Friday, July 15, 2011

The Grace of Confession

I often wonder how many people are stuck in their relationships in a cycle of repeating the same things over and over again. They repeat the same misunderstandings. They rehearse and re-rehearse the same arguments. They repeat the same wrongs. Again and again things aren't resolved. Night after night they end the day with nothing reconciled; they awake with memories of another bad moment with a friend, spouse, neighbor, co-worker or family member and they march toward the next time when the cycle will be repeated. It all becomes predictable and discouraging. They hate the cycle. They wish things were what they once were. Their minds swing between nostalgia and disappointment. They want things to be different, but they don’t seem to know how to break free, and they don’t seem willing to do the one thing that makes change possible—confess.
They tell themselves they'll do better. They promise they’ll deal with their issues. They promise they’ll seek God's help. They decide to invest more time and energy in the relationship. They promise they‘ll talk more. But its not long before all the promises fade away. It’s not long before they’re in the same place again. All their commitments to change have been subverted by the one thing they seem unwilling to do: take the focus off the other and put it on themselves. Here's the point: no change takes place in a relationship that doesn't begin with confession. The problem for many of us is that we look at confession as a burden, when it’s actually a grace.


1) Its a grace to know right from wrong. Change is all about measuring yourself against a standard, being dissatisfied with where you are because you see that you’ve fallen short of the standard, and seeking the grace to close the gap from where you are to where you need to be. James likened the Word of God to a mirror (James 1:22–25) into which we can look and see ourselves as we actually are. It’s impossible to overstate how important this is. Accurate diagnosis always precedes effective cure. You only know that the board is too short because you can place it against a measuring instrument. You only know that the temperature in your house is too hot because you have a measuring instrument in your house (called a thermostat). The Bible is God’s ultimate measuring instrument. Its meant to function in each of our lives as a spiritual tape measure. We can place ourselves and our relationships next to it and see if we measure up to God’s standard. God’s Word is one of his sweetest gifts of grace, and open eyes to see it clearly, and an open heart to receive it willingly, are sure signs of God’s grace as well.

2) It’s a grace to understand the concept of indwelling sin. One of the most tempting fallacies for us—and for every human being in this fallen world, is to believe that our greatest problems exist outside us rather than inside us. Despite this, the Bible calls us to humbly confess that the greatest, deepest, most abiding problem each of us faces is inside, not outside of us. The Bible names that problem — sin. Because sin is self-focused and self-serving, it is antisocial and destructive to our relationships. Here’s where this goes: it requires each of us to say that our greatest relational problems exist inside us, not outside us.
You know that you’ve been gifted with grace when you’re able to say, “My greatest relationship problems are inside me not outside me”

3) It is a grace to have a properly functioning conscience. Many relationships travel a one-way road in the wrong direction. It’s the direction of a hardened heart. Let me explain. In the early days of a relationship we’re very concerned with winning the other person, so we work to be loving, kind, serving, respectful, giving, forgiving, and patient. But before long we begin to let down our guard. We quit being so solicitous. Selfishness begins to replace service. In small ways at first, we allow ourselves to do and say things that we’d never have thought of doing and saying in the beginning. We become progressively less giving, less patient, and less forgiving. We begin to look out for ourselves more than we do for the other. At first, when we do these rude and selfish things our conscience bothers us, but it won’t be long before our heart gets hard and our conscience doesn’t bother us anymore. Its a perverse ability that all sinners have — to become progressively more comfortable with things that should shock, grieve, and embarrass us.

It’s a sign of God’s grace when our consciences are sensitive and our hearts are grieved, not at what the other person is doing, but at what we’ve become. That sensitivity is the doorway to real and lasting change.

4) Its only grace that protects us from self-righteousness. This is the other side of the coin. Its important to understand the dynamic that operates so subtly, yet so destructively, in our relationships. Because we all suffer from some degree of personal spiritual blindness — that is, we don’t see ourselves with accuracy—and because we tend to see the weaknesses and failures of the other person with greater accuracy, we begin to think of ourselves as more righteous than the other person. When we do this, and in some way we all do, it makes it hard for us to think we're part of the problem; and it makes it difficult to embrace the loving criticism and correction from the other person. This means that its not only blindness that prevents us from change, but assessments of personal righteousness as well. If we’re convinced that we’re righteous, we desire neither change nor the help that can make it happen.

When both people in a relationship think they’re righteous and the other person isn’t, each becomes more dissatisfied, impatient, and bitter, while the condition of the relationship worsens. But there’s hope! Grace decimates self-righteousness. Grace opens our eyes and softens our hearts. Grace deepens our sense of need. Grace faces us with our poverty and weakness. Grace causes us to run after help and welcomes us with open arms when we come. In any relationship, when we quit arguing about who’s the more righteous and begin to be grieved over our respective sins, we can know for sure that grace has visited us and will work change in our relationship.

You see, confession shouldn’t be this scary thing we do our best to avoid; and sin, weakness, and failure shouldn’t be the constant elephant in the room that we all know is there but can’t talk about. Confession should be seen as a wonderful gift that every relationship needs. It should be liberating. It should be freeing. It shouldn’t be seen as a moment of personal loss but as an opportunity for personal and relational gain. Our confession should be propelled by deep appreciation and gratitude toward God, who has made it possible for us not to be afraid any longer of being exposed. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we don‘t have to hide or excuse our wrongs. We’re freed from posing as if we’re perfect, when in our heart of hearts we know we’re not. We can stare problems in the face with hope and courage, because Christ has made real, lasting, personal, and relational change possible.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Shortest Distance Between Points

Growing up, it was the source of endless entertainment. My dad was the guru of shortcuts. He lived on an endless quest for the shortest route to all of the places to which he regularly drove. He was never satisfied with his latest discovery. He was always after a better, time-saving route than the last one. My mom used to kid my dad that most of his shortcuts were in fact “longcuts.” I remember one thing my dad would say in his search for the shortest distance to wherever, “The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.”

Have you ever wondered what David means in Psalm 27:11 when he says "Teach me your way, O Lord, lead me on a level (straight) path because of my enemies"?

The life to which God has called us is the ultimate straight line. This line starts with dead rebels and ends with people alive and reformed into the likeness of God’s Son. The problem is that we all tend to have a "shortcut" mentality which leads us into "shortcut" problems. Our living is seldom a straight line. The paths that we think will be easier and better are often not better at all. They seldom end up being better routes to the life which God has designed for us to live. What seem to us to be be better paths are actually self-oriented "longcuts" that actually take us away from where God wants us to be. Somehow, someway we all take daily detours of thought and desire that move us off the straight path that God has placed us on by his grace. In magnificently patient, transforming love, he has redeemed us from the jungle of our rebellion, lust, autonomy, foolishness, and self-focus and placed us on the narrow pathway of his; the grace of his Son. The problem is that we all tend to get tricked into taking detours that get us off God’s path and into trouble.

Our problem is twofold. First, we get diverted because we are impatient. The trip to where God is taking us isn't an event; it’s a process. And the process isn’t easy. God’s road takes us through the heat of the sun, through storms and cold, through the dark of night, through loneliness and confusion. All of these things are under God's control and are meant to change us as we journey. But we get tired and impatient and begin to convince ourselves that there’s a better way. But that isn’t all.

We also get diverted because we're disloyal. Our hearts aren’t yet fully committed to God’s glory and his kingdom. So we don't keep our eyes focused on the kingdom to come that’s in front of us. No, we're looking all around, still attracted to the shadow glories of creation, because we still carry around in us allegiance to the small-agenda purposes of the kingdom of self. In our impatience and disloyalty we see pathways that appear easier, more comfortable, or that appear to offer us things that we haven't found on God's pathway; but these side-routes only ever lead to danger, destruction and ultimately death.

There’s no time when this temptation is more powerful than when we’re facing difficulty. This is exactly what the verse we are considering recognizes. When you’re being hammered by the enemy, it’s very tempting to debate within yourself whether God’s way is the best way. It starts with bad attitudes. Perhaps you begin to doubt God, doubt his goodness, and question his love. Perhaps you give way to anger, impatience, and irritation. Or maybe you begin to allow yourself to envy. You wonder why the guy next to you has such an easy route to walk, when yours is so hard.

These bad attitudes lead to bad habits. You quit praying because you reason that it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. You stop reading your Bible because those promises don’t seem to be coming true in your life. You quit attending your small group because you can’t stand to hear the stories of God’s love that others share, when your life is so hard. You even begin to give yourself reasons for missing the Sunday worship service; reasons you once wouldn’t have given yourself. Before too long there’s a coldness and distance in your relationship with God that would have shocked you in the early days of your journey. Your difficulty has deceived you into thinking that you’ve reason for wandering off God’s straight path, and your attitudes and habits have placed you on the dangerous side-paths of the kingdom of self.

So David's prayer is an important request for all of us. We all step off God's path in some way and we all need restoring grace. Have you got off God’s straight path? Have you given your self reason to take side-paths? How about praying, once again today, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path”? Thankfully, our Savior Guide doesn't leave us to our wandering. He relentlessly seeks us and places us back on His straight path and for that every son and daughter, still on the journey, should be deeply thankful.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Danger of Self-Defense

Maybe it's happen to you? A friend tells you he wants to talk to you, and when you get together, you realize that what he really wanted to do was confront you. You’re not really excited about being told bad things about yourself, but this is your friend, so you’re willing to listen. As he begins to lay out his concerns, you begin to feel pain inside. You can’t believe what you’re being told about yourself.

Silently and inwardly you quickly give yourself to well-developed self-defense tactics; marshaling arguments that you’re a better person than the one being described. You want to believe that what you’re hearing is a distortion, lacking in accuracy and love, but you know you can’t. You’re devastated because deep down you know it’s true. Deep down you know that God has brought this person your way. Deep down you know what you’re being required to consider is an accurate description of yourself. Such a description is found in Genesis 6:5, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” What a devastating description! It’s hard to swallow, isn’t it? You want to think that this biblical description is of the people who are more sinful sinners than you and I are. But this verse isn’t describing a super-sinner class. No, it’s a mirror into which every human being is meant to look and see himself. It’s capturing in a few powerful words what theologians call “total depravity.” Now, total depravity doesn’t mean that as sinners we are as bad as we could possibly be. What it actually means is that sin reaches to every aspect of our personhood. Its damage of us is total. Physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, motivationally, socially, we’ve been damaged by sin. Its ravages are inescapable and comprehensive. No one has dodged its scourge, and no one has been only partially affected. We’re all sinners. It reaches to every aspect of what makes us us. Sadly, when each of us looks into the mirror of Genesis 6:5, we see an accurate description of ourselves.

Now, you have to ask yourself: Why is Genesis 6:5 so hard to accept? Why do we spontaneously rise to our own defense? Why are you and I devastated when our weakness, sin, and failure are pointed out? Why do we find confrontation and rebuke painful even when they’re done in love? Why do we want to believe that we’re in the good class of sinners? Why do we want to believe that we’re deprived, but not depraved? Or that we are depraved, but not totally? Why do we find comfort in pointing to people who appear to be worse sinners than we are? Why do we make up self-atoning revisions of our own history? Why do we erect self-justifying arguments for what we’ve said or done? Why do we turn the tables when someone points out a wrong, making sure that they know that we know that we’re not the only sinner in the room? Why do we line up all the good things we’ve done as a counter-balance for the wrong that’s being highlighted? And why do we do all these things again and again?

Why do we find our sin so hard to accept?

There’s only one answer to all of these questions. There’s only one conclusion that fits. We all find this so hard to accept because we studiously hold onto the possibility that we’re more righteous than the Bible describes as being. When we look into the mirror of self-appraisal, the person we tend to see is a person who’s more righteous than any of us actually is!

We were at the end of a wonderful service at Tenth Presbyterian Church that had been punctuated by a powerful sermon from the Ten Commandments. I immediately turned to my wife at the end of the service and said, “I am so glad our children were here to hear that sermon!” She didn’t even have to say anything to me. She simply gave me that look. You know, the one that says, “I can’t believe you’re actually saying what you’re saying.” Immediately I felt embarrassed and grieved. It’d happened to me so subtly and quickly. I’d placed myself outside of the circle of the sermon’s diagnosis. I’d accepted the fact that whatever Exodus and Phil Ryken were describing didn’t include me. And I was glad that the people in my family who really needed the diagnosis had been in attendance.

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1–2). If the Bible’s description is accurate, then God’s grace is our only hope. Thank God that he’s given us big grace! Each one of us needs grace that’s not only big enough to forgive our sin, but also powerful enough to free us from the self-atoning prison of our own righteousness. We’re not only held captive by our sin, but also by the delusion of our righteousness. Resting in God’s grace isn’t just about confessing your sin; it’s about forsaking your righteousness as well. So God, in grace, will hurt your feelings. He’ll expose your delusions of righteousness for what they are. You see, your Savior knows that it’s only when you abandon your righteousness that you’ll run after the righteousness that can only be found in him.