He not only irritated me, he irritated almost everybody else in the congregation. Someone (who spoke nonsense but made it sound spiritual) told me that I had to first love this staff member and only then could I fire him. So I would get on my knees, pray it through, and come to something not dissimilar to love. Then the staff member would come into my office, say something (again) that really ticked me off…and I was back to square one. To this day, he doesn’t know that he kept his job for a very long time not because I loved him…but because I didn’t.

The whole situation was terrible and it hurt the church. So I talked to my mentor, Fred Smith, about what I had been told and what I was trying to do. He looked at me as if I were crazy and said, “I don’t know who told you that, but their advice is nuts. I suggest that you fire him and then love him.” That’s what I did. Now I really do love him and regularly pray for him.

I learned from that incident that it’s easier to forgive an enemy (or fire him, for that matter) than it is to forgive a friend. Believe it or not, it’s not hard to forgive enemies. We can define them, delineate what they did, and with a little effort, let it go or run. It sometimes takes time but it is doable.

What is really hard is to forgive a friend. David wrote of that difficulty, “For it is not an enemy who taunts me—then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me—then I could hide from him. But it is you, a man, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to take sweet counsel together; within God’s house we walked in the throng” (Psalm 55:12-14).

Last night I forgave a friend.

I’m not going to give you any details, but what my friend said about me was not what friends say about friends. There was a lot of fodder for self-righteousness and I was very quickly moving in that direction. That was when I forgave him.

Not only did I forgive him, I loved him. And frankly, I’m quite proud of myself.

Or at least I was proud of myself until I realized that I had very little to do with it. It sort of just happened. One minute I was “cussing and spitting” and the next minute tears were running down my face as I was overwhelmed with love. And that same morning my devotional life was very close to non-existent, I didn’t read the Bible even once, and I had been entertaining thoughts about becoming a Buddhist. So I can’t even take credit for walking with Jesus or “smelling like Jesus” or forgiving others the way he forgave me. Forgiveness and love just showed up.

As you can imagine, I’ve been thinking about that incident and prayerfully trying to understand what happened. And of course I’m sharing it with you. You may find it helpful and then you may not. Whatever. I do have to write a “Steve’s Letter” every month and as a friend of mine (a dean in an academic institution) said about doctoral dissertations, “There are the perfect ones and there are the finished ones.” Just so, there are the perfect “Steve’s Letters” (not that there has been one yet) and there are the finished ones. It’s difficult to have both. So if what I write makes you kind of critical, maybe Jesus will do for you what he did for me.

I move the previous question: What happened?

First, a surprising God did a surprising thing. He cared enough to show me how he is working in me for his glory. God, as I understand it, has to be careful here. In fact, I believe that the most godly, faithful and obedient man or woman you know doesn’t have the foggiest idea that he or she is godly, faithful and obedient. God knows that if he gives us an inch, we’ll take a mile. It’s one of the reasons that right after making an astounding proclamation of Jesus’ divinity, Peter was addressed by Jesus as Satan (Matthew 16:23). It’s also why Paul could write that God, to “keep him from being elated by the surpassing greatness of the revelations” God had given him, gave him a “thorn in the flesh” in order to point out that God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7).

God did a surprising thing. He cared enough to show me how he is working in me for his glory.

The problem with seeing goodness actually taking place in the process of sanctification in our lives is that once we start seeing it, we start to take credit for it, leading us to the assurance that we are good, pure and obedient, and have been called to make everybody like us. That is a vulnerable place for us…and quite dangerous.

But with all that being said, God knows how discouraged we can get. He meets that discouragement by showing us the Gospel—we are great sinners and Jesus is a great Savior. But sometimes (not often but sometimes) God meets that discouragement by showing us surprising faithfulness. It’s those occasions when he says, “I want to show you what I’m doing in your life. Just don’t let it go to your head.” God did that for me and it had nothing to do with anything I did. That was no accident.

Something else happened when I forgave my friend. Church happened…at least the church Jesus prayed for in John 17 when he asked the Father that we would love one another and be one. When I read Jesus’ prayer, sometimes I think he misspoke or the translators missed what he was saying. You might get that from a service club or garden party, but praying for that to happen in the church is like praying for pigs to dance. As someone said, “They can’t do it and it only makes them mad.”

Church is really messy. If you aren’t into misunderstanding, bad communication and division over little things, go to a bar. The church probably isn’t the place you should be. But Christ didn’t die for and make his bride out of a bar, service club or garden party, and therein is the problem. If love and forgiveness happen, and if we ever become one, Jesus will have to do it. Frankly, our “gift set” just doesn’t match the task. So when I forgave my friend, Jesus did what I couldn’t do and he gets the credit. I wish I could take some of the credit…but I can’t. Jesus was building his church.

Finally, when I forgave my friend, Jesus gave me (I needed it and often do) assurance that he still likes me, is not finished with me, and will never leave me alone in the dark. In my mind, sometimes there is a doubt. Jesus did the same thing in my thoughts about my friend as he did for Peter. Jesus told Peter that Satan was after him, but that he (Jesus) had prayed for him. Then Jesus said to Peter, “And when [not “if” or “hopefully when”] you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

That’s kind of what I did here. Jesus likes you too, he is not finished with you, and he will never leave you alone in the dark. Take it from this old, cynical and sinful preacher who despite himself is getting better. It’s slow but God wanted to remind me.

I think he wanted me to remind you too.