Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Guest Blogger: Pastor Glen Lockwood

The Secret to True Christian Living

When we Christians are convicted in our hearts about living more completely for Christ or forsaking sin, our usual response is to determine that we will try harder.  So we exert our will power to be kinder, or more patient, or more devoted to Christ.  Or we resolve that no longer will we give in to some particular temptation.  We will be what God wants us to be, no matter what!

And what happens?  After a while, sometimes quite soon, we fail.  We’re right back where we were.  After that has happened several times it is so easy to just quit trying and settle down into relative defeat.  While we may not be committing gross sin, we do not have a vibrant, powerful Christian life.

The problem is two-fold.  One, we do not understand what the Christian life is. Two, we do not know how to experience it. 

The Christian life is not the Christian living for Christ.  That is impossible.  The sooner you realize that you simply cannot live the Christian life, the sooner you will be on your way to understanding it.  The Christian life is not the Christian doing anything.  The theological foundation for that is Romans chapter seven.  That chapter teaches that we are dead to the law.  That simply means that by trying to do good you cannot be justified nor become sanctified (holy).  If you try to keep the law, even the commandments of the New Testament, you are headed for defeat.

The Christian life is Christ living His life through you.  It is not you trying to live as you should.
Galatians 2:20 says it well, and I’m going to paraphrase it:  “I have been crucified with Christ (I am dead; see Col. 3:3), but I’m alive.  But it isn’t I who live in this body, it is Christ.  And this life I now live in this body (Christ living in me, through my body), I live by faith in the Son of God (I trust Him to live through me, to empower me, to reveal Himself to the world through me).”

That is the Christian life.  Christ living His life in and through us.  Now, how does it come about?  We know all this is true.  But what do I do to make it happen, so that Christ is the one living in me, and not me? 

Meditate on just one verse, 2 Corinthians 3:18, although there are many others which support it. The clearest translation is in the ESB, and it says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.  For this comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

This verse says that as you gaze on the face of Jesus, the glory of Jesus,  you are transformed into His image.  The Greek word for transformed is the word from which we get the English word metamorphosis.  The change that occurs is a profound, life-altering one.  We use this word to refer to the change of a caterpillar into a butterfly.  Paul here further states that this transformation increases as we continue to gaze on His glory: “from one degree of glory to another.”
So the answer is clear.  If I am to be like Jesus Christ, if He is to live in and through my body, I must look at Him – intensely focus my attention upon Him!  I must stop trying to live for Him and begin to fellowship with Him so intimately that the Spirit begins to transform me.  We do this by meditating on God’s Word day and night (Psalm 1), by learning to pray like Jesus and Paul prayed, by so letting the Spirit control us that we are “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).  My prayer is that you may understand, and that you will begin to seek the Lord with all your heart!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Stepford Children in the Church?

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Can I Really Trust God?"  Click here to find the audio.]

The Stepford Children was a made-for-TV movie aired by NBC in 1987, and it was a sequel to the 1975 film The Stepford Wives, which was remade in the last decade (I haven't seen these movies either, but stick with me...I'm going somewhere). In The Stepford Wives, men essentially turn their wives into robots, and in The Stepford Children, the attention turns on rebellious teenagers. The Men's Association in Stepford, Connecticut, is turning out robotic kids who love their homework, are accomplished in various ways, and are obedient.

The whole 'stepford' idea is the pursuit of the perfect, nuclear family. The Men's Association believed that there really was a path to perfection...that they could control their own familial destiny, so to speak. In the end, things fall apart...actually, they explode. The Stepford Children ends with the non-robotic heroine and her two non-robotic children riding out of town, and malfunctioning machines at the Men's Association cause it to explode. It's as if the story tells us, "If you think you can make the perfect family, don't be surprised when it blows up in your face."

In the realm of Christian parenting, there is a temptation to believe that if we can just instill all the right information and behavior patterns into children, they will turn out fine.  Yet, the statistics tell us that things aren't fine.  All our attempts to create spiritual Stepford children are blowing up in our collective faces!  What does that have to do with Isaiah 40?  Fair question...let's talk about it.

Isaiah 40 is one of those passages that we should visit often...it is a reminder of both the power of God and the love of the God we serve.  In studying verses 12-31, you run into a lot of questions...rhetorical questions like "Who taught [God] the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?" (v. 14).  The understood answer is, "No one."

Yet, there is a different kind of question among these verses, too.  It's not a rhetorical question meant to teach the audience...it's a genuine question meant to confront the audience.  And it's found in verse 27: "Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, 'My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God'?"

Yes...these are statements that many people make.  Yes...these statements seem to be part of the fabric of life in a sin-riddled world.  Yet, God's question is a serious question.  Through the use of capital letters, the English translation reveals that "LORD" here is the covenant name of God...Yahweh.  In other words, this statement about God is not coming from one who hasn't been taught about the nature of God...it's coming from an insider, a devoted attender of the temple, a person in the community of faith, a child of faithful parents...i.e., someone who has been taught.

The man saying this kind of thing may very well have been taught when he sat in the house or when he walked on the way.  The woman questioning God's care was probably instructed when she laid down and when she rose.  The people here may have been taught every day of their lives...in formal and informal ways...yet they are still questioning the very theology they have been taught.

My initial response to such things is to be humbled.  As a pastor and as a father, no matter how diligent I am in teaching, I cannot guarantee the outcome.  If my children are going to be converted, to live holy lives, to walk through difficulty in faith, etc., it will only be by God's grace.  Of course, God has prescribed that parents must teach diligently, but He has not given us a formula for turning out spiritual Stepford children. 

This means that as disciple makers...whether parents, friends, coworkers, or pastors...we must call out to God for help.  If God is the only One who can bring the change and growth we long to see in those we teach, then prayer must be a habitual practice.  It is a humbling thing to invest your life in other people knowing that all your investment must be met by God's blessing to be effective...and that humility is a healthy thing.

My second response to such a truth is to be energized.  Sounds like a contradiction, doesn't it?  Well, it's not.  You see, the necessity of God's blessing is no excuse for laziness in teaching...any more than God's sovereignty is a viable excuse for evangelistic apathy.  The truth is...God has said that His Word will not come back void, and while that is not a promise for automatic salvation and growth, it is a promise that God works through His Word.  God's chosen means of working in our lives...whether for conversion or sanctification...is through the vehicle of His Word.

As one who longs to see change and growth in my children and in others, I must be actively involved in sharing God's Word.  I must be sharing it to evangelize unbelievers...I must be sharing it in raising my children...I must be sharing it to encourage and correct other believers.  And while I only recently heard another story of a man converted through simply reading God's Word, the primary way God gets His word to people is through other people.  The same is true with our children...the primary means by which God develops faith in children is through the teaching of their parents.

I know it's a bit of a rabbit trail from Isaiah 40:27 to these two responses, but as I meditate on the setting of the verse, I find it is a helpful one.  May we all humbly cry out to God to bless our efforts in sharing the Word with believers and unbelievers...knowing that we can't creat any spiritual Stepford children.  And may we all be energized to keep sharing the Word...knowing that God works and transforms lives through the power of His Word!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Forgiveness as a Path, Not a Destination

[This post follows a sermon titled "A Word Fitly Spoken".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

Jay Adams has written a little booklet called "What Do You Do When Your Marriage Goes Sour?"  Among the things written about in this helpful booklet, Adams addresses the issue of forgiveness.  He says that, fundamentally speaking, forgiveness is a promise...a threefold promise.

He writes, "When you forgive...another...you are promising to do three things about his wrong doings.  You promise: (1) I shall not use them against you in the future.  (2) I shall not talk to others about them.  (3) I shall not dwell on them myself."  This is a helpful way to think about forgiveness, and today, I want to write about the fact that forgiveness is meant to be a path...not a destination.

You see, many people see forgiveness as the end.  If someone wrongs you, you say you are willing to forgive the person...to let them off the hook...to not demand repayment for the wrong you have suffered.  However, that's the end...literally.  It's often the end of the relationship.  It's as if one person is saying to the other, "I forgive you, but I don't want to see you anymore."  Or, "I forgive you, but I will keep you at an arm's distance for the rest of our lives."

I want to suggest that this is not how biblical forgiveness is meant to function.  In the letter to the Ephesians, Paul writes, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (4:31-32). 

In other words, there are two different ways to handle conflict.  On the one hand, there is bitterness, wrath, anger, and malice.  On the other, there is kindness, tenderheartedness, and forgiveness.  In Paul's mind, these two lists aren't meant to be mixed.  The example of forgiveness as an end seem to try and mix the two...e.g., forgiveness and malice. 

Now, I'm not trying to say that it's easy to keep the two lists unmixed...I'm saying it's necessary to keep them unmixed.  You see, this falls in a section of Paul's letter which is explaining what it means to "put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt...and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness" (4:22, 24).  Putting away bitterness, wrath, anger, and the rest of verse 31 is part of what it means to put off the old self.  Being kind, tenderhearted and forgiving is part of what it means to put on the new self.

So, forgiveness is not meant to be an end...neither the end of the relationship nor the end of the conflict resolution process, really.  The reason I believe that forgiveness is a path and not a destination is because of the end of Ephesians 4:32..."as God in Christ forgave you."  How did God forgive you?  Did He just say you're off the hook?  Did He just relieve you of the guilt of your sin?  Has He simply promised that you will not face eternal punishment?

Now, I do not make light of these things, for they are infinitely wonderful promises.  Yet, they are not the end.  They are a path to relationship.  When God forgave us in Christ, it was so we might be brought near to Him...adopted as His sons...no longer enemies of God but reconciled.  And this is how Paul says forgiveness should work in human relationships.

Let me give you an example from marriage.  Let's say I sin against my wife, Susan.  I go to her, I confess my sin, and I seek her forgiveness.  Now, why is that forgiveness so precious?  Is it just so I don't feel as guilty about my sin?  No.  Is it only for the purpose of obedience that Susan should desire to forgive?  No.  What I want more than anything is for the frigid atmosphere that sin creates to warm up again.  I want to sit on the couch with her and not feel like we're miles apart.  I want to know that we're not just operating as partners in a domestic household but as husband and wife.  Namely, I want the relationship back!  And if Susan loves me...which she does...then she will want the relationship back as well, even when my sin has messed up the relationship.  And the path to that reconciled relationship is forgiveness.

Speaking words of forgiveness as an end in themselves does not fulfill the biblical injunction to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us.  When we say "I forgive you" but want to break off that relationship forever, we sometimes just want to ease our own conscience.  Some want to be able to say they did the "Christian" thing, while holding on to bitterness and malice in their hearts.  This, too, is a path, but it is the prideful path to a feeling of moral superiority...a path we are never encouraged to walk.

One may object, "Yeah...that's okay for trivial stuff, but what about real, deep, painful conflicts?  You don't know the pain I've endured from others."  Look, I know how this must sound to some who read this, and I would never try to be reductionistic about your pain.  I don't think I could cover every situation in one blog entry...specific cases are best handled in biblical counseling settings.  The truth is that, in some ways, you're right...you have faced deeper hurts than I may ever face in my life.  And though it sounds simplistic and unreasonable and even impossible right now, I would still say that forgiveness is meant to be a path to reconciliation.  It is harder to walk in some instances than in others, but it is still the biblical path to walk.

Let me finish with a question: Is it possible for our problems to be so big, so life-shattering, so painful, so devastating that God cannot bring healing to those involved and to the relationship?  In thinking about this answer, there are two things we could underestimate.  First, we could underestimate the power of God.  When we are in the middle of disastrous conflict, it seems like nothing will work...nothing will make this better.  "I will never be able to reconcile with him or her," the hurt person thinks.  "This relationship is as good as dead."  What we fail to remember with these kinds of thoughts is the God we serve...He actually raises dead things to life, including relationships...including marriages.  If I believe that I was dead in my sin until God made me alive in Christ, saying, "Toby, come forth," how can I not believe that He cannot do the same with my marriage?  Let us not underestimate the power of God.

Second, we could underestimate the power of sin.  Sin is deadly and dangerous and affects us more than we know.  Relational conflict is not just born in sin, it is fed by sin.  Just as God warned Cain that sin was crouching at his door, wanting to overtake him (Gen. 4:7), God warns us as well through the apostle Paul to "give no opportunity to the devil" (Eph. 4:27).  Answering this question too quickly with a trite 'no' can be destructive...we must not underestimate the power of sin and its war against our reconciliation efforts.

Yet, in reality, 'no' is the right answer.  There is no wound God cannot heal.  Sure...we will have the scars of conflict afterward, but if we humble ourselves and fight to walk the biblical path of forgiveness toward reconciliation, then they will be scars of grace.  They will be scars which taught us how to forgive...scars which taught us of reconciliation.  They will be scars which reveal that we are being conformed to the image of our Savior, whose unjustly inflicted wounds left scars that testify of our forgiveness and reconciliation.  Now, as God in Christ has forgiven us, may we likewise with one another.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Christian Karma?

[This entry follows a sermon titled "Learning from a King's Sickness".  Click on the title to find the audio.]

Do you know what "karma" is?  Found primarily in Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is the idea that one brings on himself either good or bad experiences through previous good/bad behavior, respectively.  It's the notion behind the popular TV sitcom My Name is Earl.  The main character, Earl, gives a plain-language definition: "Do good things and good things happen.  Do bad things and bad things happen."

Do you know what "Christian karma" is?  Well, it doesn't actually exist, but it's a phrase I would use to talk about the way Christians believe God answers prayer.  If you do good things, God answers your prayer the way you want.  If you do bad things, God won't give you what you want.  There is a general feeling that somehow I can live my life in a way that merits the blessing of God.  Yet, this notion is contrary to the gospel, which tells us God's blessings come by His grace...not by our merit.

In Isaiah 38-39, we find King Hezekiah sick and at the point of death (38:1).  The king prays for healing on the basis of his moral record before God, but when God answers, He answers on the basis of being "the God of David your father" (38:5).  God heals because of His grace, not because of Hezekiah's merit.  You see, God's promise to David was that one of his descendants would be an eternal king (2 Sam. 7), and in answering Hezekiah's prayer, God was keeping that promise.  About three years after Hezekiah was healed, his son, Manasseh, was born.  And the line of David went on...a line that led straight to the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Matthew 1).

So, when God grants what we ask for, we should always see it as an act of His grace...not some kind of spiritual wage we have earned.  That being said, the Scripture is clear that there are ways to hinder our prayers to God.  I am thankful for Tim Challies for putting these passages together on his blog several months back.  Here are five ways that our prayers might be hindered.

1. By our selfish motives - "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3).  Also, in 1 John 5:14, we read, "And this is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us."  As God hears our prayers, our motives matter.  It matters if we are aligning our will with His, as we know it in Scripture...it matters if we are praying simply for our own benefit or for the glory of God.  When we are in small groups praying for one another, we cannot hear the heart's motive.  It could be masked by the right wording of the prayer.  Yet, God sees the heart...He knows the motive...and our wrong motives can hinder our prayers.

2. By turning away from Scripture - "If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Prov. 28:9).  When we ignore the words of God and then plead with God to hear us in our time of need, it is an abomination.  Why?  Because when we do this, we are acting as if God as a means to an end.  God is not a means to our desired end...He is the end.  He is the Treasure.  The healing is not greater than the Healer.  The provision is not greater than the Provider.  The answer is not greater than the One who answers.  Turning away from Scripture is a turning away from God Himself, and it is an indication that He is not our treasure...He is a tool for our pursuits.  This hinders prayer, for God will not be used.

3. Through discord in our families - "Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered" (1 Peter 3:7).  As the spiritual leaders of their homes, men are meant to maintain peace and order in their homes.  This means living with our wives in ways that are sensitive to their needs...ways that demonstrate we know them as fellow 'heirs...of the grace of life.'  In other words, having personal, intimate communion with God and a strained, alienated relationship with your spouse are incongruous ideas...a bit like blessing God and cursing men with the same mouth (James 3:9-10).  Being content to live in such marital strife hinders prayers.

4. By cherishing sin - "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened" (Psalm 66:18).  Many people speak of feeling distant from God...like God doesn't hear them when they pray.  Well, before we begin to imagine we are like "Moses...going through a desert experience", we should examine our hearts.  Could it be that there is some area in which we are refusing to repent of sin?  We may not verbally say that we cherish our sin, but when we refuse to repent, we are proclaiming that our sin is a greater treasure to us than God.  When this happens, we do feel distant from God because, experientially, we are distant from Him.  We have not drawn near to God, and so we must not expect God to draw near to us.  Rather, we should listen to James: "Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Be wretched and mourn and weep.  Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom" (4:8b-9).

5. Through doubting as we ask - "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given.  But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.  For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord" (James 1:5-7).  When we ask the Lord, we must ask expectantly.  He is a good God and is the source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).  We must believe two things.  One, we must believe that if we have asked according to God's will, He will certainly grant our request.  Two, we must believe that if our prayer is not aligned with God's will, it is because His wisdom and will are better than ours, and it is for our sanctification that He refuses or puts us in a place of waiting on Him.

So, again...let us pray.  If we are receiving what we ask, then let's remember that it is not because we've earned it...or because of "good, Christian karma."  It's because our God is gracious and loves giving good gifts to His children that we receive.  If we are not receiving what we ask, let's examine our own lives...are we living in ways that would hinder God hearing when we call on Him?  If honest self-evaluation results in the belief that we are not hindering our prayers, then let's keep praying in faith...keep on knocking...keep on seeking...keep on asking.  And let's trust our good, righteous God to do what is right...in His own way, and in His own time.