Category Archives: Grace definition

Why oh why?

It’s Narcissist Friday!     

 

You sit in your chair staring at the television. It’s off. The room is dark because you don’t want to be in the light right now. No one is around and you are grateful. Your mind and heart are numb, yet racing with thought. Numb thought. That’s about right.

What you did was wrong. It was a foolish decision. Yet, you did it knowingly and willingly. You didn’t stop at the warnings, you just did it. And it felt good. Or did it? There was something in it that felt good, but that numbness was there as well. The laughter and happiness were tempered by the knowledge that regret was coming. You knew you would pay a price.

And maybe this wasn’t the first time. It’s like something builds in you and needs to be released. The release brings pleasure, but also pain. The problem seems to be that the pain is future while the pleasure is present. As long as the pleasure comes first, you long for it. The pain, which seems so real as you sit in your chair staring at the TV, is far enough away to be ignored.

Pastor Jones preaches in favor of marriage and family, but visits the adult bookstore when he goes to the big city. He lives in fear that someone will see him and hates himself later, but rarely misses the stop. Mrs. Smith has a bottle hidden away and seeks comfort in its contents. The last bottle, like the ones before it, was poured down the drain in shame and guilt. But there’s always another. Another few dollars from the register at work, another few “extra” hours on the time card, just one more night together, just a little lie: these seem to take the pressure away—for a while.

Why do we do what we don’t want to do? Why do we keep making these bad decisions? What in the world is going on?

Well, the problem may be old, but the answer isn’t easy. It has to do with how we believe we are accepted or loved. The old saying is that everybody needs to be somebody to somebody. We need affirmation and, to get it, we will do just about anything.

Almost all of us grew up with affirmation that came on the basis of some kind of points. We earned points by doing the right things. We lost points when we did the wrong things. Our culture, whether from the church or family or community, sought to mold us by a system of rewards and punishments. And, for the most part, it appeared to work. We are affirmed when we do well and shamed when we do not.

But inside, where our thoughts and desires live, affirmation comes from feeling important or valued. We want to feel good about ourselves. Yes, that might mean that we want to feel righteous, but it also means we want to feel strong or desirable or rich. We aren’t usually content with feeling acceptable to the community, we want to feel like we are “somebody.” The community affirms us when we conform, when we are not independent and creative. Our hearts affirm us when we express our uniqueness and value.

Most of the vices in life minister to our need to feel special. Alcohol, overspending, porn, drugs, lying, theft—all are there because they promise to meet that need. They may do it through fantasy, but even fantasy feels good for a while. They all have consequences, but the feeling is sometimes worth the price. The vices calls to the needs of our hearts.

Keeping the rules and cultural standards may satisfy the community, but that doesn’t satisfy the heart. The points we gain from “doing right” are not enough. We seem to need more. Points come from the other side as well. The fantasies give us points that feel good. It even makes us feel strong and independent to break the rules. Those points count. They don’t satisfy either, but they seem to give us something.

Once the cycle begins, and it begins early, we go from breaking the rules and scoring the points that make us feel good to keeping the rules and trying to overcome the negatives with points from the good side. So Pastor Jones preaches about faithfulness in marriage, then visits the porn shop, then preaches a stronger message about marriage the next week. He isn’t being simply insincere. He is struggling with these feelings of acceptance. He thinks he can overcome the negative points with more positive ones.

But the more we try to overcome the negatives with positives, the more we feel phony and the less any of the points help us feel good about ourselves. Our goal is to feel good, but those feelings diminish the longer the process goes. The cycle becomes more and more frantic until something happens to break it. It will begin all over again unless we find a way to get away from points altogether. As with any addiction, we have to find a way to break free.

There is a way, but it is contrary to most of what you have been taught and most of what you feel. That way is to accept the love and affirmation of the One who made you. He does love you. It doesn’t matter what you have done. He welcomes you. He values you. He wants you to know that no system of points, either in your culture or your heart, will ever be enough to satisfy your need. His love will be enough.

The message of the Gospel of Jesus is a message of love and acceptance. I know that preachers have made it sound otherwise, but they are as bound up in their system as you have been in yours. The message of the cross is one of sacrificial love for those who neither deserved nor understood it. It allows all of us to get off the point system and accept our acceptance.

Think about what you will give up when you leave the point system behind. No more spiritual comparisons. If there is no need for gaining spiritual points, then no one can be better than another. No more sleepless nights worrying about regrets. You are accepted by the Lord regardless of your past and your mistakes. No more fear of judgment. The One who judges you loves you and has given all to have you with Him. No more fear of failure. Results and accomplishments are in the hands of the Lord who loves you. On and on. The things you give up by leaving the points behind are the things that have hurt you so much.

I understand that this post is long and may seem convoluted. Let me summarize by saying that we tend to gravitate to that which promises to make us feel good—and those feelings come from both sides of the moral system. There is a better way. When you get up in the morning, remind yourself that the Lord loves you. Let yourself feel accepted and valued by Him. Throughout the day, seek His presence and remember His love. At the end of the day, thank Him for loving you. Then accept the rest He gives. Is it that simple? Yes, I believe it is.

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Filed under grace, Grace definition, heart, Narcissism, Relationship

The Real Message

There are so many reasons I consider the message of grace to be the central message of the Scriptures and the ultimate doctrine of God’s love. The Scriptures tell us over and over that God loves us and that He is the only one who can do what is necessary for us to be saved—and sanctified—and glorified. He does what we need. That’s grace!

There are many messages that have come to and through the people of God. Some say that we have to work for our salvation, either to earn it or maintain it. Some are saying today that all are already saved, no matter what they have done or what they believe. But God sent only one message of love to us—Jesus. And, I believe, the only message that allows Jesus His true position in the world and in our lives is the message of grace. It rings true throughout the Scriptures because it is the right message, the message God wants us to hear and to tell.

So here it is: God loves you and offers all that you need for “life and godliness” in the gift of His Son, Jesus. Your part is simply to be willing to receive, to take what He offers, to let Him love you. The day will come when we will see Jesus at the center of our existence, the source and goal of our lives, and that will truly be Heaven.

The message of grace is the message that keeps our eyes on Jesus.

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Performance Spirituality

(I will be traveling and internet will be less available for the next couple of weeks. Please enjoy these posts from the archives. It’s Narcissist Friday posts will continue with new posts during this time. Thanks for being here!)

 

 

“Performance Spirituality” is the idea that spirituality is obtained and maintained by the performance of good works and the avoidance of sin. From time to time you will hear people refer to the kind of activity a “real Christian” will avoid. No real Christian, for example, could get a divorce. No real Christian could look at porn. No real Christian could steal, or skip church to go to a football game, or smoke. A real Christian will love going to church. A real Christian will tithe and be kind and memorize Bible verses.

You get the idea. There’s a book out there with the title, Lists to Live By. I don’t know that the book is about this, and I don’t mean to bad-mouth the book, but the title certainly serves the idea of performance spirituality. All you have to do to be spiritual is to do the right things and avoid the wrong things. Live by the lists.  Just like the Pharisees.

But we teach that spirituality is found only in a relationship with Jesus, not in a certain kind or amount of performance. Believers are made spiritual, reborn to new and spiritual life, when Jesus enters into them and gives them His life. We are spiritual because He is spiritual – and for no other reason. Those who were dead in their sins are made alive as Jesus is alive in them.

In that way, we understand that no person is more spiritual than another. All are spiritual only because of Jesus. The ramifications of this are important. If you are going through life comparing yourself with others and finding them to be more or less spiritual than you, perhaps you are operating under a wrong assumption. Instead, look to Jesus alone. He leads the others and He leads you. Trust Him.

 

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Filed under Freedom, grace, Grace definition, Legalism, Relationship, Uncategorized

Relationship pt 3

So, does God accept us? Does God accept Jesus? Of course He does and, in Christ, we are accepted. Our acceptance is a gift, the life of Jesus flowing within us. You see, because of Jesus – Who is the Person of God’s love and grace – we have been restored to a full and free relationship with God. We walk and talk with Jesus as people who are fully loved by the One who is our Strength, our Victory, our Righteousness, our Future, and our eternal Friend.

What does that look like? I suspect that it looks a lot like it must have looked in the Garden of Eden. Picture Adam waking in the morning. Had he been afraid during the night? Did he chastise himself about the things he didn’t get done the day before? Did he determine to work harder in the new day? We know that he had work to do. Did Adam worry about the produce of the Garden? I don’t think so. Instead, his life was very good. No worries! No fear! No rejection!

Suppose that we could get up in the morning with the full knowledge of the love of God and the awareness that He will be present with us through the day. How easy would it be to talk with Him? We do our work with the joy of participating with Him and there is no concern that we may not measure up or that we may fail. What if we could just ask Him what to do and then do it? We go to sleep at night without anxiety for the future, for the things left undone, for the errors of the day. We can give the things of the day to Him, thank Him for being with us, and trust Him for tomorrow.

One of the things Jesus said about us is that we would hear and recognize His voice. Yet, most believers would say that they struggle with this. They don’t know the voice of their Lord and they wonder what they should do next. This is a serious topic and broad, but let me simply say that the Lord wants you to know His voice and He loves hearing yours as you relate to Him.

You can talk with Jesus – anytime, anywhere! There is no barrier between the two of you. You can tell Him your concerns and listen for His response. You can ask for His leading and trust that He will lead. You can thank Him for His kindness and know that He appreciates your acknowledgement. And you can praise Him just for Who He is.

But that isn’t all of it. He responds! Remember that He wants to lead you and He wants you to hear Him. It may not be audible, but it is still real. If you are not used to hearing Him, it may take some time, but trust that He does speak to you. Sometimes you can look back to see how He spoke/led in the past. Sometimes you can just wait until you have a sense that He has told you what to do. Other times you just yield your will to Him and then do what you think is right. If it isn’t right, He will show you or turn you to another direction. Trust Him!

That still isn’t all of it. He doesn’t only respond. Sometimes He initiates the conversation. Listen for His voice. You have probably heard Him from time to time. He prompts you to talk with someone or to do something. When you do it, you are amazed at the results. He led you to just what the other person needed.

Let me give a specific example. Suppose you feel led to share the gospel with someone. You may be scared to do it, but you know that it is the right thing to do because you believe that the Lord is leading. You share and the person is ready to hear and receive. The Lord has prepared the way and you have heard His voice.

But let’s suppose that you prepare and pray and fuss and then the person walks away from you without accepting the Lord. What happened? Most of us are tempted to think that we did something wrong, that if we had done a better job that person might have been saved. We fill our lives with guilt from failure and poor results. But perhaps the plan of God was simply to have that person hear the gospel. That person might go away and, at some later time, accept His love on the basis of the seed you were able to plant. Would that make you feel differently?

God rarely shares the full story of His plan with us. He just asks us to walk with Him. He gave you the words to say and somewhere, in the midst of your rambling, you said them. The person heard them and that little part of God’s plan was accomplished. It wasn’t about you. You were just along while God was working.

Now, if you could walk into that with the understanding that this is the work of God and you can trust Him for whatever results will come, and if you could walk away thanking Him for the opportunity to share in His work, you wouldn’t have to feel guilty or ashamed because of your poor speech or presentation. Of course you want the person to become a believer, but God wants that more than you do.

Can you trust that God loves others more than you do? That He wants them to benefit from His work? If you can, you can learn to rest and enjoy what He does in them. You do whatever He asks you to do and you leave the rest to Him. Even in these most important things, we can find rest because of our relationship with Jesus.

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Filed under Grace definition, heart, Relationship

Is it Legalism?

 

Occasionally I get a challenge on my use of the word “legalism.”  Some say that I don’t use it right, that I am just using it to categorize people in a negative way.  They think it is unfair for me to use the word to describe those who hold to higher standards or certain kinds of behavior.

What these challengers don’t understand is that I have been where they are.  In fact, years ago, I wrote a little pamphlet entitled, “The L Word,” in which I debunked the challenges of those who pointed at my church and called us legalists.  I said that legalism was only properly used in reference to a system teaching that people can be saved by keeping the Law.  Since I always believed that salvation came through Jesus alone, by grace through faith, I could not have been called a legalist.

Have you ever been right and wrong at the same time and about the same thing?  Well, I have been.  The above assessment is technically correct.  Legalism teaches salvation by law.  What I didn’t understand then is that all forms of performance spirituality stem from and return to legalism.

Now, let me give you a little of the theology I believe.  There is one requirement for salvation and it isn’t something we do.  It is receiving, by faith, the gift God has given to us in Jesus.  That’s it.  Just saying yes.

And that’s where some people disagree.  Yes, it’s faith, they say, but it is also obedience.  It is also doing the things God says.  If you don’t do what God says, then you aren’t really saved, they say.  And I reply: that’s legalism.

If my behavior is a requirement for my salvation, then I am under the law and saved by works.  If it is 90% Jesus and only 10% me, then I cannot be saved because I can never measure up even to that.  It doesn’t matter what ratio you bring out, if it isn’t 100% the love of God through Jesus, given freely as a gift to those who will receive, then it’s legalism.

Still, most performance-based people would agree with this.  And that’s where I was.  But then I began to hear people say things like, “Well, real Christians don’t ___.”   Or even, “I have to wonder if so-and-so is still saved.”  And sometimes, “We have no fellowship with people who don’t ___.”  I began to understand that we still had some requirements in addition to Jesus.

If the teaching produces feelings that some are “real” Christians while others are not; or that a person could lose his salvation on the basis of some evil act or the lack of some good act—how is that not legalism?  It is still under the law and not dependent on the grace of God in Jesus.  It’s grace plus whatever rule or standard the teaching promotes.  If you have to speak in tongues or be baptized a certain way or wear certain clothes in order to be a real Christian, then Jesus doesn’t make real Christians.  He only makes potential Christians.  We have to do the rest.  And if you have to avoid smoking or divorce or television or alcohol in order to be a real Christian, then Jesus can’t keep what He has made.  It’s up to us to keep ourselves in the kingdom and keep ourselves saved.

And—listen—if it’s up to us to keep ourselves saved, then we are under law and not under grace.  And those who are under law are legalists.

So what does your church or organization teach?  What do the people around you say, particularly about others who are not like you?  Are some people “real” Christians while others who profess Christ in some other category?  Are some people you talk about in danger of losing their salvation or of never having been saved because of something they do or don’t do?

Legalism is the antithesis of grace.  It pushes the love of God into a side category considering it something like an influence, rather than the answer and hope of the believer.  The cross of Christ is not enough for the legalist, we must do our part.  And the legalist will tell us what our part ought to be.

The truth is that the cross is enough.  The work of our salvation was accomplished by the love of God in Jesus.  That’s the past work, the present work, and the future work.  All that is necessary, He has done.  Our part is to believe and receive.

And about now the objections are being shouted.  “But what about sin?”  “We have to do our part!”  “What about the commands?”  “What about those people?”  Go my blog page and type the word “sin” into the search box.  You can read my many answers to these objections.

My mom and I used to play cribbage and she often said, “No matter how many times you count it, that’s all you get.”  Count it any way you want.  The truth is still the same.  All the challenges and objections and qualifications boil down to a simple fact:

If Jesus is enough, that’s grace.

If Jesus is not enough, that’s legalism.

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Filed under grace, Grace definition, Legalism, Theology and mystery

The Inconsistent Life

 

So you must be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. Matthew 5:48 (NCV)

 How are you doing?  Working on that perfection?  Absolute consistency, steadfast faith, unending love.  No mistakes, no compromises, no slips.  How are you doing with all that?

Well, most of us aren’t doing very well, are we?  In fact, most of us are struggling.  We want to do right, but we still do wrong.  We try to stay away from certain things, end certain bad habits, but they continue to draw us in.  We aspire to goodness, but still don’t measure up.  And, honestly, that makes us feel bad.

But the inconsistent life is normal and we should feel good about ourselves.  Think about that for a moment.  When, in the church, were you taught to say, “I feel good about myself”?  Oh my, that would be a prideful and arrogant statement, wouldn’t it?  No one could say that, right?  Wrong!  I can say it.  And so can you.

Now, before I explain what I mean, let me say what I don’t mean.  I don’t mean that we should pat ourselves on the back because we are making progress.  There is no call for progress in the Christian life.  Progress earns us nothing.  Just because we are better than we were last year, according to some measurement, does not make us good.  That may sound discouraging, but we all know this to be true.  We climb up one rung of the ladder and there is always another for us to climb.  Always.  If we base our motivation on progress we will become discouraged very soon as we realize that our progress will never be enough.

Nor should we feel good about comparisons.  We look at others and think we are at least better than they are.  While the church has taught progress openly, it has taught comparison secretly.  But comparison also earns us nothing.  In fact, comparison only brings us further down.  It robs us of our brothers and sisters and it causes us either to live in pride or shame.  If we can find people who are somehow worse than we are, we can also find people who are somehow better than we are.

And let me take away one more common motivation for believers—future hope.  I believe in Heaven and glory and the promise of a wonderful future; but I do not believe that I will be more perfect someday.  We were taught that we would have to excuse bad behavior here, that the battle in us between the old nature and the new nature will only end upon our death.  But then we will finally be free and clean and perfect.  Today we are doomed to live in defeat and discouragement; but then we will be victorious and happy.  No, that’s not much encouragement for today.

The real encouragement comes from knowing who you are.  Those who belong to Jesus have died and are alive today as new creations who live in Him.  He is our life.  Our sins, past-present-future, are washed away forever.  We are as clean and righteous and holy as He is, because He is our life.  This is who we are.

Sin, even something I do today, belongs to who I was.  My flesh continues to struggle to be in control of my thoughts and actions, but when it is, that’s not me.  I am not brought down by my flesh.  I am nothing less because my flesh gets its way once in a while.

Yes, this life looks inconsistent.  That’s normal.  Every Christian has walked this walk.  But we feel good about ourselves because we are already complete in Christ.  He is enough in us.

I can hear two objections already.  First, what about the call to be perfect?  I will answer that and deal with the verse next week.  Second, so sinning is okay?  No—and I will write about that in two weeks.  So hold on.

If the work of Christ is finished (and it is) and the Christian is complete in Him (and we are), then we should feel good about ourselves—even if we see an inconsistent life along the way.

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Filed under Grace 101, Grace definition

Why the Formula “Works”

I don’t often get theology from television shows, particularly a show like House.  But Dr. House has a helpful saying when we are trying to understand why the formula works for some people.

You know what I mean.  “Ever since we began studying the Bible early in the morning the discipline issues in our home have stopped.”  “Our children love to do their chores.”  “They always eat joyfully whatever is set before them.”  “No one complains at our house.”  “Our children made a commitment to stay pure by xyz method and their first kiss will be at the wedding altar.”  “If you just follow the “teacher’s” teaching, your home will be righteous and happy.”  “No, we never argue.  Our marriage is wonderful ever since we went to this conference.”  “All my struggles with sin went away when I started doing this.”  The testimonials are endless.

But, when you try the same things they did, nothing happens.  No changes.  The wonderful conference, the new commitment, the great habit, the superior teaching—all of these are parts of formulas guaranteed to work.  At least they seemed to have worked for so many others.  Why don’t they work for you?

Well, as Doctor House would say, “Everybody lies!”  Yes, that seems like a pessimistic outlook.  Yes, it may be an overstatement.  But it explains what we have experienced.  The formulas don’t work for us because the formulas don’t work.  The testimonials are not true.

Why do people lie about these things?  Some lie to cover up their failure.  They believe the formula works and they cannot admit that it didn’t work for them.  Like the emperor’s new clothes, their “success” is imaginary.  But they don’t want you to know that.  They want you to respect and honor them.  They want to be better than you.  So they lie.

And some lie because to say that the formula didn’t work seems like blasphemy.  They want so badly for it to work that they “name it and claim it.”  Never mind what they see.  Never mind the failures.  The formula is working and they will promote that success.

Some lie because they are part of the promotion.  They have a vested interest in getting you to the conference or doing the activity.  They look good when they bring friends or they believe God will somehow reward them with the success they seek.  Like the “honest” review online about the weight loss product (the one where the product is sold on the same website) the buyer should be aware of the compromised position of the one giving the testimony.

I am increasingly convinced that lying/deception is an integral part of legalism.  As long as performance is the key to spirituality, the lie will be present.  It has to be . . . because the formula doesn’t work.

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