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A Prescription for the Spiritually Challenged

God calls "spiritually challenged" people to show love through forgiveness.


I'm musically challenged—anyone who knows me will tell you that. Even people who don't know me know I'm musically challenged. When I was an assistant pastor in Medford, Oregon, our morning services were broadcast over the radio. One day I was in charge of the service. I announced the hymn and we sang the first verse, and then one of the deacons came out and pulled me away from the pulpit. They had gotten a call from the engineer down at the station who said, "Who in the world do you have up there in front of that microphone? Get him away." I'm musically challenged.

When I was a young man I took guitar lessons. I was serious about it: I bought a guitar and paid for thirteen lessons. I finished six of them. My problem was not that I didn't recognize the notes on the page. I just couldn't figure out how to get those notes on the page into my fingers, so after six lessons I gave up. I have friends, theologians, who assure me that God won't hold me too tightly to Paul's command, "Make music in your heart to the Lord." I don't have to sing; I can just keep the music in my heart. I'm musically challenged.

God's calling to love

I'm also spiritually challenged. I remember the first time that came through to me. I was in my second year at seminary, and I decided that I was going to read the New Testament through slowly. I'd read the Bible before. In fact, I had read the entire thing in a year, but someone encouraged me to slow down. So in my second year of seminary I slowed down. I read through the New Testament slowly, thoughtfully. What emerged from that experience was just how much the New Testament says about love—not so much about God's love for us, but more about the way we're to love one another.

In his first letter, John is obsessed with this theme of loving one another. In fact, he insists that if we don't love, we don't really know God. And Paul, who never struck me as the warmest person God ever called, says to the Galatians that the fruit of the Spirit is love. He tells the Romans to owe no one anything except to love one another. Then in the gospels, Jesus says to his followers, "A new commandment I give you: that you're to love one another as I have loved you. And by this shall everyone know that you're my disciples, because you love one another." Had I never really read that before? I certainly hadn't heard anybody lecture on it, but there it was.

And then in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul writes to the church in Corinth and tells them that with all of their giftedness, if they don't have love, everything comes to nothing. The gift of languages and eloquence is just a loud noise. The gifts of prophecy, of knowledge, of mountain shaking faith—all of these are nothing without the presence of love. And Paul says that if you give all your money to the homeless shelter, but you don't have love, you gain nothing at the judgment seat of Christ. In fact, if you die a martyr's death—if you give yourself to the flame—and don't have love, you gain nothing on that day when you stand before God.

When you're spiritually challenged, you're not sure what to do with that knowledge. I grew up in the ghetto of New York, and love was not in great supply there. It helps me to know that when Paul talked about love, he was not talking about warm feelings. He wasn't saying to have warm feelings towards your enemy; rather, he was talking about an act of the will, a mindset in which you determine—whether you're dealing with a friend or foe or somebody in between—that you will seek what is best for another person. I asked God to help me with that.

Then I got to the second section of 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul spells out what that love should look like: Love is patient and it's kind. Love does not envy, does not boast, and is not proud. Love has good manners. Love does not take advantage of people. It's not irritable. And then there's the next one: Love does not keep account of evil. Paul uses an accountant's word—a bookkeeper's word. When a bookkeeper puts something into the book, he's keeping account of it in order to make sure it's paid. So when Paul says, "Love does not keep account of evil," he means that we don't even mark it down. When evil is done to us, we don't keep it in the books.

The reality of hurtful relationships

In your lifetime you'll have lots of opportunity to suffer evil. We live in a fallen world in the midst of a depraved society. You're depraved; the person next to you is depraved. And people, including Christians, do all kinds of strange and terrible things. People will lie to you. Somebody that you trusted will gossip about you. The gossip might not be true, but it spreads like a poison in society, and you can't stop it. A mother-in-law might interfere in your marriage. A roommate or a spouse might say something in anger that cuts so deep it seems that the wound will never heal. All of us have opportunities to cherish hatred or extend love.

James Broderick in his book The Progress of the Jesuits says of Pope Pius IV: "He never forgot a slight done to him, and that was his fundamental weakness. He might appear to bury the hatchet, but he always marked where that hatchet was buried." Jay Adams, a counselor, said that a couple once came to him because the wife was having trouble with her mother-in-law. When the wife sat down, Jay said, "What is it that she has done that disturbs you?" The woman pulled out a sheet of paper where line upon line she had written down every supposed offense her mother-in-law had ever done. She'd obviously gone over it again and again. Talk about keeping an account of evil.

I was in a home for dinner after a Sunday service. The folks I was eating with let me know that they came to church that night because I was preaching, but they didn't ordinarily go to church. They told me that an elder in that church had once done them an injustice, and the wife spelled out in detail what he had done. Anything she missed the husband filled in. I then discovered the whole thing had happened ten years earlier. For ten years they had been keeping an account of that evil that was done. For ten years it soured their spirits, and they had no statute of limitations.

You will have many chances in your life to deal with people who have hurt you. You might be thinking of someone like that right now. Paul says that when someone hurts you, if you're really expressing God's love, you won't keep account of evil. So the question is this: how do you get that love into your life? What process do you use?

Release past hurts.

One thing you can do to implement this kind of love is—in God's strength—to determine that you will not remember, that you will not go over the slights done to you. We go over things that we want to keep in mind, don't we? The child goes over the spelling words because he'll be examined on it. The seminary student goes over the Hebrew and Greek flashcards to get the vocabulary in mind. You go over lists of people you know will be at the party so that you can greet them by name. We go over things to remember them. If you don't go over them, you forget them.

William Sangster was a Methodist preacher in the last century. One Christmas he was working on some Christmas cards while a friend waited for him. When Sangster was finishing up, his friend glanced through the cards he was sending. He came to one that was sent to a man who had publicly berated and attacked the preacher. The friend said, "Sangster, you're not sending this guy a card, are you? Remember what he did at that meeting?" Sangster replied, "Yes, but I've remembered to forget." And he mailed the card. You can, by the grace of God and in his power, determine that you are not going to bring up old hurts.

Let God handle vengeance.

A second thing you can do is to turn over to God where you've been wounded. If there is vengeance to be done, it's God's business. Let him handle it. In Romans 12 Paul wrote, "Don't repay anybody evil for evil. Be careful that you do right in the eyes of everybody. If it's possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath. For it is written: 'It is mine to avenge. I will repay.'" If bills have to be collected, let him collect. Turn it over to him.

Dr. Vernon Grounds is one of the great Christians I have known. During the 1950s and '60s, he was vilified by Christians who were upset with him. They attacked him, but he would not fight back; he committed it to God. A couple of years ago I was in Florida, and I talked with one of the men who had been lined up against Dr. Grounds. He told me, "That was one of the worst periods of my life." He went on to name some of the other people who had attacked Dr. Grounds and what had happened to each one of them. I'm not standing in the place of God, but it occurred to me that when God metes out vengeance, he does it well. Turn it over to him.

Remember how God forgave you.

A final thing you can do to gain this kind of forgiving love for others is to remember how God has dealt with you. The writer of Hebrews wrote in chapter 6, "God is not unjust. He will not forget the good works you have shown to his people. He does not treat us according to our sins. He says, 'I will forgive their wickedness, and I will remember their sins no more.'" God forgets what we remember; God remembers what we forget. Psalm 103:11-12 says, "God does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. As high as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, he has removed our transgressions from us."

Do you believe that? Some of you have a hard time getting your emotions around that. You just have that sense that God's against you. You come to confess a sin and you feel like God's going to dredge up all the stuff of your past. No. God says that as the east is separated from the west, our sins are forgiven. When I memorized that passage as a youngster in Sunday school, I knew too much. I knew that if you go far enough east, you'll come around and hit the west. I still believed that some place out there, I would hit my sins again. Only later did I realize that true east and true west go out into infinity. And as far as anyone can reach, God has dealt with our sin. And if you're a forgiven person, it's easier to be a forgiving person. In your love for others you will reflect the God who has brought you to himself.

Twenty years ago, Bonnie and I went through what was for us the most difficult experience of our lives. We were sued by a young woman who was a graduate of Denver Seminary. We had tried to help her. On several occasions Bonnie had gone over to clean her house, and we'd had her over for dinner. When we got that suit it felt like we'd tried to wash someone's feet and got kicked in the mouth. She blamed us for things for which we weren't responsible. I saw how lawyers work. They were constructing a case I didn't believe was there. That suit came after we had begun here at Gordon-Conwell, and I think I was down emotionally. Bonnie and I used to walk together and commit the situation to the Lord. In fact, every time we drive that way, Bonnie says to me, "Remember the walks we had?" I wish I could tell you I was pure and noble, but at that time, I would have been happy if this woman had gotten run over by a truck.

But love doesn't think like that. I found that as we prayed about it every day there came a time when I could no longer talk about it to the Lord. I'd say, Lord, you know what's on my heart, and you know the details. You do it. And then there came a time when I prayed, Lord, you know that I think she's done us wrong. But I may be wrong. If vengeance is necessary, you do it. And again and again I found myself thinking, I serve a God who has forgiven all of my sins, and they are many. And on the basis of that I can begin to forgive her.


I tell you this story not because I'm an expert about how to show forgiveness, but I do know that when, in the power of the Spirit and the love of God, you work with it, you can take that truth about love off the page and see it work in your life. Love doesn't keep an account of evil.

Alfred Lord Tennyson said of Archbishop Cranmer: "To do him a hurt was to beget a kindness from him. His heart was made of such fine soil that if you planted in it the seeds of hate they blossomed love." I want that to be true of me. I want it to be true of you. And we're better at it than we think we are, because the Spirit of love lives in those who put their trust in Jesus Christ.

This sermon was used by permission of the Ockenga Institute and Haddon Robinson.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


I. God's calling to love

II. The reality of hurtful relationships

III. Release past hurts.

IV. Let God handle vengeance.

V. Remember how God forgave you.