Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Good thoughts from John Stott

Here is a paragraph that hit me hard as I was reading through John Stott's commentary on Ephesians today.

Voluntary Christian self-submission is still very significant today. ‘Jesus Christ demonstrates rather than loses his dignity by his subordination to the Father. When a person is voluntarily amenable to another, gives way to him, and places himself at his service, he shows greater dignity and freedom than an individual who cannot bear to be a helper and partner to anyone but himself.’

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Do Hard Words Make Soft Hearts?

I have heard a statement for many years that I am just now starting to evaluate biblically. It goes something like this, "Hard words make soft hearts and soft words make hard hearts." I have heard it in various contexts from various groups. I always accepted it without much thought, but in the last week, I have started to evaluate this statement in light of Scripture. And I find it disturbingly lacking in Biblical foundation.

First, the statement is too simple to be meaningful. It needs disclaimers and caveats. What is meant by hard words? Who is the audience? What are the limitations? And so forth. For those who are mature Christian with years of Bible study under their belt, the disclaimers and caveats probably come naturally. My concern is that people with immature faith in Christ and little spiritual discernment don't know the Biblical disclaimers, and this statement gives them permission to use a harsh tone that is completely inconsistent with the Biblical model for the call to repentance.

Second, if we really want to understand exactly what kind of words draw men to repentance (which is what I assume is meant by soft hearts), then we must look to the Bible and Jesus' example in particular. Depending on how you define your terms, Jesus definitely spoke harshly. But we need to distinguish between harsh content and harsh tone. When Jesus combined both hard words and a hard tone, the audience was the Pharisees, and there was never any pretense of an attempt to draw them to repentance. His methods in the temple were to provoke them, but not to repentance. If we use Jesus' tone with the Pharisees as our model for hard words, let's maintain no pretense that the result will be soft hearts. The Pharisees were hardened not softened (and deliberatley so) through these interactions with Jesus.

Contrast this with those drawn to repentance through conversations with Jesus. The woman caught in adultery. The woman at the well. And lest we think Jesus was only nice when confronting women with their sin, he has repeated conversations with the disciples correcting, training, and rebuking them.

The Scripture from beginning to end is filled with instruction on the type of words (content and tone) that minister grace to the hearers and draw men to repentance. In terms of soft v. hard words, probably the most definitive verse in Scripture is Proverbs 15:1.

A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

The New American Standard says a "gentle answer turns away anger." Another verse that gives additional clarity is 2 Tim. 2:24-25.

24 The Lord's bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, 25 with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth,

Gentleness is such an interesting term. We often confuse gentle with weak, but it really is quite different. Babies are weak. But when an adult who has the strength to crush the baby instead cradles them in their arms, they are being gentle. Gentleness is strength under control. In the context of Scripture, it is Christian strength tempered by wisdom and maturity under the Spirit's control. It disturbs me that gentleness seems a good goal for women in the church, but some immature men don't want to touch it with a 10 foot pole. Yet this is a characteristic of Jesus that He proclaims in His own teaching.

Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

I'm going to add one more passage to this discussion, Ephesians 4:11-15, and then give some thoughts on the whole of them.

11And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,

I think it's safe to equate the term "soft heart" from our original quote with Paul's vision in Ephesians. We are talking about the work of ministry that builds up the body of Christ in knowledge of God and maturity of faith. And the key phrase here is speaking the truth in love. This is a profound phrase and sums up the issue at hand. There is a way to speak truth that is not loving--and that is NOT God's method for building up His Body. Instead, we are called to speak the truth in love (see I Cor. 13--love is patient, kind, long-suffering, ever ready to give the benefit of the doubt, not keeping a list of wrongs). Paul says at the end of Ephesians 4 that there is a type of language that actually ministers grace to the hearer. These kinds of words are the ones that actually produce a soft heart, willing to receive the truth and repent.

In conclusion, when I think about the kind of language that I should use to draw others to repentance (which is a work of the Spirit that He allows me to participate in--but I myself am powerless to truly make someone else repent--just to be clear), I have to think back on the words and methods God used to draw me to repentance. How did God open your eyes to your sin? What tone did He use when He spoke into your heart?

Romans 2:4 gives an interesting thought that I'll use to conclude this discussion.

Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?

We need to not take lightly God's methods that lead us to repent, and we need to give heed to His example as we desire to call others to repentance as well.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Meditations on Grace

The Greek word translated grace is charis. It shows up 12 times in Ephesians, 18 times in 2 Corinthians, and 22 times in Romans. As I attempted to write out a succinct meaning of the term, I was struck by the complexity of the ways it is used in Scripture. In short, it means loving-kindness, favor, or gift. But I’m afraid those three words don’t really plumb the depths of how Scripture uses it.

I looked up grace in Hebrew, Greek, and English dictionaries. Each gave really long definitions from multiple angles. But the common thread in each use of the term is that it is NOT about giving what is due. Consider these verses using the Greek word charis.

Romans 4:4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.

Luke 6 32"If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

When you give back what is earned or deserved, it is not charis—it is not grace. It is not favor or benefit and it is not credited toward you as anything other than exactly what you are expected to do. Instead, grace does what is unexpected, undeserved, and out of line with reasonable responses. Grace is an unreasonable response—unreasonably good, but unreasonable nonetheless. And when we give grace, this undeserving favor that does good to enemies and lends expecting nothing in return, then we give evidence to our relationship with our Father in heaven, because THIS is his calling card. He is good to those who don’t deserve it. He is full of grace.

Grace is one of the most often used words in Christian circles. I learned the acronym for grace, “God’s riches at Christ’s expense,” in Sunday school as a child. But I didn’t get grace. I understood that I didn’t earn my salvation, but my response was to start trying to earn it from that point on. If God was that good to me, then I needed to start being a better person so that I could pay him back a bit. But Jesus in Luke 6 sets a different criteria altogether to evidence our understanding of grace—our grace toward others.

Grace and humility are intertwined theological concepts. When we get grace, the only choice is humility. In Christian circles, we sometimes mistake other virtues for grace and humility. I know some Christian leaders who are diplomatic. Or maybe generally friendly. Or polite. But these are not the same as grace and the humility that follows it. Grace is an unreasonably lavish response to those undeserving of it. And it is based on our own understanding of God’s great, undeserved favor toward us. I am examining myself to make sure I don’t mistake personal politeness or good manners for this altogether different thing named grace to which God has called us.

I am looking forward to reading Prodigal God by Tim Keller, which uses the parable of the Prodigal Son to explore the depth of God's grace.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A life defining quote

If ever there was a quote that defined this blog or what God is teaching me right now, this is it.

Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life's problems fall into place of their own accord.

J.I. Packer

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Magnificent Defeat

Or "they that lose their lives shall find it" (Mark 8:35).

Here is a great article at Christianity Today entitled Here's to All the Losers. I don't know who the author is, but I found her words true and encouraging. I always like that combination.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Do I Really Know God?

I hold as a core belief that there are fundamental, unchangeable things about the character of God that Scripture reveals to us. These attributes of God are objective and knowable. However, that does not mean that I always understand these attributes correctly. I believe that I could quote the Westminster Confession of Faith complete with Scripture references and still miss the truth of what is communicated by the Scripture quoted.

Lydia Brownback talks about this in the introduction to her little book entitled Trust.

Perhaps the most faith-shaking, fear-generating experiences are those in which God provides a blessing and then seems to pull the rug out from under us by taking away the blessing as soon as we get a taste of it. The single woman who has waited years for a godly husband meets Mr. Right. God has provided at last! She feels God's smile as she prepares for her wedding and her new life as a married woman. And then two days before the wedding, Mr. Right changes his mind and calls the whole thing off. The grief-stricken bride wonders why God allowed her to get her hopes up, only to see them dashed to pieces. "Why would a loving God do that?" she asks, and her faith crumbles. God is not who she thought he was.

When we go through that sort of experience, our foundations can be shaken to the core. "I obviously cannot depend on God," we think, "so somehow I have to fix everything. And if God could do THIS to me, what other painful things might he do?" What we don't see at such times and in the swirl of such thoughts is the fact that we were resting on the wrong foundation in the first place. Our view of God has actually been wrong all along. We'd thought we'd been relying on God, but the truth is, we'd actually been relying on our idea of God and on what we were hoping God would do for us to make our lives happier.

I was struck by the phrase Lydia uses--"God is not who she thought he was." She goes on throughout the devotional book to expose various wrong views of God and replaces them with the truth of who He is from Scripture. This idea was reinforced to me today as I read a quote from A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis, written after watching his beloved wife die of bone cancer.

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it Himself. He is the great iconoclast .... The Incarnation is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.

Iconoclast -- a breaker or destroyer of images.

Jesus spends a great deal of His ministry destroying the wrong images of Him set up by His culture. I am reading through the gospel of Mark, and I am amazed at how clearly Jesus teaches His disciples about His death and how they miss the point almost every time. I just reached his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where the masses shout blessings on Him. But instead of accepting thier accolades and basking in them for a bit, Jesus immediately sets out to crush their warped image of Him--He cleanses the temple, curses a fig tree, and takes on the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders. He refuses to cater to wrong views of Himself. He didn't do it during His life on earth, and He certainly doesn't do it now.

Fast forward 2000 years. I face a circumstance that doesn't fit my view of God or where I thought my life would be if I followed Him. God refuses to allow me to continue long term in my warped views of Him. He does not cater to them. Instead, He insists that I know Him correctly. And the process is both painful and beautiful. It's painful to have my naive, idealist notions of Him, His Body, and His kingdom crushed. But it's beautiful to see the truth as it emerges from Scripture as my wrong views falls away.

Phil. 3: 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Oswald Chambers on Enduring Insult

Profound and convicting words from My Utmost for His Highest

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil; but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." Matthew 5:39

These verses reveal the humiliation of being a Christian. Naturally, if a man does not hit back, it is because he is a coward; but spiritually if a man does not hit back, it is a manifestation of the Son of God in him. When you are insulted, you must not only not resent it, but make it an occasion to exhibit the Son of God. You cannot imitate the disposition of Jesus; it is either there or it is not. To the saint personal insult becomes the occasion of revealing the incredible sweetness of the Lord Jesus.

The teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is not - Do your duty, but - Do what is not your duty. It is not your duty to go the second mile, to turn the other cheek, but Jesus says if we are His disciples we shall always do these things. There will be no spirit of - "Oh, well, I cannot do any more, I have been so misrepresented and misunderstood." Every time I insist upon my rights, I hurt the Son of God; whereas I can prevent Jesus from being hurt if I take the blow myself. That is the meaning of filling up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ. The disciple realizes that it is his Lord's honour that is at stake in his life, not his own honour.

Never look for right in the other man, but never cease to be right yourself. We are always looking for justice; the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is - Never look for justice, but never cease to give it.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

A New Normal

I have had a few circumstances over the last 2 years that have grown me and changed me. Inevitably, it is hard, not easy, circumstances that change us deeply. When my aunt was murdered, my sister recounted the moment she had to tell my family. They were all on family vacation in the mountains. My sister got the call on her cell phone from another aunt. She said she just stared at the scene in front of her--everyone enjoying the mountain air and time together as family--knowing that the news she had to share would change everything. It was a surreal moment. She did tell everyone, and nothing has been the same. It's a new normal.

I've been thinking about this new normal. What has changed now? Mainly, it's my perspective. God has shaken the snow globe of my life and some truths that were obscured by complacency are now taking a more prominent place in my thinking. Here are some truths that are front and center now.

1) This world is not my home. I have to repeat this to myself regularly and it's foundational to understanding everything else.

2) Evil is very bad and we are not immune from it in this world. And rather than shaking my faith, this reminds me exactly why I desperately need a Savior. I need Jesus to save me from my own sin within me. And I long for King Jesus established on this earth as the sovereign authority who rules with complete justice. When God's kingdom is fully established, there will be no more murder.

3) Happy is a yuppie word. There is something deeper than happiness that God is working in our lives. In fact, happiness isn't even a fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, and peace are not necessarily grown in our lives through "happy" circumstances. And that's okay.

4) Our need for God is better highlighted in hard circumstances. When life is good, I inevitably gloss over my need for Him. But His unchanging character is the only anchor for my soul when life gets messy.

If you've had a life-shaking, perspective changing event rock your world recently, I recommend spending some time in Hebrews 11-13. It reminds me that hardship, persecution, and endurance have been common to the Christian life since time began, and they will continue to be so until Christ returns. It also reminds me that despite it all, God's purposes can not be shaken. It teaches me that my new normal is really just the old normal with complacency removed.

Hebrews 12
1Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. 2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.