Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Confusion, Perfection, and Christianity's "S" Word

* I wrote this article for the haystack.tv blog and am just reposting it here!  You also read the post at http://www.thehaystack.tv/confusion-perfection-and-christianitys-s-word/

“But sometimes I just don’t know how much I’m supposed to do and how much God’s just going to do!”
I was genuinely complaining to a friend because I was genuinely frustrated. I mean yeah, I understood the whole salvation by grace thing – in concept at least – but I also knew that after this accepting Jesus’ “justification” thing came this other thing: Sanctification. Oh that “s” word… I’d heard it described as the work of a lifetime – the process where after the “come as you are” saved but grace event, we are to change, to struggle, to fight sin, to eventually become “perfect?”
“Look Shell, they say we’re saved by grace, but you know that’s not all. After that you’re supposed to dress a certain way, give up certain things, become a vegetarian…. So whatever. I guess I’m going to hell then.”
This time it was an even more frustrated friend venting to me. And it stung me. But what could I say? I could try to assure them that “No, Jesus just accepts you like you are,” but what could I say to all the other “stuff?” Did I even know how this thing worked? All I knew was that if this “sanctification” issue was big enough that it could make someone just throw up their hands and give up on having a relationship with God, then I needed to figure it out.
To give some context to this “s” word discussion, I’ve found that as Christians, and specifically Adventist, we may allow certain statements and ideas to really scare us when it comes to sanctification:

  • “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
  • “It is only by long, persevering effort, sore discipline, and stern conflict, that we shall overcome” (Acts of the Apostles p. 560).   
  • “We are not yet perfect; but it is our privilege to cut away from the entanglements of self and sin, and to advance to perfection (ibid p. 565).

We read statements like these (often without surrounding context) and conclude that our “privilege” is to cut, to fight, to work really hard to advance toward some sanctified perfection that we might possibly measure up to if we really try hard enough.
But friends, that conclusion is simply not congruent with the gospel message. Nor do I believe it’s what either Ellen White or the Bible is trying to imply. But I’m not going to give a long theological discourse on sanctification, perfection, or the salvation process. Because I heard all those, I sat in the classes, I made the arguments – but it didn’t solve things. No, nothing solved the questions and fears – until I had a real experience with the God of the gospel.
You see, somewhere along the way, after I finally “gave up” and started to seek the heart of God, something began to change. I started to see God as the one who truly does accept me “just as I am.” I started to realize that His promises toward me really were true. And instead of trying to do this whole “sanctification” thing, I kind of just… quit. Yeah, it sounds bad…. But in quitting, I guess I finally started letting go. Instead of trying to do or be anything, I just found myself on my knees before Jesus over and over, saying, “Well, here’s me… You promised You could do something with this mess, so here You go!” I looked my lack of sanctification right in the eye, embraced it as reality, and then threw it down to the feet of Christ.  And interestingly, I think more actual “sanctification” has happened since starting that habit than in many of my combined years of pursuing sanctification before. My life truly started to change. Things I’d struggled with for years just weren’t a big deal anymore. Wounds started to heal. Life started to be, well, real “life” again. And almost sacrilegious as it may seem to some, life with Jesus has become… fun!
In the light of all this, the other day I read one of those quotes again…
“So long as Satan reigns, we shall have self to subdue, besetting sins to overcome; so long as life shall last, there will be no stopping place, no point which we can reach and say, I have fully attained” (Acts of the Apostles p. 561). 
In times past, I would have thought something like, “No stopping place?! Oh great… more work, more trying, and never enough… forever!!” But the other day I found myself saying instead, “No stopping place?! Wow. That’s great news! That means that what I’m experiencing with God now is only going to get better!”
Yes, I now believe that one of the greatest misunderstandings in the Christian life is the idea that once the new believer “honeymoon” stage is over (if we ever had one), life as a Christian kind of simmers down and levels out. That initial high wears off and we settle in for the long self-subduing haul. Yet I’ve come to realize that’s totally not true. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The Christian life is meant to get better in time – just like a marriage is meant to deepen and grow, or how they say a fine wine gets better over time (wait, did I just analogize Christianity to fermenting wine? I’ll retract that ;).
Now I’m not trying to say we won’t have struggles nor imply that I don’t have to come face-to-face with my sinful, selfish self everyday. But I have realized something that I’d like to share with those who, like myself, have struggled with this “sanctification” thing: Biblical sanctification is not all about some grueling sacrifice or reaching some standard, and it’s definitely not about my works. By grace,sanctification simply says, “the best is yet to come.” The God who’s been changing my life in amazing ways is going to keep doing it, and He won’t stop short (see Philippians 1:6). You think Jesus is great now? Just wait. He’s only getting started. And that’s the sanctified truth.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Choices Pt. 9/9: The Choice to Want Jesus More

Well, the year has ended and so must this “choices” blog series!  But as we end one chapter and begin another, I ask: What do you want this next year to look like?  New year’s “resolutions” abound: “I will lose weight this year.”  “I will exercise five days each week.”  “I will spend more time in daily devotions.”  And short-lived as these “resolutions” may be (most lasting 30 days, if that…), we at least WANT to do better!

But deeper than these goals, I believe we have hopes and dreams for our year that, while we may not verbalize or share them, are there in our minds and strongly on our hearts: “I hope I meet the person I’m going to marry this year.”  “I really want to make something of myself this year and prove that I can do it.“  “I wish that this year God would show me what I’m supposed to do with my life and how to do something meaningful.”  “I just want to finally be happy and fulfilled this year.”

And while these deep-seated hopes and dreams may be legitimate, needed, and even noble, I ask today: Do you want Jesus more?  Do I want Jesus more?  Do we really want to know Him, be close to Him, and grow our relationship with Him more than any of these things? 

Jesus once told his followers, “If anyone comes after Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:26).  This can seem like a hard saying.  “Hate” is a strong word!  But the word used there can also be translated “to love less.” Essentially, Jesus says that if you love your love interest, your family, your life – anything – more than Him, you can’t follow Him.  And yeah, we probably already knew this intellectually. God first, then others, then me, right?

But what about when wanting Jesus more means that I might have to give up a relationship that I really want but know is not God’s ideal?  What if it means I have to faithfully stay in my humble, even boring job until (and if) God leads me to something “better”?  What if it means poverty? What if I have to give up some things that are “fun” for me?  What if I have to turn down a prestigious opportunity to be true to my faith, family and calling? What if it means being alone? What if it means never being recognized?  What if it means… that some of my hopes and dreams will not be fulfilled??

I’ve found myself face to face with some of these questions this year.   Face to face with “giving up” some of my dreams and some of my hopes.  Face to face with saying, “No, I want You more, Jesus” when my heart was saying otherwise.  Sometimes the words have been written with tears.  It’s like holding out those dreams in open hands instead of clinched fists, unsure if they’ll be snatched away or left with me to keep.

Some days loving Jesus more may mean clinging with everything you have to what He’s promised:  “Lord, You promised that you would satisfy my mouth with good things!” (Ps. 103:5).  “You said that those who seek you will not lack any good thing!” (Ps. 34:10).  Some days it may be a faith walk like the Selah song “Unredeemed” where we’re waiting to see if it’s true that:

“These are places where grace is soon to be so amazing.
It may be unfulfilled, it may be unrestored,
But when anything that’s shattered
Is laid before the Lord
Just watch and see, it will not be,

Yes, the choice to love Jesus more means that I must believe that He IS more.  I must believe that He knows more.  I must believe that He can redeem more.  And I must believe that He’s worth more.  And how will I know if these things are true?  I must give Him more.  You’ll never know the strength of a chair till you put your whole weight on it.  And I’ll never know the strength of my redeemer till I stake my whole life on it.

Through it all, I’ve found one thing this year: Jesus is faithful.  Through all the choices, through the experiences, through all the dreams realized and dreams given up, I do believe that I’ve found something worth more.  There is nothing that I’ve given to Jesus that He hasn’t replaced, restored, or resurrected in some way, shape, or form.  And after testing Him, I can honestly say now that I DO want Him more.

So this new year, will I choose again to say, “Jesus, you know I want _______, ________, and ________, BUT I want You more”?   Will Jesus mean more to me this time next year than He does now?  What will He mean to you?  The choices are always ours.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Choices Pt. 8: The Choice to Hope

Merry Christmas!  I don't know about you, but I grew up loving Christmas.  The lights, the songs, the festivities, the snow (yes, it was the north!) and of course, the presents – gotta love the presents.  And every Christmas Eve my brother and I would gather around with my parents and read about the baby Jesus, born on Christmas – compete with small donkey clip-clopping to Bethlehem, bright angels bursting through the night sky to sing to shepherds, and Joseph and Mary, full of wonder.  As I’d sit there listening, colorfully decorated house, family all around, the world seemed so bright and full of hope.  It was easy to see why Christmas is known as the season of hope.

But my “hope” seems to have gotten a little more… realistic… over time.  I’ve come to realize that Christmas brings out not only the best but also the worst in people – including fights over mall parking spaces and gaudy commercialism.  The joy of receiving presents gets superseded by the dread of plowing through a list of things to buy for people, fighting the craziness to find it, then paying the bill for it all!  I also have seen that Christmas doesn’t bring happy, hopeful thoughts for everyone.  Even for some of you, the holidays may not bring just joy but pain – the sorrow of loved ones no longer present, the reminders of hopes and dreams unrealized.  Yes, the fairy tale-like spell of Christmas may get broken over time.  Is there more here than childish optimism?  Is there still reason to hope?

Well, I’d like to propose that choosing hope is not just the “reason for the season,” but the story of our world’s history.  Yes, our world started as a beautiful place – more perfect than any Christmas fairy tale.  There was no need to hope, it was all reality!  But then there was the fall.  We chose to leave God.  The fairy tale was shattered.  But right there we find the first promise of hope.  The promise of a redeemer.  A child to who would crush the deceiver and restore (Genesis 3).  And hope was born with the promise of this baby come.

And so hope was passed on through the ages, from patriarch, to patriarch, all the way down to a guy called Abraham who’s infertility threatened to ruin the promise.  How could he hope to be the father of many nations through which the promise would come (Gen. 17)?  He was old and as good as dead for child-bearing!  It only makes sense to a God “who gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did” (Romans 4:17).  This is the God that Abraham “contrary to hope, in hope believed.”  He chose to hope.  Maybe somehow he knew that when God speaks, things are created.  God doesn’t just call “things which do not exist as though they did” because He lies.  He can call them that because when He says it, they become it.

Hebrews 6:18, speaking of God’s promise to Abraham again, says that it is based on two immutable things: 1) God promised.  2) It is impossible for God to lie.  Thus, it says we “might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us.”  This is not just any hope, but a “hope we have as an anchor of the soul, but sure and steadfast” (vs. 19).  And Abraham was not disappointed.  His baby was born.

So down through the centuries we go, till finally a virgin named Mary was told that her son was the end of the line – the realization of the hope.  Mary rejoiced saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord… He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever” (Luke 1:46, 54-55).  Yes, Abraham’s hope became humanity’s reality that Christmas night.

But now over 2,000 years have passed since the promised baby.  And we’re still here.  Where is the hope now? Romans 8:24 tells us, “For we were saved in this hope, but hope that is seen is not hope; for why does one still hope for what he sees?”  Yes, the baby was born, but not all of our hope has been realized.  We haven’t seen it all yet.  What is this great hope that we can’t see but were saved in?  If we back up to verse 23, we find that it’s talking about the “adoption” and the redemption.  And to understand this we have to back up even more to verse 15: “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’”

Yes, we still have hope, because we have been adopted - redeemed. And while it’s as real as anything we can touch, taste, or see, we can’t touch, taste, or see it.  We’re adopted, but we’re still stuck here, in our mortal bodies, in a messed up world, waiting… in hope.  But this is where the Christmas season ties in.  At this time of year, we celebrate God, the creator of the universe, grafting himself into human flesh.  Not because we chose Him.  Not because we asked Him to.  Not because we adopted Him.  Instead, He simply came, of His own choice, in hope.  Hope that by inserting Himself into our family, we would someday choose to become part of His.

It’s crazy, really.   Hope started with a promised child to a fallen race.  The hope was passed on, even though seeming impossibility.  Then hope was miraculously incarnated and born a baby.  God – a human – forever.   All so we could have the chance to be born again – adopted – a family restored.  

“Heaven and earth are no wider apart today than when shepherds listened to the angels' song” (Desire of Ages p. 48).  I believe it’s more than a Christmas fairy tale.  No, the restoration has not fully been realized.  This Christmas there will still be pain, there will still be death, there will still be crowded shopping malls... It may not be forever, but it is now.  Yet even in this dark world, the God who came still comes.  And He is coming again.  The question is, will we choose Him?  Will we choose to allow HIS hope to be realized?  Jesus, I choose to hope this Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Choices Pt. 7: The Choice to Desire

Desire.  There are times it seems like almost a dirty word.  Desire can be as innocuous as craving a sandwich, or as consuming as the deep passions of the heart for love and companionship.  It can be as passing as a fleeting thought or as enduring as the chains of our strongest addictions.  Yet desire, by its very nature, is empty.  It represents a void unfilled, a longing unmet, and hope yet to be realized.  Without fulfillment, desire can leave us hollow, searching, or enslaved.

So I used to flee desire.  Let’s be honest, more often than not my desires have seemed to be for the selfish or unholy rather than the righteous.  I long more for my own attention and enjoyment than the salvation of my neighbors.  I long for my “needs” to be met more than to meet the needs of others.  Desire reveals the selfishness of my heart.  And so I may try to run from it.  Squelch it.  Label it as “bad” and seek to eradicate it.  Yet you probably know as well as I do how futile the battle to bottle desire can be.  Containment is difficult.  Deletion even harder.  Even if we say “no” to the desire, we have to live with the hole of what’s unmet. 

What’s unmet… Not that long ago a friend shared with me something about desire that set things in a new light for me.  The first chapter of James shares a lot on temptation, desire, and sin, and in verse 13 it says: “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone.”  Then James goes on to say: “But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin” (vs. 14 & 15).

So desire is the problem just like we thought, right?  But look at verses 16 and 17: “Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights, with who there is no variation or shadow of turning.”

So right after showing the bad results of desire, why does James tell us not to be deceived? Why does he suddenly go into talking about how all good things are from God?  I believe that James is actually telling us one of the keys to escaping temptation.  Think about it: First, we’re reminded that all good things come from God, and God only creates good.  Second, we know the devil does not have creative power.  So how does the devil tempt us?  He takes the good desires that God has created within us, and he twists them for our ruin.  He takes our God-given desire for deep connection and turns it into lust.  He takes our genuine need to be loved and understood and turns it into self-seeking desires for attention and people’s applause.  He takes our deep need to lay down our burdens and worries and tries to turn it into a desire for the addictions we escape to instead.  Then, when we feel guilty, he tries to convince us that God doesn’t care about our needs and serving Him means giving up all we love and desire!  Just as James predicted, I was deceived by the lie – and I resented God because of it.

But now I realize how big of a lie it is.  God actually wants to give me the true fulfillment of my desires and needs.  Instead of empty relationships, God wants to give me true communion with himself and others.  Instead of winning the approval of man, He wants to give me the true security and worth that comes with comprehending His approval of me.  Instead of trying to have some kind of “fun” to get away from my problems, He wants to take those burdens to I can have the real peace and joy my heart yearns for.

So now, when desire comes on strong and with it those familiar temptations, I ask: “Lord, you know how I’m feeling right now.  You know what I THINK I desire.  But what is my heart truly longing for that You are trying to fill?  What is the true desire?” 

As C.S. Lewis once put it, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”  And I believe this is true.  We were made for a better world – a world of union with God and life in His image – an image of true love and grace.  And in the shadow of the fall, we may feel that void.  We may feel that desire of what’s yet to be redeemed.  We may sometimes wish that desire could just disappear because it’s easier not to feel the void.  But yet desire, even though not fully met now, is an opportunity to long for that better world, to seek for it, and I believe, to find it.  In the book Desire of Ages p. 331 it says, “As through Jesus we enter into rest, heaven begins here…. As we walk with Jesus in this life, we may be filled with His love, satisfied with His presence.  All that human nature can bear, we may receive here.”

And I want that. I want to trade temptations for cheap fixes for the real thing. I choose to feel that desire, face its empty void, then call on the God who wants to come in and fill it – starting not in the next world, but here and now.