But Your Mess Is Messier Than My Mess!

 

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Not too many days ago I stumbled across a comment on social media somebody had made about their repugnance for the choice of sermon prepared by the pastor that morning and how it was clearly not the best use of her time. The sermon’s topic? The Prodigal Son.

If you don’t know this parable, you can read it in Luke 15 (and please do, it’s a beautiful story), but here is a brief synopsis: A man has two sons, one is the good son, who does everything right-a real daddy’s boy. Then there’s the other son. This kid is selfish and demanding. He decides he doesn’t want to follow the rules, so he’s going to go out on his own and do it his way. Oh, and by the way, Dad, give me my inheritance now. Can you even imagine asking your parents such a thing? But the father gives it to him, and he uses it to get in all kinds of trouble. All kinds. Until the money runs out. Then he decides to go back home and see if  Dad will let him be a hired servant. Meanwhile, the other brother is back at home being the perfect and awesome son that he is.  But, when Dad sees the younger son coming down the road, the son who was took his money and squandered it, the son who was disrespectful in a time where disrespecting your parents was SERIOUSLY uncool,  he takes off running to meet his son. Terribly undignified for the dad to run, by the way. But run, he did! Then he tells the servants to start preparing a party. A massive blowout. Dad welcomed back his son, who the Bible refers to as the Prodigal, not as a servant, but as his son, just as though he’d never left.

And his older brother was ticked off. He was the one who stayed to help dad. He was the one who followed the rules. ALL of them.  He didn’t squander anything. And HE never got a party.

And so was the person who posted about the sermon being a waste of her Sunday morning. She wasn’t just arguing that her pastor was giving the prodigal too much air time, she had a beef with the Bible putting him in such a favorable light.  Light bulb moment here: the prodigal isn’t shown in a favorable light. He is a mess. But this parable isn’t so much about the character of the sons, it’s about the character of the father.  It’s to show us the character of THE Father, despite the character, or especially in light of, the character of His creation.  God is is overjoyed when we, the hot messes, make our way back after telling him we can do it our own way. So for my friend who made the post, I sadly think she has completely forgotten, or never really understood, the amazing grace of God that He shows through redeeming us from our mess.

But let’s go back to the older brother. We all have to be mindful of the Older Brother that has the potential to lurk within us. When we encounter people who don’t know Christ, living like prodigals, we have to remember that they don’t live by our ‘code of ethics’. So don’t place that on them and cast your judgment for how poorly they perform. Remember that we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and need a Savior. There are some messed up people out there, folks! We are living in times where people seem to be exchanging the truth of God for lies at a record pace. Evil is not idle. But there is still a God who redeems the lost and hurt, and He can reach the worst of them! Praise His name for that! So when they come walking through the door, instead of demanding your goat (read the story!), go help get the party ready for the prodigals who have come home. Welcome them in! Whatever is in their past, do not it compare to yours. Jesus’ blood still has cleaning power.

But what about what we do to each other? Or have you completely mastered the art of not judging and comparing yourself to anybody else? Don’t lie.

I had a very humbling moment a last week.  I have her permission to share this. A couple of weeks ago a young woman I know, Bethany, who loves the Lord with all her heart, announced via posting pictures on Facebook that she was expecting a baby.  She looked so happy in her pictures. But I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. She’s not married. In my mind, all I could think of was, ‘doesn’t anybody pursue holiness anymore’?  Every time I saw her post for about a week, this would go through my head. Folks, this is classic older brother. Her sin is bigger than my sin.  This one is often subtle. But after about a week, the Holy Spirit wasn’t so subtle with me. I was sitting in our Bible class at church and it hit me. She didn’t even know. But I knew. And God knew.  Even though she didn’t know I had sinned against her, I knew I had to ask her to forgive me.

The Older Brother is made possible because of something called “comparative righteousness”.  It’s pretty simple, really. If you get any sense of righteousness by assessing how you stack up compared to somebody else, that’s comparative righteousness. (This also works in reverse–if you believe somebody, compared to you or another, is more righteous in their standing with God.) We do not earn righteousness in comparison to others.  There is only one standard of holiness by which we are compared and that’s God Himself. And every single one of us falls terribly short. Thankfully, Romans 3:22 tells us that for those who put their faith in Christ, we receive his righteousness. Whew! 

So after a week of lamenting about one girl’s choices that could have been time spent dealing with my own poor choices, the Spirit gave me a smack down (as he is apt to do once in a while) and said “Ahem! She is not your problem! YOU are your problem!”

Oh yeah.  All of MY sin. Worrying about another’s sin doesn’t do anything to help me confront my own. It just adds to my own with my judgments and harsh words.

We will never become more holy by attempting to mitigate the sin in our own life by putting a spotlight on the sin of another, or showing how farther on the scale of “bad” their sin is. It doesn’t work that way.  God deals with us individually.  And yes, there is room to approach a brother/sister with a sin issue (see Galatians 6:1-3), but that’s not really the issue we’re dealing with here. We’re dealing with good, old fashioned judgment and deflection.  It keeps you from giving grace to the one you judge, and it keeps you from seeing the need for grace in your own life.

Let’s take one last look at the story in Luke 15 for some perspective. It’s about a loving father. Okay, we know that’s representing God. And the prodigal is representing sinners. But since we are all sinners, why is there a good brother and a bad brother? Who does the older brother represent? The Pharisees. These guys felt entitled to the kingdom of God based on their own righteousness, through their actions. NOT through their love for God and others. Nope. By showing how good they were, by having all the right moves and making sure everybody knew about it. They were the kings of comparative righteousness!  They didn’t need grace, or so they thought.

How can we keep from falling into that trap? Be free with grace. When you are free in your grace towards others, there is little room for self-righteous judgment. And when we do that, we are open to the Holy Spirit to move in and work in our own lives. We can work on our own mess. And thank the Lord that He promises to keep working on our messes until we are complete!

Bethany was full of grace for me. I’m thankful for that. I am grateful for a God who has enough grace to lavish on anyone who seeks His face.  So the next time we find ourselves letting that inner Pharisee come out, seek His face in that very moment. Praise Him for his grace and mercy. I’m willing to bet that voice of judgment slinks away with nothing to say.

 

 

 

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Fear…and why it should scare you.

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Jesus tells us that the devil, comes to “steal, kill and destroy” (John 10:10). Peter warns us that he prowls around like a lion, “seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).  Yikes. Sounds like serious business. And it is! The devil, who has many names in the Scriptures to describe his various character traits and job duties, has one main purpose–to be your adversary. Let’s be clear–he’s got lots of tools in his arsenal and he knows just how to use them. He knows your weaknesses and how to exploit them. But let’s also be clear about something from the beginning, and I want you to get this deep, deep in your spirit. He cannot prevail against you. I don’t think you heard me. HE CANNOT PREVAIL AGAINST YOU.  I know you may feel like it sometimes (there we are with the feels…but they are not the standard of truth!!), but he never will against a child of God. In those times you need to make sure you are calling on the weapons in your arsenal. You know, the ones that are stored in heavenly places. You need to be prayed up and suited up with your armor from Ephesians 6.

Now, if I were your adversary and I was trying to render you ineffective in your calling and purpose, short of killing you, do you know what I’d do? I would leave you in fear. I would work on that fear angle so well that after awhile, I didn’t even have to stick around to do the work. I’d have you trained to do the work for me. It’s a beautiful plan. So good, that the devil does it all.the.time.  He has done this so well that we too often become conditioned to have fear be our go to reaction for anything and everything. God may be calling you to step out into something big or even something small, but we’re scared of failure. Before we even give it much more than a passing thought, we’ve dismissed it as too hard, too big, too much for little old us.

Fear can cripple you or it can just slowly stagnate you. Fear keeps you in that false sense of comfort. You know, that place where you want more but you feel stuck, things are not quite all that you dream of or aspire to, but they’ll do. Deep down you’re not all that happy with things as they are, but you’ll stay there because it’s easier to be uncomfortable than to be uncertain. Or worse, to try and fail.

I could be way off here, but in my experience the problem is that fear stems from the inability to control the outcome. And the anxiety and trepidation that comes from the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome is usually because the more I’m trying to control outcomes, the less I’m trusting God.

This is something that’s been part of the evolution of my prayer life in the last six months. I used to pray specifically for the outcome I wanted, and tack on “but Your will be done” at the end, genuinely hoping my requests aligned with His will. But having had to deal with more in-your-face scary things than I ever wanted to,  it’s transitioned, particularly when I’m praying in times of fear, to not just asking for the outcome I’m hoping for, but sincerely telling God how much I trust him and thanking him for his faithfulness NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS. If that seems like a no brainer to some folks, good on you! It was not for me. I was too scared of the unwanted outcome to verbalize my trust to the God of the universe to carry me through the unwanted outcome. Possibly my trust wasn’t as strong as I thought. Smart one, that God.

Fear keeps you in the boat. Or in the job you hate. Or from starting that homeless ministry. Or the Bible study at work. Or signing up for the New Testament Greek class (just sayin’). Fear says just don’t try. Jesus says, “Come”, calls you out of the boat, and grabs your hand if you get overwhelmed and things get scary. (Matthew 14:28-31)

Fear tells you all the reasons why not. Jesus tells you nothing is impossible with God. (Mark 10:27)

And though the Bible says “fear not” some 365 times,  do you think God expects us to somehow eject that part of our humanity that makes us react to unnerving or dangerous situations with fear? Of course not. It’s not possible. Why then, the command not to fear? ‘Fear not, because I’m the Great I Am, and I’m going to let you go through this all by your puny little self. Sucka.’   No way!  God does not call us to do things, or let us go through trials, and just turn His back and hope we figure it out. “Fear not for I am with you.” (Isaiah 41:10). Be strong and courageous….because the LORD your God goes with you. (Deuteronomy 31:6)  “‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’  He got up and said to the wind ‘Peace, be still.’ He said to his disciples ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?'” (Mark 4;39-40 NIV)  Get the picture? He’s not really asking you to not ever be afraid again. He is asking you to trust him. There’s a big difference. If I trust in me, I have every reason to hold on to my fear. If I trust in God, I know he’s got my back.

Still don’t believe me?  Every situation that brings you fear, rather than let it immobilize you, analyze it to it’s worst possible conclusion. Every time I do that, it leads to Jesus walking me through it. Or death. And death leads to…yup. Jesus. Really, take the sting even out of death. Afraid you won’t get the job? Trust God to know what’s best. What if the business fails. Yup, it might. Trust God if it does for provision and direction.

Being so afraid to fail and never trying is crushing to your spirit.  And if you never even try to do what God is asking you to do, score one for the adversary! That’s what he wants.

It boils down to a choice. Trust God in everything, even the scary, uncertain stuff, or stay put and live in a small circle controlled by your fears.  You have the power to step out of the circle any time you chose.

What’s it gonna be?

That was then, and this is now.

photo credit: Nick Thompson (Instagram: nat.ural_photography)
photo credit: Nick Thompson (Instagram: nat.ural_photography)

 

Everybody has a past.  When we come to Christ, we come with our flaws, hurts and stains from the burden of sin we’ve carried. We may look at ourselves in comparison to another and think we’re pretty good, but make no mistake, the only comparison God looks at is how you and I measure up to His standard.  Not how I do compared to you, or you to me.  And by the holy standard, we all have some pretty messed up pasts!

But at the cross, God arranged for an exchange for those who would take him up on this free gift of his grace. We can exchange that past, which with absolute certainly will lead us to condemnation, for righteousness–Christ’s righteousness.  That is a pretty sweet deal.  (If you have not taken advantage of this deal yet, please click here.)

But that past. Maybe it was bad. Maybe it brought you shame. Maybe you did hard time for it.  Maybe you think it’s so bad that even though God forgave you, you can’t get past it. Whatever it is, the past doesn’t seem to be staying in your past.

So first let’s look at a where your past stands with God.  Paul tells the Corinthian church, and all of us,  that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has past away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).  Our old selves, our past, is gone. BOOM. We’re new creations!  In Psalm 103 David tells us that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgression from us”. That’s far enough away that God stopped keeping score. Finally, Colossians 2:14 says our legal debt (sin) was cancelled. The book in the ledger that was used to keep account of our sin? It was torn out, stamped with cancelled (in Jesus’ blood) and nailed to the cross.  Getting the picture yet? God doesn’t see that sin in your account anymore.

So if God, has stopped holding it against you, why do you hold it against yourself? You are not who you were. Remember, you are a new creation. In Romans 12, Paul says we can avoid conforming to the world by transforming our minds. That means it’s possible to transform your mind by how you think about things, including yourself and who you are. Start seeing yourself as the child of God and co-heir with Christ that you are.  Stop buying into the lie of “I was always, so I always will be”.  You don’t have to live in that past, no matter who would have you believe that, including the devil.  That was then, and this is now.

Now, one caveat before we move on. Sometimes our actions hurt other people. If you have something that God is leading you to go to that person to seek forgiveness for, that’s another issue.  If you feel doing that may actually do more harm to the other person, please seek wise counsel from a pastor or elder.

So now that we agree that once our faith for salvation is firmly placed in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins that our account is clear, we can walk free of the guilt and condemnation of that past.  Romans 8 is a great read for the freeing up from life in the flesh to life in the Spirit.

And that righteousness of Christ that covers our past sins? It’s the gift that keeps on giving! Why? Friends, have you ever felt burdened in your walk that you’re not doing enough,  not serving enough, not sanctified enough, not a lot of things enough? I know I have.  On more than one occasion I’ve lamented on how I’m just not “good enough” as a Christian.  Oh boy. I am not hanging out in this wire alone, either!

Somehow, the wires got crossed or there was a short circuit. We are more than down for trading our filthy rags for Christ’s righteousness when it comes to salvation and eternity, yet in this life, we revert back to thinking we’re on our own to work it out. Or was I the only one who fell for that?   That’s right, we have spent too much time and energy back in the power of “me”, haven’t we?  Have you tried to be “good enough” and just found you couldn’t do it?  This is exactly why! Because we slipped back into working our own way instead of letting it be the righteousness of Christ that defines our goodness and worthiness.  This really came to light for me when I saw a follow of Christ concerned that they weren’t going to be ready for Christ to return, and did they need to “do” more.  Actually, it woke me up like a bucket of ice over the head. Can you see if you break it down in those terms, though perhaps extreme, that “readiness” was became the responsibility of the redeemed, NOT the Redeemer? This is a works based salvation disguised as sanctification.

Our righteousness as believers is imputed from Christ. It is our only righteousness. If you’ve fallen into the trap of walking out your faith as a continued path towards righteousness, please realize you are walking outside of what Christ did for you on the cross. You’re adding to it. All we need is faith alone in, in Christ alone, “not as a result of works, that no one may boast”. (Ephesians 2:9)

If you ever feel like you’re not good enough because of, well, you fill in the blank, stop that too. You’re also overlooking the present and continuing covering of Christ’s righteousness. You don’t think you’re as pious as Friend X? That’s fine. You have the righteousness of Christ. You just can’t seem to have the heart to serve others the way Friend Z does? That’s okay, you have the righteousness of Christ. You weren’t perfect? First, welcome to the club. Second, that’s alright. You have the righteousness of Christ. The devil may try to drag you down and make you think you should be more, or be like somebody else. Whatever. You have the righteousness of Christ.

Whatever that past may have been, that was then. And this is now. Walk boldly!

Naughty or Nice?

StreetsignIt’s that time of year when we start hearing much talk about who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.  If you grew up in the U.S.,  the early part  of your childhood Christmas hopes were based not on Santa’s kindness, and not even the kindness of your parents, but on whether you were going to make the cut for the “nice” list.   Eventually, though, we grew up and realized what “Santa” brought really wasn’t dependent on how good or bad we were. We got the goods because our parents wanted to give us good things.

So as we quickly approach Christmas, when the greatest gift of all was given to all who would simply receive Him, I have seen a lot of talk about being good in the context of Christianity.

All the Christmas lore says we have to be good to get Santa to lavish us with gifts.  And just recently, the American Atheists Association paid a nice chunk of change to put up the following billboard in North Carolina:

billboardHere’s the thing about the gift of Christ and salvation that you need to realize when it comes to being “good”. You can’t be good enough to earn it.  Staying home or going to church doesn’t really make a difference in your good points.  Going to church makes a huge difference in your growth points, but not your “good” points.

Let’s back up a few steps.  Let’s talk about why we need Jesus in the first place.  I’m going to give this a really quick treatment, but for highly suggest digging in to Paul’s letter to the Romans to get a good grasp on this subject.  The basic overview is this: God is perfect and holy. Like, indescribably so. We are are so innately sinful and unholy that we cannot approach him in that state. (Just for fun, go read up about the old temple procedures in Leviticus, and how only one priest could enter into the Holy of Holies one time a year. And that guy? He had to have a bell on him and a rope tied around him, so that if the bell stopped ringing, they knew he had died in there and would be able to pull him out. His death would have been due to his not being correctly prepared in his unholy state approaching the presence of the perfect, holy God and that is something that can’t happen–the unrighteous cannot stand in the presence of God.) The prophet Isaiah, when he was called into the presence of the LORD, said (and I paraphrase here) ‘uh oh! Woe is me. I’m a sinner, my people are sinners, and here I am before the king!” Go read Isaiah 6:5 and see how he was cleansed for his encounter.

So by now am I losing you in what sounds like gloom and doom? Old-time hellfire and brimstone preacher stuff?  Wait, it’s not that bad!  But I do want to share this about my journey. Way back in high school when somebody first started talking to me about Christ and sin and repentance, I agreed with it all in theory, but I didn’t think I was that bad of a person. And compared to axe murderers, animal torturers, bank robbers, etc. I wasn’t. I was a great person when I was comparing myself to the standards of this world.  It took me many years before it really sank in what the standard of “good” was.  (So just as a side note to our friends who put up that billboard, they have no standard by which to judge good. They set their own standard. That doesn’t work out so well, ultimately when everybody gets to set their own standard. But that’s another topic altogether).

So here we are, separated from a perfect holy God. And many people think we can get to God just by being “good enough”.  We cannot. We just can’t. My buddy Paul in Romans says that no one is good, not even ONE. (Romans 3:12). He goes on to ask why he doesn’t do what he knows he should and does do what he knows he shouldn’t. (Romans 7:19). And this is after his conversion.  See, on our own, we can never attain the perfection required to get near a perfect God.

But God knew we couldn’t. So one evening some 2000+ years ago, he made a way to bridge the gap. A baby. A tiny baby was going to save the world and bridge this eternal rift between man and God.  That baby grew up and lived a perfect life. He had to in order to be the perfect sacrifice to atone for your sins and my sins that we can’t atone for with our own goodness. See, good isn’t part of the equation at all.  I’m not telling you not to live morally. Far from it. But I’m telling you if you think you’re salvation, your roadmap to eternity with God, has anything to do with your goodness, you’re mistaken. It’s all about the goodness of Christ. And when you accept him as the sacrifice for your sins, you can let huge sigh of relief. It’s like sucking in your stomach for ten minutes of family pictures and then letting it go! You’re now free to live in the knowledge that this gift of salvation is not of your goodness. It’s nothing but pure, unrelenting grace. Unrestrained grace. (Ephesians 2:8-9).  If you have put your hopes for a relationship with God in a basket labeled with your efforts, I ask you now to put that basket down. Get in prayer with God and confess to him your mistake in thinking you had to do something to earn this, then thank him for the immeasurable grace that his given you this gift of his Son for your salvation, just based on your faith alone.

And since we’re talking about being good enough, I want to mention one more thing. If you are worried that you have been on the naughty list too long, you’re so very wrong.  Just as much as we can’t be good enough to earn God’s love and grace, we can never be bad enough to be out of the reach of his love and grace. I don’t care how long it’s been or how bad you think you are, He is waiting for you to come home.  Go read the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. God is waiting to throw a party for you, wanderer. Won’t you come home?

 

Heavenly Father, I thank you for your indescribable, immeasurable grace. The grace brings me close to you through nothing of my own doing. I pray that I be a giver of that kind of grace to others. I pray for your covering of those who struggle today to think that even in their condition you could love them, that your great love invade every part of them in this moment, and that great love leads to broken chains and strongholds.  In Jesus’ Name

We Want More

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During worship recently, there was a refrain in the song that stood out to me: we want more, we want more, we want more. This is not an uncommon lyric in worship songs or even in many sermons. We do want more! I’m constantly praying that I want more, more, more of the LORD and all He has for me.

But that night, as I was singing, that still small voice starting talking to me in the middle of all that singing. He said, you know, you want more of Me, but what that really means is you have to give more of yourself.  I actually stopped singing and had to take that in for a second. What could that mean? I’m decreasing here, Jesus. You are increasing. I want more of YOU. I don’t understand.   He said “I already gave you everything. Have you given Me everything?”

Woah. Have I? Have you?

So we say we want more. But to do that, we have to give more. We have to give up our choice to box God in to a Sunday God and invite Him into every part of our lives. We can’t put on our Sunday show for the church crowd and wonder why on Monday everything is falling apart.

We have to give up our choice to keep Jesus at arm’s length concerning some parts of our lives and invite Him in to have His way in every part. Even the deep-rooted hurts we hold tight to, or the parts of our lives that may be comfortable but we know do not honor Him. That thing we keep doing and think we can handle on our own? We need to take that to Him.  That hurt we just can’t let go of from so many years ago? Give that over to Him, too.  That unhealthy way you see yourself or your abilities? Yup. His domain to work out in you, if you open it up to Him.

We say we want more of Him, but are we taking the time to get to know Him through His word? Do we talk to Him, really talk Him regularly? Or do we figure listening to somebody else talk about God for an hour (if we’re lucky) once a week is good enough?

We say we want more, but do we follow His example of serving those around us? Or do we make ourselves and our desires the rulers in our lives?

We say we want more of Him, but if we’re being honest, are we expecting to do nothing and have a great relationship with Christ and see huge changes in our lives?

I often think of Jacob. The schemer. Jacob, who wanted more of God so badly that he fought all night, hanging on and refusing to let go until more was exactly what he had—a completely changed destiny. How hard are you willing to hold on to God and fight? God is still in the destiny changing business, you know.

We say we want more of Him. But if you have already given your life to Christ, then getting more of Him probably means you will have to give HIM more of YOU.

We say we want more, but we have to give more. Are we willing to give this a chance and go all in with Jesus, living the life as His follower His way instead of a little bit His and mostly ours?

Are you willing to give Him more of you to get more of Him?