Transitions…

Have you faced a transition lately? I’ll be facing another one in a month as I finish up my interim chaplaincy position at Wheaton College, and many of the students that I know are graduating this very weekend. They are facing what I call a 1st Quarter transition and I a 4th Quarter one—hopefully, not the 2-minute drill.

People respond differently to change; some get excited, some nervous, and some become fearful. There is actually a phobia for change called Meta (change)-thesio (place, setting)-phobia; it is in most cases accompanied by feeling of insecurity and lost-ness, and some very real physical symptoms. However, regardless of how you feel about it, change will happen; it is inherent in life. It is said that each cell in your body changes every 7 yrs. You know, if that is true then I’ve been married to 6 different women in my 43 yrs. of marriage!

And so, since life is full of change, there are two unshakeable things that you need to remember. These are things that will never change and will provide a core of stability to the otherwise chaotic nature of transition:

The first thing to remember is the faithfulness of God and his love for you: The hesed v’emet– the utter faithfulness or the steadfast love of the Lord which never ceases and His mercies which never come to an end. Hesed is the Hebrew word for God’s covenant love for His people. It is a love or loyalty that nothing can shatter because it is based upon God’s choice and not on his emotion. Since God has chosen to love us in Christ with His covenant love, there is nothing that can make God love us more  nor lessen His love for us. Remember Paul’s confidant confession at the end of Romans 8 that “nothing (death, life, angels, rulers, etc.) will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Do you really believe that? If you do, why would you ever fear a transition?

The second thing to remember is that you are standing in the grace of God. “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 hope in the glory of God” (Romans 5:1,2) Let me use your imaginations for a minute and draw you a word picture that will emblazon especially verse 2 on your mind. Ready? Imagine a blank page… draw a circle with a little opening on the right side…  outside the circle next to the opening draw a Cross and then a dot next to the Cross- that dot is you. Color the circle the color of grace, whatever color you think that is; color everything outside the circle a non-grace color.

Now, extend an arrow from the dot thru Cross into the circle…”through him we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand.” Now close the circle with the dot- you- in the middle. Where are you? Is there an opening in the circle so that you can fall out? What about when you sin? Let’s diagram that… draw a squiggly line down toward bottom of circle and write word “confession”; now, draw a solid line arrow back up to the dot.

Let me ask you; when you fall into sin, do you fall out of grace or back into it? You fall back into “this grace in which we stand.” You must remember this and you must believe that this is true. Through faith in Jesus Christ, you have peace with God and have obtained access into his grace in which you will always stand. 

You will never mature in your relationship with God if you are constantly evaluating what he thinks of you on the basis of how you feel, or by your performance. You must have the confidence that you are in Jesus Christ, and therefore are standing in the grace of God and nothing will ever change that status. You did not achieve God’s grace by your performance neither will you lose it by your stumbling. You are being “kept by God’s power through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last days.” (1 Peter 1:5)

And so as you face the changes of life, remember these two unshakeable things; that the steadfast love of the Lord for you never ceases, and that the grace of our Lord never changes.

Don’t tell me what to do!

Our obedience forms the backside of the tapestry of God’s plan for the world. I’m sure you’ve looked at the back of a beautiful weaving where the strands of different colors run every which way with little purpose or order. We are called to obey the voice of our Shepherd even though we often do not know why nor do we see the purpose in such obedience.

Elizabeth Elliot once wrote about her visit to a Welsh sheep farm where she saw a champion Scottish collie at work. “This is what Mack (the dog) had been trained for, and it was a marvelous thing to see him circling to the right, circling to the left, barking, crouching, racing along, herding a stray sheep here, nipping at a stubborn one there, his eyes always glued to the sheep, his ears listening for the tiny metal whistle from his master which I couldn’t hear….Sometimes, tearing at top speed around the flock, Mack would jam on the brakes, his eyes blazing but still on the sheep, his body tense and quivering but obedient to the command to stop. What the shepherd saw the dog could not see–the weak ewe that lagged behind, the one caught in the bush, the danger that lay ahead for the flock.”

I am reading through Jeremiah and Ezekiel, and there is one thing that stands out to me. Over and over we read, “The word of the Lord came to the prophet—do this, do that.” Rarely did this word come with an explanation; perhaps that came later, but the prophet was expected to obey–just like Mack, and just like us.

There are two essential things to realize about such obedience. First, it is intimately entwined with trust. It is not a blind obedience based upon fear, but a willing obedience based upon faith. We trust the voice of our Shepherd; we believe that he gave his life for us and would never abuse us or lead us to destruction. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. And I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:11, 27, 28).

There is a second essential thing about obedience about which we hear little. Our obedience affects other people. To put it succinctly; your obedience affects me, and vice versa. We do not live to ourselves in our own private little world. We may think we do and deceive ourselves into thinking that we can do what we want and it’s nobody’s business—bull. There have been a couple of incidents on the Wheaton College campus this past week which you may have read about that illustrate how the actions of one person can seriously affect many.

Just think of the damage I could do to you if I went off the tracks.

Abram could have stayed in Ur of the Chaldees; Moses could have retired in Pharaoh’s court; Joseph could have taken advantage of the perks in Potiphar’s house; Jeremiah could have quit in the pit; Ezekiel could have taken a compassionate after his wife died; Jonah could have run from God (Oh wait, he did); Joseph could have divorced Mary; Paul could have gotten a little place on the Mediterranean after he was stoned (with rocks) and left for dead at Lystra; Jim Elliot and his four friends could have chosen to stay with their families instead of going to evangelize the Auca Indians of Ecuador; and Jesus could have stayed in heaven! All of these obeyed God’s will because they trusted him. Their obedience were the threads on the backside of the beautiful tapestry of God’s plan for the world by which all of us have been affected.

Elizabeth Elliot asked the sheep farmer whether Mack had any idea what was happening with the sheep. She was told that the dog “did not understand the pattern–only obedience.” And so she concluded, “There are those who would call it nothing more than a conditioned reflex, or at best blind obedience. But in that Welsh pasture in the cool of that summer morning, I saw two creatures who were in the fullest sense in their glory: a man who had given his life for the sheep, who loved them and loved his dog, and a dog whose trust in that man was absolute, whose obedience was instant and unconditional, and whose very meat and drink was to do the will of his master. ‘I delight to do your will,’ was what Mack portrayed. ‘Yea, thy law is written in my heart.'” (The Glory of God’s Will, Gateway to Joy Press)

And shall I pray Thee change Thy will, my Father,
Until it be according to mine?
But no, Lord, no–that never shall be, rather,
I pray thee blend my human will with Thine.
(Amy Carmichael)

 

A Faith Driven By Commitment…

In the Book of Daniel, chapter 3, we read of three teenagers that made a choice to follow God even though it could have cost them their lives. The text portrays an unabashed anti-Semitism against these young men. They were required to submit to a political act of swearing allegiance to the Babylonian government by bowing down and worshiping a huge image of King Nebuchadnezzar. To these young men such an idolatrous act would rob God of His glory. When confronted with this life or death situation they refused to bow and said to the King (3:16-18), “We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O King, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:16-18)

Do you get the impression that these teens were nominal believers who suddenly started to get serious about their faith? Rather, I think they had already made a choice to obey God more than they wanted to escape their pain. It was the crisis that made this very personal commitment visible to all.

About 400 years ago, a Jesuit by the name of Francis Xavier landed in Japan and spent two years establishing the church. In just a generation, Christianity rose to 300,000 followers. At the end of that century, nationalism started to influence the Shoguns to change their policy regarding the church and to view Christianity as a Western influence and non-Japanese. Shishaku Endo’s historical novel “Silence” (coming out as a movie this year) recounts how all Jesuits were expelled from Japan and all Christians were required to renounce their faith and register as Buddhists. The government would go into the villages and place on the ground an image of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child- called the Fumie. Any Christian who stepped on the Fumie would be released, and those who refused would be jailed or killed. This pogrom was one of the most effective exterminations of Christianity ever carried out.

What if the mayor of your town suddenly came with the National Guard and made us file one by one out of house or church to step on the Fumie? Maybe that is an unrealistic scenario. Perhaps the Fumie for you might be pornography or sexual temptation; how you handle your money or your attitude toward those in need; whether you forgive those who have hurt you deeply or whether you respond with bitterness and revenge. These tests of faith might have various manifestations, but I dare say, their outcome would be determined by the choices that you have already made.

Martin Luther King once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in a moment of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at a time of challenge and controversy.” (1963)

I know a mission’s executive who has a sign in his office that reads, “If now, so then.” It means that crossing an ocean does not make you a missionary if you are not already one here at home. I think the same is true for our commitment to Christ. “If now, so then.” If we have not committed ourselves to live for Jesus today, we will probably not be willing to die for him tomorrow.

And so Joshua, as he confronted Israel and said, “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” Polycarp, the 2nd century Asian Bishop, when asked to swear allegiance to Caesar and not to Christ said, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Martin Luther, excommunicated by the Pope and defending himself before the Emperor said, “My conscience is taken captive by God’s Word, I cannot and will not recant anything. On this I take my stand. I can do no other. So help me God!”

In 1555, two men were being burned at the stake in Oxford, England for refusing to recant of their personal faith in Jesus Christ. Hugh Latimer turned to Nicholas Ridley as fire started to engulf their bodies and said, “Be of good cheer, Ridley. Play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace…as I trust will never be put out!”

All of these were people of conviction because they had made a prior decision to follow God, no matter what the cost. For without the anchor of commitment, our faith will be at the mercy of the ebb and flow of mood and opinion; and when the Fumie is set down before us, we will stumble and live like heretics for a time until overcome by grief and sorrow.

Perhaps the beginning of this New Year is a time for some of us to make a re-commitment of a faith grown cold. For others, this may be a time for a commitment that moves us from a nominal believer in Jesus Christ to a disciple. Growth in faith will not take place all at once, but it will not happen at all without a commitment. Then, our faith will grow inch by inch, much like a baby learning to crawl, as we learn to live as a disciple of Christ wherever God puts us—even as we confront our Fumie. It will be painful, sort of like the pins and needles you feel in your leg as it begins to wake up from being “asleep.” But as Os Guinness has said, “Better pins and needles than no leg at all.

Adapted from my January 14, 2015 Chapel Talk at Wheaton College (IL), which you can see in full at http://www.wheaton.edu/WETN/All-Media/Chapel/Undergraduate

Pleasing God…

Every child wants to know if they please their parents. This is certainly true of young children whose very identity is shaped by the affirmation and attention of a mom and dad, but I also believe this is true of us even as we get older. I remember the time when I was in my 30’s and I had spoken in chapel at Wheaton College, IL. My mom had sent for the tape of my message and when she received it she called me with delight. Billy Graham had spoken the week before and so his message was on the tape as well. Mom said, “David, you’ll never guess who they put on the backside of your tape!” Well, I knew who was on whose backside, but my mom affirmed me as only a mother could.

In the same way, I believe that every child of God desires to know whether they please their Heavenly Father. We go to great lengths to evaluate our actions and measure our behavior. The problem is that we tend to do this evaluation by our standards, which are tinged with self-focused guilt and cheap-grace legalism. The times I think I am most pleasing to God may be the times I am most lifted up with Pharisaical pride. The times when I feel I am the most despicable me, may be the very time when I please Him the most. This makes John’s counsel wise indeed, “for whenever our hearts condemn us God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:20)

And so I go round and round, like a gerbil on its wheel. Is there any recourse, any truth that would help me stop wasting time in taking my spiritual pulse and finding a false heart rate? Yes. The truth is found in two prepositional phrases that characterize Paul understanding of Christianity: in Christ and Christ in me. I want to focus on what it means to be “in Christ” and how it relates to pleasing God. The person in Christ is the one who believes in the gospel and through that faith has entered into a union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When a person comes to see him/herself as a sinner and believes that Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection has dealt once and for all with his sin and guilt, there is a divine relational transaction that occurs. The believing sinner comes into a faith-union with God’s Son so that all we are not in relationship with God (our sin) becomes swallowed up in all that Christ is in His relationship with the Father (righteousness).

V. Raymond Edman tells the story of the banker whose son was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. One day another soldier walked into the bank and up to the father’s desk and handed him a note. The young soldier was in a tattered uniform and his arm was in a sling from a wound. The note read: “Father, this is my friend who is like a brother to me. He was wounded in our last action. Please take care of him; treat him as you would me. Love, Charlie.” The father recognized the handwriting of his son and took the young soldier and put him in Charlie’s room to rest, gave him Charlie’s clothes for dress, and put him in Charlie’s place at the table to eat. This young man was beloved for the sake of Charlie. Likewise, we are loved for the sake of Christ.

I have often used an illustration of taking an ink-splotched piece of paper, representing me and my sin, and placing it into my open Bible, representing Christ and His righteousness. The act of faith is depicted as putting the paper into the book and enclosing it. Thus when God looks at me, who does he see? Christ. Whatever relationship that Christ has with the Father, I have with the Father. Christ’s history becomes my history; His future is my future. By faith, the very righteousness of Christ becomes my righteousness. “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

Paul uses a legal term “justify” for describing what happens when we believe the gospel. He never infers that righteousness is somehow infused into us when we believe in Christ so that we actually become righteous. The Bible teaches that through faith, God imputes or places the righteousness of Jesus Christ on our account and we become “just-as-if-ied” never sinned in relationship to God. And herein was Martin Luther’s certainty and mine as well. If my salvation comes as the result of what Christ has done for me, then I have the complete assurance of knowing that it is enough. The more my relationship to God depends upon my efforts the less certainty I have of my acceptance with God. Have I done enough? Am I sorry enough? That is why we see the cry of Martin Luther to the recovered Gospel: sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo.

Thus the first thing I need to do when taking my spiritual pulse is not to ask whether God loves and is pleased with me, but whether God loves and is pleased with Christ. And since I know the answer to that question and I am in Christ, therefore, I may have the confidence of knowing that God loves me today and will always be pleased with me as his son in Christ! It is by this standard of measurement that “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16, 17). Did you notice the last part of this verse, “…provided we suffer with him”? Sometimes we doubt God’s love for us because we suffer, but here we assured that our family shield includes suffering as well as glory.

Gay by birth or choice?

There is a new twist to the “born this way” debate. In the past, the logic has been that if a gay person is determined by their genes, then it is illogical to suggest that they can be “cured” by treatment or religion. However, since there is the recognition that no research has yet proven that gayness is biologically determined, therefore, a new rationale may be needed.

Brandon Ambrosino, who wrote a 2013 article in the Atlantic entitled, Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University, has recently written that he was not born this way; he chose to be gay. He claims that the aversion to the word choice in the LGBT community stems from the belief that if we can’t prove our gayness is biologically determined, then we won’t have any grounds to demand equality. In America, we have the freedom to be a well as to “choose” to be. I see no reason to believe that the only sexualities worth protecting are the ones over which no one has control. After all, isn’t trans-activisim fueled by the belief that the government has the responsibility to protect all of us regardless of our sexual choices? And aren’t protections for bisexuals based upon the same presupposition of sexual autonomy?…

One of the reasons I think our activism is so insistent on sexual rigidity is because, in our push to make gay rights the new black rights, we’ve conflated the two issues. The result is that we’ve decided that skin color is the same thing as sexual behavior. I don’t think this is true. When we conflate race and sexuality, we overlook how fluid we are learning our sexualities truly are. To say it rather crassly: I’ve convinced a few men to try out my sexuality, but I never managed to get them to try on my skin color. In other words, one’s sexuality isn’t as biologically determined as race. Many people do feel as if their sexuality is something they were born with, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. But as I and other queer persons will readily confirm, there are other factors informing our sexualities than our genetic codes. Part of what it means to be human is to be adaptable and elastic, to try on new identities, to try new experiences, to play with the paradigm, to bend the norm to its snapping point and see if it cracks under the pressure of its own linguistic limitations. The re-inventiveness of our human condition is one of our greatest traits, and it is worth protecting both legally and philosophically.

Then he utters a challenge. I understand that the genetic argument for homosexuality is a direct response to the tired “You weren’t born that way” rhetoric of religious people. But in my opinion, we could strip that religious argument of much of its power if we responded like this: “Maybe I wasn’t born this way. Now tell me why you think it matters.” I imagine many religious people haven’t really though through the implications of their own rhetoric.

Why does it matter?

First, it acknowledges what many have been saying for years; that there is far more to same sex attraction than one’s genetic code and that it is inaccurate to place it on the same level as race. To concede on this point is nearly tantamount to an atheist admitting there might be a God, but then saying that it really doesn’t matter since he has the right to believe whatever he wants. But it does matter.

Second, Ambrosino’s effort to place something as important as sexual identity and behavior at the level of choice opens up a whole discussion of morality and values, especially for the Christian who is trying to slog their way through the issue of same sex attraction. We are not as flexible and adaptable as Ambrosino has suggested. The snapping point is not due to linguistic limitations, but to the agony of the heart searching for an identity. It also means that what defines me as a person is not so much determined by how I we feel about myself, but by what I choose to believe and how I choose to act. I may be tempted to act out on any number of desires tumbling around in the dryer of my past and present, yet my life will be defined by what I believe and how I choose to act on that belief. It really does matter.

Third, Ambrosino’s argument about choice and government protections propels us to think through the bigger issue of freedom and liberty. As John Milton warned in his Sonnet XII, “License they mean when they cry liberty!” When we take our Founding Fathers and Mothers desire for freedom without their core beliefs and habits of the heart, we expose America’s Achilles’ heel and the fact that the worst enemy of freedom is often freedom. Os Guinness has said that since there is such a crisis in cultural authority (faith and values in America), “the center no longer holds; the core has lost its compelling power; the moral and social ecology of the nation has been contaminated; the different spheres of society are undermining each other; and the escalation of extremes is underway.”

So, yes, it does matter.

Poor Talk (Part 2)…

poorOK- so what is wrong with poor talk and why do I believe that it qualifies as a sin of the tongue? (Read last week’s blog to get caught up.)

First, grousing about how others are prospering while we feel we are not doing as well, keeps us from remembering the blessings of God for what we do have and being thankful (1 Thess. 5:18). We can draw some consolation from the fact that the adaptation-level principle works in both directions: if personal or societal economic pressures force us to adopt a simpler life style, we will eventually adapt and recover life’s balance of happiness and satisfaction. Perhaps that is why many people claim to be so much happier when they simplify their lives.

Poor talk also keeps us from being content with what we do have, therefore, showing a distrust in God’s provision. “We can exercise choice in the selection of our comparison groups. We can resist the tendency to measure ourselves against those higher on the ladder of success, and instead choose to compare ourselves with those less fortunate. Earlier generations were taught to perform such comparisons by way of ‘counting one’s blessings.’ Today we can gain the same benefit by means of selective exposure to comparison groups. Discovering how relatively small our problems are can make us more sensitive to real poverty. It can give us an appreciation of the extent to which some people’s unmet needs — clean water, adequate nutrition, medical care — are things we take for granted. Realizing this will not only sensitize us to the suffering of the truly impoverished; it will also help us develop an attitude of gratitude for what we have.” (“Poor Talk,” Thomas Ludwig and David Myers, Saturday Review)

Finally, poor talk blinds us to the needs of the actual poor because our attention is fixed upon ourselves and our relationship to others who are doing better than we are. “We [need to] make a conscious effort to reduce poor talk… Over and over people complain that they are underpaid, defeated by inflation and taxes, and no longer capable of affording their family’s needs. Some think that such mutual commiseration is harmless, but research has indicated that what people say influences how they think and feel. The very act of complaining about unwelcome economic changes may therefore increase our discontent. Poor talk also focuses our attention on ourselves in a way that blinds us to the needs of others.”

At the end of his Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis depicts heaven as the ultimate liberation from the relativity of experience. Here creatures cannot feel deprived, depressed or anxious. There is no adaptation-level trauma, for happiness is continually expanding. Here is “the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” This resurrection hope does not eliminate the ups and downs of day-to-day life, but it does offer a liberating cosmic perspective from which to view them.

Here on earth we will never completely escape the “I need more treadmill.” But by becoming aware of the relativity of our appetites, by reducing our poor talk, by consciously selecting our comparison groups, and by viewing life from the perspective of resurrection faith, we can share the humble and grateful response of the Psalmist: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I have everything I need.”

We thank Thee, then, O Father,
For all things bright and good,
The seed-time and the harvest,
Our life, our health, our food;
No gifts have we to offer,
For all Thy love imparts,
But that which Thou desirest,
Our humble, thankful hearts.
(Matthias Claudius, 1784)

Question: When is a poor talker no longer a poor talker? When he stops poor talking?
Answer: No; when he is grateful and content with what he has and generous towards others.

God and the Gay Christian

The above is the title of a new book by Matthew Vines. Christianity Today asked a friend of mine, Christopher Yuan, to write a review of the book. Christopher is a teacher at the Moody Bible Institute, a speaker, and an author. Yuan’s book, Out of a Far Country (A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope), tells of his experience as a gay man who did not grow up in a Christian home and the impact of the gospel on his life. I think that Christopher’s review of Vines’ book is pivotal and want to share it with you. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/june-web-only/why-matthew-vines-is-wrong-about-bible-same-sex-relationshi.html?start=6

Not-the-momma: not-the-god…

solomon-idolatryMany years ago there was a TV program called Dinosaurs; a very funny show about a family of human-like dinosaurs who experienced marriage and child-rearing problems, in-law conflicts, etc. Each episode dealt with one of these issues in a very unique way. The family had two teens and little baby who kept referring to the dad as “not-the-momma,” which humorously indicated the centrality of mom and the irrelevancy of dad at that point in the baby’s life.

When God gave his commandments to Israel, they began with a similar perspective on idolatry (Exodus 20:3). Yahweh was central and all idols were “not-the-god.” This wasn’t ignoring reality; it literally meant that there were no-other-gods. Isaiah 44, 45, 46, repeated a form of the verse “I am the Lord; besides me there is no god.” To my knowledge there is no indication in the whole of Scripture that idolatry was really a competition between the one true God and any other divinity. In fact, Paul actually said the same thing in 1 Corinthians 10 where he acknowledged that idols were nothing. So what was the big deal then about idolatry and why did God seem to be so defensive about it?

Paul continued in 1 Corinthians 10:20, “No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God.” The danger of idolatry is that there is a spiritual reality behind the idol which robs God of his glory. Thus, according to Paul, what we eat or drink can ultimately become worship issues. (Paul implied a similar thing in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 when he talked about sex.) This was why Paul had such an expansive view of worship; “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” (1 Corinthians 10:31) I think this is so clarifying—whatever I do becomes an altar of sacrifice and praise; a platform for worship. Paul told Timothy “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” (1 Timothy 4:4, 5) He said a similar thing in 1 Corinthians 10:30.

Giving thanks for our food or drink, or whatever we do, does not make things kosher; just like it does not make wrong actions right. Thanksgiving is not magic; it is worship. Thanksgiving acknowledges God as the Giver as well as expressing our gratitude and obligation to use his gifts properly. This is even true when it comes to our finances. “As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share” (1 Timothy 6:17, 18). My wealth is a reminder that it is God who provides for me, and it should deepen my dependency on him and not on his gifts. My wealth also provides an opportunity for me to glorify God by my generosity to others.

Just as all of life is an act of worship to the God who has provided for his creation, so all of these gifts can be used and abused when they replace the Giver. This is where we become idolatrous and begin to worship “not-the-god.” This is where we exchange “the truth of God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator…” (Romans 1:25) This is also where we enter into the world of the demonic and expose ourselves to the power behind “not-the-god.” We must understand this if we are to effectively deal with our addictions… more about this next week. Today, however, whatever you eat or drink or however you use your money, may it be as an intentional act of worship.

The “Greater Jihad”

jihadWhen we hear the word jihad our minds race to the horrific scenes of 9/11 or to the many other acts of terror that have been perpetrated in the name of religion. However, some Muslim scholars have distinguished between the “lesser jihad,” which is the struggle against the enemies of Islam, and the “greater jihad,” which is the inner personal struggle against sin and to fulfill one’s religious duties. I have spoken with my Muslim friends who believe that it is this internal suffering as one struggles with human nature which is the true understanding of jihad (al-jihad fi subil Allah; striving in the way of God).

There is a certain affinity here with our Christian understanding of sanctification, which is the divine process or work in the soul of the believer whereby he/she comes to exhibit the life and character of Jesus Christ. Sanctification is composed of two basic parts which happen in us at the same time: mortification and quickening. Mortification is where we cooperate with the Holy Spirit in “crucifying the old man,” “putting to death the flesh,” “denying ourselves”; various ways of describing the ongoing struggle against our human nature. At the same time, God’s Spirit continues to quicken our souls with new life; where our desire for holiness increases, and where a new course in life is set and promoted. Someone has likened it to the old structures of sin being torn down and the new structures of God gradually erected. Sanctification is a work of God, but we are engaged in the process—and it is a struggle.

I think we have failed to realize what a struggle it is to be a follower of Christ. We tend to define suffering in the Christian life as the result of persecution or the effects of sin and sickness in this world. Rarely do we hear of struggle and suffering as part of the drama of discipleship as we say “no” to our nature’s attachment to this world and “yes” to the narrow gate obedience (Luke 13:24) to God. In fact, we are almost embarrassed to talk of our struggles. We certainly must not be very good Christians if we continue to struggle with sin.

Is it any wonder then that we can’t imagine a God who would give us a sexual ethic that is so pure and exclusive that it often demands suffering in order to live up to it? I can’t have two wives, but I must limit myself to one regardless of what my culture says. We cannot simply live together, enjoying conjugal freedoms like so many in our culture, without first committing ourselves to each other by entering into the covenant of marriage. My marriage must be to a woman and not to another man; the same sex attraction of my human nature does not invalidate a creation mandate and design. Celibacy is the alternative to marriage’s sexual intimacy. And within my marriage, I must be monogamous in my sexual intimacy—this excludes emotional affairs as well as pornographic fantasy.

All of the above is a part of my discipleship and it involves suffering because I must deny what my flesh craves and what my culture views as normative. Yet, it is through suffering that I am driven to a deeper trust in a redemptive God who has a purpose for me, and that purpose cannot be found apart from his sanctifying love. He is shaping me to look like Jesus and that process is going to be a painful one because it is antithetical to my sinful human nature. So let’s talk about our struggles and about our pain because they are a vital part of our discipleship.

“Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? My son, do not regard lightly the disciples of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him” (Hebrews 12:3-5).

Repaint and thin no more…

repaintThat is the punch line for a joke about a minister who wanted to save his church some money by painting one of its buildings with watered-down paint. When the job was finished, there was a huge down pour which washed all the paint away. Then there was a voice from heaven that said, “Repaint and thin no more!”

Obviously, for you quicker people, this is a reference to the phrase “repent and sin no more.” Many believe this phrase is in the Bible, but it isn’t. Some may find this confusing and cite the passage about the man in John 5 who was healed by Jesus and then revisited by our Lord and told “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you” (v.14). Jesus did not tell him not to repent anymore, but to stop doing the things that may have contributed to his sickness in the first place.

Also, some may reference the woman who was caught in adultery and brought to Jesus by the Pharisees to see if he would be faithful to the law in requiring her death. You probably already knew that it was actually a set up to trap Jesus because she alone (not the couple) was brought to him, which in itself was a violation of the law. Jesus talked the Pharisees off the ledge of stoning her by pointing out that they were not in a moral position to be her judges. Then he said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). How do you think she would have understood this? Would she have heard him say that she no longer had any need for repentance in her life? Would she have concluded that for the rest of her life Jesus expected her to be sinlessly perfect? OR, do you think she would have understood these words as strong encouragement from Jesus to be done with this adulterous relationship and to change her lifestyle completely?

In many respects this has happened to each of us who has experienced the grace and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. Like the lame man and the woman, we have been shown mercy and saved from the firing squad of God’s righteous judgment. The punishment for our sin was suffered by Christ and “by his stripes we are healed.” Yet, he tells us “to be perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5). I do not believe that this holds out for us the expectation of sinless perfection, but sets the course and direction of our lives to evidence a Family likeness in showing mercy to others. (Check me out on the context.)

Nowhere does Jesus ever say “repent, and sin no more.” The reason is because repentance is not only the first word of the gospel (Matthew 4:17), but it is also one of the key characteristics (the other is faith) of the Christian life. You will not stop repenting as a follower of Jesus until you stop sinning. And when do you think that will be? When I talk to people about living as a Christian, I not only emphasize a continuing need for trust in Jesus but also a continuing need of a repentant heart—a lack of which will be apparent in our marriage and in our relationships both inside and outside of the church. The same gospel that saves us also sanctifies us.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’d like to unpack this concept or repentance. We will look at what isn’t, what it is, and how it affects our relationship with God and others. Stay tuned, and by the way, don’t water down your paint this summer (if it ever comes) just to save a few bucks.