Must Christians Doubt?

self-doubt

I have some doubts in life. I doubt I will ever be wealthy, because of the career path I have chosen (indeed I would prefer to not be). I doubt I will ever win the Iron Man Triathlon, though I would love to race in it someday. I doubt I will ever travel to space, though my imagination resides there 85% of the time.

There are also some things in life about which I have assurance. I am sure that I love my family deeply. I am sure that I will one day die. I am sure that any difficulty I am currently experiencing with eventually pass. And I am sure that Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord, that he died for me, and that I am a child of God.

But my assurance of that last sentence was not always so.

This morning on the radio I heard a song that talks about how God comforts us when we doubt. As I began thinking about the words, I realized that a lot of our contemporary Christian music talks about doubt and grief in on way or another, and I think this is so because so many of us do wrestle with doubt. We sometimes doubt that God’s promises are true, we doubt that we are freed from sin through Christ, we doubt that our situations will ever improve, and we doubt that God really loves us, no matter that John 3:16 says.

Notice here that we are talking about professing believers in Jesus Christ, not the unsaved. For those who have not yet come to know Jesus as Lord, doubt holds much bigger sway, and with much more significant implications. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to talk about that in another post.

For now, why do you suppose that it is so hard for many Christians to believe, without some trace of doubt? Maybe it will help if we first define what doubt in the life of a Christian is, and what it is not. Let’s start with what doubt is not.

 

What doubt is not

Doubt is not sin. There will be some who tell you that to doubt is to lack faith, and to lack faith is to sin. This can not be farther from the truth. Many of the Church’s faithful have experienced moments of doubt in their lives. Sometimes this is the result of life situations, sometimes it is dues to an inquisitive mind seeking to more fully understand God’s truth and mystery. What is important to remember is that doubt does not equal lack of faith. Doubt is not itself sin, unless we allow it to persist to the extent that it becomes a barrier between us and God.

Doubt is not a sign of weakness. I know that when I have wrestled with doubt, I have tended to view this as some weakness in my character. I have wondered at times why other people don’t seem to struggle with questions of faith the way I have at times, and for a long time I assumed there was a problem with me. But doubting does not make a person weak, unless it takes control and becomes the primary way of viewing life. It is one thing to have doubts. It is another thing entirely to become a doubter, for whom all things are suspect or unreliable.

Doubt does not mean you aren’t a child of God. One of my biggest fears earlier in life coincided with one of my biggest doubts – that I was truly a child of God. For much of my early adult life I struggled with assurance of my salvation. This was due in part to factors we will discuss below of sin, broken promises, and a misplaced desire for independence. But sometimes people lack assurance for other reasons.

John Wesley, the subject of my doctoral research, early on thought that those who were “born again” received immediate assurance of their standing with God. It was something he taught as an expectation for all believers…until he learned that this isn’t always the case. When confronted with testimonies from many people who had come to faith in Christ, but who did not receive assurance until later (sometimes much later), he modified his teaching and recognized that God gives the gift of assurance in different ways.

Just because you are wrestling with doubt (of assurance or anything else), it doesn’t mean you aren’t a child of God. If you profess Jesus Christ and your Savior and Lord, believe that he died for your sins and rose again from the grave, and have confessed your sins to him, you are a heir of God and co-heir with Christ. Doubting sometimes can’t take away this glorious gift of God. If your doubts are in Jesus and his sacrifice, then you aren’t a Christian to begin with. Christians are by definition those who believe in and follow Christ.

Now that we have identified some things that doubt is not. Let’s talk about what doubt is.

 

What doubt is

Doubt is the result of broken promises. Most doubt is grounded upon past experiences of unfulfilled promises. Think about it, if everyone you ever know had always told you the truth and kept their promises to you, what basis would you have for doubting that what someone else tells you is reliable? Unfortunately, for most of us this is not our experience. We have all experienced hurt, and loss, and broken promises. All of these things contribute to our skepticism. They make us prone to doubt.

The Bible tells us that God is not only truthful, but that he is truth itself. Jesus said that he is the way, the truth, and the life for all those who believe in him. God does not give false witness, and he does not make false promises. His word is reliable. How do we know this? When God raised Jesus from the dead he confirmed everything that Jesus said about himself.

Though we may be prone to doubt, we must learn to echo the words of the apostle Paul, who said “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14).

Doubt arises out of the guilt of sin. Though I found this hard to admit for a long time, part of the reason I doubted my own salvation and doubted in the promises of God was because I was living in sin. I came to faith in Jesus at an early age, and for most of my youth I lived what might be called a “good” existence. I made mostly good choices, I mostly avoided evil, I went to church, I thought I loved God, and I asked for forgiveness from him when I committed sins. But I remained a baby in faith. I didn’t grow spiritually, because I didn’t spend time with God, I didn’t read my Bible, I didn’t pray regularly, and I feared more than loved God.

When I became a young adult, my sins increased and so did my doubts. I doubted in God’s promises, because I doubted that I could inherit them as I was. I doubted in my salvation, because I knew that I should be living differently. I was calling Jesus Lord, but that was really just lip service. I believed in Jesus, but not enough to change the way I lived.

With sin comes doubt. This is partly because all sins separate us from God, and it is difficult to trust in someone you don’t know. This is partly because we experience guilt from our sins, which causes shame and leads us to hide from God like Adam and Eve in the garden.

If you are wrestling with doubt, I would encourage you to examine your life and ask God if any sin remains in you. He has promised us not only that we will have freedom from the guilt of sin, but that we can also experience freedom from the power of sin in our lives. Through Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can live lives that are pleasing and acceptable to God. We can choose to not sin.

Doubt is the product of a misplaced desire for independence. Another factor contributing to my doubts was my desire to be self- sufficient. We have been told a huge lie, particularly in the West. We have been told that people make their own success. We have been told that people have to learn to pick themselves up and become self-reliant to make it in this world. We have been told that the only person we can trust is ourselves.

Scripture tells us that we are to be dependent on God and rely on him for all that we have and are and do. He is the source of life as our Creator, and he both loves and sustains us. When Jesus told his disciples to not worry in Matthew 6, he did so on the basis that God knows what we need better than we do, and that he loves us. We don’t need to be independent. Independence isolates, it creates fear and doubt. Dependence, on the other hand, is inclusive, and it creates joy and peace.

Doubt is the result of misinformation. Let’s be brutally honest here. One of the greatest causes of doubt for Christians is a lack of knowledge. We are often ignorant of God’s truth. We don’t know him and we don’t understand his promises. When I wrestled with doubt I was treating God like a long-distance friendship. I went to him with my needs, and occasionally said hi, but most of the time I acted as though he wasn’t anywhere nearby.

Christians, we have to stop living this way. God has condescended to teach us his truths and to demonstrate his love through Jesus Christ. He has given us his scripture and he speaks to us in prayer. If you were in desperate need for help and there was a phone sitting net to you, would you ignore it, doubting that anyone would pick up on the other end, or would to call 911 with the expectation, the hope that someone would hear your cries for help and come running to you?

Why then do so many of us fail to spend regular time in God’s word and in prayer? He has given us these means of spending time with him and communicating with him. We have a direct line to the Living God through his Son Jesus. Why on earth would we choose to push aside such incredible gifts? And yet many of us do (notice I include myself here).

When we do not live on the word of God, we cannot know or understand his promises and truth. When we do not know him it becomes much easier to doubt him.

The truth is that many Christians experience doubt at some point in their lives. Equally important to understanding doubt is to recognize what we must not allow doubt to become.

 

What doubt should not become

Doubt should not be allowed to develop into fear. From cover to cover, scripture tells us that we are not to fear. Fear cripples us and leads us into sin. The antidote to fear is belief. So what do you do when you lack faith and are having trouble believing? Ask God to increase your faith, and he will be “faithful” to do so. Faith is a gift of God. It is not something we gain by our own work, but something that is freely given. Do you fear? Ask God for a greater measure of faith, and you will be amazed by the peace that comes with reliance upon God.

Doubt should not produce hopelessness, but rather its opposite. When doubt has become so prevalent that it becomes a default mode, it can quickly turn into hopelessness. It is nearly impossible to maintain a sense of hope when nothing around us appears trustworthy. The Bible tells us that God’s promises are true and that he has plans for us. We have been promised that those who trust in Jesus will have eternal life with God and that we will experience the resurrection. These are the content of Christian hope. But how can one hope in something when doubt reigns?

Doubt should not become persistent. As I have said several times before, it is common for Christians to experience doubt at some point in life. However, we must not allow those moments of doubt to persist. When doubting persists, it produces fear and hopelessness, and ultimately leads to sin. And sin separates us from God.

 

So, must Christians doubt?

I have heard some people say that, until a person has wrestled with his/her faith, it isn’t a vibrant faith. I completely disagree with this. I have known those to whom God has given a lively, vibrant faith, and yet have not wrestled with doubt the way that I have. I think some personalities are more prone to doubt, but I also think that some people accept God’s gift of faith as just that, a gift that doesn’t need to be dissected or pulled apart and reassembled in order to be enjoyed.

This is the essence of a childlike faith. It is by no means an immature faith, but a true faith that rests in the promises of God, seeing them as what they are.

I did not possess this type of faith at first. For many years, I wrestled with doubt. I didn’t doubt that Jesus is the Son of God, or that he truly died on a cross as an atonement for sin, or that he was raised again from the grave. I didn’t doubt that God has promised eternal life for those who place their trust in him through Jesus. What I did doubt was that he could ever forgive someone as awful as me. I had no doubts that he could save me, but I had doubts that he had saved me.

But just because I did doubt, it doesn’t follow that I must doubt. Nor does it follow that all Christians must doubt. The Bible is full of God’s promises to humanity. Because he is trustworthy, I know his promises are true, and my hope rests in those promises. But here is the rub. No one can prove to you that God is reliable but God himself. He has shown his trustworthiness in that he raised Jesus from the dead. He has demonstrated his faithfulness throughout history, and we can read about this in his word. But until a person experiences God’s faithfulness personally, all of this other evidence is anecdotal.

So far, I have been talking to Christians, those who profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. But I want to take a brief moment to talk to everyone else. If you have not yet experienced God’s faithfulness for yourself. If you have doubts about all of this Christianity stuff. If you just don’t feel like you have the strength to believe, there is hope for you too.

The Bible tells us in 1 John, chapter 1 that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Do you hear that? It doesn’t say that when we confess our sins, God looks down on us and condemns us. It says that he forgives us AND purifies us from all unrighteousness. He makes us clean, and new. He fulfills his promises IN US.

If you want to experience a new life, free from a myriad of doubts, then turn to Jesus Christ. Place your trust in him, in his death on a cross for your sins and his resurrection from the dead, confess your sins to God, and ask him to make you new. He will be faithful to do so as a free gift of grace.

 

What to do as a Christian when you doubt

So what about those Christians who are experiencing doubt? Fortunately for us, the Bible is loaded with people who doubted. First and foremost were Jesus’ disciples (not just Thomas), who doubted that Jesus’ way of ushering in God’s kingdom was the right way, and who doubted in Jesus after his death, and before they saw him resurrected. Fortunately, the road that leads from doubt to assurance is well-worn and straight as an arrow.

Repent of your sins. If you are wrestling with doubt, first examine yourself and ask God if there is any sin that remains in you which might be contributing to your guilt, your shame, and your doubt. If so, confess your sins to God and he will be faithful to forgive you and wash you clean from all unrighteousness. This is the first step toward trusting in God’s promises for you.

Press into the promises of God. Then press into those promises. What I mean by this is to lean on, to rest on the promises God has made to us in this life and the next.

Remember that faith is a gift from God. Next, remember that faith (the antithesis of doubt) is a free gift from God. You cannot earn your faith. You cannot create it on your own. But if you ask God to give you faith, he will do so.

Ask God to give you assurance. And finally, ask God to give you assurance that you are his child. As a father, I know that my children need to hear that I love them regularly. As a son, I know that my security rested in knowing that my father loved and cared for me. God is our heavenly Father, and he loves his children. If you ask him to give you assurance that you belong to him, and you have repented of any sin that separates you from him, then he will lavishly bestow that gift of grace that only he can give. Right now, you can receive the greatest gift that a child can ever receive – the assurance that:

“This is my Son [or daughter], whom I love; with him [her] I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)

 

Don’t doubt. Only believe.

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The Bride is Beautiful

It has become popular for Christians to bash the church. Especially by well-educated, well-off individuals in the West. Maybe it is because I live in the immediate context of a seminary and Christian university, maybe its because I am a research student and so many of the things that I read (even online) are written by other professionally trained theologian types, but it seems to me that I see far more criticism than praise lately. And I am beginning to question why this is so.

There can be no doubt that many of the criticisms I see have a good dose of truth to them. Especially in America, we are plagued with examples of privatized, Jesus is my boyfriend and wants to give me presents sort of Chriastian-ese. Sometimes, we have leaders who go off the deep end and create a following of people who look less like Christ and more like a cult.

Often, even in you average, small, local church we get things terribly wrong. We forget to tell people about the Good News of Jesus Christ. We forget to love other people as God first loved us. We forget to offer a huge helping of grace in place of judgment. And we too often turn inward, forgetting that we are to be the light of the world, not hiding under a basket, but shining from the hilltops.

But the trend of criticism I have seen of late would suggest a much darker picture than this. That the church is completely broken. That there are only tiny glimmers of light and hope that just occasionally peak through the darkness. That we are all getting it wrong, and that we are all (Americans anyway, so it would seem) a bunch of self-seeking, self-serving gluttons using our privilege and power to either a) create a version of Christianity that places no demands on us or b) oppress our people with endless fundamentalist mandates and suck the fun out of their lives.

I have leveled my fair share of criticism where I felt criticism was due. And let’s face it, criticism should come from within the church. We must continually look at ourselves and seek out those places that we have not yet surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But there is more to the church than brokenness and failure. When I look at the church, with all of its problems, all of its worries, all of its helplessness, all of its messed up, wonderful people, I also see its beauty.

Here are 3 reasons why we should remember and talk about the beauty of the church. There are many other reasons to consider, but with all the negative things being highlighted, maybe it would do us well to just start with these.

1. The church is the bride of Christ

A bride on her wedding day is cherished and loved. She is worthy of the groom’s dedication, because he sees no faults in her. She is beautiful in his eyes, and he honors her for her purity, her grace, and the love she returns to him. Likewise, the church is the bride of Christ. Though our sins are many, he has forgiven us and knitted us together into one body. When we approach the throne of grace in worship, we come before him as an unblemished bride, not because we are sinless, but because his blood has covered over all our sins. The church us worthy, because Jesus is worthy. The bride is beautiful, because Jesus died to make her so.

2. The church has been the single greatest agent of good in the world throughout history

Detractors, especially Atheists with a revisionist history, love to point out that Christians are responsible for such atrocities as the Crusades, and are therefore just as evil as anyone else. Anything done in the name of God that does not convey his character is tragic and evil and a false teaching. The Crusades and other terrible acts committed by the church are the results of sinful men and women living out that brokenness. They are not the work of the church, Christ’s body. And they are not the dominant activity tied to the name Christian.

In fact, throughout the history of the Christianity, the church has been the greatest agent of good throughout the world. The church and her extension ministries have been responsible for bringing to many parts of the world such things as education, hospitals, orphanages, and organizations to help those in need. Many of the modern versions of these things started as Christian initiatives.

For the last two-thousand years, the church has clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited prisoners, healed the sick, protected the weak, and loved the unloved.

If you question the positive impact the church has had in the world, go read a book on world history. I’ve read several, and they all say the same thing.

3. The church is God’s chosen vehicle for spreading the good news of salvation

Just before he ascended into heaven, Jesus gave this command to his disciples, the church.

Then Jesus came to them and said,  “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This command is still being answered all over the world today. It is happening in America, Korea, and the UK, in Swaziland, in India, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Across every continent and in every nation the church is faithfully preaching the good news and making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians who live in places where they are persecuted for their faith are willing to (and often do) die for their membership in the church. In many parts of the world, people will walk miles, endure untold hardships, and give up everything to be called God’s church. If you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, then you too are a part of this body. Scripture tells us that when one member of the body suffers, we all suffer. But do you not also see that when one lost sheep is found, we all rejoice?

God is still using his church to find lost sheep and bring them into the fold. He is ever working within and through the church to call us to himself and send us out in the name of his Son Jesus to set the captives free in him, and to bring reconciliation to a world that has rejected him.

When the church follows God where he is leading, she becomes a light shining on a hill for all to see. She is the bride of Christ. She is a picture of beauty that draws all eyes to the one who has made her beautiful. 

Remember. We are the church.

Remember. We are the bride of Christ.

Remember. Christ loves his church, and so should we.

Conquering Minor Depression Like a Boss

Image from npr.org

Image from npr.org

Please note: I understand that severe forms of depression, such as clinical depression, often require significant treatment after diagnosis. I do not intend this post to make light of such very real psychological disorders, but to highlight that many of us deal with periodic bouts of minor depression which, if left unchecked, can easily spiral into something much more debilitating. If you are struggling with depression, and don’t see a way forward, please seek help from a qualified medical professional.

As I was reading through a few of the early Psalms this morning, I was struck by something that I hadn’t considered before (though I’m sure others have). It is entirely possible that David, to whom the Psalms are (largely) attributed, struggled with periodic depression.

The Psalms are full of both communal and individual laments in which the psalmist cries out to God in despair, asking when the Lord’s justice will come to earth, begging for God’s direction and presence, and weeping in misery at the feeling that God is distant. While we often read these Psalms (rightly) as an response of God’s people to injustice in the world, we would be missing something if we don’t also note that there is very personal distress inherent in many of these Psalms.

It is no wonder that we see such things from the pen of someone like David. After all, his road to the throne of Israel is a crazy one full of ups and downs. You can read the full story in 1 Samuel, and I recommend that you do. With all that he endured, I am not at all surprised to see him wrestling with being down in the dumps on occasion. If anything, it gives me hope.

My path has been nowhere as tough as David’s, but I sometimes find myself in the dumps as well. Life is  tough. Just because we are Christians, it doesn’t mean we won’t struggle in life. In fact, Jesus and Paul both sort of guarantee that we will. In my own experience, as I have mentioned elsewhere on this blog, the life of a PhD student is often a very lonely one, full of doubt and hidden dangers. Coupled with the daily struggle to take care of my family, give of our time and talents to the Church, and navigate this too busy life, the burden can sometimes be overwhelming. Tack on a predisposition to introspection and self-criticism, and BOOM! I find myself, on occasion, slipping into a minor depression, a funk where everything seems a bit dimmer than it should be, and where I struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in life’s treasures.

So when I read about David’s struggles in the Bible I am encouraged. You see, God once called David a man after his own heart (Acts 13:22). If David was ‘like God’ and yet still struggled with depression, then there is hope for someone like me as well. Maybe there is something we can learn from his example. Like David, we can follow three steps that have the power to draw us up out of the dumps, and give us encouragement and hope.

3 Steps to Dealing with Minor Depression Like a Boss

1. Admit there is a problem

Just like dealing with doubt, one can never make steps toward recovery until there is an admission of a problem. Too often, when I get down I try to pretend that everything is fine. My wife will ask me if something is wrong (it is obvious that there is), but I will respond that I am fine. If I was fine, it wouldn’t be written on my face.

When David starts to get down, his response is to immediately call on the Lord for help.

I call out to the  Lord ,  and he answers me from his holy mountain. (Psalm 3:4)

He doesn’t ignore the problem and hope it will go away. He doesn’t attempt to overcome it on his own. He asks for help, and he seeks that help from the only one he knows can truly help him. We would do well to follow David’s example. I find that when I am starting to get down about something and turn to God, he is quick to respond.

2. Rest in God’s grace and mercy

After crying out for help from God, David then allows himself to rest in the Lord.

I lie down and sleep;  I wake again, because the  Lord  sustains me. (Psalm 3:5)

I don’t know about you, but I can only rest when I feel totally safe, at ease with my surroundings. I can only sleep in a car if I completely trust the driver. I can only sleep in my house when I know that it is secure and all of my loved ones are soundly asleep. Likewise, we can only truly rest in God when we trust him. The wise man/woman recognizes that we live and breathe only because of God’s grace and mercy. Like the child who trusts in the power of a parent to protect and nurture them, we do well when we trust in God’s demonstrated love for us, and allow him to protect and nurture us as well.

3. Give thanks to God for hearing your needs

David wraps up Psalm 3 with the following:

From the  Lord  comes deliverance.  May your blessing be on your people. (Psalm 3:8)

Though it doesn’t take the normal form of “Thank you” David is clearly giving thanks to God for hearing his cry for help. He does this with a declaration that God (the one to whom he took his burden) is the only one who can deliver him from his troubles. He follows this by declaring a blessing from God on his people, saying essentially “may it be so”. But why in the world was David giving thanks when nothing was going his way?

Thanksgiving in the midst of suffering is a sign of spiritual maturity and the quickest route from depression to joy. Thanksgiving doesn’t ignore the reality that there is trouble, it recognizes that there is a greater reality in which God is sovereign, that he loves us, and that our hope lies not in temporal comfort, but in the blood of Jesus Christ, by which the entire world is being reconciled to God.

Thanksgiving sees the big picture of things. It shows total abandon to self, and complete dependence on God for all good things. And thanksgiving demonstrates a “sure trust and confidence” in the promises of God, and in his ability to deliver on those promises.

In short, thanksgiving is a faithful response to God in times of plenty and in times of trial. It is the essence of faith. When we are thankful, even in the midst of suffering, we turn this fallen world on its head and allow the kingdom of God to take a firmer foothold through us.

So, the next time you feel yourself getting down in the dumps, the next time you begin to have trouble seeing light in the darkness, remember David’s example. Admit there is a problem for which you need help. Ask for help from the only one who can deliver you from it. And then trust him to do so, with thanksgiving in your heart and the knowledge that God is one who delivers on his promises, and as such, is worthy of our love, devotion, and praise.

Blessings to you on the journey.

Where Hope Lives

crucifixion

My reading this morning included Matthew 12. This chapter covers ground quickly, and with passages covering the proper view of the Sabbath, accusations that Jesus performs miracles by the power of demons, and Jesus’ subsequent condemnation of the faithless generation to which he was speaking, it is easy to overlook the Christ hymn placed in the middle.

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,
the one I love, in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will proclaim justice to the nations.
He will not quarrel or cry out;
no one will hear his voice in the streets.
A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,
till he has brought justice through to victory.
In his name the nations will put their hope.
(http://bible.us/111/mat.12.18-21.niv)

This hymn quotes the first part of Isaiah 42, and fits perfectly in its surrounding context. In fact, it fits so snugly with the other content of the chapter, I find myself naturally reflecting on the declaration that Jesus is the Father’s servant living in the power of the Spirit (a trinitarian declaration), and is therefore Lord of the Sabbath.

I am easily drawn to considering that Jesus’s proclamation of justice to the nations doesn’t necessarily look like the sort of justice I expect (or even want, sometimes), because it means pardoning offenders, and condemning the (self)righteous religious elite.

I am struck by God’s goodness and mercy, when I read that “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” I have taken this to refer to sinners (including me), and am thankful that Jesus came to restore the lost, not beat them into submission. Though I also recognize that the time for sinners to turn to him is not infinite (“till he has brought justice through to victory”).

And I am still sometimes stunned that Jesus embodied all of these things in humility (“no one will hear his voice in the streets”), not considering any of this as something to be used for his own advantage (Philippians 2:6-11).

But with all of these wonderful things to ponder in this Christ hymn, the one that is most difficult to me is the last promise: In his name the nations will put their hope.

I mean, it is easy to get behind Jesus when he is pulling the God card. I even kind of like it when he doles out his brand of justice. Let’s face it, we all know some holier-than-thou self-righteous “Christians” that we would love to see put in their place, and if that means looking past some sinners and their dirty deeds, then so be it. I even get the humility thing. After all, aren’t we talking about gentle Jesus here? And I’m as humble as they come. (tip: read this whole paragraph as sarcasm)

But when I read the promise that nations will put their hope in Jesus’s name, and I am forced to consider that I am an individual included in that group, I am also forced to consider what a crappy job I do of living into this promise.

You see, I love Jesus. I have given my life over to him, repented of my sins, and proclaim him as Lord. I recognize my own inability to do anything that pleases God, and rely on his Spirit to transform me into the man he created me to be. I believe that God calls us to live lives of self-sacrifice and service to others. I believe that the greatest commandments of loving God and loving others places demands on me and the way that I live my life. I believe that no one will see the Father, except through his Son Jesus. And I believe that God has raised up his church as a light to the world. And I believe that all of this is God’s plan for reconciling a sinful world to himself, so that his name will be glorified, and so we might enjoy eternal life with him as he intended it when he created Adam and Eve.

You see, many of us (myself included) place our hope for eternity squarely in the hands of Jesus. But what about our present hope; what about our daily hope for joy, and peace, and prosperity, and security, and love?

It is easy, when the cares of daily life begin to weigh us down, to place our hope in some future promise. It is easy to look forward and proclaim with the Psalmist that “someday” justice will win out, and the faithful will receive their reward. It is easy to place our hope in a future life lived with the God of all creation. But we have been called to more than this.

We have been called to be a people of hope. Yes, that hope is a future hope of salvation and eternal life with God. This hope has been secured for us through the blood of Jesus Christ. But this is not the only purchase his blood has made for us. God’s kingdom has already begun breaking in to this broken world. Already we can see glimpses of God’s glory as his people follow him into places of darkness, chasing away the shadows with the light of Christ. And if the blood of Christ can chase away the shadows of the world, they can also chase our our most inner shadows, the ones we keep hidden in our hearts.

When we place our trust and hope in Jesus, he doesn’t stop with forgiveness. He is not content to merely overlook our sins. Sure, that provides us a hope for a future. But what about our present. If I am forgiven my sins, but have no hope for avoiding them, what hope do I have for the present? If I continue in sin, no amount of forgiveness will improve my current situation. I will continue to hurt those that I love, I will continue to be unable to choose what is right and good, I will be unable to do anything to please God, and I will be continue to walk a path that leads to destruction. At best, I will live my present life hoping for an escape, so that I might attain the promises of God before I have a chance to become unfaithful again.

I am so glad that God is in the business of saving lost people, because really saving someone isn’t just promising them that everything will be OK in the future. Really saving someone also means empowering them with hope for the present. 

God has promised us in his word that, when we place our full trust in Jesus Christ, we are saved, not just from the guilt of sin (though that itself is a miracle), but also from the power of sin. We are made new in him. The Bible says we are born again, and this does not just mean that we start from scratch, destined to make the same mistakes over again. It means that we are new creatures. New. As in different, remade. And by the power of God’s Spirit, we can choose to walk in the light and carry that light to others here and now. We don’t have to live in sin any longer, but are freed by God to live lives that reflect our new place as citizens of his kingdom, children of the Most High God.

So when I read in Matthew 12 that all nations will put their hope in the name of Jesus, I have to remember that my hope isn’t just in something that is yet to come, though it is that too. My hope is also in the power of God to change me, here and now, into the person he created me to be, holy and pleasing in his sight. When Christians live into this promise of God for the present, as well as his promises for the future, we have the opportunity to become a part of proclaiming the hope of Jesus Christ to the nations, both now and forever.

Now that is something worth hoping for.

Costly Grace

Dietrich BonhoefferI was struck hard by an article I read this morning over at The American Jesus. The author, Zack, talks about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s comments on cheap versus costly grace and the call to radical transformation for those who would be disciples of Jesus Christ.

As I read Bonhoeffer’s words, not for the first time, I was again struck by just how merciful and loving is our God, and yet how holy and awe-inspiring. I am reminded that I sometimes cheapen God’s grace through my actions or inaction. God’s grace is freely given to all, but it has been purchased at a great price ‘with the most precious blood that ever flowed through human veins’ (P.T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ).

Bonhoeffer:

“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing…

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and self all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Why Preaching on the Ascension Matters

ascensionAs I was browsing some theologically oriented blogs a few weeks ago I came across this post by Matthew Turner, which recounts a recent interview he had with Shane Hipps, former Mars Hill Bible Church pastor and one-time successor to Rob Bell. The interview is well worth a read in its entirety, but there is one particular question and answer that disturbed me on a number of levels.

 

Shane, this past August, I met a 26-year-old Islamic iman in Sri Lanka. He was a kind man, a leader in his city, a father and husband, and one known throughout his community as a spiritual leader willing to work with other faith leaders to help people… is Jesus relevant to his life? If yes, how so? From your perspective, is “salvation” possible for him?

I make a distinction between the historical person of Jesus and Christ, the power that animated him.  These two became one for a period of time.  But Christ existed before the person of Jesus walked the earth and Christ exists now that Jesus no longer walks the earth.  That power is bigger than any religion.  That power didn’t need a name to operate in the world.  Jesus gave his gifts to people without requiring conversion or membership in a religion (woman at the well) or without people knowing his name (blind man with mud on his eyes).  So yes I believe Jesus is relevant and salvation is possible for your friend even if he doesn’t know the name of Jesus.  That is how big Christ is!

 
While I am not particularly surprised to see a form of Universalist doctrine from someone who served as Bell’s teaching pastor for years, I am utterly stunned at his complete disregard for an orthodox view of the person of Christ. Hipps’ view that Jesus Christ was a human animated by a “power” is nothing new. He hasn’t stumbled on some amazing, never-before-seen knowledge of God. When he stated this view, he was precisely articulating the ancient heresy (and I don’t use the word lightly) of Nestorianism.

 

Nestorianism is a Christological doctrine advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428–431. The doctrine, which was informed by Nestorius’s studies under Theodore of Mopsuestia at the School of Antioch, emphasizes the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestorianism (emphasis mine)

 
There is are many reasons this view of Christ was labeled as a heresy, for if Jesus Christ was not fully human and fully divine his sacrifice would mean nothing and we would still be lost in sin. I would love to get into the nuts and bolts of this doctrine, and no matter what else Hibb’s says in his interview this is doctrine, but at the moment I am more interested in how we have gotten here. What is missing from the teaching of the church that has allowed heresy like this to rear its ugly head in church leadership? More to the point, what is a starting point for the Church to answer such poor theological positions?

 
The best antidote to Nestorianism is to preach on the Ascension of Jesus Christ.

 
Why the Ascension? Let’s take a look…

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (http://bible.us/111/act.1.6-11.niv)

 
A lot of things are going in in this passage, but there is one thing in particular that speaks to our situation. Notice the last paragraph: Jesus was “taken up” into the sky. Jesus the God-man, not some disembodied power of Christ. The Gospel accounts of the ascension tell us that he was taken up to sit at the right hand of God the Father. This is the seat of authority, representing God’s power, and Jesus is seated there even now interceding for us.

 
Just as Jesus died, was buried, and resurrected as the incarnate third person of the Trinity, so he also ascended in his glorified body to be with the Father. And as if there was any doubt about his remaining in this state, the “men in white” made it clear when they said “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” He is coming back, this we all know and anticipate, but he is coming back, not as some power of God somehow separated from the incarnate Christ, but specifically as Jesus Christ, the magnified Son of God.

 
Where the church misses this truth, we rob the Gospel of its power to transform lives in the here and now. If God did not redeem the body through Jesus Christ, as well as the soul, then where is our hope of the resurrection of the dead and where is our concern for our physical bodies now?

 
Philippians 2:6-10 tells us that Jesus did not consider his equality with God something to be exploited or grasped onto, but rather he emptied himself in humility, taking on the form of a human for our sake. An interesting little tidbit about this passage is that the original language of the text indicates that this humbling action was taken by Christ prior to his becoming man. The “Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world” has maintained a posture of humility since before the the world began and which encompasses his incarnation as Jesus the Messiah, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. It is precisely because of this posture of humility and obedience that the Father has exalted the name of Jesus above every other name and has given him authority in heaven and on Earth.

 
Nestorianism strips Christ of his humanity and consequently strips the Son of God of the very thing that the Father has magnified.

 

…have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Seasons of (un)Rest

I’m not really sure when it happened, but sometime in the past few years our lives became hectic. It could be the two loud, yet unfathomably awesome, kids running around yelling all the time at home, the several changes to my employment, the juggling of family, church, research, and work, the demands of running a business, travel, etc. Pick something from that list. They all apply. Basically, that’s my version of the story that most of the people I know tell. We have become so busy in our daily lives that we actually find it hard now to spend a day at home and just “be” together as a family. Anytime we have a day off, we feel compelled to set a plan and execute it. We have become adept at approaching our weekends with tactical precision. Simply put, it is hard to go from moving at the speed of a cheetah to the pace of a snail.

We have become so busy that our rest has now become un-rest.

We serve a God who is interested in our well-being. He is not a distant God who creates and them leaves his creation to flounder in his absence. No, he is a God who created human beings that we might enjoy him eternally. He cares about your desires, your joys, your hurts, your needs.

God cares about your rest.

The opening pages of the Bible paint a picture for us of the creative majesty of God, who brought all of creation into being out of nothing. He created humanity, you and me, as the pinnacle of this miraculous work. Scripture tells us that we are created ‘in his image’, and we have been endowed with creativity as part of that image. We see this almost immediately after the creation narrative when God gave the first man, Adam, the tasks of caring for the garden of Eden and naming the creatures of the earth. (http://bible.us/112/gen.2.15,19-20.niv84) But all creative action requires at least two things, a span of time with which to create and a span of time with which to reflect on what one has created. All work is creative to one degree or another. So, in other words, work demands rest.

And so we read in the Bible that God first created and then he rested.

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. (http://bible.us/112/gen.2.1-3.niv84)

And he commanded his people to do likewise:

For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (http://bible.us/112/exo.20.11.niv84)

We do ourselves a disservice when we do not honor the Sabbath, when we don’t rest. And what is more, we dishonor God and his commandments. God hasn’t handed down arbitrary commands to us because he is bored. He has done so out of a desire for our well-being and for his own glory.

Sabbath wasn’t intended to tie us down, but to set us free from the tyranny of the urgent.

If you struggle as I do with (un)rest, I urge you to begin seeking God in prayer and asking him to show you once again how to rest. There is no better time for this than the current season of Advent, when we are called to wait with anticipation for the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Advent is a call to active rest, in the sense that we are actively remembering the Incarnation and anticipating Christ’s return, but it also calls us to a period of quiet expectation where we can do little else but wait upon God to move.

Let’s make this season a season of recalibration. A recovery of sabbath rest.

For a great resource: Sabbath Keeping, It’s About time (Seedbed)