This Faith is Not for Wimps

CC BY, Stephen A. Wolfe, Flickr
CC BY, Stephen A. Wolfe, Flickr

I consider myself a city boy provided that you understand “city” in my history is originally Nowhereville, USA. So it’s a choice kinda thing. I enjoy studying cities and I like city life and have been privileged to visit some pretty big ones—the biggest, in fact, which is a true marvel.

Yet I feel more at home in the outdoors. I love nature. Words like rustic, sylvan, and bucolic stir me in ways the words modern, skyscraper, and metro never do.

Being sent outdoors as a kid was not a punishment. Later I would work and participate at several camps and a few jobs that were pretty hands-on. I’ve always admired the manual life, although I am regrettably not the son bitten by that bug. (My mom is a seamstress, so I could’ve been a tailor by now.) I’ve said 101 times that the person who can work with his or her hands will survive much easier should the world go belly-up tomorrow.

Compete to Win

As I’ve grown older, I’ve increasingly desired the physical, outdoorsy life. I envy those who grew up on farms, ranchers, and just the skilled laborer. I’m sure they have much to share to slap me back into my reality, still…

The physical, labor-intensive life is to me a fitting metaphor for the character of the spiritual life. Our faith certainly creates a refined product, but the nature of the tool is duly rugged.

I discover this truth all through Scripture: in the agonized prayer of Hannah crying out to God for a son; in the Psalms’ tightly framed shots of human emotional investment made in worship; in the implications of scripture, like grief as a spiritual act of sowing.

I notice it in Jesus’s bold yet nimble teachings to go the extra mile and love the vilest; to “have faith” in an ardent way; to know that if the kingdom will be had, it will be found; to remember that the way up is down; and to make sure we count the high cost of serving him.

Do you see it? Do you notice how tough and gritty, coarse and earthy this life of faith is? Every Christian will surely taste his own sweat and feel the grain in his mouth.

Works in Progress

Tools for cutting and refinement are necessarily sturdy. Wood isn’t going to carve wood, is it? Clay won’t shape clay. They need a sharper and more durable tool to give them form.

The faith God has given us is definitely durable and sharp enough—in his hands and in our spiritual practice—to whittle away at our knarls, imperfections, and stony hearts until we become works of beauty, transformed by his grace. It turns Jacobs into Israels and makes Peters out of Simons.

BUT… “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). This isn’t for cowards. It takes dexterity and resolve to apprentice this carpenter.

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

Maps Lead to Heaven, GPSs to (Ahem!)

CC BY-NC, ejorpin, Flickr
CC BY-NC, ejorpin, Flickr

A recent excursion reminded me of all the reasons I despise Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We pay tech companies for the convenience of GPS, not always for any intelligence in the device.

Why does a GPS tell me to take a bypass and then send me through the heart of downtown? Moreover, why when we’re somewhere off course do I have to irritably wait on those who only trust devices, although I follow signs well and can clearly see where to go? Maybe I should stop second-guessing myself. After all, we’ve lived a very long time with only maps, although many of us have never learned to read them.

My disgust includes online web mapping, too. Printed directions are the worst! Many of the step-by-step instructions are needless and actually set drivers up to make errors on the simplest journeys. Call it more hassle than help.

Perhaps your experience is different and GPS rivals the cellphone or internet for “Greatest Invention,” but I think good ole map reading works better most times. All one has to do is look a map over well, use a little common sense, and be at the destination in short order.

The Map of Truth

While I was off-course and stewing about these things, I reflected on how the same principle applies to faith. We have a map; it is the word of God. All we have to do is read it, do what it says, and be on our way.

Sometimes, however, we require for ourselves more than the essentials. Deep theology and philosophy convinces some of us that we’re walking our path the right way and are indeed headed the right direction. I don’t rail against higher theology because I was a graduate theology student, and I continue to deeply value and respect the intellectual aspects of Christian faith. Yet I was astonished at the scores of proponents and their absurd and utterly outlandish ideas about God and faith. You’d be amazed.

The problem is we have young people who feel they need an inordinate knowledge or seminary to live for God; and we find older folk who need to prove something with it. Good doctrine is incredibly important and learning it is essential to personal faith and wholesome churches. But the life of God we desire comes through Jesus Christ. He is the one essential.

And it’s right there—with Jesus—where the immaterial stuff falls to the ground. If the point was to live for God, so much of the fluff I read in seminary would not exist. Thus, the Holy Spirit prompts us to search our map, the scripture itself, and, like Pilgrim on his way to the Celestial City, be about the journey. “Just do what it tells you,” he says. “I’ll give more insight as you go.”

If we really mean to live for Jesus, we can be satisfied with the least that will help us reach him. I’d rather arrive at my destination using my map and feel pleasant than using the GPS and be angry and bitter, maybe even calling off the trip, for all the incongruous or excess information I’ve received. Likewise, there’s enough already in the scriptures to show us Christ and to start us living for him. Any other essential he will bring in due time.

Why I Am Not Saved

Flickr hedonism
CC BY-NC, inky, Flickr

When I lived at home, I had a phone conversation that annoyed me but also provoked and enlightened me. I was washing dishes when the phone rang. It was a former neighbor who wanted to speak with my mother about some job papers. I told him she was not in; she was at church. And with that, his rant began about why he had no need for church.

He said that he was made to attend church when he was young and didn’t like it then for the same reason he didn’t currently go: hypocrites. He tired of people who were supposedly holy while secretly being the transgressors of everything they preached against. He felt that if being religious is how one wants to lead his or her life, fine; however, if a person desires to be free of religion, fine again.

He said he wanted to be able to dance and drink as he pleased. He even brought up homosexuality, that if he wanted to court other men—if that were his M.O.—then he should feel free to do so. It is every person’s right to be happy according to how he or she deems necessary. He was a good man, after all, and did no harm to his neighbor. In the end, he could serve God at home.

I stood there listening and not saying much of anything because I know when a person doesn’t care to hear the contrary, although I wasn’t afraid to challenge him. Honestly, with the way the conversation was going (me holding the phone to my ear with him spewing against everything holy), I affirmed his answers to help me get rid of him quicker! I also knew that if I tried to express my belief, an argument would have ensued; however, the scriptures warn against falling into this trap.

So he continued stating and restating his spiel. Maybe it wasn’t a moment to make a convert or to plant a seed, but it was a teaching moment from the Holy Spirit to me.

I have read those Christian worker aides on how to witness to others. Sometimes they’re found in the back of Bibles with faith-sharing messages to counter specific arguments. In seminary, I really benefited from an apologetics course I took. But all that I had ever learned took a backseat to this moment. What I gathered from this man was the real reason why he didn’t serve God. The hypocrite argument is the first one many will throw in the faces of devout people, but the hypocrite argument is a fallacy.

We all know how distasteful it is for a person to claim Jesus and all-things-holy only to turn the corner and get down with the Devil. But for a person to say he or she doesn’t serve God because of rotten apples doesn’t remove righteous responsibility from his or her shoulders. This man had missed the point: spiritual conversion. If you mean to serve God, then God you will serve.

Furthermore, when God gives you a command, his concern is not with a thousand other people and how they are living. His concern is with your obedience to him. You may be the one he desires to bring light to all those walking in error. It is simply illogical to say you don’t serve God because Persons A, B, and C aren’t living right

The real reason why this man didn’t serve God was because he refused to live his life God’s way, even with a God-fearing wife. Unfortunately, factored into his obstinance might have been many incorrect expectations and examples of what holy living entails, which would require good teaching to correct. But his defiance of God was not due to another person, as he had convinced himself. It was just what it was, a defiance of God. Sorrowfully, this man passed away about a month ago.