The Quotable ‘Mike’

CC BY-NC, Enokson, Flickr

Enokson NC

“We may hang onto God, but we’ll always be trying to fix ourselves, always trying to pay a debt that has already been forgiven. If we don’t realize that the burden has been removed, we’ll continue dealing with the agony and frustration—the guilt—that comes with trying to lift it, never experiencing freedom.”

from What to Do About Grace

I Learned Grace in a French Subway

CC BY-NC, Steve Harris, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Steve Harris, Flickr

I was a tourist but strode around modest enough to not look like one. Just days into my dream vacation, it was going better than I could’ve imagine. There was much English spoken in Paris, making it easy for the less-than-fluent types like me. Roaming off the beaten path was amazing for the architecture, vintage shops, and museums that disclose themselves to those who dare venture away from common sightseer targets. But when it was necessary—and it always was—the subways worked like a whistle.

Cluny-La Sorbonne Station, Paris CC BY-NC, Sean_Marshall, Flickr

Cluny-La Sorbonne
Sean_Marshall, NC

Each station of Paris’ Métro bears its own unique character. They are discernibly Art Nouveau in style and sometimes littered with incredibly vibrant and creative graffiti. These surprisingly immaculate underground labyrinths invite the very thing you don’t do there, which is hang out. After familiarizing oneself with train tickets and cards, the only task left is to learn navigating stations. Some were small and others were compact cities, like back in Tokyo.

Arts et Métiers CC BY-NC, Steve Calcott, Flickr

Arts et Métiers
Steve Calcott, NC

Statistically, safety was far more a concern here than in Japan. After all, I was again in Western society. I had been warned about subway pickpockets and even discerned a few. They targeted people in the busy vestibules. Usually I’d pass right through those to sometimes be alone in long, tiled corridors and tube platform areas with nothing but Syrian-arched exits eyeing me with foreboding.

In Japan I had relearned fear, which was the strangest thing I ever had to do in life. Being on dark streets at three in the morning is a world of difference in Paris and in Japan—the difference between witnessing car theft and having nothing at all to fear. Nonetheless, I had no problems with people.

The only hiccup I had occurred the day I entered the one station that immediately put me on edge. It was dark and creepy just entering it. I hated the way the attendant’s booth looked the part of a junkie’s lab and the way its neon lights harshly smacked the cold concrete that imprisoned the area. It made the darkness even more apparent. No tourist could feel comfortable here.

Cité CC BY-NC, Talus, Flickr

Cité
Talus, NC

Nevertheless, the routine was the same: feed my card into the machine and pass through the turnstile—but not this day. For some reason, the gate rejected it. I tried it again and it spit it back at me, again. What’s going on, I thought, other travelers passing around me now. That’s when you start re-educating yourself with the basics while mumbling in terse staccato: This is the card. Card goes into slot. Slot is supposed to accept card. And the machine goes “Nuh-uhh!”

Couloir CC BY-NC-SA, Possamai, Flickr

Couloir
Possamai NC-SA

I kept trying while knowing inside I was avoiding the obvious just a few feet behind me. I knew I was gonna have to oil up my French and talk to the agent about the problem. What a novel idea in France! I’ve never been a very confident speaker of French despite diligently studying it half my life. I heard the attendant on her microphone talking to someone, so I avoided the issue a little longer thinking the card might still take.

I was mentally at a loss with this machine. Beads of sweat formed on my forehead because I had now lost my cover and become the dumb tourist. Finally, I turned toward the agent’s window only to be met by her fluster and steely gaze pointed right at me. That’s when I realized she had been hollering at me the whole time.

And, in French, she had been telling me—the one who had spent all this time fighting the machine and worried about his card and dreading French and hating this eerie location—it’s free. And I walked through the turnstile.

God, Our Contender

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Heilemann, Flickr

CC BY-NC-ND, Michael Heilemann, Flickr

Jacob and Peter seem like spiritual brothers in my mind. Both carried a profound calling in their lives but didn’t quite grasp the process it would require to develop them in order to maximize it. Thus, we read about their lives with fascination and some puzzlement, at least I do.

Jacob, with a godly heritage, is that guy in every church who respects God and spiritual things but resists the calling he knows is on his life; he isn’t quite ready to give up his game. It’s not his M.O. right now—“I’m not ready for all that”—that is, until God has to get in his face.

Is not that encounter at Jabbock one of the most riveting accounts in scripture? All of Jacob’s years of impartation and resistance come to a singular moment of judgment. I believe the fight actually occurred, but it isn’t difficult to allegorize and deem that here was a moment of crisis in which God gripped Jacob’s heart and gave him the psychological and spiritual fight of his life.

Have you ever fought to the death of your will? Has the call of God ever overwhelmed you…pinned you to the wall?

But what grips me about the story is Jacob’s surrender. In a flash he goes from self-reliance and stubbornness to “I won’t let you go until I have all of you!”

Do You Love Me?

Sounds a little like Peter—“Then wash my hands and head, Lord, not just my feet!” This is Simon whom Jesus renames Peter, don’t forget that. (Didn’t that happen at Jabbock, too? Hmm.)

I really cherish Peter in the scriptures. Some people find their own humanness in the Psalms, Paul’s transparency, and elsewhere; but I discover myself in Peter. I’m not sure if there is a more honest biblical character. I read about him and think, I am Peter.

Peter spent a few years as the closest to Jesus of the disciples. Yet he reminds us of a toddler just learning to walk, sometimes standing, even running, other times stumbling and falling. Peter shows us glimpses of enlightenment—“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” and “If it is you, bid me to come”—and equal measures of ineptitude and failure—“Even if everyone else deserts you, I never will!”

Still, Peter may have had one of the deepest loves for Jesus.

I recall him outrunning John to the tomb after the report of Jesus’s body being gone. Then, while he and a few of the disciples fished, John identifies the resurrected Christ by his instruction to them to cast their nets to the other side of the boat: “It is the Lord,” John says.

And at that this rough-hewn fisherman wraps his garment around him, leaps out of the boat, and swims to where Jesus stood. Although Peter was at times unstable and insecure, Jesus had made an indelible impact on him.

God’s Will with Our Pain

Like Jacob and Peter, I’ve discovered that the life of faith is not convenient, especially to the imperfections of my heart that ultimately resist the best God has for me. Sometimes I wonder, however, if God doesn’t allow the disappointments and internal conflicts to surface in us to bring us to a place of surrender.

Hosea says, “Come, and let us return to the Lord; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up” (6:1). Only if you’ve gone through such hardship yourself or with others can you understand how a person’s insolence and weaknesses may actually accomplish the will of God.

After denying the Lord the third time, John relates that the cock crowed and Jesus turned and looked straight in Peter’s face. That had to be the worst moment in Peter’s entire acquaintance with Jesus—and he runs away and cries his eyes out.

But where we might ridicule and excoriate him, God is getting his way with Peter. In fact, he just might have him…and Jacob…and your brother, daughter, or co-worker exactly where he wants them—broken and in submission. They have wrestled with God long enough and now God will wait no longer to prove his sufficiency for them. God gets the best of us to get the best out of us.

The late Dr. Adrian Rogers used to say, “The will of God is the thing we would want for ourselves if we had the sense to want it!”

Thank God that he’s patient with us and uses even our mistakes and hang-ups, our malice and carnality to break our own hearts and wrestle us into submission, as only he can. Our assurance lies in a grace that rescues us from ourselves.

So we can have hope that our friends and loved ones, perhaps out of control right now, are, by prayer and the mercy of God, being steered into the very heart of the kingdom.

Read more on the topic: John the Baptist

What We Learn in God’s Holding Patterns

CC BY-NC, Fly For Fun, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Fly For Fun, Flickr

A flight holding pattern is a delay tactic airports use when planes cannot land for different reasons, like congestion or bad weather. If you’ve flown enough, you have probably experienced one of these. In fact, you may have looked out your window and saw the airport but wondered why on earth you were flying around it in circles.

Depending on the type of delay and number of incoming aircraft, planes can be stacked in holding until air traffic controllers can land them one-by-one, starting with the lowest plane.

God’s way with us is like holding sometimes, can you agree?

Learning Contentment

Who doesn’t love that great Pauline verse—“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Ph. 4:13). But I’ve found that many of us don’t understand its context. It is definitely deeper than the Christian self-help it has become in recent times. Paul refers to his ability through Christ to keep at an even keel while facing the highs and lows of his life. He expresses how the grace of God offers him contentment.

So let’s back up a little. Paul, a prisoner now and finalizing his letter to the Philippian Christians, thanks them for their generosity to him. Then, he quickly clarifies that he doesn’t bring up the matter for any new need he has…and this is where the important context begins.

“For I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need” (vs. 11b-12, ESV).

Is Contentment Satisfaction?

This is a revealing glimpse at Paul’s life. His words comfort us in our trials today because someone as sage and godly as he is transparent enough to share his own holding patterns in the will of God.

What does Paul mean by content? Surely he desired to be out of that prison. His churches were better served by his presence among them; after all, he’s sending them a letter here. Certainly he preferred a full stomach to a grumbling one and peaceful presentations of the gospel instead of violent protests.

If we’re not careful, we will make Paul say that he was satisfied with his circumstances. But consider yourself: perhaps there was a time when you didn’t have the things you needed. Did that cancel your desire to have more or better, especially if someone depended on you? No, it didn’t.

Think about the plan God has shown you for your life. Maybe you’re in a hard place right now and simply cannot fathom how he will make good on his promise. Although it’s difficult now, God showed you his plan at the start to provide you hope for when the good times turned. He doesn’t mean for you to build a home in the wasteland.

Something on the Inside, Working…

Instead, Paul’s contentment means he was inwardly self-sufficient, not requiring outside support. It means that he was indeed satisfied with the grace of God that propelled him forward in the divine will despite his external circumstances. In fact, it was knowing that wherever he was in life somehow accomplished the will of God for him; and because of that he could do all things through Christ who strengthened him. The scope is pervasive, all-inclusive.

Herein we are offered a deep lesson about what we possess and don’t possess. The highs and lows enter our lives to lend us perspective and never to disturb our rest in God. For whatever may come, we cling to grace, not things.

Let me sum it up this way: Contentment is to not worry about anything you see around you or off in the distance, whether it’s your natural sustenance or the very promises of God. But it is to learn and progress right where you stand. And it is to trust God—who knows exactly where you are in the holding pattern—until he lands you where he wants you next.

More on this topic: The Perils of Covetousness and God, You’re Killing Me!

How to Make a Mess of Adversity

CC BY-NC, chris-on, Flickr

CC BY-NC, chris-on, Flickr

Life guarantees each of us some heartache. No need to search for it; it will find you. The scriptures add the possibility of God ordering us to pass through trial for the perfecting of our faith. But whether it is life’s distress or God’s higher purpose at work, trouble can be overwhelming at times and bring us to the brink of despair.

A conversation I’ve had with God during these times has often begun—and ended—like this: “Lord, I’m failing this test!” Frustrated, I’ll start praying and then stop because I’m sure God is sick of hearing me about that same ole thing. I know I am.

This usually happens when I’m at my wits end and don’t know my next move, or I feel that I’ve botched something. It springs from a heart that sincerely desires to please the Lord but is near despair because there seems to be no solution to the problem.

Soul Grief

Sometimes it’s relieving to look at our Bible heroes and see that they dealt with the same emotions we face. Consider these words of Paul: “We do not want you to be uninformed…about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death” (2 Cor. 1:8-9).

Keeping it in perspective, my cares don’t compare to Paul’s active engagements on behalf of the souls in his young churches. Yet we all steer a state of mind that must be held at an even keel, whether we deal with real, urgent risks or matters of play. And Paul pulls the covers back for a moment and shows us a low point, which should encourage us.

‘Saved and on my way to Heaven’ doesn’t exempt one from dealing with the gamut of human emotion. Faith should determine how we deal with our emotions, although we won’t be happy perpetually or sad forever.

God vs. Our Image

Another thing that won’t be perfect is how we handle trouble. This is where I have often erred, especially in those times when I knew God was sending me through the wilderness. It is the crux of my ‘failing’ prayer. Let’s keep reading Paul’s words: “But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God” (v. 9).

Interesting: Paul submits that his life-threating ordeals occurred so that his team could fall upon the great strength of God to rescue them.

The Holy Spirit showed me how I stopped relying on his grace to face my cares and opted to confront them in my own strength and pride, attempting to persevere with tidiness and perfect form. The truth is, however, the wilderness kills those who don’t adapt. It’s a place of change. And you don’t get the luxury of looking good in the desert. Instead, God leads us there to get better things in and out of us—and that ain’t ever glamorous.

Trial is not pretty and never perfectly endured. But such a mindset only proves that we are not relying on the grace of God, which is perfect, to carry us, start to finish.

My “I’m failing this test!” prayer only demonstrates that I need to chill out and cease trying to please the Lord and score “A’s.” Instead, God’s tells me, “You already please me, and I’m not disappointed in you. Just learn what I’m trying to teach you.”

That means deal with the variables or the aftermath of the situation with faith and dutiful attention, as you must, but keep your heart open to the lessons the Spirit wants you to grasp.

A Spiritual Learning Curve

There is a spiritual learning curve for each of us, and it comes with some hardship. If it weren’t challenging, we wouldn’t grow and couldn’t achieve mastery. In time, however, we learn that it is challenge and resistance, along with the grace of God, that raise our lives from one state of glory to the next. Paul finishes:

“He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us” (v. 10).

Paul is suggesting one clear message: the triumph of God’s grace in our adversity. Later, he renders it this way: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (12:9). Did you see it that time?

Friend, lets lay aside those crooked prayers and rest in the mighty grace of God. We’ll gain confidence in his purpose with our pain and ease our troubled minds.

The Spectacle of Grace

CC BY, the bbp, Flickr

CC BY, the bbp, Flickr

That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. (Luke 2:8-9, NLT) 

God hides big messages in plain sight.

The announcement to the shepherds is my favorite divine encounter story in the Bible. It is obviously a bucolic scene, but there is also featured an enjoyable contrast of rustic earthiness and divine splendor, not unlike the satisfaction of creamy and crumbly in the mouth.

The glory of a single angel is apparently enough to frighten folk stiff. That’s the case throughout scripture, and it was the case with the shepherds. But then all heaven broke loose and the sky filled with the heavenly emissaries shouting praises to God, creating what had to be an overwhelming and spectacular scene of grace-come-to-earth.

I hope God will let us relive these events one day. This one is at the top of my list.

But what about that big message, you said? We know it wasn’t about the angels and the scene itself. And although the angels heralded the birth of the Savior, this isn’t the big message I want you to see. Instead, it deals with…the rustic earthiness and crumbly nature of the recipients: the shepherds.

Life of the Scorned

I’m certain there were many events and incidents the Holy Spirit could have included in the Bible and did not (cf. John 21:25). But I’m glad this particular one made it in.

You see, shepherds were not an esteemed bunch; their reputation was more akin to tax collectors. Although many folk in the Bible, from Abraham to David to Amos, were shepherds and the task was common and respectable for a period of time, the occupation gradually lost its noble standing.

Many shepherds were cheats and thieves and their actions stereotyped the vocation. Society viewed shepherds as untrustworthy and incompetent, second-class citizens; and they were not allowed to hold judicial office or serve as witnesses in court—just like tax collectors.

The youngest son in the home usually tended the sheep. The elder sons would move on to help the father plow, sow, and harvest, so the younger boy would be left with the sheep. If you’ll recall, David was the youngest of his family; and do you remember the scorn he met from his brother Eliab on the battlefield: “What are you doing around here anyway…What about those few sheep you’re supposed to be taking care of?” (1 Sam. 17:28).

Leveled Playing Fields

God preserves this birth announcement for us and with it delivers an enormous message about human social stratification from his point of view. For God has entrusted outcasts and the marginalized with the prize of first knowing that a Savior has come for them and everyone.

Understand, this encounter did not offer these shepherds more reason to know this Messiah would be a spiritual deliverer as opposed to the political one they anticipated. Contrarily, it would have convinced them that he was indeed the long awaited ruler. Signs affirmed the presence and help of Jehovah to the Jews. The revelation of grace and spiritual truth would come later through Jesus himself. Yet this symbolic event serves a bigger point to us.

And this truth is that God’s grace and immense love is all-inclusive, not about caste and class and petty human divisions that disenfranchise and diminish in our eyes the glory of God in one another. Each of us, regardless of our status, morally identifies with the shepherds’ odious reputation and shares the same guilt in God’s eyes. Nonetheless, by grace we stand tall, shoulder-to-shoulder with the rest, and beside Christ in the presence of the Father.

Grace, a Battering Ram

We like to portray grace as sweet and refined—and it is that; but, like the Word of God John was instructed to eat (Rev. 10:9), it can be both sweet to the mouth and bitter to the belly. It is possible to live infatuated with God until his precepts judge and demolish our sinfully convenient and self-serving configurations.

Thus, God chose not to make his announcement to kings and officials, who with this information could conceivably engineer a plan to further their own power, wealth, and corruption—again leaving those with the greatest need with nothing and being deprived.

Instead, God spared no expense in pomp and gallantry on a few men with nothing more to lose in life and so erects an earthly kingdom from the floor-up.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:26-31, NIV)

More on this topic in “People of Your Kind!”

The Parable of the Laborers

CC BY-NC, kewing, Flickr

CC BY-NC, kewing, Flickr

“Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

*Portion of an exegetical paper I wrote on the topic.*

The parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew 20:1-16 is part of Matthew’s gospel of the kingdom. Matthew is the only writer who tells the story, which places its composition around A.D. 63 and for the benefit of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. The details of the parable would have been very familiar to Jesus’s audience. Brad Young offers a sitz im leben perspective (on-scene contextualization):

The setting assumes the difficult economic conditions of first-century Israel. Many day laborers are standing in the market hoping to be hired for a day job. The original audience could readily identify with these workers and their real-life situation…Day laborers were on the bottom end of the economic structure. They received minimal wages for sporadic work. As the primary wage earners, they had to support their families by the odd jobs they could acquire for day service. During the time of harvest, the situation improved as landowners needed additional day laborers to harvest the crops on time.

One noticeable aspect of this parable is that at its outset the householder, not his steward, works from early morning to late evening to acquire laborers. This would have been an immediate signal to the listening crowd that their normal worldview was about to be challenged.

The parable can be divided into three acts: Act One, the hirelings (vs. 1-7); Act Two, the payments (vs. 8-11); and Act Three, the dialogue between the owner and the grumbling workers (vs. 11-15).

It is obvious that the parable involves economic details. The only condition imposed on the workers is proper work for a day’s wage. This was the denarius, a silver coin that meant a usual day’s pay. The parable, however, should not be used to imply any message about economic arrangements in society, a proposition not obvious in the illustration.

Moreover, the owner’s pay arrangement is simply impossible in the developed world and modern economy. Business leaders and workers would spurn the idea.

A Hard Pill to Swallow

The workers are recruited throughout the day and are finally called in to be paid. This is where the parable does what it is characteristically known for, which is setting up listeners for a surprise. The owner starts by paying the laborers who have worked the least amount of time first—and they receive just as much as those who have toiled all day in the heat.

The first-comers are begrudged. When confronted the owner explains that he had kept his word and had also decided to be gracious to those who had come later. Donahue says:

“If the reader too quickly identifies the owner as God and is unwilling to experience the same feelings as those who worked all day, the challenge of the parable loses its force. Hardly any parable in the Gospels seems to upset the basic structure of an orderly society as does this one…The constant complaint in our society about welfare is proof that popular morality operates according to the principle of ‘equal work for equal pay.'”

The laborers who had been fortunate enough to receive work in the morning should have rejoiced at the generosity of the owner.

Still, one significant limitation of the parable needs to be pointed out. Those who labored all day earn their day’s wage by their work; but Jesus did not believe that anyone earns a place in the kingdom by his or her work. It should be understood that parabolic language should not be pressed too far.

God’s Undeserved Favor

What is the message of the parable? It is first a parable of the kingdom by which Jesus illustrates the incredible grace of God. It drives a wedge between two ways of thinking about Christian life and one’s relationship with God.

The first mindset centers on human goodness and the ability to earn one’s way into the kingdom. But a problem arises here because distinctions are easily and often made between those whose length of service and fervor for the kingdom are exemplary and those who have less to show. The simple standards of justice and the ranking of time and effort determine degrees of worth.

The second way of thinking ventures much deeper into the gospel to show us that God’s way with us makes no distinctions between us. Each of us are accepted and loved by him, and we are saved not due to any efforts we make but purely as a result of his grace. It is that “God loves us not because we are lovable, but because God is loving in a radical way.”

This is the gospel. Borsch says, “We either ‘take what belongs to us and go’—a way of living that cuts us off from true fellowship with God and others—or we receive from God what he has graciously chosen to give.”

Credits: Borsch, Frederick Houk. Many Things In Parables: Extravagant Story of New Community. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988./Donahue, John R. The Gospel in Parable. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988/Young, Brad H. Jesus The Jewish Theologian. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1995

What to Do About Grace

CC BY-NC, Enokson, Flickr

CC BY-NC, Enokson, Flickr

“He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” (Eph. 1:5-6)

I drove down the highway one morning listening to a version of Don Moen’s classic hymn “Give Thanks,” and the Holy Spirit turned a light on within me.

“Give thanks with a grateful heart

Give thanks to the Holy One

Give thanks because he’s given Jesus Christ, his Son.

 And now let the weak say, ‘I am strong!’

Let the poor say, ‘I am rich!’

Because of what the Lord has done for us.

Give thanks.”

Truthfully, I wanted to cry because I saw a clearer picture of the gospel, but I didn’t want to appear weepy-eyed where I was headed.

The Gospel Message

The scripture above refers to the grace of God having been bestowed upon us in Christ. The King James Version says, “…he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” I thought of that phrasing when I heard the declarations—“I am strong! I am rich!”—and realized how truly profound the gift of Christ is to us.

It means Jesus is enough.

Now that may not seem like anything cataclysmic to you, but it’s a weight off all our shoulders. We have gained acceptance with God in Christ. All our efforts at earning God’s approval and working our way into his favor are finished. We can cease feeling inadequate and marred and like we have to get our act together to please him. “Lord, I know I haven’t…God, I’m sorry but I…”

No, we are not condemned and need not wear guilty consciences. He lifts our chins and tells us it’s okay and invites into his joy. He did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

But What Am I to Do?

Still, we feel like we have to do something. We loathe and punish ourselves because we cannot accept the thought of simply receiving God’s selfless love and attention. We feel that we have to work our way into so rich a gift. What about our raging tempers, lying and cheating, illicit sexual habits, and various dependencies? How could he still accept us when we are yet unsure that Jesus is the way? After all, we’re still mad at him for things that happened to us all the way back in our childhood.

What are we to do with these inconsistencies?

Right here is where sound teaching is so important because we’re prone to walk away from God or live beneath our spiritual privilege. We may hang onto God, but we’ll always be trying to fix ourselves, always trying to pay a debt that has already been forgiven. If we don’t realize that the burden has been removed, we’ll continue dealing with the agony and frustration—the guilt—that comes with trying to lift it, never experiencing freedom.

A Gospel Parable

Let me show you what our responsibility looks like. Think of a person, maybe even yourself at one time, with a great financial burden—a debt. He (or she) struggled with that debt for a long time, and the debt determined so much about his life. But one day a benefactor paid off the entire bill; the indebted man owed not a cent to anyone. Then, the benefactor gave the man $10,000 to get back on his feet. All the man had to do was accept the gift.

Now the man would probably need some time to get over the incredible goodness that had happened to him, but he would be foolish not to accept the gift. There would be no need for him to stand and argue with the benefactor about all the misfortune and bad choices he made that got him to that point.

The man accepts the gift and the benefactor’s simple request that he never again return to debt. The responsibility of the man is simple. It is to prove his exceeding gratefulness by improving his knowledge about money and finances, guaranteeing the request of the benefactor.

Now…Right Now

The man with the debt, although he had been freed from it, bore a responsibility to amend his behavior and attitude toward money. It is no different with us, except our works of faith now are acts of worship to God. Let me show you.

We still have hang-ups and sin issues, but they don’t negate Christ’s work for us and in us. Our responsibility with those issues now is to understand our freedom in Christ and to rely on God’s enabling grace to build godlier character. Thereby, we love God by transforming the vile areas of our hearts into the very fruit of the Spirit. We worship him with the beauty of holy lives. But instead of doing this to earn God’s favor, we do it because of his favor already bestowed upon us.

I get emotional about this because there are many people around us, people we couldn’t guess, who secretly wish to serve God and be among the saints but feel that their lives are so bad, so messed up, that God doesn’t care to deal with them. They feel condemned and sometimes are condemned by churches and Christians that haven’t truly grasped the message of grace. But these are the weak God is calling to strength in Christ.

What shall we do with grace? Just accept it. The debt is gone. We need to get the point: we are actualized in Christ. You have wholeness now. You possess all the worth God designed for you now. Give God thanks and let your life honor him.

Also on the topic: Where Freedom Ends

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?