Guilt and Grace

Conviction sucks.

Last week, Pastor David Platt addressed the School of Divinity at Liberty University, where I am a student. His aim was to raise the bar for ministry leaders. We all listened intently as he listed the ways today’s leaders have compromised, setting a bad example for the church. That sermon left me and my fellow Divinity students with a conviction hangover. My friends and I expressed to one another how inadequate we felt for the task ahead of us. Are we modeling life in Christ for others? Do we even have a relationship with Christ? What are we doing here?

Here I am sitting in my apartment on a Sunday morning because I just can’t fake the church thing today, feeling guilty because I think that makes me a failure. And I read 1 John 3.

“By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything.”

I may not feel sanctified today, but God says otherwise. Because he sees the precious blood of Christ which cleanses me from sin and sanctifies me before him. And there is more.

“Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment that we believe in the name of his son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.”

There it is. The commandments. That is what we get so hung up on. We try and try to do everything right and still feel guilty because we know that it is futile. We will never please God. We are too messed up. But that is because we have forgotten the most important commandment. That we believe in the name of Jesus. No one can truly love others or do anything good before God without first abiding in him. We can’t even begin to follow his commands. Don’t I know this? Isn’t this the gospel?

When the Bible talks about belief, it means much more than mentally acknowledging that something is true. To believe in Christ means to let my hope, trust, and confidence rest on him. It is not a one-time act. It is an ongoing experience. Part of that belief is the painful awareness of my sin and hopelessness apart from Christ.

My heart often condemns me. But when it does, I throw myself upon the mercy of God personified in Jesus Christ. Without him I am lost. As much as I hate to feel convicted, if it restores my faith in Christ, then that is a pill I need to take daily. It is the grace of Christ that enables me to fulfill the commandments of God—to love and to lead others and to share this faith with them as well.

Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him.”

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Work it Out

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Photo courtesy of thoroughlyreviewed.com

“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed– not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence– continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” Philippians 2:12-13

Why do people enjoy watching the Olympics so much? That’s not a very difficult question to answer. Of course we are moved by the incredible display of human effort, skill, and perseverance that the athletes demonstrate. Not one of them gets to the Olympic games by chance. They spend years training, often sacrificing relationships, education, and other aspects of their lives in order to be the best in their sport.

Strength of character is as difficult to attain as physical strength. It takes excruciating, unmitigated, relentless work. Modern evangelicalism, while attempting to counter salvation-by-works thinking, often discourages us from putting effort into our spiritual formation. The Bible, however, speaks repeatedly of “working out” our salvation. Hebrews 6:11-12 says, “We want each of you to show the same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised.” Hebrews 12:12 says, “Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.” And Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” The choice is clear. Work and become strong, or be apathetic and become weak.

Of course, it is God who produces strength in us, but we must do our part. An athlete needs protein and vitamins in order to develop muscle and healthy organs. But if he just eats a lot and doesn’t go to the gym, he will only get fat. Worship, Bible study, and prayer are useless if we do not put faith into action. With no outlet for good works, we become spiritually fat and lazy.

God invites us to join in his kingdom-building work. That includes engaging in meaningful human relationships, working to bring justice to the marginalized, and carrying the gospel to the ends of the earth. None of these tasks are easy. In fact, those that are worthwhile rarely are. But we seek them out because they are hard– because they develop godly character in us.

If you lack patience, seek out tasks that require it. If you lack humility, seek out tasks that seem lowly. Work at it.

Again.

And again.

And again.

When you think you’ve got it, work some more.

Don’t.

Stop.

Over the past few months, as I have shared my weaknesses and struggles with those I trust, I keep hearing people say, “Kyle, you have to work it out.” I cannot simply pray for God to make me stronger and expect to sit back and watch him do it. I want to end each day knowing I spent every ounce of my energy laboring for Christ. I have found that the harder I work, the greater my desire is to keep working. I might feel tired, but I don’t feel sorry for myself because I know my spirit is getting stronger through disciplined effort.

Are you satisfied with your current spiritual condition, or are you willing to work to improve it? How far will you go to train your spirit for godliness? Push yourself to the limit and beyond. Only then can you say, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Run. Fight. Sweat. Work. Finish the race.

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The Greatest Good

My favorite thing to do at this time of year is to look back. Sometimes the big picture gets lost in all of the day to day hassles and happenings. Taking time to reflect adds valuable perspective. This year I have had difficulty doing so. 2017 has brought so much pain. Not to myself but to those who are so close to me that it feels like my own pain. There have been victories, joys, and new beginnings as well, but pain has been the backdrop to every recent scene of my life.

As I reflect, I ask myself the question that has haunted every man since Adam. Why does pain exist? With love comes loss, with riches comes sacrifice, with joy comes disappointment. What is the meaning of it all?

The more pain I see, the more grateful I am for the Word of God. I have read so much about pain in the Bible. God’s response to pain is so intricate, so multifaceted. It seems that every time I think I’ve grasped the answer to pain, another facet presents itself– something else to ponder.Recently another piece of the puzzle slipped into place for me.

If I had to define pain, I would call it the frustration of desire. We want wellness and get sickness. We want peace and get turmoil. We want love and get loneliness.  Wellness, peace, and love are all good things. It seems that we are meant to have them, and yet we are denied them. And the result is pain.

When I try to imagine a time when nothing good was denied human beings, I see the wealth of Eden at mankind’s fingertips. I see every green tree and every delicious fruit as ours for the taking. But could we live in that world? Where everything was free and we had want for nothing?

The problem I see is that not all goods are equal. Many things are good but some are better than others. How can we recognize the better things? I believe one has to learn to value the better things. What better teacher than pain? When we are denied certain goods, we see which we can let go of and which to fight for. In this world, we must learn the hard lesson of sacrifice. We must work the ground for a harvest, and our work is painful.  But if the harvest is the greater good, is it not worth the pain it costs us?

I say this because I know one good is greater than all the rest. And that is knowing God. We know this because God himself suffered the greatest pain, the death of his son, for us to know him. Is not the joy of knowing God greater than any pain we can endure? Would it not be worth a lifetime of sorrow to stand with Him on that day and say, “I would do it all again for you.”

I will say with Paul, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” The more I suffer, the more I come to know him. The more I know him, the more I love him, and that makes me willing to suffer more just to know him more. Because knowing God is the greatest good.

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From Page to Path

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C GP Grey, Wikimedia Commons

“Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, and everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” Isaiah 55:13

I’m finally doing it. I’ve thought about it, talked about it, put it off, reconsidered it, examined my options, and finally took the plunge. I’m talking about seminary, the first step towards full-time ministry. And it wasn’t the books or the papers that made me hesitate. To me those have the comfort value of apple pie and ice cream. But before my metaphors have me drooling all over my keyboard, I’ll get to the point. What makes seminary seem so strange– so scary is that it takes me closer to “the real thing:” doing ministry with real people in the real world.

Why is that so scary? Well, because life is much messier than it appears in the textbooks, especially when that awful “S-word” comes into play. Yep, I’m talking about sin. And I’m even more acquainted with that than I am with books and papers. When I think about the damage some pastors have caused through hidden sin, I cringe at the thought that I will one day by judged by the same standard as they. Is that why James warns that “not many of you should presume to be teachers”? Why would I put that burden on myself when I know that I am just as capable of sin as anyone else? Why would I risk such failure?

The short answer: Because God told me to. The only difference between me and a Christian hairdresser, or social worker, or accountant is a difference in calling. We can’t say how God chooses who will serve him as shepherds of his flock, but he does seem to have a predisposition for people the world views as less than qualified. Gideon was the lowest man from the weakest clan, David was the youngest of his brothers, and Paul called himself the worst of sinners. They were sinners when God called them, and they continued to sin after he called them. They all experienced sanctification as a process, but none of them were sinless when they died.

Does that excuse the sin in my life? Of course not! But it does force me to acknowledge that I am undergoing the same process as the people I will one day shepher. Those books I mentioned earlier– they talk about this too. Zack Eswine says in The Imperfect Pastor, “there is little wonder that the Serpent’s pledge would glitter and shine into preference. ‘You will be like God,’ the Serpent promised (Gen. 3:5). ‘You will not surely die,’ the Serpent hissed (v. 4). As a pastor, I want this kind of promise.” It’s easy to think that as a pastor, I should rise above the masses. That obtaining some fancy degree or title confers a godlike status. Or worse than that, to think that the work itself somehow “saves” me. David Paul Tripp says in Dangerous Calling, “If you are not requiring yourself to get your deepest sense of well-being vertically, you will shop for it horizontally, and you will always come up empty. If you are not resting in the one true gospel, preaching to yourself over and over again, you will look into another gospel to meet the needs of your unsettled heart.” Of all the sins I struggle with, the one that’s the biggest danger to me is pride. Pride is the party-crasher who turns up when you least expect and least want to see him. And I’m just as susceptible to his tricks as anyone else.

I’m neither a saint nor a super-hero. I’m a sinner, saved by grace, in the process of sanctification, by the Holy Spirit. Along the way, I might help some others in their own process. Much of the time, this seems to happen by accident. But I don’t really believe in accidents. I do believe in grace. Tripp points to the thorn bush in Isaiah 55 as a metaphor for the transforming work of God’s grace.

“If the rain and snow water that brier in your yard, you know the result will be a bigger brier. But not so with the Word of God; when this rain falls on the thornbush it actually becomes something organically different! . . . Lusting people become pure, fearful people become courageous, thieves become givers, demanding people become servants, angry people become peacemakers, complainers become thankful, and idolaters come to joyfully worship the one true God.”

Hallelujah! God is making me into something new, just as he is doing for you! My seminary education can’t do that. My best attempts at righteousness can’t do that. And no, my books can’t do it either. The page meets the path when I understand that it’s not about me at all. It’s about Christ! I can’t lead anyone else to Him if I don’t come to Him daily, saying, “Have mercy on me, a sinner!” Apart from Him, I am nothing. He is my saving grace, my living hope, and my greatest joy, and it’s because of Him that I’m here in the first place.

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One nation, under God . . .

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” 1 Timothy 2:1-2

I had hoped that following the election, I could get some relief from the vicious political remarks I have been hearing everywhere. Sadly, I now see how naive that hope was. The anti-Trump rhetoric is stronger than ever, and I am particularly distressed by those proclaiming, “He is not my president!” Even Christians are joining in the rants. So I had to get back to my old blog and weigh in on the issue.

Simply put, I can see no justification for the way certain people are reacting to Trump’s victory. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of him, Donald Trump will be our next president. As the nation’s leader, he demands our respect. We can gripe and complain it about it all we want (believe me, I’m just as tempted to as you are), but it won’t change a thing. I believe, however, that there are two things we can do to make a difference.

First and foremost, this is the time for Christians everywhere to pray. Pray for Donald Trump and his entire administration to make wise decisions. Pray particularly for those who have the ear of the future president, that they would give sound advice to move this nation forward. Have faith that our prayers make a difference, because they do.

Secondly, I urge Americans to seek harmony with one another. We have a wonderful thing in this country called freedom of speech, but too often we use it to tear apart rather than to knit together. Abraham Lincoln once applied the words of Mak 3:25 to our nation. “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” I think we need to be reminded of that now as much as ever.

Our country has survived wars, economic depression, epidemics, and much more. I don’t believe any of us want to see it crumble. So let’s stand behind our president and do our best to support our country.

 

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Yes, I’m . . . ,but . . .

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. Colossians 1:28

Christians have come under fire lately. Big time. We’re forever being rendered as anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, or something similar. And it’s no surprise that many Christian writers and bloggers have taken a defensive stance against such accusations. Personally, I have taken sort of a “duck and cover” strategy. I figure most of those standing up for the Christian community are doing a fine job, and anything I could add would probably just get misconstrued and cause more confusion and dissension.

Then I saw this video: I’m Christian, but I’m not . . . I was both surprised and impressed to find a defense of Christianity from a website as secular as BuzzFeed. But the video also struck me as being very . . . modern.

I say this because it deals with a modern phenomenon I will call “identity management.” Think about how much you do to craft your identity. The music you listen to, the clothes you wear, the pictures you post on your social media profile, and even the place you worship all factor into how people perceive you. I’m not saying you choose these things just because of how it will make you look, but they can all provide you with a sense of identity.

And it’s not enough to identify with a specific group. Everyone wants to point out how they, individually, are unique. “I’m a Christian, but I’m not a Republican.” “I’m White, but I’m not a racist.” “I’m this, but that.

My point is that all of the posts I’ve seen about what it means to be Christian are essentially a form of identity management. And my question is, why are we wasting our breath? My identity doesn’t come from my association with a group of people called “Christians.” It comes from Jesus Christ himself. And he’s the one I should be talking about. It’s all well and good to stand up for what you believe in, but better to just leave yourself out of it all together.

Paul says, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” His identity was completely wrapped up in his relationship with Jesus Christ and nothing else. In the same spirit, I’d like my life to say, “I’m nothing, but Jesus . . .”

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Since everyone else is talking about it . . .

I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re an American, you know that same-sex marriage is now legal in all 50 states according to a supreme court ruling handed down this morning. I think it’s also safe to assume that you have an opinion on the ruling. With so many passionate and confusing reactions out there on social media, I decided to give my two cents.

On the ruling

I was struck by the phrasing Justice Kennedy used in the majority opinion. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.” I think Justice Kennedy has a point here. Gays and lesbians in this country clearly have a regard for the idea of marriage (or at least an idea of marriage, if a misguided one). If they seek fulfillment in their partner before anyone or anything else, they do not have too low a regard for marriage, but too high a regard for marriage.

I’m sure married, opposite-sex couples understand better than anyone, that marriage is not a happily ever after. Even a Christ-centered marriage has its share of disappointments and heartache. Perhaps the reason these marriages tend to last is due to more realistic expectations. While Kennedy asserts that “the petitioners, far from seeking to devalue marriage seek it for their respect– and need– for its privileges and responsibilities,” I maintain that gays and lesbians do not need marriage. They need Jesus. I cannot describe to you the relief I experienced when I realized this for myself.

On the Church

My greatest concern following this decision is what will happen to the church. I see two potential dangers. One is almost a certainty, and that is an increasing pressure on the church to accept same-sex marriage as normal. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas, speaking of the religious and governmental institutions of marriage, says, “It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict, particularly as individuals and churches are confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.” Christians have already been attacked for refusing to endorse or be involved in same-sex marriage ceremonies. Now that the Supreme Court has spoken, the church will only be perceived as more intolerant, more hateful, and more bigoted. I can only imagine what the consequences will be for those who continue to speak out ten, twenty, or thirty years from now.

But perhaps the greater danger, and one which may yet be avoided, is that there will be no consequences because in a few decades, no one will be speaking out against same-sex marriage anymore. I sincerely hope and pray that the church does not let this happen for the very simple reason that gays and lesbians need help. And if the church doesn’t help them, no one will.

In conclusion, I expect there to be much confusion in the GLBT community when their “golden ticket” proves a fake. When they discover that a legal marriage does not provide the “privileges and responsibilities” they need, perhaps they will turn to the church for answers. But I ask the church: when they do, will we be ready?

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