow you to make your apology, He doesn’t deem that particular person’s hurt worth the hassle.  I quote Winkie Pratney:  “Many say they can’t get God’s guidance, when they really mean they wish He would show them an easier way.”  Elton John’s classic song, “Sorry seems to be the hardest word,” hits the nail on the head. Sometimes “I’m sorry” is the most humbling, difficult sentence you can possibly utter.  Yet for the recipient it may be the most welcome, long-awaited confession they’ve ever heard.  At the same time it’ll do wonders for your own recovery.  Dale Turner wrote, “It’s the highest form of self-respect to admit our errors and mistakes and make amends for them.”  If and when the opportunity presents itself, approach the person in the most tactful way you can and express your desire for their forgiveness without harboring any expectation of receiving it or anything else, for that matter.  What I’m saying is it’s best to not anticipate a hug or even a stoic “thanks” from them in return.  Apply what Jesus taught in Luke 6:34 to Step 9; “If you lend to those from whom you hope to be repaid, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, so that they may be repaid in full.” Remember that you’re doing this to glorify your Father in heaven, not to feel better about yourself.  You don’t have to go into a lengthy speech about why you did what you did to them, you just need to be completely honest.  As Benjamin Franklin wisely quipped, “Never ruin an apology with an excuse.”

 

No matter how the other person responds, you can look forward to having peace of mind and closure on that part of your life.  Jack Hyles said, “The reward that outdoes all others is the peace of knowing that you did right.”  Lee Strobel wrote, “Few things accelerate the peace process as much as humbly admitting our own wrongdoing and asking forgiveness.”  Years ago singer/songwriter Don Henley composed a profound tune he entitled “The Heart of the Matter” that included a line that absolutely devastated me at a pivotal time in my life when I was going through a divorce.  I literally broke down and cried the first time I heard him sing, “…Because the flesh will get weak and the ashes will scatter/so I’m thinking it’s about forgiveness/even if you don’t love me anymore.”  The lyric reinforces the idea that making amends is the aim, not manufacturing some kind of storybook ending.  All God requires is that we make the effort when He creates the avenue for us to convey our apology.  Hebrews 12:14 says, “Pursue peace with everyone, and holiness, for without it no one will see the Lord.” Romans 12:18 states, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people.” While the “picking up the trash” part of your recovery may not go as amicably or smoothly as you’d like, it should serve as yet another reminder that there is no peace without God.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.  There is no such thing.” Go to the Lord in prayer to find your serenity.  As D.L. Moody once preached, “A great many people are trying to make peace, but that has already been done.  God has not left it for us to do; all we have to do is to enter into it.”  Of prayer, I admire what Charles Spurgeon said: “Prayer girds human weakness with divine strength, turns human folly into heavenly wisdom, and gives to troubled mortals the peace of God.  We know not what prayer can do.”  He’s right about that last part.  But sometimes God does give us a glimpse.

 

Something astounding happened when I got to Step 9.  Because my parents raised me to fess up ASAP when I did things that hurt others, my list of folks I owed an apology to was short.  (The people whom I most need to make amends to are my mom and dad.  They deserved better treatment from their son.  That task is first on my list when I see them in heaven.)  But there was one lady that my conscience had never let me forget about.  When I was about eighteen I decided it was high time I found out what “carnal knowledge” felt like.  I looked up a girl I’d gone out with a few times.  I knew she had a crush on me but the feeling had never been mutual.  Nonetheless, since she was of legal age I felt entitled to explore the possibilities of arranging a tryst.  I was more than willing to take “no” for an answer but she didn’t turn me down.  Afterwards I callously strolled away and never called her again.  Years passed but the guilt over how I’d used her never went away.  However, I knew the odds of us ever running into each other were astronomical.  When I confronted the deed in my inventory I could only turn it over to God.  A few weeks later a message was on the answering machine.  It was her!  Out of the blue she’d found me on Facebook and tracked me down.  My wife’s trust in me was still shaky due to my hiding my porn obsession from her so I knew that contacting an old girlfriend wouldn’t be prudent.  Yet I had no doubt that God orchestrated this encounter.  What I decided to do (after praying) was to send her a private message.  I explained why reconnecting would be a bad idea but I also took the opportunity to express how sorry I was for the way I’d treated her over four decades earlier.  She wrote back and, to my surprise, said she held no grudge over the incident because not long afterward she’d met the man who’s still her husband 40 years down the line!  It’s proof that with God anything is possible and, with the efficiency of today’s technology, acceptable excuses for not trying to make amends are becoming non-existent.  If you’re married you must be open with your spouse about what you’re trying to accomplish.  On the other hand, you must be prepared for the possibility that the person in question may have no desire whatsoever to hear from you.  In those cases (or if they’re no longer among the living) you may have to apologize to them by writing out your thoughts in a letter you’ll never mail.  Just like you found out while doing your inventory, transferring your innermost regrets and sad memories onto a piece of paper can be very therapeutic and healing.  Rest assured, the person your sinful actions and unkind words grieved most, your Heavenly Father, will know of your heartfelt yearnings for forgiveness and He will grant you peace.

 

The lesson our gracious Lord wants us to learn through making our amends is this:  After seeing and facing up to the consequences of our acts we should resolve to be even more Christ-minded and conscientious about our behavior in the future.  In that way the phrase, “I’m sorry,” will eventually drop out of our vocabulary due to a lack of need for it.  Woodrow Kroll said, “A moment of prayerful reflection can prevent a lifetime of bitter regret” and truer words were never spoken.  The Celebrate Recovery ministry instructs us to hold ourselves accountable for our attitudes and our deeds.  We’ve seen all too clearly that we have the capability of causing serious damage to others if we’re not faithfully abiding in our Savior’s graces and letting the Holy Spirit be our guide.  We should strive to conduct ourselves and treat others as if Jesus Christ in the flesh was standing beside us.  As Mark Twain humorously quipped, “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

trash

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