For Youth Workers Post


Will Penner

“In the Habit” session for use with devozine meditations for March 23–29, 2015.


“I get a weird sense of satisfaction when the bad guy in a book or movie finally gets what’s coming to him. Serves him right, I sometimes think. Most superheroes are formed by a sense of justice that centers less on keeping peace and more on delivering vengeance. What do we do with the commandment “Love your enemies” in light of the world’s notions of justice?” —Will


Will PennerWill Penner has been in ministry with young people for more than two decades in Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches, in public and private schools, and as a popular speaker at youth retreats, camps, and conferences. He has served as the editor of both leading professional journals of youth ministry and has authored or edited numerous youth ministry curricula and books, the latest of which is It Happens: True Tales from the Trenches of Youth Ministry. But most important, he is the husband of his amazing wife, Christine, and the father of five fantastic children ranging in age from five to twenty-four.


  • Provide copies of a graphic representing the multiple circles of Dante’s “Inferno” to help group members get a sense of how many different categories Dante depicted and to accentuate how vile he felt treachery to be.
  • a Bible
  • copies of the closing prayer (see “Sharing in Prayer”)
  • Print-Friendly Version of this session


  • Consider playing one of several YouTube videos to offer a little background on Dante’s “Inferno” before launching into the lesson; the best short, humorous ones all have at least one cuss word in them. Be sure to preview them before showing them.
  • You could also show some of the most popular images drawn by late nineteenth century French artist Gustave Dore depicting the events within the epic.


Dante Alighieri was an important Italian poet in the Middle Ages whose most famous work was called Comedìa. The English translation is called The Divine Comedy and is widely regarded as not only a masterpiece of world literature but also the most important work ever written in Italian. This epic poem contains three parts: “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradiso.” It is written as a pseudo-autobiographical, fictional journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

Of the three, “Inferno” is by far the most famous. In the western world, the vast majority of people’s non-biblical images of hell come from Dante. In fact, I’d argue that many images from this work are more prevalent in people’s minds today than the ones specifically generated from scripture.

Dante's Inferno - graphic

Take, for instance, the absolute lowest circle of hell, which is reserved for traitors, for backstabbers of the worst type. Of all sins—including murder, rape, and child abuse—Dante reserved the worst punishment for backstabbers. In Dante’s ninth circle of Hell are people who have betrayed their countries, rulers, and friends.
       Few acts hurt more than having someone we trust betray us. Who comes to mind when you think of someone who has betrayed you? (Discourage group members from naming names. Ask them instead to describe briefly the situation surrounding the betrayal.)
       Do you feel as if the person who betrayed you deserves to be punished? Does he or she belong in the lowest circle of Hell?


Scripture: Matthew 18:21–35 

Nowhere in the Bible does a picture of Hell exist that includes different levels of punishment as described in Dante’s “Inferno,” and yet many people hold to similar images. The idea that those who have betrayed us will be punished severely appeals to our sense of justice.

Yet Jesus strongly denounces the typical human tendency toward revenge. Over and over again, Jesus admonishes his disciples to practice forgiveness. In Matthew 18:21–35, he artfully contrasts his expectations with those of his followers. One can imagine Peter, the “rock” on whom Jesus would later build his church, thinking he was quite generous in suggesting he forgive a whopping seven times. As Peter imagines the incredible sacrifice he would make to undertake such a momentous task, we can hear Jesus’ you-still-don’t-get-it-yet response: “How about multiplying that number by 10 or even 11?” The point, of course, is not to keep a literal count of our enemy’s seventy-seven transgressions so that we can justify holding on to resentment and withholding our forgiveness when he or she commits sin Number 78. Rather, it is to quit keeping count altogether and to offer forgiveness as freely as God has offered forgiveness to us.

Jesus had some pretty harsh words for those of us who like to hold grudges. His parable of the slave whose large debt was forgiven while he lorded over another who owed a small debt is meant to demonstrate how miniscule our efforts at forgiveness are compared to the forgiveness offered by God through Jesus’ sacrifice at Calvary.
       In what ways are we creating our own ninth circles of Hell for those who have betrayed us?
What would our lives be like if we offered forgiveness instead of resentment?
       In what ways have you betrayed others?
       How can we repent of betrayal so that other people can let go of their resentment?


Invite the group to pray with you:

“God, we have not always been faithful in living up to our commitments—as children of yours or as friends to others. Please forgive the mistakes we have made. We find forgiveness hard, especially for those who have betrayed us. We need your help; we are not strong enough. We ask you to help us to begin the process of forgiveness and to continue forgiving until we are at peace with their being beneficiaries of your forgiveness as much as we are. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.”


Reflect on Dante’s circles of Hell, and imagine people from your life who would fit into some of the categories. Instead of dwelling on their sin, think about what it would be like if the only thing keeping them in Hell was your failure to forgive them. Then imagine freeing them from their torment simply by forgiving them. How would their families react? How would they be of use to others because of your willingness to free them from their bondage? Spend some time reflecting on the meaning of John 20:23 (NRSV): “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

—from devozine In the Habit (March/April 2015). Copyright © 2015 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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