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Al Capone wrote in his memoirs that he was the greatest benefactor to man that humanity has ever known. How can a gangster who shed blood of the innocent see himself as the best that humanity has ever offered to the world? And does it give us important insights into our own souls? How might it help us to better understand our tendencies to justify our choices for good and evil?
There are two ways man justifies himself. The first is justification through the natural man within us. The second is to be justified through the merits and mercies of Christ. In the first case, to the extent the natural man is alive in us, we justify that which we do that is improper or unjust, by pointing our finger at the improper or unjust actions of others. For example, children who quarrel one with another, tend to justify their own behavior because of something another child did first. Nearly every parent with more than one child has observed this phenomenon and has likely said, "I don't care who began the fight, I care who chooses to end it kindly." Adults similarly point their fingers at others, but with greater practice, subtlety, and pride. If a neighbor treats us unkindly, the natural man in us does not seek to return kindness. To the extent we return evil for evil, we are justifying ourselves through the natural man and not through Christ.
Al Capone believed that prohibition laws, which compelled men to give up their alcohol, were evil. Thus he justified creating an illegal business that made it possible for others to buy alcohol. When authorities began tracking his illegal activities and sought to put a stop to his lucrative business he did not believe they had a right to interfere in the good he believed he was doing for others. Enter the machine guns, bangity-bang, bang, murder is committed, and in Mr. Copone's mind, it is all for the good of man and perfectly justified. What a prince!
And while this extreme is hopefully a far stretch from anything you or I would do, the pattern of justification, or of tit for tat, is worth our consideration. While we cannot change another's heart, we do have agency through which we can choose to better the condition of our own hearts. Rather than be drawn into the Hatfield and McCoy-like cycle of justifying evil for evil, or a diminished condition of our hearts because of another's injustice, there is another way to justify ourselves that enables us to improve rather than diminish.
Justifying ourselves in a manner that improves our hearts requires that we invoke the process that enables us to go from grace to grace until our hearts become as God's heart. Unhappiness, bitterness, a troubled heart, harbored offenses, despair, and so forth are each signs that an opportunity to further our repentance is before us. Such recognition is the cue to fall to our knees before the Savior and to take his yoke upon us, rather than to justify a diminished heart because of the injustices others have committed against us. As we take upon us his yoke, he then helps us lift our burdens and they are made light unto us as he takes us through a process of having our weak things be made strong unto us.
Some thirty years ago I offended someone. The enmity, bitterness, and strife that followed was foreign to me. It is not uncommon when we offend someone, for our offense or presumed offense, to be greatly exaggerated by those who are offended by us. Christ called this, "Seeing through a glass darkly." And to offenders who have had untruthful gossip spread about them, it is unimaginable how such distorted accounts came into being, and unbelievable that anyone would hold so vigorously to that which is false. It is very tempting to harbor offense toward such injustice, which can lead us to disregard perhaps offenses, ever so slight or great, that we might unknowingly have given. And ultimately, to the one we've offended, what they believe and say seems 100% accurate to them.
Yet, harboring offense toward injustice does little to increase our health or happiness; quite the opposite is true. Only as we are justified in Christ do we improve the condition of our hearts. And while we cannot compel others to further their repentance, we are invited to be made spiritually begotten in Christ and to experience the fruit that is sweeter than all that is sweet, and which is desirable to make us happy. We are invited to cease pre-occupying our minds with why another furthers their injustice toward us, and to not harbor our own offense because another will not ask forgiveness or even recognize their injustices toward us. How then, if injustice persists or recognition of wrong is withheld, are we to forgive such people?
These are the very questions Christ's apostles labored with, believing that to forgive such injustices were impossible. They had been weaned upon the law of an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth. They marveled at the Master's teachings as he taught them how the impossible is made possible, or how we can be filled with charity toward those who are unjust to us, regardless of their choices for good or evil. They were taught how to return sweet for that which is bitter.
The Savior used the sycamine tree in a parable while teaching his apostles how to forgive one another. The sycamine tree is similar in appearance to the mulberry tree, including its fruit which looks like the fruit of the mulberry tree. But instead of sweet fruit, the sycamine tree produces a bitter fruit, which is eaten only by poorer people who cannot afford to buy sweet mulberry fruit. The poor can only nibble at the fruit of the sycamine, for no one can abide its full bitterness all at once. In the parable, the poor who nibble at bitter fruit represent the poor in spirit who do not know how to forgive harbored offenses.
The bitterness of the fruit is a type of the bitterness or enmity we experience as we nibble at or remember our harbored offenses toward others. Christ taught his apostles how to end this cycle of injustice through forgiving one another. The enmity we experience when harbored offenses are stirred up to remembrance is just the opposite of the sweet fruit of love we enjoy as we nourish the tree of life to grow up within us.The rich who can afford to eat of the sweet and desirable fruit of the mulberry tree are symbolic of the spiritually begotten or rich in spirit, who alone enjoy fruit that is sweeter than all that is sweet and that is desirable to make one happy.
The roots of the sycamine tree grow swiftly and deeply into the earth, similar to how roots of offense grow swiftly and deeply within the heart. Cutting the sycamine at its very base does not kill or eradicate it; rather, it grows back up quickly. In fact because of its replenishing power it is used as a renewable source of wood in casket making. Again, this common knowledge of the day was not lost upon the apostles. The death symbolized by the caskets made from sycamine wood is a type Christ used to suggest a spiritual and physical degeneration that comes upon all who do not learn how to forgive and love all men.
So just how are we supposed love those who hate us, who are unkind, who speak evil of us, or who have offended us in any other manner? Isn't that impossible? Well, in this parable Christ taught the apostles how to make what is impossible to the natural man possible thru becoming a spiritually begotten man. He taught that the simple faith of the tiny mustard seed is all that is required to become spiritually begotten. By simple and exact obedience to the instructions encoded into its DNA, the mustard seed grows from the tiniest of all seeds into a great tree. What are Christ's forgiveness instructions that makes it possible for the tree of life to grow up within us?
We are commanded to pray for our enemies, to do good to them in secret, and that as we measure unto them so will God measure also unto us. What exactly are we to pray for in behalf of our enemies (anyone who has enmity toward us or whom we have enmity toward)? We are to ask the Lord to forgive them for their trespasses against, to have mercy on them, and to shine forth his abundant goodness and blessings upon them, just as we too would have God show mercy to us sufficient to forgive our weaknesses and offenses and to shine forth his love and continual blessings upon us. It is alright to share honestly with God the injustices and pain we feel, and only as we remember that we too desire his mercy, forgiveness, and love do we receive the strength to give our pain to him and our love to those who have offended us.
And because God said that as we measure to our fellow man, even so will he recompense unto us, we must come to pray with real intent for the happiness we want and the blessings we want to be upon those who have enmity toward us. Ask God with real intent what you can do for your enemies, and act upon whatsoever instruction he gives to you. As you do so, pay attention to how a seed of charity begins to swell within you and to grow up into a tree of life that produces the sweetest of all fruit, even charity toward those who have been unjust to you. And nourish this seed daily, following with exactness his forgiveness instructions.
To kill a sycamine tree it must be plucked up by its roots and cast it into the salty sea wherein it is not able to re-root itself, and thus it dies. The apostles knew that it wasn't sufficient to cut the tree down at its base or to pull up the tree by its roots and leave it laying on fertile ground. In such cases the tree would only grow back again. That is how powerful our harbored offenses are and how strongly they resist eradication without complete forgiveness.
As we pray continually for the Lord’s blessings, forgiveness, and mercy to be upon those who offend us, that we too may receive his mercy, forgiveness, and blessings -- offenses within us are plucked up by their roots and are eradicated forever by the love that grows in our hearts toward those we pray for and serve. Love sufficient to produce tears of joy are sufficient to overcome and eradicate even the most persistent of harbored offenses.
Is it really this easy? Although it is counter intuitive to pray for the unjust, it is the only way to cease sinning against our own hearts. Otherwise the cycle of evil is never ending. By comparison, charity that fills our hearts to overflowing, wheresoever the roots of offense have grown, plucks up and eradicates those offenses forever. Without charity, we continue to relive offenses of the past and to carry heavy and needless burdens within us. And like the wood used to make caskets for the dead, such burdens destroy our health and bring death upon us.
Everyday there are those who bring terrible sickness and premature death upon self through harboring enmity in their souls. Such suffer horribly, both physically and spiritually, for what they consider to be unforgivable offenses. And nearly every disease has as its genesis, a heart that is burdened sufficiently to compromise the immune system of the body to allow the seeds of illness to be sewn. It is devastating to our bodies and spirits to justify enmity that thrives in a heart that harbors offense.
By comparison, love enhances every aspect of life. Only as we cast our burdens upon the Lord and learn of him how to grow up the tree of life within us, can we eradicate disease-producing burdens. And while impropriety of others is certainly is a sin, it is a far greater sin against ourselves and our own eternal nature to allow harbored offenses to dwell within us.
It is tempting to point our fingers at the injustices of others. From this Christless perspective their cruel injustices are unbearable to us. Yet as those burdens bring us to be fitted to the Master's yoke, he shows us how to further our repentance that the state of our hearts are made sufficient to experience his peace, joy, grace, and love.
The fools wages of pride are the loss of health, joy, and happiness. And while pride puffs us up to temporarily dull our pain, ascending our rameumptoms to lift ourselves above those who have been unjust to us, disallows us to see the diminished state of our own hearts. Despair comes only as we believe we are left to overcome the injustices of others alone. Yet as we remember God's love and his Son’s promise to be our compensating partner, our burdens are made light and we discover a freedom from former burdens, and hope truly cometh. And as we carry his yoke our desire for justice is washed away in the bonds of charity. We then desire for our enemy that which we desire for ourselves -- mercy, forgiveness, and the Lord's choicest blessings, and we become our Father in Heaven's children.
And as we come to exercise the simple faith of the mustard seed by serving and praying with real intent for those who have offended us, our harbored offenses are plucked up by their roots and are eradicated forever. They are washed away as we are filled with love, which is the fruit that is sweeter than all that is sweet and whiter than all that is white. And as we kneel before the Savior with meek and lowly hearts in order to right our own hearts, we discover just how the impossible is made possible through he alone who satisfied for us the demands of justice, even Jesus Christ. And therein we begin to experience the kingdom of Heaven within our souls.
Accept this forgiveness challenge to pray daily for the welfare and happiness of those who have wronged you and to do much good for them. Exercise the simple faith of the mustard seed to follow these instructions with exactness. Then, describe below what you learn as you pray daily for your enemies and do good to them.
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It's always amazing how the Lord uses His surroundings to further enhance His teachings. Thanks for sharing.
He is the Master teacher, isn't he? Hope all is well in Chicago. Colleen and I loved meeting you and Pat and want to see you again next time you come this direction. Shared with my bishop the challenges you face in Chicago, and all he could say is, "I'm so glad to live here:)" You are doing what few can do. Keep the faith!
Thanks for the time you take to share your messages with us! I read them all!