Are You a Swimmer or a Surfer?

I remember taking swimming lessons as a kid.  My teacher was a family friend, and my brother and sister and I learned in her pool.  We learned the breast stroke, the back stroke, how to float, and the simple dog paddle.  We even did laps.

I loved swimming.  The feel of the water and the way you could pull yourself through it.  It was and is still exhilarating.

But after practicing strokes and laps for little while, it can get very tiring. One thing is for sure, you have to be very strong to be a good swimmer. Competitive swimmers are in peak physical condition, and it shows. Every muscle is sculpted and ready to burst forth in energy.

Of course, no matter how strong you are, it would be impossible to swim across the Atlantic Ocean.

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We “swimmers” often try to cross the ocean in our own strength.

I’ve always wanted to learn to surf.  It looks magical, the way the board glides across the water.  I’m amazed at how gracefully, yet sharply, the surfer can turn in the water and cut back toward a wave.  It must feel kind of like flying.

I wouldn’t say you don’t need to be in tip top shape to be a great surfer, but one thing is for sure –

Surfers rely on the power of the wave to move across the water.  

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Surfers don’t drag themselves through the water. They let the wave carry them over it.

I find that many Christians, myself included, tend to be swimmers more than we are surfers.  We know that God wants us to be holy and righteous.  We know that we’re supposed to be increasing in obedience. So what do we do?  We drag ourselves through the water, striving harder and harder to make it across the ocean that separates sinner from saint.  We look at others around us who are stronger “swimmers” than we, and take cues from them on how to achieve better results. The problem is, those betters swimmers have no more chance of reaching the other side than we do.

Why is this?

Paul tells us in Romans 7 that the law is our problem.  When we try harder to be righteous, we do it by looking to the law.  The problem is, our flesh is weak.  When we encounter the law, something inside us (our fallen nature) perverts the process and yields unrighteousness.  I’m not just talking about being legalistic – though that is certainly included here.  I’m talking about looking to the law for power to become righteous and holy.  I’m talking about trying harder to be better.  It may work a little, but the divide is too great and our ability is too small.  As Paul says, we must die to the law so that we might bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4-6).

I think Christians should be more like surfers.  This isn’t a suggestion for passivity and moral lethargy.  Surfing is not easy.  It requires real effort and work.  The effort we exert is not the effort of moving us into righteousness, just as the surfer’s effort is not to propel the surfboard.  The effort is to hold onto the wild and untamable Spirit of God.

What if we were willing to set aside our inability to power our way across the Atlantic Ocean and instead trusted in the Holy Spirit?  What if we rode that wave all the way across the abyss?  What would it look like to trust God and his grace for the power to become righteous, instead of the law?

For starters, we would need to have the same trust in God’s provision of grace to help us overcome our sin that we have in his grace to forgive our sin.  What requires more grace?  To forgive or to empower us to live holy lives?  I would vote the latter on personal experience alone.

Next, we need to trust God’s work in us to achieve his purposes for us. It would be silly to think that we know better than God how to be holy.  In fact, the Galatians were called fools for turning from faith to the law after salvation (Galatians 3:1ff).  They trusted themselves and their abilities more than God’s.  And we do the same thing.

We certainly need to be patient with ourselves, not despairing when we do fail.  I have seen despondency set in on a person to the point that they feel the flames of Hell licking their heels.  But God tells us there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Rather than focusing on our sin in times of desperation, God invites us to focus on Jesus and the great Throne of Grace (Hebrews 4:14-16).

When we look at it this way, it is obviously futile to keep on the “try harder” track.  I know that I default to that method over and over again. I’m tired of swimming.  I want to surf!

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Is There Such a Thing As Radical Grace?

Yesterday I wrote about how our doctrine of grace effects our evangelistic efforts.  In short, I suggested that we fail to teach and practice radical grace, and therefore we do not find people attracted to us and our message the way that Jesus did.

That phrase – “radical grace” – has been bothering me all day.  Is there even such a thing as radical grace?

Christianity is unique among religions in that it does not teach men methods and actions that will result in spiritual reward.  Christianity teaches that no man (or woman) can earn spiritual reward.  Rather, Jesus Christ fully earned spiritual reward for us by his death and subsequent resurrection.  In this sense, the idea of grace as a foundational principle is most clearly present in Christianity.

Grace turns the world upside down

Grace turns the world upside down

Grace has been traditionally defined as “unmerited favor,” but this definition seems pretty impotent compared to the reality to which it refers. Unmerited favor sounds like something nice, but not earth shattering.  Grace is what allows murderers and adulterers and liars and egotists to reap the incredible reward of eternal life.  Grace is what takes all the evil committed by all of mankind and places the debt for this sin on one sinless person who was in every regard God, himself.  Grace is what remakes a fallen world ripped at the seams by disobedience and self-importance and establishes it anew as a world marked by peace, life, wholeness, and mutual love.

I suggest that there is no such thing as radical grace.  There is only grace.  To add the world radical suggests that there is some kind of grace that is not radical.  But grace cannot be anything but radical.  It is always un-earned.  It is always life changing.  It is always powerfully redemptive.  So no – there is no radical grace. Grace is already radical enough.

Is Our View of Grace Ruining Evangelism?

In Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God, he makes the observation that Jesus and the church get almost opposite results when engaging people.

When Jesus walked the earth, he had a consistent response from people.  Those who were not religious, who rejected the prevailing attitudes of faithfulness and morality, jesus_friend_of_sinnerswho were obviously sinful – those people were drawn to Jesus in droves.  They found Jesus attractive.  He was the rabbi who spent so much time with prostitutes, tax collectors, and drunks that he was called a friend of sinners.  In contrast, the religious people, those who kept the law, those who were conservative and buttoned up – these people hated Jesus and wanted nothing to do with him.  He repulsed them.

The Church, by and large today, has a consistent response from people.  Those who are religious, moral, and conservative are drawn to the church.  They find it attractive. In contrast, those who are not religious, who reject prevailing attitudes of morality, and who are obviously sinful hate the Church and want nothing to do with it.  They are repulsed by the Church.

Keller states it simply.

If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. (pp.18-19)

Keller’s argument, and I agree, is that we (by and large) do not preach and live the kind of radical grace that Jesus did. That kind of grace is the kind that makes moral people nervous.  It’s the kind that get’s people thrown out of the inner circles of religious power.  Of course, that is not what we should be shooting for, but if our understanding – our very living of grace – never raises eyebrows, we’re probably doing it wrong.

And while this was not new for me, the following thought was – Our belief in grace (or rather our lack of belief in grace) is seriously jeopardizing our Gospel mandate.  It isn’t primarily apologetics that is failing us.  It isn’t primarily the sin of Christians that hinders us.  It isn’t that we do not know how to communicate effectively in our culture anymore.  The problem is that all too often we settle for a grace look-alike that feels comfortable and looks good on the outside, but lacks the power to transform our lives and our communities.

Does this resonate?  I’d like to start a conversation about whether this diagnosis is accurate and what the cure would look like.  I’d like to talk about how more faithfully living the Gospel will attract the kind of people that Jesus attracted.  You know…the sinners.

Why Thinking You’re Great Is Awful

People fall into two basic camps.  One group sees themselves a basically good, OK, strong, and capable.  When this type of person comes to Christ, they typically see sin as something in their past.  They repent and thank God that they are saved.  When they look at others, they see the failures, shortcomings, sin, bad theology, and all the other things wrong with them.  They thank God that they are not like this.  In doing so, they may either despise the other person or feel pity and are compelled to help them.  Either way, they act out of self-righteousness.  By trying to “fix” the other person, they take on the role of Christ and hurt more than help them.  Only Jesus can save people.

Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke 16:19-31.

Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke 16:19-31.
Aureus of Echternach

Those in the other camp see themselves as sick, hurting, and unable to rescue themselves (basically, the people Jesus said he came for).  When this type of person comes to Christ, they typically see the grace needed for today and thank God that they are saved.  When they look at others, they see the failures, shortcomings, sin, bad theology, and all the other things wrong with them.  They think, “There goes someone just like me.”  In doing so, they have compassion because the see a fellow sojourner who hurts as they hurt and fails as they fail.  They step alongside this person and share their own brokenness, which disarms the other and breaks down the unhealthy defenses that we all construct.  The “sinner” naturally seeks out this person for help and guidance, to find healing and restoration that comes only from Christ.

In reality, people in both camps are alike in all respects except self-perception.  Any other differences flow from this.

Do you see these people?  Does this distinction make sense?

Belief and Obedience (a.k.a. If You Say So)

The last few weeks I’ve been thinking (and writing) a lot about grace and how grace is a means for not only becoming righteous in a legal sense, but also in a practical sense.  This time I want to focus on the relationship between belief and obedience.

What I’ve come to fundamentally understand about obedience is that it is, in the end, a matter of faith more than anything.  In order to obey someone’s instructions, I need to know two things.  I need to know they are willing to instruct me to do the best thing.  I need to believe that they know what the best thing is.  So for me, obedience comes down to this.

  1. Is God Trustworthy?  Does he have my best interest at heart?
  2. Does God knows what’s best for my life or do I know what’s best for my life?

Let’s take an example.  God says not to bear false witness.  I’m going to take this in it’s strictest sense for moment.  I should not give false testimony about another person.  If I do give false testimony, it will result in negative effects for my neighbor.  It will therefore have a negative impact on my community.  I will gain a reputation for someone who cares more about my self interest than honesty or the needs of others.  I will hopefully feel very guilty about this false testimony and will be forced to live with the consequences of my lies.  People will not trust me.  People may despise me.  Others may feel inclined to give false testimony about me and I will reap those consequences, as well.  This is all bad news.

If I had trusted that God had my best interests in mind and that he knew what was best for me, I would have refrained from bearing false witness.  Even if I didn’t know why I should do it, I would have trusted him and obeyed.  We see this in the natural world.  On a recent episode of Downton Abbey (yes, I know…don’t judge) Lord Grantham asked his personal butler, Bates, for a favor that involved illegal activity.  Lord Grantham assured Bates that this was necessary and only meant to prevent a greater evil (the dishonoring of the British Crown), but didn’t give him any details.  Bates’ response?  “You’re word is enough for me, m’lord.”

Bates had spent enough time with “his lordship” to know the man’s character and Bates had been aided enough throughout his years with Lord Grantham to be willing to operate only on his word, with little understanding but a great deal of trust.  And this is for a mere man!  How much more should we be willing to do what God asks simply because it is he who is asking?  If we believe him, we obey.  If we don’t, we do things our own way.

Now a biblical example.  Hebrews 11.31 speaks of Rahab, the prostitute who hid the Israelite spies who were on a scouting mission prior to the fall of Jericho.  Rahab heard all that God had done for the Israelites and believed that he was both able and willing to destroy her hometown, Jericho (Joshua 2.8-11).  She hid the spies and supported God’s plan for Israel.  In this she lied.  But Hebrews 11 says that “by faith the prostitute Rahab…was not killed with those who were disobedient.”  Notice the contrast.  Rahab had faith.  The others disobeyed.  It isn’t those who have faith contrasted with those who lack faith.  The Bible directly contrasts faith with disobedience.  The reason is simple.  Faith always leads to obedience.  Lack of faith always leads to disobedience.

Likewise, Paul says in Romans 14 that everything done outside of faith is sin.  Before you attack my sloppy exegesis, remember this – though Paul is making a different point about faith and sinfulness, the link between faith and obedience is still solidly there.  Jesus says in John 14 that those who love him obey him.  Love and faith are very closely linked.  It seems that Bates loved Lord Grantham.  And we love the God we put our faith in.  To the extent that our love for him rules us, we obey.  And when our love falters, we disobey.  I think the love Jesus speaks of in this context is virtually synonymous with faith.

“But I do believe!” you’re screaming in your heart at this moment.  Of course, but each of us has inside a mixture of belief and unbelief (cf. Mark 9.24).  We believe God, but we don’t.  To the extent that we cultivate belief, our obedience will increase.  And this is done by the grace of God (maybe more to come on practical ways to cultivate faith later?).

What I find myself doing a lot lately is reciting a little mantra.  For the record, I don’t like mantras.  The resistance is partly due to my distaste for anything smacking of eastern meditation and partly not wanting to feel silly.  But here I am, using a mantra anyway and finding it very useful.  When I’m facing temptation to engage in those stubborn sins that are frankly just too powerful in my life (and we all have them), I recite in my mind, “if you say so.”  I’m telling God that I’m going to obey simply because he asked me to.  It is for me an acknowledgement that he knows that he’s doing better than I know what I’m doing.

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Tempted to mislead (lie) in order to avoid appearing inept, less than, or stupid?  It would be so much easier than admitting my failure, but if you says so.  Inclined to harbor impure thoughts, even though it damages my relationship with my wife?  I want to minimize the infraction, but if you say so.  Feeling entitled to take more than I should (money, good will, benefits of any kind) in order to get ahead?  I think I deserve it, but if you say so.

If I trust that God wants what is best for me and that he knows what is best for me, I will obey.  Just because he says so.

Grace and Law/Works

In my last post, I wrote about how I understand grace to work.  My basic contention is that striving for righteousness ends in more sin.  Receiving God’s grace results in righteousness.  The question arose, where do the Old Testament and and the teachings of Jesus (which seem to be more law and expectation oriented) fit into this?  What role do they play?

Take a quick trip with me in your imagination.  You are in going to a friend’s house for the first time and you are unfamiliar with the part of town they live in.  So what do you do?  20 years ago you had to grab a map.  You had to find your location, find the destination, and plot a course.  This was not always easy.  To me, this is like life before the law – little help from external sources and you did the best with what you had.  

About 10 years ago you would have hopped on Google maps (or, God forbid, Yahoo maps) and printed out directions to reach your destination.  You didn’t have to know where to find it on the map; you just followed the directions.  As you drove, you would have been looking at the map, trying to read the street signs, and doing your best to avoid a head on collision with a Mack truck.  And if you’re anything like me, you were listening to music and trying to eat your lunch at the same time.  This, for me, is a picture of living by the law.  It’s hard.  It’s stressful.  You’re always looking out for mistakes and wondering if you made the right turn.  To make matters worse, you have this thing called the flesh that is actively working to steer you off course.

driving-gps

Thankfully, that scenario is a thing of the past for many of us.  When I’m going somewhere new, now I just plug an address into my GPS.  Think about it.  I don’t have to even know where I am, just where I want to get.  I drive with my eyes on the road while a friendly voice tells me where to turn and even what lane to be in.  Talk about an easy yoke.  Driving like this is a joy.  This is what living by grace is like.  This is what it looks like to listen to the Holy Spirit.  In this process, your flesh is limited in the amount of confusion it can cause, but when you are knocked off course the GPS automatically redirects you back onto the correct route.

Now, which of the alternatives gives you the correct route?  You might find your way with a map but no directions.  You will certainly have the correct route with the Google Maps directions.  These directions might be identical to the GPS directions.  In other words, this is not about finding a different route.  This is about what method you take to follow the route.

The Old Testament laws, for example, would lead us in the same direction most of the time as the the Holy Spirit.  But keep in mind there is not a law for every circumstance.  It is impossible for laws written in one time to be relevant and binding for all people in all times because situations change.  Using our driving scenario, what do you do it you come to a stop light and the sensor is broken.  You wait through two or three rotations of the light, but no one moves.  I’ve been there.  People will wait until some brave soul goes through the red light.  In that circumstance, following the law will result in the opposite results of the intention behind creating it (i.e. to keep traffic moving smoothly).  Going back to the OT, what do you do when your bull gores someone’s slave?  Well, who cares?  I don’t have an bull.  And if you have a slave, I’m calling the FBI.

But here is another challenge, what if you misunderstand your GPS?  In the real world (as opposed to our analogy here), the GPS can be out of date or lose the satellite connection.  In those situations, it is good to have a map or directions handy.  In our attempt to listen to the Holy Spirit, our motivations and eccentricities hinder our ability to hear and follow the guidance of God.  So we have the Law and the words of Jesus (among others) as the standard by which we measure our ability to follow.  If I think the GPS is telling me to drive south on I-95 to get to a place that is north of my home, I trust instead the road sign that says I-95 North with a list including the city I’m trying to reach on it.

Leaving our analogy behind now, the law is the right and true standard of God.  It let’s me know what God expects of me and gives me insight into how closely I’m aligned to his heart.  But I cannot use the law as the method for aligning myself with his heart.  I think I can, but it doesn’t work.  At the end of Romans 7, Paul says that in his mind he is serving the law of God but in his flesh he’s serving the law of sin.  He thinks he can serve God this way but it only results in sin (that’s basically how I take it).

The same with the teachings of Jesus.  I think Jesus is truly calling us to a new way of living, thinking, and being.  But we won’t get there by trying harder.  We only get there by letting go.  We have to cease striving for righteousness and simply receive righteousness.  Then, as we receive it by grace, we can operate in that righteousness by the Holy Spirit.  Until our flesh is renewed (heavenly bodies?) we will still fight and war within ourselves, but by submitting to the Spirit we can begin to win the war.

So the law says do not covet, do not lust, do not steal, do not lie, and so on.  In trying to live like this, I can strive to do it in order to be righteous.  Or, I can trust that God has given me righteousness and trust that he will empower me to do the right thing.  So when I’m tempted to lie, I don’t look to the law for strength.  I look to God.  It’s not about quoting Scripture (a common recommendation), unless that helps me look to God.  I simply say, “I trust you, God, that you have my best interests at heart.  I trust you that you can give me victory over sin.  So if you say so, I’ll tell the truth now.”