Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Nowism of the Gospel

Pastor, do your people have a gap in the middle of their Gospel; understanding more about salvation past and future than they do about the spent benefits of the work of Christ in the here and now? Permit me to explain.

Jason sat in front of me with the head-down, humped-shouldered posture of a confused and disappointed man. It wasn't that Jason's life had been a sad narrative of personal suffering. Sure, he’d faced some hard things, but they were the typical things that you face when you're living in a world that’s been broken by sin. It wasn't that Jason was alienated and friendless. He was surrounded by a group of less than perfect, but pretty faithful companions. It wasn't that Jason was impoverished or homeless. No, he had a decent job and an adequate condo.

Jason's problem was that he was lost in the middle of his own faith. It had become harder and harder for him to connect the beauty of what he believed to the gritty and often difficult realities of his daily life. Jason's problem was that he carried a gospel around with him that had a great big hole in the middle of it.

Jason could explain to you what it meant to say that he had been "saved by grace," and he knew that he was going to spend eternity with his Savior. His problem was in the here and now. Day after day, in situation after situation and relationship after relationship, Jason didn't carry with him a vibrant and practical sense of the nowism of the grace of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jason believed in life after death, but he desperately needed to understand life before death; the kind of radical life you’ll live when you understand what Christ has given you for the life he has called you to right here, right now.

Let me suggest four critical aspects of the nowism of the gospel (there are more) that Jason seemed functionally blind to.

1. Grace will decimate what you think of you, while it gives you a security of identity you've never had.

Grace will expose your sin, but it won’t leave you without identity. Grace had liberated Jason, but he didn't know it or live like it. He’d not only been forgiven and empowered, but he‘d been given a brand new identity. Jason had been freed from looking inward for his identity. No longer did he have to measure his potential by his track record or the size of the problems he was facing.

His potential was as great as the grace of Christ. He’d been freed from looking outward for his identity. No longer did he have to search for identity in his relationships, possessions or achievements. Jason had been freed from looking horizontally for what he had already been given vertically.

His sense of self was no longer rooted in what he could earn or achieve, but in what he’d already been given in Christ. The problem was that he didn't know it, so he was on a constant quest for meaning and purpose, looking for identity in places that could never deliver.

2. Grace will expose your deepest sins of heart, while it covers every failure with the blood of Jesus.

No longer did Jason have to work to excuse, deny, rationalize, or minimize his sin. No longer did he have to exercise his inner lawyer when someone pointed out a wrong. Because of the cross of Jesus, Jason could admit his weakness and failure before a holy God and be utterly unafraid. And if a holy God had accepted him as he was, why would Jason fear the opinion of others?

Jesus took Jason's rejection so that he would never see the back of God's head. Grace had freed Jason from having to prove to God, himself and others, that he was righteous. Jason's hope and security was no longer in his own righteousness, but the righteousness he’d been given in Christ. The problem was that he didn't know it, so Jason careened back and forth from fear to pride, swindling himself with self-atoning excuses and defending himself to others.

3. Grace will make you face how weak you are, while it blesses you with power beyond your ability to calculate.

Grace does require you to admit how weak you are, but it doesn't leave you there. The cross not only dealt with the guilt of sin, but with the inability of sin as well. In this broken world of regular difficulty and constant temptation, Jason did feel weak and unprepared, so he lived more out of fear and avoidance than with hope and courage.

Jason had not only been granted forgiveness, he’d been filled with power; power beyond his ability to calculate. (Ephesians 3:20, 21) The problem was that Jason didn't know it, so Jason gave into things he had the power to defeat and he avoided things he had the power to conquer.

4. Grace will take control out of your hands, while it blesses you with the care of One whose plan is unshakable and perfect in every way.

Jason had some kind of distant belief in the sovereignty of God, but it was almost completely separate from his everyday experience. He lived as though he had no idea that Jesus was ruling over all things for his sake (Ephesians 1:20-23). So Jason was constantly dealing with the frustration of trying to control people and things which he’d little power to control.

He spent way too much time calculating the "what ifs" and regretting the "if onlys." He seemed as if he didn’t know that his security and rest were not to be found in his ability to predict the future and control the present, but in the faithful love and expansive wisdom of his sovereign Savior, Jesus, so his living was always more anxious than restful.

You see, Jason didn't need more grace. No, he needed to understand and live in light of the grace he‘d already been given. Jason was a grace amnesiac and so he lived as if he was poor, when grace had made him exotically rich. He lived as if he was weak, when grace had made him strong. He lived as though life had no plan, when, in fact, he’d been included in the unalterable plans of the God of redeeming grace.

Jason had a big hole right in the middle of his gospel, and because of that, he didn't live out of the freedom, beauty and security of what he’d been given right here, right now. What about you? What about the people you serve?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Love Warns, Love Rebukes

I really wasn't very thankful and I should have been. My mom was very consistent and persistent in doing two things with me again and again; warning and rebuking. Again and again as I was getting ready to leave the house as a teenager, mom would warn me about the dangers and temptations of life in a fallen world. I didn't really appreciate her moral mini-lectures. I’d stand there impatiently or remind her that she had said the same thing to me many times. I saw these times as an imposition, a hassle that stood between me and the planned activity of the evening.

She was also very committed to rebuke. The word itself doesn't sound very kind. But it is. Rebuke is meant to help you see yourself with accuracy. When I had failed or been disobedient, mom was very faithful in getting me to consider why I had done what I had done and what I could have done instead. In those moments I often saw her as picky and judgmental. I would argue with her; activating my inner lawyer and rising to my defense. I often refused to look at myself with accurate eyes.

I look back on those moments now and understand what mom was doing. She was loving me. It was love that motivated those many warnings and love that propelled her to want me to learn from my errors. If she had stood by before and after in silence, it would have been sure evidence that she didn’t have a heart of affection for me. There are many instances of divine warning in the Bible and as many instances of divine rebuke; all motivated by faithful, gracious, redemptive affection. I want to look at one of the most startling with you for a moment.

Mark 9:14-29 records Jesus coming down from the mountain of his transfiguration. There before Peter, James and John his humanity is peeled back and his divinity is revealed in stunning glory. His role in God's plan of redemption is also revealed as he stands with Moses and Elijah as the ultimate fulfillment of all of the visions of the prophets and of every requirement of the law. Immediately, as Jesus comes down from this moment of high holiness, he is greeted with shocking, distorting, destructive evil. A father has sought the help of Jesus for his son who is under the control of an unclean spirit which is doing everything it can to destroy the boy.

I am deeply persuaded that these graphic descriptions of someone who is under the control of evil are meant to sit in the Bible as concrete and specific warnings to us of the life-distorting, destructive evil of evil. You see, here is our problem; we don't always see evil as evil. There are times when evil looks downright attractive and beautiful to us. A man lusting at the mall doesn't see dangerous, destructive evil. No, he sees beauty. Someone gossiping on the phone doesn't experience the danger of evil, but rather the excitement of being in possession of secret knowledge. The child who has taken the cookie he was instructed not to eat doesn't feel the danger, but is taken up with the flavor of his purloined treat.

So we need to see the destructive evil of evil again and again. We need to understand that evil is never good. It never produces life. It never leads you toward what is good, right and true. It is always dangerous. It is always destructive. It always leads to death. Because of the ability of what is very bad to present itself as very good, we need to be warned again and again.

At the bottom of the mountain Jesus walks into an argument and when he asks what the argument is about, the father of the boy with the unclean spirit says, "I asked your disciples to cast out this spirit and they were not able." Later in the passage Jesus tells us why; the disciples actually tried to deliver this poor little boy without praying. Let it sink in. They didn't pray! You read it right, they didn't pray! They tried to defeat the powerfully destructive evil that had taken over this boy in their own strength. Did they really think they had that kind of independent power over evil? It's shocking!

Jesus' rebuke is brief, but stinging. He's essentially saying, "When will you realize that you have no independent, self-sufficient ability to defeat evil on your own; none whatsoever! This is exactly why you need the powerful grace and glory that was revealed on the mountain just a few hours ago."

Now don't be too quick to condemn the disciples. I think there’s a whole lot of prayerless Christianity in the church of Jesus Christ. I think we often try to defeat, in our own strength, things that we’ve no capacity whatsoever to defeat. We attempt to do, in our own power, things that we have no ability to do without empowering grace. A husband and wife will attempt a difficult conversation without prayer. A dad will attempt to have a constructive talk with his rebellious teenage son, but it never hits him that he should pray first. A student tries to matriculate his way through a secular university without prayer. When we face temptation we try to muster up the strength we need not to give in, instead of running in weakness to our gracious and powerful Savior.

You see, if you had the ability to defeat evil on your own, Jesus wouldn't have had to come to live and die for your sake. So prayer reminds you of the lesson of his coming and calls you to abandon your reliance on you and rest in the power of the One who invaded your weakness with his grace. And it’s important to remember that the evil which most often troubles and defeats you is not the evil outside of you, but the evil inside of you. If the evil inside is your biggest problem, then you need to pray for rescue again and again and again because you have no ability at all to escape you! The rebuke for prayerless self-reliance is one which each of us needs again and again.

So, because we don't always see evil as evil and because we try to defeat it again and again in our own strength, your Lord will come to you again and again with warning and rebuke. His gracious warning and rebuke are for your protection and your rescue. Anytime your Lord opens your eyes to see evil for what it is and anytime he exposes your self-sufficiency for what it is, he’s wrapping arms of faithful redemptive love around you. Love warns, love rebukes. Each expresses the fatherly grace of your faithful and persistent Savior.

Friday, June 24, 2011

God's Wisdom, Your Relationships

God’s Word really does open up to us the mysteries of the universe. It really does make us wiser than we could ever be without it. And yet, having said this, it's sad that we don’t take more advantage of this wisdom God has given us. It's sad that we don’t think his thoughts after him, that we don’t require ourselves to look at life through the lens of his revelation. It's sad that we swindle ourselves into thinking that we are wiser than we are. We're not irritated by our foolishness, nor are we motivated to seek his help. One of the places you see this most clearly is in the struggles we experience in our relationships.

Why have I reminded you of all this? I encounter people everywhere I go who are discouraged and confused about their relationships. I want you to think about your own relationships and look at them through three perspectives derived from biblical wisdom. These mentalities are essential in creating and sustaining a healthy relational lifestyle.

1) You must live in your relationships with a harvest mentality.

Paul captures this mentality with these very familiar words: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). This is an essential mentality if you want to live with habits of reconciliation. You have to buy into the principle of consequences. Here it is: there’s an organic relationship between the seeds you plant and the fruit you harvest. In the physical world you will never plant peach pits and get apples. In the same way, there will be organic consistency between the seeds of words and actions that you plant in your relationships and the quality of harvest that you will experience later as you live and relate to one another.

Every day you harvest relational plants that have come from the seeds of words and actions that you previously planted. And every day you plant seeds of words and actions that you will later harvest. Most of the seeds you plant will be small, but one thousand small seeds that grow up into trees will result in an environment-changing forest. Your relationships are continuously planted with little-moment seeds of words and actions which grow into the forest of either love or trouble.

2) You must live in your relationships with an investment mentality.

We are all treasure hunters. We all live to gain, maintain, keep, and enjoy things that are valuable to us. Our behavior in any given situation of life is our attempt to get what is valuable to us out of that situation. There are things in your life to which you have assigned importance, and once you have, you are no longer willing to live without them (these principles are laid out in Matthew 6:19–33). Everyone does it. We live to possess and experience the things on which we’ve set our hearts. We’re always living for some kind of treasure.

Every treasure you set your heart on and actively seek will give you some kind of return. An argumentative moment is an investment in the treasure of being right, and from it you will get some kind of relational return. If you aggressively argue the other person into a corner, it’s not likely that the return on that investment will be his or her appreciation of you, nor will it be the desire to have similar conversations again! If you invest in the treasure of willing service, you‘ll experience the return of appreciation, respect, and a deeper friendship. If it’s more valuable to have control than it is for your friend or spouse to feel heard, loved and understood, then you’ll live with the return of that in the quality of your relationship.

Investment is inescapable; you do it everyday, and it's hard to get away from the return on the investments you’ve made. Ask yourself;

What are the things that are valuable to me right now, the things I work to experience everyday and am unwilling to live without? How is the return on those investments shaping my relationships?

3) You must live in your relationships with a grace mentality.

When I got married, I didn’t understand grace. I had a principle-istic view of Scripture that caused me to bring a law economy into all of my relationships. The central focus of the Bible is not a set of practical principles for life. No, the central theme of the Bible is a person, Jesus Christ. If all you and I had needed was a knowledge and understanding of a certain set of God-revealed principles for living, Jesus would not have needed to come.

I think there are many Christians living in Christ-less relationships. Without knowing what they’ve done, they’ve constructed law-based rather than grace-based relationships. And because of this they're asking the law to do what only grace can accomplish.

The problem with this is that we’re not just people in need of wisdom; we’re also people in need of rescue—and the thing that we need to be rescued from is us. Our fundamental problem isn’t ignorance of what is right. Our problem is selfishness of heart that causes us to care more about what we want than about what we know is right. The laws, principles, and perspectives of Scripture provide the best standard ever, towards which our relationships should strive. They can reveal our wrongs and failures, but they have no capacity whatsoever to deliver us from them. For that we need the daily grace that only Jesus can give us.

So, we mustn’t simply hold one another to the high relational standards of God’s Word, but we must also daily offer the same grace that we’ve been given to one another so that we may be tools of grace in the lives of one another. Our confidence is not in the ability we have to keep God’s law but rather in the life-giving and heart-transforming grace of the one who's drawn us to himself and has the power to draw us to one another. When we live with this confidence, we look at the difficulties of our relationships not so much as hassles to be endured, but as opportunities to enter into an even deeper experience of the rescuing, transforming, forgiving, empowering grace of Jesus, the one who died for us and is always with us.

Three mentalities—each an essential building block for a healthy biblical, relational lifestyle. Each requires the honesty of personal humility, and each encourages us to be reconciled to one another and to God again, and again, and again.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Big Drama Christianity, or...?

I've told the story many times of talking impatiently with my wife one Sunday morning and having my nine year old son interject and say,"Daddy, is this the way a Christian man should be talking to his wife? Rather sarcastically I said, "What do you think?" and he said, "It doesn't make any difference what I think, what does God think?" I went to my bedroom and two thoughts immediately hit me. First, my pride reared up. I want to be a hero to my son and I was embarrassed that he'd been troubled by my attitude and words. But that didn't last very long. I soon thought, "How could it be that God could love me so much that he would give a twit of care about this mundane little moment in the Tripp bathroom?" That's love at a level of magnificence that I am unable to capture with words. This was but one moment in one room in one house of one family, on one block on one street in one neighborhood, in one city in one state in one country on one continent, in one hemisphere on one globe in the universe. Yet God was in that moment, working to continue his moment by moment work of transforming the heart of this man.

Is change important? Yes, it is for all of us in some way. Is commitment essential? Of course! There’s a way in which all of our lives are shaped by the commitments we make. But biblical Christianity, which has the Gospel of Jesus Christ at its heart, simply doesn't rest its hope in big, dramatic moments of change. The fact of the matter is that the transforming work of grace is more of a mundane process than it is a series of a few dramatic events. Personal heart and life change is always a process. And where does that process take place? It takes place where you and I live everyday. And where do we live? Well, we all have the same address. Our lives don't careen from big moment to big moment. No, we all live in the utterly mundane. Most of us won't be written up in history books. Most of us only make three or four momentous decisions in our lives, and several decades after we die, the people we leave behind will struggle to remember the events of our lives. You and I live in little moments and if God doesn't rule our little moments and doesn't work to recreate us in the middle of them, there's no hope for us, because that‘s where you and I live.

The little moments of life are profoundly important precisely because they’re the little moments that you live in and that form you. This is where I think that "Big Drama Christianity" gets us into trouble. It can cause us to devalue the significance of the little moments of life and the "small-change" grace that meets us there. And because we devalue the little moments where we live, we tend to not notice the sin that gets exposed there and don't seek the grace that’s offered us there. You see, the character of a life is not set in two or three dramatic moments, but in 10,000 little moments. The character that was formed in those little moments is what shapes how you respond to the big moments of life.

What leads to significant personal change? 10,000 moments of personal insight and conviction, 10,000 moments of humble submission, 10,000 moments of foolishness exposed and wisdom gained, 10,000 moments of sin confessed and sin forsaken, 10,000 moments of courageous faith, 10,000 choice points of obedience, 10,000 times of forsaking the kingdom of self and running toward the kingdom of God, 10,000 moments when we abandon worship of the creation and give ourselves to worship of the Creator. And what makes all of this possible? Relentless, transforming, little-moment grace. You see, Jesus is Emmanuel not just because he came to earth, but because he makes you the place where he dwells. This means he’s present and active in all the mundane moments of your daily life. And what is he doing? In these small moments he’s delivering every redemptive promise he’s made to you. In these unremarkable moments, he’s working to rescue you from you and transform you into his likeness. By sovereign grace he places you in daily little moments that are designed to take you beyond your character, wisdom and grace so that you’ll seek the help and hope that can only be found in him. In a lifelong process of change, he’s undoing you and rebuilding you again; exactly what each one of us needs!

Yes, you and I need to be committed to change, but not in a way that hopes for a big event of transformation, but in a way that finds joy in and is faithful to a day by day, step by step process of insight, confession, repentance and faith. And in those little moments we commit ourselves to remember the words of Paul in Romans 8:32, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us, how will he not also with him freely give us all things?" So we wake up each day committed to live in the small moments of our daily lives with open eyes and humbly expectant hearts.

Monday, June 20, 2011

A Bitter Harvest?

In every relationship, every day you harvest what you previously planted and plant what you will someday harvest. When division and acrimony take place in a relationship, we aren't experiencing mysterious difficulty. No, sadly, we're harvesting what we've sown. In this fallen world, where we're always sinners in relationship with sinners, one of the most beautiful and protective things God calls us to is forgiveness. But forgiveness doesn't always look beautiful to us. Sometimes holding onto a wrong seems to us to be a better way. Isn't it amazing that we who rest in and celebrate the forgiveness we've been given, find forgiveness often difficult and unattractive! Forgiveness and unforgiveness are not neutral; each plants certain seeds and each produces a certain kind of harvest. So it’s important to consider the relationship-damaging stages of the harvest of unforgiveness. I am deeply persuaded that many, many people are in some way following this path and many of them don’t know it.

1) Immaturity and Failure

Not only are all people in relationships sinners, but most of us live in our relationships all too casually and naively. Often we really do have an immature attitude toward the relationships in our life. Because of this we do dumb, selfish, sinful things - things that none of us thought the other would do. In our surprise and hurt, we give way to accusation, blame, judgment, and punishment rather than to honest confrontation, confession, and forgiveness. What we fail to realize is that not only are we responding poorly to the present moment, but we’re beginning to set the direction of the relationship. Each selfish act followed by a bitter response, damages the affection and loyalty we have for one another and the unity and respect we are meant to enjoy.

2) Falling into Comfortable Patterns

Since confrontation, confession, and forgiveness are all hard work, it's easier to give way to lower urges. It‘s easier to harrumph and walk away, to rehearse in your mind the other’s wrongs, to compile your list, to yell in anger, and to level a threat. So many people allow themselves to fall into comfortable but relationally destructive patterns. Meanwhile, the affection and respect between them is weakening, and the distance between them is widening.

3) Establishing Defenses

Rather than hope and courage growing as the result of a healthy relational lifestyle of honesty and forgiveness, many people learn how to construct walls of defense against each other’s irritated accusations. And we soon learn that the best defense is an offense, so we tackle the increasing criticism of the other by reaching into the list we’ve compiled and remind the other how imperfect he or she is and, therefore, how difficult it is to have a relationship with them. This combination of self-righteousness (convincing ourselves that we are not the problem) and accusation (telling the other person that he or she is the problem) precludes relationship. We're not standing together seeking to defend this relationship against attack. No, we’re viewing each other as adversaries and throwing up walls of defense against one another.

4) Nurturing Dislike

Because we’re allowing ourselves to meditate on what‘s wrong about the other rather than celebrating the good God has done in and through him or her, our perspective becomes increasingly negative. Since human beings don’t live by the facts of their experience but by their interpretation of the facts, this globally negative assessment becomes the interpretive lens through which we begin to see all that the other person says and does. So what we once wouldn’t have seen as negative, we now interpret as negative. I have counseled many people, who once had great appreciation and respect for one another, who simply don’t like one another very much anymore. If fact, I’ve had people say to me that it’s hard for them to look back and remember when the relationship was peaceful and good.

5) Becoming Overwhelmed

At some point, being in a relationship with someone you don’t like very much and feeling the need to daily defend yourself against attack becomes very exhausting and discouraging. The same offenses are taken and the same accusations are leveled over and over again. The same debate over who’s the harder to relate to happens again and again. You come to the point of dreading seeing the person and you avoid it if you can. You walk on eggshells, wondering when the next bomb will drop and shatter what little peace is left.

6) Envy of Others

It’s hard when you live like this not to look over the fence or across the room and envy relationships that seem to have everything you don’t. And when you do this, it's tempting to doubt God’s love and wisdom when you feel that you’ve been singled out for difficulties that others aren’t facing. Comparing your relationship to the distant, airbrushed public persona of another relationship is always dangerous but particularly destructive to a relationship where day after day you're already not giving yourself much reason to continue.

7) Fantasies of Escape

If kept alone, unforgiveness always seems to lead here. You’re angry, hurt, and overwhelmed. You don’t really like the other person very much, and you don’t look forward to the times when you’re together. You feel overwhelmed and smothered. You tell yourself that you’re the daily victim of the other’s sin. You can’t imagine that the other person is really going to change. It all seems impossible, so you begin to fantasize about escape. At first, it’s just the unrealistic daydreams of the tired, but it becomes more than that. The road between fantasy and obsession or fantasy and resolve is often not very long. You’re in a place of being very susceptible to walking away; allowing this relationship to be yet another casualty in your relational history.

You may be thinking, “Wow, Paul, that’s a very bleak picture!” Well, I would ask you this: do you have a relationship in your life that’s moving or has moved down this pathway? The God of forgiveness and grace enables you by his forgiveness and grace to live in relationships of forgiveness and grace. By his grace you can plant seeds of forgiveness that grow relationships of appreciation, respect and love even though you're always in relationship with sinners. By God's grace you don't have to lug yesterday's hurt into today's relationship. Jesus died, not only to forgive you, but by his sin-conquering death, to enable you to forgive others. By his grace reconciliation and restoration really are possible. He really is the Prince of Peace.