How to kill the thing that is killing you

Here’s a truth: Jesus doesn’t save people from sinning. He saves us as sinners. So in the Apostles’ Creed, when we say we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we are effectively placing ourselves in that category of people whose lives need forgiveness and whose status when Jesus found us was “sinner.”

We believe in the forgiveness of sins because we needed it but much more, we believe in it because it works.

It is bizarre, what we do with sin. Most of us work so hard to protect our sins while they work so hard to kill us. We deny our sin and defer blame and — as E. Stanley Jones once said — “attempt to live against the nature of reality and get away with it.” We make it all about other people, and we deny our part and make excuses. We lie in both directions by lying to one another while we lie to ourselves.

To win at the sin game, the enemy needs us to learn the language of lying. He needs us to become fluent in deceit and denial. He needs us to hide things, hide truth, hide fear, hide our sin because as long as we’re hiding things, he’s in control. Always remember that the enemy of your soul would rather you lie. He’d rather you hide things, because everything in the dark belongs to the enemy while everything in the light belongs to Jesus.

The last weapon the enemy has once a person makes a move toward light and truth is to speak shame into your spirit. He will be like that desperate child who has just gotten in trouble at WalMart, pitifully bargaining on the way out the door to his punishment. He will tell you everything you want to hear and when that doesn’t work, he’ll throw shame at you, making you feel bad not just for what you’ve done but for who you are.

This is why the truth that there is no shame in Christ is so critical. Until we really believe there is no shame in Christ, we will work like crazy to protect our sin. But when we really believe it — that truth sets us free, that there is no shame in Jesus, that living in the light is better than banging around in the darkness — then things begin to make peace. We take confession for what it is: a freedom and a gift. As we bring our junk into the light, the two warring sides that live inside of us pull together. When it comes to admitting our crap, it is critical to remember that truth is not shame-producing but freedom-producing.

Confession — adding truth into the sin equation — is an amazing thing. Confession is how I begin to walk out this fundamental belief that Jesus at his core is for me. Confession is how I join the ranks of those who don’t just say they believe in the forgiveness of sins, but actually participate in it.

Maybe the most powerful step in the 12 steps is step four, where we’re asked to make a searching and fearless moral inventory. A moral inventory is a list of all those memories we have of hurting others and of being hurt. To take a moral inventory, we take time to engage our past and our guilt and our hurts. We sit down with pen and paper and honestly write out everything we can remember about our life that hurts. This step isn’t a one-cup-of-coffee process. It may take weeks. Or even years. Doesn’t matter. The point is to get started.

“Fearless” is a key word in the process. Fearless means I believe in the forgiveness of sins. It means I trust that if I show God my sin, he won’t toss shame in my face. Fearless means I want to learn the language of heaven. Fearless means I’m tired of defending the very sins that have been trying to destroy me.

What have I felt guilty about? What have I regretted? Who has hurt me, and who have I hurt? What are the broken relationships in my life that need to be acknowledged? Who do I need to forgive? These are the kinds of questions we work through when we engage in a fearless, moral inventory. And we do it in writing because it helps us untangle the memories and think realistically about the people and events in our past. When we take a moral inventory, we go beyond waving a hand over our whole life with a general statement like, “God, I’ve been bad. Forgive me” (or worse yet, “God, if I’ve done anything wrong, I’m sorry …”). Taking written stock causes us to name the demons, to acknowledge the pain, to pinpoint the issues that need to be dealt with. And to do it in the language of Jesus (confession), not the language of the enemy of our soul (denial and deception). It isn’t easy or pretty, but it is good.

Listen: Either dark wins, or light wins. Confession is the weapon that fights the darkness. Confession is freedom. Confession proves we believe in the forgiveness of sins.

My friends, don’t work so hard to protect your sin. Kill it, before it kills you.

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I am small and God is big.

I am Adam’s child.

I am always stopped by the line in Genesis spoken by Adam when he is caught in his sin. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree and I ate.”  This is the creation-story equivalent of a child pointing to a sibling when a vase is broken.  Adam chooses, surely against better judgment, to deflect his own weakness by blaming his wife.  Like God wouldn’t notice the discrepancy here.  Like God won’t hold Adam accountable.  “Oh, well then … never mind.” 

Really, it is a profound line. It shows me, because I am Adam’s child, just how small I can be. How limited. How little I see of God’s presence and power. His plan.

And then there is that line in 1 Kings 15: 5. It is actually the second time mention is made in this book about David being a faithful man. But this time, the writer takes it to a level of laughability. He says, “David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.”

Did you see that?

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.  It is said almost as an aside, a footnote, a detail. The rest of that story, of course, is that David killed Uriah the Hittite.  To hide the fact that he slept with Uriah’s wife.

Except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

What?

I’m stunned by this sentence. If Adam’s foolishness makes me realize how small I am, David’s foolishness makes me realize how big God is. Because David’s sin is real. It is big. The deal with Uriah the Hittite is at least twenty percent of the Big Ten, and that’s if we’re being generous. There is no doubt about David’s offense to the holiness of God.

And yet, buried deep in the history of God’s people is this revelation that causes me to come face to face with God’s perspective. God’s purposes will not be compromised; God’s grace is more profound still. God is big.

I am small and God is big.

And yet God cares what I do with my life.

Hallelujah.

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A Conversation with Millennials about Sex and Culture

I was inspired by a recent blog about why millennials have dropped out of church, and was equally inspired by the conversation generated on a friend’s Facebook page after he re-posted this blog. The blog listed twelve “theses,” in the spirit of the ninety-five Luther nailed to the church door. The ninth thesis was this: “People in their 20s and 30s are making the biggest decisions of their entire lives: career, education, relationships, marriage, sex, finances, children, purpose, chemicals, body image. We need someone consistently speaking truth into every single one of those areas.”

Amen and yes. Even if I don’t know all the language for this, I absolutely agree. We need people speaking truth into the most sensitive areas of life. A comment thread on Facebook produced these comments: “(This) hits home with me,” one young adult writes, “especially about sex, relationships, marriage, and a few ‘taboo’ things I feel like some churches don’t talk enough about that destroy people and families.” His friend replies, “Yes it does. I just wish we could talk about things like that … like it’s important ya know. We all have those pressures of life that get to us. Just wish we could understand that we as young adults (and church families) deal with this on a daily basis.”

That this generation is starving for more transparent conversation is great news. I would so much rather influence a generation around their sex/relationships/marriage choices than sit and toss stones at the culture. Because here’s a fact: We are not who the culture says we are. The culture tells us that “church” is moral but that our bodies are biological, and that the disconnect between the two is final and irreconcilable. But that is simply not true. God’s sexual ethics are not primarily moral; they are theological (meaning that they originate from spiritual realities). And human sexuality is not primarily biological. We are so much more than our biology. We are theologies … which means that quite to the contrary of being a disconnect, there is a marvelously harmonious “connect” between design and desire.

A careful reading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians puts all this on the same playing field. In 1 Corinthians 6:16, Paul does something kind of brilliant. He uses a pretty extreme example — sleeping with a prostitute — to connect us back to the creation story and what happens when we get physical with each other. Quoting Genesis 2 (“The two shall become one flesh.”), he focuses on the Greek word for “joined.” This is the word we use when we talk about the union of men and women in marriage (becoming one flesh) but in the Hebrew, this word isn’t like using a paperclip to keep two pieces of paper together. This word is more like the word for what happens with crazy glue. This is being stuck together in a way that doesn’t disconnect without someone getting torn or damaged in the process.

This is more than physical union; this is about the joining of intangibles because we are not just biologies; we are theologies. Our substance is something deep and spiritual. We are designed for a kind of living that encompasses all of us — mind, body and spirit — which is why so much of our teaching on our created design is dead wrong. It is because so much cultural teaching tends to reduce human sexuality to either morality or biology (then pitting them against each other), when we are clearly more than that.

Neither morality nor biology gets at the heart of our sexual giftedness. Morality plays off fear and shame. Its message is, “It is bad. Don’t do it.” Out of our own fears, we tend to use morality to scare our kids away from treasuring their own bodies. No wonder the enemy of your soul and mine spoke that word “shame” into the Garden of Eden (see Genesis 3). No wonder the enemy enticed the first humans to fear their own nakedness or to believe that if they were going to get their needs met they’d have to take them into their own hands.

We’ve been fed a lie.

Likewise, to reduce our sexuality to biology is to sap it of all its intangible rewards. Biology focuses on physical and emotional feelings and attractions. The message is, “If it feels good, do it.” This is the message of moral relativity. For teens, the second-tier message is, “Protect yourself,” and that just further separates body from soul. For those who deal with sexual dysfunction, biology forces us into mind-control rather than encouraging us to explore the spiritual and emotional roots of our wounds.

Theology, by contrast, offers us the most holistic view of our bodies and the most chance for living fully into our created design. The point of our sexuality is first of all to be fruitful, but it is a fruitfulness rooted in covenantal relationship that bears the intangible fruit of biblical joy, the freedom of acceptance, and spiritual rest. To see our sexuality theologically — not just morally or biologically — is to free ourselves for true intimacy. It is to couch our most intimate relationships in trust and to reject the lie of shame.

In his great affirmation of our created design, Paul declared, “Glorify God in your body.” I can think of no better word of advice for a young adult navigating this culture.

Glorify God in your body. This is not just so much theological fluff. It is the best possible strategy for cultivating a rich and fulfilling future.

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Two Pockets (or, a lesson in how we see ourselves)

Simcha Bunim was a Jewish rabbi who lived in Poland in the 1700s. He is best known for what might be called the parable of the two pockets.

The parable begins with two slips of paper. On one slip is written, “I am but dust and ashes.” On the other slip is written, “For my sake the world was created.” These two slips of paper are meant to be carried around in two pockets.

Rabbi Bunim said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”

The rabbi’s point was that we are at once both things. We are both sinners and saints, dust and treasure, limited but with tremendous potential, fallen but loved. And we ought to approach our goals and lives with that mind set. Christians would say we are fallen people for whom Christ died.

Dust, yes … but dust so loved by God that he gave his Son.

What if you entered into Rabbi Bunim’s exercise? Write these two statements on slips of paper, then spend time with each of them. Begin with the one with which you are less comfortable. Which of these two statements resonates with you?

Are you more of the mindset that the world was created with you at the center? Many of us live there a bit too comfortably, whether we admit it or not. We are the center of our universe. We won’t say so but we feel entitled. We believe that on most things, we are right and everyone else is missing it. We will make sure our own interests are served and we will let pride keep us from learning the hard lessons. We are the ones who need a little more time with our dust-and-ashes reality — to cut through the pride, to change our perspective, to get us back to the level of learner. Dust and ashes also bring us face to face with our mortality and remind us that even if we hit the ball out of the park today, we’re still going to die. Our time here is a gift, and our assurance of a life beyond this one rests not on our merits but on Christ’s.

In Psalm 90, Moses tells us we’re nothing more than dust. We are like grass that dries out and blows away. It isn’t his intention to squash our self-image, but he does want to make sure we understand that our value isn’t self-generated. It comes from God. And because our value comes from God, we have a certain responsibility to steward our days well.

Are you a bit too oriented toward the notion that you are at the center, and that all else orbits around your needs?

Or do you tend toward self-flagellation, never seeking yourself as good enough? Not all of us need more dust and ashes. Some of us have lost sight of the fact that we bear the image of God. We live in too much self-condemnation, self-hatred … self. We live self-protectively because we have not yet owned our value and strength. We short-change ourselves by low-balling our value.

We who live too much in dust and ashes need to remember that we are not here simply to exist but to make a difference. For our sake the world was created. God thinks highly of us! In light of that, our challenge is to stop making excuses for why we can’t do more and decide that even if we can’t do everything, we can do something.

Let me say that again: Even if we can’t do everything, we can do something. 

This is the mindset of abundance, which is at the heart of the good news of Jesus Christ. His victory over sin and death are my assurance that I don’t do any of this on my own effort, skills or abilities. I do all of life in partnership with God, the creator of the universe, and if God is in it then anything is possible.

Which is your mindset? Dust and ashes … or abundance? Dust and ashes … or image of God? Limit, or possibility?

This is the shift I want for you this year. I want you to move from “why me” thinking to “what now” thinking. Maybe you can’t do everything you’d like but you can do something. What will it be?

God has been planting seeds into your life. What can he harvest, in partnership with you?

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Ten 21st-century sins (and one remedy)

By Paul’s telling of it, sin is sin. He lumps the obvious together with the less obvious. Rage and sexual dysfunction. Drunkenness and unforgiveness. Lying gets in pretty much every list. None of it is good for the soul. None of it fits through Heaven’s door.

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. 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? I asked my friends on Facebook what they’d place on a 21st-century sin list and these are their responses:

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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Please don’t feed your fears

“I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation to all who believe …”

The story of the Bible from beginning to end is the story of God’s power over our weakness. God has power to kill shame. God has power to flatten sin. God has power to resurrect people and to resurrect what for all the world looks like death in my life. The cross is for those who are dying, for those who have been defeated, who feel powerless.

The good news about Jesus Christ is the power of God. Let that sink in: the gospel is its own power. It doesn’t tell us how to get power. It is power.

Faith, then, is about accepting that power into our lives. It isn’t about accepting a tick list of facts, nor is it a way for me to get what I want.

Faith is the life of Jesus living itself out in me.*

But here’s the sad thing about contemporary American faith. The very things Jesus sent his followers out to do are the very things we’ve lost faith in. In fact, our culture has come to accept an hour in church and a blessing before meals as the center of the Christian experience. Demon-possession is a foreign concept to most of us in the western world. When we pray for the healing of others, we tend to hedge our bets in the wording because we don’t really believe anything will happen.

But folks, when I read in my Bible what Jesus did and then read what he teaches followers to do, this is what I hear: that followers have power and authority to drive out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the coming Kingdom and heal things that destroy people’s lives (Luke 9:1-2). This is the center of the gospel, and the power of it.

So do we have power over our fears? Yes! Greater is the one who is in us than the one who is in the world. John 3 teaches us everything that we leave in the dark is under the power and authority of the enemy of our souls, but everything we bring into the light belongs to Jesus and comes under his power and authority. Maybe that is why Jesus places such an emphasis on confession.

Jesus came into his ministry on this one word: Repent. Not to stir up our shame, but to stir up our healing.

I will never tire of writing this truth: There is no shame in Christ. Feelings to the contrary are not of God. Can we be guilty of things? Absolutely. Should we ever feel guilt. Of course. Guilt is an appropriate response to real sin, real mistakes, real failures.

But guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt says we’ve done something wrong, but shame says we are wrong. Shame isn’t usually associated with some specific thing we’ve done. That sick feeling of dis-grace that can’t quite land on a reason is very likely the voice of the enemy trying to derail us with shame-based feelings. Remember: he is the father of lies. He is incapable of telling the truth. If you feel shame, it is surely based on a lie. How do I know this? Because there is no shame in Christ.

I’ve learned this about shame-based living. People who react out of shame tend to get angry in ways that are disproportionate to the situation. They get defensive disproportionately. They get disproportionately fearful. In contrast, Jesus responds with grace (see the story of the woman caught in adultery) and teaches us through the Holy Spirit’s tutelage to grow past our sin and then live graciously toward others.

We’re talking about breaking through barriers, about waking up to all God has for us, about being renewed in the spirit of our minds so our circumstances don’t automatically cause the reaction of fear and shame but send us instead to faith and formation.

Maybe faith and shame are like two spiritual tapeworms inside of us, vying for survival.  The one we feed is the one that grows. Eventually, that’s the one that will take over.

Which one are you feeding?

 

*I have a feeling I heard this line someplace … maybe seedbed.com?  Whoever said it first, its a good one.

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The Opie Principle

When we were in Kentucky, we lived in a little townhouse that had boxwoods on either side of the front door. In our first spring there, we discovered that snakes love boxwoods. There was a mama snake who visited us every spring so she could have her babies in our shrubbery. Sometimes we’d come home in the afternoon and find as many as fifteen little snakes sunning on the tops of our boxwoods. Which were (have I mentioned this?) right next to our front door. Eventually, we got used to them and in fact, by the time our last spring in Kentucky rolled around, Steve would just pick them up barehanded and take them across the street to a big field.

One day, I was in the front yard when our daughter, Claire Marie (she was about five or six at the time) came tearing around the house in serious distress. She was screaming that she’d seen a snake in our back yard. Because one thinks sensibly about such things when one is in the front yard and the snake is in the back yard, I thought this might be a great opportunity to help my daughter get used to snakes. I took her by the hand and said, “Sweetie, let’s just go look at it. Snakes won’t hurt you if you don’t bother them. In fact, they are usually more scared of us than we are of them.”

These are the sorts of things parents say that they don’t really believe.

We walked to the side of the house and sure enough, there was the snake. He was curled up directly beneath our dog, Opie, who was standing there staring at us, clueless about any snake in his world (Opie was never known for his intuition).  Since he was standing directly over the snake, I began calling for him to move. Seeing my concern, Claire Marie began yelling at him, too. And then Opie started barking — not at the snake, of course, but at us.

There we were, trying to get the dog off the snake while the dog barked at us and a snake sat idly beneath him.

Finally — it must have been the commotion — the snake shot out from under the dog and zipped across the yard.  It slithered right across my baby girl’s feet, at which time I was no longer a snake advocate. I grabbed my daughter. Claire Marie screeched. The snake slithered off.  And Opie remained clueless.

He never saw the snake.

And I think to myself: how many of us are sitting on top of our own snakes (think: sin, hang-ups, issues) while we bark at the people all around us and wreak havoc in our relationships as if it were everyone’s fault but ours?

The problem with this strategy is that most of the time (Jesus actually says this) the issues we have with other people are simply a reflection of our own.

So this is where holiness begins: It is not in being able to name all the sins, but in being able to name my sin.

In other words, don’t bark at others when the snake is beneath your feet.

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Sanctification is hell (or, a lesson on the vocabulary of freedom).

A couple of weeks ago, I stopped by Kroger on my way back from Atlanta on a Sunday afternoon. I’d been sharing with another church so someone else from our preaching team had the message at Mosaic that morning. One of the first people I saw at Kroger was a Mosaic person. She hugged me and said, “Mark’s message today was great but it was hard. I’m telling you, sanctification is hell.”

Amen to that.

This person is a new Christian (or at least, a renewed one). She’s come home to Jesus after years away. Watching her find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life has been a joy for me. I happen to know, because I’ve prayed with her and listened and shared tears, that it has not been all fun and games.

She’s right, of course: sanctification is hell. It is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen something has to die, and deaths are not easy. Ask anyone who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work. Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse if not of where we are then of where we’ve been. We see in the rearview the depths to which we’d let ourselves sink.

Sanctification happens while we are doing it — like that boom that happens when an aircraft breaks the sound barrier, or like when a spaceship re-enters earth’s atmosphere. We may not be able to see the line we’ve crossed, but there is an unmistakable shift. We feel it when we walk from death to life, from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation; it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on.

Holiness is not for wimps.

The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. This is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often dwell on. Sanctification isn’t designed to keep us safe; it is designed make us sanctified. Holy. Strong. Wise. Mature.

Paul closes his letter to the Colossians with these three words: “Remember my chains.” Those are the words of a man who is working out his salvation, who is practicing the art of holiness prolifically.

Remember my chains. People don’t say that kind of thing as they reach for a glass of iced tea while they sit by the pool. These are the words of a man who has learned to let every beating, every jailing, every debate become part of his sanctification. He has embraced the hard road because he knows that is the only road that leads to Jesus.

We do no one any favors when we preach a gospel that neglects the cross nor the process of sanctification. We help no one when we refuse to speak truth in love when it comes to things that shackle people and keep them from going someplace spiritually. We don’t help the cause when we avoid words like sanctification. My friend the new Christian proves that anyone can learn that word and grasp its meaning and find power in it as she practices it. We don’t have to shield people from the vocabulary of freedom.

“Remember my chains,” Paul says. Because he needs the people of Colossae to remember that this following costs, that things won’t always be easy. Sanctification can be hell when you’re in the middle of it, but the real problem in any morality equation is not sanctification. The real problem is the thing that got us stuck in a hell of our own making in the first place.

And that ends up being quite the point and quite the freedom of this beautiful theology we who follow Jesus are living. Sanctification is that part of the Christian life that points out our hell … and then delivers us from it.

Hallelujah.

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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.”

start-a-revolutionKnowing 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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