How to start a revolution

In Jesus’ day, according to N.T. Wright, a man talking about building kingdoms was a man stirring up a revolution. Having endured political upheaval and oppressive rulers more than once, Israel would experience Jesus’ call for a new kingdom as quite the revolutionary act.

In fact, it was, though not political.  Jesus’ revolution began within the heart. His call was for people to overthrow the oppressive and self-seeking kings who ruled over their minds and hearts, usurping the place of God at the center. He called on people to rise up with the subversive act of repentance.

“Repent and believe,” he proclaimed, “for the Kingdom of God is near.”

Knowing that all repression and oppression have sin at their core, Jesus promoted societal transformation through personal transformation. Repentance was a call to turn from self-centered, power-hungry behavior toward the life oriented around the values of a loving, good God.

Real repentance is a revolutionary act. It calls for death to self, It is what Jesus meant when he said, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” To build God’s Kingdom, we must be willing to die to self.

Of course, we’d rather receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut. Even Jesus asked on the night before he died if it could be done any other way. The answer was no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something had to die. There is no shortcut to fruitfulness. The path always runs through repentance, and repentance always calls for the death of anything that stands between us and God’s best.

Repentance is freedom-producing. There is such freedom when I finally, fully speak aloud my own truth and discover God’s response is not condemnation but grace. To speak your worst out loud and find that God has not wiped you off the face of the earth, but instead picks you up and carries you into the presence of Grace is the greatest freedom.

Repentance is the opposite of shame. Have you learned how to repent without humiliating yourself? Does your habit of repentance reveal a healthy understanding of the character of a loving God? After all, there is no shame in Christ. He is not afraid of our sin or our suffering. He wants to deliver us from it because he loves us. The more transparent we are with ourselves and Christ, the more likely we are to find healing in his wings.

Repentance is an act of honesty. Real repentance is the most truthful act we can enter into. It is not self-flagellation or self-hatred but the simple proclamation that my only way forward runs through a God who is both grace and truth.

Repentance does not generate self-hatred. To the contrary, it is recognizing that until I am honest about my own weaknesses, I can’t be honest about my strengths. Some of us have lived in denial for so long we’ve forgotten what is true. Or if we are addicted, we swim in outright lies (this is a fundamental truth: active addicts lie). Our dishonesty creates a barrier to change.

Repentance creates change. It is not at all simply saying we’re sorry. It is a personal decision to do things differently from this point forward. Repentance doesn’t require me to have a complete roadmap out of this pit I’ve dug, but it does require me to want to get out of it.

Repentance is not the same as confession. It is the completion of it. Plenty of people have confessed to things they aren’t sorry for. How many parents have forced unrepentant children to say “I’m sorry”? We’re conditioned for this. But repentance is not God forcing me to say I’m sorry. It is my honest, transparent, humble recognition of sin as sin, followed by my desire to turn from it and move in a different direction.

I have discovered in my own prayers that there are plenty of things in my life that I can name, that I know ought to be different than they are … but I can’t seem to change my direction. I lack the will or the “want to.” In those cases, I have learned a new prayer: “Lord, repent me, for I cannot repent myself.  I cannot turn myself around. Only you can do that, Lord, when your Spirit chooses. Repent me, and make me new.”  

Revolutions begin, not with being able to name all the sins, but with being able to name my sin.

This is where personal revolutions begin, according to Jesus: Repent and believe. A new Kingdom is near.

 

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Ten 21st-century sins (and one remedy)

The funny thing about sin is how it can lure us into thinking ours isn’t so bad. Most of us who sit in church have mastered the big ones. Not all of us, obviously, but most of us don’t smoke, chew or dance with the girls who do (as we say in the South). We grew out of getting drunk. We don’t kill or steal.

What, then, are the sins of our generation?  The quiet, insidious ones that sneak up on us and steal our joy? Here are ten thoughts to challenge your ideas about sin and your place in this fallen world:

1. Entitlement. Another generation might have called it greed. One of my friends wisely noted that a sense of entitlement actually disables our ability to connect with others, perhaps because it fosters a spirit of competition (which kills community). We condition ourselves to weigh everything and everyone against some unattainable ideal or against what we think we deserve. I deserve what you have or I deserve more or you deserve less.

2. Fear. Related to this one is shame and unforgiveness, both of which are generated out of a spirit of fear. Shame is “in” these days (google it), so we’re finally calling out this base emotion that keeps us trapped in immaturity. It refuses to acknowledge that the One who lives in me is greater than the one who lives in the world. It also causes me to practice a self-protective posture. A self-protective (read “fearful”) crouch is fundamentally opposed to the personality of Jesus.

3. Jealousy. One of my Facebook friends also mentioned “professional jealousy,” which is an insightful twist on a very biblical sin (“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you?” – James 4:1). We wouldn’t think as adults of voicing our jealousy over a friend’s car, raise, or more functional spouse. But we won’t think twice about subtly sabotaging successful co-workers. Subtlety in this context is another term for passive aggression, which I personally consider to be among the most evil of community-destroying behaviors.

4. Anonymous anger. Yet another version of passive aggression, this one often manifests itself online (an addiction to being online gets an honorable mention here as a valid 21st-century sin). The heart beneath anonymous anger — the kind that shows up in traffic, in the comment sections of news sites, in gossip, in tweets about people we don’t personally know — reveals a lack of compassion. This is a heart sickness that comes back to bite us. Paul says as much. “If you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:15).

5. Passivity/ sloth. The other end of active anger is emotional disconnection. This one will sneak up on us from behind. Over-stimulated by so much aggressiveness and so many words, we find ourselves disappearing into binge-sessions of NCIS (preaching to myself here) or worse yet, reality TV (where we can feel better about ourselves because at least we’re not them).

6. Instant gratification. Trolling website after website, gathering pictures of stuff on our Pinterest pages, which we then become impatient to own or make. No boundaries. No patience.

7. Self-deception. One friend says this is us “trying to convince ourselves that we as individuals are more valuable than those around us.” Related to entitlement, self-deception takes us a step further down the road, adding fantasy to frustrated destiny. When we are not honest with ourselves, that gap between who we are and who we want to be is a breeding ground for frustration.

8. Objectification. Clumping people into piles then slapping broad labels on them, we learn to treat people who aren’t like us as if they have nothing to teach us. That includes those who live in other political camps and even those who live in other sin camps. But what if the people who are least like us are actually doorways into the Kingdom?

9. Narcissism. The friend who voted this one onto the list specifically mentioned selfies, which seem innocent (and probably are) until the accumulation of them begins to make us believe that we are the center of our universe around which everyone else is circling, hitting the “like” button as they pass by.

10. Pride. The deep root out of which all our contemporary sins sprout turns out to be the oldest sin in the Book. As a sin, pride never seems to go out of style. Oddly, its bedfellow is self-hatred. Pride and self-hatred are two sides of the same coin. It is us, like the proverbial “man behind the curtain,” doing our best to make ourselves appear more powerful than we are so we won’t be labeled worthless, which is what we actually believe.

Which of these is your personal battle?

Choose your sin, and the remedy is the same: humility. Or Jesus, whose primary personality trait is humility. It is the willingness to get outside ourselves, to get over ourselves, to believe in something bigger than ourselves. To place our time and emphasis on loving God and loving others rather than protecting self.

Humility. An old remedy for what ends up being the oldest (only?) sin … pride.

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A portrait of world-changing faith

The poster child for faith in the Bible is Abraham. Others had it, too, but Abraham’s faith isn’t momentary faith; this is monumental faith. This is world-changing faith. Abraham’s faith is centered not on people or preferences but on the person of God.

In other words, it is Person-centered, not people-centered. Abraham’s story has a lot to teach us about a kind of faith that is God-centered.

Faith is a kind of self-giving love. Ahahah is a Hebrew word for a kind of self-giving love. Literally, it means “I give.” The first time this word for love is used in the Old Testament is in this story of Abraham and Isaac, when the writer describes Abraham’s love for his son. Self-giving love is powerful when combined with God-honoring trust.

Faith binds us. Another Hebrew word in the story of Abraham and Isaac is akedah. The word means “binding” and it’s the word they use when they talk about binding Isaac to the altar. It teaches us that sometimes faith happens when we lay something on the altar and trust God with the questions.

Faith is not passive. It is not waiting for things to change without us having to do anything. To the contrary, God defines faith as movement. James taught that faith without works is dead.

Faith is a grace. God gives faith. It isn’t something we generate in order to get God’s attention. It is something God offers as a gift. Knowing that, faith ought to be something we pray for regularly. “Lord, give me more faith.”

Faith is a mature choice. It begins with my own decision to act like an adult so I can walk the unredeemed parts of myself out of the valleys toward Jesus.

Faith exposes the great moves of God and links us to the promises of God. Abrahamic faith watches for the great moves of God and goes after them. If I want to see God’s promises before they happen, I’m going to need a faith that will hold me between the high points.

Faith invites us to “act as if.” This is a mark of faith that circumcision signaled in the story of Abraham. It was a sign that God’s people were welcome to go ahead and act as if they were a mighty nation even before the first child was born. “Act as if” faith is a display of confidence that even when we don’t see how the lines will be drawn, God is at work.

Faith is a different kind of knowing. Some things only make sense if the path from A to B comes off the page and makes contact with the character of God. Which is to say that faith incorporates another dimension, making it a higher form of knowing.

Faith is the opposite of fear. Perfect love casts out fear, and faith connects us to that perfect love.

Faith teaches me who I am. But faith is not “I” centered. In fact, it helps us to get past the “I’s.” When we trust God, we are no longer tempted to defend ourselves. We let God have his job back.

Faith is the life of Jesus living itself out in me. Faith is about accepting the power of Jesus into our lives and walking that journey together with Jesus.

Faith has a “ram in the bush” mentality. It is the mentality that places all our hopes in the most creative being in the universe, who can take any circumstance we’re in and make good out of it.

Faith responds, “Here I am.” Three times in the story of Abraham and Isaac, we find the response: “Here I am.” It is the same response Moses gives when God calls to him from the burning bush. And it is the same response Isaiah gives when he comes into the unhindered presence of God. This is the response of greatness and it always leads us toward our created design, never away from it.

Faithfulness breeds blessings. Not necessarily blessing the way we’d define it, but blessing the way the Creator of the universe defines it, who wants to expose the greatness in us, who wants to see our influence ripple through generations, not just moments, who wants to raise dead things and redeem relationships and restore purpose and health.

Mature faith breeds blessings that change the world. Abraham is proof.

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God in my darkness

I am remembering a couple of guys I met when we lived in Athens. Both are ordained pastors today but when I first met them, neither was walking with Jesus. One of them, Joe, was particularly angry with God when we first met. He would come to church and ooze anger, mentally disproving everything I was saying.  He was a big ball of negative. Much later, after he encountered Jesus, he told me one of the things that bothered him most in his angry days was when I would say during a message that Jesus redeemed my life from the pit. He hated when I said that.

For starters, Joe didn’t think I had any pits in my life. He judged my story before he even knew it. And for another thing, he didn’t like that language. It sounded too religious to him. And he was coming to church in a season when I was saying that a lot … that Jesus redeemed my life from the pit. I said it a lot because every morning on my way to church I drove past a bar I used to frequent. A bar called Nowhere.

That bar had some particularly bad memories attached to it. I probably hit bottom in that place. And every Sunday morning on my way to preach, driving past that bar I would be overwhelmed by the knowledge that God was not only with me now as a believer; he was also with me then. I know he was because at some point, Jesus crawled down into the pit with me and pulled me out of it. He redeemed my life from the pit. From nowhere.

And now when I visit with people who have been there and done that and who then encounter the living Christ, I think they have the best seat in the house. From their freshly redeemed perspective they can so clearly see who they were and who they are now.  And they know that the one variable is Christ — God With Us — who climbed down into their pit to pull them up out of it.

Emmanuel:  The one who redeems us from the pit.

Emmanuel doesn’t come to cleaned up people. He was with Mary Magdalene when she still had those demons. He was with Peter the day Peter tried to correct him, tried to correct the Messiah of the universe. Emmanuel was there the day Judas made a plan with the priests to expose Jesus and condemn him. And he was there when Peter chopped off a guy’s ear. He was there with all those people who walked right past him, totally clueless about his divinity, and he was there in that town with the demon-crazed pigs when the people told him to leave them alone. He was in the temple the day the priests were talking about him and even plotting to kill him. He was the one who got whipped and tortured and cursed at by people who never saw the other dimension of him. He was there with Pilate the day Pilate missed the fact he was in the presence of Truth Itself; Emmanuel said nothing because he knew that unless your heart is open, there’s really nothing to say.

He was there. When you did the things you are ashamed of and when you fell short of your best and when you outright failed, He was there. Not just watching, but redeeming. Reframing. Isaiah says he took up our pain and bore our suffering, was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. By his wounds, we are healed. He willingly took on our limitations so he could understand our pain and be unafraid of it. He came to be with us as we walk through our worst, so he can redeem even the worst suffering and make it into something beautiful.

Emmanuel: God in my darkness, reframing my life so it makes sense. So nothing is lost.

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Why submission is not a dirty word (or, What it means to glorify God in our bodies)

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. — Ephesians 5:21

When I counsel couples preparing for marriage, I spend a lot of time discussing this one sentence from Paul’s letter to Ephesus. I believe this one line has the power to make or break a marriage. I also believe it takes just about a whole lifetime to live into.

This one line helps me understand our created design. It tells me I am designed for a relational posture that points away from self toward Christ. Submission is not oppression; it is a self-giving posture that calls me to something bigger than myself. We submit because it is a healthier way to live.

And we submit because God is God. I don’t submit because Steve (my good husband) is perfect or always right or because he is “large and in charge.” I submit because I am designed to glorify God. Steve doesn’t submit because he is weak or I’m overbearing. He submits because he wants to reflect the character of Christ.

In the theological world, submission has become something of a controversy. Our arguments center not around submission itself, but around two 25-cent words that speak to how men and women relate: complementarianism and egalitarianism.

A complementarian worldview says men and women are equal in dignity but different in roles. In this way of viewing human design, the man has responsibility of authority and the woman has the role of helping. In its most extreme form, it may even imply that the image of God is given to men alone. Complementarians are adamant that the power given to men is to be used only in self-sacrificing ways and this, of course, is on target. The danger is that it emphasizes roles over gifts. Where Genesis paints the picture of partnership, complementarianism introduces a hierarchy.

An egalitarian worldview says men and women are equal in dignity and equal in responsibility. Both men and women are created in God’s image and both are given responsibility to rule over His creation. Egalitarians emphasize our responsibility to live out our design. I believe this worldview is more consistent with Paul’s extensive teaching on spiritual gifts. The danger of egalitarianism is that it can actually minimize our differences and may even demonize them, when in reality men and women have clear distinctions.

So which “ism” is it — egalitarianism or complementarianism? My answer is YES. We are both! There are obvious ways we are different — physically, emotionally, socially. Our physical differences especially reflect deeper realities. Men in general are wired to provide and protect; women in general are wired for nurture and community. Those differences complement each other and make life interesting and enjoyable.

When we reduce our differences to roles, though, we forsake our spiritual side. We are more than plumbing and wiring. We are redeemed people with bodies and stories and spiritual gifts designed to be in partnership with God to build the Kingdom on earth. Women also provide for families; men also nurture their children. Both men and women bear responsibility for building up their homes and communities, to “build homes and live in them,” as Jeremiah says. “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:5-7).

We are not just roles. We are people with gifts and calls and destinies, created to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God on earth in the communities where we’ve been planted.

Does any of this matter in real life? Well … I’m glad you asked.

Paul knew what he was talking about when he counseled couples to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. We add dignity to difference when we learn to submit to each other rather than establish power bases. We love well when we place ourselves at the feet of Jesus.

In other words: The only possible way I can love you is through the power of Jesus Christ.

This is how women and men are designed to work. Submission means placing our SELVES at the feet of Jesus. The way Jesus poured out his life in service, husbands are to pour out their lives for their wives.  Husbands, it is not your job to ask, “How submissive is my wife to me?” It is your job to ask, “When my wife looks at me, how much of the Servant Jesus does she see?”

The way Jesus loved and honored others, wives are to love their husbands. Wives, it is not our job to ask, “Is my husband being the man of the house the way I think he ought to be the man?” Rather, it is my responsibility as a follower of Jesus to ask, “How can I love and encourage him so that when the world looks at us, we will reflect the image of God?”

God has called us to serve one another in love. So often, my tendency is competition not cooperation, suppression not servanthood. Meanwhile, what Paul is asking us to do is not to build ladders, but bridges — to turn to one another and serve one another in love.

When Jesus says, “This is my body, given for you,” he is painting a picture of God’s Kingdom and of human design. And when we give ourselves for each other, we also become a picture of the Kingdom.

This is what it means to glorify God in our bodies.

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