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“Off the hook”

Do you have a favorite sermon or teaching? 

Something you sensed the Holy Spirit working in and through in profound ways either through you or to you or both? 

I believe all ministers long for this, both on the giving and receiving side. 

On the giving side, I hope you often have that too-rare experience of teaching or preaching when it feels like an out-of-body experience. In these moments, you get the sense that the Holy Spirit has taken over your body, and specifically your brain and voice. 

You know you are in the experience, but you realize you are saying things you never planned to say in your prayer, study, and preparation. Thoughts become words that seem to hold the listeners fast and hold you too. You find yourself astounded on the inside as to where this is coming from. As you keep talking, the Spirit is teaching, correcting, training, and even rebuking you as he does a similar work in those who hear you. See 2 Timothy 3:16. 

Oh, that it was this way every time we stand to share. 

It’s a mystery of joy when it happens. A mystery of sadness when it doesn’t. 

I’ve tried in vain to discover “the formula” that guarantees the former over the latter.

One of those moments happened on a regular Sunday morning forty years ago. I was a young believer not yet sensing a call to ministry. The pastor’s sermon was simple: “How God Helps U.” What could be more practical? 

The text was 2 Timothy 4:16–18, some of the Apostle Paul’s last recorded words to his son in the faith and ministry protégé. Verse 16 is intensely personal from Paul: “At my first defense, no one stood by me, but everyone deserted me. May it not be counted against them.” 

Through my pastor on that Sunday four decades ago, the Spirit inscribed the power and calling of these three verses about God’s daily work in our lives on my soul. I keep returning to that worship service even today.

In a recent 2021 survey, people were asked to describe in one word their strongest feeling or mood over the last year. The highest-ranking response was “Disappointed.” The Apostle, like many pastors, could relate. With his life likely coming to an end within hours or days, Paul had a real sense of disappointment about some people. Read through this short letter and you’ll find references to several. Paul is not shy about naming people who disappointed him in each chapter. Many ministry leaders could do the same.

But here is the point of focus I often downplay. Paul’s last statement in verse 16 is the most important: “May it not be counted against them.” Paul moves past the disappointment to the “Spirit natural” choice of mercy and grace. He is honest. They deserted him and it hurt. The disappointment was heart-deep because it was Paul’s friends and ministry partners who abandoned him. 

But he chooses by the power of the Holy Spirit to forgive and to release the disappointers. Here, he—and we—have the choice to be like Jesus. Jesus forgave his executioners as they drove the nails. Can you do the same? Stephen, inspired by Jesus, forgave as the rocks were hurled at him. Forgiveness is the golden gift of faith in Jesus.

A friend of mine reminds me that forgiveness is hard, stinky, and unfair because the injured have to do all the heavy lifting. So true. It’s doable only in and through the Spirit of Christ in us.

Prayer: God, living with you and through you is the best life. It’s also hard sometimes. Our hearts break from disappointments received and disappointments inflicted. Through your Spirit, help us to forgive those who disappoint us, especially those who are close to us. Move us to seek forgiveness from those we’ve disappointed. Give us your power and love to move beyond the disappointment to the joy and freedom of forgiveness by remembering how you have abundantly forgiven us.

“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins” (Mark 11:25 NIV, emphasis added).