Most Christians Don’t Believe in Forgiveness

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I have found that people who really believe in the forgiveness of sins is rare. Our churches are full of people who confess forgiveness with regularity, but the practice of their lives demonstrates clearly that forgiveness is more of a wish rather than a conviction. They lug broken-heart-broken-hearts-6853604the baggage of guilt and shame that has been growing in their families for generations. They listen to The Liar, giving him credibility when he speaks to them out of their past as if his words are truth. They cling to their oppressive hurts and habits which rob them of the peace and joy and freedom Jesus intends for them. And they pass on to their children the same wishful thinking perpetuating a false forgiveness and trapping their progeny in the same deceitful snare of desperation. For the last nine years I’ve had a front-row seat watching Christians living unforgiven lives while professing their profound belief in the forgiveness of sins.

Forgiveness is a profound reality for we who follow Jesus. It means that legally we are square with God—we owe him no debt for our transgressions. It means we have been personally released from the pain we caused God, reconciling our relationship and returning to intimacy with him once again. It means that we have been delivered from the wrath of God which will come upon all who remain in opposition to God. It means we have been restored to a state of liberty, redeemed from the bondage of sin to live in freedom and peace. It means that we can live without holding grudges and keeping records of wrongs, freely forgiving those who have wronged us. It means that the paralyzing weight of guilt and shame has been released from our spirits allowing us to experience abundant living.

The tragedy for most is that they do not receive God’s forgiveness because they’re too consumed with the pain of their own hurts, habits, and hang-ups. Many are limited by their own inability to forgive disbelieving that even God can do what they themselves cannot. Many are overcome with their own past believing that God’s forgiveness is sufficient for others but cannot surmount their own mountain of shortcomings. Many are deluded into minimizing their need for forgiveness happily saving God’s grace for those who are more deserving. Many cannot accept the pain of this fallen world, holding a grudge against a God who refused to protect them from the evil which inflicts us all. Many are simply too consumed with their own happiness to open their hearts to the goodness that God has for them. All gifts require both a giver and a receiver and God’s gift of forgiveness, while offered to all, is not received by most, even those who call themselves Christians.

Ultimately the question for us is whether we will trust God’s promise of forgiveness. We don’t receive God’s forgiveness because we deserve it. We don’t receive God’s forgiveness because we feel it. We don’t receive God’s forgiveness because he has proven it. We receive God’s forgiveness because we believe that God does what he says he’s going to do. We believe that God keeps his promises. We believe that through the sacrifice of Jesus, God has laid upon him all the sins of the world. We believe that Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient to appease God. We believe that God desires intimacy with his creation, even with us! We believe that he loves us so much that he paid the price for our sin himself. We believe that his great love for us is real and tangible and has can so transform us that through forgiveness we can actually become the people he intended us to be from the very beginning. Forgiveness is all about trusting God: it’s about taking God at his word and trusting him to keep his promises both now and for evermore.

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What Does It Mean That Jesus Is Lord? (Part 2)

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There are a lot of implications when we say that Jesus is the boss of us. It means that Jesus has absolute authority over our lives and that we serve no created thing in preference to him. We are saying that we have given our full allegiance to Jesus in such a way that our lives no longer belong to ourselves because Jesus now has ownership of us. We are saying that our ultimate commitment is not to family, not to nation, not to church, but to Jesus alone. We are saying that we reject absolute nationalism and we reject every other unconditional allegiance that attempts to claim our imagination.

But to fully understand the lordship of Jesus we have to take it to the next level: Jesus isn’t simply our Lord, he is THE Lord. This means that he not only has absolute authority over us, but that he also has absolute authority over all of creation; over the heavens and the earth, things seen and unseen. As a result we owe him the same worship and obedience we owe to God. Acknowledging that Jesus is Lord means that he is superior to every prophet, every priest, and every angel in history. Jesus is Lord means that Jesus is the supreme ruler and that no one can challenge or rival his authority. As the Lord Jesus has been given the same status as God and has the same rights over us that God has.

The problem for me is that I say Jesus is my Lord while retaining the title of CEO for myself. There is a great video that illustrates this by One Time Blind. There are moments when I succeed at making Jesus Lord, but mostly I’m constantly in a wrestling match with him, only willing to concede lordship when I’m clearly outmatched by life. This is the way I pastor my church; the way most pastor their churches. I say that Jesus is Lord all the time but I’m afraid I don’t live it very well. I don’t know if anybody lives it perfectly, but it seems to me that if I really believed this I would do a lot of things differently. I tend to plan first and consult Jesus second, but this backward way of thinking is exactly how I end up somewhere in deep left field. I don’t think there is anything wrong with presenting Jesus with our best solutions to common problems, but making him Lord means submitting to his authority when his solution is different.

If Jesus is truly the boss of me I’m going to have to reject some things.
I’m going to have to reject my personal desire for control so that Jesus can have control.
I’m going to have to reject my personal ambitions and accept Jesus’ ambitions.
I’m going to have to reject my American worldview and accept a kingdom worldview.

Jesus is Lord. Make it so even in me.

What Does It Mean That Jesus Is Lord? (Part 1)

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The English word lord is a distinctly European word that brings up images of men in wigs sitting in Parliament or medieval feudal land owners. We Americans soundly rejected the entire notion of lord a couple hundred years ago and after we won the war we banned the entire concept from our land. In America every person is free. In American every person controls his own destiny. In America the lords have been expelled.

We’ve gotten along without them quite swimmingly actually. We became the world’s most dominant country through hard work, ingenuity, and determination free from the rule of a controlling lord. We proved that humankind needs no lord to be successful: we can make our own decisions and guide our own futures. Our system has created the opportunity for every person to become his own lord. And as we’ve gained wealth and experienced success that is exactly what we’ve become: in America every person is his own lord.

The concept of being one’s own lord is built into the American worldview from the time we’re able to understand language. Of course, no one would actually call himself lord, but that’s the whole point: the entire concept of lordship is foreign to us. We think in terms of self-sufficiency and individualism that, by definition, completely excludes the need for a lord. We would simply say that we are our own person who makes our own decisions and controls our own destiny. In truth, our culture doesn’t even know what a lord is. But the reality is that we have become our own lords, ruling over ourselves with sovereignty and performing to our own glory.

So when we say, “Jesus  is Lord,” I’m not sure we have any idea what we’re saying. I suspect that most Christians think that Jesus being Lord is good; after all, if we’re talking about Jesus it must be good. But we don’t really understand the term because the entire concept is completely outside our worldview. For many American Christians, the lordship of Jesus is purely a religious statement that most likely has no impact on their daily lives.

My simple definition of lord is this: the Lord is the person who is the boss of me. Most people I know have tried being the boss of themselves and ended up failing completely. Even if they haven’t messed up their entire lives on the outside, they still often feel unfulfilled, lacking purpose and meaning in their lives. Once we come to the realization that we’re not very good bosses of ourselves the question becomes, “Who is capable of being the boss of me?” When we say that Jesus is our Lord we are saying that we’ve made Jesus the boss of us.

Stop Saying Marriage Is Unconditional

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Stop saying marriage is unconditional. It’s not. Love is unconditional. Marriage is conditional.

marriage.pMarriage is a covenant, an agreement, a contract between two people. It comes with strings attached. It comes with assumptions. It comes with all sorts of explicit and implicit expectations about the behavior of both parties. We expect our spouse to be sexually faithful. We expect our spouse to be honest. We expect our spouse not to assault us or treat us violently. We expect our spouse to partner with us in caring for the family’s spiritual, emotional, and physical needs.

There are so many conditions we place on our spouse I can’t begin to name them all. A man who sits all home playing Xbox and eating Cheetos day after day after day will probably not be a husband for long. A woman who regularly berates her husband in public, belittling him and emasculating him probably will not be a wife for long. Refuse to get a job?—probably ending up single. Making extra money stripping at the club down the street?—probably not going to have a husband much longer.

Every covenant in scripture is conditional. Covenants are, by definition, agreements about future behavior between people. God has expectations of me because of our covenant. I have expectations of God because of our covenant. Covenants are always, always, always conditional and it is a mistake to treat marriage any differently.

Love, now love can be unconditional because love does not depend on the behavior of another. I can choose to love whomever I desire and there is absolutely nothing anybody can do about that. Love is not an agreement; love is a choice about how to treat somebody no matter how they behave. God loves me without conditions—no matter how I behave I can be assured that God loves me. Because of this, I can love people unconditionally. Love is not an agreement, love is a decision.

Love is not the same as covenant. God can love me but he is not required to honor his agreement with me if I do not honor my agreement with him. To put it bluntly, God loves every person who ends up in hell. Love is the basis of the agreement, but it is not the agreement itself. God punishes people throughout scripture, even to death, for failing to honor their agreement with him, but scripture never says that God stopped loving them.

Never confuse love and marriage. They go together, but they are not synonymous. Love is how I treat you. Marriage is what I expect from you. If you do not keep your end of the bargain do not expect to be married very long. That’s not how marriage works. And don’t blame God or your spouse for being “unloving” because you didn’t fulfill your agreement. They both may love you very much, but that isn’t what marriage is. Marriage is an agreement that comes with lots of expectations. Marriage is conditional.

We Believe!

EVERY-BELIEVE450There is a shirt I remember people wearing from my childhood that was popular with the party crowd that read “Everyone believes in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” I’ve always thought that shirt was very revealing about our culture because is concedes that a structured belief system is important for every human being, but at the same time it confesses that many have no set of beliefs which really matter to them. The beliefs of many of the people I encounter are something more akin to opinions: they aren’t held with strong conviction, they aren’t based in truth/reality, and they are subject to change upon the shifts of the cultural landscape. The only thing many people really believe is that they want to have fun, to be happy, to take care of themselves, to have another drink.

Add to this our Western penchant to fiercely defend individualism. We value individual freedoms and the ability for each person to make his/her own decisions. Every person’s opinions matter and no person possesses the authority to judge those of another. Whatever opinion a person holds has value simply because they hold that opinion, regardless of how closely that opinion resembles truth. And so tolerance has become the word of the day: we must be tolerant of every one’s beliefs because we have no right to judge the opinions of others.

What we have, then, is a culture that vehemently defends the individual’s freedom to believe in… not much at all. People don’t hold to any convictions outside of themselves really, but they don’t want anyone to challenge them either. We live among people who don’t believe anything and don’t want to be told that there is something worthy of believing in.

Which is why the opening words of the Apostle’s Creed is so significant—I believe. The Creed begins with a bold statement that there is something worth believing in. The first confession from the church is that collectively we stand together against our culture in belief. Not a belief that is akin to an opinion, but we stand together in conviction that goes to the very core of our beings. Life is not meaningless. Life is not haphazard. Life is not flighty. There are pillars which uphold this world and cannot be denied. We recognize together that there is something to believe in. We stand united on the verdict that every person’s opinion doesn’t count equally; that there is a story, a meta-narrative, that we are a part of and indeed defines us; and that we can affirm this truth as a reality that is greater than ourselves. We are not like the rest of our world. We believe in something, and that belief defines us not only collectively, but individually as well. For a person who has not the conviction of belief neither has the knowledge of self.

Sometimes I Have Doubts

I had lunch with a new Christian on Saturday. He is in his thirties and had been raised around church but spent his twenties doing his own thing. He was baptized a few weeks ago and he told me he is feeling besieged since becoming a Christian. The Liar has been attacking him with all kinds of doubts. He believes, but he isn’t sure and is struggling with faith.

Believing isn’t about certainty. There is no certainty in believing God because believing God isn’t historical or scientific, it is mythic. Not mythic in the sense of being made up or untrue, but mythic in the sense that believing God is an attempt to understand and live truth about this world and humankind that lies beyond what we can test and approve (Luke Johnson, The Creed (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 54). Believing isn’t the absence of doubt. To the contrary, believing affirms that there is mystery at the heart of this life. There is more to our existence than can be seen and heard and felt and measured, something greater that demands our investigation while resisting all forms of direct examination. Life for life’s sake simply doesn’t make sense so we seek the divine not in an attempt to answer all of our questions or to find absolute certitude, but in an attempt to make sense of life that appears completely void without him. God is not a possible conclusion of reason but the necessary starting point in life (Johnson, 68). We believe in God precisely because he is of the same substance as this mythic life we live.

And so doubts are not our problem as there will always be doubt. We will always lack certainty. For what is the substance of faith if not, by definition, the presence of doubt? We believe despite our doubt. We believe, indeed, because of our doubt. We believe because our mysterious life which transcends full comprehension requires a mysterious God equally as incomprehensible. We believe because he has demonstrated himself to us in tangible ways despite our unbelief, and so proven himself as worthy of our confidence notwithstanding the mystery.

And so The Liar’s attempts to derail us with unbelief will not succeed. He cannot trick us into concluding that certitude is the substance of our faith for he knows that there is true power in faith amid doubt. There is mystery in life and there is mystery in God, and so there must be mystery in faith. This is one of the things that make life so beautiful!

To My Son, As He Weds

You’re getting married in a couple of days and I wanted to share a few insights with yo935998_530651030355946_336254782_nu. I deeply desire to spare you the agony of the lessons I learned in hope that you will be a far better husband than I.

Your wife is the most important person in your life. More important than the people at church. More important than your boss. More important than your children (when they come). More important even than yourself. Everyone who meets you should know very quickly that she is your queen and you will not tolerate her being treated any less.

You don’t know everything. I know you think you do, but you don’t. In a few short years you’ll learn exactly how little you really know. And you certainly don’t know more than she does. Listen to her advice and talk with her about decisions. Trust her intuition and lean on her strengths. Together you’re stronger and you will make better choices learning together.

Sex is great, but it’s just sex. It isn’t the basis of your relationship; it is an extension of who you are as a couple. Focus on intimacy, on connecting, on being close. Think of it like this: intimacy is the cake, sex is the frosting. When you cook a great cake, the frosting is the accent that makes it phenomenal.

Pray together every day. Praying together is one of the most powerful tools in your marriage. It keeps you both connected to God and honest with each other. This single habit will revolutionize your marriage and ensure you both stay focused. Do not neglect this.

Weakness is strength. It is a lie that you have to be strong all the time. You already have a strong spirit, so don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, especially with your wife. Let her in to the deepest parts of you, the scary parts. Be transparent and open and risk it all. Cry and laugh and shout and dance. Give her every part of you, even when it makes you feel weak, for this is the path to true strength.

Great marriages don’t just happen, they are created. It will take time and energy and intention and creativity to develop a fantastic marriage. Think of it as the project of your lifetime. You could coast like others do, but then you’ll only get marriages like they have. Believe me, you don’t want an average marriage. So invest your resources in your marriage.

Your confidence is a great strength, but it’s also a great weakness. It creates blind spots and leads to mistakes. You need someone who will keep you honest and humble. There is no one better suited to play that role for you than your wife. If you take a humble posture with her and listen to what she sees, she can mitigate against your strength becoming your weakness. Allow her tell you the hard stuff.

I love you, and pray God’s blessing on your marriage.

Seasons of Life

Sometimes life just doesn’t go the way we planned it. Despite our best efforts, life has a way of forcing itself upon us in ways we could neither foresee nor prepare for. I haven’t lived a very long time, but I’ve learned that there are seasons when life seems to get the best of us; seasons when we feel overwhelmed and defeated; seasons in which we must take a step back to rethink everything.

The biblical narrative is replete with characters that faced this very same season in life. Moses was living a life of luxury until he accidentally killed a man and ended up living in a tent in the desert for the next forty years. David was the most powerful man in the country until his son Absalom took his throne from him and hunted him down like a dog. Elijah ran for his life deep into the desert, sat under a tree, and begged God to take him. Hosea had a wife that was so promiscuous that he named her children “not loved” and “not my people”. Peter was chained in a dungeon simply for telling the truth. Paul was left for dead in the town dump after being stoned by an angry mob. Even Jesus himself, in the Garden of Gethsemane, faced a season which he desired to avoid with every fiber of his being.

Life is hard. There is no avoiding this. Even when we do everything right, the wheels can come off leaving us desperate, alone, and afraid. It has been this way throughout history. Even the most righteous people we know have struggled with this season of life. The difference for followers of Jesus is only how we respond during these seasons. Will we cling to God as our only hope, or will we run from God out of anger? I’ve seen people do both. I’ve seen good, church-going people do both. The people in the biblical narrative are different because they cling to God, continuing to trust him despite their troubles.

God hasn’t promised us an easy life: he only promised that we wouldn’t have to live life alone; unless, of course, we choose to. There are times when the only choices before us are bad and worse. This is our reality on this side of heaven. Life is full of distressing seasons. The righteous cling to God with voracity trusting that he will keep his promises even in the most desperate times. For no matter how dark life seems to be, it is always darker without God.

Somewhere Between

On June 26, 1947 the Chaplain of the United States Senate, Reverend Peter Marshall, prayed the following prayer on the Senate floor.Image

 Our Father, we are beginning to understand at last that the things that are wrong with our world are the sum total of all the things that are wrong with us as individuals. Thou hast made us after Thine image, and our hearts can find no rest until they rest in Thee.

We are too Christian really to enjoy sinning and too fond of sinning really to enjoy Christianity. Most of us know perfectly well what we ought to do; our trouble is that we do not want to do it. Thy help is our only hope. Make us want to do what is right, and give us the ability to do it.

In the name of Christ our Lord, AMEN.

In his prayer Rev. Marshall articulated the reality that we stand between two opposing forces with wavering allegiance. As a result we can enjoy neither side fully. If we are to enjoy sinning, we must give up Christianity. And if we are to enjoy Christianity, we must give up sinning. Perhaps this situation is worse even than giving oneself completely over to sin.

I seem to consistently find myself somewhere between these two forces. In my heart I want to live a sanctified life; pure and holy and pleasing to God. In my heart I want to live a worldly life; flawed and ordinary and pleasing to myself. Some days I lean one direction, but other days I lean the opposite direction. The truth is I don’t yet completely hate sinning. This is the human dilemma.

It is useless for me to try to change this about me. Better men than I have tried and failed. I am not disciplined enough. I’m not focused enough. I’m not determined enough. I’m simply not good enough to be the man God has designed me to be. If I could do it I would, I really would, but I simply find myself at a loss for improving my lot. Here I stand a pawn between two forces, desiring them both and finding no pleasure in either. This is beyond me.

And so I throw myself upon the mercy of my Jesus, for where else shall I find refuge from this despicable existence? His truly is my only hope. His is my only power. His is my only choice. Only he can make me want to do what is right. Only he can give me the ability to choose him completely. Only he can help me. And surely my heart will never know rest outside of him.

I Have A Dream

I have a dream: a dream for my future; a dream for my family; a dream for my life. My dream casts vision for me. My dream directs my thoughts and my actions. My dream even defines me. I know who I want to me and I know what I want to accomplish. I have a dream for myself that drives nearly everything I do. My dream is very close to my identity.

I had a dream for what kind of father I wanted to me. I dreamt about my relationship with my children. I dreamt about how I would handle certain situations. I dreamt about the qualities I would display for my children. I dreamt about the kind of dad I would become and that is what I became.

I had a dream for my career. I dreamt about how I would help people through life’s circumstances. I dreamt about how to work with my elders. I dreamt about how to preach. I dreamt about the kind of pastor I would become and that is what I became.

We all have dreams. We all have a vision for ourselves that defines us. We have a way we view ourselves and our future that is woven into the fabric of our identity. But what happens when these dreams are stolen from us? What happens when something prevents us from living out our dreams? What happens when the thing for which I have always striven is no longer possible? Sometimes life throws a curveball. Sometime life robs us. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, what we have always dreamed is dashed upon the rocks of life’s shore. What will become of us when our dreams are shattered and we no longer know who we are becoming?

This is why it is so important that our dreams come from God. Like any good father, God dreams for us too. God’s dreams are always good and right and perfect for us. God gives us imagination and wants us use it to dream with him. Dreams without God tend to be selfish and temporary and ordinary and small. But dreams with God tend to be so much more. Dreams with God take on gigantic proportions. Dreams with God take on eternal significance. And most importantly, when I dream with God there is always significance far beyond myself. So when my dreams are shattered, I’m not shattered along with them.

The truth is that life doesn’t always go according to my dreams. I’m not even sure life always goes according to God’s dreams. Sin is pervasive and messes up a lot of things. But I know this: when I’m dreaming with God there is always another dream; there is always another vision; there is always another possibility. While I may mourn the loss of my dream I am never crushed, because I dream with the One whose dreams are immeasurably more than my losses.