To be a Christian is to shift your hope, from the standard by which you previously measured yourself, to a new standard, God’s standard. God’s standard is the gospel—Jesus commands people everywhere to repent of their standards and trust in him. Jesus is perfect. He is everything we could never be. He did what we could never do—perfectly love God and people. The gospel is the good news that God’s standard for us is no longer “Do this and don’t do that” but “Trust in Jesus who was perfect in your place.”
The legalist in us is tempted to doubt God’s grace, to want to attain some level of “perfection” in our lives so that we don’t have to rely entirely on Jesus’ work. We don’t want to let go of the old law that used to rule over us, “Do this and don’t do that.” It was easier that way—at least then we could measure our performance. But the fact is, legalism kills—it doesn’t lead us to the righteousness that God requires of us and it blinds us from seeing Jesus as the righteousness that God gives to us.
Let go of your legalism. Your obedience is good and necessary, but it is secondary. Yes, you should strive to change. Yes, you should obey the commandments. But your law-keeping isn’t the standard—it won’t make or break you. This is the freedom we have in Christ—the freedom to obey God from a place of joyful obligation, not fearful duty. This will change the way you see yourself and the way you treat others.
Be like Paul, who let go of his legalism so that he could lay hold of God’s gift of righteousness in Jesus (Philippians 3).
I have a hard time believing that God is okay with my mistakes. I know he can handle my sin, but when it comes to my lack of planning, my oversight, and my ignorance, I tend to think that there’s no room for forgiveness. Good thing I’m wrong.
Have you ever felt like this, like there are things in your life that are completely your fault because you failed to pay attention to details, plan ahead, save enough money, spend time with the right people, pursue the best opportunities, make the wisest choices, or just use common sense? Do you ever feel like God looks down on you and says, “That one’s on you,” as if he only cares about your sin and suffering, but not your “oops” moments?
We often push our mistakes into a gray area outside of grace, where the blame rests entirely on our shoulders. And maybe it does, but we also carry with that a false sense of rejection and failure. In a twisted sort of way, we often feel better about our situation when we sin than we just mess up. We think, “Jesus died for my sin” but we’re not quite sure what Jesus did for our goofs and screw-ups. The good thing is that Jesus died for these too.
There’s a story in the Gospel of Mark about the disciples’ poor planning (8:14-21). Just after Jesus had fed 4,000+ people with a few loaves of bread and some fish, they got into a boat and headed out to another town. As it turns out, the disciples only brought a single loaf of bread with them to feed a boat-load of men. And as usual, they started to argue with each other about who was responsible for not packing a brown bag. Somebody made a mistake. It wasn’t sin; it was just stupid.
But Jesus’ response was typical too. He basically said, “Hey, look guys, I just fed thousands of people with a fish sandwich. I can feed you too.” The disciples knew that Jesus was powerful—they had seen it in the miracle. What they overlooked though was that the point of the miracle wasn’t power—it was provision. He was willing to feed a massive crowd of people who had left home without packing a lunch, and he would take care of his disciples too.
Jesus’ best friend, Peter, knew this well. He cut off a man’s ear in a moment of misguided passion, and Jesus simply picked up the man’s ear and put it back on his head. Jesus graciously corrected Peter’s rash decision. He provided a new ear for the soldier, and another chance for Peter.
Grace doesn’t just save us from hell; it can save face too. We’re going to make mistakes, and when we do, we have to rely on the gospel in those moments like we would any other time. It’s not a problem for Jesus to clean up our messes—he’s really good at making things new again. So ask God for what you need, regardless of why you need it.
In my previous post, I mentioned that the gospel is essentially a criticism against us and a hope for us. It is a criticism against us because it exposes our failures and imperfections, and it is a hope for us because it offers us a way out of our total inadequacy. Recognizing that criticism is a sanctifying grace from God will change the way we respond to criticism, right or wrong.
But criticism isn’t always something that happens to us; it is also something we do to others, or should be. That’s right: we need to be criticizing each other.
Now before I go on, let me qualify what I mean by “criticize.” We tend to think of criticism in strictly negative terms, as a harsh or severe judgment against us. But criticism can be positive too, and doesn’t always have to be so “heavy.” The reason criticism seems so heavy to us is because we have created a culture that avoids “judging” and evaluation on a personal level. We expect criticism in D.C., in Hollywood, and on Wall Street. On a professional level, we get criticism—it makes sense to us.
But when it comes to having our personal life objectively evaluated by another person and found wanting, it’s a different matter altogether. We get really defensive, really fast. That’s because we have made our personal habits and practices “off-limits” to others. Sure, we invite people into our lives as friends, but too often we keep them at arms-length so that they cannot really get to know us, because if they did, they might have a problem with what they find. Like Adam and Eve, we hide from those who really know what’s going on in our hearts. It’s just easier this way.
This is where the gospel and community come together so clearly. The gospel serves to build community, both by inviting us into God’s family, and then by continually pushing us toward hope in Jesus. Christian community reflects the gospel in that it too is fundamentally critical and hope-giving. We like the hope-giving part; we tend not to like the critical part so much.
But think about it. If God intends to make us more like Jesus, then he will not stop until the job is done. And until the job is done, he will chip away at our egos and idols, and replace them with confidence in Jesus. But he doesn’t do this with a lightening bolt or magic wand; he does this through community, a community built by his Spirit and his Word, a “critical” community.
Criticism should be a regular part of our interaction with one another as a church. It will not always be heavy and severe. Sometimes it will be a gentle word of rebuke, or a good push in the right direction. And sometimes it will be a severe warning, or a devastating blow to our pride. Nevertheless, criticism is necessary for sanctification and fruitfulness. We need to have others telling us how we’re doing. It’s just better this way.
Avoiding criticism is why church-communities never really solidify, or end up unraveling. You can never build good community if people aren’t willing to be completely and aggressively honest with one another, and you can’t hold community together if you’re overlooking sin and immaturity for the sake of “peace.” Sure, criticism tends to be a downer; it has a way of making smiles disappear. But the goal of criticism is to strengthen faith and hope in Christ—it leads to real peace.
So if you want to be in community, expect criticism, and don’t withhold it from those who need it. We need to be honest with each other. It’s the only way we’re going to mature and become the kind of disciples Jesus calls us to be.
I’ll be completely honest with you: I can’t stand to be criticized. And it’s not that I think I’m above criticism—certainly not. It’s just that criticism has this way of . . . crushing me. That’s right—it knocks the breath right out of me, and leaves me dizzy on the floor.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one to get angry when someone has a problem with me or something I’ve done. But I do lose my cool, for sure. For me, that means I toss out everything I’ve ever learned about grace and acceptance through Jesus, and I become a raging Pharisee for a moment, completely devastated that my self-righteousness didn’t pass someone’s test, completely frustrated with myself and others.
Here’s the thing: nobody loves to be criticized, but we all know that it’s going to happen, and it will probably happen pretty regularly for the rest of our lives. So are we going to lose our cool when our best efforts don’t impress others? Or are we going to see the redeeming value of criticism in light of the gospel and receive it with thankfulness?
A good rule of thumb for us to keep in mind is that God is continually working to increase our capacity for criticism. That’s because sanctification, the process of being shaped by God’s grace to look more like Jesus, is essentially criticism. What God is doing in us day by day through testing and trials and suffering is exposing parts of our hearts that are not fully submitted to him. He is demonstrating to us the ways in which we must learn to trust him and stop trusting in our own insight and experience and ability. God is criticizing us—he’s pointing out our sin and weaknesses. He’s being good to us.
Think about it: the gospel itself is a criticism against us. It says, “You are not good enough. You need Jesus. You must change. You must repent. You need grace. You can’t change on your own. Nothing you do impresses God.” God is perfect; we are not. Does that make you feel small? It should.
But the gospel isn’t just a criticism against us; it is also a hope for us. The gospel opens our eyes and hearts to the mercy of criticism; it becomes a means of grace to us. It gives us a hope to filter our inadequacy through. It serves to keep us knit together where we used to fall apart. Painful words don’t have to send us into fits anymore. We don’t have to hide our faults or get defensive when they’re pointed out.
Instead, the gospel gives us the full assurance that God completely accepts us, and that our inadequacies and imperfections and failures aren’t final judgments against us, but occasions for God to demonstrate his special love and grace toward us. We can face our critics with love and hope, knowing that they are God’s instruments for chiseling away our own self-reliance.
So the lesson for me is this: don’t be crushed by criticism. Take it for what it is. Many times it is legitimate, and we can learn from it and thank God for it. Criticism has a way of stretching us out and increasing our ability to handle the difficulties of being imperfect and living with imperfect people. It’s God’s way of changing and redeeming us.
Does that make you feel loved? It should.
You will be vindicated. One day, every struggling effort, every overlooked word, every unseen work, every frustrating moment will be resolved, and you will never again be swallowed up by insignificance.
We were all put under the curse of triviality when our father, Adam, held God’s word in contempt, as a trivial matter. Ever since then we have been groaning under the weight of the gigantic rock that is suffering and smallness–we’re always losing something and unable to do anything about it, in any ultimate sense.
But the great news is that one day there will be a grand finale to futility. Our smallness will no longer be a hindrance to our progress. We will never be great like God; we will always be small and ineffective in comparison to him. But as it is now, our smallness results in pain and loss; as it will be then, in the New Creation, without sin, our smallness will not in any way smother us and limit our enjoyment of God and his creation–we will be completely free from triviality.
Romans 8 reminds us that the entire cosmos was placed under the curse of futility, and like Adam and Eve, was subjected to an existence of deterioration and incompletion. But soon our groaning will be answered with redemption, on that day when Jesus Christ destroys the devil and death and makes a new place for the Redeemed to dwell with God (Revelation 21).
On this day, we will bid farewell to futility and be satisfied with the perpetual fruitfulness that our souls long for. This is the hope of our faith in Jesus, that he would vindicate all of our suffering under the curse, as the one who himself was vindicated by his Father, when he raised Jesus from the dead, the seal of futility itself.
If we understand the goal and purpose of every moment, that God is uniting all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:10), then we really should not be afraid. Too often, we forget that everything belongs to Jesus and is running its course just as God has planned.
Instead, we ought to be assured that God is not overlooking us who are looking to him for help. All of our plans and purposes are summed up in God’s big plan to make Jesus the center of everything. If our hope is in Jesus, we do not have to be frightened by the unknown because, in reality, there is no unknown, at least, not to God. He has uniquely designed and executed his perfect, wise and good plan, and it will come to pass–you cannot mess it up.
Some people would hush us up for all of this talk about things being so certain, about every moment having a divinely-designed destiny. But we ought not be shaken by their uncertainty. God has told us what is going on–it’s not like we’re in the dark anymore, that is, unless we refuse to be in the light of Christ.
The human heart is like a red carpet: we are always the star of our own lives. In the unnoticed moments of our regular living, many times we are wishing we were noticed and that our lives were better-than-regular (speaking for myself . . .).
This longing to be noticed is not all bad. Having friends and being a part of other people’s lives is significant. There is a story unfolding, and we all want to know what is going on–we all want front row seats to the main event.
But a closer look at this craving reveals that our knack for being noticed is about much more than being a part of the story–it is often about being at the center of the story, on the red carpet, where everyone is taking notice of our accomplishments and appearance.
The brilliant citizens of Babel offer just such an example. In Genesis 11 we read that they had built a skyscraper to shore up their significance, to “make a name for themselves.” Lest they go unnoticed, they united themselves to make themselves immortal, forever remembered. Like a long red carpet, the tower laid out a path from the lowly dust of the ground to the great eternal skies, where God himself was believed to dwell. They were ascending; they would be noticed, even by God.
But God smashed their tiny tower, and he will smash our towers too if we think we must be noticed. Our pursuit of star power is none other than the original sin: the arrogant attempt to ascend to the place of God, to know all, to control all, and essentially, to be at the center of all.
It is not a problem to be noticed; it is a problem to make a living of being noticed. The engineers at Babel experienced the same sort of greed and groping we all experience; it is the perpetual plight of lost and forgotten sinners. We all want to be noticed, to be significant, to do something great–we all long for God to know us and see our lives. This desire is normal and good and is meant to lead us to Jesus, the one who takes notice of the forgotten.
But God will pay not attention to those who would ascend to him in a tower made by their own hands. We must know God through Jesus Christ, the man who was lifted up on a cross stretching from the ground to the heavens–a man who is Jacob’s Ladder, reaching from our brick-and-mortar dwellings to the throne of God itself.
Cain got violent when Abel was noticed by God–he tried to hide his brother from God in order to take his place on the red carpet. Judas, too, was foaming at the mouth for fame, even trying to jump start his success with thirty pieces of silver. But Cain and Judas did not find what they were looking for. When they made a move to have it all, God cast them down.
In God’s story, Jesus alone stands at the center of everything.
What is the balance between God’s sovereign election of people to salvation and our gospel-sharing to those who are being saved? Can we get along with the staunchest Calvinist and Arminian? Sure we can.
I think the key is having confidence in God’s grace to save and enough compassion to wish that God would save. So we understand that grace draws a person to repentance, that repentance is not merely a decision to believe in Jesus, but rather an entire revolution of the soul, in which the old administration of evil passions is overthrown and a new, divine government is inaugurated in our hearts. And we also understand that this does not happen while we are sleeping, and we don’t get a notice in the mail notifying us that our old nature has been evicted and replaced by a new one, as if we were unaware, being completely passive and naive.
I can get along just fine with those who place a strong emphasis on electing and effective grace, the grace of God that compels the heart to surrender, as if it had no other choice. I do believe this is true. And yet I can get along with those who would call people to intentionally and willfully put their hope in Jesus and voluntarily surrender their will to God and cry out for mercy and forgiveness. This is true as well.
I am confident that God saves whom he will, and I am broken for those he has not saved yet, so moved by compassion, I ask him to bring them to faith in Christ. And then I look for real pain and tears and questions in those people’s lives, expecting that their hearts will begin to fail them, that they will begin to grope for God and desperately try to find peace for their souls. I believe God likes to hear me pray and even commands me to pray for the redemption of rebels. So with confidence in God’s grace and compassion for rebels, I pray to God and tell the truth to them.
There’s no need to be paralyzed by uncertainty. You can be confident in God’s grace and you must have compassion for those who need it. Be confident that God will respond to your compassionate truth-telling.
I have been mostly absent from Gospel Fodder over the past year and a half due to the exceptional workload I’ve been under. I was concluding my seven-year journey on the path to a Master of Divinity, and Biblical Hebrew was there to welcome me at the finish line, cheering (and mocking) as I slowly crossed the line (praise God I did).
Along with Hebrew, I have been planting a church in the Northern Kentucky / Cincinnati Metropolitan Area during this time as well. This has consumed most of my time, but now that Hebrew is out of the way, I hope to be more consistent in posting my little thoughts on the Bible and life.
Sometimes other people just don’t get it, right? And you’re one of them, and so am I. The nature of Christian community is such that people from a million different backgrounds, with a million different angles on life, and a million different contexts are forced and forged together by a common faith in Jesus. God has done this on purpose to show us the power of the gospel to unite everyone who is born again into the body of Christ.
The Bible is heavy on the practical implications of its communal theology. It is everywhere telling us how to get along with one another, and how to love and serve one another, as Christ has done for us already and commanded us to do for life. There are many times when believers may come to an impasse, where it simply seems there is no way to work toward an agreement, but there is a way.
Here is the key to getting along: love one another. This will manifest itself in at least two ways between people who can’t seem to find a common ground on deeply held convictions: through maturity on the part of the one with the “weaker” conscience, and through humility on the part of the one with the “stronger” conscience.
Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 are two very practical passages that show us how to deal with our differences. The bottom line is that those who supposedly know better and understand the liberty they have through faith and new life in Christ are to surrender their freedoms for the sake of others. Freedom, then, is not for liberty, but for serving. Freedoms are given to be sacrificed. Though our consciences are not bound by human opinion, they are certainly not independent of human opinion. Those who know better and who see more clearly how to apply the law of Christ in their lives are not thereby given the freedom to look down on those who have not “caught up” with them, as it were. In fact, they are actually called to “step back” to be with those who are behind them. Here is a call for humility.
On the other hand, you can ‘t be a baby forever. We are told to “grow up” into Christ (Ephesians 4) and in other places we are told that staying on the milk is a sign of childeshness. It’s okay to be young in the faith, but it’s not okay to prolong immaturity. Those with the weaker consciences, who are offended by the freedoms of others, are told to grow up and get over it. It is not the job of the stronger person to make this point; this is the Spirit’s work, which he does by the Word and through a humble community of loving Christians. He leads perfectly; we tend to get behind others and push, too hard and too fast.
At any rate, those who are so easily offended by the practices of other believers are, in these passages, given a sneak peak, as it were, into God’s perspective, and thereby gently encouraged to lay down unfruitful and unnecessary traditions, though never before their consciences allow them. Here is a call for maturity.
So then, there is a way to knock down walls that separate us through a love that is both wise and gentle, mature and humble. There will be times when we cannot continue on the same mission-bound boat (as Paul and Barnabas once parted ways), but our differences must not cause bitterness between us or serve as occassions to cause one another to stumble over the stones we are throwing at each other. There is only one Stone that causes people to stumble: Jesus Christ. All other stones are meant for building up the church, not destroying it.
You don’t need a terrorist in your city to understand terror–it’s instinctive. We are all terrorized daily. Not by bearded, middle-eastern men, and probably not by schizophrenic white guys who’ve got a problem with their fathers. And most likely not even by little old ladies who are suspicious of everything and take it out on everyone.
Terror reigns over us by virtue of being human. Because to be afraid is to know evil. It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about.
But however this terror manifests itself in our lives, we can be sure it only does so insofar as we live under the dominion and power of death. There may not be a terrorist in your town, but there is one in your home. We are ruled by the “cosmic powers” of darkness and “spritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). In fact, I wish it were simply a matter of tracking down a maniac running through our city streets. But the truth is our enemy runs through the streets of every town in every country, all over the world. And what’s worse, we’re on his side. We are “sons of disobedience” acting on carnal, unruly impulses (Ephesians 2:2-3). We may not have guns and chemicals, but we have sex, money and fame, and by all standards, those have done far more damage than guns ever will.
Our fear is instincitve because it resides within us–we are ruled by fear. And more significantly, we cannot escape. We may not be curled up under the staircase, shaking and shivering, but our fear is nevertheless displayed through worrying and grabbing and craving and hoarding and manipulating and controlling. Our problem in not being dysfunctional or disordered; our problem is being dark and unaware. We are born under terror. We all know what the world is about.
But the gospel knows what the world is about too. Death does not have to have dominion over us. We do not have to be ruled by fear. In fact, perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18). The pressure of living in slavery to sinful cravings is very real and very powerful–we all know this too well. Like a relentless oppressor, Satan lords our sin and shame over us, and rightly so–we truly are guilty and helpless apart from Christ. Like an evil task master, Satan continually drives us with a whip, pushing us to deny God by the pursuit of pleasure and provision and power apart from God. We are literally enslaved to our flesh, enslaved to sin and death.
But Jesus knows good and evil too, and he is not afraid of knowing what this world is about. He endured the pressure of sin, the burden of brokeness, and relentlessly chased down our enemy to the cross, where he put him to open shame (Colossians 2). Have you laughed in the face of a terrorist? Jesus did, and in Christ, so do we. Our enemy has been made a mockery–his terror has been tamed. We do not need to grab for food and clothing–Jesus will provide. We do not need to lust after things to find pleasure–Jesus will satisfy our bellies. We do not need to manipulate for power–we will reign with Jesus in perfect peace and justice.
Don’t turn away from it all like a blind man–look to Christ. Don’t give in to the demands of death–surrender to Jesus who mocks death. Don’t give in to the pressure to let your fear drive you to be a terrorist–an out-of-control person who hurts others for selfish gain. Let the gospel crush your fear and get out from under the pressure of knowing what this world is about.
Maybe you don’t get goose bumps when you hear your national anthem, and that’s okay. But you probably have a song that does make your hair stand on end, that sweeps over you like a wave of zealous engergy. And that’s okay too. The real issue is the truthfulness of the tune that brings the tears.
Anthems are part of our heritage and inheritance. We have been singing from the beginning, and we will sing forever with Christ in the New Creation (not all the time, but always). The reason anthems are so significant to us is becasue they present stories about truth in a climactic manner, or at least stories about perceived truth. They might be pop-chart material, but any anthem will appeal to an underlying significant truth which is permanent, such as love, whether love for country, king or crede.
And their permanence is not the only significant element. Anthems seek to draw people together under that perceived truth, in order to fight and even die for that truth. Anthems are grand stories about enduring victory and legacy which call out to people and draw them together for a passionate pursuit of and fight for the truth. Ultimately, anthems are about rejoicing because they anticipate the conquering of opposing antitheses and enemies. Anthems are about the lasting glory of champions.
I say perceived truth because not all tunes are true tunes. For instance, take “Uprising” by Muse, a modern day anthem if there ever was one. Here is a battle cry for the masses: It’s time to stop being pushed around by the “fat cats”–we need to rise up and take the power back–we need to take matters into our own hands–no worries, we will be victorious. Highly politically-charged, of course–it’s so easy to be down on government (therein is a great gospel reality as well). This anthem has everything: swelling choruses, a glorious mantra, chanting, triumphant chord progression, marching rythm, spiritual overtones, and a revolutionary message.
But this song is not true, at least not in the way it intends to be. It is true that we are controlled by an oppressor, but it is not the government or any other fat cat at the top; it is an altogether different enemy, one far more fierce and aggressive–the real fat cat, who prowls around looking for lives to devour. It is Lucifer, who led a host of angels in rebellion against God and now holds the world captive by the power of death. “Uprising” sounds true because it rebels against supposed oppression and calls people everywhere to rise up and die for freedom, as do national anthems. But these songs only get half the point. They beckon us to die for lesser kings and causes, whoever and whatever they might be. “Uprising” may have different motives than “Star Spangled Banner” but both are voices crying in the wilderness “Prepare the way for the Messiah.” Only problem is, they are hoping in the wrong messiah.
Now our national anthems shouldn’t be about Jesus, to be sure, although recognition of God’s sovereign rule is appropriate. But in our national anthems and in “Uprising” and in any other anthem we ought to hear a common theme throughout, one which calls us to come together for reasons that transcend our differences, one which calls us to lasting joy.
But if we think we will find this joy in rebellion against any man or movement, we are hopelessly deluded. Only the gospel can give us the freedom and joy we are looking for. Any anthem of man is in rebellion against God, because like Lucifer, we foolishly believe he is the grand oppressor, hiding behind laws and lies. Before we can find lasting joy, we must confess that God is not our oppressor, but that sin and death and Satan are. We must confess that God is our enemy because we are evil, not because he is. And we must abandon the anthems of sinful men which call us to fight against one another and God, and sing the anthem of Christ which declares the victory of his blood and resurrection over the grave.
Here is our song for eternity, our anthem forever, a song about the lasting glory of our King and Champion: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).
Now that’s a song to get goose bumps over.
All of us are inwardly prone to stock our own shelves. Ask my 2 yr. old son: the more cheerios the better, and keep ’em coming,because it’s better to have too many than to run out. Of course, I completely understand where he’s coming from. He’s like me, and I’m like my father, Adam. He liked to stock his shelves too.
Jesus described two types of people that do the wrong thing with the things they have. In Luke 12 he describes a rich man that had so many crops that he tore down his barns and built bigger ones to store his surplus. He got cocky and hoarded his possessions. He gave no thought to giving it away.
The other man Jesus describes in Matthew 25 was a servant whose master had given him a single piece of money to invest while he went away on a journey. He returned to find that his servant had not gained anything on the money, but not because he lacked opportunity. The servant lacked courage. He was afraid. He feared he might lose his master’s money, so he went and dug a hole in the ground and hid it. He gave no thought to investing it.
Both of these men were fools, the latter even called “wicked and lazy.” The reason is that they did not understand that they were only stewards of what they had been given. The rich man believed he had gained his wealth entirely on his own. The lazy servant believed his master was cruel to have put so much pressure on him; he did not even try to do what his master had commanded him to do. Both stewards lost it all in the end because they either hoarded or hid what they had been given to use with wisdom and charity.
You and I are equally tempted to hoard or hide our possessions and gifts. We are naturally driven to stock our own shelves, to keep at least a minimum of what we think we need. And yet, the servant with only one talent was condemned for not putting it to good use. He hoped to break even, but in the end, his talent was in the hole, and so was he.
If anyone is in Christ, he is a servant of God, and all that he has is to be invested for the good of others and the glory of God. Do not boast if you have much, and do not be afraid if you have only a little. Pray about what you are to do with anything that you have. If you have a good barn, be content with that. And if you have a shovel, don’t hide what needs to be put to use. Barns and shovels are for helping, not hoarding and hiding.
I know you’ve heard it before in your own words, and most certainly in someone else’s words. It is not difficult to pull out of aconversation, or to identify in a line-up of accusations and insults. Even in our most honest and helpful words, there it is, betraying core intentions that might easily be missed if we did not listen intently. By nature, we are deceivers. We have been born with slithering tongues, and it is our habit to hiss our way through life. Our serpentine ancestry has left us an inheritance of deceit, and it is one we ought to abandon.
Right now I’m looking at dozens of smiling faces (I’m at a local gym–evidently, not doing what I should be doing). It’s hard to look at these faces and say, “They lie” but the reality is, we all do. Not all the time. Maybe not even most of the time. But really, I am not even talking about the event of lying; I am speaking of our nature as liars. We lie to ourselves. We lie to others. We lie to protect. We lie to benefit. We lie to manipulate. We lie to get ahead. You will agree, even if you do not lie regularly, you have lied and probably will lie again. Why?
Our tongues are held captive by our nature, and our nature is to betray. We may be civilized betrayers, but we are betrayers nontheless. This is a broad, judgmental statement. But it is true. The Scriptures condemn our words and our tongues and call us to consider what hope we might have to redeem them and use them for the good of others and the glory of God. I am most guilty of using my tongue to harm others–I easily find myself first in line under charges of conspiracy to confuse meaning, distort truth, and control others with my words. But where sin abounds, so does grace.
Here is the point: your tongue stands as a witness against you, condemning you and leaving you, ironically, speechless before God. In Adam, your tongue has been subdued by darkness–this explains your daily battle with that muscle in your mouth. But Jesus Christ has restored our tongues–he has brought our words into the light, both to expose their guilt, as well as to deliver them from that ungodly domain of self-righteous spin. Through the gospel, all those who know Jesus by faith are ripped from the side of Folly and bound permanently to the hand of Wisdom. He speaks truth to us, and being given a new nature, we speak truth to one another.
There is hissing in the hearts of men. We grumble. We complain. We strive with one another. It’s on TV. It’s in the grocery store. And yes, it’s here in my local gym (as I hear two little brothers fighting over who gets to sit in the stroller). But over all of this is the voice of Wisdom, calling us to abandon our birthright and to receive a new nature and a new inheritance, secured by Wisdom himself, Jesus, King of the Tongue. Here is a birthright you can treasure without regret, yours or anyone else’s. Here is a word you can trust.
Eminem might be a better preacher than most you already know. The reason is that he can tell a story and make it significant. He understands how to use the gravity of reality to weigh in on story-telling. And for this reason he has made a lot of “disciples.”
I’m not a true fan of Eminem’s music. I don’t own any of his material, and I can hardly recommend his music to anyone for entertainment value, although there is some value. I disagree with his worldview and do not approve of his lifestyle, but I do agree with what he is saying throughout all of these: pain and suffering and achievement have a context; that is, they fit into a larger-than-life drama that includes us all.
When I hear him on the radio I usually find myself drawn into his story. He talks a lot about his kids and his failures and fears, and about how hard his life has been, or at least, how hard it was. He mentions his father a lot, or the absence of his father, and he talks about his mother’s disapproval and disbelief toward him. Okay, so he’s had a hard life (but he has gotten rich off of talking about it).
Eminem is not a mentor to me and I don’t want to imitate his way of life. But I do hope that I could tell the gospel story at least as compellingly as he tells his “gospel.” He prods and provokes. He shocks and questions. He demands a response. He taps into a reality that is broad enough to win the attention of millions of people. And all of this with a message that offers no real hope, only empty promises. Nevertheless, I think we could learn a lesson from Mr. Mathers: people listen to life.
So use your own life to tell the story of Jesus’ gospel. It was never meant to be sterilized and divorced from experience. If Jesus has loosed your tongue and redeemed your words from hell, then use them both now to lay a story on people’s minds and hearts that can’t easily be cast off. Make them think. Compel them to consider Christ. Draw them into the grand, eternal drama of a crucified King, and describe with force the power that raised him from the dead and has done the same to you. People will listen to your life.
I don’t know about you, but I spend an insane amount of time wondering about my future. I am not completely sure about my motives for doing so, and I ask God continually to expose any mixture of sin in my pondering. But one thing is clear: the life I am living now was the one I was dreaming of 10 years ago, though it may not seem like it.
Vain glory aside, we should aspire to achieve good things for Jesus in our lives. He did not save us from sin and give us over to futility, for sure. However, this does not mean he will make Bonos of us all (not that all of us want to be like Bono). Most of us will just be plain and normal.
But this is where glory is. If anyone would be great, he must be least, remember? Accomplishing great things in your life that make a difference in other lives is more than likely going to happen in ordinary, unspectacular ways, unnoticeable to the proud eye. Jesus stooped to be human. His humiliation was essential to his exaltation. He calls us to stoop as well. Humble yourself, and he will exalt you in due time (1 Pt. 5:6).
Stop wondering when things will come together for you, when your hard work will finally pay off. The truth is that it is paying off now, if indeed you have been working hard to be faithful. Stop looking for your break. Stop looking for the payoff. Enjoy the place where God has put you. Put sin to death. Walk in the Spirit. Boast in God’s grace. Obey Jesus. If you are doing these things, are you not the person you hoped you would be 10 years ago? And if you continue to do these things, will you not be the person you want to be 10 years from now?
Your shinning moment is now. The small things you have been entrusted with might be all you are ever entrusted with, so do them well and do them with joy. You will probably be doing the same things in 10 years.
We have been called to a glory that is not obvious to most. Be content with being lowly and normal. We are called to die, and we will not do it if we are looking for fame and renoun. Humble yourself. God will lift you up when he wants. This is glory for sinners.
There is a certain triumphal theme that you can find in just about anything–any book, any song, any movie, any conversation,anything. Even if it is anti-triumphalistic or downward spiraling, there is at least an antithematic confession, much the same as black betrays that there is white and the night admits that there is a sun. This theme is blood, and more specifically, a blood that courses through all of creation. Some see it, some don’t. Some love it. Some hate it. But at any rate, everyone knows it’s there, for better or for worse.
This blood is the storyline behind our lives. Literally, we are bound together by this blood. It is the blood of fidelity. It is the gospel of Jesus. This is what we long for. We are blood-thirsty in this respect, in that God has made us to want a long and steady love, one that is faithful and does not abandon or leave to despair. Sin has turned us into murderers. The desire that should have driven us to Jesus’ blood is corrupt and now pushes us to rebellion against God and one another. Our longing to see “sameness” and a continual pattern of enduring love has been quenched instead with temporary illusions of love, leaving us empty and angry, demanding the blood of others.
I hate divorce because it is a betrayal of love, and yet, Jesus’ said that the seed of adultery is in my own heart. I hate murder because it is faithless, and yet, Jesus said that I have already murdered because I have been sinfully angry at others. Bad headlines make me sick, and yet I have done much that, if the world knew about, would make them far more sick. We crave fidelity, and yet we betray it with every breath. We are always trying to get at something great but our sinfulness has doomed us from reaching it. We know there is something out there we should be seeing, but we are blind.
God has told us what it is we wish we knew. He has revealed himself to us in his Son, Jesus. And Jesus has given us a context for our living. He is the author of the story. He has put everything together in a single string. And it is the gospel, the story of his blood, that holds everything together.
Natural people do not love Jesus’ blood. In fact, I, in my sin, demanded Jesus’ blood in a murderous rage, along with the Jews and Romans. The very blood which makes sense of life has been made detestable by sin. But this same blood makes the heart new; it makes our desires new. It is the blood of faithfulness, offered up to the Father by Jesus, given to the world by God.
The greatest desire of the human heart is to know an eternal faithfulness. This is the theme of our living. We want a single story, like a thread that runs through everything, holding it all together. And we find this thread in Jesus’ gospel–in a love that faithful and true. Our anger and justice are stirred when we see infedility and betrayal. God has put this in our hearts to move us toward the cross.
Look for this thread in your life. It is everywhere, in all things, at every turn, in every thought. We were made for fidelity. You were made to recognize this thread. Do not despise it, or it will condemn you. But love it, and it will save you.
I hate to spend money. Mostly because I don’t always do it the right way. And when I spend it on myself I feel especially guilty. But I think this has a lot more to do with desire than discounts. There is a signature craving from God in our hearts, one that cries out for consistency. That extra, unneeded shirt I bought makes me cringe because God has made me that way.
This is a problem we all wrestle with in a multitude of ways. Advertisements can be annoyingly persuasive or repulsive because they alert us to our own discontent with what we already have, or they move us toward cynicism because we don’t believe their promises anymore. They continually remind us that we are needy, and that we capitalize on that neediness.
My wife has a real struggle with food. She wonders what is appropriate to eat and how much and how often. Again, you can move toward obesity or anorexia, but at both extremes and in between there is a longing in my wife’s heart to know the proper use and pleasure of the foods God has given to us.
Why is the Winter a time of reflection, and Spring a time for starting over? Why is a new day refreshingly hopeful? Why is it that we stick to our favorite (fill in the blank) when countless other choices are available?
In all of these things, we crave fidelity. We long for steadfastness. We hunger for something permanent that is true, like a thread that runs through our lives, beginning before us and going on when we are dead and gone. The sun rises and sets for this very reason. And that’s why we love to see it day after day.
Fidelity has been displayed most gloriously through Jesus, God’s Son. In a way, bad commercials are so lame because they aren’t like Jesus, and a balanced diet somehow seems right because it reflects self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit. But it is more than “the right thing.” It is the right thing, over and over again. We build our lives around those things which we can depend on.
That extra shirt I bought is another reminder that I don’t always spend money the right way. And as I’m driving away from the store I struggle with knowing if I will ever be the perfect spender/saver/giver. This unrest is normal, as a sinner. And it drives me back to Christ. He is always faithful. His fidelity is what I long for, and what we all want, even if we don’t recognize it.
How far-reaching is the shrill voice of the nice lady in the row behind you on Sunday mornings? At least to your ears, right. But that shrill voice is more shrill than you might imagine, at least to demonic hosts in the far corners of creation. In fact, every voice in your congregation that lifts a song to Christ goes well beyond ceiling tiles and shingles to the ends of the heavens.
Ephesians says that through the church God has made known his manifold wisdom to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (3:10). Later Paul writes, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12). You might be Country Bumpkin Church way back in the sticks, but I guarantee you that galactic forces can draw a map to your front door. As much as it may seem not to be the case, our lives reverberate through the corridors of space. We have a universal ministry, an intergalactic significance. We are a cosmic church (thus saith the Lord).
So what does this mean for us? It means that we cannot forget the greatness of our message, nor the significance of our warfare. We are revealing the mystery of God in Christ, both to mall employees, neighbors, and classmates and to supernatural beings beyond our eyesight. In us, God is displaying the glory of his marvelous grace by transforming our stony hearts into bleeding, pulsating, living, breathing muscles, much in the same way he called light out of darkness, and breathed life into Adam’s limp body.
Doctrine drives ethics for this very reason, because we are spectacles, and the world is watching to see if God really does raise the dead. And he does. He raised me from the dead, and he will do it again. Jesus has made my shrill voice like a trumpet, and I like to play it for spectators.
Here is my message: God raises the dead. God saves. God judges. God delivers. God condemns. Be reconciled to God through Jesus, or be judged by God through Jesus. Hear the voice of God’s beloved Son, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It’s the same message penetrating the darkest pockets of our galaxies, the one I like to sing about on Sunday mornings with the lady behind me. We know we’re cosmic spectacles, but then again, that’s the whole point.
I have to be honest: I daydream a lot. And to be painfully honest, it’s mostly about myself, that is, I’m usually the star. This has been a constant temptation for me, and I am ashamed to say that it’s in my head because, well, it’s in my heart.
Fantasies aren’t always sexual. But you know that, right? But just to be clear. So that you can pull yourself into this post, understand that by “fantasy” I mean an imaginary reality (isn’t that a contradiction in terms). To be more accurate (and less nonsensical), it is an imagination unrestricted by reality. And I do mean to leave out any supernatural or sci-fi element, because I’m broadly referring to the stuff that goes on in your head while you should be doing other things (and not to the things that happen in outer space in the distant future).
I’ll get to my point. The fact that I often daydream about things that aren’t realistic betrays my lustful, craving heart, which longs to know what God knows so that I can do what only God can do. I guess daydreams can be good. Sure. You can daydream about saving your family from a burning car, or giving a speech that brings thousands to tears and moves masses into action. Or even less open to the accusation of arrogance, you could imagine a day when a close relative comes to know Jesus. Okay. But these are at least somewhat realistic, considering of course the power of God’s grace to do the impossible, namely, raise the dead (talk about imagination unrestricted by reality).
But fools are led astray by passions they are unable to rein in. Fantasy is the stuff of fools because fantasy is wandering, albeit only in the head. I am acting like a fool when I dream about how great I am or what reality would be like if such and such were true about myself or my life. Daydreaming reveals cravings in my heart, for better and for worse, and many times, they are for the worse. My heart likes to think things about myself that simply are not true.
Pay attention to yourself when your mind wanders (again, nonsensical–can you do these at the same time?). When you catch yourself rushing out of a burning building with 7 small children, 3 cats, a fish, and your beautiful wife–stop and ask yourself, “What?!” Or better yet, “Why?” Why did your heart go there? And this is a good example. We often wander off onto not-so-heroic paths, paths we might be embarrassed to mention, like when you dream you are America’s next American Idol, or are voted “How-Could-We-Not-See-He-Was-Destined-For-Greatness” at your 20 year reunion. Pay attention to the details of your carefully crafted script. Is it any wonder you got the leading role?
Our hearts are dead wrong a lot of the time. Not a day goes by that I don’t realize how utterly helpless I would be if the Holy Spirit did not lead me into truth, if God’s Word was not available to me, for my pleasure and instruction and transformation. My heart is hopelessly deceitful. It tries so hard to trick me. I fight myself, literally. I get angry at my heart. “Why!!!! Livin’ On a Prayer for the fourth time today!” I need Jesus, who is Wisdom. He conquers demons and darkness, and yes, he conquers daydreams too. I do dream of the day he returns to restore my crooked heart and decaying world, and that is good to dream about. I just pray he gets me off the stage of my heart before I declare myself an idol. Clearly, it would be folly to dream a dream so dumb.