The Ouch! and Ahhh! of the Gospel*

I was recently given the assignment to tell my story to a small group of trusted friends. It wasn’t the kind of story telling I am used to, however, but was an exercise for me to see the Gospel themes woven throughout my entire life. This means creation, fall, redemption and consummation (which we anticipate but only get small glimpses of now.) I couldn’t pull it together in a clear and organized way. I told them it felt like a collision between my ADD and perfectionism which resulted in a sloppy mess. But something interesting happened as I just started talking (and talking and talking). The repugnance of my sin overwhelmed me as it somehow felt more overwhelmingly “sinful” in my telling.

They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. John 8:33-35

As I recounted the way I gave in (without a fight) to sin’s lure to take the image of God with which I was made and to be my own God instead, I felt that enslavement come over me. Ridiculous as it sounds, the image that came to mind was of the way those Twilight books (yes, I read them) describe vampires smelling human blood. The “good” ones knew they couldn’t act on it, but it took everything in them to turn away. Sin is more powerful than that because there is nothing in me than can turn away…it takes advantage of our particular glory lusts, hunger for control, demand to be worshipped ourselves and is merciless.

So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, become death to me? By no means! But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. Romans 7:12-13

Apart from the righteousness of the person and work of Jesus, the total and complete fulfillment of every letter of the Law, sin was not utterly sinful to me. My arrogance actually seemed pretty cool to me. My disdain for the majority of the population, who do not fit extremely narrow parameters for my admiration, was not abhorrent to me until I encountered the person and work of Jesus. I felt genuinely powerful, unquestionably superior and worthy of praise until my eyes were opened to the One who, being in very nature God, made Himself nothing and took on the nature of a servant. (Phil. 2:6-8) And suddenly, the only One who can be called “good” produced death in me as I began to see how utterly sinful my sin really is.

(1)Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has (2)reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. (3)But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, (4)that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:1-11

1. Those dogs – I assumed these to be, like I’ve written before, sinister atheists who lurk about in dark cloaks in shadowy places. But I am one of these dogs each time, as the writing goes on, I encourage other believers to find peace, restoration and any form of righteousness within their own selves. Whenever my Bible study teaching ended with a charge to do more and try harder at “pleasing God” and omitted the only One with whom God has ever been fully “well pleased”, I have been an agent of death/mutilator of the flesh.

2. reasons to put confidence in the flesh – with the right education, the right resume, the right connections, the right travel destination diary, the right accomplishments, the right wardrobe, the right vocabulary, the right disciplines…it is impossible with man (ever since Adam) not to place confidence in the flesh.
3. whatever was to my profit I now consider loss – I always thought this was just one of those nice, humble things people say, like “I married out of my league!” But, it’s piercingly true. All those “right” things give me false security and sense of being “fine” and even outstanding. They blind me from seeing what is true about the self-worship in my heart, the glory thief that I am and the people hater that lies beneath my arrogant disdain for others. “Woe to me!” is impossible to utter until the sinfulness of my sin is exposed to me.

4. found in Him – Here is the only place where “Woe to me!” is met with “Glory to God in the Highest!” Here is where the sting of death, the sinfulness of sin, no longer has the final word or the power to define my life’s story. My life’s story, from creation through the fall, gets to find its ultimate identity in the person and work of Jesus.

You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:3-6

*expression totally plagiarized from Anne Henegar

Deliver Us from Which Evil?

Yesterday at church, the opening prayer included one line that really struck me. As Walter was going through the various places from which each of our hearts may have entered the room, he included those “who have lost hope and just don’t have the energy to try anymore.” That struck me because I know that feeling. You feel physically weary, emotionally spent and mentally drained. A clean, plain hospital room with an IV to feed me sounds like the best cure for my “can’t go on anymore” self.

But the next thing that came to mind with that description was that this hopelessness and lack of desire to press on anymore, for me as a believer at least, is almost never because the Gospel’s work seems inapplicable to me in “this” situation. Sadly, that is not the focus of my grieving and despair. No, most often this hopelessness and weariness and desire to give up has much more to do with the fact that my circumstances won’t change the way I think they should and God has yet to perform the external fixes I so passionately desire, nor has He finally given me those various vocational, relational, physical or even material blessings that I so intensely want. My faith is placed in external changes and rarely if ever considers internal transformation as the goal of my faith.

This is not to say that all my wants are bad (we are not Gnostics after all) or that those circumstantial changes and “fixes” wouldn’t be much better. The desire for a tumor to be healed and dissolved, for a marriage to be restored and life-giving, for money to pay basic bills and many other types of prayers for healing and life’s necessities are all very good prayers and beautiful desires. They are the kind of ultimate restoration of all things that we are promised in the future and often get tastes of even now. But my eyes get so fixed on the creation that I totally miss the Creator as He is in fact busily working in and through these circumstances, not to change them as would please me, but to change me as pleases Him and brings Him glory.

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:1-5
Doesn’t most of my depression, despair and hopelessness have more to do with the anger I feel about things not working the way I would like them to work? My faith is challenged not because God is not redeeming me and transforming me, but because He is not submitting to my will for my world. What would happen to my faith if I began to see that in the midst of my circumstances not changing, God is very busily, actively and intimately changing me (and others) to be more genuinely patient, more authentically less demanding, more honestly humble? What if by the anger I do feel He is showing me what I worship more than Him? What if by the panic I feel, He is showing me where I trust my control more than His? What if by the disappointments I experience, He is showing me where I trust and place my hope in my plans more than His? What if in each area where He is exposing my unbelief, He is also inviting me to believe His goodness, control, love, perseverance on my behalf, trustworthiness, power and sovereignty more?
What if rather than worshipping the creation (my circumstances and all the created things that I look to for life, joy, peace, etc.), I began to see every detail of my circumstances as reminders to worship the Creator instead? What if I begin to have eyes to see through my painful or tedious circumstances to the work God is in fact accomplishing, miraculously, in my heart? His Kingdom is coming, even now, though just as the people of Jesus’ day missed it, so do I. Just like them, I look for it in glory and honor, but suffering is the Gospel doorway to this glory.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us…2 Corinth. 1:8-10

Do I want to be delivered from my circumstances or do I pray to be delivered from my self-rule, self-absorption, self-reliance and self-righteousness?  Which evil is more offensive to me? 

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it. Brothers, pray for us. 1 Thess. 5:23-25

Forgive Us Our Debts

The matter of extending forgiveness and asking for it is one that most Christians agree with but we really don’t grasp.  For so long, I felt like it was a vulnerable and super spiritual thing to acknowlege that I had “sins” to be forgiven.  Then, I got a little bolder and would confess things like “pride” and “not loving well.”  Its not that these weren’t true nor was it that I was trying to be vague and evasive, but I just didn’t see it any more clearly than that.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. 1 John 1:8-10

If I am blameless in my relational conflicts, if every irritation I feel toward family, friends and those I encounter in the course of the day is the other person’s fault, I am deceived.  And, lets be clear, I am frequently deceived.  I get so focused on how wrong they are, on what a clear case there is to be made against them, on the nodding of heads from my supporters when I report the offense, that for one, I can’t see my own self-righteousness.  I am so focused on my rightness, my victim-ness, that I cannot see the situation is also revealing where Jesus is absent in my heart (the truth is not in me) and my perceived need for His rescue even from my own sense of innocense is almost zero.

Innocense is really the problem. I genuinely believe myself to be innocent most of the time.  Even if I know that technically I wasn’t perfect, the circumstances clearly explain why I did what I did and who after all could blame me?  The more determined my will and heart become to stand on my own innocense, the less in need they are of standing on the innocense of Jesus alone.  It’s why my stories of conflict always paint me in the most innocent light and the other party as treacherous villains.  I can’t see myself as the party involved sees me at all, which likely, isn’t in the same innocent light I like to imagine.

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him.  Matthew 21:31-32

Its popular to talk about how Jesus is a lover of the prostitutes and tax collectors, but I forget to look at why they were lovers of Him.  They had less deception about their status in His eyes.  They wore their sin publicly and their shame was always before them.  I on the other hand, not a prostitute or thief, feel pretty good about my self.  The truth is not in me when I cannot recognize how indebted I actually am and what shame should be felt by the condition of my heart.  The way of righteousness isn’t through my external rightness but through the perfect, completed law fulfillment of Jesus.  I can’t add to that, but like the Pharisees of Jesus day, I just refuse to believe that my righteousness is from Jesus alone and not my own law abiding self.

Why is it so hard for me to really see the details of my “sin”, “debt” and other general words I use to check confession off my list without really feeling the sting of it?  I think it has to be because I don’t really believe I’m all that in need of redemption which itself is because I actually believe I’m really close to innocent most of the time.  I think it also has to do with the fact that I don’t really trust He has credited me with His righteousness and taken all of the details of my sin.  If His innocense isn’t enough, than I have to increase mine.  If my guilt isn’t so much, my need for Him to handle it decreases.

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.  Hebrews 3:12-13

Because I do have a sinful, unbelieving heart that is not just “prone to wander” but actively turns away from desperate need for the living God throughout the course of any given day, I need to be encouraged daily to see my need and believe that He meets it fully.  There are no middle-class believers, no pulled up from our boot straps spiritual giants, no self-made Jesus images.  My deep down belief, inherited from Adam and Eve, that I can be my own god and can be considered blameless by my own good deeds and good intentions places me in greater debt than the ugliness I deny already had me.  May I see this more clearly today, and replace my unbelief with trust in the One who has covered my shame (so I don’t have to deny it anymore) and replaced it with His righteousness.

However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness. David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”  Romans 4:5-8

Be Anxious For…

That ol’ verse from Phillipians that we like to quote…how does it go?  “Be anxious for everything?”  No, that can’t be it.  “Be anxious for some things?”  Well, that only seems natural and reasonable.  “Be anxoius for the important things, the godly things!”  Yes, that must be it!  At least, that is, according to the way I live and according to multiple scenarios I have encountered this very week.

Sure, I have a sense that God says not to sweat the small stuff (or was that from a cocktail napkin?)  My grandmother always reminded me that “this too shall pass.”  Ahh.  But what about when the small stuff has long term consequences?  What about the times when this too doesn’t pass but just keeps getting worse?  Anxiety is only natural and makes sense because if the outcome is different than we “know it should be”, certain doom is inevitable…right?

Perhaps its the lure of power that makes cynicism such an effective authority.  Perhaps its our great fear of hearing “I told you so” from someone else that makes suspicion so delicious to us.  But at the root of these masterful manipulators, if I can look honestly and closely at my heart, is unbelief.  I do not really believe that God is in control of every single detail, including my foolishness, blindness and error.  So, of course I am anxious because if He is not in control even of that, that leaves my future, my well being, and the well being of the world around me in MY hands, my decision making, my acting perfectly and speaking perfectly and thinking perfectly and feeling perfectly.

For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. Exodus 9:15-16

God raised Pharaoh up for the very purpose of using Him to demonstrate His power to rescue.  Pharaoh thought he was standing against God, but even his intended rebellion served God’s redemptive plans.  God inteded that Joseph’s brothers, generations earlier, should foreshadow the wicked treatment of the very one who would rescue their lives.  From their perspective, it was their scheme.  From God’s vantage point and plan, it was a progressive revelation of His story of ultimate redemption.  Wicked men put Jesus to death on the cross, but they did it because God planned it before creation to redeem all of creation according to His purposes.  Do I really think my foolishness can do what Pharaoh’s could not?  What Jonah’s could not?  What David’s, Paul’s and the Pharisees could not?  Oh but even so, panic is so much more alluring than peace.  Something seems so much wiser about urgent, fearful distress than peaceful trust in the One who shuts a door no man can open and who opens doors no man can shut. Rev. 3:7
In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. 1 John 4:17-19

Why do we trust our fears so much more than the One in whom there is no fear?  Why do we act on our “insights” if they stir up panic, suspicion and fear when there is no genuine doom that can befall those whose punishment has already been taken?  “But wait!” cries my inner-Pharisee.  “Actions have consequences and you can’t be saying that our actions don’t matter!”  Of course they do, the Gospel responds, but there is no consequence that falls outside of God’s redemptive purposes and no benefit that I receive by anything other than God’s grace (the person and work of Jesus) working itself out even in my obedience.

This week I have been tortured by a commercial on the radio for a Christian conference which will expose all the ways our government is threatening to ruin our children’s futures and rob us of all our entitled freedoms.  I also heard about an anxious and extended prayer meeting last week regarding the Health Care legislation and had a conversation with a friend concerned about another friend’s social choices.  In each scenario, godly intention seemed soaked with fear and panic.  “If ‘x’ happens, our life as we know it is sure to be filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Fear is so powerful and feels so wise because it tempts me to believe that by my insightfulness and attempts at omniscience, I can steer my future to sorrowless islands and a life of safety and ease.

Is the goal of my life to get to that island and paddle everyone who threatens my safe passage?  Or, is He doing something so much better, so much more interesting, so very much more life-giving in transforming my heart and my very being into a clearer image of Himself?  Is there any circumstance or “consequence” that can thwart that?  Is there any circumstance or “consequence” that can’t be a tool in that beautiful process?  And THAT is why I can be anxious for nothing, as God commands, because there is no action or reaction in my life which falls outside of His redemptive purposes and power.  The goal of redemption isn’t a certain kind of earthly government, or a conflict free marriage, or financial prudence and prosperity but to be transformed into His image which happens through conflict, under any type of government, even in poverty and prison just as much, if not in some cases more so than, the life of luxury and ease I think I should have instead.

I Want You to Want Me, I Need You to Need Me, I Love You to Love Me

There are certain groups of people I really identify with and am engaged by (mentally, emotionally, spiritually) and others who seem to render me mute, weary and even kind of bummed after I’ve been with them.  My answer to this, at one point, would have been to minimize the time with the life-suckers and increase the time I spend with the life-givers.  Oh how glad I am that this is not Jesus’ guiding principle for interacting with people!

My philosophy is so counter to the Gospel for at least a few reasons:  1. it looks for life in people/relationships, 2. the purpose of those relationships/interactions is entirely self-centered, and 3. I cannot genuinely love well when having my needs met is front and center for those interactions.

1.  You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. John 5:39-40 
When I go to spend time with people, whether its my husband or my family or a dinner party of some sort, inevitably I guage my excitement on going and assess the value of the time after the fact, by the way it “fed” me.  I can’t tell you how increasingly often I leave being with people and feel disappointed, out of sorts or just worn out.  This is because, even though subconsciously, I am looking for people to fill me with life when it can only be found in Jesus.  When they don’t feed my need to be engaged, agreed with, inspired, or in some other way filled up from our time together, I am left short.  All the while, they were never not ever able nor intended to be the source of life to begin with!

2.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Phil. 2:3-4  When I am approaching a gathering of people, whether it be one other person or a large party, from the perspective of my comfort level, my “fitting in”, my receiving life or losing it from those I am with, my focus is entirely self-absorbed.  The people around me and their needs, interests and lives are only secondary to my own and judged in relation to me and mine.  Jesus did not serve, interact with nor give of Himself because there was something missing within Him that needed to be filled by those people.  Because He was full of Life, He could give.  He didn’t need to be served by the respect, admiration, agreement, or whatever we demand from others, but instead could serve them because all these needs were already fully met in Him by the Father.

3.  If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. Luke 6:32-34

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. John 15:12

No matter how I want to talk about “unconditionally loving” others, its just not true.  When people’s responses to me directly impact my response to them (make me withdraw, make me snap back at them, make me harbor bitterness toward them, etc.), this is a direct indication that my love toward them is extremely conditional.  I don’t want it to be, but it is.  Jesus does not withdraw from me when I shut Him out, get angry with Him or don’t believe Him.  He doesn’t snap at me in frustration and irritation nor does He harbor warranted bitterness toward me.  His love for me is not based on me but entirely on Him.

When I only run to be with people who make me feel validated, respected, loved, this is not loving them as Jesus loves me.  This is using people to meet my needs as only Jesus in His fullness can fill me.  Oh life suck that I am, would I begin to experience what it is to find life in Him alone so that I could love others better and more unconditionally.