Preaching That Hurts, Then Heals

Steven W. SmithI remember the blood running down my adolescent finger. A slip of a pocketknife earned me that rite of passage for all young boys: a trip to the emergency room. There I would receive my merit badge of honor—stitches. What I remember most about the trip is where the doctor placed the anesthetic. The long needle was placed inside the wound. Why he would try to kill me in order to numb the pain was unclear, but there it was, the long shaft of metal squarely inside the cut. It hurt. And it healed.

Perhaps the greatest thing about preaching in January is all the fresh wounds. There are people in our congregations who are just now settling into the reality of how much debt they are in. The cost of a perfect Christmas gets higher each year. There are others whose prospects of success seem stark against the optimism of another calendar year. Often, there is a fresher wound: emotional hurt.

The Christmas and New Year season provide the opportunity to embrace family for extended periods of time. However, many families are thoroughly messed up, wrecked by a million bad choices. Now those who are hurt must decide if they will forgive. They must decide whether they will forgive and love while managing the implications of what others have done to them. The holidays pull all of that out of the closet and put it in the recliner in our living room. Hurt has a face. For a week we look at that face and try to embrace the person while dealing with the hurt he/she has caused. It's an odd dance indeed. The emotions can range from discontent to rage. Some have been hurt by a simple lack of thoughtfulness, others by significant and intentional abuse.

Whatever the case, most January pew-sitters just rubbed up against a memory that they would gladly stuff back in the closet like awkward shards of wrapping paper, unwanted remnants that don't fit. We should not let them.

As preachers, we bless our congregants when we hold the light of God's Word in the dark place. Often, bitterness surfaces during the holidays. Bitterness has a root in resentment, and resentment has a root in unforgiveness. People may not think the Bible speaks to Aunt Betty's hurtful words, to Uncle Bob's alcoholism, or to the distant grandfather's abuse. It does.

Scripture speaks directly to our response to all of these. The response is to forgive.

We forgive because love is not "irritable or resentful" (1 Cor. 13:4 ESV). If we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are filled with love, the Spirit's first fruit (Gal. 5:22). If we are filled with love, then we cannot keep an internal log of how others have hurt us. List-keeping is not love; when we keep accounts, we are harboring a cache of hurt that we can mine at any time to justify our actions and attitudes. It is the script of a thousand daydreams, the rest stop of an idle mind not controlled by the Spirit. The spiritual person, however, is bound to forgive.

The principle reason we are bound to forgive is that we have been forgiven. Jesus takes those that are errant and pursues them like a shepherd pursues his lost sheep (Mt. 18:10-14). Then he commands us not to despise one of these little ones. Don't scorn them, don't despise them, don't reject them. Go after them like a Shepherd would a sheep.

Jesus is not advocating bringing a person into your life who hurts you or your family. That is another issue. What He is advocating is a spirit of restoration. The person who hurts us is a candidate for grace. We go after them.

In the same passage, Jesus tells of one who has been forgiven but will not forgive. They get grace in, but all they can give out is justice. The grace that flooded in is measured out, if at all, in a dropper. In the end, the person who will not forgive proves that he or she does not understand grace. Perhaps this is why Jesus said that if we forgive others, he will forgive us. This is not earning forgiveness. Rather it is a demonstration that those who have been forgiven have the ability to forgive. So the act of forgiveness is a grace, drawing upon a reservoir of grace to which only the saved have access. Forgiving gives us confidence that we have been forgiven.

In this way we rejoice in forgiveness! Every time I forgive I grow in confidence that I am forgiven. Forgive!? Only God, and those who have access to His grace, can do that.

So there they sit. Pretentious little pew-sitters, comfortable in the thought that it's a long time until next Christmas. Forgiven, but unwilling to forgive. So you stand in the month of January and have the nerve to preach on forgiveness. You have the courage to take the needle and stick it directly in the wound. Preach the text long and hard. Tell them: the forgiven must forgive. It is a demonstration of their sanctification. Tell them they cannot be filled with the Holy Spirit and not love; that love does not cache a list of wrongs. And, graciously, don't relent until the syringe is empty. If you do it well, you should see a noticeable wince.

Later, maybe years later, the healed person will thank you. Of course, we are not preaching because it hurts; that is sadistic. We are preaching because it heals. That is faithfulness.

Let the word sting and then heal. Perhaps the forgiven person will thank you as well. Healing is contagious.