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April 21, 2015

A Lifelong Love

Gary Thomas — 
LLL Paperback

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Live Out a Sacred Marriage

You believe your marriage has eternal purposes. You long for it to reach beyond your home and encourage others. But what does it look like to have a spiritually intentional relationship in the midst of dirty dishes, work deadlines, and car pools?

In Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas showed us that God designed marriage to make us holy more than to make us happy. Now Thomas gives us the practical tools to craft our marriages into inspiring relationships that breathe spiritual life to others.

Whatever season of marriage you are in, A Lifelong Love gives you the practical help you need to infuse your marriage with a spiritual passion that will not only change you but will change the world around you.


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“This book is incredible. Consider it your road map to obtaining all that God designed your marriage to be. You absolutely don’t want to miss out on this life-changing message.”
– Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott, authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts

“Gary’s words carry some needed encouragement, instruction, and hope. This is not just another marriage book; it lifts marriage back to the noble place where it belongs… one of transcendent and magnificent glory.”
– Dr. Dennis Rainey, host of FamilyLife Today

“Marriage is the most important relationship we have apart from the one we have with God. I am thankful for Gary’s passion and commitment to help us experience growth, no matter if we’re newly married or married many years.”
– Dan Kimball, pastor and author of Adventure in Churchland

A Lifelong Love is a powerful reminder that marriage is more than just a social construct or a legal arrangement.  It is a deeply spiritual act ordained by God Himself.”
– Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family

“A profound, beautiful, and lifelong love in a marriage is anchored in our relationship with God. This book takes you there!”
– Dr. Tim Clinton, president of the American Association of Christian Counselors

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed so many of his works through the years, such as Sacred Marriage and Pure Pleasure, and I am thrilled that he’s contributed yet another marriage-building, affair-proofing, family-strengthening, God-honoring book to guide those of us who take marriage very seriously!”
– Shannon Ethridge, author of the bestselling Every Woman’s Battle series and The Passion Principles

“Gary Thomas has written another deep and powerful book full of biblical wisdom and practical suggestions for a loving, lifelong marriage that is more than simply staying together, precisely because it is God-centered and empowered by the Holy Spirit. A must-read for every married couple!”
– Siang-Yang Tan, professor of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary and senior pastor of First Evangelical Church in Glendale, CA

“Regardless of the state of your marriage, this book will challenge and encourage you!”
– Dr. Juli Slattery, psychologist and cofounder of Authentic Intimacy

“Many marriage books focus on skills, but this book builds skills on deep theology.”
– Ted Cunningham, pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church and author of Fun Loving You

“If you need a renewed sense of hope and purpose for your marriage, or simply long to become a couple that is more surrendered to God, devoted to one another, and engaged in the world, this book is for you!”
– Dr. Michael Dittman, director of Haven for the Heart

A Lifelong Love is deeply rooted in the Word of God as the ultimate guideline for marriage and is a must-read for everyone: married, thinking about it, single, or struggling in the marriage they are in.”
– Cheryl Scruggs, Hope Matters Marriage Ministries, Inc.

“Gary Thomas builds on the brilliant and challenging message of Sacred Marriage as he helps us discover God’s pathway to “a lifelong love.”
– Kevin G. Harney, lead pastor of Shoreline Community Church and author of Empowered by His Presence and the Organic Outreach series (

“No other author I’m aware of offers such a spiritually rich framework for understanding and thriving in marriage.”
– Jud Wilhite, senior pastor of Central Christian Church and author of Pursued

February 17, 2015

The Watch Dog Fights

Gary Thomas — 

The Watch Dog Fights Final

“The watch dog fights while the wild dog runs away.”

When danger confronts a wild dog, the wild dog runs away. It’s not tied to the home because in its heart, it doesn’t have one; it’s tied solely to its own self-interests.

When danger confronts a watch dog, the watch dog doubles down, as if its life depends upon protecting the home, because it does. It has no other home, no other place to go to. The watch dog’s self-interests are tied to the home, and it will fight or die.

In your heart, in regards to your family and marriage, which kind of dog are you?

We so value our independence that it’s easy to slip into the heart of a “wild dog” even while living the life of a watch dog. It’s possible to have a home but not treat it as a home. Some people can treat their marriage and family as a hindrance, or shackles, even a prison. They secretly want to get out, but are too ashamed to admit it, so they sleep in a home, but their heart roams far and wide. Some “wild dogs” have confessed to me that they have prayed for years that their spouse would have an affair so that they would be free to leave.

A watch dog senses danger and flies into action.  He/she doesn’t play with danger, doesn’t welcome danger, is singularly focused on scaring away the danger as soon as it’s seen, and if the danger doesn’t leave, he/she will fight it. The heart of a watch dog is tied to its home.

When you see distance coming in your marriage, do you call it out and fight it, or do you seek to find enjoyment and amusement outside the marriage? If you do the latter, you’re a wild dog.

When you feel tired or discouraged, do your fantasies roam to another life, dreaming of being married to another person in another house? If so, your heart is that of a wild dog.

When anything threatens your marriage—another affection, another relationship, a busy schedule, a job, you name it—do you stand up and fight, do you say, “This can’t last,” even if you know those words will launch a battle? If so, you have the heart of a watch dog.

Where is your heart? Do you long to be free, but are too ashamed to leave? You must be miserable indeed. You have the constrictions of a watch dog, but the heart of a wild dog, and that’s as frustrating a life as anyone can live. The answer can’t be, if you’re a Christian, to become a wild dog in fact; it’s to humbly repent and seek the heart of a watch dog, someone who is newly refocused on and reinvested in their home.

There is no satisfaction in someone who is living a watch dog life with a wild dog heart. You can’t be satisfied, as the satisfaction you seek—being free from your home—by definition requires the destruction of your home. No true watch dog could take joy in that outcome. You need a change of heart.

My wife and I recently heard yet another story about a man who had a middle-aged affair, fathered a daughter outside of wedlock, but eventually stayed with his wife. The mistress never got remarried and the father of her child actually loved his wife heroically through a later life medical situation.

Why do I tell that story? A watch dog got to “taste” the wild dog life, but then found it so wanting he returned to the watch dog life, even when it was less pleasant and more demanding. When you’re a watch dog dreaming of the wild dog life, you romanticize it. You idealize it. You see the pleasure, but not the pain. You see the freedom, but not the loneliness and alienation. You see the opportunities, but not the isolation.

If you are living a watch dog life, ask God for a new watch dog heart. Fight for your marriage. Fight for your home. Be fully, 100% invested in it. Make it so dear to your soul that you wouldn’t leave your home if it was surrounded by the entire Russian military.

If you have a wild dog heart, I guarantee you that your marriage will crumble. There are so many threats to a marriage nowadays—spiritually, relationally, sexually, financially, time-wise—that if we don’t fight to the death, the marriage will in fact die. Very, very few couples have the luxury of having a “take it or leave it” attitude toward their marriage. And who would want to be in a marriage like that, anyway?

No, the only path to true satisfaction if you’re living a watch dog life is to cultivate a watch dog’s heart.

How, you might ask?

Start fighting, and keep fighting. Refuse any thought of any other solution than victory. The heart follows commitment. Confront issues as they arise.

“But I already have done all that!” some might say, “and the fantasies are so much sweeter.”

A watch dog doesn’t just try. A watch dog starts and never stops. He or she is too busy saving the home to even contemplate leaving it. Every second spent in contemplation of a different life is a second lost in improving your real life.

Never, ever believe the world’s lie that the watch dog lives a “small” life. It is much larger than the wild dog’s life, by far. If a man or woman ferociously fights for his or her marriage and each of their children, if he or she wages war against their own sin that seeks to destroy not just their own souls, but that of their home, they are fighting a cosmic battle over something that truly matters. It is a focused battle, but not a small or meaningless one.

What does the wild dog fight for? His or her own pleasure, happiness, and security. If you think you can be satisfied living for yourself, giving your entire life for the good of yourself, you haven’t contemplated either your own mortality (when your battle will surely and ultimately end) or the emptiness, indeed, the impossibility, of finding satisfaction in a self-centered life.

God has called us to be watch dogs in fact, so let’s be watch dogs in heart as well.

P.S. for singles:

I want to add a quick word for the singles out there—it’s certainly possible to have a “watch dog” heart when you live a single life. There is much fulfillment to be found if God has called you to the single life when you have a watch dog heart for your church and God’s mission and those friends with whom God has called you to be in community. This is a blog focused on marriage and family life, but in respecting that I’m not in any way undercutting your call in life or suggesting that the single life is a lesser life. I’m just trying to encourage those God has called into marriage and family life to be obediently and faithfully invested in that life.

June 5, 2014

A Mom’s Eyes Opened

Gary Thomas — 
By: Photostock;

By: Photostock;

Liz cringed when her daughter lost the election to become student body president just as she had cringed when her daughter didn’t get chosen as a cheerleader.  But this rejection, one year after the election loss was more difficult still. in spite of high grades, a decent SAT score, and after carefully logging her volunteer hours the young woman received a small envelope from her college of choice.

“This has to be a rejection,” Liz thought, but she knew her daughter would want to open the letter herself.  “This is going to devastate her.”

Liz spent the entire day in a state of turmoil.  She couldn’t get anything done.  She found herself crying.  Her daughter had tried so hard, and she wanted this so much.  It just wasn’t fair.

When her daughter got home Liz handed over the envelope, fighting back the tears.  The young woman took the envelope and from the expression on her face, Liz could tell her guess had been correct.  Without saying anything other than, “Oh, well,” the daughter went up to her bedroom, closed the door, and stayed there for a good hour.

Liz was beside herself.  What could she do?  What could she say?  Finally, she knocked on her daughter’s bedroom door.

“Honey?  Are you all right?”

Her daughter opened the door with car keys in her hands.  “Yeah.  I’m going over to Katie’s.  Bye.”

Later that night, Liz called Katie’s mom, as her daughter still hadn’t said a word about the rejection other than to confirm it.  Katie’s mom happened to be a trained counselor and Liz thought that perhaps, with her daughter having spent the afternoon at her house, the counselor could give some tips to help Katie get over the disappointment.

“Liz, can I be honest with you?”  Katie’s mom asked.


“Your daughter is a happy girl.  This wasn’t a big deal to her.”

“She must be in denial,” Liz answered.  “I know how much she wanted this.”

“No, you know how much you wanted it.  The only thing that bothers your daughter is that she feels like she’s let you down, but it’s really not a big deal to her.”

Liz was flabbergasted.  “Are you telling me she really doesn’t care?”

“I’m telling you that she doesn’t feel like a failure.  She just feels bad that her mom thinks she feels like a failure.  She’s happy and even excited about the other schools she did get into it, but she doesn’t think you are so she doesn’t feel like she can celebrate with you.”

This became a life altering moment for Liz, an opportunity to critique herself and her emotions, her sense of self and security, her view of her children, God, and life in entirely new ways.  She came to realize she wasn’t raising her daughter as much as she was depending on her daughter, for her own sense of self-worth, feelings of accomplishment, and her belief in her abilities as a mother.

Perhaps what hurt Liz the most was her friend’s observation that, “your daughter doesn’t feel like a failure.  She just feels bad that her mom thinks she’s a failure.”

Parents, it’s wonderful to have big dreams for your kids but do they see you celebrate their successes—however limited they may seem to you—every bit as much as they see you hurt over their disappointments?  Do our kids see us deriving joy from childrearing or do they more frequently notice our pain, disappointment, hurt, and fear?

Parenting has a knack of making every parent come face to face with our true motivation, shaky sense of self-worth, and conflicted beliefs about what really matters.  One of the greatest spiritual challenges we will ever endure is watching a child fail.  Just the threat of such a failure can paralyze us.

I want to leave an inheritance to my kids but not the inheritance of fear and not the inheritance of disappointment.  I’d like to give them an example of faith, a model of peace, remembrance of courage, and perhaps a few extra dollars to give their bank accounts a little boost.  I hope they don’t inherit my self-absorbed fears.

If I don’t intentionally rein these fears in; however, they will.  Jesus was adamant: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” John 14:27

Did you catch the “do not let…” part?  Can we model that to our kids?  “Whatever the disappointment, we won’t let our hearts be troubled…”

This might be a good verse for some parents to memorize.  It’s normal to have dreams for our kids, but let’s not burden them with our own disappointment when our dreams for them do not come true in the way we want them to.


April 7, 2014

God Oases

Gary Thomas — 


Up until I wrote this blog post, only two people, other than Lisa and me, knew this story, and one of them is dead.

Lisa and I had been married for just a couple months. There was a spiritual crisis of sorts, not threatening our marriage, but freaking us out. We went and visited my boyhood pastor. We talked and prayed with he and his wife and even spent the night at their house. Something about Pastor Boggess made his house (even his presence) seem like a place of refuge, a “God oasis.”

It’s the kind of ministry I pray every Christian couple will aspire to. Consider this prophecy from the book of Isaiah:

Each man will be like a shelter from the wind

and a refuge from the storm,

like streams of water in the desert

and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land. (Isaiah 32:1-2)

Notice the power of these lives! A holy man or woman, and certainly a holy couple, is a spiritual force, a “God oasis” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the way they listen and the way they use their eyes to love instead of judge, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy women and men are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation tears this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God-oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out—and they will have something to say.

What happens when people find their way to these God oases?

Then the eyes of those who see will no longer be closed,

and the ears of those who hear will listen.

The mind of the rash will know and understand,

and the stammering tongue will be fluent and clear. (32:3-4)

Our faith isn’t about us. It’s about setting our roots down deep, learning to drink from God’s well, and letting the overflow of that spiritual life and vitality become a place of refuge for the hurting, the sick, the discouraged, the ignorant and the tired.

When you work on your heart and then on your marriage, you create more than just a home or a relationship—you create an oasis to which God can direct people who need to feed upon your strength.

Before Gene died a few years ago, my dad met with him as Gene reminisced about his ministry. While many pastors go from small church to medium church to large church, every church that God called Gene to was smaller than the one he left behind. Gene felt a little humbled by this, but he told my dad, “If someone like your sons could come out of my ministry, I guess I did something right.”

My dad handed Gene my latest book, not knowing the crisis point that Gene had shepherded Lisa and I through. That’s the thing about oases. They don’t get credit. No one applauds the hotel or the rest stop that a famous singer or politician passes through on their way to the stage, but whatever they do would be much less if the oasis didn’t exist.

Will you and your spouse seek to build a God oasis in your neighborhood and church? Will you so invite the presence of Christ into your heart and home that when people really need to be touched by God, they come to you? Will your kids’ friends think of your house as a respite? Will your pastors look upon your house as an outpost for God’s work in your area?

You may never get credit, and you may never even see the full fruit of your ministry. But it’s a glorious ministry to inhabit.

March 25, 2014

Who Needs Handcuffs?

Gary Thomas — 

photo: Karin Beil, Creative Commons

(Note: If your name is Allison, Graham, or Kelsey, and you typically call me “Dad,” I suggest you skip this blog post.)

“Talk about world domination!”

My wife had been in a busy season, so I purposefully had planned an evening I knew she would enjoy—dinner at a Jazz Club, followed by an evening of romance. I intentionally let the sexual energy smolder throughout the day.  Well before dinner time, Lisa finally suggested, “Why don’t we just get on with it, already?” but I simply smiled at her and thought, “Not a chance.”

On the way to the club I filled up her gas tank because I know Lisa hates to fill up her gas tank and she was going to be driving the next day. That may not sound so sexually enticing, but it’s not up to us men to determine what constitutes foreplay. Trust me, men—something like that can do wonders; it builds the mood. It makes your wife think, “He’s taking care of me.” A spiritually healthy wife who feels taken care of is supernaturally predisposed to take care of you.

The “dinner” (iceberg lettuce masquerading as a salad, poorly cooked chicken covered with gravy, instant mashed potatoes) was a bit of a disaster given Lisa’s organic bent, but she loved the music and atmosphere. At one point, we were the only white people in the club. It’s not a place I would have gone to on my own—Lisa knew we were there because of her.

My small touches during the dinner were intentional and deliberate, but nothing scandalous. If someone from our church had been sitting right behind us they wouldn’t have even noticed, but I’ve been married to Lisa for 28 years and pretty much know how, even in public, I can slowly bring her near to a boiling point with touches and caresses that no one watching could possibly take offense to or even know what was going on. After nearly 3 decades of enjoying each other, an innocent looking caress, a simple touch, a slight moving of her hair can bring to mind past memories and a future promise that are packed with impending pleasure.

When we got home, I knew what I was going to do, and I did it. It wasn’t anything grand, just intentional and thoughtful, and it showed a little preparation. Within minutes Lisa was lying back saying, “Talk about world domination!”

What she meant was “You have conquered me. Do what you will.”

When it first came out, the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy was discussed by more marital and Christian bloggers than could be counted, but my thoughts are a little simpler: Men, if you need handcuffs and ropes to make your wife feel the enticement of full surrender, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Try studying her, getting to know her moods and total body—not just three parts that men typically focus on, but everything.

Try kindness, on a daily basis.

Try spiritual connection—make sure she knows she’s supported in prayer.

Try years of giving pleasure unselfishly so that she knows, once everything gets started, she’s going to be carried away by your touches, not used by your demands.

Try taking care of her kids, and taking care of her.

Try thinking about how you’re going to exceed her expectations.

If you study your wife and then apply all this, you’ll come to a place when you never need handcuffs—what you’ve got is much stronger, more powerful, more exciting and more fulfilling.

When our kids were young and at home, something much more effective than handcuffs was loving on our children. If a kid was in a rough spot and I took them out, or if one of them was starting to make some dubious choices and I sat down with them and talked with them and prayed with them, Lisa’s natural response was, “You’re such a good dad. And let me show you how a wife shows her appreciation for a man who loves her kids…”

My wife’s take is that women would be less inclined to read about sex with an imaginary billionaire if they were fully enjoying real sex with a thoughtful husband. She’s not saying if your wife is reading Fifty Shades that you’re a poor lover—just that it might be a symptom that things have started to slide in the bedroom. “I don’t think most women want pain or the kind of sex described in those books,” Lisa told me. “I just think they want something a little more creative than what they’re getting.”

The world’s form of pleasure is almost always a cheap substitute of the real thing and it’s never as satisfying. A guy can’t get his wife excited, so he looks at porn to watch some other guy get a woman excited. A man can’t get his wife to the place of appropriate surrender, so he resorts to silly things like handcuffs and ropes and not so silly things like pain to bring a little “spice” into the bedroom.

I’m not into constructing Christian lists of “do’s and don’ts.” I don’t want to marginalize something that you and your wife have truly enjoyed, so please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m just saying that long-term sexual satisfaction in marriage has to go well beyond gimmicks. If you want to use a gimmick now and then, fine—it’s your marriage. But if you think something like that is going to sustain you through the years, you’re fooling yourself.

For long-term satisfaction, study your wife, not just a few parts of her body. Build years of trust with kind touching and generous pleasuring. Let her know that if she lets herself go in your hands you’ll make her momentarily forget everything bad going on in her life and feel everything good. If you can’t get her excited in public, fully clothed, if you need to get her “naked and handcuffed” to feel like things are getting hot, you probably don’t know her well enough yet.

And guys, it’s perfectly holy and God-honoring to think about how to sexually please and thrill your wife. Far better to fantasize about ways to take your wife to a new place of pleasure, than to spend one second fantasizing about any other woman.



February 2, 2014


Gary Thomas — 


Francois de Salignac de La Mothe Fenelon (who, with your pardon, we’ll refer to simply as “Fenelon”), was born in 1651 and grew up in frail health. Shortly after his ordination, he acted as Superior of the “Nouvelles Catholiques,” a community founded to instruct and confirm in the Roman Catholic faith women who had previously been converted by the Protestants. Among Fenelon’s first works was a treatise on the education of females.

Fenelon became well-known as a skilled spiritual counselor (to adults and youth) and soon found himself charged with educating and reforming Louis XIV’s grandson, the Duc de Bourgogne. This might at first sound like a great honor—and in truth it was—but it was also a great challenge. The young Duke was described by a contemporary as “born terrible, and in his early youth he made everyone tremble. Hard and irascible to the utmost passion, incapable of bearing the slightest resistance without flying into a rage… obstinate… passionately fond of every kind of pleasure…”

Modern wisdom might tell us to send such a youth to military training and let strict discipline bring his life into order. Fenelon, however, pursued a different approach. He was gentle, believing that a teacher must “mingle teaching and play; let wisdom show herself to the child only at intervals, and with a smiling face. If he forms a sad and gloomy conception of virtue, all is lost.”

Fenelon’s method must have worked, for the same person who gave us the earlier description of the Duke described the transformation this way: “The marvel is that in a very short space of time, devotion and grace made quite another being of him, and changed his many and dreadful faults into the entirely opposite virtues. From this abyss a Prince was seen to issue, at once affable, gentle, humane, generous, patient, modest, humble, and severe towards himself.”

Fenelon was named Archbishop of Cambrai on Feb. 4, 1695. He became highly influential, due in large part to his association with the aforementioned duke (who was next in line to be king of France).

In the midst of his call to reform others, Fenelon remained very much aware of his own failings. The man who offered so much spiritual advice to others wrote of himself, “I am to myself…the whole of a great diocese, more burdensome than the outside one, and a diocese which I am incapable of reforming.”

Fenelon stressed an authentic internal devotion. He wrote and spoke out against “pharisaic righteousness.” In a scathing rebuke he writes, “They fast and give alms, but without love of God, humility, or sacrifice of selfÉ. Another defect of pharisaic righteousness is that a man comes to lean upon it as upon his own strength. He takes a great delight in considering his own uprightness, in being conscious of his own powers, and in mirroring himself in his virtue, as a vain woman does in her looking glass.”

Fenelon’s role as a spiritual director and pastor had the fortunate result of making his writings particularly practical. He urged those under his care to be diligent about their spiritual life while not taking it “too far.” Those with excessive scruples might lapse into a “spiritual hypochondria” that Fenelon found to be most unhelpful.

When Fenelon was in his early sixties, the duke whom he had largely raised fell ill with spotted liver and died. In that age, to be the friend of a former ruler was often seen to be a competitor to the new one, and Fenelon quickly fell out of favor.

To make matters worse, Fenelon became a strong supporter of (Madam) Jeanne Guyon, another classic Christian writer, who wrote a treatise on Quietism variously called Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ and A Short and Very Easy Method of Prayer. Though the following description doesn’t do it justice, quietism essentially taught a complete detachment from the things of this world. As part of his defense of Guyon, Fenelon wrote Maxims of the Saints in 1697. This book was condemned by Pope Innocent XII, practically forcing King Louis to banish Fenelon from the court, and returning Fenelon to a smaller diocese, where he excelled as a pastor.

Perhaps because Fenelon lived in and wrote to the upper strata of French society, his writings remain remarkably relevant to contemporary Christians, addressing issues such as amusement and the use of leisure time. The temptations faced by the French elite several hundred years ago are amazingly similar to those faced by middle class evangelicals today. Fenelon’s Christian Perfection, a collection of various letters and addresses that were gathered over time, is one of the most helpful spiritual classics I’ve ever read; it’s one you may want to read over and over.

Of course, the quietistic elements of his writing lead to an undue emphasis on humankind’s passivity. Both Guyon and Fenelon took passivity and surrender to such an extreme that they believed we must arrive at a place where we do not even care about our own salvationÑa state that can be reached only through prayer (which, ironically, may not always seem like such a passive activity). The worst elements of quietism extended this out to suggest that, since the quietist has no will of his own, even if he commits actions that would be sins if others committed them, they are not sinful for him (The thinking being that if you don’t have a will, you can’t be blamed for doing anything, sinceÑostensibly—you are operating solely on the will of God). It was this line of thinking that led the pope (and evangelicals) to reject the more extreme forms of quietism.

Fenelon died in relative obscurity in 1715.

February 2, 2014

John Calvin

Gary Thomas — 


John Calvin (1509 – 1564)
Reprinted from the Summer 2002 issue of Knowing & Doing, the teaching quarterly of the C.S. Lewis Institute
by Dr. Art Lindsley

C.S. Lewis Institute; 4208 Evergreen Lane, Suite 222
Annandale, VA 22003 Phone: 703.914.5602

The mere mention of John Calvin’s name (born July 10, 1509 in Noyon, France – died May 27, 1564 in Geneva, Switzerland) produces strong reactions both pro and con. Erich Fromm, 20th century German-born American psychoanalyst and social philosopher, says that Calvin “belonged to the ranks of the greatest haters in history.” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church maintains that Calvin was “cruel” and the “unopposed dictator of Geneva.” On the other hand, Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor, says of Calvin, “I have been a witness of him for sixteen years and I think that I am fully entitled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all an example of the life and death of the Christian such as it will not be easy to depreciate, and it will be difficult to imitate.” Philip Schaff, church historian, writes of Calvin, “Taking into account all his failings, he must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best of men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity.” William Cunningham, Scottish theologian, maintains, “Calvin is the man who, next to St. Paul, has done the most good to mankind.” Charles Haddon Spurgeon, English preacher, asserts, “The longer I live the clearer does it appear that John Calvin’s system is the nearest to perfection.”

Basil Hall, Cambridge professor, once wrote an essay, “The Calvin Legend,” in which he argues that formerly those who depreciated Calvin had at least read his works, whereas now the word “Calvin” or “Calvinism” is used as a word with negative connotations but with little or no content. Many stories float around about him that are utterly false. For instance, Aldous Huxley puts forward as fact an old and groundless legend, writing, “Our fathers took the fifth commandment seriously—how seriously may be judged from the fact that during the Great Calvin’s theocratic rule of Geneva a child was publicly decapitated for having ventured to strike its parents.” There is no evidence whatsoever in the records of Geneva for this story and no legal grounds in Geneva for this action to have been justified. Likewise, the caricature of Calvin as “cruel” or a “dictator” or filled with “hatred” is either totally false or a distortion of the truth. Who is this Calvin who can be so praised or vilified?


Calvin’s parents, Gerard and Jeanne, had five sons. Antoine and Francois died in childhood. John was the second son to grow to maturity. Gerard had become a successful lawyer and had prominent contacts. He had ambitions for his sons and provided a good education for them. Gerard wanted John to follow a career in the church, and thus he was sent to the University of Paris for his studies. Having completed his arts courses, he was prepared for doctoral theological study. However, Gerard changed his mind and decided that John should study law. John submitted to this request and spent the next several years at the University of Orleans studying law. While there, he was exposed to the classical writers such as Cicero, Seneca, Plutarch, Plato, and Aristotle. In fact, his first published work (when he was only 22 years old) was Commentary on Seneca’s ‘De Clementia.’

Sometime during this period, he experienced a profound conversion, although the details of how it came about are not clear. Calvin speaks of this change in his Commentary on the Psalms:

God drew me from obscure and lowly beginnings and conferred on me that most honorable office of herald and minister of the Gospel…. What happened first was that by an unexpected conversion he tamed to teachableness a mind too stubborn for its years…. And so this mere taste of true godliness that I received set me on fire with such a desire to progress that I pursued the rest of my studies more coolly, although I did not give them up altogether. Before a year had slipped by, anybody who longed for a purer doctrine kept on coming to learn from me, still a beginner and a raw recruit.

Calling to Geneva

He eventually became known as a “Lutheran” and had to go into hiding, fearing for his life. Eventually, he made his way to Basel where, still a young man of twenty-seven, Calvin wrote the first edition of what became his classic work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, published in 1536. (The final edition was completed in 1559.) This first edition was intended as a general introduction for those who had a hunger and thirst for Christ but had little real knowledge of Him. This little book spread quickly and was read by a wide audience. Its appeal was that it showed the faith of the Reformation to be consistent with the great creeds, loyal to the political authorities, and desiring obedience to God’s Law, contrary to opposition caricatures.

During a trip to Strasbourg, Calvin was forced to take a detour through Geneva and happened to spend the night at an inn. When William Farel, church leader in Geneva, heard that the author of the Institutes was in town, he went straight to the inn. Farel desperately desired a helper in his task and saw in Calvin an ideal assistant. He pleaded with Calvin to consider coming to work with him in Geneva. Calvin resisted Farel’s pleas. Calvin saw himself as a scholar and writer and wanted to spend his days in quiet reading and writing, not as a pastor or administrator. Farel became desperate, and as Calvin later described it:

Farel detained me in Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation as by a dreadful curse, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me…he proceeded to utter the imprecation that God would curse my retirement and the tranquility of the studies which I sought, if I should withdraw and refuse to help, when the necessity was so urgent. By this imprecation, I was so terror struck, that I gave up the journey I had undertaken; but sensible of my natural shyness and timidity, I would not tie myself to any particular office.

When Calvin and Farel were banished from Geneva over a year later, Calvin finally arrived at Strasbourg and had three enjoyable years of study and teaching. It was during this period that he met his wife, Idelette.


When Calvin arrived in Strasbourg, he initially stayed with fellow Reformer Martin Bucer and his wife Elizabeth. Their home was known as an “inn of righteousness,” and they had a very happy marriage. Martin would often say to John, “You ought to have a wife.” John seems not to have been a romantic as we can see from his qualifications for a wife:

Always keep in mind what I seek to find in her, for I am none of those insane lovers who embrace also the vices of those with whom they are in love, where they are smitten at first with a fine figure. This is the only beauty that allures me: if she is chaste, if not too fussy or fastidious, if economical, if patient, if there is hope that she will be interested in my health.

Various people tried to arrange a marriage for him. First, a wealthy German woman was suggested, but she didn’t seem eager to learn French. Another was suggested about fifteen years older than Calvin. Yet another young woman was brought to Strasbourg for an interview, and Calvin was so hopeful that he set a tentative marriage date. But again, it didn’t work out. Finally, a young widow whom he already knew as part of his congregation, Idelette, was suggested to him by Bucer. Idelette’s husband, Jean Stordeur, had been an Anabaptist leader with whom Calvin debated, and eventually, they became members of Calvin’s church in Strasbourg. Jean later died of the plague. Idelette was attractive, intelligent, and a woman of character. She also desired a good father for her children. John later described her as “the faithful helper of my ministry” and “the best companion of my life.” They had three children: one died at two weeks old, another at birth, and a third, born prematurely, also died. Their marriage lasted nine years. Idelette became sick, probably with tuberculosis, and died at age forty. John wrote to his friend Viret:

You know how tender, or rather, soft my heart is. If I did not have strong self-control, I would not have been able to stand it this long. My grief is very heavy. My best life’s companion is taken away from me. Whenever I faced serious difficulties, she was ever ready to share with me, not only banishment and poverty, but even death itself.

Although Calvin himself was only forty when Idelette died, he never remarried.

Back to Geneva

After the three years in Strasbourg, Farel and Calvin were urged by leaders in Geneva to return. Reluctantly, they did. John and Idelette were given a house by the lake with room for a garden where Idelette grew vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Calvin remained in Geneva the rest of his life.

During his twenty-five year ministry in Geneva, he preached an average of five sermons a week. He preached twice every Sunday and every day of alternate weeks. In the weeks he was not preaching, he lectured three times as an Old Testament professor. He wrote a commentary on nearly every book of the Bible and on many theological topics. His letters alone fill eleven volumes or some 40,000 pages of his Works. He had many meetings in Geneva with pastors, deacons, and visitors. On top of it all, his health was characteristically poor. It is amazing, given his schedule and its constant interruptions, that he was able to accomplish so much.

Even in Strasbourg, his schedule was busy. He writes in a letter about one such day’s work:

When the messenger came to collect the beginning of my book, I had to re-read twenty sheets of printer’s proofs. I also had a lecture, a sermon, four letters to write, a certain dispute to settle, and more than ten visitors, all of whom required attention.

In a letter to Bucer, he wrote, “I cannot recall two consecutive hours without interruption.” At Geneva, it was even worse; he wrote: “I do not even have one hour free.” In another letter, he wrote, “The difficulty is the vexations and brain racking interruptions which occur twenty or more times while I am writing one letter.” Yet Calvin continued to work hard. He did not like to waste time. Even on his deathbed he continued to work. When his friends told him to take it easy, he said, “What! Would you have the Lord find me idle when He comes?”

Calvin had a real love and sensitivity for people. Once when he was sending a letter to his friend Viret using a student as messenger, he noticed another student looking somewhat jealous. Immediately, he wrote another note to Viret telling him to pretend that the note was important and sent it using the second student as messenger.

We particularly see this sensitivity in his letters to his friends. For instance, he was sensitive to any criticism from Bucer, whom he regarded as a father figure. He wrote to Bucer, “If at any point I do not come up to your expectations, you know that I am in your power. Warn or punish. Do whatever is the right of a father toward his son.” Bucer responded, “You are my heart and soul.”

In a letter to Melanchthon, Luther’s lieutenant and a frequent recipient of letters from Calvin, he wrote:

Can we not, as you say, talk more often, if only by letter? The gain would not be yours, but mine, for nothing in the world is more precious than the pleasure I find in reading your charming letters.

Of his friendships with men such as Farel and Viret, he wrote in his dedication to his Commentary on Titus:

I am sure that nowhere have friends ever lived in such close fellowship and companionship as we have done in our ministry… It seems as if you and I are just one person.

That does not mean that Calvin was unable or unwilling to rebuke his friends. For instance, once he wrote to Farel:

I am given to understand that your very full sermons are giving some ground for complaint. I beg you earnestly to restrict yourself, even forcibly if necessary, rather than offer Satan any handle which he will be quick to seize. We do not speak for our own benefit but for that of our people. We must remember proportion in teaching, so that boredom does not give rise to disrespect.… Do not think that you can expect from everyone an enthusiasm equal to your own.

Or to Melanchthon—who seems to have been somewhat timid like the New Testament’s Timothy—he writes:

Let us follow our course with unswerving mind … Hesitation in the general or standard bearer is far more shameful than is the flight of simple soldiers… In giving way a little you have given rise to more complaints and groans than would have done the open desertion of a hundred ordinary men.

Calvin’s Theology

Many books have been written about Calvin’s theology. It is impossible to do justice to the subject in this article, except to mention a few things that Calvin’s theology was not.

First, Calvin’s sole or primary emphasis was not predestination. Basically, he inherited and passed on this doctrine from earlier writers: Augustine (whom he quotes more often in the Institutes than any other non-biblical writer), Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther (Bondage of the Will). In his 1559 edition of Institutes, he devotes only ninety pages of more than 1,500 pages to predestination and covers this doctrine in Book III under the doctrine of salvation and not in Book I under the doctrine of God. In fact, if it were not for a couple of critics, Pigius and Bolsec, to whom Calvin responded with a treatise, we would have very little on this subject in Calvin’s writing. He was particularly concerned with this doctrine (as with others) to go as far as Scripture goes and no further. B.B. Warfield calls Augustine the theologian of grace, Luther the theologian of justification, and Calvin the theologian of the Holy Spirit because of his emphasis and unique development of this Biblical teaching.

Second, Calvin was not a cold, dry theologian. At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary I studied with Ford Lewis Battles, who was a Calvin scholar and translator of his Institutes. I remember him telling me that Romans 1:21 was Calvin’s life verse, particularly the phrase, “they knew God, (but) they did not honor Him or give thanks.” Calvin believed that we live to honor God and to give Him thanks. The section entitled “Prayer” in Institutes, Book III, is classic. Calvin maintained that the “principal work of the Spirit” is faith and the “principal exercise of faith is prayer.” Summing up life in Christ, he says:

The sum total comes back to this: Since the Scripture teaches us that it’s a principal part of the service of God to invoke him … he values this homage we do him more than all sacrifices.

Karl Barth, in his The Christian Life, understands that he is standing in the heritage of the Reformers when he argues that the central virtue of spiritual life is invocation—calling on His name in prayer. Barth then structures the whole of “the Christian life” around the Lord’s Prayer. Calvin, too, saw prayer as the primary thing in our lives.

Third, Calvin was not a narrow parochial thinker. He was openly appreciative of truth wherever he found it. His emphases were later called the doctrine of “common grace.” In his Institutes II.ii 15, Calvin writes:

What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how preeminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude. Those men whom Scripture calls “natural men” were indeed sharp and penetrating in their investigation of things below. Let us accordingly learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good.

In his commentary on Genesis, Calvin ascribes many human actions and advances to the work of the Holy Spirit:

For the invention of the arts, and of other things which serve to the common use and convenience of life, is a gift from God by no means to be despised, and a faculty worthy of commendation…as the experience of all ages teaches us how widely the rays of divine light have shone on unbelieving nations, for the benefit of the present life; and we see at the present time that the excellent gifts of the Spirit are diffused through the whole human race.

So, far from being narrow in his perspective and unappreciative of pagan thought, he was willing to value all truth as God’s truth.


The first historical essay I wrote in college was about the episode in Geneva with Michael Servetus, Spanish physician and self-styled theologian, and the controversy over toleration and religious liberty it caused. Servetus was judged by civil authorities as a heretic for vehemently denying the Trinity and other central doctrines of faith. He was burned in Geneva with Calvin’s approval.

Many excuses for this action have been made, such as: death for heretics was part of the spirit of the age; Servetus was foolish in his provoking action by the state; Calvin sought on numerous occasions to persuade Servetus of his errors; Calvin sought a less painful death for Servetus; and the Swiss cities agreed to his punishment. None of these qualifications excuse Calvin. Perhaps the unintended but beneficial consequence was that the reaction by Castellio and others to Servetus’ death had an influence on the belief in religious liberty today.

Last Days

Calvin’s last days were spent working as much as he could, writing, preaching, and teaching. Sometimes he was carried to a chair in the pulpit to preach. When the end was near, “Lord, how long!” was the cry on his lips. In a final meeting with Geneva’s ministers, he confessed his faults and asked for forgiveness for anything he had done to offend them. Calvin gave instructions that he be buried in an ordinary cemetery with no gravestone so that no one would make it a shrine. As a result, his gravesite is unknown.

J.I. Packer sums up this complex personality. Calvin was:

Bible-centered in his method, God-centered in his outlook, Christ-centered in his message; he was controlled throughout by a vision of God on the throne and a passion that God should be glorified… He lived as he preached and wrote, for the glory of God. Good theologians are not always good men, nor vice versa, but Calvin’s life and theology were all of a piece. Consistency was his hallmark, both as a thinker and as a writer.

NOTE: If you wish to do further reading on Calvin, Alister McGrath’s biography, A Life of John Calvin, would be a good place to start. If you are really ambitious, try reading the Institutes, which Wesley (despite some disagreements) claimed was the most valuable book next to the Bible. Or, try any of Calvin’s commentaries on the Bible. His goal of clarity and brevity mixed with much practical application make these works some of the most helpful guides to Scripture anywhere.

Dr. Art Lindsley has served as Scholar-in-Residence at the C.S. Lewis Institute since 1987. Formerly, Dr. Lindsley was Director of Educational Ministries of the Ligonier Valley Study Center and Staff Specialist for Coalition for Christian Outreach. He received a B.S. (Chemistry) from Seattle Pacific University, an M.Div., Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. (Religious Studies), University of Pittsburgh. Art Lindsley is co-author with R.C. Sproul and John Gerstner of Classical Apologetics, and he has spoken and written frequently on C.S. Lewis, postmodernism, and other relevant cultural issues.

Shortly after the young Francis of Assisi embraced a faith that would help color the face of Christianity for centuries to come, he sensed God telling him, “Francis, all those things that you have loved in the flesh you must now despise, and from those things that you formerly loathed you will drink great sweetness and immeasurable delight.” If a believer heard such words today, he or she would likely write them down in a journal and then forget them. Or perhaps the new Christian might compose a poem or a song, celebrating the sentiment. If the person were an author, he or she might even find a publisher and entomb the lofty notions inside a book.

But not Francis. Almost immediately, he applied the divine admonition in a horrifically beautiful way.

As the young Christian rode his horse out of town, he saw what he once most despised — a leper. It is difficult for most moderns to understand the terror of that once untreatable disease. Leprosy is an insidious malady in which bacteria seek refuge in the nerves and then proceed to destroy them, one by one. Since the bacteria prefer the cooler parts of the body, it means the toes, fingers, eyes, earlobes, and noses are most vulnerable. When your nerves lose all sensitivity, you become your own worst enemy, not realizing the damage you’re causing to your own body. You could literally rub your eyes blind.

Eventually, you lose your ability to see, and then you lose your ability to feel, and suddenly, you’re living in a senseless world. The only way to know what you’re holding in your hands is to find any remaining, stubbornly sensitive part of your body—perhaps a quarter-inch stretch of your lips or an eighth-inch spot on your cheek—and try to guess from the texture and the weight what it is you’re carrying.

Even apart from the macabre appearance of a leprosy victim, no one wants to end up alienated from the world, so most people kept an understandably wide berth around lepers. It was one of the most feared diseases of its time. “During my life of sin,” Francis wrote, “nothing disgusted me like seeing victims of leprosy.”

Exuberant in his newfound faith and with joy flooding his soul—and remembering he was now to love and even treasure those things he formerly loathed—Francis chose not to run from the leper, as he would have done earlier in his life. Instead, he leaped from his horse, knelt in front of the leper, and proceeded to kiss the diseased white hand.

He kissed it.

Francis then further astonished the leper by giving him money. But even that wasn’t enough. No, Francis was determined to “drink great sweetness” from what he formerly loathed, so he jumped back on his horse and rode to a neighboring leper colony. Francis “begged their pardon for having so often despised them” and, after giving them money, refused to leave until he had kissed each one of them, joyfully receiving the touch of their pale, encrusted lips. Only then did Francis jump back on his horse to go on his way.

In that indelible moment, Francis’ faith became incarnate. His belief didn’t just inspire him; it transformed him.

Francis’ initial conversion was invisible, exhibited only in the changed expression on his face. That’s as far as many of us ever go—a superficial change of mind in response to a compelling argument for faith. This act was astonishingly explicit—a grotesquely gorgeous parable of a radically changed man. The very instant Francis’s lips touched the leper, what could have been merely a religion crumbled under the weight of a new way of life. The horse no longer carried a man; that beast transported a saint, whose example continues to challenge us yet today.

Knowing the dynamic witness of a young Francis, I feel embarrassed at how small-minded we can be when discussing the Christian faith with young people today. The apostle Paul exalted life in Christ as the most exciting and compelling life anyone could choose. In a marvelous take on 2 Timothy 4:7 (MSG), Eugene Peterson recounts Paul telling Timothy, “This is the only race worth running.”

Today’s believers often lose touch with this sense of the glory of being a Christian. We settle for so little—a tame religion, a few rituals, maybe even an occasional miraculous answer to prayer—and so pass our lives without understanding our true identity in Christ, embracing our calling as God’s children or fulfilling our divine purpose.

Is the Christianity taught today large enough to seize our hearts? Does its promise of transformation so compel us that we would give all we have to take hold of it?

Most of us have heard the modern translation of 2 Timothy 4:7 that says, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” An Orthodox monk has pointed out that this is a “strikingly Greek” expression that may best be understood as “I have fought the Beautiful Fight.”What a mesmerizing twist of a phrase! We can easily think of what is beautiful, and our minds can quickly grasp what constitutes a fight.

But putting the two together? A beautiful fight?

Here’s the brilliance of it all: in the Christian life of real transformation and sacrificial service, there is drama, passion, struggle, and vision—everything our souls need to feel alive. And yet compare this exaltation of the Christian life with how it often gets presented today. Far too frequently, Christianity becomes a list of prohibitions.

I’ll never forget talking with one young woman, who said: “Why would I ever want to become a Christian? All they want me to do is dump all the good music from my iPod and wear ugly clothes.” Her words tell me that, at least in our preaching if not in our minds, we have lost our vision for the glorious, transforming presence of Jesus Christ—how He really makes a difference. This transformation goes well beyond a few instances of slightly modified behavior.

Sadly, holiness is practically a wrecked word outside the church. As I write these lines, yet another nationally known pastor has seen his scandalous conduct exposed, confirming the suspicions of so many who think that Christians are pitiful creatures of self-hatred who secretly crave what we most vigorously speak against.

Frankly, I don’t fault the world for celebrating our hypocrisy. I fault us for defining the faith by what we’re not supposed to do, setting ourselves up for constant humiliation. If that’s what they know us for, if that’s what they hear us saying, then we have neither lived nor preached in a way that showcases God’s glory.

Let me ask you—what do you most think about when someone mentions the word holiness? Does it refer to the words you use or don’t use, where you go or don’t go on the Internet, how you express or don’t express your sexuality? What is a holy person? And then ask yourself, can a few prohibitions like this adequately describe the powerful presence of a Francis?

Without this sense of a powerfully transforming faith, we get stuck on lesser battles and smaller aims. We do this primarily by reducing our faith to a set of intellectual beliefs and a list of forbidden practices. Now, doctrine is enormously important, as is morality. But doctrine alone isn’t enough. (“Even the demons believe [the doctrine that there is one God] — and shudder” [James 2:19].) And my problem with those who put so much emphasis on moralism is not that they go too far but that they don’t go nearly far enough. They mistake the means for the end.

Francis would be likely, in today’s world, to spend his time getting drunk, cussing out inconsiderate drivers or frittering away his time on salacious Internet searches. But you could never define him by these restraints. On the contrary, in his day he became known for what he was, not for what he wasn’t.

Here’s the challenge of a small-minded faith based only on prohibitions: we still sin. If a successful Christian is defined by what she or he doesn’t do, we’re all in trouble, because the Bible tells us that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2). Preaching mere moralism is the surest way to tire people out, because in one sense we’re all going to fall short of the ideal, and in another sense, spending our lives trying not to do something is far less than we were created for. If our goal in life is primarily to avoid something, then at best we’ll achieve nothing. Such a faith will never capture our hearts. If a young woman won’t even empty her iPod for that faith, why would she ever give up her life for it?

Incarnational spirituality—the living, reigning and ascended Jesus living through us and transforming us into different people—does not exist to uphold a few rules but rather speaks of a process that creates an entirely new person who sees with new eyes, feels with a new heart, hears with renewed ears, and lives with a new passion. It is, I believe, the only life worth living.

You’ve probably heard many sermons and read many books on what you shouldn’t be and shouldn’t do. This book seeks to paint a portrait of what you can become. Our creator God is eager to splash His glory on us. The apostle Peter promises us that “[God’s] divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness” so that we “may participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4).

God didn’t create you not to do something; if that had been His goal, He never would have formed you, because if you never existed, you never would have sinned. God made each of us in His image, and He wants us to recapture that image, to surrender to His work in our lives so that we “will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lordfor the display of his splendor” (Is. 61:3).

I pray that we will settle for nothing less than the return of this splendor. Holy Available explores how faith in Jesus Christ can be radically different from and better than what we are currently experiencing. Christianity as a spiritual journey is not simply defined by what we believe or how we behave but is marked profoundly by who we are. It is a different type of transformation—a transformation of being, not just allegiance; a transformation of experience, not just confession; a transformation of existence, not just adherence. It is a return to splendor—for the glory of God.

Perhaps the worst moment in an already sordid history came when Jeff went on a “spiritual” retreat. After years of a daily battle with lust, he decided to get away and focus on the Lord.

During the drive down to his parent’s cabin, Jeff felt that familiar stir, the inexorable pull of illicit excitement that lust promises to provide. He knew he would be alone for the weekend, and the sexual temptation seemed to seize the opportunity. “I knew I should go back right then,” Jeff remembers.

But he didn’t. When Jeff arrived at the house, he found some “smut” novels. All thought of prayer and Scripture was eclipsed as Jeff once again lost himself in the world of pornography.

In his book The Sexual Man, Dr. Archibald Hart reports that almost all (94%) of the six hundred “good men with strong religious leanings” he studied had been exposed to pornography, and only six percent said that “they had escaped its influence.” Mitchell Whitman, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology (whose studies have specialized in sexual deviance), affirms, “In my experience of working with many Christian men, the use of pornography is a very common problem,” particularly among single men.

Porn has become so commercially successful and mainstream that it even has its own industry trade publication, Adult Video News, which claims that the number of rented X-rated videos rose from 75 million in 1985 to 490 million in 1992 to 665 million in 1996. In 1996, over eight billion dollars were teased out of consumers’ hands to purchase time in the presence of sex and nudity: videos, peep shows, live sex acts, sex toys, magazines, cable stations, hotel room adult channels, and sexually-explicit books. In fact, as Peter Kreeft notes, if a successful revival completely wiped out lust in our country, “we would be plunged into the greatest economic depression in history.”

The profit found in producing nude images hasn’t been lost on Broadway. When it was announced that Nicole Kidman would appear au natural in the Broadway play The Blue Room, tickets were sold out before the first show opened. The even more explicit play Closer opened on Broadway March 28. A Vanity Fair writer states, “Knifingly explicit, Closer is further proof that the addictive shortcuts of pornography have entered not only the cultural mainstream, but the bloodstream as well.”

Even more disturbing, recent technological advances have brought porn into most homes and apartments. The anonymity provided by the internet has wreaked havoc on otherwise sincere Christians. Whitman notes, “It’s one thing to drive your car to an adult book store and have to look around to see if anybody is watching before you walk in. In that case, there’s an immediate reinforcement of shame. The entire process of obtaining the porn entails numerous barriers that have to be overcome. On the internet, there is a component of confidentiality and secrecy, even though technically it’s not really anonymous. The barriers that once existed are no longer there.” The fight against using sexually-explicit material has become an all-out war for many Christians.

Sexual Static

Andy Farmer, a singles’ pastor at Covenant Fellowship in Philadelphia, unmasks some of the lies single men often tell themselves to “excuse” their use of pornography:

“I’ve got sexual urges. God hasn’t given me a way to release these, so what else am I supposed to do?”

“I had another lousy day at work with my jerk boss. I just need to enjoy myself for a little bit, and this is the only way I have available.”

“Another Friday night and I don’t have a date. I’ve tried to relate to women and be friendly, but it gets me nothing. This is better than nothing.” “My problem isn’t as bad as Ed’s; as long as I use porn less than him, I’m okay.”

Whitman warns that many single men erroneously believe that marriage will solve their sexual lust problems and wipe out their thirst for pornography. “My counseling experience demonstrates consistently that men who used porn as singles re-started their use of pornography after they were married.”

Farmer urges men to consider the spiritual consequences of using pornography: “An immediate consequence is damage in your relationship to God. Many men never make that connection. They wonder why prayer seems so barren when they’re tolerating these kinds of indulgences on the side.”

A second consequence is less sensitivity to sin. “There is a redrawing of lines,” Farmer says. “What once was considered sin is now redefined as ‘okay in moderation.'” Just as serious, according to Farmer, is the deception that an addiction to pornography brings into someone’s life. “By nature, using pornography is inherently deceptive, the habit grows in the dark.” It leads men to lie, cover up, and make false denials.

Whitman adds that the use of pornography inevitably attacks one’s view of self. “There’s a loss of integrity, and it compromises our ability to speak out on moral issues.” As Christians, we are called to be proclaimers of the Gospel, but, as Whitman points out, “Proclamation in part is truth lived out, and the use of pornography compromises this.” When we hold on to a secret sin, it radically challenges our central mission in life–testifying to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.

Whitman has found that pornography also “entails an objectification of women.” In this, it cuts two ways. When men use porn to mask the pain of not being in a real relationship, it takes away energy and initiative that would otherwise be spent in meeting a real woman and building genuine intimacy. When men are already in a relationship, they will be hindered by the fact that their use of porn has reinforced a fantasy to which no real woman could possibly live up.

Farmer agrees, reminding men that using porn inevitably shapes a man’s view of sex and women, leading to serious consequences in marriage. “Many men have told me they didn’t believe using pornography affected their view of sex very much–until they got married.”

After Jeff came clean and lived without porn for several months, his girlfriend told him she noticed that he was far more “grateful” for her–and it wasn’t until then that Jeff realized how his use of pornographic images had distorted his view of the woman who means more to him than anyone else in the world.

“The Bible presents a view of sex which is self-giving,” Farmer points out. “This is the opposite of porn, which is self-gratification. If a man indulges this sin, when he gets married his orientation toward sex will remain self-gratification. In a marriage like that, sex can be little more than extended masturbation, and his wife just a means to that end.”

Farmer tells his singles, “Self-gratification through using pornography is the opposite of what God intended, not a premature enjoyment of what God intended.”

Even secular sources are recognizing that porn brings consequences. One of the themes of the new Broadway play Closer, according to reviewer James Wolcott, is that “Men have gotten so hooked on the porn reels in their heads that interfacing with actual women proves disruptive–it garbles up the tapes.”

This, indeed, is one of porn’s great dangers–crippling Christian men, sexually, before they get married, making a real relationship problematic, at best.

The Lure

Jeff’s introduction to pornography came early, back in junior high (which is a typical age, according to Whitman). One of his first memories is when some football buddies played a pornographic movie for their friends. Jeff was launched into a near constant pursuit for sexually stimulating material. If he could get hold of a Playboy, he would, but department store catalogues, television, even memories of women at the beach provided enough stimulation when nothing else was available.

“Sexual materials are multiple in our society,” Whitman points out. “Some materials, such as department store catalogues or Victoria Secret advertisements, are not pornographic, but they can be used pornographically.”

In all other respects, Jeff appeared to be a conscientious Christian. “People would look at me and say, ‘that guy is really passionate about God,'” Jeff says, “but they couldn’t see the underlying sin.”

At times Jeff would share his struggles with his single buddies, but since many of them battled the same sin, it never seemed that serious, even as his sin became a near-daily collapse. It got to the point where Jeff no longer even pretended to struggle–he just gave in. Coming home from college, Jeff purposely stayed up late, waited until his parents went to bed, and surfed the channels, looking for stimulating images. There were brief “vacations” from lust. Sometimes, Jeff could make himself go one or even two weeks without fantasizing, but there was never “any heart change.” “I kept telling myself I would change eventually,” Jeff remembers, but eventually never came. Yet by the time I talked to him, he had gone over a year without falling in this area. What happened?

The Path to Freedom

Jeff began his victory by taking his sin seriously. He was almost forced into it. One night, his roommate came home and nearly caught him in an embarrassing situation. Jeff managed to cover up what had happened, and lied when his roommate asked him what was wrong.

Finally, that same night, he just got tired of lying, sinning, and feeling guilty. Jeff went to his room, wrote out a full confession, and read it to his roommate. He was blessed by a roommate who took his confession seriously, insisting that Jeff talk to his pastor. When Jeff did so, he was led into a time of serious, holy conviction. His pastor helped him see how he had deceived his parents, his girlfriend, and members of the church. Together, they decided that Jeff needed to tell his girlfriend about his daily struggle, as the two of them were seriously considering marriage.

“It was a night I won’t forget,” Jeff recalls. Sitting in a mall parking lot, Jeff had to tell her he wasn’t the man she thought he was. As his girlfriend wept, Jeff gave her the freedom to leave the relationship, but she said she wanted to work through it.

Jeff also confessed what he had been doing to his parents. Since he had been in their house, he felt they needed to know. He was tired of the deception, weary of living in the darkness, and wanted to be in the light.It was a humbling, convicting, difficult time. But all the empty promises and “some-day-I’ll-deal-with-this” excuses had convinced him that a half-effort wouldn’t work–he had to take his problem seriously and act decisively. Whitman is also a proponent of confession. “If you’re struggling with pornography, talk to somebody about it,” he urges. “Don’t keep it a secret. Men usually think, ‘I can handle it,’ but the reality is, you can’t. You keep doing it and that’s evidence enough that you have a problem.”

As a second step, Whitman encourages men to recognize that pornography can function like an addiction. “It can be helpful to use the principles that help an individual break any kind of addictive behavior,” he adds, recommending that those who need more help in this area consult Gerald May’s book Addiction and Grace. Whitman has concerns about the “excuse” use of addiction, but believes May’s book provides helpful steps to address problem behavior.

Jeff also takes issue with addiction terminology. “I believe the addiction phraseology is unhelpful for change because it takes the responsibility of sinning off the sinner and places it on a supposed ‘addiction.’ What helped me was that I was confronted with the fact that I was fully responsible for and guilty of sinning against God and needed to cry out to Him for mercy. That is when I received His grace, love, and forgiveness for my sin and was granted the power to change.”

Andy Farmer recommends Jerry Bridge’s Discipline of Grace, stressing that it’s important not to “just be a behaviorist” but to get at underlying issues. “Men who use pornography are in some sense struggling with God’s authority. Pornography can be a convenient rebellion.”

Whitman agrees. “Change in this area entails…addressing the underlying roots. It usually involves dealing with issues such as loneliness, depression, isolation, stress, and losses and grief.”

Farmer also notes that a man’s propensity to use porn can build from “little” compromises that set him up for a bigger fall. “If I go to the beach and I spend my time looking at women in bathing suits and don’t guard my eyes, it’s not inevitable that that will lead to more temptations, but if an opportunity presents itself after that I’ll be more inclined to indulge myself.”

For some men, every time they flip through the television channels or surf the internet, they are desensitizing themselves and becoming increasingly vulnerable to sexual indulgence. That’s one of the reasons Farmer recommends single men don’t live alone.

“Men are so inundated with sexual images in our society that single men in particular are doing battle daily. It’s going to be very difficult to face this alone. The guys I know who experience some degree of success in battling this are in relationships with other guys who confess their sins to each other.”

Too often, men struggling with pornography are focused on becoming unlike the devil rather than like Christ. It is important to “take off” the sinful garment, but Scripture encourages us to focus on “putting on” the new garment–the virtues of Christ. When we allow sin in any one area to stain our soul, we become weaker in all areas. Conversely, when we grow in honesty, humility, patience, and love, we become stronger in all areas.

Ultimately, victory over pornography will be enhanced when a person doesn’t just focus on overcoming lust, but on becoming like Christ in all their attitudes and actions. This is a moment by moment decision over many things that have absolutely nothing to do with sex. When you practice humility and patience all day long, looking to serve others and put them first because that’s what Christ would do, it seems out of character to then act like the devil late at night when you’re by yourself.

Train yourself in godliness throughout the day, and you’ll likely find that the sin which had such a strong hold on you will lose much of its power and even, over time, much of its allure.

A New Habit

Jeff’s addiction to lust almost cost him everything–his reputation, his relationship with his girlfriend, his call to enter the ministry. But today he is grateful to God he can say, “It has been a year and four months with absolutely no relapse.” Though lust had a strong pull on his life, he now realizes it made his life worse, not better.

While Jeff had a definite ending to his use of pornographic images, other men have gained victory over time. A one-time “deliverance” is unusual, according to Whitman. “Normally, behavioral self-control and the re-training of the mind involves incremental steps and reflects the process of sanctification.”

Most men who experience freedom in this area do so by taking the sin seriously, acting decisively, and involving another brother to help them him make the right choices and go through the process of repentance and training in godliness.

“The struggle with pornography can be like mountain climbing in an avalanche,” Farmer notes. “The things coming at us–from the world around us and from our temptations within–can seem overwhelming. But when we remember that our Guide has been ‘tempted in every way’ but did not fall, we can have confidence that He will lead us along the safe paths and steady us when we stumble.”

In Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising talks about the bitterness that remains in his soul over how he and his countrymen were treated by the Nazis: “If you could lick my heart,” he says, “it would poison you.” Researchers are finding that this Holocaust survivor’s sentiment is not necessarily metaphorical.

While the biblical practice of forgiveness is usually preached as a Christian obligation, social scientists are discovering that forgiveness may help lead to victims’ emotional and even physical healing and wholeness. Academic interest in person-to-person forgiveness is relatively new. As recently as the early eighties, Dr. Glen Mack Harnden went to the University of Kansas library and looked up the word ‘forgiveness’ in Psychological Abstracts. He couldn’t find a single reference. This earlier neglect is being remedied at a startling pace. Former President Jimmy Carter, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot, among others, are co-chairing a $10 million “Campaign for Forgiveness Research,” established as a non-profit corporation to attract donations to support forgiveness research proposals.

In May of 1998, the John Templeton Foundation awarded research grants for the study of forgiveness to twenty-nine scientists. Some of the projects now being funded include Forgiveness After Organizational Downsizing; Forgiveness in Family Relationships; Secular and Spiritual Forgiveness Interventions for Recovering Alcoholics; The Effects of Forgiveness on the Physical and Psychological Development of Severely Traumatized Females; Forgiveness, Health, and Well-Being in the Lives of Post-Collegiate Young Adults; Challenges to Forgiveness in Marriage; and Healing, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation in Rwanda.

Through these and other studies, researchers are trying to determine the parameters of how the spiritual act of forgiveness can promote personal, interrelational, and social well-being. Dr. Harnden is enthusiastic about the personal benefits of forgiveness. “It not only heightens the potential for reconciliation,” he says, “but also releases the offender from prolonged anger, rage, and stress that have been linked to physiological problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, hypertension, cancer, and other psychosomatic illness.”

Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is president of the International Forgiveness Institute and thus at the forefront of interpersonal forgiveness research. Together with philosopher Joanna North, Enright writes about forgiveness’ benefits to society. “It is an obvious fact that we live in a world where violence, hatred, and animosity surround us on all sides….We hear much about the ‘social’ causes of crime–poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy, for example. We sometimes hear about the need for tolerance and cooperation, compassion and understanding. But almost never do we hear public leaders declaring their belief that forgiveness can bring people together, heal their wounds, and alleviate the bitterness and resentment caused by wrongdoing.”

Enright and North believe that “forgiveness might be useful in helping those who have been affected by cruelty, crime, and violence, and…might play a valuable role in reconciling warring parties and restoring harmony between people.”

The Studies

In 1990, a young mother of three pled for her life after being confronted by an assailant wearing combat fatigues. “Please don’t shoot me,” she whimpered. The murderer cold-heartedly fired anyway, fatally killing the woman. The assailant made so many mistakes in covering up her crime that had the situation not been so tragic, it would have been comic. She sloppily disposed of her clothing and weapon. Colorado Springs police had her in custody within twenty-four hours. Shortly thereafter, they also arrested the victim’s husband after determining that the two had been having an affair.

Sydna Masse lived behind the murdered woman. When she heard about the killing, she responded with hate and rage. “I had a dead friend and now lived behind three motherless kids. I felt I had every right to hate the murderer who caused this.” Sydna grew “physically hot” when the murderer’s name–Jennifer–was even mentioned or her picture was flashed on television. “For awhile, I couldn’t even read the newspaper articles,” she admits. Sydna’s hate wasn’t a solitary affair. “The whole city and state hated her,” she says. Jennifer’s life sentence did little to ameliorate Sydna’s passion. “There was no relief in her sentencing.

That’s the thing with hatred and bitterness–it eats you alive. Every time I passed the house, I missed Diane and became angry all over again.” Shortly after Jennifer received her sentence, Sydna began going through a Bible study which included a chapter on forgiveness. Sydna prayerfully asked God who she needed to forgive, and in her words, “Jennifer’s name came right to my head. I literally did a whiplash and protested, ‘No way I can forgive her. She killed my friend! She killed a mother of three!”

In spite of her reluctance, Sydna finally acquiesced and wrote a carefully crafted letter to Jennifer, expressing her forgiveness. She was caught by surprise by what happened inside her. As soon as Sydna dropped the letter into the mail, “a weight lifted. I felt like I was losing twenty pounds. That’s when I learned that anger, bitterness and unforgiveness keeps you from experiencing the depths of joy.” Sydna’s experience is right in line with what researchers are finding for a wide range of demographics.

In Drs. Coyle’s and Enright’s 1997 study (University of Wisconsin-Madison) on forgiveness as an intervention goal with post-abortion men, researchers sought to determine whether men who identify themselves as having been hurt by an abortion can benefit from a “structured psychological intervention designed to facilitate forgiveness.” The psychological processes involve twenty delineated steps, including confronting anger, a willingness to consider forgiveness as an option, acceptance of the pain, and the participant realizing that he has needed others’ forgiveness in the past. After leading subjects through this process, researchers found significant decreases in clients’ anxiety, anger, and grief.

Al-Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis published a study in 1995 (Journal of Moral Education, Vol. 24, No. 4) examining forgiveness education with college students who judged themselves to be parentally love-deprived. The college students who underwent the more rigorous program had “improved psychological health,” including improved self-esteem, hope, and lowered trait anxiety.

In a study among elderly females, Hebl and Enright found that there was a significant decrease in depression and anxiety among those who participated in their forgiveness program (although the control group experienced some of the same benefits). Furthermore, the researchers found that the elderly women who participated in their study not only used forgiveness skills to reconcile with a single person, but “also to consider more deliberately forgiveness as a social problem-solving strategy.”

Numerous other studies are in progress, many of them headquartered at the unlikely address of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW).

The Father of Forgiveness Research

Dr. Bob Enright of UW is the undisputed father of forgiveness research. He was raised a Roman Catholic, “fell away” from the faith, entered it once again through Methodism, took a journey through evangelicalism, and now is back in Catholicism. He describes himself as an “evangelical Catholic, if there is such a thing.”

In 1985, Enright had finally climbed to the top rung of his profession. He was a full tenured professor, “sitting at the top of the heap,” he says, but getting bored with the mainstream of research on which he focused. “The field of moral development was not going anywhere,” he says. At that time he was bringing in the customary one or two grants a year, but finding nothing that was exciting enough to keep him sufficiently engaged.

“I was enduring a tremendous dissatisfaction with the way I thought my field was going. We were not reaching out to every-day people the way I hoped we would. I wanted to find something in the area of morals that could be of tremendous benefit to others. I took it so seriously that after a sabbatical in 1984, I dumped all my research over a cliff, so to speak, and boy am I glad I did.”

As Enright wrestled with how moral research could actually benefit others, his Christian background ignited a small fire. “I kept asking myself, ‘if the social sciences are supposed to be part of the helping profession, and if the wisdom of the ages–the Hebrew-Christian Bible–is replete with wonderful stories about the success of person-to-person forgiveness, why haven’t the social sciences never thought to study forgiveness as a primary investigation?'” It was his academic “aha!” moment.

When Enright looked into the research literature, he was shocked at the complete absence of any empirical studies examining such a practice. “I was very naive,” he remembers. “I thought there would be something, but there literally was not one study published on the topic [of person-to-person forgiveness] in the social sciences. I would occasionally see the word, but no study focused on it.”

As soon as Enright embarked on his new field of endeavor, he was struck by the dichotomy of his work’s reception. “Everyday people” were intrigued and delighted when he raised the topic. But the academic world was entirely a different matter. “Academic eyes would glaze over ninety percent of the time. Nine percent had hate-filled eyes. One percent was delighted.” The gatekeeper of research is funding, so Enright began applying for grants. His first idea was to go into prisons and help prisoners learn how to forgive others who had wronged them, with the long-term view that by doing this, prisoners might experience empathy for their victims. It was sort of a back-door approach to help prisoners understand how their actions can plague others. The response couldn’t have been less encouraging.

“During one interview, I had a wonderful, hour-long talk with a man who held an editorship from a major psychology journal. Afterwards, he confided to me, ‘This is so creative and important, I’m going to rate this number one.'” Three months later, however, the rejection letter arrived. Enright called the editor, who was “rather embarrassed and very hesitant.” When pressed, the editor admitted, “Bob, once I got into the group meeting, they completely and thoroughly trashed your idea.”

“What did they say?” Bob asked. “People were angry. ‘You should never give money for research with prisoners to teach them how to forgive!’ they said. ‘If anything, prisoners should ask forgiveness of us!'” Enright was discouraged. “I thought, that’s been the problem. We’ve never tried it the other way. I wanted to prime the pump by having prisoners learn to forgive first and then maybe they’d ask for forgiveness themselves.”

The next year, Enright applied for the same grant with essentially the same project. This time, the interview with the preeminent psychologist took all of ten minutes. “Bob,” he warned, “you do know you’re going to have trouble for the rest of your career with this study of forgiveness, don’t you?” For nearly a decade, Enright endured the academic equivalent of a “shunning.” He didn’t receive a single dollar of grant money, which is academia’s way of saying, “Whatever this man is doing isn’t very important.” “It was very embarrassing,” Enright admits. It is even more surprising that Enright stayed with it, considering that the school at which he teaches isn’t particularly interested in the Christian tradition.

“There isn’t a single course on Christianity, per se, at the university,” Enright points out. ” You can major in various religious beliefs, but as far as I know, you can’t take a course on Christianity.”

A fellow believer found out what Enright was doing and exclaimed, “How could you study a topic like forgiveness at the UWM, of all places? You’re either stubborn as a mule or you’re Holy Spirit inspired.”

“I think it’s probably both,” Enright laughs today. “Without tenacity, you couldn’t do this sort of thing.”

After Enright worked for a decade receiving little attention and no money, The Chicago Tribune catapulted him and his brainchild–the International Forgiveness Institute–into the public’s awareness (just as the Los Angeles Times broke the story on Billy Graham over fifty years ago). A reporter wrote an article on Enright and his institute (which at that time was more an idea than a reality), placing the story in the women’s section. The article elicited over 300 calls. “My wife [Nancy] wanted to put the phone out in the woods!” Enright quips. “We realized we were on to something, and [the calls] forced our hand to get the institute going.”

Enright started publishing a newsletter, set up a web site, and kept publishing findings in his field. Finally, the funding caught up to the public’s interest, and with the aforementioned grants, forgiveness research is now a relatively lucrative field of endeavor. “God has a sense of humor,” Enright explains of the grants freely flowing to his fellow academics.

In fact, just recently, the Mendota Mental Health Center, a world-renowned mental health institute, approached Enright about an intriguing idea to help rehabilitate criminals. “Perhaps we could teach them how to forgive first, and then see if that builds empathy for them to seek forgiveness?” Enright responded that he thought the idea was definitely worth exploring.

The Spiritual Father of Forgiveness Research

A book that caught Enright’s attention early on was Lewis Smedes’ 1984 publication Forgive and Forget. “Prior to Lewis Smedes in 1984,” Enright says, “if you collected every theological book about person-to-person forgiveness [as opposed to divine-human forgiveness], you could hold them all in one hand.”

Dr. Mack Harnden was also motivated by Smedes’ seminal work. Fifteen years later, he still can pinpoint the day. “On April 20, 1985, I heard Lewis Smedes speak in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on the topic of forgiveness. That speech directed the future course of my life because I felt that forgiveness is the core, most significant factor in both spiritual and psychological healing.”

Initially, Dr. Smedes set out to write a general book on the theological aspect of forgiveness, but soon discovered that “almost everything that was written about forgiveness was about how God forgives sinful people and how they can experience his forgiveness.” As he reflected on the Gospel, it occurred to Smedes that “forgiving fellow human beings for wrongs done to them was close to the quintessence of Christian experience. And, more, that the inability to forgive other people was a cause of added misery to the one who was wronged in the first place.” Wanting, then, to focus on person-to-person forgiveness, Smedes felt he might receive some help from “the literature of psychology,” but soon discovered that psychologists were apparently even less interested in the topic than theologians had been.

The questions Smedes went into his writing with were: “How does forgiveness work? What goes on in one’s mind and spirit when she sets out to forgive someone? What happens after forgiveness? What good comes of it?” He found that in the past, “Human forgiveness had been seen as a religious obligation of love that we owe to the person who has offended us. The discovery that I made was the important benefit that forgiving is to the forgiver. And this is where I think the link between the psychological research and my book is.”

This is precisely the thought that has captured the imagination of social scientists. Smedes presents a real-world view of forgiveness. Rather than seeing the aim of forgiveness as exclusively reconciliation, it becomes a matter of self-preservation. “Ideally,” Smedes says, “forgiving brings reconciliation, but not always. Reconciliation depends on the response of the person who injured someone and is forgiven. But that person may tell the forgiver to take his forgiveness and shove it down the toilet. Indeed, there is never a real reconciliation unless the wronged person first heals herself by forgiving the person who wronged her. “Does that render forgiveness invalid? Not at all.

The first person who gains from forgiveness is the person who does the forgiving and the first person injured by the refusal to forgive is the one who was wronged in the first place.” The same element of forgiveness that seized the attention of social scientists elicited criticism from some theologians. “Some theologians have said my book is an example of egoistic faith,” Smedes admits. “They refer to it as ‘therapeutic forgiveness.’ Yet the very thing that some theologians have criticized in my approach has been taken up by the healing community as a highly significant and promising mode of healing, perhaps the most important element of all.”

Smedes believes that “untold pain is brought about in the world by people’s unwillingness to forgive and the corresponding passion to get even. All you have to do is look at Yugoslavia today and you know that that’s true.”

The Process of Forgiveness

Though Sydna Masse forgave Diane for murdering her friend, she did so initially out of a sense of obligation. “What I didn’t expect was what I got in return,” she says today. Just days after mailing her letter to Jennifer, Sydna received a response. “I’m sorry for killing your friend,” Jennifer wrote. When Sydna read these words, “It hit me like a thunderbolt. I didn’t realize I needed to hear that.” But she did.

As a pen-pal relationship grew, Sydna realized that what she once viewed as an obligation–forgiving Jennifer–ended up ministering to her in some profound ways. She admits that if she hadn’t forgiven first, Jennifer never could have repented to her, as Jennifer didn’t even know Sydna existed. Ironically, Jennifer began ministering to Sydna through her letters. “For some reason, her letters always came on dark days for me. Jennifer became one of my greatest encouragers.”

Over time, Sydna began to consider Jennifer a friend “just as much as I had considered Diane a friend.” Though Sydna’s process was undertaken without the assistance of a psychological model, the results she experienced are what many researchers are after, though there are real problems to overcome. For instance, how can you measure that forgiveness has really taken place–which you need to do to establish that its attainment produces concrete benefits?

This is the concern of Dr. L. Gregory Jones, Dean of the Divinity School and Professor of Theology at Duke University. While encouraged by the appearance of forgiveness as a topic of research, Dr. Jones has some concerns.

He has seen some studies that are very well done, but he has also seen others that use “a largely disembodied therapeutic model of forgiveness that focuses on isolated individuals–the kind of self help discussion that may have made forgiveness a fad in contemporary culture but will lack the staying power, conceptually and theologically, for it to last over time.” Jones adds, “Forgiveness studies need to focus on people in relationship, both on the need to forgive and on the need to be forgiven.

This is, I think, one of the major features of Christian forgiveness that is lacking in a lot of popular descriptions of forgiveness. They focus only on the need to forgive, where Christian forgiveness emphasizes that we need consistently to understand our need for forgiveness.” In the “more problematic” studies, Jones says, “forgiveness is assumed to have happened simply when someone uses words of forgiveness.” He doesn’t believe it’s that simple. “Forgiveness is not an all or nothing affair. It involves the healing of brokenness, and involves words, emotions, and actions.

If persons continue to have feelings of bitterness toward another, there may not be the fullness of forgiveness, but that doesn’t mean there is no forgiveness. Rather, the persons are involved in a timeful process.” The “better studies,” according to Jones, recognize forgiveness as a “complex process.” “There are lots of forgiveness backsliders,” he points out. This brings us to the basic and crucial point. What exactly is forgiveness?

In the study by Al Mabuk, Enright, and Cardis, forgiveness is defined as “one’s merciful response to someone who has unjustly hurt. In forgiving, the person overcomes negative affect (such as resentment), cognition (such as harsh judgments) and behavior (such as revenge-seeking) toward the injurer, and substitutes more positive affect, cognition, and behavior toward him or her.”

Forgiveness is distinguished from justice “in that the latter involves reciprocity of some kind, whereas forgiveness is an unconditional gift given to one who does not deserve it.” Many of the researchers work off a standard twofold definition: forgiveness is releasing the other person from retaliation and wishing the other person well. Smedes prefers a tripartite definition. “The first thing one does in forgiving is surrender the right to get even with the person who wronged us,” he says. “Secondly, we must reinterpret the person who wronged us in a larger format.”

This, Smedes says, is to help us avoid creating a “caricature” of the person who wronged us. “In the act of forgiving, we get a new picture of a needy, weak, complicated, fallible human being like ourselves.” Smedes’ third step is “a gradual desire for the welfare of the person who injured us.” Jones points out the traditional difference between Christian and Jewish notions of forgiveness. “Jesus tells his disciples that they are authorized and sometimes obligated to forgive in his name. For Jews, only victims can forgive.”

Harnden adds that “forgiveness does not preclude the enforcement of healthy and natural consequences on the offender….Whenever an individual offends another, the offender gives up a certain degree of power in determining his or her own destiny with the power being given over to the offended.” This is something with which Smedes would agree. “Some people view forgiveness as a cheap avoidance of justice, a plastering over of wrong, a sentimental make believe. If forgiveness is a whitewashing of wrong, then it is itself wrong. Nothing that whitewashes evil can be good. It can be good only if it is a redemption from the effects of evil, not a make believing that the evil never happened.” It is the element of fighting evil that has some social scientists looking at forgiveness as a political tool, one that was put to good use in Yugoslavia.

Arresting the Violence

“It’s one thing to believe in miracles, it’s another to be part of one,” says Roy Lloyd, a founding board member of the International Forgiveness Institute and the broadcast news director for the National Council of Churches. Lloyd was part of a fifteen-member delegation that traveled to Yugoslavia during April of 1999 in a successful attempt to get three captured American soldiers released. Though the media widely portrayed the “rescue mission” as a Jesse Jackson media stunt, it was actually co-led by Jackson and Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches. Some years ago, Lloyd and Campbell had several discussions about the role of forgiveness in healing social wrongs in the wake of church burnings.

One young man, who had been convicted of setting fire to a church, was visited by several pastors during his imprisonment and ultimately made a profession of faith. Upon his release, he returned to the church and publicly asked for their forgiveness. The church members surrounded the man and prayed for God to bless him. Following this experience, both Campbell and Lloyd were eager to apply the principles of forgiveness research to the problems in Yugoslavia. Campbell and Jackson’s delegation transcended religious lines– Mainline Protestant Christians, Roman Catholics, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and Muslims all took part. “A number of our basic premises were very important,” Lloyd says.

“All throughout the trip you heard people from our delegation saying that the cycle of violence needs to be broken and that past injuries shouldn’t dictate the present or the future. Forgiveness is first of all a gift that you give to yourself. You shouldn’t allow something that happened to you or your ancestors long ago to continue injuring you. The most important thing is wishing the best for yourself as well as for others. In that process, you and those with whom you interact are freed from what has been, and can envision what might be.” Lloyd heard both Campbell and Jackson voice these sentiments on several different occasions, but he became slightly disillusioned by a media that he describes as “narrow minded and lazy.”

On one occasion, Jackson urged reporters to pay careful attention to a rabbi within the delegation, but as soon as Jackson stepped away from the microphone, “the television lights went off. They had their soundbite and didn’t want anything more, even though they were missing a major part of the story.”

That “story,” according to Lloyd, is the role forgiveness played in helping to address the problems in Kosovo. “In meetings with the foreign secretary of Yugoslavia and other political leaders, we made points about how the violence needs to stop in Kosovo. We applied the principles of forgiveness research–that people are responsible, but that we shouldn’t look at others as enemies, but rather as friends if we want to break the cycle of violence.

Forgiveness of deeds long past needs to take place rather than repeating them. We need to envision the best for ourselves and for others, and in that everyone will find a peaceful future.” When members of the delegation met with Milosevic, they were well aware that negotiations weren’t really possible. “We had nothing to offer,” Lloyd admits, “other than a religious, spiritual, and humanitarian approach.” Without political leverage, the leaders spoke of the importance of forgiveness and doing the right thing.

“Our delegation told Milosevic that he was treated so poorly in the press because of what he had done. If he wanted to change the press, he had to change his ways.” According to Lloyd, all nine of Milosevic’s top advisors (several of whom had met with the Campbell/Jackson delegation) spoke with one voice: “Let the soldiers go.” Milosevic ultimately agreed with his advisors, but then it was his turn to practice forgiveness.

“On the very day [Milosevic promised the soldiers’ return], a busload of ethnic Albanians was hit by a bomb while crossing a bridge, killing dozens,” Lloyd remembers. “And then [NATO] bombed the ambulance that was going out to help them.” In spite of these events, Milosevic stayed true to his word. Lloyd says that the released soldiers practiced their own brand of forgiveness. “Each of the three young soldiers were very religious,” he points out, “and one of them, Christopher Stone, wouldn’t leave until he was allowed to go back to the soldier who served as his guard and pray for him.”

In spite of the political ramifications surrounding the delegation, according to Lloyd the fifteen members called themselves “the Religious Mission to Belgrade.” When Jackson finally received the news of the soldiers’ impending release, he held off reporters long enough to gather the delegation together for group prayer. While Lloyd advocates forgiveness, he still believes justice needs to be done in Yugoslavia. “Milosevic has done terrible, evil things,” he says. “One can forgive him, but one can also call for him to indeed be tried in the Hague for crimes against humanity.”

Enright is enthusiastic about Lloyd’s work. “I don’t know of any other instance,” he says, “where a social scientific research program has been able to use its findings to break into US history, and in such a positive way.”

Stories such as this one also reinforce Harnden’s belief that forgiveness has great -potential to solve many social problems, including crime. Retaliation or pursuing vengeance, he says, “often leads to the perpetuation of increasingly more severe retaliatory/violent response.” At an American Psychological Association meeting, Harden suggested that forgiveness, not retaliation, “represents the most strategic intervention in reducing violence in our society.”

Harnden points out that other methods have surely failed. Between 1960 and 1990, for instance, welfare spending increased by 631%, but violent crimes also increased–by 564%! Worldwide trends in violence are no more encouraging. Harnden quotes from research conducted by Don Shriver when he says that from the 1500s to 1800s–a period of four centuries–a total of 34.1 million were killed in war. In the last century alone (the 1900s), almost three times that many (107.8 million) have been similarly killed.

“Forgiveness stops the ongoing cycle of repaying vengeance with vengeance that appears to contribute to the perpetuation of an increasingly violent society,” Harnden says.

Thus for international, national, and even personal issues, researchers are finding that a practice taught by Jesus Christ two thousand years ago may be our most effective tool and response. “Forgiveness is a concept, a process, and a technology whose times has come,” Dr. Harnden told the American Psychological Conference in 1996. “It transcends religion and philosophy and will hopefully someday find its rightful place of prominence in the social, political, and healing arts as well as within the biochemical and neuropsychological sciences.”

Jones, for one, is “very encouraged” by the significant increase in forgiveness research. “The more we can find authentic modes for articulating Christian forgiveness beyond the bounds of the church the better off we all will be. We just need to make sure that the forgiveness being described and conceived is consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”