Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Suspicious of Grace

We are by nature suspicious of grace. My pastor used this phrase in a recent sermon and it stuck with me. I have a long history in the church and have experienced my share of conflict. Though I can't remember a time where I was actually in the middle of the conflict, I've observed much conflict from the sidelines. And I'm becoming increasingly convinced that it is our suspicion of and lack of endurance with grace that is the turning point in each conflict. When we loose hope in grace, conflicts become unreconcilable and deeply wounding. We label our brothers and sisters in Christ as wolves. We treat them as enemies. And we take a hammer and chainsaw to those who are ears, or thumbs, or elbows, or toes in the Body of Christ. Then we wonder afterward why the pain is so deep and the blood doesn't stop flowing. And we live in denial that we just knifed the dear, sweet Body of our beautiful Savior in the back. I have 25 years of experience in such church conflicts. I'm a veteran. There is nothing new under the sun, and I sadly recognize the cycle well.

However, instead of citing examples of how I've seen God's example of grace abandoned in Christian conflict, this week I saw an example of God's grace embraced for the long haul. And you know what? It worked! Forbearing long with our brother in Christ in love, forgiveness, humility, and grace actually worked to bring someone to repentance.

But despite those moments when we see grace work, we often remain suspicious of its power. The argument I hear against such longsuffering grace usually goes something like this. "Well, aren't you tolerating sin if you bear long? At some point, don't you have to stop enduring or others will think you are condoning their actions? You need to separate yourself and take a stand against their sin. Otherwise, everyone will think it's OK to do what they are doing!"

And you know what? I'd probably agree with all of that IF Jesus hadn't died on the cross to atone for our sins. Jesus' payment for our sins demands a different response.

Colossians 3:13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

When I heard how grace worked with my friend, I wept. Because I too am suspicious of grace. I want to be gracious. I want to bear long with people and have hope for their repentance and transformation. Instead, I often despair. But I was reminded this week that grace works. That it is the goodness of God that draws us to repent, and that our longsuffering love with our unrepentant brothers in Christ ministers grace to them that will draw them to repent as well.

Beware of viewing your brother or sister in Christ as the Pharisee to be shamed and rebuked with scorn. That is a response reserved for the unelect, and there is serious warning in Scripture against presuming to know who is and who is not of the elect. Love God. Love others. Period.

Grace works.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Back to Theology -- God is my Help

It's time to get back to the vision for this blog -- that understanding the character of our God equips us to all that God has called us, especially as women. God wasn't a woman, and Jesus never had PMS. So does that mean we have less to look for from God in terms of our example to live by as women? Absolutely not! And no where is this clearer than the first mention of the first woman in Scripture. Here are some recycled thoughts from earlier entries on how knowing the character of our God equips us to all He has called us.

In our culture, when we talk about God’s instructions to women, there will be inevitable misunderstandings. Our culture thinks “submission” means “doormat”. They think “gentle” means “weak”. And they think “helper” means “slave” or “enabler”. Instead, I want to take what we know of God and use that to equip us as women for what God has called us to be in our homes and churches. So let's look at how we as women are made in the image of God and how understanding the image of God prepares us to embrace our role in marriage. Though it should be common sense to those who know Scripture, we will offer the obvious disclaimer that Christian wives are not called to be helpers of or submitters to men who violate God’s commands by abusing their family. Men who abuse the laws of God and laws of our country have abdicated their God-given role and will be held to account by God.

At the first mention of the first woman in Scripture, we begin to understand the necessary relationship between what we know about God and what He has called us to be as wives.

Genesis 2 18 The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."

If you don’t know God, His Names, and His character, then hearing that woman was created to be some man’s helper is going to sound incredibly condescending and substandard. “I’m called to be Help?! That sounds like some 18th century plantation snob referring to their servants. I’m not the Help.” But before we adopt that attitude, let’s consider a few things from Scripture. We want Scripture and not preconceived notions from our culture to guide our thinking on this. First, the Hebrew word translated “helper” is ezer, meaning to help, nourish, sustain, or strengthen. It’s used often in the Old Testament of God Himself. Consider it’s use in Deuteronomy 33:29.

Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will trample down their high places.

God Himself here is called our helper, our ezer, the same word used of the first woman in Gen. 2:18. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is also called our Helper, Counselor, and Comforter (depending on which translation of the Bible you use—these are all translations of the Holy Spirit’s role of “paraklete”, or one who comes alongside in help.)

God is our Help. The Holy Spirit is our Helper. When we understand God’s role on this issue, it puts this in perspective. God, Almighty Sovereign Lord of the Universe, is our helper and we, as women, are created in His image. If we hold on to the attitude that being created as a helper is condescending and substandard, we mock the Name of God and His character, for the role of Helper is one God willingly embraces. Christ says in Matthew 10:25 that it is enough for the disciple to be as his master and the servant as his Lord. It is enough that we seek to be like Him.

So let’s consider God’s example on this issue of Help. Do you see yourself exhibiting God’s characteristics or the contrasting ones? In Exodus 18:4, God our help defends (in contrast to attacking or ignoring the fight altogether). In Psalm 10:14 God our help sees and cares for the oppressed (rather than being indifferent and unconcerned). In Psalm 20:2 and 33:20, God our Help supports, shields and protects (rather than leaving unprotected and defenseless). In Psalms 70:5, God our Help delivers from distress (rather than causing distress). In Psalm 72:12-14, God our Help rescues the poor, weak, and needy (rather than ignoring the poor and needy). And in Psalm 86:17, God our Help comforts (rather than causing discomfort or avoiding altogether).

Often, instead of following God’s example on this, we become the very persons from whom our spouses feel they need to protect themselves. Rather that expecting compassion and support, our spouses tense as they enter our presence expecting condemnation and criticism. It should not be so among Christian wives.

God’s example reveals a high and worthy calling for wives as “helpers suitable to their husbands”. We are called to show compassion, to support, defend and protect those in our care, to deliver from distress and to comfort. We are called to be conduits of God’s grace in our homes. We are called to be like Christ.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Golden Rule

Matthew 7: 12 "So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.

I was reading through Matthew 7 the other night and was struck anew by the Golden Rule. I have heard it so much throughout my life that it seems worn out compared to some of the new, provocative things I hear among Christian bloggers and modern affluent preachers. But this time when I read it, I was struck by the phrase at the end--"for this is the law and the prophets." This reflects on the greatest command as well--where all the law and the prophets hang on the foundation of loving God and loving others. This connection made me realize that in some ways, the Golden Rule is a great summary statement of what it means to love others. While we get a very specific definition of love in I Cor. 13, love could be summed up, "treat others the way you want to be treated."

In particular, I've been meditating for some time about Biblical love in conflict. The Golden Rule gives me an interesting perspective to consider. When in conflict, if I want to fulfill the law--loving my neighbor as myself--then a great summary question to ask myself is "how would I want to be treated if I were the other person?" Most of the time in conflict, we are so self-righteous and self-absorbed, the last thing we consider is how we would want to be treated in a similar situation.

Think about the last time you were genuinely wrong about something. (And if you are having a hard time thinking of that time, I hope that sets off a serious red flag in your heart. ) Now think about what led you to recognize your sin. How did Jesus draw you to repentance? Was someone else involved? What about their response was helpful in seeing your sin? What about their response created a stumblingblock to you? From there, we can start to get a picture of what confrontation and restoration looks like when it is governed by the Golden Rule and Greatest Command. And I humbly submit that any confrontation that is not governed by the Golden Rule and Greatest Command is likely motivated by pride and selfishness.

Right now, the 2 people in the world that I confront most often are my small boys. I want to get this right with them.

Father, there are a lot of people in sin in this world, and I am chief among them. Teach me how to minister grace to others that they would see both their sin and the contrasting beauty of Your holiness. May Your grace flow through me that I could draw them to repent and not put a stumblingblock in front of them instead.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Holiness by Grace

I listened to this sermon while working out this week. In my qwest to understand the grace of God toward me and how His grace transforms me, this sermon was very helpful. It's around 30 minutes--each word thoughtfully articulated. Nothing extraneous here. I love that in a sermon! If you need a good word straight from Scripture, I highly recommend this preaching of the Word.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fighting the Wrong Battles

I noted earlier this week that evangelicals (at least those represented in the blogosphere) tend toward picking the wrong heros and fighting the wrong battles. I will expand a little bit more on the 2nd point here.

What battles should we be fighting as believers in Christ? In my humble opinion, evangelical Christianity is a mess because we don't let Scripture set the priority level for the swords upon which we will die. Scripture says some pretty profound things about what is important. Here are a few verses that strike me as particularly powerful and succinct.

John 13:35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Matthew 22 36"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" 37And he said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the great and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets."

1 John 4:20 If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.

1 Pet 4:8 Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.

Colossians 3:12-13 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.

I am coming to value a new and different fight--one I don't see getting high visibility in the world of the Christian blogger looking for the current controversy of the day. It's the fight for Biblical love and forgiveness as God defines it in His word (with humility and grace as close allies). After all, without love as God defines it, even speaking with gifted words or giving my body to be burned for the poor is meaningless (I Cor. 13:1-2). Furthermore, it's the greatest command according to Jesus. That gives it a priority few other things in Scripture have.

We must fight for the accurate use of the term love in our homes, churches, and even the Christian blogosphere. We must not tolerate when people throw the term about but deny it by violating the objective definition Scripture gives us in I Cor. 13. We must fight for real humility and grace, not sham niceties that are no more than politeness or diplomacy to get ourselves out of a sticky situation.

Most disturbing to me is that we sometimes fight for a nuance of the gospel while tolerating the practical things that Scripture says indicate we don't get the gospel at all. Scripture teaches that when we don't get grace, love, humility, and forgiveness, it reflects that we don't really understand the gospel. That should set off red flags for us all personally.

I recently followed a thread on language at a widely read Christian blog. Paul's words to the Ephesians about language in Ephesians 4 was quoted. There, Paul speaks of language that ministers grace to the hearers--that isn't bitter, angry, slanderous, malicious--but is kind and tenderhearted reflecting to others God's forgiveness of us. However, the main issue on this thread was the s-word and potty humor. Now, I don't use the s-word in personal conversation and other than the occasional inevitable potty humor that arises in a house with a 2 and 3 year old, I don't partake in that much either. But I'm profoundly disturbed that so many seemingly mature Christians would boil down the issue to those points.

My soul-deep burden, weighing on my heart, is that many in the Body of Christ, including Christian leaders heralded in the blogosphere, don't understand that our malicious, sarcastic, angry speech (not our use of the s-word or potty humor) reflects a heart that doesn't understand the gospel. Such a heart doesn't fully grasp God's grace to us, and therefore it is incapable of extending that grace to others.

My prayer today is that we would fight this battle first. If we first get the gospel to ourselves and then humbly and lovingly minister that grace to the next person, I think we would be amazed at the purity of the doctrine that would rise up in our church.

My own confession is that I have a bad attitude against those who have a bad attitude. I don't easily extend grace to those who aren't gracious. And forgiving those who are not particularly forgiving is still more of a goal than a reality for me. God, help me first to understand Your grace TO ME so that I could extend it to others. Second, help me to see that when I am kind to those who are easy to love, it has little to do with grace and the gospel. Help me love those who don't love in return, aren't gracious, and seem unable to forgive. Equip me to minister grace to them, for they are the most in need of understanding it.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Fighting the Wrong Battles, Adopting the Wrong Heros

On returning from vacation in Canada, I am catching up on my bloglines and technorati searches. Once again, I'm amazed, bemused, and discouraged by evangelicals' incredible ability to expend all their resources fighting the wrong battles and defending the wrong heros. Do you have a hero of the faith? Maybe Spurgeon or Luther is your man. Or I could name a list of modern day living guys.

If I were a hero worshipping kind of girl, I'd be loving Tim Keller and CJ Mahaney right now. But it's primarily their teaching that reminds me of the terrible ungospel-like aspects of modern day religious hero worship. CJ Mahaney is all about humility and Tim Keller preaches grace like nobody else I've heard (except the pastors at Grace Seattle). And what you get from both of them is ... well ... humility and grace. Humility says that I have to let go of my rights, and I am a servant of Christ and for Christ to others. Grace says that I am the cheif of sinners and the only response that reflects well on God's forgiveness of me is my forgiveness and forbearance with others. There is no room for hero worship in that.

Our former pastor in SC told a story about meeting a wealthy man in seminary who had given a large portion of land to a mission organization for an airstrip. Our pastor told the man that he was honored to meet a hero of the faith, to which this older man replied, "Son, there is only One Hero of our faith." I tear up to think of that. He was humble, wise, and RIGHT.

God, may Jesus alone be our Hero and the One to which we conform. May His humility be our guide and His grace our defining core value.

John 13:35 "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

I Cor. 13:4-5 Love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or
rude. It does not insist on its own way;

I'll write more another day on our tendency to focus on the wrong battles. It's such a pet peeve of mine, that I have to first work on my own attitude before I can post anything publicly.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Throwing the Baby out with the Bath Water

We're heading out for a week of vacation. In the meantime, I came across this article that articulates something we do a lot in Christian circles--react so strongly against a particular error that we create a new error in the opposite direction. Balance is a HARD thing. It's only personal humility and the Spirit's illumination that will allow us to see our own errors. I hope this article provokes some thought on the issue.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Cast Your Bread upon the Waters

Ecclesiastes 11
1 Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth,and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

This chapter from Ecclesiastes may or may not resonate with you. For me, it resonates deeply.

Cast your bread on the water. You won’t see the results for a while, but after many days, it will return to you. Give all your portions away, and then give one more portion you didn’t even know you had. The rain will come when it's going to come. The tree is going to fall where it falls. And if you stand around trying to figure out when and where, you’ll never sow your seed or reap the harvest. You cannot figure out My ways no matter how hard you try. So stop over analyzing life. Put your hand to the plow. Sow. I WILL bring harvest—in My time and My ways.

This is a poignant word from God to me. I often feel that I have given all my portions away only to find that I still need to give one more. Many days I catch myself sitting around analyzing the storm clouds in my life to the point that I never sow. And many times I despair because I haven’t yet seen the bread I cast on the water return to me. God’s word to me is to sow my seed in the morning and in the evening as well. I don’t know what will prosper. Maybe one. Maybe another. Or maybe all of it will bear fruit for the kingdom. Regardless—sow my seeds and give away my portions. The bread cast away will find me again after many days.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Mental Battles

I wrote this article for another blog a year or so ago. But I came across it again today and thought it is as true for me as ever. So here it is again.

All my struggles are mental. They may start out as physical issues (like those I encounter with diabetes or sleep deprivation) or relational issues (like tension with a spouse, coworker, or child), but they always end up as mental battles. My success or failure in each circumstance ALWAYS comes down to how I handle it in my head.

My mental battles usually all boil down to fear and fatigue. As a teenager, I was insecure-lacking confidence, anxious, doubting myself. As a single twenty-something, I faced depression-feelings of sadness, guilt, helplessness, and hopelessness-thinking that all hopes for the future hung on getting married and having kids, which I felt powerless to accomplish on my own. As a married thirty-something, I faced depression again-this time after miscarrying and having problems getting pregnant. Once again, I hung my hopes for the future on building a physical family. Of late, I’ve battled insecurity and depression yet again. It doesn’t matter that I have my family, a comfortable home, and a fulfilling ministry at church. I still have mental battles.

This latest round of mental battles has taught me important truths. First and foremost, we CANNOT peg our hopes for overcoming our mental battles on a change in our circumstances.

If only that guy would call me .
If only my husband would do X .
If only I wasn’t so sick .
If only I could lose 10 pounds .
If only they’d offer me a better job .
If only my kids would obey me .

If you rely on circumstantial change to get you out of a mental funk, I’m here to tell you, any mental relief you get will be short-lived. The 2nd thing I’ve learned (and it is tied to the first) is that the answer to fighting mental battles is NOT to work harder to solve your situation or spend more time analyzing your options.

What is the answer? For me, there is ONE THING that helps me mentally. It is to step back and get a view of the big picture-i. e. the character of God and His kingdom purposes for us. God is sovereign, compassionate, and wise. In other words, He’s in control, He loves us, and He knows what He’s doing. When my kids don’t obey me, God still rules over all. When I’m overwhelmed by my inability to do all I need to do, God’s kingdom purposes will still be accomplished. When I’m stressed by conflict with a loved one, God still rules over the hearts of men and His plan to conform us to His image still stands.

God is doing His work. His purposes will be accomplished. But Satan’s lies permeate this world and, often, my mind. So I have to do exactly what Paul told the Corinthians to do in 2 Cor. 10:5.

2 Corinthians 10:5 “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

I love the picture here-I think of it in terms of a rodeo. Picture a big ring with animals of various sizes and strengths haphazardly running around. Then the cowboy walks in with his lasso, ropes an animal, and brings it down. Some are baby calves that are easy to take captive. Others are raging bulls that only come down with fierce, determined strength. By the Spirit’s empowerment, this is my job-lasso in thoughts that don’t jive with God’s Word and make them submit to the truth of Scripture.

The big lie that runs around in my head in various forms is that God isn’t in control, my life is on the verge of going to hell in a hand basket, and if I don’t work fast and take control of everything myself, I’m lost. I must identify that lie and lasso it in. It has to submit to the truth-God is sovereign, He knows what He’s doing, and He is in control of the details of my life. My need isn’t to think fast and do something, but to abide in Him, rest, and wait patiently on Him to work.

What is your big mental battle? Can you identify both the lie and the truth from Scripture that refutes it? If so, please feel free to share it here.