Showing Grace to Ourselves

POINT MADE ALREADY, YOU SAID? (LOL) CC BY-NC, guccio@文房具社, Flickr

POINT MADE ALREADY, YOU SAID? (Ha!)
CC BY-NC, guccio@文房具社, Flickr

Many people are their own toughest critic. I am. But what’s unhealthy is treating oneself with disdain, and that has been a problem for me at times. I will speak to myself with severe contempt at my stupidity or failure or some other thing.

It wasn’t until the Lord, in his gentle way, checked me one day about it.

What he is teaching me is to not treat myself the way I would never treat another person. Get that: God instructs us to do to others as we would have them do to us, yet I was doing to myself as I would never do to others or allow them to do to me.

I could hear the Spirit within—“Stop saying that.” Then, one day the message became clear: You are a recipient of the grace of God; it dishonors him for you to dishonor yourself. Christ paid too high a price for my well-being for me to side with the Evil One in my attitude about myself.

YOU are Important to God

We are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves (Luke 10:27), or with the same care we show for our own bodies and concerns. The scriptures assume our individual welfare prior to our interaction with others, which is only natural. Paul says, “No one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body” (Eph. 5:29).

Look at common clichés: “Take care of home first” and “Health is wealth”—because if I’m in poor health, or die…

Hear Paul again: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Col. 3:12-14).

So the Lord says to me and us all, why is this any different for you…by you? Cast away fear, regret, worry, and other negative emotions by remembering that you belong to God and are in the grip of his perfect plan for you. He’ll help you sort out the kinks.

More: The Golden Rule and Who Is My Neighbor?

Leave None Behind

CC BY-NC-ND, U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos, Flickr

We are a church culture that ranks sins. A few get to tell glowing testimonies of how they were freed from their flaws while others know not to breathe a word about their past misdeeds—at least not the whole story—for fear of being scorned by some or investigated about the extent of their freedom.

This is shameful. It demonstrates that some of us have not understood the nature of sin, that we all stand under the same curse and that the mite of sin is as great as the vilest and most flagrant. We have also not understood the holy nature of God, his seamlessly pure moral character, or the extravagant grace that rescues us all from equal depravity.

Keep the Main Thing…

I like the way Paul addresses the fact—and how do we miss the point?

“Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor practicing homosexuals nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).

So profound! Paul highlights issues that were specific to Corinthian society and his hearers; so we gain a telling picture of Corinth. What I love here is that one’s particular “sin background” is non-essential; instead, believers now stand redeemed by the work of Christ—and that’s all that matters, not the once-but-delivered ailment.

If we’re not careful, we will make a big deal about sin and lose love for sinners and fellow believers who wrestle with internal conflicts. We would do well to remember the words of Hebrews 12:15: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God.” Make sure, the writer explains, that no one—sinner or saint—lacks of the Lord’s great kindness.

Assessing Our Approach

Therefore, our churches must be spiritual communities where harbored sin in people’s lives breaks our hearts and where we have mastered a quick prayerful, loving, and restorative response, in the same way a body heals itself.

Compassion is the key. It characterized Jesus’s approach with others. And Paul, in Galatians 6:1, reminds us to compassionately restore those in indiscretion mindful that not only are we too susceptible to sin, but also to their kind of sin.

Sin will (and should) always be an affront to God’s holy nature in us, yet we must stop being surprised and shocked by the personal matters family, friends, and peers share with us. We are all human and err. Amazement only makes one feel bad about divulging their troubles; it also makes them question if God really cares about them.

Sin ain’t pretty. Yours wasn’t. So we dare not offend the Lord by being insensitive to others and impede ministry before it starts.

This isn’t just about sinners bearing all, if you’re still missing the point. Christians trip up and get bound, too. The context for Galatians 6 is the believing community; so Paul continues, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (v. 2, NKJV).

So our churches must be havens where certainly the godly can unpack their burdens and receive guidance and healing prayer. We should think this normal, but it isn’t hardly the case. It is sad that some Christians are scornful, judgmental, untrustworthy, and unloving toward their own—how can the lost ever be saved!

A New Culture

I’m concerned we err because we take our cues from the non-Christian culture around us, not the word of God. But the kingdom of God is our culture, a new and shockingly transformative one, and its implications are monumental. No, we don’t think and act the way the world does; our actions and responses will indeed be revolutionary and countercultural and make non-Christians wonder about our dissimilarity.

And our difference should be most evident in our relationships, the one aspect Jesus seems to deem the very purpose of our lives (cf. Mark 12:28-34). Thus, we take none for granted, neither those with the most need for an assurance of grace nor those who already possess it but need strengthening.

We will best love others and be most real with ourselves when we stop cherry-picking sin and esteem the marvelous grace that rescues us all.

More on this topic: The Need for Transparency

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?

The Golden Rule: “Mirror, Mirror…”

CC BY-NC, Joanna Paterson, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Joanna Paterson, Flickr

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.” (Matt. 7:12)

The Prescription: Expect to be treated to the degree people perceive the respect you grant yourself.

How you treat yourself is a message to others of how they may treat you. It is a circular process that teaches us how to love and esteem ourselves highly.

When we are excellent in our own matters and affairs—like our health, attitude, and finances—we tend to become empathetic persons preferring one another’s well-being and dignity because we have, in effect, dignified ourselves. Our relationships improve also because our own lives have done just that as we’ve sorted out the kinks in our character. The obverse is that we will not treat others how we don’t want to be treated.

The Description: Our general manner toward others explains how we view ourselves.

People that truly love themselves and seek happiness and enrichment approach others hoping to connect with like quality. Those who belittle themselves are negative, distrustful of others, and hard-pressed to find any good in people.

Do you think I’ve overdone explaining this Rule? But we definitely act this way toward people we consider our superiors, perhaps for a prestige, title, or wealth. We do so because we feel there is something in it for us, not because we truly care. The deep insight of the Golden Rule is that therein we all become dignitaries, not for possessions but self-worth.

The lesson here is more than one of mere courtesy. It is a philosophy of self-respect that raises the quality of our lives and enhances the relations we share. Thus, we discover a social approach firmly rooted in personal integrity of character.

The SlumLord

CC BY-NC, a4gpa, Flickr

CC BY-NC, a4gpa, Flickr

“Just a bunch of Mexicans that should be shipped back to where they came from! They’re all illegal, here taking our money and sending it to Mexico. They just need to leave!”

“My goodness, the gays! These folk are demon possessed: men have a female demon and women have a male demon. They need deliverance. But I ain’t got time for them.” 

“Can you believe some Muslims just moved next door? Things are gonna start getting bad around here. You can’t trust them because they’re surely up to something.”

“There were some foreigners in the grocery store the other day blacker than me—I mean b-l-a-c-k—and they’ve got the nerve to think they’re better than us.”

These were real comments I heard made by professing Christians that caused my heart to sink. I cannot understand why people who say they are Christians can feel so graceless and speak so ruthlessly about people with whom they should be sharing the love of Jesus. When I hear these kinds of comments coming from Christians, I’m tempted to go “Jesus vs. The Money Changers” crazy and shut everybody down. But enough is already written in their Bibles, which they are obviously not reading well.

Have you ever felt like one alone on an island in the middle of the ocean? I know there are a host of other Christians around me striving to walk in the fruit of the Spirit; however, the journey for me gets lonely sometimes when the faithful seem to cling to worldly notions more than taking their cues from Christ. I just don’t get why loving God and people is a Christian essential for me and not for everyone else.

Getting Down in the Pit

Maybe the question needs to be reworked. So let me start by addressing the two issues—homosexuality and xenophobia—in the comments above and use them in proxy to address the issue of loving others whoever they are.

Many Christians don’t know how to talk about homosexuality without feeling they must come down hard on it lest they be viewed as condoning. Yet the very ones who would claim they love everybody could never really have a friend who was gay, a person they could act the fool with, respect, and enjoy life together, because their own faith would be a jagged blade between them stabbing both ways.

I consider homosexual behavior sinful. But I also know that the deepest differences of opinion on any subject don’t necessarily have to divide. Christ’s approach was always toward the person. He understood that getting some people (of any habit) out of the rut might mean having to jump over into the slum with them and pulling them out. (No, I’m not advocating any type of gay therapy.) Why? It’s because people—those bearing the image of God—have primacy in the heart of God, and no distance is too greatly traversed to recover them. (I cover this topic in-depth in Communication Barriers Between Christians and Gays.)

It reads simply but is quite profound: We like to say that God loves the sinner and hates the sin, which is very true, but it doesn’t get us to what we need to see. Jesus shows us a God who chooses love for people over his contempt for sin. God, who is perfect love, hates sin with perfect disdain and yet his love for humankind is preferred to his love and need for justice. Thus, space is created for pardon, for redemption.

So for Christians, loving others with God’s heart is transforming to the one who receives it, and if that’s not happening, the problem is not with God.

As it relates to other cultures and people groups, Jesus was often criticized for associating with street people and those of the seedier side of society—and by those who felt they had a handle on their own righteousness. (Read “People of Your Kind!”) But Jesus’s message was broadly inclusive of everyone, especially the outsider.

It isn’t just the Great Commission where we are told to go to the four corners of the earth with the message. Jesus predicted (in Mark 12:1-12) a spiritual “fumble” that would bypass God’s chosen and bless the Gentile first in a way unintended. Further, in Christ’s final embodied scene in the Gospels, he instructs the disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit—the one who would enable them to bridge the barriers of culture—and take his message, as if in ever-widening concentric circles, to Jerusalem (home), Judea and Samaria (city, state, nation), and to “the ends of the earth.”

Crux of the Matter

So I come to my reworked question: What made Jesus so approachable? And, he being God, why was it easy for him to mingle with sinners? It is more of that which we so desperately need. Moreover, why can’t all Christ followers see that loving God through people really is a Christian essential? What Christ shows me is that the faith God offers is amazingly well suited to human need. To say even this is an understatement, for God has made us to need him. It is a wonderful thing that is sorely missed by those who take the lesser road.

God needs us Christians to acquaint their Lord. Without intimacy we will not have God’s heart or understand his ways. We must live in the words of Christ, think through the scriptures, deliberate with our faith, and follow the Holy Spirit who reveals Christ perfectly. When we do, we’ll lend credibility to the Christian name and others will come to know the Lord, if only by observing that he truly dwells in us.

My Neighbor the Roommate

CC BY-NC, a&nota, Flickr

CC BY-NC, a&nota, Flickr

I arrived on campus a week early for leadership training and to help move in new students soon to arrive. On the day freshmen flooded the campus, I noticed a tall, gangly black guy, very peculiar because he was albino and had chiseled facial features. He dressed like an older gentleman and appeared to have stepped right out of the 70s. I wondered who might get him as a roommate.

It was a real surprise seeing him moved into my room later that day. His name was James, and he was an interesting fellow. James was a quiet and pensive person and slightly shy. Staunchly conservative, he often ranted about the way things should be when issues raised his ire.

But James also had a lighter side. He was funny to watch when something excited him because he was prone to giddiness, and he sounded like Squidward from SpongeBob SquarePants when he laughed. He loved pizza and was a movie buff. Bond was his man.

On campus, James hung out with a bunch the very replica of Fat Albert’s misfit friends of which he was the leader. He stuck out anywhere he went, more for his beanpole look and adornment in his favorite burgundy or green suit and Gatsby cap—yes, on campus. I would often chuckle watching him go to and fro.

But James had an issue. Perhaps I should say that I too had the issue since it was the second time I had to experience this type of thing at college. James had bad body odor. I suspected that it may have resulted from some type of problem in his body. My first roommate two years prior had awful odor, but he was merely unhygienic. I confronted him and the problem ceased. This was something I wasn’t sure could go away.

The odor was bad—putrid bad. I would walk in the room and detect a strong mothball scent and then the smell of decay. So when he was out of the room, I would sniff around and investigate. His clothes were my red flag that this was a personal issue because James wasn’t an unclean person.

I sat in class one winter day wearing my favorite sweater and suddenly smelled James’s scent reeking from me! I knew then that I had no other option but to confront him. Soon others on the floor took notice, and these guys weren’t the most considerate ones to handle a situation like this. I had to watch out for my own pride, too. I was the floor chaplain. Peers and other student leaders came to my room for different reasons. I didn’t want them to think I stank.

I built my nerve and decided to talk with James. It was easier to do with this roommate, but, as always, I first prayed for the right opportunity. I knew without doubt that this was an issue in his life; it was obvious to everyone else, but he never acknowledged it. I remember meeting his parents those first few days and observed how closely they kept tabs on him and all the more now with him alone halfway across the country. There was much he wasn’t saying, and I knew I had to cover him.

This is when the situation became less about James and more a search for trustworthiness and authentic care in me. I became empathetic and made myself feel the snickers and stares he drew, to feel what it’s like to be the misfit and last man chosen on the team every time. The one forced to walk alone; forced to love libraries and bookstores (because books don’t judge); forced to share yourself in fragments as you’ve had to teach and reteach yourself who to trust in what might as well be a jungle of suspects, Christian or not.

No one else was thinking this way and I knew it. Not even the group he hung out with on the floor was reaching out to him. I had to do it, not because I was Chaplain or older than everyone else. I knew that people could be cruel and cruel motives have devastating consequences. Sometimes neglect alone does it.

People don’t handle the truth about themselves well. We all have deep-seated issues and flaws that others may know or that we know about others. But we don’t glibly use that information because it’s sensitive and highly charged. People shut down when they are psychologically denuded and made to lose face. They get scared and fidgety and depressed. They fly off the deep end and kill people. James’s B.O. became a much smaller matter after I considered the stakes.

I trusted God for the right moment and it presented itself. I told James about the odor and asked him if he had an issue in his body. (Too private?) I offered some possible solutions to our problem. He mostly nodded. Then, I told him what my real concern was: him not being hurt. He opened up to me and explained that he had always been picked on for how he looked and said he knew about the odor.

In the end, it was meaningful to him that I had been honest, and he was appreciative for how I handled the situation. He controlled the problem better, too. He became very loyal to me his chaplain and roommate. The lesson has profoundly shaped my character.