I am beginning a series of posts called Reframing the Word in an attempt to “lift the veil” (the true meaning of “apocalypse”) on how we’ve been reading the traditional passages of Christianity through a literal lens for too long. This series will take common passages that are interpreted literally in the name of Christian exceptionalism (i.e. The belief that Christianity is the only one true religion, and Evangelicalism is its only true expression) and seek to reinterpret them through a metaphysical lens. I believe that Jesus and the other prophets spoke in metaphysical terms and never intended their words to be taken literally. I hope you enjoy this series! Please leave your comments below.
“You never see what you want to see
Forever playing to the gallery,
Take the long way home, take the long way home.”
–Supertramp, “Take the Long Way Home”
Back a few years ago, when I was posting some of my writing on the Huffington Post, I wrote an article about how I had been struggling with a deep and abiding anger at a former landlord of mine in Atlanta.
My partner at the time and I had moved out and he filed a civil suit against us, claiming that our dogs had messed up the carpet in apartment to the tune of more than $700 in damages.
Now, I was a poor morning television news show writer back then and my partner was making a little bit more working for a local university, but we didn’t have access to $700 at the time. It may as well have been $7 million — we just didn’t have it. We finally settled out of court for less than that but I was angry because I knew my dogs had not damaged that carpet, because we had them cleaned before we left. I had no proof, though, so we came to an agreement.
But, for years after that incident, every time I would drive by that man’s house — which was often — I would give him the one finger salute of friendship as I went by. It was even better when he was outside tending his garden. Then, I would honk before offering my friendly gesture.
Of course, as anger tends to do, my rage began eating away at me. One day, while reading a book by the wonderful theologian Emmet Fox, he made the point that if we do not forgive others for what they’ve done to us we, he writes, “are tied to the thing [we] hate. The person perhaps in the whole world whom you most dislike is the very one to whom you are attaching yourself by a hook that is stronger than steel. Is this what you wish?”
Well, no, that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be free of this man, but to do that I had to free him from my mind. To do THAT, I had to forgive him. In that process, I felt an awful lot like Peter. I found that I had to forgive him many times over — perhaps even seventy times seven times.
Why so many times? Why do we find the work of forgiveness to be so hard and holding onto our grudges so easy? Well, researcher Charlotte van Oyen Witvliet at Hope College in Michigan, suggests that “we may be drawn to hold grudges ‘because that makes us feel like we are more in control and we are less sad.’
But interviews with her subjects indicate that they felt in even greater control when they tried to empathize with their offenders and enjoyed the greatest sense of power, well-being and resolution when they managed to grant forgiveness. ‘If you are willing to exert the effort it takes to be forgiving, there are benefits both emotionally and physically,’ she concludes.”
As she points out, one of those benefits is regaining a sense of control over your life. I cannot control the fact that my landlord chose to sue me, but I can control how I feel about him. My ego kept screaming about how he was taking advantage of me and simply wanted me to pay for a new carpet for the apartment. But, that was my story. I had no proof. I just had an ego that wanted to be offended and prove that I was wrongly accused.
In the parable told by Jesus in Matthew 18:21-35, he warns that if we are like the unforgiving servant who will not pay it forward when they’ve been forgiven, “the Lord” will turn them over to be tortured. That certainly sounds like Jesus is talking about a vengeful God. But, he’s not. He’s simply reiterating the universal truth that unless we forgive, we put ourselves in Hell.
When we hold grudges, when we do not forgive those we believe have done us wrong, the only person that truly gets punished is ourselves. Oh, we want that other person to feel our wrath and feel guilty for how they’ve treated us, but more often than not, we’re not even on their radar screens anymore.
As writer Anne Lamott once quipped “not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” When we refuse to forgive, we poison ourselves, we create a torturous hell for ourselves. God doesn’t need to send us there. We go there willingly, sometimes gladly, because we’re enjoying hating someone so much.
But, it’s all a lie — because holding grudges, basking in our self-righteous thoughts of being unjustly treated by others is simply the ego insisting on taking the long way home. We do it all the time. We could immediately be in heaven if we forgave those who offended us — or worked to never be offended in the first place.
That’s the short-cut to reunion with God and others. But, the ego insists it knows the only way to go — and that road is long and winding, and leads ultimately to nowhere.
“Every Knee Shall Bow”
Oh, but we hard-headed, and often hard-hearted, humans. We have insisted on taking the long way home for a long, long time. Even back in the days of the Apostle Paul, there were people in the early Christian community who were on taking the long way back home to unity with God and others.
In his letter to the Romans (Romans 14:10-13,19), the Apostle Paul pleads with the spiritual community there to stop judging and hating on one another. At issue were the dietary practices of this young community. No, it wasn’t a brawl between the vegans and the meat lovers. It really was a serious question of faith that was tearing the people apart. You see, Jesus’ original followers were mainly Jews, and for them, food had to be prepared in a certain way so that they remained kosher and there were some foods that they were forbidden to eat at all.
As the community grew, however, Gentiles started coming into the faith. For them, no food was off limits and it didn’t matter how it was prepared. Back then, when the community came together for worship, it was a lot like our potluck Sundays. They gathered to hear a message, but they mainly gathered to eat. So, while they’re at table, the Jews were offended, watching their Gentile brothers and sisters eat food that they considered to be unclean. The Gentiles were offended because the Jews wouldn’t lighten the hell up and stop complaining about food. The Gentiles reasoned that since they were now followers of Christ and no longer really Jews, they didn’t have to follow those outdated laws anymore. Communion time for them, then, became a time where they not only chewed food, but they chewed on each other.
Paul cuts through the crap here, though, telling them to basically get over themselves about the food. They had a deeper issue than that, but they could use this argument over food to heal their community if they wanted to. If they could stop judging each other for what they ate, then, Paul says, the next step would be to stop judging each other for anything at all, because when we judge and bite and tear at one another, we put stumbling blocks before our brothers and sisters. Judgment keeps us locked in combat and competition, which is, of course, just what the ego wants.
But, Paul reminds them that before God’s eyes, we are all equal. As The Course in Miracles says, “All of the children of God are special and none of the children of God are special.” When it comes to God, we’re all the same — all innocent and beloved — no matter how harshly we judge one another.
Then Paul launches into an admonition that I believe had been historically misunderstood by traditional Christianity. Paul tells the Roman Christians that “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will be accountable to God.”
Traditionally, this has been used to talk about the judgment day. That day when you will stand before you maker and confess all the terrible, horrible, evil things you have done and you will beg for God’s forgiveness and mercy lest you be cast into hell for all eternity. It doesn’t say that, not in the original Greek, or when it’s viewed through a metaphysical lens.
So, let’s unpack Paul’s words for minute. First, he says we all stand before the judgment seat of God. This is where traditional Christian theology tells us we should be shaking in our boots. But, if we look at the Greek word for that phrase “judgment seat” it is bema which means “a raised place” or “platform.” What Paul is saying here is that if we come before Christ with a spirit of forgiveness for others, dropping all of our judgment of them, we will not be punished for some sin — instead we are raised up.
Remember, the only sin we ever commit, according to the Course, is believing the ego’s lie that we are separate. All the other things we do to one another, judging each other, competing with each other or despising one another all springs from that belief that we are separate. But, Paul says, that sin is wiped away when “every knee shall bow” — which in Greek, that phrase “shall bow” means to bow to the honor of the one.
In other words, when I can see the holy in you and you can see the holy in me, we bow to one another in honor, and we confess, meaning we verbally express that we are one and holy and innocent. That is the confession that puts us in our right mind — that higher Christ consciousness that knows nothing of fear and only sees and speaks love.
This is not a passage about how somebody says the sinner’s prayer and confesses that they are stinking bag of worms who is unworthy of God’s grace. No, this is a moment where we confess that we are all one, that there is no separation and BAM! we are raised out of our fearful ego into our higher loving Christ consciousness.
Will we slip back? Will we still find ourselves on the highway of judgment taking that long way home? Sure we will. But, now we know the shortcut to get back home.
What You Think is Not the Truth
What I learned from posting that article at the Huffington Post was this: Never, ever read the comments on blog posts. Especially your own.
That post garnered hundreds of responses and the vast majority of them were, let’s say, unforgiving. Person after person took me to task for even daring to suggest that we forgive those who have hurt us. I mean, if we just forgive everyone then we’ll become a doormat and people will take advantage of us and use us. Forgiveness is for the weak, people said. Revenge is much sweeter.
Of course, there was the few who wanted to play the trump card … so to speak. “What about Hitler? Are we just supposed to forgive him?” If you don’t want to tie yourself to the thing you hate, you’ll have to find a way to forgive even Hitler. Remember, it’s that sin of believing in separation that allowed a Hitler to arise in this world of form in the first place. People believed that Jews were different from them and today we still demonize groups we believe are different — separate — or seen as less than human.
That separation is the illusion that we continue to perpetuate both individually and collectively.
“Forgiveness,” says the Course, “is the only thing that stands for truth in the illusions of the world. It sees their nothingness, and looks straight through the thousand forms in which they may appear. It looks on lies, but it is not deceived. It does not heed the self-accusing shrieks of sinners mad with guilt. It looks on them with quiet eyes, and merely says to them, ‘My brother, what you think is not the truth.'” (From Lesson 134)
That belief in separation, that belief that your brother or sister is evil, that belief that you must hate someone because they’re not just like you, that belief that you are superior, or inferior, to another — none of that is true. The truth is, there is only one of us here, and anytime you spend judging, hating or marginalizing anyone else on this planet, you do it to yourself, too. You simply keep perpetuating the collective madness.
To the ego, forgiveness does look like madness. Those Amish people in Pennsylvania who forgave the shooter that killed five little girls in a schoolhouse. Madness. The people in South Africa who came before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to forgive those who had killed family members during the time of Apartheid. Madness. Parents who forgive those who kill their children. Madness.
But, the Course says the true madness is in the heart and mind of those who will not forgive, because their mind cannot be raised up at the judgment seat of God. An unforgiving mind cannot confess the truth that we are all one. The unforgiving mind will always be ruled by the ego and driven to hold grudges or seek revenge.
But, when we can forgive, the Course says, we can see the truth, that we are all one. Yes, some people have done horrible things here in the world of form and they have wrought terrible results and harmed and killed many people. In this world of form we have laws and rules and regulations to handle that.
Forgiveness doesn’t say they shouldn’t be held responsible for their actions. Forgiveness doesn’t say the offense didn’t happen — it just says we no longer allow it to rule our minds. Instead, our minds are lifted up and rejoined with God’s when we accept what the Course calls “the Atonement” which is simply accepting the truth that we are not separate from God or one another.
Sure, you’re welcome to take the long way home. Lots of us do, and many insist it’s the only path home to God. But, when we practice forgiveness … even if we have to do it seventy times seven times … there will be no more delays … we will immediately come home. In that moment, we will be lifted up out of the battlefield of the ego into our right mind where we know we are one with God and everyone.