The Perceptive Householder

CC BY-NC, bittermelon, Flickr

CC BY-NC, bittermelon, Flickr

Something I do customarily is reread my essays and think through the lessons in them. That might seem strange to you, but it is incredibly consoling and affirming to my faith. In fact, I think it makes good sense.

If my writing reflects what I’m discovering in my walk with Christ, those chronicles exist to encourage me because they tell the story of Christ’s and my friendship. Moreover, they are tools with which I can appraise my growth, and they will forever testify of God’s faithfulness to me, helping me to trust him in the future.

Until recently all of these writings were simply buried in my computer. Then it occurred to me, What good is that? Could they not edify someone else?

What’s in Your Pantry?

Matthew 13:52 says, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.” I love this verse…so eloquent and probing. It is also descriptive of the task of any minister or Christian worker—and us faith bloggers, too.

There are layers of insight in this verse. Jesus focuses us on the householder and his contribution, which is his wisdom about the kingdom. What we have to offer others (our treasure or deposit) is all we have learned and ascertained about God through his word and our experiences with him, insight about his past involvement in our lives—even while we were in sin—and things he currently teaches us. It is an exquisite concept.

How encouraging it is to know that every experience we have is capable of serving a need in someone else’s life. Today with one person we may need to share how we met the Lord years ago; tomorrow with another we may need to relay how God’s grace is helping us right now overcome a personal struggle.

“Things new and old” (NKJV), a revealing expression, indicates a bounty of wisdom that should characterize believers and their capacity to serve other’s needs.

Tongue of the Learned

Those “instructed concerning the kingdom” (NKJV) are disciples and if disciples, then stewards. We not only possess a trove of goods to offer others, we also have the facility, by virtue of our training (and ongoing discipleship), as well as the authority to perform as stewards, such as to provide, govern, protect, and defend.

Don’t let that be strange to you. Your knowledge of Christ right now can nourish and sustain, bring accountability, and protect and defend through prayer and guidance—those who are our Christian brothers and sisters and equally those currently in the clutches of sin and evil.

As stewards we work on the behalf of Christ. We labor for the Lord; the souls to whom we minister belong to him. We endeavor to claim all for the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul, especially in the Pastoral Epistles, presents to us a clear example of how our full ministry serves God’s purpose.

So if you haven’t gotten the message yet, Jesus is speaking directly to each of us saying, “You are without excuse: you have something to contribute.” It’s easy to feel like we’re novices and don’t know enough Bible or don’t compare to other strong Christians. But none of us get passes here.

Of the kingdom we’ve been instructed and for the kingdom we must share. What God teaches us must flow through us. Although there is much similarity in our experience with Christ, none of our experiences are alike. Because of that we have an obligation to one another as brothers and sisters to share what we uniquely possess of Christ to build each other’s faith. We don’t withhold helpful knowledge from our natural siblings; we shouldn’t do it with our spiritual ones.

Fit Christians

None of it will do any good, however, if we don’t bring these lessons, experiences, reflections, and illuminations out of the storerooms and share them. “Therefore, encourage one another and build each other up…” (1 Thess. 5:11).

An African preacher spoke in my college chapel service exhorting us all to be “fit” Christians, not “fat” ones. The point was not to constantly ingest the word but never exercise it.

How you feel called to exercise the word is not the important thing. What is important is that you be active with what you possess. The lessons in your life, rich as they are, belong to others besides you.

The Goal of Religious Practice

CC BY-NC, Hezi Ben-Ari, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Hezi Ben-Ari, Flickr

Do not be hastily critical of Christianity as religion. It is the door by which we enter faith. We are to blame, however, should we not walk along far enough and discover relationship, for it is the heart of the house. What do you seek? If religion is what you seek, then religion is all you will get. But if it is Christ whom you desire, then he will surely be found by you—and your religion will lead you to him.

There are the passionate believers who gripe that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship—and then there’s me.

Trust me: I’m not looking for a fight or trying to be right; I just need to add some depth to the discussion. After all, in a purely superficial way, none of us would be Christians if Christianity wasn’t a religion, its earliest defenders having fought to the death for its doctrines and orthodoxy.

So there is more to be said about what is meant by these comments and still more that some of us need to understand about the worth of religious practice.

Religious Practices

My first task here is to pare down the word “religion” to emphasize the practice and ritual aspects of the word, which is broad and encompasses far-ranging elements, like culture, belief systems, and deities; and focusing on religious practice, enjoin it with our faith and beliefs in the Christian God.

Being so mindful then, what any of us will learn about all religions is that they entail personal and corporate rituals that connect adherents to a deeper reality, spirituality, or divinity. What Christians may find surprising is that their disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and the like are very much the same practices found in other religions, although they may be performed differently and toward a different end.

Spiritual disciplines (or practices, habits) are tools of the interior life that usher a person into a deeper and more meaningful experience and interaction with his or her value system or divinity. They achieve this by introducing behaviors that eliminate vice, produce virtue, develop restraint, and refine sensibilities; personal results can be highly transformational. Such ardent practice will achieve its purpose whether one is Christian or Hindu.

Christian Spiritual Habits

Christian spiritual formation uses religious habits to develop a loving fellowship with Jesus Christ. Christians practice a catalog of spiritual habits to achieve this: (more common ones like) study (devotional and academic) to know God through the Bible and theology; meditation to fill the soul with God’s words and thoughts; prayer and fasting; confession; worship; (and less common ones like) hospitality and secrecy.

These are very much aspects of religion and an essential part of Christian faith.

Spiritual habits, however, do not guarantee that the one practicing them is connecting (in this case) to God. We all should seek to be very devout persons, but not all will be because, truthfully, they don’t care to be. We should be more concerned, however, about those who do go through the motions…pray, read their Bibles, church, yet their lives evince little evidence of Christ. Either way, there is always more waiting for us.

The beleaguered Christians I referenced earlier are really insisting against being caught up in a system of rules and legalistic injunctions that would extinguish a vibrant faith rather than enhance it. I understand this. But religion and religious practice, although we can personally make it tedious and false, is not the problem.

Buried Treasure

I find that we skip to the relationship aspect of Christianity so quickly that we largely miss the depth and range of Christian religion, in general, and certainly its practice. Ask most people in our churches today anything about classic Christian spirituality, and you may both stand there embarrassed. People convert to Christ with excitement then predictably grow stale and frustrated because they don’t know what living a Christian life entails.

Many of our churches have altogether missed the point. Our purpose seems to feverishly get people saved, an important thing, but we have often not produced a clear picture of discipleship, which encapsulates everything we do, from conversion to converting.

I believe the spiritual habits rest at the very center of a vibrant relationship with Christ and a wholesome church. Furthermore, I think it is imperative that we do more looking back to our moorings and earliest practices to not only avoid sin, but also to ward off the spiritual frothiness of this generation and the proliferation of Christian pop culture that characterizes very many churches.

Means to an End

Jesus was a Jew and practiced the rituals and habits of Judaism. His denunciation of the Pharisees and religious leaders was not an attack on religion, but their legalism.

Christ is indeed the heart of Christianity, but the way we acquaint him is through conscientious religious practice. It is the corridor leading to where he reposes. Remember, the presence of God was at the heart of the Temple, but there was a (God-ordained) manner in approaching it.

God’s message to us has always been “Be ye holy, as I am holy,” but to answer the question of how we become holy, Jesus says things like, “When you pray…when you fast…”

“Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.” I think it’s both.

Lectio Divina: Psalms 126

"Jews in Exile" by Eduard Bendemann Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr

“Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr

Encouraging articles about persevering through tough times are plentiful; there is nothing wrong with them. But I want to share with you an inspiring coming-out scenario lifted directly from scripture. Since we all are in process and will encounter tough times, it would do us well to keep this text handy. It offers a glimpse of God’s rescue.

Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is one of 15 psalms (120-134) called “Songs of Degrees” or “Songs of Ascent.” Four of them are attributed to David (122, 124, 131, 133), one to Solomon (127), and the remainder have unknown authors.

The origin of the name—Degrees, Ascent—is uncertain. It is often thought that they were purposed for pilgrimages to Jerusalem or sung by the Hebrews upon their return from captivity. There is also the notion that there may be a thought progression in them. The truth, however, is that the categorization is not understood. The circumstances of their composition or the occasion for which they were used granted them a certain unity and distinction by the editor of Psalms. Still, the title would have been fully understood by Hebrew readers.

Psalm 126 is one of only two (the other: Ch. 122) that could possibly have anything to do with a Babylonian return; and it appears that the return of exiles may very well be the subject here. The psalm is a first-person testimony of exiles recalling their release from captivity.

VERSE 1(ESV)

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…”

Have you ever been in hardship so severe that it seemed that you would never get out of it? Pain and suffering has the tendency to make us feel isolated and locked in circumstance. Sometimes we forget faith and cast off hope (Isa. 49:15). But this verse reveals a God who always knows where we are and how to free us.

Some Bible versions are worded more aligned to the New King James (NKJV)—“When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion…”—the word “captivity” meaning “return,” referring to the captives themselves. The notion is the Lord’s deliverance and by not only bringing us out of misery, but also freeing everything connected to us. It is a recovery or recompense in ways we may have resolved would never happen.

You see, God has the power to free us, our goods, and our ability to prosper. He doesn’t just release the captives; he establishes them and gives them livelihood. “He will beautify the humble with salvation” (Ps. 149:4). The word “fortunes” used by some versions is good.

“…we were like those who dream.”

Our burdens were so monumental that, once delivered, we could hardly believe it. It was surreal. Too often we’ve watched news stories of a man wrongly imprisoned for 10, 15, 25 years, only to be set free immediately after conclusive evidence proved his innocence; certainly it takes time for him to understand his new reality.

It is the great disparity between our dire situation and unexpected relief that shocks the senses and may even cause us to fear that our new state isn’t lasting. For instance, people who have starved have to learn not to hide food when they finally have enough to eat. They fear that satisfaction won’t last and that they’ll starve again.

VERSE 2

“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…”

These people were exiles—prisoners—for years. Now they were free, and it came without expectation and with ecstatic joy. What we’re witnessing in these two verses is a reversal of what we understand of the Kubler-Ross model, or five stages of grief. The first two stages are denial and anger. Denial encompasses shock at a great sadness, just as shock and denial, seen here, was the initial response of the exiles’ great joy. Now, the shock wearing off, they cannot contain their giddiness.

They’re so full with excitement that all they can do is laugh with incredulity. I imagine it to be like a person on the verge of bankruptcy suddenly inheriting millions of dollars. The NKJV expresses the latter clause as “our tongue with singing.” Music often expresses what mere sentences cannot.

“…then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”

The “they” here are non-Israelites, or heathen (KJV), those that don’t know the Lord—they testify to his mighty deeds! It reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar, after seeing the fourth man in the fire, standing back in amazement and acknowledging the reality of the Hebrew God.

People around us often know details about our lives. It is not possible to hide everything about ourselves (and who really cares to expend a great deal of energy trying?) And non-Christian people on our jobs, in our social organizations, our peers and neighbors will see us, the Christians, go through trial. Some will mock for the seeming lack of regard our so-called God shows toward us. But we should be encouraged. Not only is pain working a reward within us and for us, it is also working toward a testimony of the greatness of God.

In the end God will prove himself and no one will be able to deny that it is his doing. Some struggles are so monumental that only God can change them, but we must be convinced—like the Hebrew boys—that God is able even if he doesn’t answer. He just might shock us all with his goodness!

And isn’t that the point? The glory of God is a testimony of his affection, that he is for us and his nature is goodness itself. He is eager to show us kindness.

VERSE 3

“The Lord has done great things for us!”

This is the reply of the Israelites—“Absolutely!” “Indeed!” And there’s also an element of “You cannot possibly understand.” We see people, perhaps smiling on the outside or getting on with their lives, but never have a clue about the depth of pain, lack, or suffering they’re dealing with. If they told us stories about the ins-and-outs of their daily lives…the number of jobs and the type of schedule they manage just to put food on their tables or the domino effect of trouble that fell upon them—we might be stunned.

So when God delivers people like this, we can rejoice with them; yet there is an intimacy about the whole thing that only they can share with their Deliverer. Only he knows how their hearts hurt, how situations tried their souls, the things they lost, and the lessons they learned.

“…we are glad.”

Our souls are satisfied. Others can be happy for us, but only we can be satisfied. If the Lord permits us to go through pain, he knew what the pain would accomplish. But when he brings us out, the true reward is not the mere reversal of fortune; instead it is the satisfaction of seeing the full scope of his purpose. It takes a really “seasoned saint” to acknowledge on the coming-out end, “It was good that I went through my affliction” (Isa. 53:10-12).  The experience may have been hell itself, but the work of God within us and through us makes it all worth it.

VERSE 4

“Restore our fortunes, O Lord…”

This verse implies that the restoration wasn’t complete and was most likely in progress. So the psalmist implores the Lord that full deliverance would be manifested. It very well could have been a prayer that all of his Israelite compatriots be freed from exile since we know that the exiles returned in stages over several years.

This is a good place for us to stop and ask the Lord to finish his work within us, using that great Pauline verse, Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

Lord, we thank you that our lives are hidden in you. You have ordered our every step along this path of life. Where we must face trial, teach us patience and help us to trust your providence. You will deliver us; you will satisfy us. You will make your name great to all who see. Complete your work in us. Cause us to one day acknowledge that when you tested the good in us, it was a good thing indeed. In Jesus’s name, Amen.

“…like streams in the Negeb!”

Restore our fortunes like the dry desert streams that are restored and swollen by the autumn and winter rains.

VERSE 5

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”

Isn’t this wonderfully poetic? Agriculture is obviously a readily used illustration tool and a worthy one. But what I like about this verse is the oblivious thing happening with the subject. No one views suffering as valuable; pain is visceral—you feel it, spurn it, run away from it. God allows the yoke to come upon us and we ask why. It all seems so needless.

The psalmist images tears as seed. All of our misery is borne in our tears, yet our tears, in God’s eyes, are rudiments of renewal and reward. Suffering people might never be convinced that their grief is a spiritual act of sowing, but the scriptures assure us of this concept in many places.

God’s promise comes through resoundingly in this verse: “I will repay your trouble.” And to anyone experiencing hardship, you should know that God has not forgotten your pain. He has seen every tear you’ve cried. You’re gonna get through this. The harvest sprouting for you is going to make you shout with joy.

VERSE 6

“He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing…”

The concept continues. Picture that person ambling along dejected and softly weeping.

“…shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”

I like the assurance of the NKJV here: “shall doubtless come again…” The allusion to the sower remains, but the reward is imaged here: a sheaf. A sheaf is a bundle of grain produced from a harvest.

Need I say more? The one who trod the earth lamenting his or her lack and loss and without a clue that their own tears were working toward the answer of their prayers will “doubtless come again” leaping and laughing and falling over in disbelief that the Lord has favored them with more than they could have ever imagined.

More: Lectio Divina: Psalm 130

The Need for Transparency

CC BY-NC, Rossell_j, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Rossell_j, Flickr

Many years ago my family ate Sunday dinner with a family friend. We all attended the same church, where I was a young minister, and we were accompanied by another young lady also from the church.

The gathering was lighthearted and entertaining. The table roared with laughter at one point when something funny was said; I laughed until I cried. The young lady, seated beside me, turned to see me in stitches and recoiled. “You aren’t supposed to laugh like that! You’re a minister!” Her comment sidetracked the moment and became its own topic of conversation.

That scene always comes to mind when I think about being a Christian and living with transparency. I feel that my faith allows me to be a more transparent person in most ways because I live with my heart turned toward God. I don’t say that for points, but I honestly believe this should be the case ideally for Christians.

I’d like to think that Jesus laughed the loudest and grieved deeply because he knew his humanity was undergirded by God’s grace.

I would be remiss, however, to deny that there are times when I am tempted to cover up the real me with the saint I’d like to portray. Yet I’ve been schooled by the Holy Spirit well enough to differentiate between simple and honest living and pretense.

But I get it. I understand the dilemma we Christians—ministers particularly—find ourselves in, right amongst our own kind. Barring our natural impulse to hide flaws, being God-loving, Bible-reading, do-gooders sometimes makes it difficult to let our unglamorous parts show or to reveal our scars.

Sometimes we allow ourselves to let others dress us up in ways that prevent us from being real people in constant need of the grace of God. And this becomes a deadly deception of Satan when we take the bait and float along on the commendation of the masses and accept the “I’m okay” mindset, thinking that our wounds, vices, failings, and deficiencies can be left untended and not harm us. But they do ultimately and often at the expense of our good name or, worse, our livelihood or ministry. Ministers are well acquainted with this pressure.

And speaking of ministers, it shocks us when we hear of one falling to some misdeed. But I wonder if the culture of fakery we’ve created in some of our churches hasn’t backed many of us, ministers and all, into moral corners out of which we dare not step without a bright smile and neat and tidy lives—and so precipitated one’s demise.

I believe we should tell our testimonies about how God saved and delivered us, but why don’t we tell how God is still saving and delivering us? Let’s keep it real. If we did, those who have experienced God’s healing in their lives could certainly help others begin their process of healing; and those who are humble enough to share their struggles could find the compassionate support of people who have walked their path and embolden others to reveal their scars. Many people don’t share their battles for fear that they’re unique and all alone in their situation.

If everyone in the community has it together (and they don’t) and is not sharing (too often the case) then there is a severe lack of discipleship, accountability, and fellowship.

I understand that some things in our lives are better left private and cannot or should not be shared with everybody. But to the extent that we all can simply be the graced of God, let us not be so foolishly concerned about our reputations that we allow any person to be deceived by sin or deprived of restoration.

More on this topic: Leave None Behind

It’s (Not) Over!

CC BY-NC, luckyfish, Flickr

CC BY-NC, luckyfish, Flickr

Being a Christian doesn’t exempt one from trouble. It comes to us all—trouble independent of our involvement, trouble seen and unforeseen, trouble simply unwanted. But we have to deal with it and in a manner that keeps us mindful of the Lord’s sufferings for us. Paul calls such a communion (Ph. 3:10).

Trouble is a product of life. Things and situations go wrong in a complex world for many reasons. Scripture agrees with this but explains that trouble is also used by God to produce quality faith in us. There is probably no better encouraging text on the purpose of trial in the Christian life than Hebrews 12:5-7 (NKJV):

And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.” If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?

♦♦♦♦

God assures us of the value of handling trouble in a godly way. But let me tell you what really bothers me: when a sincere brother, sister, or preacher prays that a person’s trouble would end or declares that it is indeed over. I promise you that I’m not crazy. No one cares to have trouble, and sometimes I really want mine to go away. But I’ve watched myself grow more irritated and intolerant of those who lack insight about hardship.

Why does it rile me so? Sometimes people don’t have a wholesome biblical perspective on suffering, while others are plainly arrogant. Some people view all trouble as evil and from the Devil, but some things are just the kinks of life. Furthermore, if we can ascertain that trouble is from Satan, we can rightly resist it in Jesus’s name. But we’ll never be able resist trouble God permits in our lives.

♦♦♦♦

I think John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress gets it right: our way is a path to Heaven, and sometimes that path passes through difficult places. Life is not carefree or ideal. So do we fear or just run off the path or turn back when we encounter trouble? The people who see a devil behind every problem don’t discern that God has a plan with their trouble. They never learn how trouble draws them closer to God and enhances their trust in him. They fail to see that God tests the good in us.

Then there are those who make declarations and literally command God, Satan, or the trouble. They may know nothing about a person’s cares, except that in their pious, spiritual estimation they just need to behave or desist. But they don’t have a right to declare a person’s trouble finished and are truly insensitive (sometimes manipulative) and out of order to do so.

♦♦♦♦

When we’re submitted to God, our troubles will be over when God says they’re over and have achieved the purpose for which he designed them. We would do well to embrace the journey and the lessons it brings.

What we may be telling about ourselves is that we’re not resolved to take up our crosses for Jesus. We may be revealing how attached we’ve become to society and sanctify our covetousness at the expense of the trouble God allows to divest us of spiritual impurity. If we’re going to be like Jesus, let’s remember “a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matt. 10:24, NKJV).

In Praise of the One Who Guides

CC BY-NC, bionicteaching, Flickr

CC BY-NC, bionicteaching, Flickr

The Lord will keep you from all harm—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. (Ps. 121:7-8)

Have you ever known you had lost your way or fallen out of the will of God? Let me share that moment in my life and God’s providential yet strangely dramatic way of pulling me back on course.

I returned from work overseas in 2004 and started searching for a job. But the economy was tanking and my hopes shriveled into a horrendously long unemployment. Frustrated and determined to make something happen, I decided to return to retail management with the drugstore where I had worked eight years beginning in high school. But it would be somewhere away from my stagnant hometown region.

So I went hunting. I analyzed cities and matched them with a list of personal criteria. I finally settled on Indianapolis. This would be my life’s first throw-a-dart-at-the-map-and-go moment. I then emailed a district manager in the area about the possibility of a management position, and in one day I received a reply telling me to come and interview.

Well I got the job and things were mostly fine, except one unsettling thing. I would often walk out of my apartment headed to my car thinking, Michael, why are you here? Away from home on my own in the city of my choice, enjoying my independence, yet I sensed that I was out of the will of God.

Time passed until one momentous day—Thursday, June 8th (2006), around 12:30 p.m. Let’s call it the “intervention.”

It was my day off. I still remember it: I was sitting on the couch watching the French Open tennis tournament. Someone knocked at the door, which was unusual; I opened it and greeted a professional plumber not part of the complex staff, even more unusual.  He talked to me about the laundry room just a few feet away; it had been flooded for some time.

He explained that all signs pointed to a blockage most likely directly beneath my kitchen. And the only way to reach it was tear out the floor. Action needed to be taken immediately lest it led to further trouble.

The office offered me two options: place all my things in a provided storage pod and stay in a hotel for a few weeks or move out without penalty and receive my deposit back—oh, I needed to be decided today; the work needed to start tomorrow.   

In previous weeks my sister had talked to me about returning home. My finances were slowing sliding into perdition. Bills were stacking up and the rent was now difficult to pay. My sister gladly offered to let me stay at her place and insisted that I come. But I resisted because I didn’t wish to be there and felt that I could get a handle on the situation.

For any normal person, moving, at all, would have certainly been an inconvenience, but they would have gone on and moved into the hotel. Who could possibly pack up and move without notice? But when the plumber left, I closed the door and thought, Could this be God giving me a way out? I seriously considered returning to Virginia.

I cannot express the stress I endured for the next 12 hours. This decision seemed to throw my world into a tailspin, and I was a basket case. The management nagged me about my decision. Then, I wondered how would I leave my job or haul away my belongings if I indeed decided to leave? Staying was the reasonable (and sane) thing to do. Any image of a nervous wreck you can come up with, I fit the bill that day. At one point, I sat in my car in tears, beaten merciless by a pressing decision.

(And why does it seem God isn’t speaking whenever you need to clearly hear him?)

By 4 p.m. or so I called the management and told them that I would move away. I could hear the stun in the woman’s silence. In fact, in the hours following the conversation with the plumber, I had a terribly difficult conversation with my boss and I borrowed money from home to rent a U-Haul and car hitch.

By 2 a.m. my entire apartment was packed in boxes; at 6 a.m. I loaded the truck; at 8 a.m. I dropped off the house key; then I had my car hitched to the truck and returned my work keys; and in 600 miles and about 24 hours after my decision to leave, my life had totally changed.

The Providence of God

I apologize for the details, but they mean so much to the process God used to teach me what I share now. I’m sure you understand.

Romans 8:28 explains that God works together with us to bring about his good purpose. But Paul also explains in the preceding verses that the Spirit helps us in our weakness; that we don’t always know how to pray as we should, so he helps us.

I knew I was on the fringes of God’s will just being in Indiana. Moreover, I experienced the worst spiritual slump of my life during that time, and vice grew like weeds. I didn’t like myself. Yes, I was weak, but thank God I was never lost to him.

Just maybe God was in the details of my bizarre departure, you think? I was out of place geophysically and spiritually. God knew that I would have never left Indianapolis without the rushed decision coupled with my growing financial burden.

I heard later that people at my workplace assumed I was running away from some type of trouble. No, I recognize it as divine providence, God’s guidance and preservation over his creation, including human life. It is his sovereignty over situations and even evil that ultimately results in the fulfillment of his will and good purpose. It is as much mysterious as it is pervasive and great.

The providence of God supplies us with confidence that when we veer off course, he watches over and steers us back into the right lane. But his way with us may not always be conventional.

Sometimes we get a glimpse of the value of his saving hand. Psalm 116:8 says, “For you, Lord, have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling.” Perhaps there was a financial collapse ahead of me or worse. Where in your life do you perceive God saved you? Some of us, by now, might have been in grave troubles or even dead, but God intervened. Is he not worthy of praise?

The psalmist continues (vv. 12-13):

What shall I return to the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.

Glorious Grace (and the Mad Defender)

CC BY-NC, DJOXFUTURA, Flickr

CC BY-NC, DJOXFUTURA, Flickr

I often browse the comments to online stories I’ve read. Others’ perspectives offer me a fuller picture of the topic and help me solidify what I feel about it. But I must confess that reading Comments sections is now against my better judgment.

People are mean and crude and vile. I mean, Whoa! I find myself reeling at folk who allow their deepest and worst reservations to boil out when it is entirely unnecessary (is it ever necessary?) and uncalled for.

But sadder is when I read Christian material, including on Facebook, and find comments of the same tone. No, they’re not lewd or evil, but biting and unloving.

What I discover about Christian people in these comment sections is the almost irresistible need to call people out—for a different thought or belief pattern; for doctrinal stance; for needed correction on a matter. And the arrogance! I’m convinced that Pharisees yet live.

I’m not sitting here donned in the cape and spandex shorts that I wear (ahem) when I’m online crusading against ungraciousness. But sometimes I really do feel like a caped crusader when I use my night vision goggles to pierce the darkness of smug remarks or my brass knuckles to beat the sense into—gosh, I apologize! I get a little carried away.

Jesus, Full of Grace and Truth

John describes Jesus this way: “and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14, NASB). The splendor and renown of Jesus lay in his plenitude of grace and truth.

The people I encounter online always seem a little one-sided. They get the truth part; they know the Bible, its doctrines, the ins and outs of church, all necessary parts of the whole. But the missing element always seems to be graciousness—the kindness. It’s the problem of graceless Christians that Phil Yancey so lucidly describes in his What’s So Amazing About Grace?

Why is this so hard for some of us?

When I daydream about life on the scene with Jesus, I sometimes envy the disciples who got to watch Jesus model how human life should be lived. I’m sure the time wasn’t as meaningful to them in the moment as when they had the chance to look back on the three years spent with him. Still, they experienced a pinnacle moment in human history that I wish I could have now with Jesus, knowing what I do about his requirements for me.

I say that because I truly strive to live for God. I am blessed to have a stronger knowledge of theology and spirituality than many people around me. That’s no banner I wave but, in my opinion, just part of my devotion. And that is my point; I hope you don’t miss it. If I should say that I have truth, by which I live and that serves the kingdom, its ultimate purpose is fulfilled only when it humbly seats me before the God I love so that he can transform me, fellowship with me, and be glorified in me.

We forget that we still have to love people, and it is part of our worship to God.

So many people act like God’s bodyguards…um, that ain’t necessary. I think he gets along fine. Oh, let me fend off some of you: I understand the need for apologetics; I don’t forget that our God of love is a God who loves justice; so forth and so on. I GET IT. (Putting my boomerang down.)

But what would help our credibility as Christians in today’s society is getting Jesus’s words out of our heads and into our hearts: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Christ-followers devouring one another is not an advertisement for Christianity; instead, it’s a warning to stay away.

Grace-Filled Religion

I’ll wrap this up by painting a picture of what graciousness looks like. You add your own illustration. Let’s begin this way: Being graceful is…

  • Living honestly toward God, oneself, and others.
  • Acting on the behalf of others without expecting anything in return.
  • Sincerely praying for people.
  • Guarding your tongue regarding others and matters.
  • Living toward people with service to God in mind.
  • Thinking well of others and offering them the benefit of doubt.
  • Truly loving people regardless of who or what they are.
  • Allowing the Word of God to alter our behavior.
  • Bearing the courage to tackle our prejudices and reservations head-on.
  • Knowledge of how to live decently toward others.
  • Refusing to be jaded and negative.
  • The choice to be good to people when they don’t deserve it.
  • Preferring others and genuinely caring for their wellbeing.
  • Doing to others as you would have them do to you.
  • Cultivating the fruit of the Spirit.

How well do you show grace to others?

“I am Square,” Said the Circle

(Look carefully) CC BY-NC, zorro013, Flickr

(Look carefully)
CC BY-NC, zorro013, Flickr

More commonly you’ll read in an article or hear someone on television say something like this: “I believe it’s important for you to unashamedly live your truth” or “I have become more successful as I’ve discovered what is real for me.” What is alarming is to hear Christian people pick up this notion.

The “live your truth” idea is a fashion of moral relativism, which purports that there is no absolute moral law that objectively applies to everyone everywhere at any time. It’s a “have it your way” philosophy for which there is no right way and belongs to a secular humanist worldview that shuts God out and elevates the value of humans and human contribution.

Apart from the impossibility of living strictly by relativist notions (what happens when my relativism conflicts with your relativism and whose is right?), live your truth people or “truthers” have to deceive themselves to believe that there do not exist moral and ethical boundaries regarding what they ought and ought not be or do. The argument is simply impossible to overcome logically. It becomes slightly easier, however, when God or a moral lawgiver is excised.

What the Ducklings Teach Us

In psychology the term imprinting is used to describe a period or stage in the life of a person or animal, generally young, when behavior is acquired from its parents or perceived parent. We’ve all learned how crucial it is for certain animals to be with their parents after birth and not with humans or inanimate objects that they could take to be their parent.

The young one’s identity and safety are at stake, so it’s important for it to grow up to live and act as it should and not as it might wrongly think of itself. A boy that would be raised by apes never becomes an ape and certainly no Tarzan; instead, he lives as a severely limited human.

Christian people who sincerely pose as truthers are confused. To start, Christians believe in an open system where God is real and acts providentially in the world and for human life. Christians also believe that God is the only moral lawgiver and that his ways are essentially “written in the wind” and apply equally to all humanity and always have. Humanity, although ingenious and capable of great good, is morally fallen and gains spiritual significance as it adheres to God’s moral and ethical duties.

God has never told us to discover what is right for us but to learn his ways, understand his truth, know his will. We are to be holy as he is and lovingly do his bidding. He stands as the rightful imprint of our lives, for we bear his moral image. We walk the way he walks, exactly how he walks, and no further than where he walks. There is no place for “our truth” because we have none to offer. The Battle Hymn of the Republic has it right—“His truth is marching on!”

Further, it’s inadvisable to define ourselves by things we discover about ourselves—what if it is unbecoming or antagonistic to God’s will for us?  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t learn more about who we are, our strengths and weaknesses or the issues or vices that operate in our lives. But it does mean that what we discover is placed under the lordship of Christ and either serves his will for us or is diligently eliminated from our hearts.