Long, Long Shadows and A Light


Sin never stops where you think it will. 

Your repeated anger leads to latent bitterness which leads to relationship-destroying gossip.  

Your pornography-viewing leads to unmarital sex which leads to one parent raising a child in isolation which leads to crippling resentment.  

Unchecked sin always spreads, and kills where it does.  Like cancer.  

But one of the beautiful mercies of God is that He has given us a community where sin and its scars can be dealt with.  

The church.  


Churches are little cities of imperfect people, people who have been miraculously remade and who, by the grace of a very real and very compassionate God, continually confess and continually turn from the sins they still commit.  They know who they were (spiritually dead evil people), they know who they are (spiritually alive people being slowly made more and more like Jesus), and they know who God is (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who love to save sinners).  And because of these 3 things, these little collections of Gospel people are able to bring wicked and broken and scared and angry humans into their midst and minister to them.  Serve them.  Help to stop the bleeding in their lives.  

The world is home to all stripes of sinners who are in different stages of the pain or disarray or death that sin brings along as its trail.  And there is no one else who can get to the root of the chaos or who can apply supernatural salve to the wounds of all this sin like the church can.  She has been given the Good News that can heal and can save people from their evils, and from the evils that were committed against them.  She can rescue them from the worst of the violence and the trouble and the affliction of this world.  

Which is great, because this is not Mayberry.  This is a world of adultery and ulterior motives and hearts who will cast those they love aside for pleasure or power.  This is a world where sin has left some long, long shadows.  Sons deserted by their fathers, marriages in flames because of selfishness, grown men and women who don’t know how to be men or women.  And there in the heart of this world stands the church, giving the hope and the truth and the life that only she can give.  

This world needs her.  The single mothers and the heroin addicts and the workaholics and the shallowest of womanizers need her.  She is a city on a hill.  

She is where they can come for possibility.  For hope.  For adoption into a forever family.  She is where they can sojourn for all of the things that only Jesus can hand over.  

For everyone trapped in what sin has spoiled, churches are households of transforming mercy.  They are families of forgiveness.  They are little peoples of honest confession and honest love and honest Gospel.  

This is a world of long shadows.  Because sin never stops where it whispers it will.   Sin never keeps that promise.  

But the God of the Cross has given a light that can beat those shadows back.  His church holds that light in her hands, for any and all to come see.  

Let This War Kill Him


One of the most freeing parts about being a Christian is being on the right side in a war that’s already been won.  

And one of the villains who has been laid down in that war is all of the worst things inside of yourself.  

We’re preaching through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7) as a church right now, and one of the things that Jesus does for me as I read it and think about it and pray through it is to reveal to me how many wicked things there are inside of my heart.  In the corners, under the floorboards, stuck up in the attic, in all sorts of hidden spaces within my heart are some disgusting things.  And He knows about them. 

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 

Matthew 6:16-18

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 

Matthew 7:3

But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 

Matthew 5:22

Jesus knows how wicked I can be.  He knows.  My greedy motives and petty, little grudges and pretentious, false religiosity are all before Him.  

The wickedness in my flesh and soul do not surprise or perplex Jesus.  

And He says that as I am conformed more and more to Him, as I’m made more and more teleos (Matthew 5:48; “perfect” or “complete” or “mature,” e.g., 2 Timothy 3:16), as I am grown as a Christian by grace through faith, those sick and awful pieces of myself are getting laid low.  

There is hope for the Christian.  There is hope for me.  I am a territory being conquered by a good King.  My heart is a battlefield, and I myself am a soldier on the right side.  

This war will end someday, and all the veterans like me will stand in the light of our Sovereign, with bodies and souls that will be big enough and clean enough to enjoy Him to the fullest.  

Sentences (Part 3)

  

*For previous installments, see here and here.

Brevity is a skill I’m trying to hone.  I think it’s good to be able to say something you believe to be true and meaningful plainly and in just a few words.  With that in mind, for the third time, here are a few simple theological or moral propositions I contend are true, none longer than a single sentence:

  • The natural position of a human is to see his good deeds as examples of who he really is and his bad deeds as deviations from who he really is; the God who says we are born sinners is going to take some umbrage with that.  
  • The most freeing thing in the world is not being loved for who you are, but being loved despite who you are, and that is precisely what the Gospel offers you.  
  • Doing what’s right is better than doing what’s successful; if they’re the same thing, great, but they won’t always be.
  • The more God makes a man like Jesus, the more the man will love God’s people; becoming more Christlike will always, by definition, mean loving true Christians more and more, because Jesus loves them more than you can imagine.   
  • There are virtually no new heresies, just old heresies with new publishers.  
  • Faith is thoroughly good only when the faith’s object is real and is itself good; faith in false religions and in false prophets is not a good sort of faith.  
  • God made men and women to be and do some things differently, and God is good and knows very much what is best.
  • It is impossible to depend on your having been a good person or having done good things to get to Heaven and actually get there.  
  • We do not live in a day and place that is too afraid of God; there have been such cultures, but ours is not one of them. 
  •  Under the heading of providing for our children we should include the task of praying for their salvations.  
  • It is as comforting to the believer as it is offensive to the hard-hearted that there is not one set of knees on Earth that won’t be bowing to Jesus at the end of all things.  
  • The New Testament doesn’t prescribe a form of government (unless you count the coming absolute kingship of Jesus Christ), but it does command submission to governing authorities.  
  • The hardest thing in the world is also one the most freeing:  Repentance.  

Grace, all, and happy Monday!

    Please Justify Me

     

    I’m smart.  I know the right words to say and the right way to say them.  You’ll have to listen to me.  And you’ll have to be amazed by me.  

    I’m attractive.  You want to look at me.  You want to look like me.  

    I’m likeable.  I’m interesting.  I’m funny. You’d want to invite me to your party.  

    I’m powerful.  I’m strong.  I can get you to do what I want.  And my ability to bend situations and people to my liking will astound you.

    I’m capable.  I do my job better than the other people do theirs.  I never run away when it gets tough.  I’m never lazy.  

    I’m talented.  This skill I have will make your jaw drop.  

    I’m good.  I don’t lie.  Or steal.  Or murder.  I pay my taxes.  I’m better than my neighbor.  And I’m not nearly as bad as that co-worker.  Not nearly.   

    Please justify me, world.  Please.  I’m smart.  I’m funny.  I’m attractive.  You have to justify me.  You have to, right?  I must count.  Look at me.  At what I do.  At what I’ve done.  Look at it.

    This must cover up my nakedness.   

    Oh, God.  God.  Please justify me.  Don’t you see?  I know I’ve sinned, even though I pretend I haven’t (or that you don’t exist).  But I’m standing out from the crowd, God.  Right?  So please take this as my offering.  My intelligence and beauty and achievements.  Take them for my guilt.  They must cover it.  They must.  

    I don’t have anything else.  

    Please count me worthy.  I measure up better than the others.  I have to.  

    I have to.  

    Oh, Heaven help me, I have to.   And that’s why I’m so tired.  

    I can’t do this myself.  

    But I’ll die trying.
    (In)sincerely,

    Every Restless Heart

    So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.  Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.  And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths…  But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’  And he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’   He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat…  And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them

    Genesis 3:6-7, 9-11, 21

    I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne

    Revelation 3:18-21

    At that time Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  

    Matthew 11:25-28

    How Do You Deal With Pain?

     Let me generalize, here.  I’m going to say, for brevity’s sake, that there are 4 ways people deal with pain:  By pretending, by dwelling in it, by running, and by trusting. 

    Cue drum roll. 

    • Pretending

    Maybe you’ve tried this one.  You might pretend that you are beyond pain’s grasp (no one is), or that you’re too strong for it (nope), or that because of your winning smile and sense of humor you are impervious to suffering.  You might drift off into a fantasy world.  Video games, TV shows, alcohol, and shopping can all serve as bubbles to slip yourself into, pretending as though guilt or grief or fear or anger aren’t really out there on your doorstep.  The problem?  Well, there are probably several, but here’s one:  Even if your pretense does lessen the sting, whatever was causing the pain is still there.  And if it was harmful before you started trying to pretend it away, your pretending hasn’t done a darn thing to change that fact.  If in response to the pain of your crumbling marriage you decided to binge watch NetFlix to pretend the sting away, your marriage will still be in the same mess it was once season 2 of Homeland is over.

    • Dwelling

    You might re-play your hurt in your mind over and over and over (and over).  Live in it.  You might always be savoring the bittersweet flavor of whatever hurt (or is hurting) you, like some kind of poisonous piece of candy.  This “strategy” for dealing with pain is the default method for a lot of hearts.  Some just fall into it unconsciously, like breathing.  Whatever pain befalls them will become the soundtrack of their day, their week, their decade.  And the harder and harder that sort of a heart gets, the more difficult it is to shatter the lie that this posture is (usually) built on.  Oh, and what lie is that?  Glad you asked.  The lie that you are owed something better than what you have.  You’re not.  And neither am I.   The Gospel involves the News that sinners who are owed nothing but Hell are offered everything including Heaven.  The Gospel cannot jive with choosing to dwell in or choosing to mentally replay and replay pain.  Or with the bitterness it produces.  

    • Abandoning

    You might run from whatever is causing your pain, without weighing the cost of doing so.  Now of course if you have weighed the cost, and certainly if the thing causing the pain is sin, running is good.  But that’s not what I’m categorizing as “abandoning.”  That kind of running would actually fall into my “trusting” category below.  It would be gutsy running.  But to leave a marriage, a job, a relationship, a church, a neighborhood without Biblical reasons or without carefully and prayerfully considering not leaving is the sort of fleeing hurt or hardship that we don’t even want our children to exhibit on the baseball diamond or at the homework table.  Christians should want to do what’s right, not what’s easy.  Certainly the right thing isn’t always the very hardest thing, but it’s almost always hard, and so if we train ourselves to run simply because something hurts, we are training ourselves for everything but righteousness.  The life of the man who has truly trusted in Jesus will be a life that involves, at some point and in some measure, persecution and hardship.  If we’re used to abandoning ship at the first hot stab of pain, we won’t be able to confirm our election and see the face of God.  

    • Trusting

    And here we are.  You knew I’d get to the good one.  

    There is a kind of person who can know that the God who created and sustains and governs the universe is for him.  A kind of person who is free to live without fear of death or condemnation or abandonment.  It’s the person who has trusted in the God of the Cross.  Pain cannot paralyze or destroy someone who knows the One in control of it is working all things together for the good of the family he’s been made a part of.  

    We all have people or things we trust when the water is rising up around our necks, but the sanity of that trust is measured by the ability of the one we’re trusting in to deliver what we’re hoping in them for.  If I trust my mom to be able to deliver on a tuna salad sandwich, I have a reasonable trust; if I expect her to win a Stanley Cup, I do not.  And there is only One who is worthy of our deep, uniquely human hope for deliverance.  There is only One who can give what we most long for.  In the throes of suffering, it’s not ultimately and finally helpful to trust your spouse or your positive thinking schtick to be able rescue you for good and for all.  Only Christ can do that.  

    And there’s another thing about trusting Christ:  He is the prize.  Knowing Jesus and the power of His resurrection is the most beautiful thing any human soul could ever enjoy.  It will eclipse any and every pain we could ever experience.  The grace, power, beauty, holiness, and majesty of God are indescribably greater than our hurts here on the old earth.  

    When we truly trust God, we’ll enjoy Him, and when we enjoy Him we’ll be better equipped for the world’s stiffest pains.

    So how do you deal with pain?  I know I’ve probably done all four in the very recent past.  But if you’re stuck in trying to pretend your pain away, dwelling in it, or abandoning ship, I can commend to you with all my heart that trusting Jesus of Nazareth is the only way to really successfully and finally deal with pain.  

    He is the King.  The only wise God.  And in Him all our sufferings become a little less agonizing and a little more meaningful.  

      Stifter once said, ‘Pain is a holy angel, who shows treasures to men which otherwise remain forever hidden; through him men have become greater than through all joys of the world.’  It must be so and I tell this to myself in my present position over and over again – the pain of longing which often can be felt even physically, must be there, and we shall not and need not talk it away.  But it needs to be overcome every time and thus there is an even holier angel than the one of pain, and that is the one of joy in God.

      Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing to his fiancé from Nazi imprisonment 

      I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.  In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me…  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. 

      Philippians 4:12-13, 23

        How to Kill a Church

          
        I love the church. Christ’s bride.  The ekklesia, God’s called out people.  He died to save her and I want to live to serve her.  And in my couple of trips around the block as a church member, church planter, church elder, there are a few poisons I’d love to see get big, skull-and-crossbones warning labels so local churches don’t accidentally ingest them.  The most beautiful, God-honoring of churches can be disintegrated if you introduce the right toxin (see Revelation 2-3).*

        *Note:  Some churches also just die a natural death, by God’s good will, having done nothing obviously, overtly sinful or wrong.  No single local church lasts forever.   Churches have God-ordained lifespans.  What I’m warning against is “churchicide,” or, if you prefer, church suicide.  

        Some ways to kill a church:

        • Get each person in the church to have his main concern be his role or reputation.  The church will either disband within 6 months or stay together out of spite and be insufferable for 20 years.  Each of the people who leave this church or who stays in her just to grumble will be perpetually disgruntled that they didn’t get to do or be what they wanted to do or be.  And whatever you do, don’t let any of the people’s attitude be like this:  

        Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 

        Philippians 2:3-7

        • Get them away from the question “Is this true?”  Make them instead always, always, always ask “Will this work?”  And then get them to think it “worked” if their unbelieving friends and neighbors liked it.  Before you know it, they’ll go from trying to bless people because they want them to know their Maker (Christlike) to trying to get people to like them because that means whatever the church did must have “worked” (retail-like).  If you can get the church to make her decisions based solely on the world’s reactions to those decisions, you’re one or two steps away from turning the church’s leaders into a roomful of TV executives trying to figure out which type of new fall show will draw in their key demographic.  
        • Get the church to look in all the time.  Make them thoroughly and completely overwhelmed with the church structure and the internal systems and programs.  Get them to think only about the people already in the body.  No church can outlive its current members if no new members are made.  It’s simple math.  So you can kill a church by attrition if you get it to stop obeying Jesus’ commands to preach to the unbelieving and make disciples.  This method takes a little patience of course, unlike introducing outright heresy or getting a leader to fall into a massive scandal, but it’ll get you to the same end.  A church who doesn’t care about making new Christians won’t outlive her current Christians.  

        Let me pull my tongue back out of my cheek, now:  Don’t let any of these things begin in your church.  And if they’ve already begun, pray and work like crazy for their removal.  

        The church is a blessed thing.  And the cities and countries of our world desperately need local churches to minister to Gospel-believers and send them back out into the darkness, as well as to preach Christ’s Good News from the pulpit and the pew loud enough for all to hear.    

        I’m short, love and protect the church.  

        Jesus died to do the same. 

        For 3:  How I Want to Decide

          

        One good thing about this election cycle is that it has forced me to do some soul searching about why I vote a certain way, and even about why I speak or engage issues and public debates the way I do.  This year I honestly had to examine what my motives really are, and from that came the follow-up question:  “How How do I know what the most Christ-exalting angle to come at this public matter is?”

        Christians from Tertullian to Augustine to Luther to Spurgeon have had to wrestle with how their devotion to the King of Kings should influence their possible commitments to issues in the still-sin-shaped public square.  King Jesus isn’t back yet, so how do I vote?  How do I take a side, or decide whether this is a case where I should take a side?  How do I spend my time and dollars in the city, state, and/or nation I live in, where Satan still has a measure of (God-ordained) control and people who don’t truly know Jesus all jostle around each other, each with their own interests (some horrible, some neutral, some morally positive)?  

        Well, here is a simple rubric I landed on that I think is a faithful outworking of Scripture.  

        So thanks, crazy 2016!

        When I vote or endorse something in the public square, I want the 3 criteria by which I judge my approach to be:

        1. What will glorify Jesus Christ?
        2. What will honor His church?
        3. What will bless my neighbor?

        *Note: “For 3” is a new format, joining “_____ Seconds On…” as a semi-regular series on this blog.

        Let me know what you think! Feedback is always appreciated.