Saturday, March 23, 2019

ARE YOU ABUSING GRACE? James Denney's Surprise

The grace of God is beautiful and glorious. Since it is not good to abuse what is beautiful, do you think that it is good to abuse God's grace? I suggest that this topic is full of surprises. Let's begin by making the issue personal.

  • Do you think that you have ever abused the grace of God?
  • If so, how did you abuse it? 
  • If you were only pretending to abuse grace, would you want to know?

I suggest that you were only pretending to abuse God's grace. Read on to discover what you were really doing when you were pretending to abuse grace.

The Abuse of Grace:  an Important Concern


Does the abuse of grace concern you? Have you heard anyone express concern about the abuse of grace? I have read this concern in books and heard it in sermons. Mostly I have heard it in my many hundred annual conversations about grace with non-Christians.

The Reason for Concern about the Abuse of Grace


When I have declared that a person's forgiveness with God is guaranteed by the the sin-bearing death of Christ apart from any personal works, my non-Christian hearer has more than occasionally responded with concern that such a guarantee would give a person a license to sin. We Christians commonly emphasize our point with non-Christians by quoting Paul's declaration "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faithand this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of Godnot by works, so that no one can boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9).

It is common for non-Christians to continue their objection and declare that guaranteed forgiveness would mean that God doesn't care about good works. At this point it is common for a seasoned evangelist to respond that God actually does highly value good works and indicate such by quoting the next verse, Ephesians 2:10: "For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." This has generally not persuaded my non-Christian hearers. After many hundred such conversations I have concluded that the critics of guaranteed forgiveness are not really concerned about good worksthough they declare that they are and I suspect that they honestly think that they are. But in listening closely to those who disagree on this point, it seems clear to me that what they are really concerned about is human effort. Since it is good to do good, they unwittingly think that good works are sourced in human effortin trying to do good.

Many true Christians have expressed to me a concern about specific non-Christians, Christians, pastors, or authorsthat these people are abusing grace. Have you ever wondered if another Christian might be abusing grace? 
  • Have you heard a non-Christian declare that Christians are abusing grace?
  • Have you heard a Christian express concern that some Christians are abusing grace?

Who is Concerned About the Abuse of Grace?


My conclusion from much reading, discussion, and meditation of scripture is that God is also concerned about the abuse of grace. Who do you think is the most concerned about this issue: you, me, your pastor, your favorite theologian, the apostle Paul, or God? 


I find that framing issues in terms of questions helps me to notice my confusion. Let's go back to the beginning and apply some questions to the assumption that you weren't pretending but were actually abusing grace.
  1. Is it good to abuse grace? Yes or No
  2. Can you abuse grace?  Yes or No
  3. How can you abuse grace? Pause and write down your understanding of how grace is abused and how you have done it. If you are unsure then write down what you have heard other people say that it means. Note: Jude 1:4 may be the scripture you have heard used to explain this issue. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  4. What prevents you from abusing grace? Pause and write down what you understand or what you have heard. Note: Romans 6:1-2 may be the scripture you have heard used to urge people not to abuse grace. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  5. Are you meeting the standard you set in your answer to question 4? Write down the name of one or two people you think might be meeting those standards. Write out your understanding of the proper standard for evaluation of abusing grace or preventing the abuse of grace. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Who is Responsible to Prevent the Abuse of Grace?


If it is not good to abuse grace, then God must have a way for grace to not be abused. 
  1. Who is responsible to carry out God's way? Write down your understanding of who is responsible. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
  2. Is God's way being successfully carried out by whomever you named. Explain if necessary. _________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
In all your pondering of my above questions, did you consider God as the person who might be responsible to prevent the abuse of grace? Let me ask the question more clearly.
  • Who is responsible to prevent the abuse of grace: God or humans? 

James Denney's Insight: God Guarantees that Grace Cannot be Abused


James Denney was a Scottish theologian and pastor. I. Howard Marshall called Denney the theologian's theologian. I find reading Denney to be like Jeremiah's experience of having his heart on fire while seeing the Lord as our dread champion (Jer. 20:9-11).  Denney saw all of life and theology to be about the sin-bearing love of Christ. In 1894 Denney gave a series of lectures at a seminary in Chicago. The lectures were promptly published as Studies in Theology. Currently there is one review of the book on Amazon Kindle. It is a very long review in which the pastor author declares: "I want to explore this point further to attempt an answer to a perplexing and disturbing question: Why has the evangelical church in America refused to embrace wholeheartedly this uniquely gifted pastor/theologian whose passionate expositions of the Gospel far exceed anything that has been written or preached in the entire twentieth century?" The author ends by urging saints to read Denney with an honest heart. 

Here is Denney's bold and surprisingly simple declaration that God is the only one who is responsible to prevent the abuse of grace and He does it perfectly. At the end of this post is the quote in a lengthy context that is full of light and life. 


"But in the death of Christ, and in faith laying hold of that death, we have the security against such abuses of the grace of God." page 146


Here are four explicit or implicit declarations in Denney's sentence. 
  1. God is responsible to prevent the abuse of grace.
  2. God guarantees, secures, and enables that grace cannot be abused on any condition.
  3. Thus it is impossible to abuse God's grace.
  4. God's way to perfectly prevent the abuse of grace is through the death of Christ, and the faith that lays hold of that death.
According to Denney, God's grace cannot be abused; therefore no human has any participation in abusing or preventing the abuse of grace. This should make us sigh with relief. Points 1 to 3 are equivalent statements that God makes it impossible to abuse grace. Point 4 summarizes how God does it. Is his meaning clear to you, even if you disagree with him?

Reading Denney takes some getting used to. It isn't that Denney uses too much academic language or lacks clarity of style. The exact opposite is the issue. We are the problem. First, we are not used to Denney's clarity. We are used to talking in circles and fooling ourselves into thinking that we are saying something useful. Second, we are used to using words in artificial ways that are disconnected from real life. Denney chooses his words so very carefully and roots them so deeply in the reality of life, that we feel intimidated. How can life be that clear and simple? Denney declares in the book "that the more we reflect upon it [the sin-bearing death of Christ] the more we shall be convinced that it is as simple as it is great." Wow! The great scholar declares that the atonement is very great and very simple. Can you explain how both are true?
  • Thank the Father often that grace cannot be abused.
  • Thank the Father often that the sin-bearing death of Christ is the door into freedom.
  • Thank the Father often that true faith lays hold of the sin-bearing love of Christ.

If Grace Cannot Be Abused, Then Why is there a Problem?


First, we need to notice our common confusion about grace. If grace means unmerited favor, then why do we so often use it as a synonym for kindness or leniency? My Mormon culture has much helped me notice my confusion. In my culture grace has two common definitions: God's help to keep the commandments and God's additional chances to keep the commandments. These are both moralistic and un-scriptural. Let's remove more potential confusion from unmerited favor by sharpening our definition of grace as a relationship of total freedom from merited favor. This clearly implies that there is zero pressure from any source of obligation, duty or rules. Unmerited favor is not like an empty jar that used to contain law, though for many years I was trapped in that confusion. Unmerited favor is like a jar full of the performance of Christ, which always honors the perfection of the law. Every true Christian is full of the unmerited favor of Godof the performance of Christ, which is the life of Christ. Have you been tricked to seek to live your old life better rather than to live the new life? Paul declared in Galatians 2:20 that "you no longer live, but Christ lives in you and that the life that you now live in the flesh [the realm of human faithfulness] you live by the faithfulness of the Son of God." 

Second, the apostles speak much about forgetting and remembering and the power of both. Let's use Peter's letters. In the first letter he commands his readers to set their hope completely on the unmerited favor brought to them in Christ (1:13) At the end of the letter he commands his readers to stand firm in unmerited favor (5:12). Every word in the letter is an explanation of the power of unmerited favor. In 4:1-2 Peter declares that unmerited favor frees a person from sinningfrom doing evil. "One who has suffered [experienced strong emotion with Christ] in the flesh [the realm of human faithfulness] has ceased from sin [rebellion against goodness] so as to live in this world for the desire of God." Let's be honest. Do you agree with Peter that unmerited favor frees a person from doing evil? If this seems unrealistic to you, then I suggest that you don't understand the simplicity and power of standing firm in unmerited favor. Christ's life is yours to live now, but Satan seeks to trick you to try to live your old life better. Read Peter's second letter and notice in the first chapter his triple declaration of the call to remember unmerited favor, which is the performance of Christ. Also notice that Peter declares that bad fruit is the result of forgetting unmerited favor. Can life really be this simple?

The Problem is Forgetfulness of Christ's Performance


You can't abuse unmerited favor, but you do have a problem. It is a problem of vision. Your every sin has been a natural result of disregarding Peter's commands to stand firm in unmerited favorto set your hope completely on the performance of Christto resist the devil by standing firm in the faith [which means Jesus' faithfulness] (5:9). When you expect a person to be perfect and for Jesus' sacrifice to be enough for that person, it is impossible for you to be surprised and upset by the person's failure to perform. But when you lower your expectations from Christ, you are on your own. You are seeking to manage or control life your way and God doesn't support that way. This is not your job and you should not be surprised by your bad reactions. Also, since it is wickedness to lower God's expectations, why do it? This means that all the sins of people result from the disregard of Peter's commands. Let's get over ourselves.

I have discussed this with many hundred people [Christians, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, agnostics] in the past two years. Recently I discussed these matters with an old Chinese woman who didn't believe in God. She had heard of the Bible and Jesus but knew nothing about them. She was surprised to hear that Jesus had never done evil. She said that she should always do good, never do wrong. She feels bad when she does wrong. We started there and laughed together much as we talked about the power of comparing ourselves to perfection and the evil of lowering expectations to control other people. By the end of the long conversation she was surprised to understand the reason for her bad reactions, the importance of always judging life compared to perfection, which is Jesus, and her need to be free from having to obey her conscience. It made sense that God wanted to take her place in death to free her to do good without pressure. She gladly took a bilingual New Testament and materials I have written on this topic. 

What Were You Pretending When You Thought You Were Abusing Grace?


As you began reading this article, were you worried that you might have abused grace? You may even have been a bit worried about God's reaction against your possible abuse, but God knew that you were only pretending to abuse grace, even if you didn't know. This should be a relief and comfort for you about yourself and about all other people. God has guaranteed that grace cannot be abused, but He hasn't guaranteed that grace cannot be forgotten or neglected. 

Pause to let that sink in. 

All evil has already been put away by the sacrifice of Christ (Heb 9:26). Why not embrace God's way of sin management? All evil is a result of neglecting, forgetting, or losing focus on God's way of managing life. Distraction from the simplicity and purity of Christ is Paul's great fear (2Cor. 11:3). Are you familiar with Paul's words here? Have you ever heard a sermon on this passage or matter? This is Paul's introduction to his description of Satan and his helpers as counterfeiters of righteousness. I suggest that we need imitate Paul and make his concern ours.

Context for the Quote from James Denney


James Denney's words are simple and piercing. They cut through human pretenses, discomforting our pride. But is it possible that you have some blind spots that you need help to notice? Below is some context for Denney's declaration [in green] that God guarantees that grace cannot be abused. The passage is multicolored to facilitate meditation. I plan to write soon a post on his last sentence about miserable theology.

"This suggests the last remark which I would make on the subject. Reflection on the atonement, a recent theologian has observed, has in our time proceeded mainly under two impulses: (1) the desire to find spiritual laws which will make the atonement itself intelligible; (2) the desire to find spiritual laws which connect the atonement with the new life springing from it. The legitimacy of these desires no one will contest. There is certainly work for theologians to do under both of them. It has always been too easy, referring to this last point first, to treat the atonement as one thing, and the new life as another, without establishing any connection whatever between them. It has always been too easy, in teaching that Christ bore our sins and died our death, to give conscience an opiate, instead of quickening it into newness of life. It is a task for those who hold such a doctrine of Christ’s work in relation to sin, as I have just been asserting, to show that there is a natural, intelligible inspiration to a new life in the acceptance of it, and that it cannot be lodged in the heart, in all its integrity, and leave the life, as it was before, under the dominion of sin. Even in New Testament times the gospel which Paul preached was accused of antinomianism; and so will every gospel be accused which makes pardon a reality. But in the death of Christ, and in faith laying hold of that death, we have the security against such abuses of the grace of God. To accept the forgiveness so won is to accept forgiveness which has in it God’s judgment upon sin, as well as His mercy to the sinful; it is to have the conscience awed, subdued, made tender and sensitive to the holy will of God, and the heart bowed in infinite gratitude to His love. It is not the law which can secure its own fulfillment; it is not by gazing on the tables of stone that we are made good men. It is by standing at Mount Calvary, and taking into our hearts in faith that love which for us men and for our salvation bore our sins upon the tree. It would be a miserable theology that by any defect in this direction gave room to think of Christ as the minister of sin." pp.148-9





Thursday, January 3, 2019

WHAT IS YOUR ADDICTION? HERE IS MINE.


True or False...

1.  I have blind spots.
2.  It is not good for me to have them.
3.  Blind spots lead me into confusion.
4.  It is not good for me to be apathetic about my blind spots.
5.  I can't see them and need your help.
6.  It is good for me to be glad for your help.
7.  It is good for me to want, welcome, invite and pray for this help.
8.  I am addicted to minimizing the seriousness of my blind spots.
9.  All humans are like I am on the above 8 points.
10. I am on a high energy search to discover my blind spots.

Are you with me on number 10?

Do you want to be honest about your addiction?


If you are interested in being honest about your blind spots, and becoming sensitive to your addiction to minimizing them, then I suggest a simple starting point for application. This will be painful to your pride but a real blessing to the people around you. Pray regularly variations of the following. The following is a bit long for effect, but short pieces of conversation with God are good. There is no need to be formal; simply talk to God as if he were right next to you. The point is to learn to become sensitive to you weakness and need for community--for God and others. Notice as you read the following if you hear a voice telling you that you don't really need this. 

"Father, thank you that Jesus is all my righteousness, holiness and wisdom. Thank you that Jesus has carried all my condemnation, shame and guilt. Thank you that my weakness is the place where your strength is made perfect. Thank you that Jesus is my new identity and that I don't need to pretend to be someone that I am not.  Thank you for helping me realize that it is not good for me to have blind spots because they lead me into confusion. Thank you that you are always with me even when I get tricked by my pride into confusion. Thank you for giving me other people to remind me of your goodness and to help me notice my blind spots. Thank you that critics are always good for me to help me discover more of my blind spots or to reveal my defensiveness or other character flaws. Thank you that critics are good for me even when they have a bad attitude or are completely wrong. 

"Thank you that you are my defender and you don't need my help. Thank you for declaring in the scriptures that a wise person always responds in love toward critics, even harsh ones, and that it is fools who have bad reactions. I admit that I am addicted to minimizing the seriousness of my blind spots. It seems that I often would rather be a fool than a wise person and would rather mistreat a person Christ died for than to doubt my own virtue or rightness. You have sent me saints to help me grow in wisdom and I have many times mocked them in telling them that they didn't need to remind me. I have many times been irritated or angry at your dear saints for criticizing me, even the ones I realized later had valid criticism. This is not good and is a huge blind spot. Thank you that even when I mistreat people you value highly, you never condemn me, shake your finger at me or stop rejoicing over me in Christ. Even when the critic is wrong, a wise person would have listened closely and been glad and thankful that the person cared enough to offer help, and risk getting rejected. Thank you for being patient with me and not treating me like I treat others. Thank you that you don't keep score on my critics even though I too often do. I wonder if some people have given up on offering me insight because I have been so dismissive or irritated toward them in the past. I am concerned about the blind spots of other people, and get critical that they don't seem to want to be honest about them. So why am I so insensitive about my own blind spots? Do I think I am above correction, or am I just afraid of admitting that I am weak and need other people? This is a big problem in my life and is hindering my relationship with others. 

"Please bring me some critics to help me notice some blind spots and especially to help me become sensitive to my prideful defensiveness about my blind spots. And please bring me one friend whom I can trust to be gentle so that I can invite that person to point out my blind spots. I would like to start slow, so please be gentle with me. But if I am so prideful that gentleness won't work, then please do whatever it takes to soften my heart. Thank you that your ways are always good. In Jesus Christ I pray. Amen."  

Questions for reflection


  • Can you remember a time when you attempted to offer someone a gentle suggestion and the person responded in a defensive way?
  • Did you appreciate that defensive reaction? Did you think it was good?
  • How did it affect you?
  • Think back to a recent time that someone criticized you. Did you welcome the criticism as an opportunity to grow in understanding? Or did you react defensively as if it were a threat to your security or rightness?
  • Would that critic tell me that he felt warmly welcomed when offering you his criticism?
  • Would that critic tell me that you made it easy or difficult for him to offer his insight?
  • Think back again, but this time as long ago as it takes to a time when you invited someone to offer you an insight or an opinion. Notice if you can even remember having this experience.
  • Can you remember asking a person for their criticism, insight or opinion when you were confident the person was going to disagree with you or point out your weakness?
Self-honesty is the point of these questions. Likely only God heard your answers. We all have room to grow in this area, but I suggest we each need to come to a place of embracing our need to grow rather than remaining unaware or apathetic about that need. It is obvious that we all do need to grow, and all do grow at some pace, even if we are unaware of it. The point of this writing is that it is good to actively embrace that need and become aware of our addiction to suppressing, resisting and hindering growth in this area.

Certainly those who are close to me would appreciate me gladly inviting their suggestions, insights, and criticism and asking clarifying questions instead of resisting and hindering such conversations. As mature adults we should be able to thrive on criticism. I read somewhere recently that only children take offense; mature adults don't. What does that say about your maturity level?

Saturday, December 29, 2018

LOVE: WHY DO WE REBEL AGAINST IT?

Do you ever rebel against love?

Do you think that it is good for you to love other people? How often do you think that God wants you to take a break from loving other people? Is it good to get impatient, frustrated or angry toward other people? Can you remember having a bad reaction toward someone in the past year? Why do you think you had that bad reaction? Ponder this a moment before reading further.   

Haley’s Conversation of Surprises

Recently Haley stopped by the free book table at USU and joined conversation with Kyle and me. Both spoke like active Mormons. I commonly get at our rebellion and our need for Christ by asking about a person's experience of struggling to love others. Here is the sense of our conversation that revealed to her surprises in her heart (understanding). This reflects very many conversations I have had the past 2 years. 

Read along as if you were Haley.

Me: Do you ever struggle in loving others?
Haley: Sometimes.
Me: Do you know why you struggle?
Haley: I am an imperfect person.
Me: That sounds like an excuse to me. I know why you have done every evil thing you have ever done. You know it too but don't realize that you know it. Would you like to hear what I mean?
Haley: Yes, I would.
Me: It is easier to understand this matter if we evaluate our experience. Theoretical conversation often leaves us confused. Here is a simple example that has helped me. 

The sun and moon illustration

Me: The sun and moon both light our world, but shine for different reasons. What is the difference?
Haley: The sun has its own light, but the moon only reflects the light from the sun.
Me: How much light of its own does the moon have?
Haley: None.
Me: Even though the moon has no light of its own it does a good job lighting our world. We get the benefit. The moon’s role is to be a reflector of light. The sun's role is to be a source of light. Isn't this what we learned in school?
Haley: Yes
Me: I suggest that this can help us understand our role in life. God is good. He is the source of all goodness and created the world in a good way to display his goodness. He created us in his image to be in a good relationship with him where we would live in his goodness and shine out his goodness in all directions. This keeps pride out of life. Do you like this illustration?
Haley: Yes, it makes sense to me.
Me: There is a difference between the moon and us. The moon is not a person. Light simply reflects off of its surface. The moon doesn’t think about it. But we are people who live from the heart. God’s goodness and love flow from our hearts while we are properly focused on his love and goodness. 

How do we shine out God's love?

Me: Here is how it works. Can you think of a recent time when you got irritated, impatient or frustrated with someone?  We all have these experiences.
Haley: I am thinking of one.
Me: Don't tell me about it. Just keep that experience in mind.
Haley: Okay.
Me: Let’s start simple. Do you believe in God?
Haley: Yes.
Me: Do you believe that God is love?
Haley: Yes.
Me: Do you believe that God showed his love by sending Jesus to die for your sins?
Haley: Yes.
Me: For all your sins?
Haley: Yes.
Me: So, all your sins are forgiven?
Haley: Yes.
Me: That is wonderful. Do you ever beat yourself up for your failures? 
Haley: Very often. 
Me: Is God's love only for you or for other people, too?
Haley: God loves everyone and Jesus died for everyone. 
Me: Did Jesus die so that everyone could be completely forgiven?
Haley: Yes.
Me: We are on the same page. Go back to your experience of being irritated. Does God love that person and did Jesus die to take away all that person's sins?
Haley: Yes.
Me: Are you sure?
Haley: Positive.
Me: While you were irritated at that person, were you thinking about how much God loved her and that Jesus died to forgive all her sins?
Haley: (with a surprised look) No, I wasn't, but I should have been.
Me: Everyone tells me that. They should have been thinking love but weren't. 

The experience of remembering Jesus' death for sinners

Let's say that one day you were praying for that person who gets under your skin and thanking God for loving her and sending Jesus to die to take away all her sins. And let's say that while you were praying this way, the woman came up to you and did the thing that often irritates you. While you were praying or thinking this, do you think that you would have gotten irritated? 
Haley: (in surprise) No, not while I was thinking that. But I might forget easily.
Me: Isn't that interesting. While you are thinking of God's love, you don't get irritated. I have asked many people about this and they all describe the same experience. 

The experience of seeing people properly

Me: There is one other surprise about Jesus that helps us understand our experience of not loving others. Is it good for you to look down on me so that you can feel good about yourself?
Haley: No.
Me: Is it good for me to look down on you so that I can feel good about myself?
Haley: You should not do it either. No one should, but everybody does it.
Me: That is painful but true. Then how should we compare ourselves?
Haley: We should look up and compare ourselves to Jesus.
Me: That is good to do, but our pride doesn’t like it. Is it ever okay to lower the standard from Jesus?
Haley: No. We should never do that.
Me: I agree with you completely. Go back to your experience of irritation. While you were irritated, were you comparing that person to Jesus?
Haley: (in surprise) No. I was thinking about what she did wrong.

The experience of forgetting love

Me: You simply forgot that your place in life was to see that God manages her through love. The situation needed to be managed and you took matters into your own hands, lowering the standard and managing her through rules. It gets ugly when we do this. And we do this more that we realize. Our bad reactions always have this same cause. Jesus reveals the love of God through his perfection and death in our place. While we are remembering these two things, God's management through love overflows from our hearts. And it works this way for everyone else too.

Why is it easy to forget love?

Me: Here is the reason that we so easily forget God’s way. Go back to our illustration of the sun and moon. The moon shines brightly unless something happens. What can stop the moon from shining? 
Haley: When there is an eclipse. 
Me: For us the problem is different. No one else can block light from us. But we can self-eclipse. we can block the light from ourselves by forgetting our proper place of dependence on God’s goodness and love. We are made in God’s image and feel deeply his imprint that it is good to be a source of goodness. But that is his role in life. It isn’t yours, or mine or anyone else’s. We thrive when we are satisfied with our role as receivers of love and goodness. While we are satisfied this way, we overflow properly with his love and goodness to those around us, even while they are causing us trouble. But when we get tricked into forgetting our role, then we can have bad reactions.

The experience of self-condemnation

Let’s go back to something you said earlier. You said that Jesus died for you and that you are completely forgiven. Am I remembering correctly?
Haley: Yes, that is true.
Me: Has Jesus taken all your condemnation, shame, and guilt?
Haley: YesHH
Me: Has he taken all your beatings?
Haley: Yes
Me: It sound like you believe that Jesus is enough for you for all of life.
Haley: He is enough for me.
Me: I really like what you are saying. But if Jesus is enough for you for everything, and has taken all your beatings, condemnation, and shame, then why did you tell me that you often beat yourself up for your failings?
Haley: (surprised and embarrassed) I don’t know.
Me: (smiling) You forgot Jesus and in forgetting Jesus you tried to do his job. You were pretending to be God. This is really bad. Jesus took all your beatings and you believed the lie that there are some left for you to carry. Right?
Haley: (smiling) Yes

A testimony of how we experience change

Me: It is not good to believe this lie but we all do sometimes. I suggest that you are too weak to change, but there is hope because God wants to change you. Your job is simple—to trust him to do it by you remembering who Jesus is for you. The most natural way to remember is to pray without asking. Here is a testimony I wrote about my friend Pat, who was diagnosed with three mental illnesses and was nearly always super depressed. He read the Bible much and memorized many verses, but couldn’t escape his depression. He was so depressed that some people felt depressed just being around him. After many years of seeking to encourage him, in 2000 I gave him a piece of paper containing four Bible verses simplified into a prayer of thankfulness for who Jesus is for him. I told him to pray that daily. He said he couldn’t because it was too hard. But he somehow began to pray it. After five months he began to smile and now after 18 years he is consistently cheerful and seeks out discouraged people to encourage them. Please take a copy and follow his simple example. Pray as often as you want, thanking God for what you told me is true. Don’t ask for anything. Just thank God something like this. “Father, thank you that Jesus is enough for me for all of life. Thank you that Jesus carries all my sins. Thank you that Jesus has taken all my shame, guilt and beatings.” As the months go by you may notice that your mind more easily goes to what Jesus has done for you.

The beauty of self-honesty

Haley: I have been thanking God for my family, friends and church…
(beginning to cry) but I have forgotten to thank him for what Jesus has done for me.
Me:  Don’t beat yourself up. Simply start today thanking God for who Jesus is for you. He is enough for you for all of life.
Haley: Please may I take Pat’s story?
Me: Yes of course. You likely know someone else who struggles with self-condemnation, with whom you could share the story after you begin practicing it. We need each other. I am glad for our conversation. I am here on Wednesdays in good weather. Feel free to come downtown to Oasis Books inside the Great Harvest Bakery if you want to talk on other days.

Note: Haley left happy, with two books and Pat’s testimony.

Friday, March 23, 2018

HOLINESS AND WORLDLINESS - WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE?


Holiness simply means to be set apart or to be different. Different from what? Different from the world. Both holiness and worldliness are about focus. Worldliness is about focusing on imperfect human effort. Holiness is different in that it is about focusing on perfection which is embodied only in Jesus. Jesus is enough for all of life.

Holiness is about the experience of being aware that Jesus is enough--that both 1) his perfection is the only good measuring stick and 2) his death is the only good resolution for the problem of human failure. This easily and naturally applies to all human relationships in all circumstances. Life flows freely from a heart while it is satisfied with goodness. A satisfied heart doesn't struggle, but rather responds to others as valuable people. This is what it means to be human.

Worldliness is the distortion of what it means to be human. It is a focus that doesn't see the whole picture of life, that only perfection is good. Life becomes a check list of good and bad thoughts and actions. I doubt that  you appreciate people seeing you as part of their check list. No one does, but there is no other way to function when perfection is not in view. Goodness is shattered and the only way forward is to try to pick up the pieces one by one. Trying mocks doing, mocks our humanity, and mocks goodness. It bears the ugly fruit of the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21). Worldliness denies goodness as a real experience.

Humans live only in the current moment. Therefore, in the current moment we either see life as a check list of ideals (kindness, patience, self-control, love) to strive for, or as perfect goodness to experience now. As you notice human behavior, do you occasionally get distracted into forgetting the big picture that goodness includes perfection, or do you always maintain awareness that only perfection is good? Where is your focus? You can't do perfection, nor can anybody around you. But Jesus did, and his life flows out of you when you simply focus on His goodness (His perfection and His sacrifice for sin). Trying is like a hamster wheel. Only the hamster thinks he is getting somewhere.

Note: In a recent sermon (listen here) in Hebrews 10, I explained how the world is all about trying and how trying is a lie. The sermon visual aid (white board photo) can be seen here by scrolling down to Hebrews#35.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

SPIRITUAL COUNTERFEITS: CAN YOU SPOT THEM? #1

Why Counterfeits?


Life is a real experience that is full of surprises and meant to be enjoyed. To be human is to be a moral creature bearing the image of the personal creator of the universe. To be human means to be a person of heart, mind, soul, and spiritall of which are intermingled and inseparable. Thus spirituality is a natural and inseparable part of what it means to be human. Spirituality is connected to our moral sense of what is good and evilwhat makes for good human relationships and what makes for violation of goodness. This moral sense is pliable; it is molded by our family, culture, and experience of life. Atheists tell me that no child is born a racist, but rather trained to be one by culture. A shallow glance at this variation in moral understanding has led some to wrongly conclude that culture and experience create our moral sense. But something that doesn't exist can't be molded into something real.

Real or true spirituality is the experience of being in harmony or at peace with what it means to be human. This is a real experience of life. False spirituality is the opposite of that—anything that denies, suppresses, or violates what it means to be human. Because we have an awareness of what it means to be human, and a sense of need to experience that reality, the alternative to real spirituality is counterfeit spirituality. It is a pretended sense of moral harmony, a mask we wear to fool ourselves into thinking that we are in harmony with who we are. Pretending something to be real doesn't make it so.  



A counterfeit has some degree of appearance of the real, but is lacking a critical element. Counterfeit currency lacks the authority of the government that the currency claims to be backed by. A counterfeiter may fool me into accepting his counterfeit currency. If I in good faith take it to the bank, I likely will receive the unpleasant news that I have been tricked and therefore the bank will not deposit the expected funds into my account. Authorities don't like this kind of activity and may use my unpleasant experience to seek to find and punish the counterfeiter. Authority is the key to understanding what separates the real from the counterfeit. Poorly printed but authorized currency may look inferior to carefully crafted and printed counterfeit currency, but the issue is not one of quality, but rather one of authority. The authority in the moral world that separates the real from the counterfeit is the mark of goodness. This mark of goodness is highly nuanced to be appropriate for every aspect of human activity.


What does it Mean to be Human?


To be human is to have a sense that life has meaning. This applies both in the moment in every relationship, as well as in a general way about life as a whole. I suggest that both senses are reflected in the question: What is our place in the world? 


Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist, describes in Man's Search For Meaning, the human struggle to find meaning in life, even when trapped in the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. He also tells of his counseling method, which he called logo-therapy. He states that logo is the Greek word for meaning. Thus his therapy method focused on helping patients look for meaning in whatever situation they were troubled about. When I first read his label, I wondered if Frankl might help clarify my shallow thinking about the New Testament statement that Jesus was the word (logos) of God. It has been a simple and enlightening step to fill the word "word" with the meaning "meaning". Jesus is the meaning (word) of God. Jesus is the meaning (word) of life. Jesus is meaning (word) of truth. Jesus is the meaning (word) of peace. Jesus is the meaning (word) of righteousness. Jesus is the meaning (word) of wisdom. Could it be that every word in the New Testament is full of meaning, and thus full of surprises for us humans who tend to bumble through life unconcerned to discern the counterfeit experiences around us? I highly recommend Frankl's short, accessible, and insightful book.   



What is Our Place in the World?


This year an illustration came to my attention. The sun and moon both light our world. The Bible declares that this was the purpose of their creation. The sun is the source of the light that it shines out in all directions. The moon has no light of it own, but does reflect well the light of the sun. In the same way God is the source of all goodness. He created us to be his image bearers in this world, to know and reflect goodness, which comes from Him. Dependence describes the human relationship to goodness. It is good to be a source of goodness if one has the ability to be that source. God does, but we don't. The role of a dependent person is to be satisfied being a receiver of goodness. 


There is a cascade of surprises in this satisfaction. This is a result of the nature of moral goodness. Moral goodness is about the meaning of relationships, which is all about community. God is community (trinity) and created humans to be in community with Him and to be satisfied with His goodness. When we are content with His goodness, then we naturally overflow with (or reflect) His goodness to those around us, treating them with goodness, and delighting to do so. 



Sin is Rebellion Against Our Place in the World


Community is a beautiful and natural place to thrive in life. Why would anyone rebel against that good and proper place? If we understand what it means to be human we will realize that it is very easy to rebel. Adam was created with the imprint of God's goodness so as to naturally and freely experience and reflect that goodness in all directions. As mentioned above, that imprint includes the nuanced distinction that it is good to be a source of goodness, if you one has that ability, and good to be content being a receiver and reflector if one doesn't have that ability. Adam and Eve reflected well God's goodness in all directions all the time. It was a simple matter for Satan to suppress this distinction and trick them into thinking that since it is good to be a source of goodness, they too were or could be a source of goodness. To seek goodness in themselves was rebellion against their proper place of dependence as receivers and reflectors. This was a real and traumatic experience. They failed morally and suddenly were in desperate need for restoration (justification). Something became twisted deep in their nature, and this deep twisting has been inherited by all their descendants except Jesus. We all were born with a rebellious desire to find goodness in self and with a real and good need for resolution for this rebellion. G.K. Chesterton wrote humorously that this inherited rebellious nature is the only empirically provable Christian doctrine.



Restoration of Proper Dependence


God came to the two rebels and spoke a blessing over them, that one of the descendants of the woman would bring crush the head of the serpent (who had deceived them). God anticipated and promised that He would provide restoration for humanity, which He did provide 4000 years later. But for 4000 years it was good and proper for humanity to be content with God's anticipation of that restoration. The Old Testament and the gospels are a record of discontent with that anticipation—with some notable exceptions. That initial place of good dependence where human faithfulness was in the equation of life, vanished with Adam's first sin. The world was broken by that one act of rebellion. There was no going back. A new kind of dependence was needed, one of death to personal faithfulness so that humans could love without external pressure or impure motives. Isaiah said much in anticipation of that new kind of dependence on God's goodness. His words climax in Isaiah 53:11, circa 700BC.


"Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied. By his knowledge my righteous servant shall make the many righteous, for he shall bear away their transgressions." 


A century later, Jeremiah boldly declared this anticipation from the human experience of what God would provide. I find this to be the theme of the New Testament.


"I will fill the souls of the priests with abundance, and my people will be satisfied with my goodness, declares the Lord." -Jeremiah 31:14


At Pentecost God poured out the experience of this anticipated satisfaction. The cross had just prior been the experience of Jesus dying the death that rebellion deserved in order to create a good, fitting, and glorious place of dependence where God would do all the work and get all the glory. What had been in God's heart from before the creation of the universe was now a reality in the world. The death of the faithful one had become the door into death to, and thus freedom from, human unfaithfulness. He in His delight was now free to live in His people. 



Why Rampant Counterfeit Spirituality?


Above was mentioned the ease with which one can fall into rebellion against our proper place in the world. Do you agree that this is true for you? In case this is not clear, here are a few simple questions. Is it good for you to be irritated with your spouse, parents, children, friends, and fellow humans who happen to interrupt your plans for the moment? Is it good for you to hold a grudge, withhold forgiveness, or keep score on those who have hurt you? Is it good for you to minimize, or excuse away your sins or the sins of others? Is it good for other people to seek to manage your failings? Is it good for you to seek to manage the failings of others? Have you violated any of these principles (the ones which you agreed with) this past year, month, week, or hour? Socrates, who died about 400BC, said that one should rather die than violate one's conscience. That is serious. No wonder we feel guilty so often. 

Some years ago I had an enjoyable conversation with Haley (23) at our "Are you a good person" booth at the local fair. She failed the the test and received the dollar coin as a surprise gift. In the course of the conversation she declared that she had left her religion of birth and become an agnostic. As she was leaving I asked her a few questions to encourage her to think more deeply about life. Here is a short dialog representative of that exchange.


Me: Haley, I have a few questions about your boyfriend (he was with her).

Haley: Okay
Me: If I see him sin, is it good for me to let him get away with it? 
Haley: That is wrong. You shouldn't do that.
Me: Okay, here is another one. Is it good for me to be his judge when I see him sin?
Haley: You shouldn't do that either.
Me: Okay, then what should I do when I see him sin?
Haley: I don't know.
Me: What about this? What if I let God be his judge?
Haley: (smiling) That's it. That is good. 
Me: My role in life is to agree with God's judgment when I see your boyfriend sin. The cross is the only place that resolves sin. and I need to be content with what God has provided. When I think that way, then I am glad that Jesus died for him and I am careful to be gentle in helping him notice what he did wrong. If you know that rape and child abuse are wrong, then deep inside you know that Jesus had to die to bring justice into the situation. I would encourage you to think about these things.

 Haley knew intuitively that sin is not good and needs to be resolved. She also knew that it is not good to act as judge for others. With my help she realized that these two good things leave people in a quandary of what to do about human moral failings. Without the surprise that I offered her, we humans are left stumbling in the dark about how to manage sin. Sin needs management, and we all know it. It is near impossible to resist the urge to become sin managers. Some people manage the problem by sweeping it under the carpet. They deny the existence of the moral world and declare that right and wrong are imaginary. It is just tough luck for those who get raped, abused, or enslaved. Other people create lists of what needs to be done to overcome evil. Some manufacture gods to help harmonize the sin problem. All these are counterfeit solutions that dishonor what we all know intuitively about the meaning of life. It is important to realize that we need sin management solutions every waking moment every day. Counterfeit solutions are lurking in every situation we face.


Christians are not Exempt from Confusion


Socrates' shocking statement above
that one should die rather than violate one's own consciencepredates by centuries the apostle Paul's similar statement (Romans 1:32) that every person knows the righteousness of God, that every sin deserves death. This is moral knowledge, part of our intuitive knowledge of the meaning of life. Every human is born with the need for justification for their own rebellious longing to find goodness in self. We criticize others for justifying their failures, all the while doing it ourselves. Everyone I have asked has told me that it is wrong to self-justify for moral failure. One USU student agreed that he and I had both failed morally and needed justification. When he declared that it was wrong for us to justify ourselves, he suddenly burst out with emotion, asking, "If I don't justify myself, then how do I get it?" This led to clear conversation about the cross. We all are so sensitive to our need for justification for failure, that we would rather deny our humanity than honestly declare our nakedness. This is a huge blind spot. 

A close cousin to this is another blind spot related to our understanding of life. Because life is full of meaning, it is easy to think that I have to be able to explain that meaning to not be guilty of failing at being good. This thinking leads back to the potential for self-justification. This time the real issue is suppression of our ignorance. We talk in circles to avoid honesty about our confusion. Some weeks ago a new grad student friend (not a Christian) laughed at me when I shared my slowness to notice my ignorance. He declared that I was just like everyone else, thinking that I knew everything and oblivious to my need to ask questions. I laughed with him.


We all are confused at some level, and it is not good to be confused. We all have blind spots, and it is not good to have them. Whether you are a new Christian or a seasoned Bible school professor, you are confused and have blind spots. By definition we can not see our blind spots. Noticing them in others should make us aware that we have them, too. It is not good to be apathetic about out confusion or blind spots. It is good to seek to notice them and to want, request, and welcome help from other people to reduce our confusion and notice our blind spots. This is one blessing of community. Glad thankfulness is a good response to a person who cares enough to help us in this matter. Do you gladly thank those who criticize you?


Are you insecure about your confusion and blind spots? Insecurity means that you are confused about satisfaction in life, as quoted above from Jeremiah. It is good and fitting to find your satisfaction in God's goodness. All other satisfaction is fleeting or impaired. Begin thanking God that He is everything for you. Declare openly that you are confused and have blind spots. Thank Him for loving you anyway. Tell God that only perfect freedom from confusion and blind spots is good. Thank Him that it is good for other people to offer you help in this matter and that it is good for you to want and welcome their help. Invite God to send helpers your way. Get ready for answers to this prayer. One blessing of this prayer is that all critics and complainers become answers to prayer rather than being an opportunity for defensiveness resulting from self-justification. 



The Key to Begin Spotting Counterfeits


If you had a magic key that would open your understanding to notice many of the lies, counterfeits, points of confusion, and blind spots around you, would you be interested in at least hearing about the key to see if it might possibly be real? Jesus stated in Luke 11:52 that there was a key to understanding. Have you ever heard anyone talk about it or tell you what it is? 

"Woe to you experts in religious law! You have taken away the key to knowledge! You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in."


First, I suggest that what is entered is life
God's life—life in God's goodnesseternal life. Second, I suggest that the key is the simple understanding that perfect love is the only good way to see life. This means that perfection is how we should evaluate all things moral. Jesus is the only place we find perfection in this world. Therefore, He is the only good reference point and we should always compare ourselves and all others to Jesus. When we do this much confusion disappears quickly. Are you an obedient Christian? Not, when compared to Jesus. Are you holy? Not when compared to Jesus. Are you a good person? Not when compared to Jesus. Are you confused? Yes, when compared to Jesus. Comparison to Jesus leaves us with nothing but Jesus as perfect love to cling to.  All other things lose their appeal and we find ourselves drawn toward other people.

Awareness of this key is highly motivational. Isaiah saw the perfection of God and was stripped of his pride and prepared to gladly preach to hardened and unresponsive Israel for 50 years. They couldn't hear him because they had rejected the key and were drunk on their own righteousness (Isaiah 29). With practice one can see how perfection fits every situation of personal relationships and helps clear away our confusion. I further suggest that it is very helpful in understanding many confusing Bible passages. I experience hundreds of witnessing conversations annually. My principle is to carefully use the key of perfection to help people honestly and properly evaluate themselves and realize their intuitive awareness of their need for the death of Jesus as the only good way of righteousness and the only good way to perceive life in every moment. It still surprises me sometimes to see the surprise on a person's face as the person hears their own mouth declare that they should always compare people to Jesus (or perfection, in the case of agnostics). My goal is to sensitize people to their intuitive knowledge that only perfection is good in all aspects of personal relationships (including with God). My hope is that this new awareness will take root in their hearts and the cross will become unavoidable for them. I also use the key of perfection in conversations with Christians to help them realize the simplicity of God's way of life and begin renewing their minds to perfection as the place of God's delight.



Application


Do you see life as a spiritual battle? Do you see life as full of counterfeits? Do you want to grow in sensitivity to them so as to be less often tricked by them? Might you be unwittingly embracing some counterfeits right now? If you were, would you want to know about it? This is the first in a series of posts on counterfeits. I suggest that every Christian concept has a counterfeit to watch out for. Satan is a counterfeit Jesus. Paul declares that he counterfeits light and righteousness (2 Cor 11:14-15) Below is a list of some of the counterfeits that I have spotted and plan to write about. They are set as questions because I find that questions help me notice where I have been tricked. The first one is set first intentionally (others are in random order) because it has been my biggest surprise (that I am aware of) and seems to have accelerated my awareness of other counterfeits. It will be the focus of the next in the series.

  • What is the flesh?
  • What is righteousness?
  • What is holiness?
  • What is worldliness?
  • What is walking in the spirit?
  • What is love?
  • What is a Christian?
  • What is a sinner?
  • What does it mean to die to self?
  • What is sin?
  • What is forgiveness?
  • What is grace?
  • What is law?
  • What is light?
  • What is the discipline of the Lord?
  • What does it mean to endure to the end?
  • What is repentance?
  • What is the fruit of being a Christian?
  • What is the alternative to laziness?