Suffering for the Name

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

–Romans 5.1-5 (NIV)

Yesterday we looked at the problem of forgiveness and reconciliation between God and humans, and what our response should be to God’s gracious offer to us in Jesus. I suggested that part of our faithful response should be made manifest in our actions, in our becoming Kingdom workers in which we follow the example of our Lord Jesus. I will let you read about that if you are interested or if you have not already done so.

Today I want to focus on one aspect of following Jesus. When we deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus, we will inevitably be confronted with suffering as Paul reminds us in the passage above. But why would he glory in his suffering and why should we? What is Paul talking about here?

If my own experience is representative, whenever I read about suffering for Jesus’ Name I inevitably think about passages from Acts in which we see Peter and Paul flogged and beaten. Or I think of Stephen’s martyrdom. But most of us don’t live in a culture where we have to worry about being flogged or killed for Jesus’ name–at least not yet. So what does it mean to suffer for Jesus?

If you have consciously forgiven someone who has wronged you terribly because Jesus commands us to do this, especially when everything in you screamed not to forgive, you know what it means to suffer for Jesus’ sake. Overcoming the hurt and anger that someone else has evoked in you is not an easy thing to do and we must put to death, with the Spirit’s help, our desire to retaliate or take revenge on our enemies. That means we will suffer.

If you have ever prayed for a killer or rapist or terrorist and then faced the wrath of the family or friends of the victims of these perpetrators, you know what it is like to suffer for Jesus’ sake. If you have ever spoken out against the increasing immorality that is killing our society and faced the ridicule from more “enlightened” folks who see your views as backward, uninformed, or just hateful, you know what it is like to suffer for Jesus’ sake.

If you have ever sat with anyone who is desperately sick or dying because you remember Scripture’s command to do so, and if in doing so you have felt a helplessness over your inability to make the sick and/or dying better, you know what it is like to suffer for Jesus’ name. There is rarely anything more difficult for those who care at all about humans than to watch them struggle and suffer. This is terribly hard work.

Likewise, if you have ever given your time and effort sacrificially to feed the hungry or serve at church or strive to end conditions that cause economic injustice or exploitation of the poor, you know what it means to suffer for Jesus, especially when you meet opposition in doing so. As with the sick and dying, if you care at all about people, it is hard to watch others live in poverty and want.

These examples do not constitute a comprehensive list of things that Christians do that can cause us to suffer, but I think they can help us reflect on what it means to suffer for Jesus’ sake. So why would anyone in their right mind willingly engage in suffering for Jesus’ name? Because when we do, we have the promise of being strengthened by Jesus himself through his Spirit living in us. For example, there was a time when I dreaded going to visit anyone in the hospital, let alone anyone who was dying. It made me terribly uncomfortable. I couldn’t help them or alleviate their condition. And what should I say to a dying person? I didn’t want to offend them! So I did what any self-respecting person would do. I stayed away. I ignored them, hoping that in doing so the problem would go away. Guess what. It didn’t and then I was left to deal with the guilt I felt for ignoring the suffering around me.

But then I learned a remarkable thing. It wasn’t about me. It was about embodying Jesus to these folks. When I gained enough knowledge and humility to make me realize that I didn’t have to fix the problem, that my presence was enough, in part because I was embodying Jesus to his broken and hurting people, the burden was off me. It freed me to serve them, just like my Lord did. Better yet, I realized what a privilege it was to do so! Now don’t misunderstand. I still do not like to see others suffer. That will never change. What changed in me was my frame of reference. This wasn’t about me but about allowing Jesus to use me to minister to others, and sometimes it was as simple (or complex) as being present for those in need. This is precisely what Paul was talking about in his second letter to the Corinthians.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [the thorn in my flesh, whatever that was] away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12.8-10).

This is faith in action. This is what Scripture means by living a faithful life, by having a saving faith in Jesus.

When we suffer for Jesus’ sake and Name, we acknowledge our weakness and inability to fix ourselves and others. We tacitly acknowledge that we really aren’t the Lord of the universe and that there are precious few things over which we have any real control, especially outside of ourselves. Suffering for Jesus opens us up for him to work in us. We open ourselves up to his power, the power to love, serve, heal, and extend mercy and forgiveness to others, the power to take up our cross everyday, the power to be agents of his New Creation. When we acknowledge we are weak, then we are strong because we open ourselves up to Jesus’ presence and grace in our very being, and that is reason enough to rejoice in our sufferings for Jesus’ sake and Name.

Of course, this all starts with the season of Lent because for any of this to happen we have to first acknowledge our own brokenness and our need of Jesus’ power, strength, and presence in our lives. When we are weak we are strong, made strong because of Jesus’ power and grace, made strong to be his servants and to do the hard things we need to do so that we can follow and obey him, things like speaking the truth in love regardless of the wrath we will incur from others, things like loving others, forgiving our enemies, and offering mercy instead of insisting on justice for ourselves–all things that go against our human nature. When we open ourselves up to Jesus’ power, he enables us to do incredibly difficult things for him and in doing so, we are given the honor, privilege, and joy of being his Kingdom workers right here and now.

Can you say meaning and purpose of life?

Jesus calls us to take up our cross each day and follow him. To do that we must first deny ourselves and acknowledge that he is Lord and we are not. And when we follow Jesus we can be certain that there will be opposition, suffering, and hardship along the way because our Lord himself faced this when he lived on this earth and he warned those who would follow him that they would face the same things that he did. But here’s the funny thing. Instead of losing heart and hope, we will find cause to rejoice in our suffering for his Name because we have the assurance that he is living and working in us to help us be the very servants he calls us to be. And when we have that kind of living relationship with the Source and Author of all life, we can live in the assurance and joy that we are living life as it was meant for us to live, and that nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from God’s great love offered to us in Jesus.

Of course if we use the standards of this world, all of what I have just written is plain nuts. The world tells us just the opposite of what our Lord tells us. You don’t find yourself by losing yourself. You find yourself be self-aggregation and ruthlessness. You get what you can, when you can, and don’t worry about trampling on others along the way.

But if you really want to be countercultural and different, if you really want to make a difference in this life, the only way you can do that is by answering Jesus’ call to you to deny yourself, take up your cross each day, and follow him. And you will never be able to prove this until you actually jump in the water and begin to swim. You cannot be an armchair or Monday morning quarterback. You’ve got to get in the trenches Jesus calls you to get in and get muddied and bloodied up.

If you are looking for the ride of your life, if you are looking for real meaning and purpose, then take a chance and follow Jesus. Real life is waiting for you. What are you waiting for?

Shawn Graves: Why There Are Still Atheists

From Christianity Today online.

It’s understandable why some people, like Spiegel, read that “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” and subsequently wonder why there are any atheists at all. But reflecting on that passage prompts me to ask a different question: Why should we think that the heavens and the skies are the only ones declaring and proclaiming? We theists declare and proclaim as well. But our proclamations about God—on significant matters like what God is like, what God is doing in the world, and what we ought to do—are often incompatible and unhelpful.

A helpful analysis. Graves is not afraid to ask some hard questions. It also ties in well with today’s blog entry below. Read it all and reflect on it. What would happen if Christians started acting like Kingdom workers? Would not this start turning heads and getting people to stop and take notice? Would this not also cause some to ask the “why are you doing that?” question?

The Season of Lent: Doing Our Part to Respond to God’s Initiative and Great Love for Us

By faith we have been made acceptable to God. And now, because of our Lord Jesus Christ, we live at peace with God. Christ has also introduced us to God’s undeserved kindness on which we take our stand. So we are happy, as we look forward to sharing in the glory of God. But that’s not all! We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us. All of this happens because God has given us the Holy Spirit, who fills our hearts with his love. Christ died for us at a time when we were helpless and sinful. No one is really willing to die for an honest person, though someone might be willing to die for a truly good person. But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful. But there is more! Now that God has accepted us because Christ sacrificed his life’s blood, we will also be kept safe from God’s anger. Even when we were God’s enemies, he made peace with us, because his Son died for us.

–Romans 5.1-10a (CEV)

Imagine you have a dear friend who suddenly betrays you and is now quite hostile toward you and anything you do. How would you react? Realistically you have two choices. You can choose to respond to your friend’s betrayal and hostility tit-for-tat and become his enemy. If you choose this course, your former relationship with him will likely be destroyed forever.

Or you can choose to seek reconciliation so that your former relationship with him might be restored. To do this, you must first forgive your friend and your friend must acknowledge that he has wronged you and caused you harm so that you know he is aware of the problem and his role in it. After all, it takes two to make a relationship. You, of course, must then accept his apology if you really have forgiven him. If that happens, you have the hope and chance of being reconciled to your friend and having your relationship restored to its former state.

But what if your former friend refuses to acknowledge the wrong he has done you? Worse yet, what if he doesn’t think he has done anything wrong to you in the first place? Do you think he will apologize to you and seek to stop doing you harm? Not likely. What then will happen to your relationship? It will be destroyed because even though you made overtures to him so that the two of you might be reconciled and your former relationship might eventually be restored, his refusal to acknowledge the harm he has done you and change his ways toward you prevent that from happening.

Welcome to the predicament that our human condition has caused. While the illustration above is woefully inadequate on some levels–for example, it assumes that the two parties are equals and because both parties are human, neither one has the holiness of God which cannot tolerate evil in any form–it does serve to remind us why we have a season of Lent. God created us to have a relationship with him, a relationship between Creator and creature, and before the Fall, God and humans enjoyed their relationship as God intended.

That is why the Garden of Eden was paradise. But then came the Fall in which humans decided they wanted to take God’s place, that they could be equal to God, i.e., they betrayed God and became hostile toward him, and the relationship was severed. And as we have seen before, without a relationship with God, we humans have no life in us. Death must be the inevitable result because without God, life is not possible. Our human pride and arrogance prevent us from being reconciled with God so that our relationship with him might be eventually restored to the way it was in paradise. Why? Because like the friend in the illustration above, we often don’t think there is a problem and/or we are unwilling to acknowledge that we have done God wrong and be willing to change our ways so as to make reconciliation with God possible. In biblical language this is called confession and repentance.

This, then, is why we undergo a season of Lent. As Paul reminds us today (I chose the CEV version because it is devoid of “churchy” language while not losing the essence of Paul’s theology), God has done a mind-blowing thing for us. God has reached out to us in Jesus and offered us a chance to be reconciled to him so that our fractured relationship with him might be restored eventually (think here the New Creation). He did this for us even while we were still his enemies, still openly rebellious and hostile toward him. He did this because he does not want anyone to have to bear the terrible penalty of having God’s wrath poured out on them. And if you are deluding yourself into thinking God’s wrath is not a terrible thing or that you are not a candidate for it without the cross of Christ, you might want to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with the biblical narrative of God’s rescue plan for humanity, a plan that God decided to implement through his people Israel and which culminated in Jesus, the one and only true representative of Israel.

When we undergo a season of Lent, we acknowledge that we are the problem in our relationship with God but we also remember the wondrous Good News of Jesus Christ and God’s great love, mercy, and grace offered to us. Yet we have to have the good sense to accept God’s offer to us. If we don’t, like the friend in our illustration above, we have no hope of ever having our relationship with God restored.

However, when we have the necessary humility and contriteness of being to acknowledge that we are the culprits who have fractured our relationship with God and resolve to do what is necessary on our part to respond to his great love for us as manifested in Jesus, everything changes for us. Instead of being God’s enemy, we now have peace with him, a peace won for us at the terrible cost of his blood shed for us on the cross. We now have the gift of God’s Holy Spirit living in us to help transform us into the beings God created us to be (did you note the very trinitarian nature of Paul’s writing–the love of the Father, who sends the Son to die for us, and who gives us his Holy Spirit to transform and sustain us?).

Paul is not talking about just dying and going to heaven in today’s passage. He is talking about being part of a broader community of believers (the Church) whom God calls to be his Kingdom workers who will imitate Jesus’ work, humility, and suffering to bring about God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. Paul is talking about having a chance to be reconciled to the Source and Author of all life so that he can use us to embody Jesus to bring his transformative and healing power to his broken and hurting world. When Paul talks about sharing God’s glory, he is talking not only about the New Creation but also about the glory of God manifested in the cross of Christ! And if we want to share in that glory, we must acknowledge first what God has done for us in Jesus and then willingly set out to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus so that God can use us as his agents of New Creation. Is that just not way too cool?? And it all starts with the season of Lent and our efforts to do our part to respond to God’s gracious love and mercy for us.

If you want a concrete example of how this all works, look no further than Fr. John Wesley, Anglican priest and founder of the Methodist movement in 18th century England. After years of essentially pursuing a program of self-help, Wesley was given the grace to accept God’s great love and mercy for him and it made all the difference in the world for him and his followers. When Wesley and the Methodists accepted the grace and peace of God, it changed them and made them look outward, not inward. They were not interested in some kind of exclusive private spirituality in which they contemplated going to heaven and ignored the human suffering and brokenness around them. No, they took the love of Jesus to people who desperately needed it and arguably helped prevent a social revolution from occurring. In doing so, they partook in God’s glory manifested in his crucified Messiah. Their work originated in their relationship with God and was powered by him. Theirs was no self-help movement. Listen to Wesley now.

At this season we usually distribute coals and bread among the poor of the Society; but I now considered they wanted clothes as well as food. So on this and the four following days I walked through the town and begged two hundred pounds, in order to clothe them that wanted it most. But it was hard work, as most of the streets were filled with melting snow, which often lay ankle-deep, so that my feet were steeped in snow-water from morning till evening. I held it out pretty well till Saturday evening, when I was laid up with a violent [case of diarrhea].

What motivated Wesley to do this? Unless you are prepared to call him a fool and a masochist, you have to admit there is something remarkable going on here (and this is typical of what Wesley and his followers did; it isn’t an isolated example). This is what the love of God does. It allows us to rejoice in our suffering (and if you want to understand what Paul meant by this in today’s passage, here is a classic example). It changes us and compels us to become Jesus’ fellow workers to bring God’s love, healing, and transforming forgiveness to his broken and hurting world, a world that so desperately needs it.

If you are a Christian, is this the kind of dynamic you have in your life? Does your relationship with God empower you to do the work he calls you to do so that you can share in his glory? Does the Spirit set your heart on fire and give you a passion to embody Jesus to the various folks in your life with whom you have regular contact?

And if you are not a Christian, does this vision of having peace with God and sharing it with those in your world excite and invite you–provided I have done an adequate job of laying it out in an understandable way? I pray it does, and if it does, regardless of who you are, remember that you will not embark on this great journey of love and service alone. You have the very Presence of God living in you, transforming and enabling you to live your life with joy, peace, and purpose. At the end of the day, that’s not to be sneezed at because you realize you are rejoicing in your suffering for the Lord and are sharing in his glory.

Carolyn Arends: Satan’s a Goner

From Christianity Today online.

There is one visit I’ve never forgotten. The missionaries were a married couple stationed in what appeared to be a particularly steamy jungle. I’m sure they gave a full report on churches planted or commitments made or translations begun. I don’t remember much of that. What has always stayed with me is the story they shared about a snake.

One day, they told us, an enormous snake—much longer than a man—slithered its way right through their front door and into the kitchen of their simple home. Terrified, they ran outside and searched frantically for a local who might know what to do. A machete-wielding neighbor came to the rescue, calmly marching into their house and decapitating the snake with one clean chop.

The neighbor reemerged triumphant and assured the missionaries that the reptile had been defeated. But there was a catch, he warned: It was going to take a while for the snake to realize it was dead.

Read it all and as you do, reflect on Paul’s assertion that in the cross the powers and principalities have been defeated. What, if anything, keeps you from really believing this?

The Season of Lent is Ultimately About Real Hope

This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubborn inclinations of their evil hearts. They went backward and not forward. From the time your ancestors left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. But they did not listen to me or pay attention. They were stiff-necked and did more evil than their ancestors.  When you tell them all this, they will not listen to you; when you call to them, they will not answer.

–Jeremiah 7.21-27 (NIV)

But Abraham never doubted or questioned God’s promise. His faith made him strong, and he gave all the credit to God. Abraham was certain that God could do what he had promised. So God accepted him, just as we read in the Scriptures. But these words were not written only for Abraham. They were written for us, since we will also be accepted because of our faith in God, who raised our Lord Jesus to life. God gave Jesus to die for our sins, and he raised him to life, so that we would be made acceptable to God.

–Romans 4.20-25 (CEV)

May the life-giving cross be the source of all our joy and peace. Amen.

Common Worship: Morning & Evening Prayer, 318

Given the human condition with its propensity to twist things around, there is always a danger for us to lose sight of the hope that is ours in Christ during this season of Lent. As we engage in our Lenten disciplines of self-denial, prayer, fasting, reading Scripture, and confession/repentance, it is easy for us to lose sight of the prize. It is easy to forget that God has provided us a real and efficacious solution to the intractable problem of the human condition, and we do so at our own peril.

Take today’s Scripture readings, for example. In the passage from Jeremiah we have a succinct summary of the human condition. God, through his prophet, takes his people to task. He reminds them (and us) that he is their God and they are his people, and they need to act accordingly. But they (and we) don’t. At best, we want to treat God as our equal. At worst, we want to replace God with ourselves and this is the essence of sin because it constitutes an active rebellion against God on our part. This, in turn, separates us from God’s love for us. It cuts off our true life support system and ultimately our life will not go well, either here on this earth or hereafter. Sure, we can look around and see examples that appear to contradict this truth, but the circumstances of life are just that–appearances (see, e.g., Psalm 73). They do not always reveal the truth that without God, we have no life in us. As Jeremiah points out to his people, God is not interested in burnt offerings for sin. He is interested in our love and obedience, and we are typically reluctant to give him either, let alone both.

And this is where the rub comes in. Our sin separates us from God and takes us off our life support. It casts us into exile, just as Adam and Eve’s sin got them exiled from paradise. It makes us hostile toward God and separates us from him, and given our human condition, we really are not in a position to do anything about this terrible condition. We are powerless to effect real reconciliation with a Holy God because we are fallen people who are weighed down by our body of sin and incapable of completely ridding ourselves of every trace of evil that exists in us. To make matters worse, we often don’t usually stop to consider that the alienation and hostility is not just one sided. Not only are we alienated from and hostile toward God, but God is also alienated from and hostile toward us because God is a Holy God who cannot tolerate evil in any form. As Dr. John Stott put it, “It is not that God finds it difficult to forgive, but how he finds it possible to do so at all” (The Cross of Christ, 88). It really is not a pretty picture and if we stop there, we can quickly fall into despair and hopelessness.

But this is an incomplete picture because it does not take into account God’s rescue operation in Jesus. Yes, left to our own devices we are without hope because none of us can rid ourselves completely of the evil that is in us and so none of us has any legitimate hope of being able to live directly in God’s presence forever.

But we are not left to our own devices because God has given us a once and for all solution to our problem of exile and alienation.

As Paul reminds us in the passage from Romans today, God created us to live and to have a real relationship with him and so he intervened decisively in our history to make good on his promise to Abraham to be a blessing to him so that Abraham and his offspring could be agents of God’s rescue plan for sinful humanity. God’s promise to rescue his broken and rebellious people reached its culmination when God himself condescended to become human, to live among us, and to die for us so that we could be reconciled to him.

This is why the line quoted above from Common Worship implores us to remember that the cross is life-giving, that it should be the source of all our joy and peace. This is worthy of our time and our best reflections because in the cross of Jesus, we have our only real source of hope. We remember that the cross is God’s symbol of justice. Payment for sin and rebellion must be made, but it is God in Jesus who makes the payment for us. This reminds us that God is not just a God of justice but also a God of love, mercy, and grace. When we reflect on the cross, we see a God who loves us and wants us to live. Like any good parent, God wants the best for us and it starts with our relationship with him. Since we cannot and will not do what is necessary to mend the gap that exists between us, God has done that himself. We have peace, God’s peace, because our alienation from his has ended for those who accept God’s gracious gift of Jesus through faith.

But we miss the boat if our reflections on the cross stop there because as the four Gospel writers remind us, the cross is the culmination of God’s Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus which will one day see its ultimate consummation when our Risen Lord returns to finally put to right all the wrong of God’s fallen creation and creatures. This, of course, reminds us that if we want to be a disciple of Jesus, we must do our part. We must deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus. We must emulate him in bringing healing and reconciliation to God’s broken creatures and world. We do that through our selfless service to others and by proclaiming the message that Jesus is Lord and the powers and principalities of this world are not. This is costly and dangerous work but we do not mind because we know Whose we are. We remember we have been bought at a terrible price and this gives us glad and thankful hearts to do the work Jesus calls us to do. This, in turn, gives us new meaning and purpose for living right here and now. We attempt to live out the Lord’s Prayer in which we are reminded that God’s Kingdom is not just in heaven but also right here on earth. And all of this brings us back to the season of Lent because all of the above is contingent on a contrite and humble heart.

During this season of Lent as you seek to put to death all the stuff within you that keeps you rebellious, separated from, and hostile toward God, don’t forget that there is real hope and light at the end of the tunnel. We do this not to prove what pious folks we are. We do it out of a profound love for God, which must always lead to a life a compassion, love, mercy, and service. We engage in our Lenten disciplines because we want to find our right place so that we can always acknowledge God as God. We do it because we have grateful and thankful hearts, and we praise God through the way we conduct our lives in response to the incalculable gift of life we have received in Jesus.

And if you do not yet know the wondrous love of God, take a chance and ask him to show you what it’s all about and then join with others in the great adventure of responding to God’s love for you in Jesus. Being a follower of Jesus is hard and demanding work because Jesus demands everything you have, including your very self. But if you give it an honest shot, you will find that following Jesus is the hardest and most demanding work you will ever come to love.

Holiness: It All Starts with the Season of Lent

[God said to his people, Judah, through the prophet Jeremiah] Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place [the promised land], and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors for ever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words [of false prophets] that are worthless. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the LORD.

–Jeremiah 7.4-11 (NIV)

In today’s OT passage, we are reminded in straightforward language why a season of Lent is necessary for humans. God speaks to his people through the prophet Jeremiah to warn them to stop being rebellious, to stop pursuing things and gods that will ultimately bring them harm. In other words, we see God calling his people to repent (stop missing the mark of being his called-out people) and start acting like the holy people God called them to be. God had called Israel (here including both the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah) to be his agent of healing and reconciliation to a broken and sin-sick world that desperately needed it. But Israel had abandoned her call. She had strayed from God and pursued her own desires. To give you an idea of how bad things had gotten in ancient Judah, in verse 7 (i.e., “Will you steal…”) fully half of the 10 commandments had been broken! God’s called-out (holy) people were not behaving according to their call and this was (and remains) a grievous thing in God’s eyes. And let’s be clear. This was not just a Jewish problem, much as Israel’s haters would like it to be.  This is a human problem, a problem that results from the fact that we are broken and rebellious people.

Moreover, as we saw on Friday, today’s passage also reminds us that our Lenten disciplines are simply means to a greater end. When we purposely focus on putting to death in us all the keeps us rebellious toward God, our behavior should change so that we become Jesus’ salt and light to his broken and hurting world. Our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, self-denial, Scripture reading, and confession/repentance help us to remember Whose we are and who God is. They remind us to worship only God so that we can stay connected to our true life support system and live life as we were created to live it. They keep us true to our calling to embody Jesus so that he can use us to minister to his broken and hurting people. They remind us that self-denial and penance must lead to acts of compassion, mercy, and justice, among others. We are to look after those who cannot do so for themselves. We are to focus on the weakest and most helpless of society because every human being bears the image of God, fractured as it may be.

All this, of course, begins in the context of our daily lives. It starts with our family, work, and friends. It starts in our neighborhood and community. When we have a true season of Lent in our hearts we realize we are not special or superior to others in any way. Instead we see the face of Christ in everyone whom we meet and with whom we interact, and we treat them accordingly. When that happens, we really do start practicing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God. We see ourselves as servants who are here to love and serve others in a sacrificial manner. Why? Because we remember who we are (our human condition) and Whose we are (Jesus’ children, made so by his very blood shed for us on the cross). We seek to follow Jesus and we remember that his ministry and mission led him to the cross. Likewise with us.

Practicing our Lenten disciplines is not an exercise in navel gazing. It is about doing our part to get our relationship with God right so that he can use us to be his Kingdom workers following the example of our Lord Jesus. While this can be terribly difficult work, it is also a wondrous and breathtaking opportunity. Think about it. The very Lord of the universe calls each one of us to leaven his broken and hurting world with the salt of his grace, mercy, and compassion, just the way our Lord Jesus did when he walked on this earth. If you have ever wanted to part of something that is bigger than you, here is your chance to live it every day of your life, no matter who you are or what is your life circumstance, and it all starts with the season of Lent. If you are not yet on that journey, what are you waiting for?

Keeping Our Means and End Straight During this Season of Lent

Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.

–Romans 2.25-29 (NIV)

We have been focusing on observing a real season of Lent so that we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us, work to put to death those things in us that keep us hostile toward and alienated from God. All of this is a good thing if we ever hope to experience real joy, peace, and fulfillment. But given that human nature is what it is, there is always a real danger that we will turn our Lenten disciplines into ends rather than keep them as means to an end (holiness) and if that happens, we are in danger of becoming ritualistic and self-righteous.

This is the danger Paul is addressing to his Jewish audience in the church at Rome in today’s passage. Apparently some of them looked at their circumcision as a badge of honor and privilege rather than as a visible reminder that they were God’s people whom he had called to bring healing and reconciliation to his broken and sinful world. Many Jews apparently looked at their circumcision as something that made them superior to others and that assured them of always being in good standing in God’s eyes. Not so, says Paul. As with anything else, circumcision was an outward and visible sign that should remind them of the inward reality of being part of God’s people.

Likewise with our Lenten disciplines. When we stop seeing them as a means to a greater end, we are in danger of focusing on the wrong things. We are in danger of becoming ritualistic and self-righteous (look at me, how well I am following my Lenten disciplines). But this is an inappropriate way to look at our Lenten disciplines. We must always look at them as means to help us gain a humble and contrite heart. We must look at them as means to help us deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow Jesus. Anything else simply won’t do.

During this season of Lent as you pursue your disciplines of prayer, fasting, self-denial, confession/repentance, keep in mind why you are engaging in those disciplines and ask the Lord’s help to always keep you humble so that you can be a good and faithful Kingdom worker. Doing so is a good indication that your heart is properly circumcised.

The Season of Lent: Helping Us to Consistently Bring Honor to the Name

Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and boast in God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

–Romans 2.17-24 (NIV)

When I was a teenager, my mother would tell me on a regular basis before I would leave the house to go out with my buddy, “Remember who you are, Kevin.” She was zealous of our family surname and wanted to make sure I acted accordingly. It would not do for a Maney to behave badly in a small town because word would get out quickly and bring disgrace to our family’s good name.

In today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, we see a similar concern expressed. Based on what Paul writes here, there clearly were both Jews and Gentiles that comprised the church at Rome and here Paul is addressing the Jewish population. As we saw in yesterday’s reflection, just as Lent can serve as a healthy antidote to unholy judgmentalism, so it can provide a healthy antidote to Christians who are tempted to act badly in ways that bring dishonor to God’s Name.

For those of us who would call ourselves Christian, protecting God’s name should be a top priority. Don’t misunderstand. God is Holy and does not need our puny efforts to protect his reputation. God is who God is and nothing we say or do can change that. What I am talking about here is the fact that when Christians act badly, when they behave in uncharitable and self-serving ways, for example, they provide an awful testimony to those who do not know God. Instead of blaming the actual people who act badly, unbelievers will typically use bad Christian behavior as an excuse not to believe in God or take his word seriously. Don’t believe me? Check out any of Bill Maher’s stuff.

And on one level, who can blame unbelievers? Who wants to be with a group of folks who give every indication that they are just like the rest of the world, who do not consistently act like they really are God’s called-out (holy) people? Of course, it probably wouldn’t matter to many unbelievers how Christians act. They are not likely to change their minds regardless of whether Christians behave badly or as Christians. But the point remains valid nevertheless. When we as Christians behave badly, it gives a black eye to our faith and vicariously to the One we purport to love and serve, and this is what Paul is addressing in today’s passage. As Jesus reminded us, we are to be his salt and light to God’s broken and hurting world.

No, anyone who professes to love God will zealously guard his Name and reputation and we do that best by how we behave. As my mother used to remind me, we must remember who we are (and Whose). We see this concern poignantly expressed in both the OT and NT. Listen to the psalmist, for example:

You, God, know my folly;
my guilt is not hidden from you.

Lord, the LORD Almighty,
may those who hope in you
not be disgraced because of me;
God of Israel,
may those who seek you
not be put to shame because of me.
For I endure scorn for your sake,
and shame covers my face (Psalm 69.5-7).

Here again is where observing the season of Lent can help us because it reminds us of Whose we are and what is expected of us. Lent reminds us to put to death in ourselves that which makes us behave in ugly and unseemly ways, and which provides a terrible witness to God’s hurting creatures who desperately need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. We do this through acts of self-denial, especially by fasting. We drink deeply from God’s word in Scripture to remember Whose we are, who God is, what God has done for us in Christ, and how our behavior should change once we accept God’s gracious invitation to us in Jesus. We engage the Lord in prayer, in part, to learn our marching orders and how he wants us to bring honor to his Name. Especially during Lent we focus on self-examination, on ruthlessly purging ourselves (with the help of Christ’s Holy Spirit living in us) of anything that keeps us hostile toward and separated from God and our fellow humans. All this, in turn, will help us bear the fruit of the Spirit.

And when we begin to bear the fruit of the Spirit in our lives, when we begin to behave in ways that demonstrate we really do have a saving faith in Christ, it will turn heads and make people stand up and take notice. Why are we being merciful instead of vengeful? Why do we choose to forgive instead of hate? Why are we looking out for the needs of others as much, if not more so, than our own? Why are we willing to give our time, talents, and money in loving service for others, especially when there really isn’t anything in it for us? None of this would make sense if you use the standards of the world, but all of it makes sense if you are a Kingdom worker because when you do these things you are demonstrating to God and others that you are willing to deny yourself, take up your cross everyday, and follow Jesus. But to do any of this, you must first get your mind right with God through a conscious and Spirit-aided effort to live your live according to how God wants you to live, rather than how you want to live your life. And of course this brings us back to the season of Lent and its purpose.

Remember who you are (with and without God). Remember Whose you are. If you love Jesus and seek to follow him, you will be zealous to bring him honor and glory by how you behave. You won’t get it right all the time because you are human. But that should not stop you from zealously guarding the Name and seeking his help to put to death that which is in you that can bring dishonor to your name and his.

When by God’s grace you are empowered to get it right more often than not, when you are empowered and given the privilege to be a Kingdom worker, you will discover a richness, joy, and purpose to your life that will simply blow your mind and remind you of the greatness and glory of the One who loves you and gave himself for you in a terrible and costly act on the cross. During this season of Lent may you find (or rediscover) the glory and richness of the Lord Jesus and be empowered to be the bearer of his Good News to those whom he loves.

And if you are an unbeliever who is reading this and who is tired of living a life of alienation, if you are seeking healing in your life as well as real purpose and meaning, I invite you to take the plunge and see what Jesus is all about. If you give him a fair hearing and if you are willing to be part of a broader community of believers whom Jesus will use to help minister to you, then I assure you that you will find him who will satisfy the deepest desires and longings of your heart. Use this season of Lent to begin a life-changing and life saving relationship with the very Lord of the universe and begin to enjoy life as you were meant to live it.

 

The Season of Lent: Helping Guard Against Unholy Judgmentalism

They [Gentile unbelievers] have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

–Romans 1.29-2.4 (NIV)

In today’s world it has become quite unfashionable to be seen as “judgmental.” Because Jesus’ (and Paul’s) injunctions against judging have been decontextualized and misinterpreted, many believe that we are to suspend all forms of moral judgment. “Don’t judge unless you want to be judged” and all that. But that is simply a misreading of Scripture as can be seen in today’s passage. And as we will see, having a proper season of Lent in our hearts will go a long way in helping to guard against the kind of unholy judgmentalism that Scripture prohibits.

In today’s passage Paul catalogs a host of behaviors that are part and parcel of the human condition. It is not a pretty list to consider. Paul compiles a similar list in his letter to the Galatians:

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5.19-21).

If these behaviors are so bad, why then should we not call them for what they are? Why should we not be opposed to them? In other words, why should we not judge them (i.e., assess them to be right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy)? Paul tells us. We should not judge the behaviors of others if we too engage in the same kind of behaviors. This is quite different from never judging (assessing) behaviors. Note carefully the difference between judging people versus judging their behaviors–the two are quite different. If you do not believe me, then consider the words of Jesus as Matthew records them. You cannot help but notice that our Lord is indeed making a judgment about the Pharisees’ behavior.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors! You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing” (Matthew 23.27-37).

So much for gentle Jesus, meek and mild. So much for never judging or assessing others’ behavior. But notice the critical difference here. Notice on what Jesus focuses. He excoriates the Pharisees’ behavior because they focus on the external trappings that are designed to foster human praise rather than on changing the heart. The sin of the Pharisees isn’t that they did these things but that they did these things out of a hard-hearted and self-righteous attitude which led them to think they were somehow superior to others. And notice carefully how Jesus ends his “seven woes.” The Pharisees’ biggest sin was that they rejected the help God had sent them in the form of the Law and the prophets. They abandoned the principles of God’s righteousness in favor of following their own minutiae.

And this is where observing a true season of Lent comes in. When we get real with ourselves and acknowledge our human condition, we suddenly realize that we are just like those whom we want to judge and this must inevitably lead us to be circumspect in our judging of others’ behavior because we realize that we are capable of the exact same behavior. This is the kind of judgmentalism that Scripture prohibits. We who love the Lord and seek to follow him are not to suspend our moral judgment. Rather, we are to suspend the judgmentalism that flows from a proud and arrogant heart.

If we have a proper and humble spirit, we will be ruthless on ourselves. We will always be monitoring our own thoughts and behaviors to see if there is any corruption or wickedness in them. How will we know if there is? Because we use God’s Truth contained in Scripture as the criteria by which we assess everything we think, say, or do. And this is precisely what the season of Lent is designed to help us do. When we confess our sins and repent of them, when we pray, fast, and read Scripture, we open ourselves up to God’s power working in us in the person of the Holy Spirit to put to death that within us that keeps us separate from and hostile toward God and others, judgmentalism being one of the worst culprits in this sad and deadly dynamic. This leads to a true understanding of our real and fallen nature. We are always aware of our brokenness and this leads us to see the sins of others in a different light. Instead of being proud, haughty, and self-righteous when we see others misbehaving, it brings us real sorrow, in part, because we remember that we are capable of behaving in the exact same way.

And this will perforce change the way in which we judge others. We will talk to them the same way we would want others to talk to us when correcting us and judging our sinful behavior. We will take no pleasure in doing so and our hearts will be heavy when we confront others, especially if they do not repent. Instead of condemning them, we will want to pray for them because we want the best for them and we want others praying for us when we get it wrong.

All of this, of course, comes from a humble and contrite heart and this is the best safeguard there is against the kind of unholy judgmentalism the Bible condemns. We will always be looking at our own thoughts, speech, and behaviors before we look at others. The season of Lent will also lead us to look for the fruit of the Spirit about which Paul talks in Galatians.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other (Galatians 5.22-26).

Seeing the fruit of the Spirit is the best way you can tell if your Lenten disciplines are efficacious. It will necessarily lead you to see yourself in God’s light and this will help you remember who you are and Whose you are. This, in turn, must always lead us to be circumspect in our judgment of others. May God grant you a prosperous and holy Lenten season.

The Season of Lent: Remembering to Stay Connected to Our Life Support

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

–Romans 1.16-27 (NIV)

Imagine that you are on life support. You are dependent on a ventilator to breathe and various IVs to keep you alive. Suddenly in an unconscious state you begin to flail about, tearing away from the ventilator and IV’s, the very systems that support and give you life. What do you think will happen to you if there is no intervention on your behalf? You will quickly die because you have severed your connections to the very things that give you life.

While no analogy is going to perfectly compare things of this world and/or relationships between humans with our relationship with God, the scenario above helps us understand what Paul is addressing in today’s passage. Paul is describing the human condition, which causes us to rebel against God, the very Source of our life. When we rebel against God, it causes us to be alienated from him and like the patient above, whether consciously or not, we sever our relationship with God and cut ourselves off from our Source of life. Without a restored relationship with God, we have no life in us. Sure, our bodies may continue to function for a span of years, but ultimately without God we have no life in us. If we don’t learn that awful truth now, we will surely learn it when our bodies die. Paul talks about this dynamic in terms of God’s wrath poured out on us–God’s implacable opposition toward anything evil or bad–in giving us up to the consequences of our sinful (rebellious) desires that separate us from God and keep us in a hostile state toward him. It is a dreadful and fearful picture and it should cause terrible grief for anyone who claims to care about human beings.

But of course it is to the glory of God that this is not the final picture Paul (and Scripture) paints for us. No, beginning with these verses and in the next several chapters, Paul is building a case for the righteousness of God made manifest in the Gospel of Christ. For while it is true that God cannot be inconsistent in his opposition toward evil, it is also true that God created us to have a relationship with him so that we could enjoy life as he intended for us, a life that not even our physical death can separate. God knows that without a restored relationship with him, we have no life in us. He sees that our sinful rebellion cuts us off from our life support and he has intervened decisively on our behalf to make sure that we get reconnected to him, our very Life Support.

This is the Good News of Jesus Christ that Paul talks about in today’s passage. In Jesus, God condescended and became human to die on a cross so that our life support (relationship) with God could be reestablished and restored. God did this because he loves us, not because we are good people. As Paul reminds us above, none of us deserve this kind of love and mercy, but God offers the Good News to everyone because, well, because he is God. It is a free gift to all, although sadly not all will accept the life-giving offer, and that is a terribly grievous thing.

This is also why we have the season of Lent. During Lent we remember that without God’s help, we are disconnected from our Life Support, i.e., we our rebellion and hostility against God and we desire to end it so that we can have life. We come to the foot of the cross and are confronted by the terrible cost and ugliness of our sin and alienation–and we grieve even as we give thanks to God in Christ for doing the impossible for us. This is called confession and repentance. We realize we have missed the mark in our relationship with God. We realize that we are hopelessly marred in our rebellion and are thankful that God has condescended to restore our broken relationship with him. This is what we must understand if we ever hope to find healing, redemption, and the restoration of our broken relationship with God. This, in turn, produces a desire in us to love him and imitate him. We remember Paul’s soaring hymn in Philippians 2.1-11 and like our Lord that Paul describes in this passage, we seek to humble ourselves and serve others in thankful and faithful obedience for the breathtaking gift of love and mercy that has been given to us through the cross of Jesus.

When this happens, we are freed, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us, to become Kingdom workers. We embody the Presence of Jesus living in us and offer him to others through our love and service. Because we love Jesus, we are willing to deny ourselves and take up our cross each day. We also monitor our life support systems and are ruthless to purge anything in us–again, with the help of the Spirit–that seeks to keep us unhooked from our Life Support (God). And we are thankful each day for what God has done for us in Christ. We are thankful that he has given us the wondrous privilege of being Kingdom workers so that he can use us to be his agents, helping him usher in his glorious New Creation of which Jesus’ resurrection gives us a glimpse. That happens every time we extend mercy instead of vengeance. It happens every time we offer compassion to another or act kindly toward another or by our forgiveness bring healing to another.

This, then, is one of the reasons we observe the season of Lent. It is more than just a time on the Church’s calendar. A real season of Lent keeps us constantly humble because it reminds us of the inexpressible love and mercy of God and our own unworthiness of it. It reminds us that God loves us and acted decisively on our behalf even when we didn’t want him to, even when we thought he didn’t need to do so. A true season of Lent lasts all our days here on earth and reminds us to fight and put to death all traces of sinful human pride that seeks to make us equals with God or worse yet, seeks to have us take God’s place, which of course means we will take ourselves off our one and only Life Support system.

But when with God’s help we remain humble, when we remember that God is God and we are not, we can look forward to living life with fullness and abundance, the very abundance of God’s love and mercy poured out on us, enabling us to do the work of healing and reconciliation he calls each of us to do. If you have not yet done so, choose life. Choose to remain connected to your Life Support. It begins by choosing to take the season of Lent seriously.

A Very Cool Website to Help You in Your Daily Prayers

It’s called Pray as You Go and it is produced by the British Jesuits. Here is the blurb from their website.

Pray-as-you-go is a daily prayer session, designed for use on portable MP3 players, to help you pray whilst travelling to and from work, study, etc.

You can download the files in a variety of audio formats. Check it out and use if it is difficult for you to find time to pray. I’ll also include it as part of the links you’ll find here on this blog so that if you forget the site and want to visit it, you can. Ain’t I just swell? :-)