13 January 2016

Overcoming Guilt and Walking in Grace

Something that still hits me hard is the knowledge that I've committed my most egregious acts of rebellion against God after my salvation.

Maybe some of you know the experience.  It's the "I should know better" conviction; the "How did I fall for that?" dilemma.  As a Christian -- with the power, love, mercy, grace, and person of Jesus Christ altogether at my immediate disposal -- how in the world did I succumb to that?

Shouldn't I be stronger than that?

This is probably a phenomenon most common with individuals like myself who grew up in Christian homes.  Maybe God got ahold of your heart as a small child, or maybe He opened your eyes to the stale, checklist faith you were living during your early teenage years (as He did me).  But maybe in your college years you sacrificed your virginity for a relationship that you thought was "the one."  Maybe you've hated another person so severely for something he/she did to you that you've even attempted to physically or psychologically harm that individual.  Maybe, like Peter, you've denied the name of Jesus Christ for the sake of your reputation.  Or maybe you suddenly found yourself in the midst of an extra-marital affair and couldn't even begin to untangle the strands of lies and justification you'd spun to cover your tracks.

Whatever your story, you know the power of guilt and shame and how they needle and accuse and undermine.  These are tools of Satan -- the Accuser.  They are fleshly emotions designed to force us into self-deception, causing us to doubt our status as once-and-for-all redeemed children of an all-loving God.

Conviction, on the other hand, is the influence of the Spirit.  Conviction is motivating.  It says, "I deliberately violated God's command.  I must confess this and make it right, NOW."

To feel guilty is to merely desire the restoration of my sense of moral rightness.

To feel shame is the inflated perception of my sin as it pertains to my character -- in other words, the haunting, prideful notion that others would discredit me if they only knew some of the decisions I've made.

To feel conviction is to dust myself off and say, "God still loves me and can use me, even though I still fail Him.  His grace still covers me.  In His power, let me make this right."

The progression of temptation is incredibly sneaky and requires a whole post to itself.  For the sake of this particular conversation, I simply want to discuss the unfortunate reality that Christians are susceptible to committing terrible sins -- that is, if they aren't careful to live in constant spiritual vigilance, daily crucifying the flesh for the sake of pursuing Christ.  To live in such a manner must be an intentional choice on the part of the believer, a choice to replace sinful desires with the overwhelming love and knowledge and surpassing worth of Jesus Christ.  I discussed this topic a little more fully here.

There are people who have incredibly compelling testimonies of the ways in which they squandered their years on pleasure and revelry, only to be seized by the grace of God and make an astonishing 180 degree turn.  It's easy to forgive and forget sins in your past that you committed prior to knowing Christ.  So if you're like me and you've had to walk through painful but liberating repentance for sins you've committed as a Christian, here are a couple things to remember and be encouraged by --especially if you wrestle with a nagging sense of spiritual inadequacy.

God forgives completely

Though I've violated His commands and spat in the face of His unmerited grace, if I've walked through repentance and come out on the other side worshiping Him anew for His great love and mercy, then I have absolutely no need to carry a sense of guilt.  There is no annual grace quota that I can somehow use up and then need to order a refill.  To the contrary, I can have complete and utter confidence in the steadfast character of the Lord's enduring mercy.  He delights when one of His children repents and returns to Him.

Godly sorrow leads to repentance (2 Cor 7.10), and it is always good to remember with deep gratitude the ways that God has repeatedly shown us grace and mercy despite our failures.  Guilt has no place in that equation: as a child of God, I am redeemed and I am forgiven.

For the sake of clarity, in no way am I implying that it's okay when we sin.  It's not.  We can't be flippant about our shortcomings and so devalue God's costly grace.  May it never be that we continue sinning carelessly because, in our arrogance, we assume God's grace will cover it (Rom 6.1-2).  The point is that, just as a loving father compassionately corrects his children when they make mistakes, so a loving and holy God does the same for His beloved.

For the sake of additional clarity, continuing in sin is not merely "making mistakes" that I can ignore, so long as I'm "trying" not to do them.  This falls into the same category of presuming upon God's grace.  I can't justify a pattern of sin in my life by saying, "Oh, I'm forgiven for that," without taking the necessary steps of repentance.  This too is devaluing the precious gift of grace.

God forgives completely -- there is no sin to big to be covered if we repent and surrender.  And if we repent and surrender, we are restored to His good favor.  The process is difficult and uncomfortable, and sinful choices often bring lasting consequences, but our God's forgiveness is healing and sustaining.

God chooses to use you, He doesn't need you

This might not seem encouraging at first glance, but it works wonders in humility for me: God does not need me to fulfill a given task or run a specific ministry.  His plan is not dependent upon me.  A mistake of mine is not enough to waylay His divine objectives.  This notion is encouraging because it removes the expectations we cast upon ourselves to be successful, productive, and even perfect Christians.

Granted, there are ways that I can and should measure whether or not the ministry I'm doing is effective, but when I recognize that I am merely a tool in the hands of a master craftsman, suddenly I don't need to lose sleep over my operative schedule or my lesson plan or my ministry model.  I can rest assured -- if I've put in the time to prepare and study and have surrendered the results to the one who truly gives the increase (1 Cor 3.6) -- that I've done my duty.  In fact, even when my ministry is booming and successful and people are flocking to be a part of it, I must recognize that I am still merely a servant who is maintaining a stewardship role -- I am not something special (Luke 17.9).

God doesn't need me.  He chooses me.

This is as much humbling as it is encouraging.  And humility is as big a deterrent to sin (Jas 4.6) as pride is a catalyst for it (Prov 16.18).  God has purposely deigned to use me, designed me in order to use me, despite my imperfections.  Yet He could just as easily raise up another to take my place.  When I see myself as a servant and a steward, then I lose any sense of entitlement over the work I'm doing.  Furthermore, I can release my sinful anxiety over whether or not I'm doing it correctly.

God specifically employs weak vessels (1 Cor 1.28)

Again, humility plays a key role here.

God doesn't need Christians to be perfectly wise, dedicated, or ambitious.  He just needs us to serve with humility and 100% devotion.  That, of course, involves pursuing wisdom, being dedicated to the tasks He places before us, and being ambitious for the sake of the Kingdom.  But we don't have to be perfect.

We don't have to be perfect because Jesus lived perfectly on our behalf.

However, I should strive to be perfect, because my heart's response to Jesus' humble sacrifice should be that of a bondservant: I recognize that He paid for a debt that I could never, ever repay, and so I give my life to Him in response.

Here's what you and I need to remember every single day: we are sinners who deserve all the wrath and fury of a holy God, but the grace of Jesus Christ has traded our bloodguilt for His righteousness, and God now considers us His own.  For this reason, although we have a responsibility and an obligation as debtors to God's mercy to live in and pursue righteousness, we are not performing for a master who will remove His blessing if we fail.  We are not living in such a way to demonstrate our good behavior.  We are living to worship, to cultivate humble hearts that pursue after Him, that are quick to repent when error is committed, and who constantly express gratitude for the Savior's forgiveness.

The attitude we must cultivate is that of the tax collector in Luke 18:
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
I don't know what you've done that makes you doubt your spiritual integrity, or maybe even the ability of God's grace to cover you.  I don't know what regrets you carry over poor decisions you've made as a Christian.

The truth is, we all squander grace.  We all devalue it.  And so we need to recognize the ways in which we do this and learn to esteem it and its Giver properly.

But we also need to stop trying to atone for our own sins with guilt.  Christ died once and for all, and His grace is sufficient to cover every single sin I have ever and will ever commit.  Stop crucifying Him agin and again by living with your shame.

Instead, walk in the newness of life that He gives.  Here's six practical steps to do that.

  1. Daily practice three R'sReplace, Re-Focus, Reveal.
  2. If you have not yet done so, take extensive measures to repent of your failure.  This might require some incredibly uncomfortable conversations.  This might mean the people you've harmed will be upset with you.  That's okay -- confessing something you've hidden is like re-breaking a bone that healed incorrectly, so that it can mend (Psa 51.8).  If Christ is worth pursuing (and He is), then you can handle that kind of radical transparency.  This also means that you need to stop sinning.  Easier said than done, certainly, but to continue justifying a sinful practice is to make no effort at repentance.  The goal is change, not spiritual ease.
  3. Seek out accountability, even if you have resolved to "never do that again."  We all need encouragement, even when we're walking well (Prov 27.17).  It's the difference between finishing and excelling.  This is not just a good idea -- it's essential.  Spurring one another on to good works involves being real with one another (Heb 10.24).
  4. Don't think in terms of "I just want to get over this."  God has called us to exercise constant spiritual vigilance (1 Pet 5.8).  He didn't call us to live contented spiritual lives.  Be willing to allow each day to be a tooth-and-nail battle with your flesh.  God will be faithful to fight that battle with and for you.  It's a good day when I desperately need Him.
  5. Refresh yourself in the person of God.  Remember His divine attributes.  Pray through David's Psalms of salvation and refuge.  Know God intimately (Hos 6.3)   His supreme worth will outweigh your sinful desires if you are willing to genuinely seek Him instead.
  6. Share your story.  Don't be cloistered.  Be transparent.  This is hard.  But doing so will encourage others as you yourself have needed encouragement.  Confession is crucial for your own spiritual healing as well as that of others who might be struggling with the very same things (Jas 5.16).
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
-- 1 John 1.8-9

08 January 2016

Jesus, Joy, & The Beatitudes

For anyone struggling with joy in their Christian walk, wandering in an indecisive fog of ambiguous moral objectives, Jesus' words in the famed sermon on the mount provide intense clarity and purpose.

Two things are worth noting before diving in.

First, the word "blessed" (consecrated, favored, appointed, praised, highly esteemed) as Jesus applies it means to have found the Lord’s favor through humble dedication to His Word, His Will, and His promises.  Those who are "blessed" are those who walk in good moral standing with God: He has called them out of darkness and they have responded with delighted obedience.

Also, those whom Jesus proclaims “blessed” are individuals who are producing fruit (Gal 5.22ff).  The Spirit-inspired characteristics that Paul outlines in Galatians are virtually synonymous with the eight qualities Jesus identifies in Matthew 5.  That means that those who possess true joy are disciples who, naturally and without pretense, evidence God’s redemptive and transforming work in their lives.  Furthermore, the joy they have found is the satisfaction in and pursuit of Christ alone.  He's the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14.6); He's the all-nourishing Bread of Life (John 6.35) and the all-sustaining Living Water (John 4.147.38); He is the Treasure in the Field, worth sacrificing everything else to obtain (Matt 13.44).

We often lose our joy by becoming distracted with the world's priorities: relationships, self-esteem, entertainment, status, even philanthropy.  When we chase personal happiness via any of these avenues, we seek the wrong Grail.  And paradoxically, the more we pursue it, the more elusive it becomes.

Singer/songwriter Jimmy Needham captured it well in spoken word: "Christ is what Christ offers."

Christ doesn't offer wealth, health, or happiness.  He offers Himself.  He is my reward, not earthly contentment.  True contentment follows as a result of knowing Him.  It can't be my objective.

If you struggle with joy in your Christian walk, consider these qualities that Christ values in His followers.  Evaluate them from new angles.  Which do you need to dedicate or re-dedicate yourself to pursuing?

Ultimately, remember that joy is the byproduct of discovering and cherishing the person and grace of Jesus Christ.


Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt 5.3; Luke 6.20)

  • To be poor in spirit is to be emptied of self in order to be filled with Jesus Christ
  • Being contentedly poor is the willingness to sacrifice worldly wealth and status for the sake of storing up treasure in heaven -- maintaining an eternal perspective (Matt 6.20).
  • The poor in spirit equate wealth on a different scale than material things.  Grace redefines wealth by changing the currency.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matt 5.4; Luke 6.21)

  • Those who mourn are those who endure tragedy in this life with a focus on eternity.
  • Those who mourn are those who maintain a somber sense of the severity of wickedness and a purpose-driven sense of stewardship.
  • Those who mourn are those who are deeply grieved by their sin and the sin of the world, mourning for the grief it brings a holy God. (see 2 Cor 7.10)

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Matt 5.5)

  • The meek are characterized by humility and gentleness, and who lack a sense of entitlement.
  • The meek are those who are submissive to God, His Word, and His rod.
  • Meekness ≠ timidity, weakness, inferiority; meekness = power under control

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matt 5.6; Luke 6.21)

  • Those who are burdened for the plight of the innocent (helpless) (Isa 1.17; Mic 6.8)
  • Those who hunger a). are satisfied with nothing this world offers, finding fulfillment only in God Himself, and b). who insatiably pursue more of Him (Psa 84.10).

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy (Matt 5.7)

  • The merciful forgive as they are forgiven and give generously to those in need.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5.8)

  • Those who seek to crucify even the small, "white-collar" sins that exist within (i.e. pride, irritability, lust, self-pity, racial arrogance, anger, jealousy, etc), and yearn to devote mind and soul and body to God.
  • "Seeing" God connotes knowing Him with spiritual intimacy now (Psa 17.15), and longing to literally see Him one day, face-to-face.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. (Matt 5.9)

  • Someone who merely “keeps the peace” is the person who diffuses difficult situations (reactive); peacemakers are those who seek to bring and maintain a spirit of peace and unity before the difficult situations arise (proactive).
  • To make peace is to abhor unnecessary conflict and violence, to subject the right to self-defense to the requirement to love and forgive our enemies (Matt 5.44).
  • To make peace is to willingly overlook offenses committed against you rather than hold grudges (Prov 19.11) -- that is, not pretending wrong wasn't done, but being willing to forgive instead of seek justice on our own behalf (that's God's role, not ours -- Rom 12.19).

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5.10-12; Luke 6.22-23)

  • Those who are willing to deeply inconvenience themselves for Christ’s sake.
  • Those who proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven to the world, even to the point of death.
  • Those who are committed to confronting sins in other believers, even if the one confronted might end the friendship out of selfish pride.
  • Those who are committed to living "politically incorrect" lives at the expense of their own reputation.  This practice is not done in a vindictive, holier-than-thou crusade, but by a humble commitment to pursuing righteousness before the eyes of men (1 Pet 2.12), and by a gracious, tempered, educated method of sharing gospel truth with the world (Col 4.6).

06 January 2016

Living in Victory

Sometimes I get the feeling that we're all defeatists.

That's kind of ironic for pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps Americans.  But it's also inevitable for a generation that prioritizes a feelings-based model of self-identification.  Boiled down, life is a continuous series of divinely ordained pass-or-fail challenges, and in this current frame of mind, we don't so much miss the mark as fail to even show up.

Here's how the formula works: I feel, so I do, so I am.

I don't feel like going to class.  So I barely achieve.  I'm an average student. 
I don't feel like having that conversation.  So I never address that relational problem.  I'm a cloistered, independent soul who needs no one.
I hate my job and my co-workers.  So I hang out on Reddit during work hours.  I am a fun-loving slacker (and proud of it).
I feel strong romantic connection toward a member of the same sex.  So I pursue a relationship  with that person.  I'm homosexual.
I'm twenty-six, still live at my parents house, keep a retail job and play video games, and don't know what I want to do with my life.  So I wait for an undefined opportunity to come along.  I am.... ?

This is how feelings-based living works.  I allow my notions and emotions to dictate my behavior, first in the moment, then as a habit -- a practice which, in turn, supplies me my identity.  That's how we're defeatists: we allow what we feel to control us, and allow those decisions to create an identity for us.  It's not proactive living, it's self-victimization.  And the only person I can blame is myself.

I just want to state the reminder -- a reminder that I constantly I need myself -- that what we feel does not need to determine our behavior.  Peter's words on this point are so poignant, that "whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved" (2 Pet 2.19).  In other words, if the voice that I answer to is my own desire, then my desire is my master.  If the notion seizes me to do something and I obey it, then that notion is my ultimate authority.  Even if I have my doubts, I must obey that imposition.  That thing becomes my master.

And ultimately, we all have a master.  We all subject ourselves to something.

As David Powlison puts it, "Human life is exhaustively God-relational."  In other words, all of our behavior stems from what we worship.  Even an atheist practices a form of worship -- devotion to what he/she perceives to be the inherint functionality of the evolutionary system, the laws of science, and the evolution of human reason.  Worship is inevitable for human beings.  If you perceive yourself as your own authority, then you worship your own logic, the relationships that give your life meaning, the desires that compel your decisions.  These masters are cruel, dictatorial, and unforgiving.  If, on the other hand, you are a follower of God, then Jesus Christ is your master -- but He's also your benevolent Friend, your joint-heir, and He is always leading you in victory over the things that formerly enslaved you.

Being enslaved to my own inner turmoil of doubts, fears, and wants is being a defeatist.  That lifestyle comes with a deluge of obscenities and regrets that, though I might pretend otherwise, I desperately want to escape.

On the other hand, being freed from those desires to voluntarily and wholeheartedly serve a gracious and merciful Savior is to be victorious.

This year, I want to live with that constant mindset.

Paul captures this idea by way of the following imagery:
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing... (2 Cor 2.14-15)
I grew up in South Jersey going to the Pitman parade every year for Independence Day.  Compared to something like the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, the Pitman 4th of July celebration is pretty dinky.  Admittedly, there's only so many times you can watch firetrucks creep past blaring their horns and "God Bless America" before the novelty wears off (or before the township tells them they can't play that kind of music anymore).

The Christian walk isn't a dinky Pitman 4th of July parade.

The Christian walk isn't even a gigantic Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.

The Christian walk is a march, a massive triumphal procession with glorious fanfare and angelic escort and soaring morale and the warm, rousing harmony of unanimous victory hymns -- all with Jesus Christ leading the way.  Once, He was the humble Lamb who died in our place; now, He is the conquering King who has returned to claim what He rightfully deserves!

We realize that this vivid scene has not yet literally occurred, but Paul speaks of it in the present tense -- as if the celebration has already started.  One day, it will be brought to this kind of literal completion.  But the total victory I will taste then is still mine now, in foretaste, through Jesus.

If Christ leads me in victory now, then that means I can overcome the sin that still besets me.  Jesus gives me the power to overcome -- His power.  That means I am free from my sinful desires, no matter how strong they might appear.  Through Christ, I have total mastery over them (Rom 6.14).

For the believer, sin is a choice, not a compulsion.  Sin isn’t something I “can’t help,” but something that I wrongfully choose to pursue instead of Christ.  It's a tooth-and-nail struggle with the flesh that requires constant vigilance, certainly, but it's a battle I can win should I choose to rely on Christ's strength rather than roll over and succumb.  Whether your struggle is laziness, gossip, pornography, same-sex attraction, self-pity, or any other item in a seemingly endless list of flaws, Christ through the Holy Spirit enables us to overcome them.

Victory might take time -- time spent unraveling my own motivations and tracing my patterns of behavior back to their source and ultimately reaffirming the truths of God's righteous character in my heart -- but it is not elusive.

It is not just out of reach.

What makes it feel far away is the emphasis and focus we place upon sin itself.  Is it a big deal?  Sure.  Is it compelling and desirable?  Unquestionably.  Will we ever be fully free from its influence?  Not this side of heaven, no.  However, we do need to replace it daily -- hourly -- with a deepening love of and adoration for the person of Jesus Christ.  I can't just shut down a negative desire: I have to replace it with a positive one.

The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson is accredited with saying, “Until sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”  I believe strongly that his equation was backwards.  Christ must first be sweet in order for sin to be bitter.  In other words, my sin isn't going to be abhorrent to me until what I value more is my Savior's holy character, coupled with His love and mercy.  Sin doesn't become bitter on its own -- not unless I replace it with something else.  I will always want sin until I replace that desire with an ever-deepening love for something of eternal substance.

As a child of God, I have the opportunity and the responsibility to pursue righteousness.  That's a Kingdom-oriented attitude -- a focus on His Kingdom, not mine.  This means living for eternity: magnifying my Savior and minimizing the allures of this fragile, temporary existence.

That's living in victory.  That's leaving behind a lifestyle of defeat.

Praise be to the only One who makes this possible!