Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Gospel Changes Everything

I wrote previously on the gospel and my weight. I am pondering anew tonight how the gospel changes everything and how it MUST inform how I look at each struggle I face, else I am doomed to failure.

When I am insecure around new social settings--

This has been a big struggle for me. Last year, I joined a social group full of new people and quickly noticed the kind of insecurities that paralyzed me like I was in junior high all over again. I had to wrestle with God. Who am I in Christ? How do I walk in confidently to this group in you and not in a false pride trying to feel good about myself?

When I am torn open by hurtful conflict--

Lord, how does the good news of all I have in Christ and all He has saved me from equip me to love those who have hurt me so badly? What have you done for me on the cross? What can I count on You to do for me now to equip me to do something I can't possibly do on my own (like forgive someone who has hurt me)?

When I fail at the things at which I long to succeed--

Lord, how does all I have in Christ equip me to deal with my failures today? I long to obey consistently. I don't want to yell at my children. I hate the anger and frustration I display. But I know I am not condemned in You. How does your grace and forgiveness equip me to deal with my sin?

What is your struggle today? Are you insecure? Hurt? Wary? Do you feel self-condemnation? Guilt? Inadequacy? All of the above? If so, there is good news. Even if you long ago came to see your need for Christ, the good news of the gospel still meets you today exactly where you struggle. Before you lecture yourself with 3 steps for healthy child rearing or 5 steps for resolving conflict, lecture yourself with the gospel. Read Ephesians 1 and 2 and cry out with Paul

"that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places."

Please don't look at anything else for help or a solution UNTIL you have first looked to all God says you have in Christ. This good news works. It is the most powerful answer I have ever seen. Wrestle with God over it today and may He open your eyes to all that you have in Him.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Accomplishment Verses Relationship

I have been living for a while in the tension between getting things done and being available for the people who need me. Accomplishment verses relationship. I think there are truths here that impact us at any stage of life, but I'm dealing with it right now in the context of young motherhood. I do not write this from a place of authority. I fail way too much on this myself, and therefore this is mostly a lecture to myself. But you are welcome to read along.

I read a quote on someone's blog and now am at a complete loss as from where it came. But it quoted an older mom who said something along the lines that she wished she had understood that making dinner, helping with homework, and generally being there for her children really was enough at that stage of life. It reminded me how many other things I daily want to accomplish and the constant frustration I face that I can't. I've been meditating on what God has called me to do at this stage of life verses what I want to accomplish at this stage--relationship verses accomplishment.

I want accomplishment. I still long for accomplishment at work (I have taught highschool and community college math for 16 years). Now, I only teach part time, online classes at the community college. And (as many online teachers will tell you) it doesn't really seem like teaching. I miss that and would love to accomplish greater things there.

I wrote a book, and now I would like to write another one. And they are books about the Bible and Christian things. That's a good, noble goal. But time to write and edit now is virtually nonexistent.

I would like to make better dinners and be a more accomplished housekeeper. The accomplishment I really want for today is just to get my kitchen countertop clean and uncluttered. That would make me feel good about myself for today even if I can't write a book or be nobly lauded for my teaching accomplishments.

But God has called me to prioritize things differently today. I am convicted quite strongly that He has called me to relationship over accomplishment today. Relationship to Him, my husband, my boys, and my brothers and sisters in Christ. What do moms most need at this stage of life? What is THE thing that will sustain us for the long haul? It isn't accomplishment. It is most definitely relationship. And if I have a minimal amount of time to choose between the two, I am always wiser served by choosing relationship.

It's easy to mix up relationship and accomplishment with each of these groups. I often read my Bible to check it off my list of things to do, substituting accomplishment of a task for real relationship with God. But when I earnestly seek Him in the Word and wrestle with Him in prayer, it doesn't necessarily take more time than checklist Bible reading, but it certainly is more effective in sustaining me throughout the day. I can mistake doing things for my husband (accomplishment) for really listening to him when he talks. I am working on putting down whatever I'm trying to accomplish in that moment and give him my full attention--really hearing what he's telling me and asking follow up questions so that I can KNOW him. And oh how easy it is to substitute DOING things for my boys for really taking time to know them and listen to them. I made homemade playdough for my 4 year old this week. For me, that was a cool, Mommy accomplishment. But sitting with him afterward and listening to him tell me what he was doing with the playdough--moving from accomplishment to relationship--was hard. "Not now, Luke! I'm DOING something for you. I can't TALK to you." It certainly seems silly after the fact, but my natural inclination is to do for my boys at the expense of real relationship with them.

Finally, as I pursue relationship over accomplishment with God, my husband, and my boys, I find real relationship with my sisters in Christ really helpful to the others. Sometimes, I want to believe that doing something for others in the Body of Christ (taking a meal, watching someone's kids, or volunteering for whatever assignment comes up) is a reasonable substitute for real relationship. But those things don't sustain either. I am very thankful for friends these last 2 weeks who have pursued real relationship with me, giving me concrete help and encouragement on very specific things with which I struggled.

Praise God that He knows us and desires to be known by us. No other god pursues real relationship with his people like our God.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Between Two Worlds: The Cross and Criticism

Between Two Worlds: The Cross and Criticism

This short article on how the gospel informs how we give and receive criticism really resonated with me. I loved the line, "in Christ's cross I agree with God's judgment of me and I agree with God's justification of me. Both have a radical impact on how we take and give criticism."


Thursday, March 12, 2009

What is the Gospel?

My husband made an interesting comment after reading my post from last week on Abusers of Grace. He said that I probably need to define the term "gospel" and that many people's problem with understanding grace and humility is that they had a shallow understanding of the gospel itself.

So it was with interest today that I read this article by Michael Spencer, also known as the Internet Monk, in the Christian Science Monitor. I like, though don't always agree with, the IMonk--he gave a relatively nice review of my book early on, and he often writes spot on analysis of the problems within the evangelical church. I particularly appreciated an article he wrote recently on the problems with the public face of the Christian pro-life movement.

In the article in the Christian Science Monitor, Spencer made a couple of stingingly true points that resonated with me as I meditate on the depth of the gospel as Scripture presents it.

Evangelicals have identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. This will prove to be a very costly mistake. Evangelicals will increasingly be seen as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.

The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can't articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.

I can not say strongly enough how much I agree with him. But rather than spending more time analyzing the problem, let's focus on the solution--a better understanding of the gospel. How would you define the gospel? How would you explain it to an unbeliever? How do you preach it to yourself? I grew up in a segment of Christianity in which the "gospel" could be articulated in a 3 paragraph tract. If you got that, you got the gospel. It's taken me years to realize that while the gospel is fairly simple in some ways, it still has a depth to it than can not be fully plumbed in a lifetime. 3 paragraphs won't really do it.

Our church just offered a Sunday evening class on the book of Ephesians, and the teacher pointed out how Ephesians articulates the gospel from multiple perspectives. A study of Ephesians 1 and 2 reveals the depth of the good news of all we have in Christ.

He has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.

He chose us in Him before the world began.

He predestined us in love to be adopted into His family.

He has lavished His grace on us.

We have obtained an inheritance in Him.

We are sealed by the Holy Spirit who is the guarantee of our inheritance in Him.

Though we were dead in our sins and by nature deserving of God's wrath, God in His great love and mercy brought us to life in Christ.

He has saved us by His grace through faith--not of our own works but purely as a gift from Him.

We are God's workmanship.

He has created us in Christ to fulfill the good works He has prepared for us.

Each of these statements is deserving of pages and pages of discussion and meditation. And when you put them all together, you could write volumes about this gospel--this GOOD NEWS--of all we have in Christ Jesus. It is not something that can be summarized in a 3 paragraph tract. Understanding it for ourselves and teaching it to the next generation should be the pursuit of our lifetime.

I have found 2 different sermon series at my church particularly helpful at unpacking the layers of the gospel of grace--the series Exodus: Blueprint of Salvation and The Real Jesus: The Gospel According to Mark. Both can be found here. Today's sermon on Amazing Grace from Exodus 17 was especially helpful.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Abusers of Grace

I had a brief but thought provoking discussion this weekend with a friend about how some people/groups/ministries/churches appoint themselves watchdogs for the abuse of God's grace. Since I have at times been that person and a member of those groups, I have been thinking about this for several days. My thoughts have centered around 3 main questions: what is grace, can we abuse God's grace, and what do we do with those who continue in sin?

1) What is grace?

This weekend, a friend asked me how I would define grace. And despite all the study I've done and posts I've written, I was at a loss to come up with words that didn't sound trite and shallow for a concept that is so deep and robust to me. The best I could come up with was pictures.

Jesus washing Judas' feet

Joseph embracing his brothers

Our pastor preached on a little piece of Exodus 15 last week. Right after God has worked marvelously to part the Red Sea and free the Israelites once and for all from Egypt, the very next scene is of them grumbling because the only water they can find is bitter. Grumbling--murmers of discontent because they don't believe that God is good and worthy of their trust. And God's response is not to backhand them for such backtalk but to make their water sweet. That is grace.

For a fuller look at the definition biblically of grace, check out this post on grace in conflict.

2) Can we abuse God's grace?

Here is the question that we need to explore. Because there are MANY Christians who believe that their one job in life is to guard against the abuse of God's grace in their realm of influence. I've seen this in the blogosphere. I've seen it in homes. I've seen it in churches. And based on whatever perceived abuse of God's grace they see, they then justify acting ungraciously in their response (again, see grace in conflict for more on, well, grace in conflict).

But the truth from Scripture is that we all are abusers of God's grace. Like the Israelites, He shows us grace, and we forget it and grumble and don't trust. And if you copy and paste that sentence a few more times in this paragraph, you will have accurately summed up the whole of our existence. The problem with those who appoint themselves as guardians of God's grace is that they typically don't realize how they daily, hourly abuse it themselves. They may be diplomatic or polite in how they word things when they call out others, but they lack the ONE thing that is the dividing line between those who get God's grace and those who don't--humility.

3) What do we do with those who continue in sin?

So grace involves bearing long with those who sin against you, washing the feet of the betrayor, embracing in forgiveness those who willingly sold you to slavery, and so forth. Yet we know from Scripture that we are not to continue in sin that grace may abound (Romans 6:1). We know we are to confront sinners and guard against false teachers. Are these contradictory instructions? Not at all! Our problem is that we often read and teach these instructions out of context with the whole of Scripture.

We must first examine ourselves--do I have a firm grasp on my own sinful, selfish tendencies? Do I agree with Paul that I am the chiefest of sinners? Is it just an accepted Christian saying to me or do I have a firm grasp on the depth of my own personal need for God's grace? It is only those who fully grasp their own depravity and the depth of God's grace toward them despite their own abuse of it who have any power to speak to another about their sin. And, then, the root of any confrontation must be the gospel of grace.

I'll conclude with some thoughts from the clearest passage on confrontation of sinners--Matthew 18. For years, though knowing this passage quite well, I have missed the heart of what Christ is teaching here. What do you do with the brother who continues in sin despite appropriate confrontation? He's abusing God's grace, right? What's the answer? What's the last resort?

"Treat him as an unbeliever."

That means we point fingers, shun, and cut him off, right? If you have any experience in conservative churches, that is EXACTLY what is taught. That's because many churches have never understood how to treat unbelievers. But how did Christ treat unbelievers in the gospels? How does God treat unbelievers throughout the narrative of Scripture? He pursues them. With the gospel. The end result of church discipline is that we determine we don't need to instruct this person on adultery or gossip or lying. We need to pursue them with the gospel. We need to return love for hatred. We need to give unconditionally. We need to be merciful to them in the way that God has been to us that they would come to Him and receive His free grace. And when they start grumbling after the parting of the Red Sea, we return with grace and mercy.

The cure to Israel's problem was more gospel--more undeserved kindness in contrast to the audacity of their forgetfulness after the Red Sea. God doesn't curse them. He blesses them. Abundantly (with 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees--see Exodus 15:27).

I don't believe we can abuse God's grace. Or maybe I believe that the abuse of God's grace is all that ever happens. And that's what, after all, makes it grace. And what I'm advocating here, at least according to Scripture, doesn't result in more and more sin--for it is the very recognition of God's longsuffering with our abuses of His grace and His subsequent mercy toward us that is the thing that roots out our sin and transforms us into His image.

To quote my pastor, in the midst of the hardships of discipleship, the thing that must consistently be speaking loudest and clearest to us through the cacophony of life is the gospel. Day in, day out. The only hope for not continuing in sin that grace may abound is really getting the good news of God's grace to us personally in the first place.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Gospel and My Weight

I've mentioned before on this blog that I am notoriously undisciplined. I don't have any genetic disposition toward neatness. I do not enjoy exercise. And I've never been able to accomplish a goal simply because I just decided to get it done. Pretty much every accomplishment I've made in life is because it was attached to something I enjoyed doing. If my heart is in it, it gets done. If it's not, it doesn't. I'm not necessarily proud of that, but it's the reality in which I function.

I am overweight. Not obese, but overweight. I've known this for years--since my oldest was born over 4 years ago. And it's particularly hung over my head since my youngest was born 2 1/2 years ago. I've tried a lot of things--multiple different exercise plans, joining a gym, low calorie diet, sugar busters diet, the cabbage soup diet, atkins diet, etc. I tried the treadmill, the stationary bike, weights, walking in the park, walking in my neighborhood, Wii sports, etc. But while I saw an occasional pound lost, it always came back and my weight has been stuck in a 5 pound range for years.

I've had friends tell me (repeatedly--ad nauseum) what worked for them. There is always something new to try--some miracle diet that really works. It's the smart, moral, wise choice. Because it worked for them, it should also work for me. I always feel pressure in those conversations that really stresses me out. Usually instead of feeling motivated, I feel condemned.

So I've prayed. Alot. For months I have wrestled with God over my weight and lack of consistent exercise. God, how am I supposed to think about this? God, I keep failing each time I try to follow a program. If I'm ever going to lose weight and get in some kind of shape, I need your supernatural help, because all I ever do is fail.

And an odd thing has happened. I've have slowly started to lose weight. Now--I want to stop right here and point out that this post is NOT about how to have success losing weight. Because I personally think my "success" (if that's what you want to call it) started long before I ever lost a pound. I believe it started the moment I began to wrestle with God on this issue. When I began to look to the gospel instead of a diet program, the Lord began working in my heart in a peaceful, sustaining way that has affected my outlook on much more than just my weight.

After months (maybe years?) of wrestling with God on my weight, He has answered me. He has changed my heart so that the lifestyle changes I've made are not chores, but pleasures. I can only attribute this to His grace and mercy--to the gospel itself. I'll tell you the specifics of my lifestyle changes, but let me preface it by saying that I would HATE if you read this and felt contrained and burdened to do the things that I have done with diet and exercise. I hope instead to simply encourage you to wrestle with God on your knees with your Bible open about how He would have YOU to think about these issues.

When I tried the stringent Atkins diet, I noticed that my blood sugars stabelized (I am a type 1 diabetic). So after giving up on the strict Atkins, I have generally kept to a low carb, high protein diet. Thankfully, I am a certified carnivore (my dad used to raise beef cattle), so this has been easy for me. Then, for my birthday, my husband gave me a Wii Fit. It's been fun, entertaining exercise for all of us in our family. My two boys and I especially enjoy working on it together--certainly a gift of God's grace and mercy because I have banged my head against a wall for a year or so trying to figure out exercise that I could do with the boys.

Now, again, I hope no one reading this who struggles with their weight feels motivated simply to start a low carb diet and buy a Wii Fit. THAT is NOT the answer. My hope is to encourage you to wrestle long and hard with God. Endure with Him. Persevere in pursuing Him on this issue. Ask Him to saturate you in the truth of the gospel as you seek His face on this issue. And may the hope of your calling and your inheritance in Christ give you His perspective on this issue. May His grace and mercy meet you on this issue for your good and His glory.

Ephesians 1 18I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.