June 16, 2007
As I prepared myself for communion, the words penetrated like a surgeon’s scalpel: “On the night that Jesus was betrayed….”
Betrayal strikes at the very nerve center of our sense of reality. Betrayal, like cancer, hides under many guises … emotional, financial, political, intellectual and even spiritual. We can be betrayed by family, acquaintances, work colleagues or by institutions. But when an intimate soul friend or a spiritual leader violates our trust, we suffer a unique kind of spiritual betrayal. The Bible chronicles the treacherous betrayal of David by King Saul, a trusted father figure, and later by his own son, Absalom. Then, because of his affair with Bathsheba, David himself becomes the traitor! Whether as a victim or perpetrator, most of us will eventually have first-hand experience with betrayal.
All of my guards were down when the betrayal came to light. It left me breathless like a swimmer who has taken in too much water. The emotional air inside me was saturated by an avalanche of painful disclosures. Like searching through fog, I tried to understand how I’d been abducted to this island of desolation.
In the emotional haze of betrayal, there are haunting questions. Why would such an intimate friend betray me? Where did such distorted interpretations and malice come from? Will I ever regain my sense of relational equilibrium? Should I ever trust again?
In this midst of this kind of emotional vortex, we may be prone to default to our childhood training that says to be “quick to forgive.” While humility is important in the process of forgiving, deep betrayal often unleashes not only the desire for justice, but also the hunger for retribution. Because of this, hastily offered forgiveness can be little more than a face-saving device that blinds us to this sinister desire in our hearts. Superficial forgiveness can circumvent this honest soul search and open the unsuspecting heart to the invisible seeds of revenge. Like David, we must always ask the Counselor to, “Search me, O God and know my heart … see if there is any offensive way in me…” (Ps 139:24).
In the train wreck of betrayal, the Savior offers another way to assess the collateral damage. Taking seriously His words to “Take the plank out of your own eye” (Matt 7:3) allows us to uncover habits of sin, especially our unhealthy patterns of relating. Demanding perfection, idealizing people or simply living in denial may be exposed as the relational anesthesia we’ve used to numb ourselves from facing our own brokenness. Honestly facing our self-destructive ways of avoiding the truth compels us to press into God’s tender love and mercy in much deeper ways. And it challenges us to learn to love the brethren with a “sincere love” (I Pet 1: 22) a love that acknowledges the reality of the sanctified and yet-to-be sanctified parts of one other.
After such invasive soul surgery, Jesus now calls us to extravagant forgiveness. We are compelled to forgive even our “enemy” (Matt 5:44) by the very one who experienced the ultimate betrayal. He knows the pain of being deceived by an intimate friend, of not being “seen” accurately, of having His motives misinterpreted, His character maligned and being on the fringe of the power center of His culture. He well understands the stark limits of human love. This is why He is our sympathetic High Priest who speaks tenderly to the Father about His children who have been violated by the sin of others (Heb 4:16).
Moving forward in forgiving is a choice we make many times depending on the level of betrayal. How much, Peter asked, should he forgive? Jesus said, “Seventy times seven” (Matt 18:21). Recognizing that everyone, by proxy, have been co-conspirators in the death of Christ, Paul exhorts us to forgive “each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph 4:32). Put simply, the essence of forgiveness is our decision to release the offender into God’s care. We trust that His parenting of them is far from over and that He alone will deal with their character flaws just as He is dealing with ours.
We can also learn much from Jesus who was betrayed by a friend in an intimate setting. “Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples…” (Jn 18:2). The garden was a sacred place for Jesus and his closest soul friends. Much interaction, teaching and earnest prayer happened in this intimate, relational setting. Surely we might assume that such intimacy offers us a hedge against betrayal. But we are not like Jesus who knew what was in man’s heart.
Sadly, even in places of spiritual intimacy, betrayal can slip in unnoticed. Like Judas, our intimacy with Jesus is no guarantee that we won’t betray Him. Although my betrayals may be more hidden, they are just as treacherous. When I choose a manic lifestyle that undermines intimate communion with Jesus, I betray the sweetness of His abiding Presence. Or like Judas, when I hunger for or fret about material abundance rather than living fully for the Kingdom, I deny God’s provision for my daily needs. When I try to earn my sense of spiritual self-esteem from performing rather than simply drawing near to Him, I betray His heart of full acceptance. Or, like Peter, when I project a false confidence to hide my fears and deep brokenness, I deny that apart from Him I can accomplish nothing of eternal value. Whenever I glory in my talents, gifts or spiritual success rather than boast in my weaknesses that His power might be evident, I deny His sufficiency. And when my natural propensity is not to decrease so that He might increase, I betray the humility of the Savior who took on human flesh and died a despised criminal on my behalf.
Oh yes, the seeds of betrayal are hidden in each of us. The spiritual tragedy is that we betray the Savior whenever we fail to recognize ourselves as fellow traitors who live every day in collusion with a culture of self promotion and autonomy. May we draw ever closer to our sympathetic High Priest who allowed betrayal to do its work on the cross. And yet now, He tenderly offers us His mercy and grace to transform our duplicitous heart into a heart that beats only for Him.
O Father, our only hope is in the grace … “the amazing grace of the Master Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit…” (2 Cor. 13:14, The Message). Amen.
Marty Russell is an adjunct professor the Talbot School of Theology, Biola University and co-director of the Springs chapter of the Network of Evangelical Women in Ministry. Contact Marty at [email protected].