Now What?!

A few years ago there was a time where I hit the wall — just could not handle anything else and crashed in bed for a few days.  There was a lot going on, but in particular I felt overwhelmed by the stories I heard from so many people — stories of tragedy and grief and loss and you name it, and I was trying to slog through under the weight of all that and somehow also be a wife and mother and daughter and friend.  I was exhausted. And part of the reason I was exhausted was that I was trying to “handle” all of that while continuing to “perform” at the same level at work and at home.  It was crushing.

I was reminded of this recently as I was looking over the posts on this blog so far and thinking how hard it can be to see our disobedience as it really is — and how easy it is to slide into despair when we see it.  So few Christians (including me, for a long time) really understand what the process of sanctification is really supposed to look like!  We hear all these words (like sanctification) in church and kind of nod and smile, but so frequently we really don’t know what it’s supposed to look like or feel like and are afraid to ask because we think everyone else has got it figured out.  (There are actually about a million things that are like that in Christianity — things that people don’t really know what they mean and are afraid to ask about, and that everyone assumes everyone else understands, but that is a blog post for another time.) People kept talking about sanctification, but no one really explained who is supposed to do what in that process.  I wondered:

  • What does God do in the process of sanctification and what do I do?
  • How do I pursue holiness?
  • How does change happen in the life of a Christian?
  • How does change happen in my heart and not just in my actions?

I think one of the most difficult things to get my head around has been the reality that only God can change my heart.  I can choose the right behavior, “do the right thing”, but my heart doesn’t get there until God moves in it.  What I have found is that I will see something through Scripture — a place where I don’t match up with what God commands, where I don’t match up with the example that Jesus set — and then it feels like I see it EVERYWHERE in my life and in my heart for a while.  A lot of times my tendency is then to start trying to “fix” myself: making resolutions, coming up with a plan, memorizing a verse or two or ten, etc.. I inevitably get frustrated because it feels like change is SO SLOW, and frustrated because even when I am able to “act right”, I can’t change my own heart — and it is the heart that my actions are coming out of, after all:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks”(Luke 6:45, ESV).

You can see how I would end up exhausted.  There’s nothing like trying to fix yourself to wear a person out!  When I was sitting there in bed recovering, the verse that came to mind was this:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

And then this:

“He who began a good work in [me] will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

Look at what those verses are saying!  They were exactly what I needed to hear at the time, and still need to be reminded of frequently:  I am — we are – His workmanship!  He began a good work in me — in us! He will not forsake the work of His hands! What they said to me was that I didn’t create myself, I didn’t begin anything good in myself, I am not the one who saved myself, and I am not the one who will complete myself by making myself into a project!

What I realized in all this is that if I try to set the agenda for who I am supposed to be, if I make the plan, if I make a project of myself, I am in essence trying to make myself God.  I am not seeking Him and His will in that way of thinking.  The other thing I realized is that I am voluntarily giving up the freedom Christ has given us through His death and resurrection if I try to “achieve” righteousness through my own efforts:

“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:19-21, emphasis mine).

Christ died so that we are no longer under the law, but under grace instead, so if I am putting myself back under the law (essentially, trying to “get it right” all the time, and then punishing myself mentally when I don’t), it’s like there was no point in Christ dying for me!

And when I’m trying to “get it right”, I am missing out on the good news of the gospel — the rest and freedom that we have through Christ:

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:27-30, my emphasis).

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1, quoted by Jesus in Luke 4, my emphasis).

The “captives” and the “bound” in this are us — who are captive and bound to sin without Christ’s intervention — but because we have forgiveness through Him, we have liberty!  (And then, at least in my case, we go back and forth between basking in that freedom and then putting ourselves back in chains by trying to ‘get it right’!)  And through that freedom, instead of boasting of “my” work or successes, I can boast of Him — who He is, and what He has done in and through me:

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10).

Sanctification, as I understand it, is beyond our ability to do on our own.  As God reveals more and more of Himself to us, as we come to know Him more and more through His word, as we come to see ourselves more and more clearly, we are to grow in dependence on Him — not to grow by our own will and efforts.  We do need to pursue Him — to come to know Him more and more through His word and prayer, and to willingly choose to depend more and more on Him — but He will work the change in our hearts, not us.  My hope and prayer is that we will all experience more and more of the freedom to be had in Christ and less and less of the slavery of performance, and that our response to conviction would be to throw ourselves at the feet of the cross and not to torture ourselves with regret and despair.  He did begin that good work in us and He will be faithful to complete it.

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Cows Made of Earrings, Part 2

Last week we were looking at some of the ways we worship cows made of earrings, which is kind of an Old Testament way of referring to how we end up worshiping things that we make with our hands – or just worshiping ourselves.

It’s easy to think of obedience as almost a niggling detail, like obedience in the sense of doing your homework or making your bed.  But as I’ve dug into it further from a Biblical perspective, it has become obvious that disobedience is a lot bigger and a lot deeper than that.  Here are a few Old Testament examples:

  • Lot’s wife disobeys and turns back to Sodom after God has told them not to look back – and is turned into a pillar of salt.
  • In Exodus after the gold jewelry is made into a cow-shaped idol, Moses returns from the mountaintop where he has been getting the law from God (gotta love the irony!), burns the idol and makes them drink idol-ash water. Then…

“Now when Moses saw that the people were out of control – for Aaron had let them get out of control to be a derision among their enemies– then Moses stood in the gate of the camp, and said, ‘Whoever is for the LORD, come to me!’ And all the sons of Levi gathered together to him. He said to them, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Every man of you put his sword upon his thigh, and go back and forth from gate to gate in the camp, and kill every man his brother, and every man his friend, and every man his neighbor’.’ So the sons of Levi did as Moses instructed, and about three thousand men of the people fell that day” (Exodus 32:25-28, NASB).

  • And from the fifth book of the Bible…

“If your brother, your mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul, entice you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’ (whom neither you nor your fathers have known, of the gods of the peoples who are around you, near you or far from you, from one end of the earth to the other end), you shall not yield to him or listen to him; and your eye shall not pity him, nor shall you spare or conceal him. But you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. So you shall stone him to death because he has sought to seduce you from the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and will never again do such a wicked thing among you” (Deuteronomy 13:6-11, NASB).

Whoa, huh? That’s the punishment we deserve for following other gods?! Good thing we don’t follow other gods…except…uh oh… Scripture says that we are slaves to whomever we obey, whether that is God or ourselves or a cow made out of earrings.  If I obey myself instead of God, I am exalting myself above Him – I am “following” myself instead of Him.  It’s interesting and very revealing to ask ourselves who we are following in any given situation – Our feelings? Other people’s opinions of us? God? What is ruling our choices and behavior and how we treat others?

One day, in a particularly self-righteous moment, it dawned on me: Jesus got the punishment I deserved. I follow myself and not Him; I’m the one who is serving other gods by my choices and actions.  But He took the punishment.  He is the one God turned away from even though I was the one who earned that. That is something that will deflate self-righteousness in a hurry!  How can we think ourselves better than anyone else when that is what we deserve?

So often, I think of my disobedience as no big deal. “It’s just this one little thing”, I seem to say to myself, as the one little thing snowballs into a bunch of little things – or maybe even one really big thing. “It’s just this one time – I’ll obey next time.” But it rarely seems to end there. I justify one thing to myself and that makes it easier to justify the next thing, and the thing after that, and the thing after that, until one day I discover that it is more of a reflex to do what I want to do or believe what I want to believe than it is to follow God. There is no “big” sin that isn’t preceded by a heart change that happens over time when we justify ourselves and our actions when we know that is not what God has – out of His infinite love – commanded for our own joy!

A great example of this kind of thinking is Eve, bless her heart (as they say here in Texas). The serpent draws her into a discussion about what God actually did or did not say regarding the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and as it happens you can see her starting to change her point of view from following God to following herself – what she can see and understand, and her own desires. She starts out reiterating what God has said (“You shall not eat from it”), but then adds to what God has said (“or touch it”), to listening to the serpent refute what God said entirely (“You surely will not die!”), to listening to the serpent accuse God (“For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil”).

She then decides that she will evaluate the situation for herself:

“When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate” (Genesis 3:6, NASB).

Notice what happens here – it says that the woman saw, and that it was a delight to her eyes. The problem with Eve evaluating the situation that way is that her eyes do not see much compared to what God sees, so when she evaluates the situation based on what she can see she is making a decision based on very limited and inaccurate information. What she sees is ruled by her own desires and limitations – she sees the tree as “desirable to make one wise”, instead of seeing it how God sees it and what He has told her through Adam about it: “for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

It’s not hard to see all the ways in which we do the same thing.  We know what God commands, but we look at the situation from our limited vantage point and decide that we know what is best and so do what we think we should do, rather than what God commands. (I most definitely include myself in that!). We convince ourselves that our disobedience doesn’t matter or only matters to us. Romans 5 blows that whole idea up, however:

“Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men” (Romans 5:12a, my emphasis), and

“For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:19a, my emphasis).

Looks like Adam and Eve’s one act of disobedience affects us all.  Understanding this makes it harder to see disobedience as merely being in the realm of not making our beds, doesn’t it?  It is easy to imagine Adam and Eve thinking, “It’s just fruit”, isn’t it?

Seeing all this can really be a beating.  We spend so much time justifying ourselves to ourselves that seeing our disobedience for what it really is can be pretty ugly. It should be ugly to us, as it turns out, but thankfully it doesn’t end there.  God so loved the world that He sent His only Son to die for our sins, to take the right and just punishment that our disobedience deserves, so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God.

In His infinite grace and mercy, God has made a way for us back to Him. The second part of Romans 5:19 says this: “even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (my emphasis).  Talk about a happy ending! Through His power and might we can be obedient – because we can trust that what He sees and understands is infinitely more than what we can see or understand, and because He strengthens us through His Holy Spirit.  “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me, Paul tells us, and the same is true for us. We are not alone in this:

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:28-32, NASB).

O Great and Mighty…Dust?

I’ve been thinking about frustration and anger and irritation and a number of other difficult emotions that often seem to crop up in our dealings with other people (and in many cases in our dealings with ourselves!). I started noticing how often I’m feeling those things in the course of a day and in the way that Scripture so often “reads” us, it became clear that there is a real heart issue behind these emotions most of the time.  The shortest summary would be that I often get frustrated, irritated or angry because people aren’t doing or saying what I want them to do or say.  (Good luck trying to justify that attitude Biblically!)

The verse that popped into my head on this one was this: “Do not trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation” (Psalms 146:3). It’s a little verse that is heavy with meaning:

  • “Do not trust in princes” – probably a reference to the many times the Israelites demanded a king for themselves instead of just following God.  To put it in a more modern context, how many times do we expect someone to do something – especially someone who is a leader – and spend no time in prayer for that leader or for what we want to have happen?
  • “in a son of man” – this one is especially interesting because of course we see Jesus referred to as the Son of Man over and over again in the New Testament.
  • “in whom there is no salvation” – this narrows down what the psalmist is talking about. He (most likely David) is specifying that we should not trust in a son of man in whom there is no salvation – but leaves the door open for trusting a Son of Man in whom there is salvation!

This really blew some things wide open for me.  How often am I frustrated because I am putting my trust in a person to do what I think should be done or to make things happen in the way I think I should?  I get angry at people (even when, by God’s grace, I have the self-control not to show it!) because I am trusting in them to make something happen or to say or do something.  To be blunt, this perspective is godless.  And it’s even more godless when I put tremendous pressure on myself to get it right, to fix it, or to make it happen because I think I am the one from whom “salvation” (in whatever form) will come.

I am putting my trust in a person, and sometimes that person is me.  It is a crushing weight that no person can bear, and the result is often crushing to relationships and individuals both.  If I trust in a person to do what only God can do, I am not only destined for disappointment, but that disappointment can color every interaction with that person – ever been around someone who made you feel like you disappointed them constantly? Ever felt disappointed in yourself constantly?

This mindset also makes it really hard to be loving to others.  It creates a scenario in which my love toward others has to do with their performance – and it is nothing like the love God has shown us, which is steadfast and full of grace and mercy. It’s also hard to be loving to others if you are constantly failing in your own estimation!

Being an experimental kind of gal, when this revelation came I wanted to see if and how it would apply to those situations where I was getting frustrated and angry.  The next time I felt myself getting wound up about how someone was doing something I reminded myself: “Your trust is not in PEOPLE.  Your trust is in God who is sovereign over EVERYTHING and in the end He is the One who orchestrates each and every moment and each and every situation.  I have to admit that even I was surprised at the sense of peace that came along with that.  And I was even more surprised at how many situations it applied to!

Does it mean we are not supposed to expect anyone to do anything ever? No.  But what it does mean is that we trust the outcome and the results to God, and that we trust Him to make things happen in the way the He knows will be best for everyone.  Not the way we think will be best for everyone.  So the pressure is off other people or ourselves in the moment because no matter what decisions we make God is over all of it and nothing happens that is not filtered through His loving hands.

An interesting and wonderful side effect of this change in perspective is that it has made me someone who prays a LOT more.  Think about it: if our trust is in people then we are going to spend our time and energy trying to get people to do what we want and then even more energy responding to what those people are or are not doing. If our trust is in ourselves, we are going to spend our time and energy agonizing over decisions or being deluded that we absolutely know what is best to do in a given situation and then exhausting ourselves in the attempt to do whatever that is.  And then chastising ourselves if we don’t get it right. However, if we believe that our trust is in God and that God ultimately decides what will happen and how it will happen, in those moments where we are frustrated or angry we will be more likely to go to Him to tell Him how we feel and to pray for the outcome that will be best for everyone involved.   Prayer is essentially an ongoing conversation with God, right? So if we are talking to others about a situation, or talking to ourselves about a situation, we are in a sense praying to other people – and less likely to seek God on those things. The Bible says that man is made from dust, and man is dust over and over and over again, and so we are essentially putting our faith in dust.  Can you imagine the prayer that would go with this? “O great and mighty…dust?”

Idolatry is one of those words that we hear a lot in Christianity and it can be a tough one to grasp. All those golden calves that the Israelites turn from God to all over the Old Testament seem ridiculous and it is hard to understand how anyone can worship them.  Really?  They are worshipping a sculpture made by someone out of their earrings?!?!!? But an idol is anything we take refuge in that is not God, or anything we look to salvation for that is not God.  This includes a lot of things that are functionally exactly as ridiculous as a cow made out of earrings, but are more socially acceptable and less overtly bizarre: our jobs, our marriages, our kids, our friends, our stuff, our neighborhoods, our appearance, and our social status are a few examples.

How many marriages are destroyed because one or both spouses are angry at the other for not fulfilling their expectations and doing things the way they think they should be done? Consider how adultery happens.  The reasoning behind it often looks something like this: “My spouse doesn’t listen/show affection/respond in the way that I want him/her to.  I shouldn’t have to live without that.  I deserve that.  I need to get that.  I am going to find it somewhere because it’s something I have to have, and it is okay for me to get it elsewhere because I should have it and they are not providing it.  It’s their fault for not giving me that.  It’s their job to do that.”  If we are doing that, instead of looking to God as our Provider, we are looking to our spouse, and when they fail (as any human will, at some point) we are looking to someone else to provide instead.  We go from “praying” to them to “praying” to someone else and it is totally godless.

I’ve been working on writing a study on Hosea (Old Testament prophet) , which is a great book for exposing idolatry in our hearts and showing us with what astounding love God pursues us, even when we don’t realize it is Him we are really looking for. In it, the prophet Hosea is commanded to marry a promiscuous woman (Gomer) as a representation of how God’s people pimp themselves out to other things. (My paraphrase :-)).  She goes to other men over and over and over again while Hosea is called to continue to pursue her over and over and over again – regardless of what she is doing.  One of the reasons that it is such an awesome parallel to God’s love for us is that Hosea does not wait until Gomer has cleaned up her act to marry her, and he doesn’t wait until she cleans up her act to welcome her back.  He goes after her in a relentless, loving pursuit no matter what – which is really excruciating to watch at times!

That is exactly what God does with us.  The Creator of the universe, the one and only sovereign God comes after us in a relentless, loving pursuit which we have done nothing to deserve and in fact have done a lot of things to not deserve! Then, after He has done all this we inevitably fade in our affections for Him and get mad at Him for not doing things the way we think they should be done or giving us what we think we need, and start looking elsewhere.  We get caught up in our marriage, our kids, our job, whatever, and start looking to them to fulfill us and give us what we need. We essentially pimp ourselves out to the whatever our golden cow made of earrings is. (I know this is tough language, but it is the way the Bible describes turning away from God.)

Then, in an even more astounding display of love than He shows in calling us to Himself, He pursues us when we have turned from Him and draws us back and loves us exactly the same through the whole thing. Can you imagine doing that?  Your husband or wife turns away from you to someone else and your affections never even waver, and then you draw them back to you so that you can continue to love them and forgive them completely and endlessly. ONLY the God of the universe can pull that one off!  And does, constantly. How boundless and steadfast His love is!

So, He has brought me to a place where I can see those golden calves made of earrings in my life and has loved me so much that He showed this to me, and showed me the way through and out of it – and back to my One True Love: Him.  And He can and will do the same for you if you let Him.