Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gracious Hands That Hurt

Adapted from "Hot Stone Massage 1" by funny-p

He finds the places where I hurt, and he makes me hurt worse.

His hands find sensitive spots, and he presses, leans weight into them, almost takes my breath away sometimes.

Why do I pay for pain?  Why do I look forward to these sessions?  Because even though they hurt, they hurt good.  I love deep-tissue massages.  Nothing helps my back problems more.

My massage therapist has told me that much of my pain comes from tension and stress. 

He has also said, "I know great big men who can't handle the kind of pressure I put on you!" 

I reply, "I know the difference between good pain and bad pain, and this is the good stuff." 

The good pain relieves the bad.

After a lifetime of sometimes severe discomfort, I've learned very well to surrender myself in trust to those gracious hands that hurt.  It's a surrender so complete that I even cooperate, commanding my muscles to relax into the pain to gain maximum benefit.

After I came home from today's desperately-needed massage, I soon encountered a very different kind of pain.  The source?  One of my own children raging at me about homework, kicking at me (deliberately missing me, but still impacting my soul), and worst of all, being incapable of getting past his own autistic/bipolar mindset enough to actually do his homework.  Again.  A not-uncommon evening with my child who is frequently his own worst enemy and hates those who try to help him.

It hurts.

What will I do with the pain?

It all boils down to how much I trust my Physician, doesn't it?

Do I trust Him enough to relax into the pain, or will I grit my teeth and bear it resentfully?  Or will I insist upon escapism (as I usually do)?

Normally such an event would spell the end of any efforts I might have been making towards keeping house.  I'd feel too angry, too unappreciated, too soul-weary to face any more chores. 

But my gracious Physician keeps pressing on the places that hurt.  He's been doing it for years, and He's been relentless.  He's pinpoint-accurate, too.  And slowly, slowly, just a month away from my 45th birthday, I might actually be letting go of some of the knots in my soul.

By His grace, I was able to let the tears come when I could get some time alone, and I was able to give them to the Healer without resentment or demands. 

And then I made a conscious decision to do some more chores.

It wasn't an act of martyrdom.  It was an act of trust, of hope.  And it was an act of defiance against the slithering serpent of despair who has so often convinced me that I am alone in the universe and can't handle another thing.

I guess you could say that, for the first time in my life, I relaxed in the Great Physician's hands, trusting that the good pain would relieve the bad.

And of course it did.  Jesus knows how to heal better than anyone. 

As His child, I am assured that no pain comes to me except through His loving endowment (Lam 3:38).  And so, ultimately, all the pain that He brings into my life is gracious.  It is good.

I cause the "bad pain" by fighting, by resenting, by struggling, by fleeing and escaping. 

I'm reminded of a quote, and I'm afraid I don't know who said it.  But there's a lot of truth packed into this short sentence:

The trial is usually never as bad as the unbelief during the trial.

How much of my soul's pain comes from the tension and stress that God never intended me to have?  Tension and stress which, I must add, are multiplied by my lack of trust?

Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in Me.

(John 14:1)

Tonight I sit here with a quietness in my soul that I could never have expected on such an evening. 

I only have the good pain.  And it hurts so much less than the bad.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Grace and the Fallacy of "Arrival"

"The Way of Tranquility" by tafelskiha

All of my adult life, I've been wondering why I haven't "arrived" yet. 

For many people, their 30th birthday is a crisis because they don't want to admit they're getting older.  For me it was a crisis because I had always thought that 30-year-olds would have it all together…and I knew I didn't!  (I didn't have it all together at 40 either, and the prospects for 50 aren't very hopeful.)

So when do I arrive?  What will it look like when I get there?

It's an embarrassing feeling, you know…thinking you're falling short, you're immature, you're a disappointment, or whatever.  I should be past this temptation.  I shouldn't struggle with this any more.  You know the song?

Modern Western "feel-good Christianity" would tell me I need to just rest in God's love and realize that I'm okay just the way I am.  And Scripture definitely does teach us to rest in God's love if we are His children (Rom 8:31-39).

But an honest look at Scripture does not support the idea that, "I'm okay just the way I am."  If I were okay, there would be no need for me to be humble (Jas 4:10, 1 Pet 5:6), to grow (Eph 4:15-16, 1 Pet 2:2, 2 Pet 3:18), to accept correction (Heb 12:5-11), to confess sin (Jas 5:16, 1 John 1:9)…but I am commanded to do these things!  I am unquestionably loved and accepted (Eph 1:6 NKJV), but I'm not yet what I should be.  Scripture warns that I should not be complacent (and implies that I'm a fool if I am – see Pr 1:32).  I am to press on (Php 3:12-14), to strive (Lk 13:24, 1Co 14:12, Heb 4:11), to "work out" my salvation as God works it in me (Php 2:12-13).  I am to walk in a manner worthy of Him and His calling (Eph 4:1, Php 1:27, Col 1:10, 1Th 2:12).  I know these things, so when people tell me to quit concerning myself with my sin, and to work on improving my self-esteem instead, it falls flat on my ears. 

So if I have more striving and working out to do, and more discipline to endure, then how am I to rest in His love and acceptance?  Must I choose between the two truths, or perhaps shuttle between them depending on what kind of day I've had?

Or have I been looking at grace all wrong?

The other day I was having one of those self-disgusted, "I shouldn't still struggle with this" kind-of moments, feeling humiliated that I had to go to God for forgiveness and help once more.  But then the Holy Spirit nudged me with a perspective-changing question:

Do you really think you should have grown beyond needing My grace?

That was a lightning-bolt question, wasn't it?

Into my mind flashed all of the things I've been learning about what grace does.  Grace is the outpouring of God's kindness to us, enabling us to serve Him acceptably, to resist sin, to love Him, to grow, and so much more.

I should outgrow needing grace?  Really?  What foolish, prideful thinking!

Grace isn't a "thing," you know.  It's not a neatly wrapped package that God hands to us from Heaven. 

Grace is nothing less than an undeserved taste of God.

Whatever attribute of His wonderful Self we need, He gives to us…whether it's His kindness, His strength, His mercy, His love, His forgiveness, His wisdom…He gives us a tiny touch of Himself, and everything changes.  That's grace.  To say we ought to outgrow our need of grace is to say we ought to outgrow our need of Him.

We are not just commanded to grow, we are commanded to grow in grace (2 Pet 3:18).  What does that mean?

Can it mean anything less than learning to be utterly dependent on the grace of God, and to draw our lives from Him every moment? 

To answer that question, just ask yourself the opposite.  How much does God want us to walk in our own strength, our own wisdom, our own understanding, our own way?

What if "needing to draw on grace again" is not defeat or a sign of immaturity?  What if a life of moment-by-moment dependence isn't just the route to victory…what if moment-by-moment dependence upon His grace IS victory?  What if "arrival" has nothing to do with reaching a certain level of perfection, and everything to do with maintaining the kind of humble, childlike faith that expects nothing from itself and relies totally on God?  Isn't this what Jesus talked about in John 15, when He said we should abide in Him the way a branch abides on a vine?  Did He ever tell us we should aspire to detach ourselves and go it alone?

If sin is defined as turning away from God, then what is the opposite of turning away?  Isn't it abiding in Him and drawing our every need…drawing constant strength, wisdom, forgiveness, courage, guidance…drawing life itself from Him? 

Doesn't God accept us in the Beloved…in Jesus? 

Perhaps it's time we defined "arrival" by understanding where our destination truly lies.

In Him.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Eager Grace

Prodigal Son IMG_0599

Image by OZinOH via Flickr

Consider these two scenarios:

1.  A rebellious child greedily abuses the common graces he is shown, and refuses the extra graces he could have received if he'd been right with his parents.  His parents are angry, fed up.  They're cutting off communication, taking whatever jabs they can take at him, and trying to figure out how to make him suffer enough to…(they might tell themselves they want him to suffer enough to repent, and that may be partially true, but if they take an honest look at themselves, they will see that they really want him to suffer enough to pay for all of the suffering he's caused them.)

2.  A rebellious child greedily abuses the common graces he is shown, and refuses the extra graces he could have received if he'd been right with his parents.  His parents are eager to show him special grace, but he just spurns it.  Grace flows from them, but he will not repent.  The parents provide loving discipline and are not permissive, but always exude eagerness to show as much grace as the child is able to receive.

At this point, you might want me to draw some sort of prophetic picture, telling the future of these two families based on how the parents responded.  But I can't do that.  The most perfect parent who ever existed (God Himself) had kids that went horribly astray.  Children are not modeling clay, and we can't form them into whatever we choose.  The child whose heart seems to be with you at first may turn out to be a rebel.  And the rebel may repent (Matt 21:28-32).  God alone knows.

I can tell you that I have tended to be more like parent #1, but I want to be more like parent #2.  Why?

1.  I no longer believe that parent #2 is a sucker.

2.  I want to present God's grace in a tangible way, so that my children will perceive God as gracious and willing…no, eager to forgive.

3.  I want to remain in God's grace myself, enjoying Him as He flows through me to others.

4.  I want to know that I did the best I could for my children.

How eager are we to be gracious?

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'  But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate."  (Luke 15:20-24, emphasis added.)

I wonder, would the son have even bothered coming back, if he'd had a father like parent #1?

Can we extend these thoughts beyond our families?  How eager are we to extend God's grace to our neighbor, to the homeless, to the elderly infirm, to the debauched, to our enemy?  I didn't ask, "how willing," but "how eager?"

How different would we be if such eagerness characterized us?  What expression would habitually shape our faces?  What softness would sound in the tone of our voice?  What hopefulness would shine from our eyes?  How different would we be from the world around us?

Would those who long for grace feel drawn to us?  Do they feel that way now?

I'm sure some of you are quite free with God's grace, and I am thankful for you.  But as for the rest of us, why are we not more eager to extend God's grace to others?  Having received it freely from Him, are we now going to be stingy about giving it (Matt 10:8 NKJV)?  Are we afraid of people abusing His grace?  Do we resent the burdens others place on us, or are we hindered by selfish motives (1 Pet 5:2)?

Could it be that we've never tasted His grace at all?  We've taken His common graces for granted, and perhaps…dare I say it…perhaps there are some among my readers who have named the name of Christ for years, but do not really know Him?  Perhaps some have no overflow to give, because there's no flow coming from Above.  That was my story, for most of my life.  I would be guilty of great sin if I didn't at least ask sometimes for people to examine themselves, as Paul commanded (2 Co 13:5).

Whatever the reasons, I know that today was the first day in my life that I was ever aware of eagerness to show grace.  It is a wonderful feeling, and I know it is nothing short of a miraculous answer to prayer.

I also have felt the usual old flesh coming through plenty of times, of course.  So can we keep praying for one another…not just that we would show common grace, but that we would be eager to show it, and eager to show special grace whenever we possibly can?

If the whole body of Christ were like that, what would happen in our world?

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Grace and Persistence

"Church Doors" by hortongrou

“Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, 'Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him'; and he will answer from within, 'Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything'? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. (Luke 11:5-9)

Why does God value persistence? When Jesus said to "ask" and "seek" and "knock," He spoke in a tense that implied continuous, persevering action.

Why must we persist?

Does God like seeing His kids bloodying their knuckles on the Pearly Gates? Is He so overworked that He can't answer right away?

Does He need for us to prove just how badly we want the thing we're asking for? Must we earn our answers with "sincere enough" desire?

Or do we just wear Him down by our whining and wheedling, like spoiled children whose parents finally give in so they'll shut up?

What's gracious about that?

Like so many other parts of the Bible, texts like this one used to give me a lot of trouble. I didn't like the God that they seemed to present. I thought that Jesus was saying, "God is like that unwilling friend who doesn't want to help." But He wasn't saying that at all.

As usual, my difficulties existed only because I was reading the Bible as a man-centered book, not a God-centered one. A man-centered soul views God in all of the insulting ways mentioned above (unwilling to give, forcing us to jump through hoops), and does its best to manipulate Him. It also pridefully congratulates itself whenever God answers its prayers, and boasts to others about how its persistence paid off.

Heaven help us!

The fact is, people are pretty persistent, even stubborn. If we give up on one desire, it's only because we've decided to substitute a different one that we think will serve us as well. The child who begs for an ice cream may switch to begging for candy if the ice cream is denied. Either way, he persists in his demanding. Give me pleasure!

Humans are demanding by nature. We never stop asking, never stop seeking, never stop knocking. More pleasure…more comfort…more this…more that. We're like nursing babies…always hungry, and not subtle about it (Prov 30:15-16 NKJV). Meanwhile, we're dealing with a God who works on His own timetable. He has a master plan, with minute details beyond anything we can even imagine, and yet with a sweeping scope that covers all of the grand pageant of time and eternity.

He has made everything beautiful in its time (Eccl 3:11)

God is the one who decides when it's your time, and mine, to see our answers come, to see our desires fulfilled.

My times are in Your hand (Ps 31:15)

Sometimes, our desires are for exactly the thing which God wants to give us, but we're going to have to wait. And while we're waiting, trust me…we will not stop seeking, craving, striving. Do we really need more persistence?

Or should we be asking what God wants us to do with the incredible persistence that He has built into us? Does He merely want us to keep asking, seeking, and knocking, as if tenacity alone were enough? Or does He want us to keep asking, seeking, and knocking at His throne?

Is it the fact of persistence that matters to Him, or is it the orientation of our persistence that He cares about? Because if we are, by nature, endlessly searching, and we stop seeking our desires in God, then by default we will start looking elsewhere.

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Ex 32:1)

The root of all idolatry is the desire to find what we want somewhere other than from God, or sometime other than when He is willing to give it.

Next time you and I find ourselves tempted to give up on a prayer, let's ask ourselves some important questions:

  • Has God given us a definite "no?" That can happen (2 Co 12:8-9), and when it does, then it's right to surrender our desire.
  • If God hasn't told us "no," but we're discouraged with His lack of answers and want to quit, are we truly giving up on the desire, or are we seeking satisfaction in some other form, from somewhere else?

The question is not, "How persistent can we be?" as if we should exercise a man-centered trust in our inner strength. The question is "Who deserves our persistence?" That's where grace comes in! Grace orients us to God, when our natural tendency is to focus on ourselves. The man in the parable did not go anywhere else in his tenacious search…he kept knocking at this door, even when it seemed like his friend didn't care. God, in His grace, assures us of His love, so (the parable asks by inference), how much more persistent should we be than the man with the uncaring friend? And grace, not the brute force of our will, is behind every answer, whether it's the "yes" we long for, the "no" we dread, or the "wait" that keeps us hanging. All work out for our good.

While we are seeking, where do we seek? Are we before the throne, or are we buried in the TV advice-mongers? Are we dipping into the Living Waters, or into the chocolates?

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:66-69)

See how Peter's faith and his persistence went hand-in-hand? He didn't persist because of faith in his own tenacity. He persisted because of faith in Jesus. When we put faith in our own endurance, we are idolaters. When we put faith in Jesus, our persistence at His feet comes naturally.

To whom else would we go?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Grace and Last Night's Homework

Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another (Jas 5:16)

"Study" by holtenl05

Last time, I mentioned my need for prayer because of easily-provoked anger and a legalistic parenting style. And after what happened last night, I can't help believing that some of you prayed for me. Thank you.

Homework with one precious son started out horribly…autistic obsessiveness, screaming, tantruming, and all of the usual indications that no work would actually get done.

I was working up a good head of steam (no surprise), counting on the idea that the right consequences combined with the right level of anger would change things for the better. The wrath of man does produce the righteousness of God, doesn't it? (Ummm…see Jas 1:20)

Tell me I'm not the only one who does that!

Anyway, right in the middle of this awful mess, when it looked like we were destined to be at each other's throats, God intervened by His grace.

I can think of no other explanation. There's no way I could have stepped myself back from my anger, or seen so clearly what was needed, or even desired to do what was needed if I had seen it. It was definitely a God thing, a change of heart, a dawning of light.

"Son," I said, "I'm making a very foolish mistake, thinking I'm going to make this better by being angry. And you're making foolish mistakes, too. What do you think we need to do?"

I don't remember what he answered, but it wasn't quite what I had in mind, so I asked him, "Who is the only one who can help us?"

"God," he replied.

"I think we should pray," I agreed.

He nodded, looking a little repentant, and then bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut tight.

I prayed aloud something like this, "Lord, please forgive me for my anger, and for trusting in my anger to make things right. And please forgive my son for his rebellion against doing his homework. Help us both to be wiser, and to remember to look to You for help, and to be humble and obedient."

After the "Amen," there was a complete 180 for both of us.

Folks, that's not the power of prayer. That's the power of GOD, accessed through prayer. Prayer is only as good as the one being prayed to. And our God is not only good; He is also gracious.

What's the difference between "good" and "gracious?" It's simply this: if God had chosen to say "no" to my request, He would still have been good. He cannot be other than good. His "no" would have had some glorious purpose behind it. He didn't have to say "Yes," but He did.

That's grace. Undeserved kindness.

We worked together for almost two hours, my son and I, with no more anger, no more tantruming, no more ugliness. And when it was over, we bowed our heads and thanked the Lord for helping us.

So now I want to thank all of you who prayed to our God through the Lord Jesus Christ. You had a hand in giving us this priceless moment in time. Who knows how deep an impression it may have made on a young heart?

I know it made quite an impression on mine.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Giving Common Grace

"Our Precious Baby Girl" by Simmbarb

I don't have a clue how grace goes with parenting.

Really, not a clue.

Lately, as I've studied and prayed more about grace, I've felt increasingly convicted about my easily-provoked anger and my legalistic style of parenting.

But what do you do when kids don't respond to anything but legalism?  What do you do when grace is abused and turned into an excuse to sin?

What does God do?

We've already discussed that a bit in this series, but how can I learn from what He does?  After all, I'm not all-knowing and all-wise.  I can't utilize the perfect balance of kindness and severity like He can (Rom 11:22).  And if I can't dispense grace in the same way He does, then what am I supposed to do with it?

I don't know yet, but I do know one thing…one answer that the Holy Spirit put in my heart the other day.

Give common grace.

That was it.  Give common grace.  That's what God does, isn't it?  He gives a certain amount of grace to everybody…common graces like beauty to behold, people to love, tastes to savor, successes to celebrate (see Matt 5:45).

How, as a parent, do I give common grace?

I give it by washing dishes, cleaning rooms, scrubbing toilets, cooking meals…and doing it all graciously.

Well, I don't do it that way, but I should.

It's easy to do these things resentfully, and to neglect doing them whenever possible.  It's also easy to do them in a half-baked way, figuring that the people who are going to destroy all of my hard work really don't deserve my best.

When I have a bad day, does God shrink the glorious Rocky Mountains down to a size I deserve to look at?  Does He make my favorite meal taste like Brussels Sprouts if I've been disobedient?  Does He spitefully refuse to care for me on days when I've failed Him? 

Doesn't He give good things even to those He knows will perish eternally?

My fear of seeing grace abused has often kept me from showing grace to others.  My horror at being "walked all over" like a doormat has often made me protest against the very thought of graciousness.

But God gives common grace…to everyone.  Even to the most undeserving souls.

Like me.

Shouldn't I give common graces to my children just as graciously, regardless of how they've behaved that day?  True, I probably can't give them all of the special graces they might have enjoyed if they had been of a mind to receive them, but can't I give those ordinary, humble acts of love with a willing heart and a cheerful Spirit?


I can't.  I'm too selfish, too naturally angry, too lazy.

But Christ can, through me. 

And I'm beginning to want to spread more of His grace around, because God is no fool.  If He gives common grace to me, then He can give it through me, and He won't be made a "sucker" no matter how poorly His grace is received.  I can leave the consequences up to Him.

And you know what?  I bet those "consequences" will end up being far better than anything my anger could have created (Jas 1:19).

Give common grace!  And pray for me that I will do the same.  Please.  I really, really need it.

My children will thank you…

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Blessing of Hunger (Pt. 2)

FotoSketcher - empty bowl

Way back in March of this year I wrote an entry called "The Blessing of Hunger."  In it, I promised that a "Part 2" was coming, in which we would talk about the blessing of spiritual hunger.  

Somehow, it never happened, and I didn't even realize my omission until recently.

God, of course, knew all about it.  And maybe He just wanted it to be written now, while we're talking so much about grace.  Because without God's grace, we could never hunger for Him as we should.  Hunger for God is a gift of grace. 

And of course, this strong desire that we call "hunger" is sometimes described with another powerful word…thirst.

"As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, Oh God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God." (Ps. 42:1-2)

As a child I used to read that verse with a touch of pity for David…not because his hunger wasn't being satisfied, but because he was so strange to feel such hunger in the first place!  He seemed like a bit of a weirdo, out of touch with what really matters in the world.  After all, I already had my head stuffed full of Christianity, and I couldn't see anything to get that excited about.

Pretty sorry testimony, isn't it? 

There are those who would have prescribed more exciting music, more fun and games in Sunday School, or maybe a good dose of guilt to cure my malady, if they had known about it.  I wonder if anyone would have realized that what I needed was grace.

And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deut 30:6)

Love for God, and the resulting desire for God, are a gift from God!  (So is salvation…and many of us would argue that there's a strong bond between the two.)

Most of my career was spent working in nursing homes, so naturally I saw a lot of people who were approaching the end of their lives.  And one of the more ominous signs we saw was the loss of appetite.  When people lost the desire for food, we grew concerned that the end was near.  And it goes without saying that we worry terribly about infants who have no desire for food.  Clearly their lives are in jeopardy.

How's your appetite?

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matt 5:6)

There's more than one way to lose your appetite, you know.  One way is, frankly, to be dead.  Those who are spiritually dead have no hunger for the one true God, except what the Spirit miraculously gives to them as He's drawing them towards life.  But what about those of us who are spiritually alive?  We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps 34:8), and yet sometimes we still feel no desire for Him.  What's that about?

Sometimes, of course, it's outright sin and rebellion.  Sometimes it may be a God-ordained "dry spell" that He gives us for His own gracious reasons.  But often, I suspect, it's because we've glutted ourselves on the spiritual equivalent of junk food.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food." (Isa 55:1-2)

Give a kid enough nutritionless candy, and he'll turn up his nose at what his body really needs.

What's the "candy" in your life?  What do you spend money for even though it's not bread?  What do you work for that doesn't satisfy?

One who is full loathes honey, but to one who is hungry everything bitter is sweet. (Prov 27:7)

What is making you loathe the honey?

There's one more reason I can think of why people don't hunger for God more.  They don't understand the truth that Oswald Chambers expressed so beautifully when he said, “Eternal life is not a gift from God. It is the gift of God.”  In the Gospel, God gives us Himself.  Yet we have stocked our churches full of people who believe that the gospel is about getting them off the hook, saving them from Hell, and giving them worldly prosperity.  No wonder they squirm in their seats when they hear that they're supposed to hunger for God Himself!  What could "hungering for God" possibly mean?

I've heard well-meaning people try to whip up enthusiasm for God by reminding others of how He saved them from Hell, and nothing else. Well of course we should never tire of rejoicing in that salvation.  But do we neglect the truest meaning of salvation…not the lack of Hell, but union with God through Christ? 

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)

Do we realize there is a God to be loved, savored, treasured, cherished, and enjoyed ecstatically for all of eternity?  Does this God, who makes Heaven heavenly, seem as tasteless as the white of an egg to us?

If so, the problem is not with Him, but with our appetite.  And for us the apostle Paul prays,

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Php 1:9-11)

Will you pray that for yourself as well?  Will you pray for hunger and thirst…not just for Heaven, but for Him?  Will you pray that for all believers?

I know it would mean a lot to me if you were praying that for me!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Grace and Humility

Eclipse of Dove in Guadalajara by Arturo

Last time I mentioned that there were two thoughts which had kept coming into my mind lately.  Here is the second, and I hope you'll take note of where the emphasis is placed on various words.  Really think about this question, as it relates to loyalty to God:

Am I most troubled because

I am not

perfectly loyal to God,


Or am I most troubled because

I am not perfectly loyal

to God?

Have you taken the time to really examine yourself on this question?

When you think of loyalty to God, where is your focus?  Is it on yourself, and the quality of your loyalty, and how it measures up to other people's loyalty or to your own expectations?  Do thoughts of loyalty make you feel burdened…or proud?

Or is your focus on Christ, and how worthy He is of all loyalty?  Do thoughts of loyalty revolve around love and admiration?  Is loyalty a joy?

Your answer to that question will reveal to a large extent whether you function by law or by grace. 

Do you agree?  Please post your comments below.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Grace, Love, and Loyalty

Two thoughts have kept coming to me this week as I've worked on this series.  They've struck me pretty hard sometimes, and this morning they got me out of bed with the need to write about them.  I'll only have room for one today, and here it is.

Dachau--Arbeit macht frei by Kerbi

Imagine yourself living a normal life, just the way you typically live it.  And then, one day, a hostile government swoops down on your home, hauls you away to their facilities, and tells you that you must deny Christ in some way in order to be released.  You steel yourself and say, "No, I cannot turn against Christ." 

You expect them to be angry, but instead they laugh and say, "Why not?  Why should today be different from yesterday?"  And as you stand there, your recent loyalty to Christ runs through your mind…how often you've denied Him in the angry words you've spoken to others, in the choices of entertainment you've made, in the priority you have given to other things over Him.

Yesterday, those little denials seemed to be worth it, yet they gained you only minor benefits…the chance to blow off steam, to enjoy a few laughs, to pursue your own agenda.  Today, a seemingly small denial will win you back your freedom and your family.  How much would that denial be worth to you?

Why should today's loyalty to Christ be different from yesterday's?  Do we have any right to expect that we would be more loyal under persecution than under ordinary circumstances?  Perhaps we might be.  But there's no peace in that "perhaps."

Let's look at it another way.  Have you ever wondered if you would have enough strength to run out in front of a speeding car to push your toddler to safety?  If you're a parent reading this, you probably think, "Of course I would!  Fear or no fear, cost or no cost, I'd just do it naturally because I love him!"

Dear Reader, how often have you wondered if, under persecution, you would have enough strength to stand?  Has it ever occurred to you to wonder if you would have enough love for God to stand?

If a person decides to gain strength, how do they go about it?  They focus on themselves…their diet, their exercise, how much weight they can lift, how much their muscles bulge when they admire themselves in the mirror.

If a person decides to gain love, how do they go about it?  Do they focus mostly on themselves?  Well, they might, if they're trying to gain love out of a sense of legalism.  But that would be a futile attempt.  Legalism is all about work and bondage.  Love is free, spontaneous, and joyful.  (Do you recognize the photo above?  It's the gate to the Dachau Concentration Camp in Nazi Germany.  The words on the gate say, "Work will set you free."  It was a lie then, and it's a lie now.)

In order to grow in love with God, we need a miraculous work of the Spirit (Deut 30:6).  And His Spirit speaks most through His Word.

Be in the Word, and if necessary, change the reason why you're there.  Open the pages every day with a prayer that the Spirit of God would teach you to love Him!  Search the Word hungrily for who He is, the same way devoted teenagers search the fan magazines for the smallest bits of trivia about their idols.  Make it your prayer throughout the day as you work and as you rest: "Lord give me a heart that loves You as You deserve to be loved!" 

How would such a constant prayer focus change your life?

Now let me ask you this: when you imagine praying for God to help you love Him, how does that feel to you?

Does it feel like a desperate plea to learn to love the unlovable, sort of like praying that God would help you to love headaches?  If so, you've got plenty of sad company.  I felt that way about it for a long time myself.  It's the best the flesh can muster.

Instead, pray desperately that God would forgive your love for sin and self which blind you to His beauty.  Ask Him to open your eyes to how infinitely worthy He is of your lifelong love and devotion.  He is that worthy, you know.  Ask Him for the kind of love that will strengthen you in persecution, in part by asking Him for the kind of love that will govern how (and how much) you entertain yourself this afternoon. 

After all, if love for God guides your decisions throughout your normal days, what do you think will happen when persecution comes?  Will you be thinking mostly in terms of mustering up strength on that day?

Or would your loyalty to Christ come naturally, fear or no fear, cost or no cost, because you love Him?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Grace, Felt and Unfelt

Kid and Butterfly by ravasolix

Sunday night held a wonderful moment of "felt grace."

Night owl that I am, I crawled between the sheets shortly before midnight; my heart full of the devotions I'd just finished, my brain fogged with sleepiness, and a 6 a.m. alarm awaiting me all too soon.

In other words, it was a fairly normal night.

As usual when my brain is too tired to stay awake much longer, I had a choice to make.  Should I spend my remaining waking minutes in prayer, or in reviewing the many memory verses I hadn't gotten to yet that day?

I usually default to the memory verses.  But last night the Holy Spirit wouldn't allow it.

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding."  It wasn't just a random childhood memory verse coming to the fore.  It was a verse powerfully brought to mind by the Spirit, illuminated in a whole new way.

You want to fill your head with my Word, but you don't want to bring your heart to Me.

When the Spirit speaks, His conviction feels cleansing, purifying, even freeing.  Not at all like a guilt trip.  So this Word felt like the wonderful act of grace that it was.

He was right, of course.  Memorization is wonderful and necessary, but it's not enough.  I tend to trust in my own understanding of Scriptures, apart from the Spirit's application of it in my life, and I tend to feel (subconsciously) that reviewing verses is just as helpful to me as praying.  Wrong!  When I think that way, I'm leaning on my own understanding of Scripture more than trusting in Him.

By all means, memorize!  Memorize tons!  But let memorization bring you to the throne of grace.  Come to Christ with what the Scripture reveals to your heart.  Ask for His transforming work.  That's what grace taught me last night.  (Oh sure, I'd heard that truth before, but it didn't sink in until grace touched it.)

I wrote the previous paragraphs early Monday morning.  And Monday turned out to be a really, really rough day.  The kind of day that often sends me plummeting into a morass of simmering rage, basted with self-pity.

On this particular bad day, I did blow my top a couple of times, but overall, I felt God's grace more than I ever have on a day like that. 

You see, sometimes grace is about giving us happy times, but if that's all grace could be, then it would be pretty shallow.  Sometimes, like on Monday, it's about bringing us closer to Our Loving Father and seeing the change that His touch can make in even the worst of days.  And it's about empowering us to love, even when those we love are driving us nuts.

Grace moves us Godward.  It could not do less and still be gracious.

But what about those times when we don't feel God's grace?  Has He abandoned us? 

If we are truly God's children, adopted through faith in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:5), then He promises to complete the good work which He began in us (Php 1:6).  And sometimes that means bringing us to the end of ourselves.

In my life it meant years of depression, believing that death would be preferable to life, rage at God for all of my troubles, and eventually stripping away my prideful religious veneer until I heard myself saying with all the venom in my soul, "God, You're a cosmic sadist and I hate You!"

Amazingly enough, if you were to ask me when was the first time I ever truly felt the grip of God's love, my mind would instantly go back to the moment I said that.  (Please read the entry called "Feeling His Grip" to get that whole story.)  I had to get to that moment in order to finally be freed of my own misconceptions about my spiritual superiority.  It was grace that broke me, so that I would stop my headlong rush toward destruction.  It was grace that eventually turned me Godward.

Now, God may not need to use a sledgehammer approach on you like He did with this old tough nut, but in every life there are times when grace must be firm.  Love must be tough.  And when we're hurting, grace may seem completely absent until the suffering ends and hindsight shows us how He led us through it all.

Always remember, whether it's pain or pleasure, loss or gain, joy or grief…

anything that moves you toward the only True God, through Jesus Christ His Son, is grace

Cropped from "Butterfly" by Claudmey

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