Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Father Heart of God

Thoughts on this started to come to me after watching "Everything's Fine" with Robert De Niro.

In it a widowed father tries to set up a reunion with his grown children, who all cancel. He longs for his children to come and eat together at his table, but it turns out one by one that none of them can make it. Each of them are in the midst of problems that they would rather hide from him, fearing his reaction, his disappointment, or that he is emotionally fragile and would be too hurt to know these difficult things. Then he travels across the country to go see them. We see that it is the natural and powerful bent of a father to long for his children, to worry over their happiness, to accept them as they are with all of their problems and mistakes and to simply want to be with them.

Even terrible fathers know the weight of this love in the power of their regret. It is the greatest weight of the conscience, this beautiful burden of love. The father in this movie does not care so much that the disappointments and problems his children face are disappointing to him, but that the fear they produce in his children removes the intimacy of their relationship. As a younger father he did not understand this, but as an older father he sees it all much more clearly.

We can believe that these aspects of the heart of an earthly father are only faint shadows of the way our Father God in heaven feels towards us. Oh, He longs for us! He does greatly love us! This is the thing that rules-based religion misses. He worries over our relationship with each other, He longs to accept us, He longs to help us. He worries that He is too controlling, not controlling enough, and it is all based in an incredibly strong and pure love for us, for our ultimate welfare. He forgives so quickly, so easily, He so quickly accepts and restores dignity and provision. He so selflessly accepts His own indignities for the the sake of His children. He greatly longs for us, greatly loves.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

More about moral and aesthetic good

I want to start by recapping the last post's argument about this. I have to say that this is an important and seminal thought for me. In human experience we have a problem in that the idea of moral and desirable good are split - we are often wanting what we know is wrong, and rather despise what is right. It is almost laughable to say that you love the moral way of living. In fact, a lot of movies show a kind of 'coming out' moment when the protagonist casts off the fear of traditional ideas of the good and embraces their true desire. This is not a recent thing, not a political thing, not an American problem. It is universal and true for all of humanity, from Eve and the serpent on. God is working to bring us back to a place where what we honestly want coincides with what is right.

I want to expand on something I only hinted at last time. If this is so, this is the work of God, then why am I still struggling. Surely I'm missing something, I've gone too far with this idea. It can't be right! What about these kinds of verses, you can't just throw them out:

“Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” Matthew 16:24, NASB.

“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” Galatians 5:17, NASB.

This fairly well disproves my last post doesn't it? Righteousness, holiness, godliness, is not about getting what you want, it is about DENYING yourself what you want! Perhaps, but perhaps we should look at these passages a little closer.

Jesus says, "if anyone WISHES to come after me." We have a wish, a desire, to come after Jesus. In context, there has just been another debacle with the pharisees, but Jesus has taken the disciples off by themselves, and has asked them, "who do people say that I am?" Then He says, who do YOU say that I am, and Peter says, the Christ. It is at this time, this first time, that He begins to explain that He will die and be resurrected. Peter is alarmed, and takes Jesus aside to rebuke Him. This is the context - Peter, the one who first proclaimed Him to be the Christ, the Son of God, rebukes Jesus about all of this talk about suffering many things and dying. Jesus is replying to this.

What does He say? He says, you want me to stop talking about suffering and dying? Actually, not only will I suffer, but all who wish to follow me will suffer. You have found this great treasure - the Messiah, the son of God, has come! You wish to follow. You must go and sell all you have to get this treasure - but you don't know how much you must sell, just as you do not know the extent of the incredible value of the treasure you have stumbled upon. You must sell your very self, deny your very self, if you wish to obtain this great thing. I am going to suffer, and if you follow Me, you will have to learn this. The writer of Hebrews put this all in perspective:

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” Hebrews 12:2, 3, NIV.

He did it for the joy set before Him, a joy which was not taken away. The point of all of this isn't suffering, it isn't the cross itself, it is the difficult passage to joy. Have you ever thought, if the Father so loved Jesus, why did He make His son suffer so? Why the cross? Even Jesus says,

“About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” --which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” Matthew 27:46, NIV.

Perhaps it is the exact same formula as the garden. In the garden, there is one thing which is forbidden; every tree is OK, except the one, and yet Adam chose the one. Here is Jesus, and God is basically saying, we are going to up the ante so your success is all the more dramatic. Everything, all human experience, has now become the forbidden; that is the ultimate end of the law. I am narrowing what I require, the law, to even being alive. For Adam, the whole world was OK except for the one tree, and yet he chose poorly. For Jesus, the tables turned, and the whole world was off limits except for death, and still He chose correctly. Jesus fulfilled the law in the most ultimate sense, in that He obeyed an edict which was absolutely against any normal human desire, and still obeyed that imposition upon His desire.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Moral good and desirable good

I want to delve into something today that may at first seem like nit-picky hair-splitting semantics. I think that if you will persevere and read to the end you will find that it is most profound and is deeply foundational to our idea of grace and the real motivation for living the Christian life.

In Genesis 2 and 3, we find these verses:

“And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”” Genesis 2:16, 17, NIV.

“When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.” Genesis 3:6, NIV.

We have here the first time the idea of 'good' was divided. What do I mean by this? If someone says, "I'm being a good girl," they mean they are not cheating on their diet or overspending or smoking or such. It is a moral good - they are denying themselves something they like in order to do the right thing, and thus they are 'good'. On the other hand, if they go ahead and have that hot fudge sundae, they aren't being a 'good girl', but they might say, "MMMMM, this sundae sure is GOOD!" That is what I mean by the two meanings of the word 'good' - there is a moral idea of the good, and an aesthetic idea of the good.

In the beginning, Adam and Eve were free to eat any from tree. All that was pleasurable was also all that was good. The one forbidden fruit was also the one undesirable fruit. It wasn't until the serpent started speaking to Eve about it that she first realized that the forbidden could be desirable; before that point all that was permitted was also all that was desirable, and all that was forbidden was undesirable. This is the state God intended us to live in.

Now we live in a world where it is alien to even the most holy person that the moral good could actually be the clearly desirable thing; even in the mind of the righteous person, the moral good is set against the aesthetic good. Pleasure is universally wrapped up and intertwined with the forbidden. From food and eating to addictive behaviors to sexuality, our desires are constantly drawn to the forbidden. I believe that for many, the steam goes out of the marriage relationship because their sexuality was based on the fiery desire of the soul for the forbidden, and once in marriage sex was acceptable or even mandated, it became more of a duty. This is pure speculation and certainly the reality is always more complex, but this identification of the desire with the forbidden is a real factor.

And so we live in a world where we are constantly and always confronted with the call of the forbidden to our desire - it is the voice of the serpent everywhere, calling to our fallen nature, reasoning with us about the desirability of sin. Temptation has its power because it draws on this very truth; Satan is interested much more in our desire, than in our health or our finances.

In the original intent of God, there did not need to be a division between the 'will' and the 'desire'; the will sees what is right and gathers strength to do the right thing even though the desire is set against it. In the garden, prior to the fall, this was not necessary.

Imagine that God intends to restore us, to heal this terrible wound, this gaping division in our inner souls. Imagine that God wants to remove this need for something called the 'will', this necessity to constantly go against what we want, to constantly do what we do not want, because it is moral. Imagine that God wants to refashion us somehow so that our real desire does not run against what is right. What, eventually, would this healing look like? What kind of world would that be? What would the kingdom of God look like if it really did come to earth? It would look like GRACE! That's right, unbelievably, the impossible dream of living an idyllic existence in which the desire and the will are in perfect peace and harmony within us, where the moral good and the aesthetic good are one and same, is the world He wants us to enter RIGHT NOW. The main characteristic of the new person we become in Christ is this, that this rift between moral good and desirable good, is removed. Our true self, the newly born person we are, does not have this division.

It bears saying that this really is what the law is - it presses notions of right and wrong on the unwilling person, set against their desire. It insists on the moral good, even though the inner desire is for the forbidden. This is the exact beating heart of what is variously called 'legalism', 'pharasaism', etc. Of course no one would ever come right out and say, "Oh, yes, I'm very legalistic, I'm a total pharisee!" I've talked to people who are as legalistic as you can get and they don't think they are legalistic. However, in that they insist on imposing moral codes that are inconsistent with the inward desire, and set the inner man into this division of moral vs. aesthetic good, and think that this division is what true faith really is, they are legalists. This division of moral good from desirable good and the emphasis on morals over desire is what makes religion seem so colorless and lifeless. The aim of Christ is not to emphasize an even more stringent or better moral code, it is to bring the good of morals and the good of desire into a unity within us. He preaches a stringent moral code to fish out that division, to diagnose us as sick, to bring us to a place of healing and transformation.

Someone whose mind is still set in the divided universe, the universe where the good is divided, where moral good is set against desirable good, looks at the offer of grace, and says, "You mean now I can just do ANYTHING? I can just sin and sin and sin that grace might increase?" It must look like this, because what God is really offering is not merely release from guilt, but a healing of this division. This is His ultimate goal, to take us back to the garden, where what is desirable coincides with what is right. The healing He seeks for us, is not just to have the freedom to sin without consequence, but to have the freedom from our true inner desire to actually want what is right. He wants what is morally good to become what is aesthetically good, in our true inner selves.

If you are thinking clearly about this, your mind is fairly screaming an objection. "Hey - are you saying we become sinless? We're not sinless now! We don't just become Christians and then lose all desire for sin! What the heck?!" In fact, when you think about things clearly in your normal right mind, and ask these kinds of questions, you end up going through Paul's reasoning in Romans almost point for point. Romans 7 only makes sense really when you can say, "Hey! I thought i was this new creature, dead to sin! Why do I still sin? What is GOING ON around here?" This is the context of Romans 8, there is therefore now NO CONDEMNATION for those who are IN CHRIST JESUS. Our true self is born of the spirit, but our MIND does not always go along! So, the mind set on the flesh, the mind which reverts back to imposing law on the unwilling human desire, must fail. The mind set on the spirit, the new man, does the things of the law instinctively. This is the short answer.

The parables Jesus taught us about the kindgom of God are all about desire and passion. The man finds the treasure, and FROM JOY over it, sells and makes his sacrifices. Moral good without desire is still desire for evil that is thwarted. In a way sinners who do what they want are much happier than religious moral people who do what is right but never do what they want. Real healing, real grace, real power for living, comes when we change over to the universe of grace. To those on the outside, it looks like the freedom to sin, because their desire is still wrapped up in the forbidden. But to those who enter grace, the hope is that the power of the desirability of the forbidden begins to die off, and we begin to learn to live with a true passion, a true desire, for the living God. Thus the division in us, the two goods, begins to unite, and we start to learn what it is to live with a single mind and a whole heart without shame or remorse.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A modern person reads the sermon on the mount

We're still looking at the sermon on the mount. Read it here:

Let's think about this from the perspective of a modern reader. Here is what might really go through someone's head when they read this. "Poor in spirit ... not sure what he means. Mourn ... hope that never happens! Meek ... I hate those meek Jesus songs. Skipping ... skipping ... some day I might try to figure this stuff out. Ewwww, here's the good part! Salt and light ... yes! I'm a lamp on a hill, yes! Fulfilling the law, ta da ta da ta da ... OK, here we go. Angry = murder. That's right, except when I got angry at Jane it was justified, she was so wrong. Jesus got angry sometimes, right? Looking = adultery; come on Jesus! As if! Divorce - I'm in, but this is pretty stringent. Oaths - what....? Love your enemies - enemies? I don't have any enemies, this is probably no big deal though. skipping, skipping, skipping, to the guy who builds on the rock vs the sand. WOW, I should go back and read this better some day!"

The point is, we internally explain all of this away, skip the parts we don't understand, escape all possible conviction, and then the first part about the poor in spirit makes no sense whatsoever. So we think our fuzzy and anemic understanding of the law is what grace is. We imagine that God just sort of glosses over our sins and shallow minds the same way that we operate. On the contrary, grace presses the law home in a big way, and shows our poverty of spirit, our lack of righteousness, and produces a true hunger for holiness and transformation.

Does this mean I am coming in the back door with condemnation and law? Am I saying, 'you have to get really good and convicted and feel really awful about yourself before you can enter God's good graces? In a way, I suppose I am kind of saying that, but what I'm really saying is, what use are mercy and grace if you think you don't need them? What good is the law at pointing you to grace if you end up explaining it all away and you have no need of supernatural virtue, of the leading of the Spirit? Can you really get the awesome benefit from Jesus' teaching if you don't really bother at all with His actual meaning? We reduce grace from real glorious release and freedom to the milk-toast idea that He just glosses over our minor problems and doesn't care, leaving us essentially untransformed and stuck in our ways. This isn't actually grace at all, it is a very sad watered down and weak-kneed pharisaism which says, "I'm basically OK, so why would God be unhappy with me?" On the contrary, He cares, little things matter a lot, the state of the heart is the true issue, and in looking at things this way we have release into a tremendous level of grace. This opens the door to a world of moral virtue that goes extremely deep, and gives us a chance to try and fail in order that we might try and succeed.

Put another way, our relationship with Jesus is likened to a romance, He is like the bride and the church is like the groom. It is about passion, about desire, about longing. Fuzzy barely alive passionless numb readings of this text don't really fit with that idea do they? The bride always seeks in every way to beautify herself as her wedding approaches, because of her passion for her husband, her lover. A woman is always at her most radiant on her wedding day. We read this passage, and we see what He who loves us really likes in a bride. And from love, from passion, from desire, we see how far we are from this high mark, and we seek grace freely to make ourselves like this:

“And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure.” 1 John 3:3, NASB.

Grace doesn't say, all is forgiven, so now I can sin! Grace says, all is forgiven, I want to be better! I WANT it!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

sermon on the mount

I want to turn aside and take a look at Jesus' famous teaching known to us as the sermon on the mount. It is one of the most penetrating explanations of God's laws and ways ever given. I want to examine exactly what it says, and see how it fits with Paul's teachings about the law and justification by faith and grace. We'll start by refreshing ourselves about what the general message of the sermon on the mount is.

This teaching occurs in Matthew 5 through 7, which you might want to pause and go read real quick. Here's a link:

You gotta love the internet!

For our sake, here is the basic outline of Jesus' teaching:
  1. Blessed are the poor
  2. Salt and Light
  3. Jesus came to fulfill all of the law
  4. Law explained to deep inner motivations on various points
    1. You've heard it said, but...
      1. murder
      2. adultery
      3. divorce
      4. oaths
      5. eye for and eye
      6. love your enemy
    2. practicing righteousness to be noticed
      1. giving to the needy
      2. prayer
      3. fasting
      4. treasure
    3. worry
      1. worry about self (food and clothing)
      2. worry about others (do not judge)
      3. worry about God (seek, and find; not withheld or given strange things)
  5. Do it or die
    1. narrow path
    2. tree and its fruit
    3. wise and foolish builder

Not only is that a nice outline, but a test of my HTML ordered list skills! Notice that at the end of the "you've heard it said, but I say..." section, we get the stinger:

““Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48, NASB.

So let's suppose you are a Jew back in the day, and you are curious and devout, so you wander up to hear what this fellow is saying. Here is what might go through your head as you listen to Jesus teach. "He is saying some very strange things about the value of being poor and unrighteous! Well, that's not me! I've always pretty much kept the law. This isn't the law, this is some strange blasphemous new teaching - I'm leaving. He says that he came to fulfill the law - hey, this sounds good, let's listen a little further. Anger = murder: OUCH! That's true. Looking = adultery: OUCH! That's true too! On he goes, this is incredibly convicting. I'm supposed to be perfect? THAT level of perfect? I'm starting to feel pretty poor. He's right, if I don't do this, like this, to this level, I'm sunk, it is all a sham. How am I going to do this? I need to hear more, much more."

So what has Jesus done here? He has taken people who believe in a shallow veneer of righteousness according to the law, who believe they are not in need of help, and pressed the law to apply to their deep inner motivations and secret thoughts. By the end of the message they come to realize that they are indeed poor in spirit. Just like Paul teaches, He uses the law to show them their need, to move them from their complacency to a place of hunger and thirst for righteousness, to a realization of their need for grace and mercy. He doesn't any more expect that those people were going to hear that message once and immediately walk out and start perfectly doing all of it than I am going to raise a garden on Saturn. He is whetting their appetite for grace!

Does this negate any of what He is saying, am I teaching that we ought not to worry about doing these things? Of course not. That is the same old question, should we sin all the more that grace might increase? NO! The spirit-led life looks like this. It knows the reality of God's presence, and thus prays in secret, in fact does all things in secret, because the secret mind/heart is the always present reality in which the living God works. It gives anxiety to the Father who loves us. It looks past the present sins of others and blesses always. We can always look back at this teaching, and measure ourselves, and find new and fresh need for grace. However, the tree must be drinking in the soil of grace to bear this fruit. The narrow way is not the self-motivated natural fleshly minded righteousness. No one is perfect and we all know it. We are the blessed poor, who are merciful, who know mercy, who hunger from our inner soul for righteousness, and who ask the Father for the bread of life, and receive it. The sermon on the mount is all about pointing us to grace.

Now, you have to ask yourself, which would you rather believe? That the "true gospel of Jesus" is a supremely harsh interpretation of the most difficult parts of this teaching, and that we should just ignore or throw out all of that 'poor in spirit' junk at the beginning? Also, throw out Paul's writings because those aren't the 'true gospel'? OR, would you rather believe that Jesus's whole message hangs together as a unity, that He presses the law home to show you that you ARE poor in spirit, and that this all fits perfectly with the further teachings down the road about the prodigal son and the lost sheep and His desire for mercy and compassion? Would you rather read this in a way that harmonizes perfectly with the writings of Paul, or set them against Paul's thought and divide the Scripture? Which sounds like a more truthful and scripture-honoring way to look at this?

At the end of the passage, Jesus wraps it all up like this:

““Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”” Matthew 7:24-27, NIV.

Which words exactly is He talking about? All of them! That's right, not just the ones about not lusting and not praying in public. The ones about being poor in spirit, about being unrighteous and weak but wanting badly to be better. He means the baffling words at the beginning that we usually skip over as well as the obvious convicting ones in the middle. If you can only hear the middle words, the obviously convicting word, how can you be said to have a right foundation? The people who skip to the middle section without seriously hearing the beginning are building a house on the sand! Hearing Jesus' words and doing them means hearing them ALL, and the beginning part, the meek and mild poor in spirit part, is the real game changer! He is saying you can go ahead and come out and admit that you can't do this, you don't know where to start, inside you are all full of rottenness. THAT is the right foundation!

You know what is so wonderful about this? It is honest, and it is doable. I look at the tax gatherer who can barely pray, but can only beat his chest and beg mercy and admit his sin, and I say, yes, I can do that. That is easy. I can be honest. God does not require anything of us that we can't do. He presses the law to a degree that screams, you can't do this, you may think you can do this, but you cannot do this. The real hearers and doers of His words are the ones who remember the perspective that the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom. It isn't the guilty and rotten pretenders who enter the kingdom, it is the forgiven. It is not the one who pretends not to look, not to be angry, not to worry, not the one who makes foolish promises to change, but the one who says, "Oh, that is true! I am that man, if there is no mercy I am ruined!" Seek and you shall find!

When you look at the scriptures through the eyes of grace as taught by Paul in Romans and Galatians and such, it all begins to come clear. More than that, we see the picture emerge that there is no question that we have come to a God who is the Father of mercy, who always loves, who knows how to break up our fallow ground and really come to a place of change and true inward transformation, because He truly cares for us. Why wouldn't anyone want to believe all of that?

I believe all of that. I find it easy to believe it. Jesus is teaching that very thing in the sermon on the mount, clearly.

Monday, May 17, 2010

I advocate evil

Yes, you read the title right. After lots of dialog with people about God's grace and forgiveness, who ask, "are you saying people can just SIN," and, "what about hell and damnation?!" and such, I've decided to come out and admit it - I advocate evil. Since I believe in grace and mercy, that means that I want everyone to sin more and more and more. If someone is a Christian, that gives them license to do all kinds of evil and harm. Forgiveness means you get to do anything you want, ever. Wife beating is just cool. Wild orgies. Genocide. Pornography and alcoholism are the bomb. Christ died for us so we could go on sinning and sinning and sinning.

Since that is what people seem to be afraid that I am saying, I thought it would be helpful to lay the cards out on the table, there is no use beating around the bush. Let's reason about it from there.

Let's take our friend the serial adulterer. I'm not sure, but it is possible that the swinging free-sex lifestyle is not exactly the happiest and best life. Maybe our friend's insatiable appetite for lasciviousness is not always the best and most joyous thing. I'm sure he doesn't list his skills for secret sex on his business card, nor blog extensively about his experiences and send letters home to his proud mother about how his life of forbidden intimacy is coming along. Maybe he is sick of the shame and secrecy and rottenness of the consequences of his appetites. Maybe he is tired of taking such a powerful and beautiful part of his life and making it cheap and tawdry and shameful. Maybe he would actually like to entertain the idea of change, maybe he WANTS to change, but is so stuck in destructive patterns that he doesn't really know how, he feels that his life is over if he confesses and loses the comfort of it if he stops.

If I come along to our friend, and say, you are certainly going to hell for your deeds, how dare you go one cheating on your wife with other people's wives! You can't say you love God without having a transformed life! What might be the result? He might think, well, God already hates me, and this certainly reinforces my fears, and everyone else hates me too, and I even hate myself, but when I am with a woman she accepts me for a time and my troubles melt away. Why not go on with my caprine ways? Sometimes I feel bad afterwards, but hey, I feel bad all the time anyway. What does God offer but condemnation and the promise of hell? At least let me have my fun on the way to hell, it isn't going to change anyway.

If, on the other hand, I come along to our friend, and say, despite your ridiculously evil lifestyle, God loves you deeply, and has a vision for the true strength and purpose of your life. You have fallen short of God's glory, but He will forgive you forever and will work with you to help to dislodge this nasty pattern of desire in your life, and forge a new heart in you which loves honorable good things. There is real mercy, lasting mercy, mercy for your past and mercy for your future. There is mercy for what you actually need mercy for, forgiveness for your actual specific guilt! If you screw up and mess with a woman again (because you have years of this ingrained in you) God will still forgive. He wants to walk you out of this for the long haul. I am only His humble helper, but the Holy Spirit can touch your very soul with a supernatural power and change you. He sees past your behavior and loves YOU, as YOU, and wants to move past a focus only on your failures, to speak to you about what your life might look like if you had a chance to WIN! Not just in terms of stopping your addictive behavior, but of going on to a much much better way of life, full of joy and peace and contentment and rich spirituality.

Which approach might bring our friend the serial adulterer more surely out of his terrible ways? Which might lead him more surely to repentance? The harsh promise of the fear of hell and condemnation, or real lasting forgiveness and mercy, EVEN IF HE CAN'T PROMISE TO CHANGE? And, this isn't just true for serial adulterers. It is true for every sinner, the obvious ones and the religious white-washed ones. What if God really actually loves us, and seeks our best? What if God longs to extend kindness, to forgive, and to offer a path to heartfelt genuine righteousness that will not be revoked? I believe that He is always the Father who longs for His beloved prodigal to return, for things small and things great. Grace means the path is always clear and the door is always open to righteousness, help and power are always available to get up and try again. That is what it means. Love always trumps judgement. The transformed life might be a long time coming, but the love of God for us is real and present now. Transformation is a fruit that follows, and everyone wants it. Grace doesn't negate that, it opens the door to it. But if grace demands transformation, it is no longer grace. Grace says I forgive, I love, come to Me, I accept you, I will not stop seeking your best at all times. God is love and love always wins for everyone. Undeserved kindness transforms.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Modern Myths

Someone posted this quote recently, and the conversation was relevant so I am posting it here.

"It is a modern myth that you can know and love Him and not have a transformed life by Him."

I am posting some of my own responses:
It is much more of a modern myth that the goal is transformation instead of knowing and loving. 'In this is love, not that we love God, but that God loved us' - 1John 4:10

To this came the response:

Biggest myth: That knowing and loving are separate from the transformation.

"This is love for God - That we obey his commands"
I John 5:3

Uh, we... don't... ever... attain perfection... in knowing/loving/transformation.

But if we're following, shouldn't we be continually getting better at it? I'm not not one to see k/l/t as some binary ("either/or") thing. This Romans text seems to show it more as a process, yes?
Here is my response:

I think the engine, the animus, the dunamis, to the Christian life is wholly other than trying to continually 'get better.' It starts with finding our treasure, hidden in the field, and then FROM JOY OVER IT (Mt 13:44) making sacrifices and life changes. It starts with saying, yes, morally, I am a miserable mess, I need rescue. It continues (read Galatians) by grace. Always there is the struggle with sin (Rom 7) but always there is no condemnation (Rom 8:1) and always there is the open door to walk by the Spirit (first half of Rom 8). Nothing, not even sin, can keep us from the love of Christ (rest of Rom 8).

My starting place and my continuing animus is that I am the one who is loved by the Father, greatly greatly loved. Sin and righteousness cannot change that or increase it. Our works are a gift (Eph 2:8-10), or fruit. As Christians we have left the universe of earning favor, of criticism and judgement. It is living in the light of that favor, that joy, that great great happiness, that the power to work works comes to us, that our life becomes transformed.

Focusing on the transformed life instead of focusing on knowing Him and knowing that He first loves me, is like the guy going and selling all he has as a discipline, and then hoping he stumbles on a treasure. It simply doesn't work that way, it is all a sham, all a white-washed tomb. If our works aren't coming from joy over it, they are dead ones.

Further, don't argue with ME about it, I am nothing and I am completely stubborn in my insistence on grace and mercy and the sufficiency of Christ's blood for me every day. Look at yourself, to see if you are living under grace, if you have found your treasure hidden, if you have a constant sense of the Father's fondness for you. It is His kindness that leads us to repentance.
Now, some other thoughts about all of this...

Here is where I see so many getting so lost in a depressing colorless lifeless pursuit of morals and a Christian version of pharisaism. It comes through very subtle back door deceptions, very well-meaning fervor. We have an emphasis on a "transformed life", and even on "knowing and loving God", which are sort of pitted against each other. You can't do the one unless you do both. The truth is you can't do either one, they are both impossible and onerous tasks. The Christian walk is characterized as looking at Christianized versions of laws and edicts, such as 'being in the word', 'praying more', not masturbating, not skipping church, doing youth ministry so you can inflict 'youth' with your same disease, or whatever, and gradually 'getting better' at it all. I personally cannot get fired up about a spirituality that is only about looking at how well I conform to such things, frankly it is boring and bereft of life. The focus is on a transformed life, whereas I think the focus should be on God's love for me, God's spirit leading us, and on TRUTH! Does this mean I advocate masturbation and prayerlessness? Of course not; I feel like I am continually circling around romans 3-8, with special emphasis over and over on Romans 6:1. But really, however cleverly and poetically you put it, such as "A transformed life ... " ta da ta da ta da, if your message really boils down to, stop masturbating and pray more, how do you expect people to really get fired up about it? Pray to who? Some fairy tale invisible entity who hates me, who won't let me love Him unless my life is 'transformed', which means actually that you intend to trick me into joyless colorless 'holiness' by getting me to fear His wrath and retribution?

Furthermore, here is what will happen in the inevitable dialog. "No - of course that's not what I mean!" "What do you mean then?" "I mean you should have a transformed life." "How do you know?" "Well, ... ." "Oh, well, isn't that what I was saying?" And on and on and on down the rabbit hole it goes. Of course no Christian will own up to being a legalistic pharisee, but until they are willing to say that it is faith in the blood of Christ + NOTHING ELSE that justifies us, until that translates into complete genuine freedom, until it finds a place for holiness as a fruit of being first loved by Him, until they advocate scandalous grace like Jesus and Paul and John, they ARE a legalistic pharisee. If you aren't getting romans 6:1 ("shall we then sin all the more that grace might increase??") put to you over and over and over by religious zealots, until you are experiencing some real persecution by the same kinds of people that persecuted Jesus, you have to wonder if you are really following in His shoes and preaching the same outstanding and delicious message that He did!

I am certain I am stepping on all kinds of toes here, so I apologize in advance, but I hope and pray that the beautiful truth that the Holy Spirit is trying to get across to the dear person who stumbles across this will come forth.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Discipline and grace Pt. 2

Yesterday I posted some things about discipline and grace and it set me to thinking about it a lot more. Here are some more thoughts.

  1. Grace vs. Discipline. If we are asked BY GOD to suffer in the flesh, to 'arm ourselves with the same purpose (1Peter 4:1)', how does that jive with the operations of a God of love and grace? Are we allowing bondage and servitude and legalism in the back door through teachings on discipline? Before you go on with this, I want you to pause and let yourself really inwardly ask this question, to honestly consider it. You might pray, "Lord, if it is true that You LOVE me and have mercy and grace so strongly for me, WHY all this talk about discipline and such? Why do You make it so hard?" It is important that you truly own up to your own doubts and internal fears and anger about this, you can't just go day by day reading trite theories about things. There is certainly a danger in teachings about God's discipline, in that it leads to a wrong fear and a subtle underlying disbelief in His love and mercy and grace. Some people become very dejected in their faith and are constantly expecting to be punished and disciplined all the time, and expect that most of God's dealings with them are going to be harsh and disciplinary. Let's look at the most famous text for this subject:

    “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” Hebrews 12:4-13, NASB.

    One of my sons sometimes has a bit of trouble keeping current with his school work. Recently when I called him to task, and grounded him from a number of things, he got very upset and wanted to know why I was "going Nazi" on him about it. He later went on to say that he feels that he can't talk to me about anything any more, and he feels that I am always angry with him. From my perspective, I love him, I didn't even raise my voice, and I seek nothing except success and healing for him. We have a tendency to overplay the harshness of our discipline, don't we? If God presses through our conscience or something that we have an area needing correction, we are likely to view all of His kindnesses through that lens, because it speaks most loudly. However, this discipline is far from the final message God has for us. There is a very big difference between punishment and discipline. Discipline sees weakness and failure and brings whatever measures to bear to bring strength and healing. It has nothing to do with justice or moral wrong-doing. Punishment has more to do with facing the consequences for moral wrong-doing. Here we are talking about discipline, not punishment. In the end, discipline is meant to be joyful, but not in the moment of pain.

    In fact, the discipline of God is the surest sign of His grace. He means to keep with us, to lead us on, to take us to a point of blessing and peace, even when we ourselves resist. He is more committed to our good fortune than we ourselves are! Isn't it true that our closest friends, the friends we trust most and have known the longest, are the ones that tell us the things we really need to hear? God is not less than our closest friends. Grace means God really means to bless us, to keep with us, to bring us to a place of true and lasting joy. Discipline is one means to this end, but it is not His whole voice nor is it by any means the only thing He has to say. It is an occasional season of revelation to us when we are having trouble hearing more reasonable voices.

  2. Kinds of discipline. This is a point of clarifying terms, because we tend to use the word 'discipline' in two ways. There is self-discipline, or the ordered and focused life that is effectual in its purposes. The disciplined life says yes to the right things, even when it is hard, and no to the right things, even when it is hard. The disciplined life knows its callings, gifting, and strengths, and forsakes other interests in order to excel in them. The disciplined life lets others win at their callings, lets other excel, and focuses on its own complementary success. The second kind of discipline is God's discipline, or rather the discipline of another imposed upon an otherwise undisciplined person. In both cases discipline means the same thing - the focus on a higher goal through sometimes difficult means. If one does not or cannot discipline themselves, bring themselves to a place of order, to a place of focus and success, another must do so. It is the same idea, but its source is either self, or another person, or God.

    “I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you. Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you.” Psalms 32:8, 9, NASB.

  3. Group discipline. Discipline in a group is even harder, and even more rewarding. Whether it is a family, or the workplace, or a church or parachurch group, it can only come to fruition if there is a common vision, and a strong gift of leadership and administration is present. Even with these, there is another element to discipline within a group that is most difficult. The members must agree to submit to the authority of the leadership and the administration of the group's vision and efforts; they must 'believe' in the vision. Just as a little fly ruins the whole ointment (“Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.” Ecclesiastes 10:1, NASB), so one undisciplined member of the group can ruin the whole effort. Each member must be individually disciplined to achieve the goals of the whole. The leadership must be ready to expect resistance and lack of discipline, but most people truly welcome the success and order and sense of belonging to a fruitful endeavor which is larger than themselves. Many times the reason the group falls into disorder and lacks success is because the vision is uncompelling, the leadership is weak, and the affairs of the group are not administered well. Other times it is because one or more undisciplined members are not brought to discipline or expelled (“Drive out the scoffer, and contention will go out, Even strife and dishonor will cease.” Proverbs 22:10, NASB.)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Discipline and grace Pt. 1

We tend to think that the spirit-led life, the life of grace and mercy, is a life of free-wheeling 'where the wind blows' craziness. To a certain extent it is. We see this in the life of Jesus:

““The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”” John 3:8, NKJV.

If you ever try to do a study on Jesus in terms of time management, productivity, or discipline, you will find that there is nothing there. He's going here, going there, up praying at 4 AM unexpectedly (if He always did this, wouldn't the disciples have known what to expect?) He would hang around and then leave town unexpectedly. the disciples never had any idea what He was going to do next. It's almost like the defining characteristic of Jesus' walk was its complete unpredictability from day to day. Some need came along and He turned aside; yet in every case it served as a teaching moment for the disciples, and in every case it all fit some larger purpose.

Despite the apparent chaos, there is an order, an intensity, a focus to Jesus' way of living. He had a tremendous vision to seriously offer the kingdom of God to the nation of Israel before we see a clear shift in focus where He turns away from that and begins to focus on His disciples and building up the seed of the church. This is way beyond the scope of this post, but next time you read through one of the gospels watch for it, and in the middle of the craziness and the wind-blown itinerary, we see a focus and a discipline to teach certain things to certain groups and not to other groups, to heal people for a time in an area and then leave others unhealed and move on.

Look at this passage:

“Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; “and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”” Mark 10:32-34, NKJV.

This is toward the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, and we see that the disciples were amazed, because they understood the danger, the impending calamity, that certainly awaited Him there. He knew what He needed to do, it was not pleasant, and yet the Spirit led Him, just like it led Him to the desert to be tempted, to His crucifixion. He marched ahead of them, facing up, moving surely toward His fate. On the way, as usual, He is interrupted and heals people and takes on the issues and problems and addresses the misunderstandings of the disciples. The discipline and order of the spirit led life is not one that avoids difficulty, nor is it one that avoids the messy problems of real people along the way. Peter, who was on that road with Him, and was one of the amazed ones, presses the point:

“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” 1 Peter 4:1, 2, NKJV.

ARM yourselves with the same purpose! If you are ready to suffer in the flesh, if you have it in mind to do God's bidding no matter the cost, if you have set your face toward the place of your cross, you are ARMED, you are dangerous to the forces of evil. If you are distracted, seeking comfort and entertainment, led astray with spiritual 'ADD', if you are not ready to face your obvious purpose and fate, you are unarmed, harmless, aimless, wandering, and ineffectual.

It is strange, but you can always bet that the one thing you are avoiding is the one thing that is the most important thing you need to do. Once you lay that aside, once you set your mind to suffer, once you are of a mind to set your face like flint toward your Jerusalem, you are freed. It is strange as well that it is usually one thing, one simple thing, that faces you, and it is not that you lack revelation or understanding, it is that you do not want to suffer, you enjoy your aimless comfort. It is a problem of the will, not of the lack of some mystic revelation, that prevents you from being in the stream of the strong purpose of the Spirit's leading.

Paul, the guru of grace, has much to say about all of this. One of my favorites is in his letter to Timothy:

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV.

and here:

“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer must be first to partake of the crops. Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things.” 2 Timothy 2:1-7, NKJV.

We have an agenda, a clear manifest. We are not called to cordon ourselves off from the random needs of people and the daily pressure of the unexpected, but rather we are called to freely, by the Spirit, arm ourselves with the strong purpose to take up our cross, and go forward with the amazing adventure of following Him who did the same for us. The Christian idea of discipline under grace is broader and more free than keeping a planner perfectly with each 15 minute time slot filled in. Discipline under grace is effectual and gets to the heart of us in the most direct way.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Terrell Dismukes' Story

My friend Terrell, who was in a music group with me in Europe back in the 80's, sent this to me after reading one of these posts. I thought it was fantastic, and he agreed to let me share it.


I read your blog post about God loving us, and it reminded me of something. Last November, I went to the Be In Health, For My Life Course at Pleasant Valley Church in Thomaston, Georgia, [ ]and here is part of what I learned there:

Probably the most foundational thing I took away from the course is the belief that God really loves me a lot and wants the very best for me. I was never really able to believe this the way I do now. I remind myself of this every day, often several times a day. I firmly believe that believing God really loves me a lot is foundational to worship, sanctification, and good mental health. God of course tells us many times in the Bible that he loves us. There is one particular passage that almost has my name written it, because when Jesus says in John 17:20 to his Father “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word,” he is most definitely talking about me. He goes on to say that “thou [the Father] ... hast loved them [including me, as per verse 20], as thou hast loved me [Jesus],” and that “thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world.” So God the Father loves me in the same way he loves Jesus, before the foundation of the world.

There are four major prayers by Paul for others in his letters. They are in Ephesians 1 and 3, Philippians 1, and Colossians 1. In one of these prayers, the one in Ephesians 3:14-19, in language that is somewhat difficult to understand, I believe Paul is praying that his readers would believe that God loves them, that they would understand how great this love is for them, and that they would know this love that God has for them, as much as it is possible to know such love that even passes knowledge. He finally prays that they would be filled with all the fullness of God. I believe that when we are filled with the belief, understanding, and knowledge that God really loves us a lot and wants the very best for us, there is no crack through which any evil can get to us from the outside.

Before I believed that God really loves me a lot and wants the very best for me, I was unable to tell God my Father that I really loved him. I felt unworthy to do so, and felt like I would be hypocritical to tell him that, because I thought I did not come anywere near the love I have should have for him. Now I think the real reason I was unable to tell him I loved him, was because I was not convinced that he really loved me. Now I am convinced that he does really love me, and I can freely tell him every day that I love him.

I think that the belief, understanding, and knowledge that God really loves me a lot is a foundation for worship, sanctification, and good mental health. It is a foundation for worship, for how can we really worship God in spirit and in truth if we do not really believe that he loves us a lot? With regard to sanctification, how can we truly obey God out of a pure heart if we do not really believe that he loves us a lot?

The apostle John writes in 1 Jn. 2:15-16:

“15 Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.”

I have discovered that if I really believe that God loves me a lot, I am not going to go looking to fill the void from not feeling loved by going to these things in the world. It started way back in Genesis 3 that Adam and Eve doubted God’s love for them, sought a replacement for that love from another source, and hid themselves from him.

Is Mercy different than Grace?

It has been suggested to me by a friend that mercy and grace are very different things, so I wanted to look into this. We tend to use these words a bit interchangeably and I wanted to explore the nuances of the ideas involved, as a part of my quest to understand grace.

In English, these words reflect ideas that are two sides of the same coin. Mercy means, someone has done some transgression, and the punishment is not executed against them. Grace means that someone has done some transgression, and nevertheless blessings are given - provision and honor and such. So, both involve someone that has transgressed justice somehow, but the one decides NOT TO execute punishment while the other decides TO execute blessing.

Upon investigation, Paul seems to use the Greek words interchangeably to reflect these ideas, as here, where he means 'mercy':

“being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” Romans 3:24, NKJV.
('Grace' is the greek word 'charis' and clearly means in context that we are 'justified' or not held accountable for our transgressions of the law by its means.)

and here, where he means 'grace' with the same word:
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed;” 2 Corinthians 9:8, NASB.
('Grace' is the greek word 'charis' and clearly means in context that we are given an abundance of provision for doing every good deed..)

I think the reason is that the two are clearly wrapped up in one another. Consider the parable of the prodigal son (which we will look at in very great detail later!) At once, when the son returns, mercy and grace happen in the same breath:

“‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ “And he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him, and kissed him. “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ And they began to be merry.” Luke 15:18-24, NASB.

See that for the father, mercy was so evident that it wasn't even a thought in his head. He didn't even answer the son's request for mercy! He launched straight into the blessing - "Quickly bring out the best robe." The son imagined mercy was the need, but all the Father had any mind for at all was grace. Thus, it is the design of God that these are mixed together and ambiguous, not because we are fuzzy in our minds about it, but because God so quickly passes through mercy to get to grace that it hardly seems there is any difference at all!

Now isn't that wonderful?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Why does Christianity obsess over Law, sin, guilt, and forgiveness?

To the uninitiated, Christianity's obsession with sin can seem off-putting. We don't like to constantly face what is wrong with ourselves, and no one wants to talk about it. You hear all this talk about God and love and yet it immediately descends into talk of morals and guilt and forgiveness. The idea of grace is all wrapped up in God's apparent concern with our moral status; He loves us and grants us favor despite our unworthiness. Why can't God simply love, without having to constantly reference our failures? It is wearying; I don’t want to think about my own unworthiness all the time, this is not a beautiful thing. The constant reference to my guilt does not make me feel loved. If my friend acted this way, constantly referencing how wrong and bad I was but saying they still loved me anyway, I wouldn't want to stay in that friendship; it is simply weird.

Yet, in the book of Revelation, we see Jesus up on the throne, and the image is that of a lamb as if slain. He still bears the scars of His death for our redemption. Apparently this will not be forgotten on to eternity; our sin, our need for salvation, will be forever impressed on the very image with which God presents Himself from the height of heaven. Is this a good thing? At first thought I don’t know that I like it. I just want to be accepted and loved, and have my moral failures and shortcomings all but forgotten and glossed over.

Well, I want to show why this is so fantastic, why it is actually the most wonderful and liberating thing about the Christian faith. Once you wrap your head around this you will walk with an incredible joy and release and freedom that is the greatest thing in human experience. You will know that you are definitively forgiven, that you are accepted, established, that your good destiny is truly secured. God is not constantly focused on what is wrong with us; rather, He is making it clear that He stands forever actively against the condemning voices, guarding us and blessing us. I want to reason through this slowly, and ask awkward questions, and get to a true intellectual and emotional understanding of the whole thing.

======The Worst Injury======

If someone injures you, for instance cuts off your arm, it is a grievous thing. You have the well-deserved sympathy of all, everyone comes to your aid. Church people visit, people bring you meals, your mother calls and everyone feels tremendously sorry for you. You didn’t do anything wrong per se, after all, someone cut off your arm!

However, if YOU are the one who cut off that person’s arm, it is a different story altogether. You are hunted down, thrown in prison. No one calls, no one brings you meals, your mother is ashamed. You are the guilty one, you are the one who did it. No one loves that person! This is a person who knows they are hated and they know they deserve to be hated.

The harm, the injury, the life-devastation is greater to the perpetrator than to the injured one, because after all, THEY ARE EVIL and they know it. A rotten and seething conscience is much closer and more active and more vengeful than even a missing arm. This is not to detract at all from the pain and suffering of the innocent party, but innocence and any other pain is much easier to bear than guilt. Guilt attaches to the central self, the core identity. Guilt is the chief injury a person can do to himself.
If I am injured, something about me is damaged, yet my truest self, my conscience, my innocence, remains intact. We can expect God and fate to treat us kindly despite our undeserved harm. This isn’t really a Christian or religious thing, it is a human thing. If I am the perpetrator of evil, I will forever be the one who is capable of evil; I AM evil. Not just my arm, or my emotions, but my very self comes under question. Even I cannot imagine good coming to me, because I know what I have done. Any good that I get subsequent to the proof of my evilness (I can’t believe the spell-checker didn’t ding me for that word!) must be snatched by my own wiles; if there is fate or justice it is all going to go against me.

======Garden Variety Sins=======

Now, we understand all of this when applied to some clearly evil person like Jeffrey Dahmer or Joseph Stalin. Most people are normal garden variety people with normal garden variety sins. Guys ogle women they aren’t married to, people gossip, cheat on their taxes, react in angry words with their children, overeat. Is God so nit-picky that we would go to hell for such minor infractions?

Before I answer that question, which is a very good question, you have to understand that we are going somewhere better with this. If I am going to give you directions to the glorious mountain lookout I have to talk you through the dark forest. I don’t mean to focus on the forest but you have to go through it to get there. This is the same thing, don’t check out.

Of course God is not ‘nit-picky’! He means well, he means to do you good by leading you through this. The apostle Paul says that the ‘Law’ is our tutor, that leads us to faith. It is not the agent of faith, the basis of faith, it is a road to somewhere. So Jesus teaches about the Law, and says that if you are even angry with your brother, you are guilty of murder! What does he mean? He means, it isn’t just what you do, it is what you desire, what you are like inside, what you love, your heart, that defines you. The law only points this out, like a flashlight shining into your messy closet. You may hold yourself back from murder but in a sense you wish for it, you may hold yourself back from adultery but inside you want it so bad. Jesus is saying that this kind of double life, appearing to be something while on the inside wanting something entirely different, means that your true self is actually quite evil. You only appear to be respectable. Jesus calls people like this a ‘white-washed tomb’, meaning it looks clean on the outside, but is dead and putrefied on the inside.

So we arrive at the idea that Paul teaches, that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” This is something which is not true only in some vague general theological sense. You can sense people fogging over when you start to talk about inheriting sin from Adam and all of that. That is true, but that is not the primary and active truth. What the Law properly parsed out shows is MY sin, my ACTUAL guilt, the real living fault-line where my soul has transgressed and broken down on the waves of life. In Augustine’s confessions, he had an epiphany of his own real sin:

Now when deep reflection had drawn up out of the secret depths of my soul all my misery and had heaped it up before the sight of my heart, there arose a mighty storm, accompanied by a mighty rain of tears. That I might give way fully to my tears and lamentations, I stole away from Alypius, for it seemed to me that solitude was more appropriate for the business of weeping. I went far enough away that I could feel that even his presence was no restraint upon me. This was the way I felt at the time, and he realized it. I suppose I had said something before I started up and he noticed that the sound of my voice was choked with weeping. And so he stayed alone, where we had been sitting together, greatly astonished. I flung myself down under a fig tree--how I know not--and gave free course to my tears. The streams of my eyes gushed out an acceptable sacrifice to thee. And, not indeed in these words, but to this effect, I cried to thee: "And thou, O Lord, how long? How long, O Lord? Wilt thou be angry forever? Oh, remember not against us our former iniquities." [259] For I felt that I was still enthralled by them. I sent up these sorrowful cries: "How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?"

I myself had such an experience, perhaps this is why Augustine’s experience resonates so deeply with me. I was just out of high school, and had decided that Jesus was the way and the truth, but I had not really come to an understanding of the faith. I went to a big formal Baptist church, with an organ playing and all of that, and a guy got up and said, “we must remember that Christ has died on the cross for our sins.” I did not really understand at all what he was talking about, and I found the organ music irritating, but I was hit with waves of a sense of my own sinfulness, of how I had done so many things wrong, so much harm, specific things. I wept and wept in there, just deep waves of weeping and regret. Everyone kind of moved away from me; I probably should have gone out by a fig tree somewhere.

The point is, we must come to the very end of ourselves. It is tempting to relegate these kinds of stories to the category of nuthouse religious experiences, when in fact they are stories of a person coming at last to the full truth about themselves and the world. It is no general principle of ‘man’s sinfulness’ from which we must be rescued. I am the perpetrator, I am the one. I may have received some sin nature from Adam, but that is academic. I really screwed things up badly. Me. I actually need forgiveness myself for real evil. I have loved and acted on love for very selfish and damaging and stupid things. I am actually ashamed. I think it is probably impossible to understand the real release of forgiveness until you come to a place where you see that not only have you been harmed, you are a harmer. It is this worse thing, your own personal true evil, that Christianity addresses. God sees you, sees your shame, your wrong, and where everyone else on earth rightly hates you for it, He has compassion even then.


This post is not the end of the road. The only point is that our truest need, our greatest damage, is our own evil. The Christian faith focuses on it because it is the central need of every human. It is our most hopeless problem. It is not some theological theory, it is the real fire that eats at our joy and our inner peace day and night. It is born of real deeds that demand true justice. It is not just that ‘all’ have sinned - it is that YOU have sinned, I have sinned, we have done real specific evil, we are the ones who love evil in the real world. If God loves, He must hate the evil that harms us. Yet, we each have a big hand in being the agent of harm towards those around us. This is the miracle of the Christian faith, not that a superior moral code is presented, but the solution to the problem of our own evil, the problem of true forgiveness, has been accomplished.

I will be so bold to say that you will not enter into true faith, true intimacy, true peace, until you come to the weeping tree and truly beg for an end to your uncleanness. Then the scales come off of your eyes, and you see your life for what it really is, for what glories God really intended your life for, and how you have so fallen short. Rightly does He hate your sin, and at great cost does He forgive. Then do you see that it is forgiveness that you want, it is release from a punishing conscience that you long for, and the work of Jesus to release you while preserving justice to those you've harmed becomes very very important to look into.

Now, Paul ends his whole first section of the book of Romans like this:

“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:31-39, NKJV.

In other words, if God has dealt with this most central and difficult need, our inward evil, and still stands with us and blesses us, what else could be so bad? If our own evil can't get between us and God, what else could even come close? In a sense, if you are released from guilt, you are released from the sting of virtually every other stress! Even peril and death can't hold a candle to the feeling of pending condemnation, and that is all over with in Christ.

Do you get it? WHAT A RUSH!!!!

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Jesus came to complete the Law

This is a rather technical post, and is a necessary defense of the Biblical foundation of the message of grace that I am teaching. To all who are not able or willing to follow all of this, I apologize in advance. I hope you might try to read it anyway, there is some really great juicy stuff in this discussion.

A response from my friend Robert Krauss quotes Jesus:

The Word made Flesh (Yeshua) said:

"Don't think that I have come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete. Yes indeed! I tell you that until heaven and earth pass away, not so much as a yud or a stroke will pass from the Torah - not until everything that must happen has happened. So whoever disobeys the least of these mitzvot and teaches others to do so will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But whoever obeys them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness is far greater than that of the Torah-teachers and P'rushim, you will certainly not enter the Kingdom of Heaven!" (Matthew 5:17-21)
My response:
From the tenor of the verses you chose, and because I know from our history what you are trying to say, let me paraphrase your interpretation. This verse says something quite contrary to your message of unconditional love and grace and total forgiveness now and forever. Jesus teaches us that He came to complete the Law - to make it really stick. Every little jot and tittle, every dot on every 'i' and every cross on every 't', will be required of each man. It clearly says that whoever OBEYS them and so teaches will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. You can't just believe and wander on in forgiveness still sinning, you have to obey! Jesus says so, it says so here in black and white. Or rather, in red letters.

In response to what I take your meaning to be:

What does "complete" mean, as He says, not to abolish, but to complete? It means we are supposed to adhere to and live under the Torah, the OT law? Is that what it means? But it says "I (Jesus) have come ... to complete." Are you saying that WE, His followers, are to complete it, by obeying it? On the contrary, no less than the apostle John says:

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 1 John 1:8, NKJV.

If we thus have sin, if we don't deceive ourselves, if we are truthful, doesn't that imply that WE can't complete the law in that sense? So, it must mean that He, rather than we, are referred to in "completing" the Law.

Now, Matthew 5:17-21 clearly says, we should not teach others to disobey, lest we be least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Does the message of grace, of complete mercy, teach others to disobey? In Paul's words, "shall we sin more that grace might increase?" Of course it does not. Let's skip to the good part:

"there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" Romans 8:1

follows romans 7:

15* For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate.
16* But if I do the very thing I do not wish to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that it is good.

Teaching that the law is good does not mean one is empowered to keep it. In fact, if Romans 7 were not true then Romans 8:1 would not be necessary would it? Or do you not really believe the writings of Paul? In that case you are a Jew in fact, not a Christian. What is Paul's solution? Let's read on:

“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Romans 8:2-6, NKJV.

So, we see that the mind set on the flesh, the mind set on the law, the mind set to do the law under human power, is death. It spells this out so clearly here, that the law could NOT achieve freedom or virtue, being weak through the "flesh", through individual non-supernatural human power. Christian virtue is supernatural, you cannot strip the work and stirring and empowering of the Holy Spirit from the Christian way of virtue. But the requirement of the law is fulfilled by Christ, fulfilled in us. The law is, so to speak, completed in Christ, in that it requires punishment or justice for sin, and Jesus suffered and died to fulfill that requirement. Yes, the propitiatory death of Jesus is the way he "completed" the law. It certainly isn't that we fulfill it or are sinless or even come close to fulfilling even the important parts.

Let's move on in the Matthew 5:17 passage. What is the 'righteousness far greater than that' of the pharisees? Does he mean, their moral fiber is far greater? Then how is it that JESUS teaches this in Luke 18:

10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a tax-gatherer.
11 “The Pharisee stood and was praying thus to himself, ‘God, I thank Thee that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax-gatherer.
12 ‘I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’
13 “But the tax-gatherer, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’
14 “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, but he who humbles himself shall be exalted.”

The Pharisee prays truly that he does these things. It isn't enough; doing the Torah, the Law, isn't enough! Who among us even does as good as this guy? He always fasts twice a week! Our righteousness has to exceed all of that? But the tax-gatherer went away justified, NOT THE PHARISEE!!! HIS righteousness did indeed exceed the pharisee's, and he didn't do any of those good things. Right? So how does this work? If your interpretation of what Jesus means by 'abolish' and 'complete' the Law is correct, then He must be schizophrenic or insane, or at best a very poor and inconsistent teacher. But He is not, because that is not what He means.

I'll tell you exactly what it is, the little secret that so few people have put together. This is the part I hope everyone carries away from this post, if they couldn't follow anything else. Jesus thinks exactly like Paul, Paul in fact learned it all from Jesus. Jesus does fulfill the law, JESUS fulfills the law. No one else does. All have sinned. All sin. ALL. Jesus offers true forgiveness while upholding the law, that is the miracle of salvation. The law is, as Paul says, "a tutor" that leads us to mercy.

Rather, the one who seeks mercy acknowledges, in fact KEEPS -holds on to the truest intent and precept of - the law more truly than the one who pretends to adhere to it and thinks they have no need of mercy. The confessor, the seeker of mercy, submits the inner secrets of the soul more truly to the law than the religious poser. It is forgiveness which adheres most closely to the law, saying in all its implications and inner motivations that it is true. The one who believes in grace can apply the law most deeply to himself, because he seeks not self-righteousness but forgiveness for the truth of his life. It is mercy that opens the door to the kind of inner transformation that can really fulfill the law without regret or wrong motivation.

In closing, notice this: the 'legalistic' way of looking at this is set at odds with Paul's teachings. It can't be good to throw out Paul's epistles can it? My way of looking at this preserves a strong interpretation of both passages easily. Not only is it true, but more free and happy. I would rather believe in mercy and grace and beat my chest as a fully acknowledged sinner because it is true and it is actually doable, and leads to a deeper and more honest holiness. Plus, walking away justified is a great and wonderful thing, much better than I deserve - but after all, I'm not God, God is. I didn't make any of His ways up, He did.