Not knowing where he was going…

GPS has changed the way we navigate. The destination is all we think we need to know. The GPS will do the rest. But our God is not a heavenly GPS that simply leads us to the destination. Each twist and turn of the journey is significant, and what we travel through is just as significant as where we end up. In Hebrews 11, the famous faith chapter, we hear that Abraham “went out, not knowing where he was going.” This is the essence of faith — acting when we don’t know the result of those actions. I’ve been listening to a series of lectures on the Reformation in general and Luther in particular by Dr. Carl Trueman here. I highly recommend it — fascinating. A smaller point stuck out to me as I listened today. In talking about Luther’s theology at an early point in his recovery of the doctrine of justification by faith, Dr. Trueman points out that, of course, Luther did not grasp at that point in time just where this theological journey would take him. Luther was setting out like Abraham, not knowing where he was going, but knowing that God was leading him inexorably.

It’s like that sometimes. We’re not all Abrahams or Luthers, who are the father of a nation or start a Reformation with ramifications that extend to future generations, but we all find ourselves nudged in certain directions. It’s how we respond to those nudges that is the test of our faith. Do we follow even when we don’t know the destination? Or do we try to conjecture where this will lead and what results it will yield — and then decide if we’ll follow through? God is looking for those who can take one bit at a time and act on it in faith. This may seem like God favors those with a high risk-tolerance — of which I am definitely not one — but think about that. What is riskier than NOT following God when He points us in a direction? Those who walked by faith before us were seeking a goal, but a goal they could not begin to comprehend — and so are we.

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland.  And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them. (Hebrews 11:13-16)

 

Say Anything!

In the iconic 80’s movie Say Anything, the teenage Diane Court and her single parent father have the kind of relationship that many of us wish we could have with our own parents or children — the kind of relationship where we can both ‘say anything.’ Of course, in the movie, we find out that this openness was pretty one-sided when Diane learns that her father has not been as forthright as she has been about the important stuff. And that is how it is with our fallen relationships — we cover ourselves, we leave things out and ‘yada yada’ over the embarrassing bits, and we often just can’t handle the truth when it comes our way. And then I think — how do I respond when God says stuff? Can He ‘say anything,’ or does He have to pull punches with me? Am I the kind of person that needs to be handled? Do I need a buffer like Israel in Deuteronomy 5 when they pleaded with Moses to hear from God for them so that they would not have to risk hearing from God themselves? Are the communication lines open between me and God, or are certain channels blocked?

I think about some amazing things God said to some of our brothers and sisters in the Bible and wonder if I would have believed that this was in fact God speaking to me in those strange circumstances. I wonder how Abraham knew that it was God speaking to him when God told him to sacrifice Isaac on the mountain. This does not sound like a thing God would require, especially since Isaac was a miracle baby, and God had promised to fulfill His promise to Abraham through this miraculous, chosen child. When I have read this story in the past, I have tended to focus on Abraham’s willingness to obey the command when it cost him so much. But lately, I’ve been more struck by just how Abraham knew that this was God speaking. The voice of God was clear to him even if the content was inscrutable.

Sometimes God tells people to do very odd things. In Ezekiel 4, He told Ezekiel to do a visual prophecy of the siege of Jerusalem by playing with pots and pans and heaping up dirt. And he is supposed to lie there for 430 days in the middle of this diorama. This is not something you take lightly — I start thinking of bed sores and how uncomfortable this would become for a whole year. And then God tells him to eat food that is cooked over a fire that is fueled by human dung. Ezekiel is game up till now, but this is just too much for him. Could an idea like this really come from God? I’m not really faulting him for questioning because it turns out God was okay with it and granted him his request for animal instead of human dung. There was a limit to what even Ezekiel could wrap his head around. The prophets had it rough. God tells Jonah to go to their worst enemy and preach judgment, but Jonah resists because he knows how merciful God is, and it was hard to want mercy for his enemies. But in the end Jonah does as God asked. Some were more willing than others, but all of the prophets heard things from God that were hard to accept at first blush. Am I willing to hear such things from God?

In my church, our pastor is in the middle of a series preaching through 1 Corinthians. This week, we got to probably the most uncomfortable part of the whole book, chapter 11. You’ve got to deal with gender roles, headship, angels, hair length, and head coverings — all of which pose unique challenges in our context. Modern commentaries tend to glide over this section lightly, and I know that other pastors have simply skipped this section, probably thinking that ‘discretion is the better part  of valor’ (a coward’s excuse spoken by Falstaff, Shakespeare’s notorious coward). But I am thankful to be in a church where our pastor takes scripture seriously, and in spite of all the difficulties associated with the passage, he will cover the text. We approach the text believing that there is something there for us — now — or it wouldn’t be in the Bible. He didn’t answer every question, and maybe more questions were raised than answered, but we are taking the text seriously and listening.

So how truly open-minded are we when we hear God’s word? I remember fondly a family we knew  10-15 years ago. The teenage daughter was a committed Christian with an obedient heart that looked at scripture and wanted to obey everything God said. When she came to this sticky passage, it seemed clear to her that God intended the head covering as a command for all time — and she started to wear a scarf. Her mother then looked at the passage, came to the same conclusion, and started to cover her head too in support of her daughter’s obedience. Are our hearts this open — that we would change our lifestyle and habits in response to God’s word? In time, both mom and daughter came to a different understanding of the passage and have left the scarves behind, but I still admire so much their willingness to listen to whatever God was saying and act on it. Yes, we may misunderstand, but God will keep speaking and move us in the right path if we are willing to listen.

So, let’s keep an open mind and not be like the rich young ruler. For him, all the other commandments were no problem, but Jesus knew what he was holding out on. When Jesus told him to sell all his stuff and give it to the poor, he couldn’t take it. He shook his head sadly and walked away. Jesus couldn’t ‘say anything’ to him.

Let’s be faithful to God’s word like Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice the thing he held most dear. And the boy Samuel. At first he didn’t even recognize the voice of God, but when God continued to speak to him, he learned to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears” (1 Samuel 3:10).

 

INDICATIVE v. imperative

 

David Murray wrote this in his review of Sinclair Ferguson’s new book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification — “Ferguson focuses on passages that describe sanctification (the indicative) rather than command it (the imperative).” “This is not so much a ‘how to’ book as it is a ‘how God does it’ one.” His argument is that the New Testament is far more concerned with “shaping our understanding, so that a new life style emerges organically, than it is with techniques.” He is convinced that “a clear understanding of what the gospel is and how it works leads in turn to the development of new affections and a new lifestyle.”

There is something subtly disturbing about this take on sanctification. Indicative and imperative have become real buzzwords, at least in our church circles. The mantra is that indicatives must precede imperatives – and to that I can give a hearty ‘Amen!’ But more and more, it seems that the indicative has become the only aspect of any topic worth talking about, while bringing in an imperative is always met with the suspicion that you are somehow leaving out the over-riding indicative. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am all about the indicatives – salvation by faith, free grace, justification, being in Christ, and don’t forget the new creature that is the new us, and the Holy Spirit who empowers us. But I’m troubled that even after that foundation is laid, we are so reluctant to speak of imperatives. I fear that in recovering the essence of our life in Christ in the indicatives, we have systematically rooted out another just as essential aspect of our Christian life – the necessary fruit of obedience that flows from our position in Christ.

Indicatives and imperatives belong together, and in that order, but they can never be separated. Paul begins most of his epistles with doctrinal statements meant to cement our faith and motivate us to godly living, but Paul doesn’t just assume that if we know the doctrine (indicative), the practice (imperative) will follow. He spells it out – how we should live in the world, in our families, at work, in the church… And Jesus does the same. Consider this story from Mark 2.

And when he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door. And he was preaching the word to them. And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near him because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him, and when they had made an opening, they let down the bed on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Jesus first goes to the root of the problem and does that hard work of forgiving sins. This is the paralytic’s deepest need. But forgiveness is hard to see, and I would guess that the paralytic himself, along with Jesus’ critics, questioned his forgiveness and wondered how he could know that what Jesus said was really true. So to encourage the little sprout of faith, Jesus tells him to do something – something he is not able to do in his own power – get up and walk! Amazingly, he did it. And in ‘doing’ faith grew. As well intentioned as we may be in wanting to get the indicatives down first, we have to realize that sanctification is more like stairs than a helicopter ride to the high ground. The foundation is laid in our justification and forgiveness, but our faith grows incrementally with each step of obedience. If we wait to feel perfect assurance before we even try to act, we will never witness the power of God in us as we are enabled to do in His strength what we know is not in the realm of possibility in our own. The paralytic may never have walked if he sat there waiting to be assured about his forgiveness – but when Jesus said ‘walk’ he had the opportunity to see evidence that Jesus was who He said He was and could do what he said He could – Jesus could forgive sins – my sins.

The two big ‘I’ buzzwords – indicative and imperative – are relatively recent developments in the church. The distinction has always been there, of course. Without recognizing Christ’s work for us, it is meaningless to even attempt obedience. Without the new man created in us, walking in the Spirit is out of the question. Without the knowledge that the Body of Christ is one, how can we walk out the unity that visibly demonstrates God’s nature to the world?

But I have a problem with our current handling of this beautiful distinction. It is fashionable to lean so far to the indicative that we totally lose sight of the imperative, which drops off into obscurity or even oblivion. And this, I have concluded, is not by accident – seminarians are taught to always end with the ‘gospel,’ which usually means that you end on the note of what Christ did, not what we should do. The effect of this method is to reverse the order of the indicative-before-imperative model that we give so much lip service to. Our preaching paradigm is fighting our understanding of the relationship of faith (believing the indicatives) and works (carrying out the imperatives). So much preaching goes something like this: We run up on a command (imperative). We say, ‘Oh, but who could ever do that perfectly and in a manner worthy of salvation? No one! But thank God for Jesus who did it all for us, the unstated implication being that we don’t have to seriously try obedience – even if we in fact do have the foundational indicative prereqs – i.e. we are justified, have been made new creatures, are partakers of the divine nature, have the Holy Spirit indwelling us…

I have painted with a broad brush here, but I hope you see my dilemma. Where is there any real place for imperatives if we always rush to affirm the indicatives apart from any evidence of the power of God in our lives? Is there no room for asking God what we should do? Is there any room at all for ‘doing’ in the Christian life? I think so, but it is virtually impossible to talk about it without sounding ‘legalistic.’ The followup questions are always along the lines of ‘but that doesn’t save you, right?’ Of course our works can never save us, but why would someone who has been gloriously saved and forgiven of all his sins not want to do what pleases the one who gave everything for him? Do we believe that God the Father, who created us, and Jesus, the Son who died for us, are so peevish that nothing we could ever do would please them, and there is no point in trying? May it never be. If we believe that lie, we are far from acting like the sons we are.

Let’s not tear apart what God has joined together. When we accept the indicative, it changes us so that we want to obey the imperatives. When we are changed by the indicative, we have power to carry out the imperatives. When the indicatives really get ahold of our heart, we can only respond with abandon. Nothing matters but pleasing the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Shhhhhhhhh!

Ummm, aahhh —- Submission —-There, I said it!

 

Some doctrines are just too embarrassing to mention in our current cultural context. We don’t want to look like retro-prairie-muffins who cling to the gender roles of the 1950’s and are inherently misogynists. After all, we all know that women are capable human beings and can do anything a man can do — often better. So why would we ever cling to a doctrine that demeans women and renders our faith irrelevant to our enlightened society?

My answer to this conundrum is simply that we are called to be obedient to everything God has revealed and have no right to ignore troublesome parts of the Bible, which means that we must view submission in the marriage relationship as God does — not as simply an ancient cultural construct, but as a fundamental issue with ramifications that extend into our very concept of God, the Trinity, and the relationship of Christ to His Church – which in turn trickle down to practical issues like ordaining women. The very fact that the modern church balks so much against this doctrine reveals our need for understanding and obedience in this area. The truth is that none of us likes to submit to another – even to God. (And from the man’s perspective, none likes to accept responsibility for others – but that’s another paper for another day.) The marriage relationship is not the only place we see this – we are a society that despises authority at home, at work, in the church, or wherever it is found.

‘This is a great mystery’ (Eph. 5:32). Somehow our marriage relationships reflect God’s nature and character, and to get this wrong is to miss the glory intended in our marriages. While the manifestation of this glory may look different in various times and places, there are eternal, unchanging, biblical principles that we can’t ignore.

  1. Starting with creation, woman was created for the man (Gen. 2:20, I Cor. 11:8-9). The Fall made this a harder condition to bear (Gen. 3:16) but was not the reason for it.
  2. Marriage is designed to reflect the relationship of Christ to His church (Eph. 5:22-33). Husbands are to love by leading sacrificially and taking covenantal responsibility for their families, and wives are to demonstrate the type of submission that the church owes to Christ.
  3. There is equality between men and women in regard to salvation and relative worth before God (Gal. 3:28), but this does not trump other scriptures that indicate distinctive roles of men and women – e.g. male leadership in the church and family (I Tim. 3, Titus 1).
  4. The concept of the wife being subordinate but equal in marriage is a reflection of the nature of God in the Trinity, where we see Jesus in His incarnation doing nothing of His own will (Luke 22:42) and humbling Himself (Phil. 2), and the Holy Spirit being called the Helper (John 14:26) — yet both are equal to the Father.
  5. The language of submission permeates the scriptures concerning wives – even when referring to husbands who are not Christians – and must be addressed:                                                                                                           I Cor. 11:3  But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the        head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.                                       I Cor. 14:34  the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not                  permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.                    I Tim. 2:11  Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit          a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to                        remain quiet.                                                                                                                                Eph. 5:22  Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the                           husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church.                Eph. 5:33  However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the                   wife see that she respects her husband.                                                                              Col. 3:18  Wives, submit to your husbands.                                                                              Tit. 2:4-5  and so train the young women to … be submissive to their own                     husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.                                                      I Pet. 3:1-2  Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if               some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct           of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.                                I Pet. 3:6  as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her                           children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.

So our challenge is to let the Bible shape our thinking in this area – to not be conformed to this world, but transformed by the renewing of our minds – and to think like Christians. Just because we’ve erred in the past on the side of domineering male chauvinist pigs doesn’t mean that now we have to err on the side of strident anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better feminists. A large part of our challenge is to think in biblical categories. When we think of helper, we think assistant, but the same word describes God in Ps. 54:4 ‘Behold, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.’ This is hardly demeaning. In Phil. 2 when we see that Jesus didn’t cling to His equality with God, we should also consider that a very capable wife who supports her husband rather than pursuing her own accomplishments is not selling herself short.

In no way am I suggesting that all Christian wives need to be stay-at-home moms with no ambition who say ‘yes, dear’ to every harebrained scheme their husbands come up with, but we can’t just sweep principle under the rug because it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient, or downright embarrassing. Our application may not resemble June Cleaver in the least! But whatever we do must be informed by scripture and not by our own judgments about who is smarter or more capable. Our current climate wants to make marriage a 50/50 proposition, which often means that it is a wrestling match. When we are thinking biblically, I believe that there is lots of room for husbands to delegate and defer without abdicating responsibility. And there is lots of room for wives to take initiative (see Prov. 31) without usurping authority. It all comes down to the heart, not a list of acceptable ways to act. Christian marriage has been called a dance – somebody has to lead, but it is a beautiful shared expression of joy to which both contribute.

So in view of all this, I leave it to you to decide who does what household chores, who works when and how much, who cares for the children, whether you will move for the wife’s job or not, how much responsibility outside of the home the wife should have, whether she should run for political office …  In the right circumstances and for the right reasons, almost any decision is ok as long as he is taking responsibility and loving and she is submitting and respecting!

 

Sovereignty — too big for our tiny minds

Of God’s Eternal Decree — I. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.  — Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 3

The concept that God ordains everything that happens, including evil, and yet is not guilty of any sin Himself, is difficult to swallow – and yet that is exactly what scripture seems to say about the subject. We balk at the idea that God chooses some and rejects others for no apparent reason other than that He wants to. We don’t think it’s fair that God ordains our sinful actions and works His purposes through them and still punishes us for those sins. We argue that it’s not our fault! How could I act otherwise when an omnipotent God has decreed my sin? How can He judge me for what I had no power to resist?

And then we start to think of all sorts of explanations to make God not seem such an ogre. Maybe He is all-powerful, but He limits Himself to allow us to choose. Maybe He just knows what I will do and acts accordingly. Maybe the Fall was not God’s idea, but was introduced into God’s creation by an outside force – Whoa! Now we’re on dangerous ground that leads to a heretical dualistic view of a world where there is another force beyond the control of God, and all of history is the great battle between two equal but opposite forces, good and evil.

Given the presupposition that ‘from Him and to Him, and through Him are all things, (Rom. 9)’ we have to wonder how evil could come into the mix. “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. (Col. 1:16)” So how can evil ever be part of this perfect creation that springs from a perfect and holy God? And yet the reality is that we have evil in the world… This is probably the knottiest problem in all of theology. Where does evil come from, and who is to blame? Logic doesn’t cut it here. All things come from God + there is evil in the world = God is the author of evil. It’s simple, but it’s wrong!

Here is one test of a true Christian. Can we let God be God? Can we let Him do whatever He wants and still believe that He is good and does only good? Can we believe that because God does something, it is by definition good? Or do we judge God and make Him fit into our tiny concept of what ‘good’ means? I get nervous for the spiritual health of people who say that a good God could not do things He clearly says He does do, like wipe out the Canaanites, destroy cities, flood the earth, harden Pharaoh’s heart, and ultimately damn some people to hell.

So are we just fatalists who believe that we have no real will of our own and must simply endure what God has ordained for us and hope that we are elect? Hardly! We are presented with choices – choose this day whom you will serve, draw nigh to God and He will draw nigh to you, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ… These are real choices, and we make them freely according to our own wills. But at the same time, only pride would allow us to say that we chose God. He has chosen us, and not one of us has come to God without His choosing us first.

At first blush, it may seem impossible to love and trust a God who does things that we judge ‘unfair,’ but it is the greatest security of all to really trust that God is good, nothing is beyond His control, and everything we experience comes from the hand of a loving God who works all things (including evil and even our own sin) together for our good.

“I have walked in my integrity”…Really, David?

I AFFIRM that as Christians, it is possible to live with a heart that is perfect toward God and to maintain a good conscience before God and man.

I DENY that it is possible for us to attain sinless perfection in this life.

*********

We get flummoxed when we hear anyone plead their own integrity. When David says, “judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me (Ps. 7:8),” we think he is crazy. Doesn’t David know that pleading his own righteousness to obtain justice is like asking to be destroyed? But David insists:

Psalm 26:1,6,11 — Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering…. I wash my hands in innocence… But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity; redeem me, and be gracious to me.

But is it possible that David knows something we are afraid to know, much less say out loud. In fact, God backs David up and affirms this about him:   1 Kings 9:4-5 — And as for you (Solomon), if you will walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my rules, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever…

How can God say this about David at the end of his life when his many sins have been recorded for all to see? One thing we know: God is not deluded or lying, so what does He mean by ‘integrity of heart’ and ‘uprightness’? In a very real way, God sees David as righteous.

And David isn’t the only one. Other OT saints plead their innocence and integrity. Job says, “Far be it from me to say that you (the ‘comforters’) are right; till I die I will not put away my integrity from me.  I hold fast my righteousness and will not let it go; my heart does not reproach me for any of my days.” (Job 27:5-6) He is either the most stubborn sinner or a man who knows that what he says is true. And like in David’s case, God agrees with Job. (Job 1:1,8)

Consider these Proverbs about integrity and the righteous:

2:7 — he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity,                                                                                                                                 2:21 — the upright will inhabit the land, and those with integrity will remain in it,                                                                                                                                                   10:9 — Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, but he who makes his ways crooked will be found out.                                                                                                     11:3 — The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them.                                                                                                    19:1 — Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.                                                                                          20:7 –The righteous who walks in his integrity— blessed are his children after him!

Is this actual advice and promise, or just a bunch of hypotheticals? Or maybe that was only an OT thing. They still thought that somehow they could measure up if they tried hard enough to earn God’s favor. We know better now! But listen to Paul – He’s every bit as crazy as David.

Acts 23:1 — And looking intently at the council, Paul said, “Brothers, I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day.”                                                1 Thes. 2:10 — You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers.                                                              2 Tim. 1:3 — I thank God whom I serve, as did my ancestors, with a clear conscience, as I remember you constantly in my prayers…                                       Phil. 3:17 — Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.                                                               Acts 20:18-32 — Ye know, from the first day that I came into Asia, after what manner I have been with you at all seasons…Serving the Lord with all humility of mind, … how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you…neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy…I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.

And the clincher comes in v. 33 when he says, I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. As a Pharisee, Paul knows that this is the commandment that strikes right at the heart. He is saying that not just his actions were pure, but his heart as well.

So, we argue, Paul was an apostle – maybe this is special grace for apostles, and like tongues and prophecy and big A Apostles, this type of grace has ceased. Nice try, but Paul speaks to Timothy about the good conscience as a goal and necessity of the Christian life. Without it, we are in peril of falling away. And Peter adds more apostolic gravitas.                     1 Tim 1:5 — The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.                                                                                       1 Tim. 1:18-19 — …wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander…                                                                                              Titus 1:7 — For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach (blameless).                                                                                                                                     1 Peter 3:16 — having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.                                      1 Peter 3:21 — Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,

But how do we get and keep this good conscience? Ah, there’s the rub. First, remember that having a good conscience is not the same as being sinless. And remember that a good conscience is not enough in itself. (Paul seems to have had a good conscience when he was persecuting the church in ignorance.) We’re not talking about meriting anything by our good conscience. What we are talking about is seeking God with a whole heart and not willfully holding on to any darling sin. Clinging to those idols is perilous.

Sanctification is progressive, and we will never come to the end of the process until we see Jesus and become like Him. But for now, we have good encouragement to pursue godliness and a good conscience. It is more about keeping short accounts, repenting and forsaking sin as God reveals it, and as much as possible making things right with the people we have wronged. In other words, a good conscience means that we are not fighting with God, and whenever He reveals our sin to us, we receive rebuke gladly and show fruits of repentance. Think of David and Job when they were rebuked. Our sins may be egregious, but God is pleased when we respond in humility. And even our enemies can’t accuse us when we freely confess our own sin.

Phil. 1:6 — And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.                                                           Phil. 3:13-16 — Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

Getting the Gospel

I remember exactly the moment I ‘got the gospel.’ ‘Getting the gospel’ wasn’t exactly a thing then, but in retrospect that is what happened. I was twenty something, out of college, but still in my college town and church. I had been a Christian from childhood — not sure exactly when — but I still had lots of daddy and abandonment issues. On this significant day, I was talking with one of our elders, feeling wretched because I felt like a drain on their time, emotions, families… My elder was assuring me that they were totally committed to me and my spiritual growth and didn’t consider me a burden at all. It was a beautiful expression of total commitment and acceptance regardless of my neediness. I should have melted, but here’s what I said — out loud (!): I know you love me, but I wish you could like me. (I wanted to be the person they wanted to be around and took on vacation to help out with kids.) If God ever spoke to me in a voice, it had to be then, because I immediately heard, “Do you hear what you just said? You’re rejecting the gospel.”

It was true. I wanted so much to be liked that I would trade that total commitment and undeserved love for any reason to think that I was somehow lovable. But the gospel comes to us when we least deserve it. The Father loved us and chose us when we were alienated from him, and the Son died for us when we were still sinners. Nothing we receive is deserved, and it takes real humility to accept that gospel. Giving up my insane need to be liked was my induction into the gospel — that grace wherein we stand. Grasping the difference between God’s unshakeable love for us and his being ‘pleased with us’/liking us (which for me meant clinging to some worthiness) is foundational to my relationship with him. Believing the gospel means I am confident in his love even when I am unlovable. The bedrock of my faith is this confidence that he will never leave me or forsake me because he has proved his commitment to me by his death on the cross — for me. It all starts there, and we can never forget that.

Now that I am in Christ though, the gospel takes on a new aspect. The gospel changes everything it touches, and I find that I am a different person in a different kingdom altogether. Sin still clings to me, but it is no longer who I am. I still live in this fallen world and constantly need to come to the cross for forgiveness, but in Christ I am different. I think more about the gospel of the kingdom and what that looks like. It’s not all about forgiveness. I want to know his ways, understand what he is doing, love what he loves, hate what he hates, do what he would do, feel what he feels… I am a different person because of the gospel. I think many of us live our lives identifying with the old man and constantly feel defeated because we see ourselves as coming to God over and over again as sinners who will never be any different. Jesus makes all things new. I identify with him in his death and am raised to a new life – still tainted by sin, but that sin is not me!

I guess I have come full circle, and now my focus is on pleasing God. Now – again — I want him to like me, but it comes from a heart that is already secure in his love – not my desperate need for affirmation. Sometimes I feel the separation that sin brings between me and him even as a Christian, but at root I know he loves me and never leaves me. The whole debate about whether as Christians we can always say that God is pleased with us vexes me. I know I sometimes seem to be nitpicking when I insist on making a distinction between God’s love for us and his being pleased with us or liking us. I realize that sometimes our language is imprecise and maybe we’re all just talking about God’s love and commitment to us using different terms, but there are times when it seems evident that the desperate desire to know that God is always pleased with us has led some to deal with sin inappropriately. Going immediately to ‘yes, I slept with my boyfriend, but I’m so glad to know that God is still pleased with me in Christ’ seems so misguided. Yes, our position in Christ is secure, but the goodness of God leads us to repentance, not presumption. It’s a bratty kid who says to his father, “I know you told me not to do that, but you have to be supportive because you’re my father, and that’s what good fathers do.”

So because I ‘get the gospel,’ I’m secure in the relationship even though I know I don’t always please him. Ironically, I come back to the place where my concern is that God ‘like me’ and ‘be pleased with me.’ Only now it’s all different – it’s not this desperate need to feel good about myself. I simply want real relationship with the one who has given all to save me. Positionally, nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ. But relationally, there is variation day to day as I work out my salvation with fear and trembling in a fallen world.

I view it like marriage. The marriage is all about total commitment no matter what. We take vows, and feelings and circumstances can’t change those vows and our commitment to each other. That is the real security. We love each other — but sometimes we don’t like each other! At root, our commitment is central, but day to day, what makes a good/pleasant marriage relationship is ‘getting each other,’ sharing life, and enjoying each other. With our commitment as a given, now it can actually mean more to me to hear and be able to say, ‘I like you’ than ‘I love you.’ Lovers don’t forever gaze into one another’s eyes and say ‘I love you.’ At some point, love starts to show itself in ‘like’ kinds of ways. We start learning about things the other person likes. Our tastes change and start to line up more closely. We know what each other is thinking. And I find it true also in my relationship with God – love is the basis of it all, but day to day, I think more about pleasing him, knowing him better, being his friend, growing in grace… Maybe this is what sanctification is all about!

So my life is a life of pursuing a goal that I will never attain in this world – truly knowing God and becoming like him. I fail all the time and come constantly for forgiveness. My works will never be perfect, but I know that he accepts my efforts because I am in Christ, just like a mom is pleased with her child’s efforts to make breakfast on Mother’s Day even if the toast is burned. And I live for the moments of grace when I feel like Eric Liddell – “when I run, I feel his pleasure.” It’s a taste of heaven when I can feel like I am doing exactly what I was made to do, and that God is truly pleased in the ultimate and eternal sense , and his will is being done on earth as it is in heaven.

Excellence — The Mark of a Christian?!?

I believe that ‘excellence’ is a highly overrated ‘Christian virtue,’ and may not be a virtue at all. I know this is anathema to many and sounds like the refuge of the lazy, but perhaps this is one of those presuppositions we have that needs to be reexamined.

Let’s start by saying that, of course, in all of life Christians should work hard, honor their commitments,  have just business practices, treat people with respect … in short, ‘whatever you do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord.’ (Col. 3:23)  These are the moral aspects of our work, and it is sin to fall short in these areas. ‘Be ye perfect ‘ (Matt. 5:48) applies here.

This is not the type of excellence I mean. I’m talking about the type of excellence that says that all students in Christian schools must achieve above average results, that every Christian is bound to strive to be as successful as possible in their chosen profession, that whatever we do should be of the highest quality possible, that our Christian witness depends on being ‘the best.’  Not only is this an impossible standard to live up to, but it leads us to exert our effort totally in the wrong direction.

Jesus came to save us from our sins, not our incompetence. As Christians, we can expect God to work sanctification in us, but I can’t think of any scripture that makes me think that my conversion should somehow make me a better teacher, or more creative, or more physically coordinated, or more energetic, or even have a better memory. Sure, these abilities come from God, but these things are His gifts to us from birth and are distributed to whomever He wants, Christian or not (think Mozart and Salieri), as common grace. They are not an indication of our spiritual condition. We don’t understand why He gives gifts as He does, but that is His business.

So why are we hard on ourselves when we ‘fail’ in our natural abilities? — We make an honest mistake, our performance is in some way less than ‘perfect,’ we can’t complete all the tasks we should in a day… The answer is pride. We all have delusions of competence and want to think that we can do it all. The reality is that we all come up short all the time. We are limited because of our status as creatures, and that does not change with conversion.

Andrew Murray wrote a little book called Humility where he talks about two grounds for humility – humility as sinners and humility as creatures. I suspect that we are more likely to feel our helplessness when it comes to sin, so we are ready to fall on His grace when we sin. But when we fail in some very human way (like we forget someone’s name or we notice some embarrassing thing we forgot to clean before guests come over, or don’t quite hit that high note), we are mortified and beat ourselves up. Personally, I think we should be more mortified by our sin because that is something we should expect to change, and we should be more than happy to accept our failings as creatures because that is an inescapable part of our human condition, redeemed or not.

There are always two ditches. On the one hand, perfectionism and fear of failure bind many Christians and keep us from doing the things God has called us to do. We don’t have people over because our house isn’t perfect, or we’re not good cooks. We don’t play an instrument because we are not as gifted as someone else. Chances are that all of us have not done something we really wanted to because we thought we could not do it perfectly or even well. A Christian leader I respect said something that encourages me on an almost daily basis —  ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.’ If you think God wants you to homeschool, don’t be discouraged because you feel inadequate. Of course you’re inadequate and will make many mistakes, but that is better than not doing it at all. His strength is shown in our weakness. (2 Cor. 12:9) This is the nature of things, and we need to be humble enough to accept it and live in that freedom.

On the other hand, perfectionism can drive others to err in a different direction. For the more driven type of Christian, the mad dash for excellence may lead to neglect of the more important virtues. Being the best often entails such an investment of time and energy that it leaves nothing for the ‘best part’ that Mary chose. (Luke 10:42) I’m not saying it’s always wrong to strive for ‘success,’ but often I think Christians are called to make decisions based on a different set of criteria. Maybe I should turn down that promotion that involves travel and takes me away from my family at a crucial time in the children’s lives. Maybe I need to give up my music to support my husband in his endeavor. ….And, just maybe I am called to a profession that does require a high level of commitment, and yes, perfectionism (I want my surgeon to be a perfectionist!). But if this is my calling, God will provide the circumstances and support I need to do this without compromising other virtues and commitments.

One more thing – I have to admit that I am bothered by the criticism that when it comes to the arts, ‘Christian’ often means subpar. It’s embarrassing how bad Christian movies are and what terrible warehouses we often worship in, but sometimes we have to swallow our pride and say to the world, “Yes this building is ugly, but we are putting people above a structure” or “I know this movie is low budget, but we thought the story worth telling.” We have to make decisions and have priorities, and we don’t have to apologize for not being able to do it all.

To end on a positive note, I believe that all is not lost. We are not condemned to a life of mediocrity. If we “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, … all these things will be added to us.” (Matt. 6:33) Admittedly, this promise is about our daily need for food and clothing, but by extension, God will provide whatever we are unable to provide for ourselves and whatever is needful for us and His kingdom. My continual prayer is “let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” (Ps. 90:17)

 

 

Join the conversation!

Here at Eye-Opening Faith, my hope is that the bits I share will provoke thought and conversation about faithful Christian living — honoring God by responding in faith to whatever life throws at us, whatever puzzling scripture catches our attention, and whatever unanswered questions plague us.

I have no special credentials other than a desire to truly be a friend of God and start to know His mind and heart. I am a mom of three grown children, teacher of English as a Second Language, and lover of the church. I ‘feel His pleasure’ when I am singing, having thoughts, making unexpected connections, and walking on the beach.