Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rest is Hard Work

I did it again and again when our children resisted our instruction and correction. I did it again and again when they debated a command or questioned our plans. I did it again and again when they opposed our authority and quested for self-rule. I did it again and again for two good reasons.

To begin with, my wife and I had brought children into this world who thought they didn’t need us! Each of them at some point fell into believing they were far more knowledgeable and capable than they really were. They all assumed that their intentions were noble and their plans were sound. They all thought they were capable of determining what was best, even when they lacked important information and experience. They simply felt they were in possession of a better way.

But there was a second reason I did it again and again. Our children were too young to grasp the abstract, strategic, and often theological purposes underlying my instruction. Even if I explained everything in as age-appropriate a way as I could, they would still have no actual understanding. They just didn’t yet have the categories or the capacity to grasp the parental logic behind the plan or command.

So I did the same thing again and again. I would kneel down in front of them at eye level and say, “Please look at Daddy’s face. Do you know how much I love you? Do you know that your Daddy isn’t a mean, bad man? Do you know that I would never ask you to do anything that would hurt you or make you sick? I’m sorry that you can’t understand why Daddy is asking you to do this. I wish I could explain it to you, but you are too young to understand. So I’m going to ask you to do something—trust Daddy. When you walk down the hallway to do what Daddy has asked you to do, say to yourself, ‘My Daddy loves me. My Daddy would never ask me to do something bad. I’m going to trust my Daddy and stop trying to be the Daddy of my Daddy.’”

God does the same thing with you, over and over again. He meets you in one of the difficult hallways of your life, kneels down before you in condescending love, and asks you to trust his loving and wise rule, even though you don’t have a clue what he’s doing. He knows there are many times when your life doesn’t look as if there’s anyone ruling it, let alone someone wise and good. He knows there will be times when you’ll wish you could write your own story. He knows that at times you'll be overwhelmed by what’s on your plate. He knows that his plan will confuse and confound you. And he knows that real rest can’t be found in understanding. Real rest is found in trust. He knows that real rest is hard work. So he’s willing to have the conversation with you again and again, and he’s made sure that his Word assures you of his rule again and again. (For just a few examples, see 1 Chronicles 29:11–12, Psalm 103:19, Psalm 115:3, Proverbs 21:1, Isaiah 46:9–10, Daniel 4:35, and Ephesians 1:11).

Monday, August 29, 2011

You're Always in School

I remember when I graduated from seminary my dad said, "You know, you're still in school, it's just a different kind of school than you've been in the last three years. Pay attention and learn your lessons well." Dad was right; we're all being schooled every day. So it's appropriate to ask in the never ending learning center that’s human life, who is schooling you? There’s never a day that passes without you being taken to school in some way. Life is really all about teaching and learning. And there’s a way in which neither stops from the first day until the last day of your life. So perhaps one of the most important diagnostic questions that each of us should be asking is this: “Do I approach life as a student?”

If you’re committed to know and understand; if you’re committed to journey from ignorance to knowledge and from foolishness to wisdom; if you’re interested in more than your own plan and perspective, then it only makes sense to learn at the feet of the world’s best Teacher. Who could know more or be wiser than the One who put the universe into motion; who presently holds it together, and who controls its destiny? Who could know more about the true meaning and purpose of life? Who could know more about your identity? Who could know more about the environment in which you live? Who could know more about the foundational questions of life?

The Proverbs say it very well: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” I like John Calvin’s paraphrase of that: “There is no knowing that does not begin with knowing God.” There can be no better place to go to school than to the University of the Lord and there could be no better course of study than the way of the Lord.

His way is wisdom, and wisdom requires understanding his way. So where are you going for wisdom? Whose school have you been attending? Who shapes your definition of the meaning and purpose of life? Who tells you who you are and what you should be doing? Who crafts the way you look at the surrounding world? Who defines your problems? Who instructs you as to how they will be solved? Who helps you to determine your life’s direction? Who tells you what’s functionally important and what isn’t? Who shapes your relationships? Who clarifies your thinking in moments of difficulty? Are you really a faithful student in the school of the Lord, or do you just audit now and then when it’s convenient? Let me suggest the characteristics of a student in the school of the Lord.

A healthy cynicism toward your own wisdom. Sin reduces all of us to fools; but it does something else that’s even more insidious; it makes us believe that we are wise. Independent wisdom was both the seductive temptation and the delusional desire behind the fall. One of the primary reasons Adam and Eve were attracted to the fruit was that it was “to be desired to make one wise.” But eating the fruit didn’t result in wisdom; no, it opened the floodgates of foolishness, and we’ve been drowning in its waters ever since.

You and I were never created with the autonomous capacity to be wise. Wisdom doesn’t come through research, experience, and study. Wisdom comes by revelation and relationship. You only get wisdom from the One who is its ultimate source, the Lord.

A humble sense of need. We all get lulled to sleep by feelings of arrival, by feeling satisfied with our character, our knowledge, and our behavior. We have little desire for further growth. You know what it’s like. We all have the capacity to be too easily satisfied. Because we know more today than we did yesterday, we quit working to know more tomorrow. Rather than gratitude for what God has taught us, motivating us to learn more, we get smug and lazy, quite content to consider ourselves God’s graduates.

A willing and open heart. Willingness and openness are the essential characteristics of any good student. Why, you may ask? Because learning not only shows me what I didn’t know, but it points out the places where what I thought I knew was, in fact, wrong. I can’t tell you how many defensive students I’ve met in my many years of teaching. “Defensive student” is actually an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or low-fat butter. You can’t be defensive and be a student. You have to open up your heart. You have to be willing to be told that you’re wrong. You have to submit yourself to someone who knows better and knows more. Defending what you know won’t lead to either further or corrected understanding. Willingness to listen, consider, and change are in the heart of every good student.

Discernment, focus, and determination. Discernment means that you have to make sure you’re submitting yourself to qualified teachers. Paul says in Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” Once you’re sitting at the feet of those who represent the Teacher of teachers, then continued learning takes focus.

You live in a world of many, many voices. All of them are interpreting your world and all of them are vying for the allegiance of your heart. And you have to remember that learning is a process, not an event. One truth opens the doorway to another truth. One truth functions as an interpreter of a truth previously introduced but now understood more fully. Learning is a lifelong process, and because it is, it requires perseverance.

Commitment to act on what you are learning. Any seasoned teacher will tell you that real learning takes place after the students leave the classroom and practice what they’ve been taught. The God who’s your teacher will orchestrate events, situations, and relationships for the purpose of causing you to live what you’ve been learning. Life is his classroom, and in every new location on each new day, provides a rich and God-given environment to understand more deeply and to live more wisely. So good students always carry with them the commitment to look for ways to apply what they’ve been learning, and they know that as they do, their learning will continue.

By God’s grace we haven’t been left to our own wisdom. We’ve been brought into personal communion with the One who is the source of everything that’s wise and true. So these questions remain: Are you a committed student? Whose school are you attending?

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer should be a daily plea for all of us:

"Teach me your way, O LORD,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies."
Psalm 27:11

Friday, August 26, 2011

Driven to Grace

Perhaps, sometime recently you’ve been thinking, "Life is hard. I don’t know if I have what it takes to live God's way.” Or maybe you’ve wondered how in the world you can do what God calls you to do as a husband or wife, a parent, friend, relative, worker, neighbor, citizen, or member of the body of Christ in the middle of the busyness of your schedule and the catalog of other responsibilities you carry. Maybe you’ve been thinking, “It seems exhausting just to maintain the status quo let alone working to make things in my life better!” Maybe God's street-level call of daily self-sacrificing love for God and neighbor has left you a bit hopeless and discouraged. Or maybe you’ve had to face the fact that you simply don’t have it inside you to fight the good fight in this fallen world. Perhaps yesterday's failure has left you despondent and discouraged. Maybe a situation, relationship, conversation or a book has given you a lens on yourself and, sadly, you’ve realized that things aren’t what you thought. Perhaps you’re feeling the standard is too high and the work too hard.

Maybe all this has revealed how selfish your heart really is and left you feeling weak and unable. Well, I am about to say something that will surprise you. If this has been your response, then you’re in a very good place. Let me remind you that this is one of the uncomfortable gifts that God is working to give you. He’s designed the right here, right now situations of life to expose the neediness of your heart and, in so doing, to bring you to the end of yourself. Why does God do this? He does it because he knows that its only when you abandon your own wisdom, strength, and righteousness that you’ll begin to get excited about his grace.

What is your hope? This may seem strange to read at this point, but it must be said: the hope of your life isn’t all the principles, insights, and perspectives found in Scripture. No, the hope of your life can be captured in one glorious, powerful, and transforming word—grace. Without rescuing, empowering, forgiving, transforming and delivering grace, the principles of the Bible would only leave you discouraged and overwhelmed. God’s grace guarantees that you, in your struggle, will never be alone. God’s grace assures you that when you’ve blown it, there’s forgiveness to be found. Grace means that there’s strength available when you’re weak. Grace assures you that there’s wisdom for the moments when you don’t know what to do. Grace gives you hope when there seems little to be found. Grace enables you to get up and move forward when inside you want to quit or run away. Grace reminds you again and again that you’re not alone.

You see, God knows that this side of heaven there are ways in which we all are weak and unable. There are ways we all fall below his standards. So he’s given us the only thing that will rescue, restore, and mobilize us. He’s given us himself! In his grace he invades our situations, locations and relationships. He comes with power we don’t possess, wisdom unnatural to us, and love beyond anything we’ve ever known. He’s willing to let you see how weak you actually are so that you’ll begin to seek what you can find only in him. What you should be afraid of in your life isn’t your weakness; being needy is a good place to be. No, what you should be afraid of are your delusions of arrival and strength. When you think you’ve arrived, and when you’re convinced you’re strong, you don’t reach out for the incredible resources of grace that God freely offers, which will give you what you need to live in a way that by yourself you could never live.

Jack and Shannon were exhausted and discouraged because they had no hope; nothing they did made things better. They felt helpless and alone with no place to turn. Jack knew that he shouldn’t be so angry, but he was. Shannon knew she shouldn’t be bitter and judgmental, but she didn’t know how to deal with her disappointment. There were moments of peace, but those moments were increasingly infrequent and fleeting. The distance and tension between them seemed to grow every day. Their home was no longer a refuge to either one.

Rather than doing the hard work of dealing with their problems, Jack and Shannon developed the skill of working around their problems. But as their problems grew, it became impossible for them to work around them anymore. Their marriage was no longer peaceful and enjoyable. Their home was no longer a place of rest and retreat. So they sat in front of me, exhausted and discouraged. But I knew that it was the exhaustion and discouragement of grace. I knew that God hadn’t turned his back on them but was with them, in them, and for them. And I knew that God had their attention in fresh and new ways.

I didn’t start by laying on them all the insights and principles about marriage that Scripture contains. I knew that that would leave them even more overwhelmed. No, for the first few weeks we met together, I did only one thing: I worked to help them see Jesus. I knew that when they began to see and trust his presence, promises, power, and faithfulness, they would begin to think that maybe they could hope to experience what marriage was designed to be, and they would be willing to do the hard work that would get them there. I knew that they would live with the assurance that God would always give them what they need in order to do what he called them to do.

Jack and Shannon didn't need a lecture in God's law. They knew their marriage was a mess and that what they were doing was wrong. What they needed was a fresh vision of God's grace; a vision of grace so huge and glorious that their problems would seem tiny in comparison. It was God who drove them to the end of themselves so that they would do the one thing they hadn't done for a long time, reach out for his transforming grace.

Are you reaching out?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Watching your Feet

More than six billion people on this planet are trying to navigate through an increasingly interconnected world of spiritual confusion and moral weakness. Is this all the fault of Adam and Eve’s sin? Not really. Even in their sinless garden, the first man and woman were not equipped to figure out life on their own. We know this because God immediately began to speak to them and direct them as soon as they were created and before the serpent ever uttered a word. By themselves, Adam and Eve would have had no idea who they were or why they existed; no idea how to spend their days. So we see that from the very beginning we were created to be dependent on God, to be willing listeners and humble receivers. God’s Word, spoken directly to man, would give us sure and certain guidance.

Now if this was true of Adam and Eve before sin entered the world, how much more true is it of you and me, who have never known a single sinless day, and are constantly bombarded by unbiblical messages from the world? Certainly, we need to be careful to trust in what we can be sure of.
No passage gets at this need and God’s provision better than Psalm 119:105. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” When do you need a lamp? Well, you probably wouldn’t pack a flashlight for a picnic lunch in the park. But you wouldn’t think of taking that nighttime walk through the woods without one. And which scenario is more like life in this fallen world: a picnic lunch, or midnight in the woods? You mustn’t try to live as if life is a sunny afternoon picnic. Sin has plunged your world into darkness. On any given day you probably encounter far more falsehood than you do truth. So if you’re going to move forward, to make your way without danger, and get to where you are meant to go, you need something to light your way.

You need light for your marriage and your parenting. You need light for your job and your relationships with your neighbors. You need light for your struggles with desires and temptations. You need light to help you deal with the unexpected. You need light to cope with new difficulties that emerge. You need light for when you’ve been sinned against. You need light to deal with weaknesses of the body and hardships of the heart. You need light for those moments when you’re alone and overwhelmed. You need light for all those unknowns that will show up on your doorstep tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and for the rest of your life.

You don’t need to bloody your nose and bruise your toes by bumping into trees and tripping over roots. You don’t have to grope around fearfully in the darkness. The Light of the World has graced you with the light of his Word. It will shine around your feet in the midst of the darkness so you needn’t stumble and fall. Listen to the reflections of that great nineteenth century preacher, Charles Spurgeon on this passage.

"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet. We are walkers through the city of this world, and we are often called to go out into its darkness; let us never venture there without the light giving word, lest we slip with our feet. Each man should use the word of God personally, practically, and habitually, that he may see his way and see what lies in it. When darkness settles down upon all around me, the word of the Lord, like a flaming torch, reveals my way. Having no fixed lamps in eastern towns, in old time each passenger carried a lantern with him that he might not fall into the open sewer, or stumble over the heaps of ordure which defiled the road. This is a true picture of our path through this dark world: we should not know the way, or how to walk in it, if Scripture, like a blazing flambeau, did not reveal it. One of the most practical benefits of Holy Writ is guidance in the acts of daily life: it is not sent to astound us with its brilliance, but to guide us by its instruction. It is true the head needs illumination, but even more the feet need direction, else head and feet may both fall into a ditch. Happy is the man who personally

Monday, August 22, 2011

Prepared Spontaneity

Wise people are not wise because they are prophets who see the future. Wise people are not wise because they can look into men’s hearts and discern their thoughts and motives. Wise people are not wise because they are better at learning from experience. Wise people are not those who’ve been blessed with superior intellect.

Wise people are those who treasure the lamp of God’s Word, seeking out and crying out for the light of truth. In other words, wise people are simply prepared people—biblically prepared and equipped for whatever might come along. People become wise when by God’s grace they are humble enough to accept how unprepared they actually are in themselves. Sacrificing the false god of their own independence, they run to the one place where actual certainty can be found. Then they’re able to live hopefully, productively, and courageously. Then they’re prepared for whatever comes along—not because they saw it coming, but because they’ve been students of the Word of God. They don’t know more about the future than anyone else does. But God, through the wisdom of the Bible, has made them ready for it.

In one sense, this is the secret of “going with the flow” that many people think they are pursuing. In the light of Scripture, however, the nature of all that going and flowing is completely different. It isn’t passive. Its grounded in truth, it understands the real nature of this existence, and its active and attentive.

I call this the principle of prepared spontaneity. You don’t need God-like powers to live a God-honoring life in this fallen world. The perspectives, commands, principles, and promises of the great redemptive story of Scripture will provide all you need to live as you were designed to live; yes, even in this broken world.

You can respond spontaneously and biblically to a myriad of things you didn’t see coming, because God’s Word makes you wise about you, about others, about the meaning and purpose of life, about God and his plan, about basic rights and wrongs, about why things are the way they are and what to do about it, about how we function and how change takes place, and about a host of other things. And because the Bible has made you wise, you’re then ready to face what you neither planned nor expected. You’re ready because you are trusting in what is sure rather than reading the tea leaves of your own viewpoint or passively going with the flow.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Broken House, Skilled Builder.

Understanding and practicing prepared spontaneity can indeed enable you to live productively for God, but I’m not for a minute suggesting life will never be hard again. Every situation, location, and relationship of our everyday lives is in some way broken. As fallen creatures, the best we can ever do in this life is to know how to live in this broken-down house that’s our current address; nothing and no one but God himself, in the fullness of his time, can change where we live. So as we experience the reality of life in this house, sometimes it will leave us confused and overwhelmed. Sometimes it will leave us hurt and angry. Sometimes we’ll give way to envy because the house of someone living nearby seems far less broken. Sometimes we’ll just get weary of the stress of it all and long for a house in perfect repair.

In those moments, those days, those seasons, remember that you are never on your own. The Builder has given you a copy of his repair manual, the Bible. It will help you understand why things are as broken as they are. It will teach you how to live well even in the midst of the brokenness. And it will explain the only way in which repair can ever happen. More than that, the Builder himself has moved into the house with you. You’ve not been left alone. You can rest assured of his presence and his wisdom. His grace has gifted you with both of these.

He who offers you such grace and guidance will never ask you to do what you are not fully capable of doing by God’s grace and indwelling Spirit. He will not demand things of you that are beyond your abilities. Your Lord is tender and kind. He knows who you are and he knows where you’re living. He knows how hard it is to live in this broken-down house because in the flesh he lived here himself. He invites you to walk away from trying to figure it out on your own and he welcomes you to sit at his feet and learn the mysteries of the universe; things so profound that you will see your world in a radically new way; things so practical that you will never live the same way again.

You’re never in a better place than when you give up on you and begin to trust what is sure: the life-shaping wisdom of the One who built the house in the first place.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

You're Not

When I'm
Weary and exhausted
You're not.
When I'm
Confused and discouraged
You're not.
When I'm
Fickle and unfaithful
You're not.
When I'm
Doubtful and disheartened
You're not.
When I'm
Fearful and anxious
You're not.
When I'm
Short-sighted and fearful
You're not.
When I'm
Tired and about to quit
You're not.
When I'm
Lacking in hope and love
You're not.
When I'm
Shocked and surprised
You're not.
When I'm
Angrily withholding grace
You're not.
When I'm
Unfaithful to what I've promised
You're not.
When I'm
Selfish and disloyal
You're not.
Oh, Lord of
Faithfulness and grace
I am so thankful
In those moments
When I'm
Losing my way
You're not.

Monday, August 15, 2011

You Have Limits, You Really Do! Pt.4

Small and Safe

It was a beautiful thing to see. I couldn’t stop looking. The setting was a huge and boisterous crowd, mostly men. Probably many of them had had too much to drink. They were coming out of the stadium, celebrating the big win of the home team. There was celebratory grabbing, shoving, and high-fiving all over the place. In the middle of the crowd was a very little boy, just knee-high to many of the men. You’d think he'd be terrified at that moment, aware of how small he was. You’d think that he’d be overcome by his limits, but he wasn’t. He walked with his head high and a big smile on his face. Why? Because he was with his dad. Wrapped around his little hand was the huge paw of his six-foot-four-inch daddy. The son kept glancing up at his dad, and in return he kept getting those looks of reassurance that put the smile on his face. I don’t think a crowbar could have separated that little boy’s hand from his father’s. He knew his limits and he knew where security could be found. Surrounded by half-drunk guys several times his size, he was at rest.

Have you placed your little hands in the huge and capable hands of your heavenly Father? Have you realized that your life is played out in the middle of a rowdy and overstimulated crowd? Have you accepted how small you really are? Has that made you panic? Or has it given you rest? You’ll only ever know the rest God can give you in this broken world when you begin to accept your limits.

You have real and obvious limits to your wisdom, power, and righteousness. But your heavenly Father is infinite in wisdom, infinite in power and is the only source of true righteousness. Your God has no boundaries, edges, or limitations. In his power and authority, he bows to no one. You are riddled with imperfections, but God is perfect in every way. Therefore, the key to rest is not in continually lying to yourself in a futile effort to convince yourself you’re strong. No, it’s when you humbly embrace your foolishness, weakness, and sin that you’re in the best position to know peace of heart and to live productively in this broken-down house.

So let your smallness drive you to the One who alone is great. There you’ll experience that he’s not only great in wisdom, power and holiness. He’s also great in grace, and he’ll give you what you need. It isn’t your job to be mighty, nor is it within your capacity. That role is reserved for God alone. But like that little boy clinging to his father’s hand, you can know what it means to be both small and safe.

Friday, August 12, 2011

You Have Limits, You Really Do! Pt.3

You Have Limited Power
Suzy comes home from her second grade class one afternoon and says, “Mommy, I have to wear a party dress to school tomorrow.” Mom asks, “Is it someone’s birthday?” “No,” Suzy answers, “We were on the playground and my friend Anna told all the girls that we have to wear party dresses tomorrow.” Just two months into second grade, and a girl named Anna is already acting out of a delusion of self-sovereignty. Little Anna has set herself up as Queen of the second-grade playground, basking in her place at the center of her own little universe.

Yes, we all tend to like to be in control. But accepting that there’s actually very little in life that we do control is a very important spiritual step. If you buy into the delusion of your own self-sovereignty, if you live committed to some grand plan of your own making, with the belief that you have the independent ability to pull it off, two things will happen. You will not submit your life to the plan of Another, and you won’t seek the rest that can only be found in the assurance that God rules over all things for your sake (Ephesians 1:22–23).

Think of the factors that have shaped your life that you had nothing to do with. Think of the location of your birth and how profound an effect it has had. Think of how different things would be had you been born in the jungles of New Guinea, or in the desert of Saudi Arabia, or on some tiny South Sea island. Think of the influence your family has wielded over who you are and how your life has unfolded. You
didn’t choose your mom, your dad, or your siblings, yet each has had a huge effect on you. Think of how profoundly your community and the economy shape your life, when neither operates under your control. Think of how you’ve never had any actual control over the people in your life. Yes, you can influence them for good or ill, but you can’t make them do what you want. Think of how little control you’ve had over your own spiritual life. Yes, there was a moment when you had to exercise faith in the sacrifice of Christ, and you’ve chosen to live as his follower. But you couldn’t have written yourself into the circumstances that exposed you to the things of God, nor could you have opened your own heart to the truth of the gospel.

James calls us to accept the limits of our power with these direct and pastoral words:
Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you don't even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You're a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.
—James 4:13–17

My security isn’t to be sought in the degree to which I’m able to control the people and situations in my life. No, I can accept the smallness of my power because I’m the son or daughter of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s in control, I’m not, and that’s exactly as it should be. There’s one more important limit to recognize.

You Have Limited Righteousness

Does that statement bother you? Actually, it needs to be strengthened. You and I have no independent righteousness at all! All our righteousness has been given to us by Christ. He is our righteousness.

It’s important to accept the fact that there’s never a day in your life that isn’t somehow stained by sin. Sin rears its ugly head in what you desire, choose, think, say, and do, again and again and again. Nothing that emerges from you is perfectly righteous. You simply aren’t pure in the true sense of the word. Yet we’re all tempted to buy into the delusion of our own righteousness. Even when our conscience plagues us because we’ve done something wrong, we try to take ourselves off the hook. We’ll tell ourselves that the news about someone that we just “shared” with a friend wasn’t gossip, but a prayer request. We’ll tell ourselves that that jealous thought wasn’t as envious as it seemed, but was simply a desire for God’s blessing. We’ll tell ourselves that a selfish play for personal power was really just an expression of our commitment to use our God-given leadership gifts.

If you don’t accept your ongoing struggle with sin, if you entertain the thought that your greatest problem in life exists outside of you and not inside, if you try to convince yourself that you’re more righteous than you really are, you won’t seek the forgiveness and righteousness that can only be found in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

You Have Limits, You Really Do Pt. 2

Three Inescapable Limits
So let’s take that big laundry list of limits from the last post, plus all the ones I didn’t name, and bring them down to something a little easier to recall. Every human being is essentially subject to three foundational limits. We are limited in wisdom, in power, and in righteousness. It doesn’t take a great deal of humility to agree with this statement, does it? Think of it this way. What would it mean if, in any one of these areas, you weren’t limited, but unlimited ... infinite? You really would be the fourth person of the Trinity!

Knowledge and acceptance of these three limits is essential to productive living in this fallen world. What a testimony to our foolish pride that we have any trouble accepting them!

You Have Limited Wisdom

There is so much you and I don’t know. There are so many mysteries of the universe that are not yet opened to us. There’s so much we haven’t figured out and don’t yet understand. There's so much we think we understand that will be corrected in the future. Our personal field of research and experience is so small.

Almost every day we’re bombarded with thoughts, philosophies, perspectives, opinions, viewpoints, explanations, and analyses. Yet we can never make enough time to sift through all we’re hearing and experiencing in order to boil it down to what it actually means to distill knowledge into wisdom. Although we never really stop thinking, because of our limited wisdom our moments of greatest insight are frail, tiny, and imperfect. Paul speaks to our finite understanding when he says, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength” (1 Corinthians 1:25). Paul is saying that if God were capable of being foolish, his most foolish moment would be infinitely wiser than your moment of greatest, deepest, fullest insight!
God’s understanding has no limits because he has no limits, and he perfectly understands himself. As soon as we acknowledge that our understanding is less than perfect and complete, we acknowledge its smaller than his to a degree that can’t be measured. Our finiteness is infinitely smaller than his infinity. However much larger than zero our wisdom may be, for all practical purposes its still nothing when stacked up against his.

In what ways is your understanding limited? In practical terms, its limited by your experience, your God-given gifts and abilities, the places where you have and haven't lived, the people who've mentored and influenced you, and much more. We all simply need to admit that we probably don’t know as much as we think we know, whether we’re talking about facts or the wisdom to apply them. And we all need to commit ourselves; to not only to seeking to know more, but to work to deepen and correct our understanding of the things we think we know. We should all be aware and afraid of the pride of knowledge. None of us should give way to the smug assurance of arrival. We should all be living as students, desiring to be truly wise. And we would all benefit from the commitment to listen more, study more, question more, learn more, and speak less.

But there’s another factor we need to humbly accept. Our wisdom is limited by something far more significant than a lack of intellectual capacity. If our mental hard drives were ten times larger and faster, or fifty times, or a thousand times, we wouldn’t be ten or fifty or a thousand times wiser. Why? Because being made in the image of God, we’re not merely intellectual beings, as if we were some kind of flesh-based computer. We’re moral beings as well, and our moral capacity has been corrupted by sin. Where our intellect merely limits our wisdom, our sinfulness warps and degrades what small wisdom we may actually possess.

No matter how much we know, no matter how wise we are, sin can reduce us all to fools; it’s one of sin’s most destructive fruits. What is a fool? A fool is one who sees the world upside down and inside out. A fool looks at what is right and sees wrong, and at what’s wrong and sees right. A fool looks at what’s good and sees bad, and at what’s bad and sees good. A fool looks at what’s true and thinks it’s false, and looks at what's false and thinks it’s true. A fool looks at wisdom and sees foolishness, and looks at foolishness and sees wisdom. Sin does this to us all. We think our way is better than God’s way, that our rules are better than God’s rules, and that what we desire is better than what God has promised. Somehow, in some way, we all do it. We all step over God’s boundaries. We all take our lives into our own hands. We’ve all had to taste the bitter fruit of our own foolishness. Perhaps the bad fruit is debt, or a damaged relationship, or ill health, or spiritual immaturity, problems that are essentially the result of our foolishness.

When you accept the limits of your wisdom, however, you immediately do two things. First, because you can no longer assume you’re as wise as you need to be, you seek true wisdom in the only place it can be found. Here’s where Christianity makes one of its most audacious claims. We believe that wisdom isn’t first a philosophy or theology. No, we believe that wisdom is a person and his name is Jesus! (See Colossians 2:1–5). When I come to Christ, I’m brought into relationship with the ultimate source of insight, wisdom, understanding and truth. His wisdom is without comparison and without limits! Ultimately, you don’t get wisdom by experience and research; you get wisdom by relationship.

But there’s a second thing you’ll do as you acknowledge your limited wisdom. Humbly admitting that sin makes you a fool, you’ll seek rescue and protection. And you’ll accept that what you need to be protected from is yourself! You’ll seek the rescue of the ministry of the body of Christ, the rescue of sound worship and faithful biblical preaching, the rescue of good Christian literature, and the rescue of daily personal Bible study and prayer. You’ll not live as if you’ve arrived. Your embrace of your daily need for wisdom will open your heart. It will change the way you live.

Monday, August 08, 2011

You Have Limits, You Really Do! Pt.1

If you’re to live productively in this broken-down world, it‘s absolutely critical that you humbly admit your limits as a human being and then live within them. The limits on our abilities are extensive and profound. For one thing, because you're a physical being, your life is limited by the laws of the physical universe. The ramifications of this are huge.

You can only be in one place at a time. You can only be in one time at a time. You can’t propel yourself back into the past or launch yourself into the future; your existence is permanently anchored in the here and now.

You can’t think things into existence or alter what has already happened. You can’t remove a conversation from history or redo a disappointing day. You can’t know the details of tomorrow, let alone know exactly where you’ll be in five years!

You can’t decide you’re bored with gravity and choose to be free of it. You can’t make a personal commitment to do without oxygen and remain alive. You can’t read or reliably predict the thoughts of another. You can’t control the thoughts, desires, words, or actions of another human being. You can’t keep yourself from aging, as hard as some of us will try.

You can’t release yourself or your surroundings from the effects of the Fall. You can’t ensure that your body will be free of disease and sickness. You can’t independently free yourself or another from sin. You can’t reach in and alter the content of your own heart, let alone the heart of another. You can’t plant faith, courage, and hope into the soul of another person. You can’t ensure that your government will have integrity or that your community will be safe. You can’t make your acquaintances respect you, and you can’t ensure that your family members will treat you with love. You can’t keep yourself free from natural and environmental disaster. You can’t control the economic environment, making sure that it doesn’t alter your financial health. You can’t lay out a personal life plan and know it will unfold without interruption. You can’t ensure that your life will be easy and satisfying.

When you stand back and consider, you’re confronted with how little is actually under your control. When you stop and look, you’re faced with your smallness, your weakness, and your limits. But don’t get discouraged and don’t panic; reality is a healthy place to be. Think about it. Only when I humbly embrace my weakness, humbly admit my limits, and humbly recognize how small I actually am, can I begin to reach out for the help of the loving, powerful, and gracious Redeemer who is the true source of my strength, wisdom, and hope. Only then can I begin to function as an instrument in his powerful hands, rather than being in his way; because in forgetting who I am and who he is, I’ve been trying to do his job.

You don’t have to fear your limits. They were designed by the God who is the definition of everything that is knowledgeable, understanding, wise, and true. Your limits are not a flaw in his creative plan. They are the product of his wise choice and the fulfillment of his intentions. God made you limited, in exactly the way you are.

Yes, you’re dependent. No, you’re not independently capable. But be very clear on this: your limits are only dangerous when you forget them and try to do things you were never designed to do. When you stay within your limits, you’re exactly where God wants you; these indeed are part of their purpose. Your limits are meant to drive you in humble and worshipful need to your Lord for the rescue, restoration, wisdom, and strength only he can give you. And he’s promised never to turn a deaf ear to the cry of his children (Psalm 34:15). He’s welcomed you to cast your cares on him (1 Peter 5:7). He’s said that he’ll never leave you by yourself (Deuteronomy 31:6).

Admitting your limits is not a sign of weakness; it’s an essential ingredient of mature faith.

Friday, August 05, 2011

A Welcome to Honest Living

The Bible is honest about life in this fallen world. This honesty is a sign of God’s love. He’s the wise and gentle father preparing his child for that walk through a tough neighborhood on the first day of school. He’s the faithful friend praying with you before you face an unusual challenge. He’s the caring physician informing you of what to expect from the disease he’s just diagnosed.

A primary goal of all this diagnosis, description, warning, comfort, and counsel is to call us to certain ways of living. Why would you need to be “completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love,” (Ephesians 4:2–3) if you were not living in a community of flawed people where this kind of character is essential? Relationships in a fallen world are hard. Ministry to flawed people is fraught with difficulty. Character is needed because the world is broken.

In being honest, the Bible welcomes you to be honest as well. In its refusal to minimize, diminish, or deny the harsh realities of this broken-down house, the Bible calls us to face the facts as well. Things are not okay around us or inside us. The brokenness presses in on every side. What should we do with all this? Let me suggest five ways to pursue the character qualities to which God calls us, and in that way prepare ourselves to participate more effectively in the great task of restoration.

1. Determine to be honest
Do not permit yourself to give way to location amnesia. Look the real world squarely in the face. Locate those places in your life where things are not the way they were meant to be and determine, by God’s help, to be a reconciler and a restorer.

2. Let yourself mourn.
If we are honest and look the world in the face, we will be sad at what we see. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mathew 5:4). The condition of the world we live in should make us weep.

3. Fight to be dissatisfied.
I agree with C.S. Lewis that one of the big problems for Christians is not that we are dissatisfied, but that we are far too easily satisfied. We can become so content with the material sights, smells, sounds, and tastes of the physical world that we lose perspective. But if we’re honest, if we mourn to see the broken world around us limping its way into hell, it will make us sick inside.

4. Be glad.
You and I also must fight to not lose our joy and awe. Even as we fully acknowledge this broken world, we must lift our eyes to a greater truth. The Sovereign Creator God has become our Savior, and through him we are the beloved adopted children of God the Father. We must require ourselves to celebrate this every day, for all of this is the result of his grace. We must remind ourselves that Emmanuel is with us wherever we are, and in the middle of whatever we are facing.

5. Live with anticipation.
We must recall again and again that this broken home is not our permanent address. By an extraordinary act of God’s grace, all his blood-bought children are guaranteed to be part of a much better neighborhood. Someday we will all live in the New Jerusalem on a street called Shalom, where brokenness will be no more.

Last week your boss gave you your walking papers, or your teenager rebelled to your face, or you were diagnosed with a disease, or a tree fell on your garage, or your best friend gossiped about something you said in confidence, or your aging body ached, or your church disappointed you again, or you pulled your back out, or your vacation proved to be more work than retreat, or you found out that your exorbitant city taxes are being misused by a politically hungry elected thief, or you learned that someone stole your identity, or you felt drawn to something you knew was wrong.
Last week you encountered the world as it really is: broken. How did you do? Did you long for a better world? Did you seek and celebrate the grace that is yours until that better world is your final home?

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Between a Rabbi an Two Imams

It was a wonderful opportunity. I was asked to participate in an open discussion about death and dying from a patient’s perspective. The event was held at a local medical college. It was the first ministry situation I’d ever been in where I’d sat between a rabbi and two imams. My Jewish and Islamic colleagues were all very warm and articulate, but I had an unfair advantage. My advantage had nothing to do with my gifts, ministry experience or skill. My advantage was simply this; I came armed with the gospel. I carried something into the room that no one else had, and as the evening went on the practical, real-life glory of the gospel glistened with greater and greater beauty.

The men on either side of me were gentle and caring. They knew their faith well, but they’d one distinct disadvantage: the only message they brought into the room was the message of the law. The only hope they could give was the hope that somehow, someway, a person could be obedient enough to be accepted into eternity with God. Their message was basically this, you’ve either performed your way into acceptance with God or you haven't. The more they spoke, the more beautiful the the promises and provisions of the gospel looked.

The most significant moment of the evening came when we were asked about what we’d say to a family of someone who had committed suicide. It was at this moment that the gospel shined the brightest. I said, “Suicide doesn’t change the paradigm. Think with me: who of us could lie in our bed during the last hours of our life and look back and say to ourselves that we’ve been as good as a person could be? Wouldn’t we all look back and have regrets about things we’ve chosen, said, and done? None of us is able to commend ourselves to God on the basis of our performance. In this way, the person who’s committed suicide and the person who hasn’t are exactly the same. Both of them are completely dependent on one thing and one thing alone, the forgiveness of a God of grace in order to have any hope for eternity.”

You and I share identity with the hypothetical suicidal man just as we share identity with David, the adulterous and murderous king of Psalm 51. Our only hope is one thing — God’s “steadfast love” and his “abundant mercy” (v. 1). We can’t look to our education, or family, or ministry track record, or our theological knowledge, or our evangelistic zeal, or our faithful obedience. We’ve one hope; it’s the hope to which this ancient psalm of confession looks. Here’s that hope in the words of a wonderful old hymn, “Jesus Paid It All”:

Since nothing good have I
Whereby Thy grace to claim,
I’ll wash my garment white
In the blood of Calvary’s lamb.

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain;
He washed it white as snow.

I said good-bye to the rabbi and the two imams and got in my car to drive home. But I didn’t just drive; I celebrated! In fact, I sang aloud in my car the hymn quoted above. You see, I was very excited as I thought about the evening, not because I’d had such a golden opportunity to speak the gospel, but because by means of God’s grace I'd been included in it!

Monday, August 01, 2011

The Sweet Harvest of Forgiveness

Yes, you can choose to carry that list. You can choose to punish the other. You can choose for disappointment to become distance, for affection to become dislike, and for a desire for companionship to morph into a search for an escape. You can taste the sad harvest of relational détente that so many people live in, or you can plant better seeds and celebrate a much better harvest.

The harvest of forgiveness is the kind of relationship everyone wants. Forgiveness stimulates appreciation and affection. When we forgive one another daily, we don’t look at one another through the lens of our worst failures and biggest weaknesses. As we talk honestly, weep and pray, and repent and reconcile, our appreciation for one another grows and our affection deepens. We quit looking at the other person as the enemy. We stop protecting ourselves from him or her and begin to work together to build walls of defense against the many threats to a relationship that exist in this fallen world.

Forgiveness produces patience. As we respond God’s way in a daily lifestyle of confession and forgiveness, we begin to experience things we never thought we’d see in our relationships. We begin to see bad patterns break, we begin to see one another change, and we begin to see love that had grown cold become new and vibrant again. We experience hard moments when God gives us the grace not to give way to powerful emotions and desires that would take us in the wrong direction, and we see the practical help and rescue his wisdom gives us again and again. All this means that we no longer panic when a wrong happens between us. We no longer take matters into our own hands in the panic of hurt and retribution. We no longer try to be the other’s conscience or judge. No, we are much more relaxed in the face of failure and willing to patiently follow God’s commit-confront-confess-forgive plan. We’ve come to understand that his grace is bigger than any difficulty we’ll ever face in any of our relationships. So, we’re able to rest and wait, knowing that God is at work, even when we’re exhausted and discouraged, and that he’ll not quit working until his work in us and our relationships is complete.

But there’s one more thing. Forgiveness is the fertile soil in which unity in relationships grows. When you’re living every day in the confession and forgiveness pattern, you’re forsaking your way for a better way. Your relationships are no longer a daily competition for who’s going to get his or her way. You no longer see the other person as a threat, wondering just when he or she will once again get in the way of what you want. You’re not obsessed with your comfort, pleasure, and ease and with the fear of when your friend or relative will interrupt it. No, forgiveness puts you on the same page with each other. You’ve both submitted your desires to the desires of Another. You no longer try to build your own little relationship kingdom. No, you now, together, live for God’s kingdom. You now live with the same set of expectations and rules. You now have the same way of thinking about and addressing problems. And together you celebrate what God's given you, both aware that you could never have done it yourselves. You now experience unity as never before, because forgiveness has liberated you for a higher purpose and a better daily plan.

But there's yet one more thing. Forgiveness is the fertile soil in which unity in marriage grows. When you're living every day in the confession and forgiveness pattern, you're forsaking your way for a better way. Your marriage is no longer a daily competition for who’s going to get his or her way. You no longer see your spouse as a threat, wondering just when he or she once again gets in the way of what you want. You're not obsessed with your comfort, pleasure, and ease and with the fear of when your mate will interrupt it. No, forgiveness puts you on the same page with each other. You've both submitted your desires to the desires of Another. You no longer try to build your own little marriage kingdom. No, you now, together, live for God’s kingdom. You now live with the same set of expectations and rules. You now have the same way of thinking about and addressing problems. And together you celebrate what God's given you, both aware that you could never have done it yourselves. You now experience unity as never before, because forgiveness has liberated you for a higher purpose and a better daily plan.

Remember, God put people in our lives to show us a better way. So we learn to make war, but no longer with one another. Together we battle the one enemy that's after us and our relationships. As we do this, we all become thankful that forgiveness has freed us from the war with one another that we used to be so good at making.