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 spouse.
How do we handle the pain, fury, and shame of a personal betrayal?
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 was me.
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.
Sam (see also, How Do We Forgive Betrayals?)
Nice going Sam. Once again you’ve disarmed my defenses and let grace in through the back door. I love this: “I began to sense a God-esteem take the place of my self-esteem.” As if we could possibly and properly esteem ourselves more highly than God does anyway…
I realized that my mantra (I’d never do that) was a poor substitute, a crutch I used instead of God. And it wasn’t working.
To actually sense the esteem of God–his love and forgiveness even when we don’t deserve it–that’s what we need.
Sam I am always blessed by your words. This is the intent and the message of Galatians 6:1-3. God has really been working on me and with me regarding the message of Galatians 6:1-3 and Philippians 2:1-9 which are in effect very similar messages. That is for another time and another post. However needless to say it is both hard to carry someone’s burdens and love them to Christ while we are being “spiritual plagiarists.”
Love that term! Thans for this great truth today!
I love that term too.
And–to avoid any other plagiarism–it sounds too good to have been coined by me. I came up with it in my blog, but afterward I googled it and many others used it before me.
I probably heard it somewhere and forgot the source.
“A word fitly spoken and in due season is like apples of gold in settings of silver,” Sam.
Thanks for that great quote and great compliment.
Thanks again for giving me a jolt to the heart. What I’m about to say may be too heavy for this board–I’m preparing myself to file for divorce from my adulterous spouse of almost 10yrs. The long and short of it is that she has been doing this with numerous partners for at least the last 5 or 6 years “that I know of”. I’ve extended forgiveness and mercy many times over. So, with this last turn of events(2 more men), I can no longer stand for it. I’m physically sick over it–looking weight, etc. My pastor told me told me to let her go several years ago. My dad who is also a pastor advised that I give it another go back then. I can no longer do it.
This post has come at the RIGHT time–plan to file next week. I wanted to drag her through the ringer, especially bc of the evidence I have stacked against her. But in my heart, I know I can’t bc I haven’t been perfect. I’ve viewed things online that I shouldn’t have, etc. But, even more so, Christ has forgiven me countless times for other things.
I’m still going through with the divorce bc I can no longer trust her. But now, instead, I’m doing it, aware of my own forgiven-ness. I solicit your prayers at this trying time in my life. Sorry for this vomiting post, but it’s a breath of fresh air for me right now.
Hi Game Over,
I am so sorry for the betrayal, hurt, pain, anguish, anger, shame, and bewilderment you have suffered. I can’t begin to imagine it.
I think your motivations of forgiveness (“Christ has forgiven me countless times”) is great.
May God give you supernatural grace to walk the fine line of doing the wise thing while maintaining a grace in the heart.
Sarah Taylor Ko
I highly recommend you read “After the Affair” by Janis Abrahams Spring. Even though you decided to divorce (and that may indeed have been your only option) you can work through what happened and the process of forgiveness in this book.
It really is a great book. Thanks for the recommendation Sarah.
This is the kind of powerful presenting of important thoughts that gets you thinking. Thank you, Sam, for offering that gift. Here was Michael Card’s lyrical way of expressing what you laid out for us:
Why did it have to be a friend who chose to betray the Lord
Why did he use a kiss to tell them that’s not what a kiss is for
Only a friend can betray a friend a stranger has nothing to gain
And only a friend comes close enough to ever cause so much pain
In the end of all the considerations, we come down to dealing with how willing our Father to forgive. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Is. 55:9).
Prompted to reach up higher with you, and thankful for it,
I think the classic Christian moral behavior comes more from Nike “Just do it”) than from the gospel.
Gospel changed lives mean lives changed by the gospel. That why we can “comfort with the comfort we’ve been given” and “Love because he first loves us” (and yes, forgive because of our forgiven-ness).
And when we don’t have “it” we go to God.
Laura K. Cowan
I also am struggling to sort out forgiveness of years of emotional abuse and intentional harm (thankfully not from my spouse) from what I was raised to believe forgiveness is–continuing to open myself up to harm. It can be difficult to do this when your lessons about God and forgiveness are all tangled up with lies about it being wrong not to “turn the other cheek” even knowing it’s a sick situation and won’t stop and is destroying you and not what God would want. Honestly just last night, it was remembering how a friend forgave me for a smaller but identical kind of abuse that helped me break through, if not to the how of forgiveness, to the why of it. I really needed that example from a broken human to show me why this is so important, since even though I have had many supernatural experiences in my life and situations in which I could see the world around me reflecting the truths of God’s existence and love for me, his perceived distance during these years of great damage to me made it difficult for me to take an abstract or believed-in forgiveness as an example. I know it should be good enough, but I’m grateful I had another example from someone close to me to pull me through. I forgive because I want to be the kind of person who pays forgiveness forward that I have received. Not because it’s deserved. Not because I deserve it either. Because that’s the closest I can get to being faithful to God, knowing that faith and forgiveness will be all I can have to be credited to me as righteousness in this life.
What a gift your friend gave you. We sometimes forget that Jesus calls his people on earth, “his body.” We really can receive forgiveness from Christ as we receive forgiveness from friends.
And we can give forgiveness too.
I’m terribly sorry for the suffering betrayals you’ve experienced. I can’t imagine. As God grants you the ability to forgive (through knowing your forgiven-ness), you will become a healer of the world as you walk others into forgiveness.
Thanks for sharing so personally.
Sarah Taylor Ko
http://leslievernick.com/why-we-must-never-forget-even-when-we-do-forgive/ Hi Laura, I think especially as women growing up in church this is a tough topic. I’ve read a lot of helpful thoughts on this blog about what forgiveness in any relationship is and isn’t, I hope you also find it helpful in continuing to work out what forgiveness means in your life.
Sarah, you always have great input. Thanks.
I can appreciate your message, but there are times when betrayal comes from sources that make getting past it harder. In my case, I’ve been betrayed by ministries and other people who have said the same thing you’re saying on the subject.
Understanding how I betray God doesn’t change the situation with them. In addition, when these ministries want to teach me anything it’s pretty much impossible to hear them over the noise of the betrayal.
Not saying it’s impossible, but it kind of puts them in the “shake the dust from the soles of your feet” catagory.
GREAT comment, Thanks.
I think there is a difference between forgiving someone and working with them again. When we hold onto bitterness, sometimes the evil done to us begins to work through us. We need to learn deep forgiveness, and that means understanding the depth of our own problems and getting forgiveness.
But it doesn’t mean we should associate with them. In some situations we can, but often we can’t. It wouldn’t be helpful for them or for us.
If you mean “getting past” means you have a hard time forgiving, I understand, and I think it is a hard but necessary road.
If you mean by “getting past” means you have to work with them again, I agree that sometimes it just doesn’t work.
As long as we don’t shake the dust from a sense of superiority, like the Pharisee who said of the tax collector, “Thank you God I’m not like him.” We don’t want that attitude.
Thanks! I appreciate your contribution.
I noticed that as I became a parent I realized that I was capable of great many sins. I became overwhelmed by God’s forgiveness in my life. I love the way you write. You have a way with words. I recently found Francine Rivers. She too has a way with words. But the Lord uses her to write historical novels. Who knew that after becoming a Christian I would be reading novels again? Every time I read her books I weep…same happened tonight when I read your post. 🙂 AGain, I am all over the place, ain’t I?? hehehe
Loved your closing, “hehehe.” Just what I needed, to wake up to laughter.
Let me tell you a secret–just between the two of us–I too want (really, really want) to write novels. I’ve started one, I keep coming back to it, but I haven’t dared finish it yet. You inspire me.
Have you heard of Francine Rivers? She used to write novels for women, you know the “soft p*rn” stuff. Then she became a Christian and she couldn’t write for years. Then God gave her a novel to write: “Redeeming Love”. It’s content is heavy, filled with real life stuff… so current… but it speaks of God’s amazing and redeeming love for us. It’s based on the Hosea’s book. Can you guess what it’s about?? 😉
I read someone’s review of the book and couldn’t hold back my curiosity and got the book and read it in one sitting. I wept half the book. God’s amazing love is just amazing. Check her out. HEr website/ blog is great too. She offers insights on her books, and even bible studies at the end of her books.
I am reading Unveiling now. It’s a fictional book on the live of Tamar… the wife of Onan. YEah… interesting topics, huh?
I am always fascinated how God redeems the gifts and talents He has given to His children. I am waiting to see what I will be doing with mine. 🙂
Okay, you’ve stirred my curiosity. I’ve read Hosea, and even preached on it, but I know I don’t … know it deeply. The idea of making it into a novel is brilliant.
I also like your other comment, about God redeeming our gifts. I am just finishing the last chapter of Mere Christianity, and Lewis makes the same point. In fact, he says we cannot be our true selves until we give ourselves to God. Only then–ONLY THEN–can we begin to be the real people God designed us to be.
I finished The Atonement Child yesterday. Oh, my! It’s about abortion. I had one and was ridden by guilt and shame for years, until Jesus found me and set me free. Rivers is an amazing writer.
Once we really feel the deep ways we have wounded God and the ways in which our lives wounded Jesus, it is easier to forgive others who have deeply sinned against us. Still hard, but the process can start. Thanks for this!
I sometimes wonder which is harder, to forgive others or to truthfully understand the depth of our own betrayal of God–to admit we have lived (and continue to live) lives of adultery.
No, I don’t wonder. I know which is harder.
Very nice writing. It’s true, how can one talk about betrayal without recognizing how we have betrayed God? I can’t say I’ve been deeply betrayed, not like some folks have, thank God, but I have had to forgive some hard stuff and have often held bitterness in my heart. The day I realized how much God has forgiven me sent the awkward scene with the “sinful woman” who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair and tears flashing through my head. So often we like to see that scene as though we are innocent bystanders, but the reality is that usually we look at that embarrassing scene with the same self-righteousness of Simon, “Why can’t that person get her act together? I like Jesus too, but I’m not about to cry on his feet.” It is only when we realize that we ARE the sinful woman, and that it’s no shame to cry at Jesus feet will we experience the deep love that Jesus is ready to pour out on us. That’s when we understand what Jesus says, “He who is forgiven much, loves much.” Who am I to hold a grudge when I have been and still am being forgiven of so much?
You always have a great insight to offer, and we all appreciate them.
First, I like your switching the theme from a “great betrayal” to our own bitterness. Yes, that is the real problem. Honestly, there have been times I’ve have been betrayed pretty badly, but … for some reason, it just didn’t bother me much. And other times when the offence was smaller, and I was bitter. (And of course, some big betrayals which also involve bitterness.)
the issue–counter to our intuition–is not the amount of “their” betrayal as much as our bitterness.
And then you bring in the story of the prostitute. Great quote and great connection.
GREAT article! Thanks for sharing Uncle Sam!!!!!!
thanks! you great niece.
It doesn’t matter when I read your posts even a month or two later, I relate. I think you “get it.” Thanks you for your kind honesty.
Thanks for your encouragement.