I am weak, but…

I want to share a page from my journal, which I write in almost every day as a discipline. The practice has helped me track my life and to hold myself more accountable for my own thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. It also helps me to remember people I am praying for, the things that I have read in the Scripture, and the new discoveries of God’s truth that I do not want to forget. So many of my sermons and blogs have flowed out this journaling practice. Finally, the practice of journaling has also helped me sift through my feelings and emotions, as well as keeping track of my “progress” with pancreatic cancer, which has been a dominating force in my life since April, 2017.

Sunday, October 20, Day 13 (after my 8th (out of 12) chemo treatment):

Woke up with the hymn “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” running through my mind. Listened to it on YouTube. I really do feel like a “pilgrim through this barren land. I am weak but Thou art mighty, guide me with Thy powerful hand . . . Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more.” Chemo sometimes makes me weepy, but this hymn brought tears to my eyes. I also listened to “It is Well with My Soul,” “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” and “I’m No Longer a Slave to Fear.” An encouraging time of worship for my sad heart—to bask in the realization of a good and powerful God, who is my Deliverer.

This reminds me, once again, how my heart responds most to songs, hymns, Scripture that magnify God and describe his greatness and power. I feel safe, like he is my Rock and Fortress; I also feel cared for because he is my strong Father. I remember when ________ (one of my sons) lost a toy down a storm drain in front of our house. The drain was covered by a very heavy metal grate that I had to dead lift in order for my boy to quickly retrieve his toy. As I was putting the grate back into position, I caught my finger underneath it and yelled in pain as I finally pulled it out. Wow, did that hurt! My boy, who was watching all of this was horrified—and ran away. He couldn’t handle seeing is strong dad, hurt.

Another memory comes to mind about how my dad and me used to wrestle when I was a kid. I always admired him for his strength and that he never used it to hurt me. I eventually joined the wrestling team in high school and started to develop physically. The day came when I realized that I could take my dad, but I continued to let him win when we wrestled. I distinctly remember the thought that I needed my dad to be stronger than me.

I will never have to worry about my Heavenly Father losing strength; I am weak, but he is mighty. . . . He is the majestic, all-powerful Creator of the Universe, and he is in control of all things. He is my “Abba,” Dad. He will never use his great strength to hurt me and nothing will ever be able to separate me from his love. My heart overflows with worship . . .

Crown Him the Lord of Years, The Potentate of Time, Creator of the rolling spheres, Ineffably sublime. All Hail, Redeemer, Hail! For Thou hast died for me; Thy praise shall never, never fail Throughout eternity! (Matthew Bridges, 1845)

Repent and Sin No More (3)…

Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”

However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”

Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.

I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:

  • Repentance is not penance [see blog from two weeks ago]
  • Repentance is without regret (remorse) [see last week’s blog]
  • Repentance is without excuse

**********

Repentance is without Excuse

It has been my observation that many people who think they are evidencing true repentance are really not because their penitence is accompanied by self-defense. We can often see this as we work to reconcile marriages or fractured relationships in churches/Christian organizations; even in racial reconciliation; we are sorry for something we have done, but our apology is often muted by some form of justification. I once counseled a man who was broken because his wife had left him. He confessed, “It is all my fault. I have tried to control her with my anger and manipulate her by my silence, and I have failed her as a godly husband.”

I was thrilled by what he said and heard the faint rumblings of a repentant heart coming from a very proud and quirky man. However, he then said, “But I wish she would respect me more and listen to what I tell her to do.” So I smacked him! Just kidding, but I sure felt like it because his repentance turned into excuse-making.

In 1 Samuel 15 we see a very clear example of defensiveness and self-justification hidden behind what looked like repentance. King Saul was commanded by God to wipe out the Amalekites as part of God’s judgment upon the historical wickedness of that people. Instead, Saul disobeyed by sparing the king, some of the best livestock, and the money. Samuel confronted Saul about his disobedience, and Saul started in with his excuse—“It wasn’t really me but my soldiers who took the spoil for themselves and were going to sacrifice the best to the Lord.”

Let’s go back to the guy who had tried to excuse his behavior with his wife in my office. I told him about Saul. I also told him that true repentance would be demonstrated by going to his wife and getting down on his knees, coming clean about his angry manipulative behavior, telling her that he had failed her and God as a husband, and asking her for forgiveness even though he did not deserve it. I told him one more thing; “when you get off your knees, do not expect your wife to suddenly trust you and take you back into her life. You have hurt her deeply and she will be watching you carefully to see if you’ve really changed or whether this is just part of your manipulative bag of tricks.” He never came back to see me, and he never regained his marriage. Repentance without excuse is the life-breath of the Christian. I think it was Gary Thomas in his book Sacred Marriage who said that “couples don’t fall out of love as much as they fall out of repentance.”

Maybe marriage is not the issue for you but where is repentance most needed in your life? Do you find yourself doing penance by trying to do enough good to alleviate your guilt… but you keep sinning? Or perhaps you’re just so filled with remorse over something, but you keep doing it and you are so filled with shame that you; you are closing yourself off from God’s mercy and questioning how He could ever love a scum bag like you. Or perhaps you recognize your own sin in a relational matter, but you honestly believe that someone else’s sin has caused the real problem…so you are waiting for them to admit it and repent before reconciliation can take place.

“The kingdom of God is near. It is imperative that you be repenting and be believing the gospel.” Acknowledge your sin before God; let your sorrow drive you to the cross where God’s mercy and forgiveness flow freely because of what Christ has done for you. Don’t trust your self-fixes; repent and lean into the Holy Spirit so He can purify you mind and change your behavior. And if you fall again tomorrow; do it all again—keep repenting and keep believing the Gospel!

Once again, let me recommend an excellent book on this subject by Richard Owen Roberts, “Repentance: the First Word of the Gospel.” (Crossway Books, 2001)

Repent and Sin No More (2)…

 

Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”

However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”

Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.

I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:

  • Repentance is not penance [see last week’s blog]
  • Repentance is without regret (remorse)
  • Repentance is without excuse

************

Second, Repentance Is Without Regret

Good Friday is the proper context for examining another misunderstanding of repentance. The Gospel of Matthew sets in juxtaposition the dastardly deeds of two of Jesus’ intimates. It tells of Peter’s three-time denial of Christ that drove him out to weep bitterly. (Matthew 26:75) It also tells of the betrayal by Judas who actually did penance by his confession, contrition, and making amends by returning the money he received for betraying innocent blood. Then “he departed, and he went and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:5) So, if you did not know the end of the story, who would you say seemed more repentant?

We often make the mistake of equating repentance with deep sorrow and remorse. While there is a place for sorrow, the danger is that a person may be filled with a self-centered regret, but not be truly repentant. We have examples of those in public office or church ministry who have been “caught” and responded with great sorrow and tears. We ourselves know of the remorse and regret experienced when we see the messes we have made. I have had some friends and parishioners who have been so ashamed that they have taken their own lives. Surely, both Peter and Judas were terribly sorry for what they did. On the surface, Judas looked even more repentant, but was he?

In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul recognized that he had sent a harsh letter to the church which caused them great sorrow. Yet, at the same time, he did not regret it because it produced in them a godly sorrow. “For godly sorrow produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly sorrow produces death.” (v. 10) So what is the difference between worldly sorrow and godly sorrow?

CH Spurgeon’s message (1881) entitled “Sorrow and Sorrow”: Some persons seem to think that mere sorrow of mind in reference to sin is repentance; but it is not. Read the text…”Godly sorrow worketh repentance.” Therefore, it is not itself repentance. It is an agent employed in producing repentance, but it is not itself repentance.

He goes on to give examples of how there are many people who get caught in a sin and are filled with sorrow and despair—not because of their sin, but because they got caught and are in a heap of trouble. In fact, they are probably just as fond of the sin they committed as they ever were. And they quite possibly continue to desire what the world offers, but will wait until the consequences of getting caught blow over. This kind of sorrow is not repentance nor does it lead to repentance.

Spurgeon continued: Next, do not fall into the other mistake, and imagine that there can be such a thing as repentance without sorrow for sin, for there can never be such a thing… [Repentance] is an entire and total change of mind, a turning of the mind right round, so that it hates what once it loved and loves what once it hated… If there is no such sorrow as that in your heart, one of the things necessary to a genuine repentance is absent.

Once again, true sorrow is not a self-centered sorrow which produces regret or remorse because of the painful consequences of sin and which yields the fruit of our  discouragement and despair. Rather, it is a God-centered sorrow that produces in us a heart-felt grief over our sin and always drives us to God and not away from Him. It is always laced with hope and leads us to a decisive about-face in our attitude and behavior; it yields the fruit of righteousness.

These two kinds of sorrows are exemplified, on the one hand, Esau who could not find repentance though he sought it with tears (Heb. 12:17) and, on the other hand, by David who acknowledged his guilt before God and cried, “Against You and You alone have I sinned…” (Ps 51:12).

Thus if you are in despair over your sin, is it driving you away from Christ? Has your penitence turned into penance and you are striving to earn back God’s favor? If so, you are not experiencing godly sorrow nor will you find true repentance. Come back to the cross and believe the gospel. Come clean with the Lord, and lean into the same same unchanging grace and forgiveness that you appropriated when you first believed. Don’t rely on your own fixes, but trust Him by His indwelling Spirit to change your heart and your behavior. Be a Peter and not a Judas; a David, not an Esau.

 

Repent and Sin No More!

 

Did you know that this phrase is not in the Bible? Jesus told the man healed in John 5 to “Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you,” and he told the woman caught in adultery to “Go and sin no more” (John 8:11). Jesus never told anyone to “repent and sin no more.”

However, Jesus did use the word repent with a far different word in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is near, repent and believe the gospel.” Not just repent, but repent and believe. Both are in the present imperative, active, 2nd person plural. In other words, it was a command to do these things continuously: “You all out there, continue to repent and continue to believe the gospel!”

Just as we cannot imagine a follower of Jesus without faith, so we should not imagine the same follower without the continuing character of repentance. We should not just call ourselves Believers but also Repenters, for we will not stop repenting until we stop sinning. Unfortunately, this continual character of repentance is sadly lacking in our churches, in our Christian colleges and graduate schools, in our interpersonal relationships and in our marriages, where we readily admit to our brokenness but when it comes to repentance, we act as if other people need to repent, but not us.

I would like to clarify what repentance is because I think many people are often confused as to the meaning of the word. So over the next few blogs let me unpack the biblical concept of repentance by describing it in 3 different ways:

  • Repentance is not penance
  • Repentance is without regret (remorse)
  • Repentance is without excuse

 

First, Repentance is not Penance

Roman Catholic Theology defines Penance as a sacrament consisting of contrition, confession, and the carrying out of certain works which render satisfaction for the sin committed since baptism. Certainly repentance and inner sorrow is a part of this, but penance is an act performed that makes amends or satisfaction for sin.

Not to be out done, we “Prots” have our own version of penance. Though we confess to being saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, we are still driven to act in ways that seek to curry favor with God. Many co-opt the Lenten season with acts of self-denial and self-abnegation to demonstrate contrition to God by the sincerity of outward actions, while failing to comprehend that the real issue is the inner condition of the heart. It becomes more of a “flesh formation” rather than a spiritual formation.

Not only does penance divert our attention away from the real need of our souls, but it can also anesthetize our consciences so we gain momentary relief from our guilt. In so doing we actually set up a vicious cycle for ourselves: do good things to make up for our bad things; then after being good for a while we think we deserve a little bad, which we then try to make up for by being good and… so on and so forth. Penance makes us like little gerbils on a never-ending wheel of trying to deal with guilt.

The prophet Isaiah held out the free grace and mercy of God for his people when he cried, “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for things that are not bread, and your labor on things that do not satisfy” (55:1, 2). And in the closing chapter of the New Testament, the Spirit and the Church cry out, “Come, and let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires to take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).

If we can do nothing to achieve our salvation, why do we think our actions (now that we are God’s children) are in any way meritorious or sanctifying? Why do we measure God’s love for us by how much we do for him rather than by what he has done for us? Penance may drive us to a bed of nails, but true repentance will always drive us back to the cross! Repent and believe the gospel of God’s love and mercy which continues to flow for us because of Christ. The same gospel that saves also sanctifies.

More on this next blog… let me recommend an excellent book on this subject by Richard Owen Roberts, “Repentance: the First Word of the Gospel.” (Crossway Books, 2001)

Lectio Divina

A very ancient tradition of Christian meditation was introduced in the 4th century and used extensively in the monastic tradition. It is also slowly becoming known in the Protestant Church. It is called the Lectio Divina, or literally the “sacred reading” of scripture. Richard Foster calls it “reading with the heart” and sees it as a very worthwhile approach to meditating on the Word. I have found it helpful because it uses Scripture as the focus of our meditation and not the “empty mind” meditation popularized by Eastern Religion.

The Lectio Divina is composed of four parts; not necessarily consecutive steps but integrative parts of a whole process:

  1. Lectio– The chosen text is read out loud, slowly and deliberately.
  2. Meditatio– As you read, stop at a word or phrase that somehow grabs your attention. Reflect on these, ponder them as God’s Word to you, and listen to His voice in this Word.
  3. Oratio– Respond to God in prayer; turn His Word as a prayer back to Him; thank Him for how he revealed Himself to you or perhaps uncovered your secrets; or pray about anything else that this passage has brought to mind.
  4. Contemplatio– Remain silent in the presence of God, in humility and gratitude. “Simply being present to God in loving communion serves as the exclamation point to the meditative moment.” (Demarest, p. 137)

So here is a suggested assignment for the next week; spend 15 minutes each day applying the Lectio to the following brief passages from the Psalms. For those of you who journal, keep track of what God is saying to you through His Word. May God bless you with a deeper awareness of His presence in your life this week.

Psalm 1

Psalm 37:1-11

Psalm 139:1-10

Psalm 15

Psalm 42:1-5a

Psalm 27:1-6

Psalm 103:1-14

Not Growing…Not Normal

growth timeThis past week I read the incredible story of Brooke Greenberg, a 20-year-old who never developed beyond the toddler stage. She passed away last Thursday, having had the body and cognitive function of a 1-year-old. She didn’t grow after the age of 5 — and basically, she no longer aged. She may have been the only person in the world who suffered from a rare genetic disease, so rare in fact that it is called Syndrome X. (http://shine.yahoo.com/healthy-living/brooke-greenberg-20-old-8220-toddler-8217-8221-185100345.html)

The scientific community looks at Brooke’s death far different than the family. Dr. Eric Schadt, director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology said “Brooke Greenberg, even after her sad passing, may help to reveal answers to one of the major mysteries in human biology: Why do we age and is there any way to slow or suspend the aging process?” While such a statement might give the family some comfort to think their daughter’s death might be helpful to someone else, they are still suffering the pangs of grief and sadness. This was not supposed to happen. Brooke stayed a toddler for 20 years being fed baby food.

When I read this article I immediately thought of the Christian life and the erratic development of many people in their faith. We know that spiritual growth is the norm and is greatly encouraged throughout the New Testament: grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus…let your roots go down deep into Christ…just as you are doing, do more and more…until we all attain mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Christian growth is not a work or a performance; it is a natural outgrowth of the work of God’s justifying grace.

Our evangelical heritage has taught us well of the centrality of the gospel and the work of Christ in the salvation of our souls. It has also taught us the importance of Bible knowledge and of evangelism and missions. This is indeed a precious heritage. However, it has left us with the sense that it is the Holy Spirit’s job to grow us as we read the Bible, pray, and go to church; that spiritual growth will just happen automatically. We do not hear much emphasis on the fact that we must cooperate with the Spirit in our sanctification because it smacks of works and performance and not of grace. We tend to look at the gospel, with its emphasis on repentance and faith, as being appropriate only for beginning of our Christian lives and fail to realize that the gospel is also the vehicle for our Christian growth in holiness.

The result is that many leave the evangelical church because they are hungry for God. They move to the more liturgical and contemplative Christian denominations and some even to syncretized eastern religious practices. However some evangelicals are also realizing that discipleship is more than just missions and evangelism, it is about being with Jesus and being shaped or formed into his likeness. I met with a group of old friends last week who have been together for two years worshipping Jesus, studying Scripture, and holding each other accountable for their intentional spiritual development as Christ-followers.

Look at the Old Testament and the great spiritual revivals used of God in lives of his people through Elijah, Hezekiah, Josiah; the seasons of refreshing through Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, John of the Cross; the amazing impact of the Reformation in Western Europe; the First and Second Great Awakening in the American Colonies, the Prayer Revival of 1858, the Welch Revival of the early twentieth-century. We should be reading these things and praying that God would do the same thing again in our lives and churches. Then we should set about the task of intentionally developing our own spiritual lives. Growth requires an open heart and mind to God’s Spirit; our willingness needs to be followed up by our actions. So, where will you begin? How will you conform to Christ’s image by being with him this week? I think you should ask him that; and maybe in the next few weeks I can give you some helpful direction. You see, I desire to grow too and not have Syndrome X characterize my spiritual life.