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?)