Category: Relating to God


Christian Freedom Part 2

I saw this saying on a fellow blogger’s site, beautybeyondbones, and thought it summarized God’s grace and our freedom beautifully:

Living FOR acceptance and love is bondage.
Living FROM acceptance and love is freedom.

The reason there is a cross in Christian freedom is that we are radically insecure. We seek to justify our existence based on what we and others think of us. It never quite works, though, and we try to dull the pain with toys and distractions.

But if we realize this soul-sickness for what it is, we can put it behind us by turning to God for our justification. What greater statement of our worth could there be that the very Son of God would die to secure our forgiveness and to give us a real hope?

But there has to be a letting go of self: it’s not just enough to turn over a new leaf, to force ourselves into moral compliance. The illness is such that the only cure is for is to come to the end of ourselves and our self-justification.

Insecurity and self-centredness are two sides of the same coin. We constantly crave affirmation, to be told we’re all right. But the praise fades and like addicts, we need more.

It’s a big step to realize this, and a bigger step to be willing to let it go, to die to it, finding our justification – our reason to live – outside ourselves: God Himself loved us enough to die for us. But when we finally do let it go, what freedom! Worry and striving evaporate, and for the first time we can live deeply: not trying to drug ourselves with distractions and toys, but to live life down to the roots, secure in His acceptance and living for Him, not because we have to but because it is perfect joy to do so.

THAT is real freedom. That is what we were made for.

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Christian Freedom

“Whom the Son sets free is free indeed” (John 8:36)
“Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17)

We hear a lot about how Christians have been set free, and it’s gloriously true. But we need to think about what that freedom really means.

Christian freedom has a cross in it. We are free because we have died to our old lives with its desires and pride, and our new lives are bound up in His. That means the Christian admits Christ’s primacy in and over every area of their lives.

Many take the gospel to mean they can do what they want because Christ has taken the consequences of our sin. But how can we be truly Christian if we remain centred on the self and its desires?

The gospel is far more radical than we are sometimes willing to consider. We are called to a complete humility: my old life with its desires and self-seeking is dead, and I am called to look to God for my affirmation. I don’t have to prove anything to myself or others because my identity and my future rests in His hands.

Our new lives, then, are entirely in Christ. Until we are willing to give ourselves completely to Him – to follow Him to the cross in practical fact – dare we call ourselves His followers?

Poor In Spirit

Jesus said “blessed are the poor in spirit”. A few thoughts and an extension of the analogy:

Poor in spirit = conscious dependence on God, His grace and provision.

Middle class in spirit = religious legalists who think they can do it themselves but still acknowledge transcendent moral values. These people are proud of their religiousity, and look down on those who don’t do as well. The Pharisees fall into this category.

Rich in spirit = don’t need God or effort – the experiencing self is the total and conscious centre of all. They make their own rules.

Guilty Christians?

“I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me”.
‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭4:3-4‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Why do Christians still struggle with feelings of guilt?

I think it’s because we continue to judge ourselves and our motives. Being the imperfect humans we are, we always come up short. It robs us of the joy we should expect as Christians.

Many blame this guilt on organized religion, but I think that’s throwing the baby out with the bath water. I think the problem actually lies deep within our own hearts.

We are still trying to justify ourselves. When we judge ourselves or others, we are measuring our performance as the indicator of our spirituality. This kind of justification is not by grace, but still on works; our own or others. We have fallen from grace, literally.

Why would we even want to go there? His justification is free. Might it be because in justifying ourselves we can still feel we are our own boss? We desperately want to call our lives our own.

True grace and who’s really in charge of our life are two sides of the same coin. We can’t hope for His grace without submitting to the death of our own agendas, for that is what making Him Lord in our lives really means: what He wants must become more important than what I want.

What counts now is simply a decision to please Him in obedience to His revealed will, and the daily seeking of the grace to do so. We may take it as a given that we will act out of (at best) mixed motives, but God has forgiven us. We can’t change our hearts; that’s His business.

Give Him your life, do your best, and trust Him as your justifier. And stop beating yourself up.

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Life tests our trust in God. It’s one thing to agree with Christ’s teaching, but it’s entirely another to rest the weight of our lives on a real God who binds Himself with promises for our good. Christ’s words command a radical, personal trust. In fact, He implies that to not trust is to build our lives on shifting sand.

The work of the Christian is not primarily one of moral effort, but of trust. To rest in His promises, to enjoy life as those who have already been provided for. And it is work, because trusting like that doesn’t come naturally. We have to unlearn our suspicious, self-centred habits of the heart.

And if we so trust (and we are primarily trusting a Person, not a creed or doctrine) we will want to please Him: not to earn His approval but because we live in thankfulness and trust in what the Gospel tells us has already been done for us. We are getting to know Him, personally, intimately, and this is what changes us. It’s only out of a heart so remade that any good work or moral obedience can really come.

There’s a Greek legend about a fellow names Procrustes, a rogue blacksmith from Attica. He had an iron bed, and he would force people to lie on it. If they were too short, he would stretch them until they fit; if too tall he would cut off their legs.

I wonder if we don’t sometimes do this with our own beliefs. People talk about finding a religion they like as if truth was something they could find at a supermarket; or if they already have a religion, of altering it until they are comfortable with it.

The problem is the nature of truth doesn’t allow this. If truth is really… well, true, it can’t be a matter of our own preferences. It has to be beyond opinion. It can be discovered, but not created.

We are told to be tolerant of other belief systems…
but what do you mean by tolerant? Accept all as equally true? That’s logically impossible, and quite useless if we want to discover anything real. By nature truth is exclusive; if one thing is true, its opposite must be false, just as it is possible to get a wrong answer in math.

But if tolerance means to allow others to believe differently and to put up with them in love – even when you are convinced they are wrong – that’s different; this kind of tolerance is the basis of a free and civil society.

But all belief systems – not just Christianity – must be open to examination and questioning; to prohibit this in the name of political correctness is to stifle free thought, to become less civilized and more totalitarian. And to try to convince by rational argument is not the same thing as to indoctrinate.

Christianity asserts reasoned freedom of choice, regardless of what its detractors may say; and even a casual reading of scripture makes this plain. It insists that those who come to Christ do so after considering the evidence for and consequences of discipleship. We are to “count the cost”.

This is why I don’t understand people who can look at what the Bible plainly says and then quibble about its interpretation. Are people honestly trying to figure out what the Bible is really saying, or is it a disingenuous attempt to twist it to fit how we have already decided to live? We want to be “spiritual” – but we want it on our terms. Whatever else you want to call it, it’s not discipleship.

And so we become Procrustes – but instead of lopping off an arm or a leg, we chop up the Bible to fit our own standard.

Sex and the Bible

Sex and Christianity

Sex is a big deal. As a society we are proud of our liberated attitude, and regard the unfettered expression of it as healthy and honest. What does Christianity teach about this?

In the Bible, sex outside marriage is considered as wrong as greed, theft, lying, etc. and Christians are told to avoid it at all costs, that there “must not even be a hint of it” in our lives. Yet modern society does not frown on it, and the biblical admonitions to chastity are regarded as hopelessly out of date. Even many who consider themselves Christians wonder what the big deal is.

But it is a big deal, and the Bible (which wholeheartedly endorses sex, by the way) tells us the only proper place for it is within marriage. If I’m to be honest with what I read, I have to take this at face value and not let my own feelings or the values of a particular time or society condition that doctrine.

Why does it matter? Here’s a few thoughts.

By engaging intimately right away, sex becomes a (the?) defining dynamic of the relationship – pretty shaky ground, especially as we age. It creates a consumer relationship rather than a covenant with which a person legally binds themselves to the other as a true token of love and faithful intent. As long as you continue to meet the expectations I had when we got together, it’s fine; but when you won’t or can’t – then I’m free to go. And things change: even with the best of intentions, beauty and vigour fade. If my partner is no longer attractive to me should I be able to just walk out? A public marriage vow to remain faithful for a lifetime – assuming we are people who keep our promises – puts things in firmer ground. It protects the other person.

Many will object, pointing out the present divorce rate. But the reason so many marriages fail these days does not mean there’s anything wrong with marriage – it just means people are less honest. They break their promises. And surely part of courtship is simply due diligence to discern the character of the prospective spouse before committing body and soul. The most important things to know about a prospective mate can be known without sleeping with them: humility, faithfulness, honesty, kindness, respect, love and service to others and especially to God.

Physical intimacy clouds our judgement if entered into before these things are known. Is it wise by any sensible standard to give yourself away so easily? How can a person really know someone after just a few dates?

Modern dating further skews things in this direction, because throughout the process everyone’s on their best behaviour. Talk is cheap, and people can keep it up as long as they’re getting getting what they want. In particular a person’s sexual performance is blown out of proportion relative to other vital factors.

And that this is so prevalent these days just shows what a small premium modern thought puts on the value of anyone besides our own experiencing selves. We devalue each other in the name of personal gratification; we use people and can easily discard the relation when it no longer serves us. Further, we consensually submit to the cheapening of our own persons for the feelings of affirmation we crave. That lifelong marriages are becoming exceptional hardly surprises me.

Christianity affirms the real value of the person by relationships freely entered into and therefore demands lifelong commitment – in a word, marriage. Not because God wants to keep us from having fun, but because people matter. Their hearts are too important to risk all by rushing into intimacy before its time; too precious to be put at risk when they no longer serve the partner’s purposes.

When Life Hurts

Jesus said to him, “if you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24)

When trouble hits the fan, I have two choices: submit to God’s hand in my life, or despair. 

The Bible says God afflicts us for our good.

In our trials we realize our own inabilities, our lack of faith, our fears. “I believe; help my unbelief”. Perhaps all our difficulties serve to bring us to that point, to make us realize that depending on our own effort (even when we may agree with and pay lip service to grace), we still come up short. It’s not until we really understand our own inability to even trust that we make any real progress. God’s grace dawns, on my heart at least, gradually. It is learned as He disciplines me, and I suspect there is no other way. The first step in trusting is to realize we can’t do it on our own.

But I think the discipline doesn’t so much harden me to the task – to make me more moral and determined to obey – as it teaches me to let go and let His Spirit do the thing. Weakness here equals strength. I have to learn to let go, not just in theory, but in practice, and then He can get to work.

Romans 8 now makes a little more sense: if we don’t have His Spirit in us, we are not His; we can’t be His. It’s not so much a rule as it is a structural necessity: if it’s His Spirit inside that draws me, helps me to pray aright, that loves through me as I learn to step aside and let Him work through me, then it just can’t happen unless actually He resides within. And we can’t receive except by trust, by faith. It’s a slippery concept, because it’s so easy to say we are trusting, and to think we are trusting when we really aren’t. And even when we start to get it, there’s a sort of natural gravity that draws us back into the shadows. We need reminders, and life’s troubles push us back into His arms again and again.

I am by nature religious and dutiful. But that’s no credit to me; perhaps even a hindrance. It’s easy to trust in my own moral performance. 

But trusting in what’s already done… That’s the gospel! And if it’s already done, then we can get excited, rest, and rejoice.

Is there a connection between the power and purity of the early Church and the degree of trial they endured? I don’t doubt it. These extreme trials would surely force them to not trust in themselves: but we live in an affluent, secure age; such radical trust runs against the grain of our time and culture. 

I understand a bit better, I think, those who talk about our utter depravity and how God must do it all. It’s not just that we are culpable; it’s that our nature renders us incapable of obedience – unless He does it in us. It’s ALL him; God is completely everything. He initiates and works through us for His glory and our good.

The upshot of it all is I take credit for nothing at all. It’s God who calls, saves, heals, and helps me to trust. Yet… my free will is somehow still part of the picture: I must yield, get out of the way, rest, trust, and submit to the death of my old nature.

And nothing He does is ultimately frustrated if He is truly sovereign. He uses everything for His glory, which is connected wonderfully to our good.

Satisfaction

I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you. (‭Psalm‬ ‭63‬:‭5‬ NIV)

In mid-life we encounter a crisis of satisfaction. The dreams of youth have faded, relationships come and go; and we start to see friends die. We’ve peaked in our careers or even started down the other side through layoffs and downsizing and wonder what’s left.

Satisfaction is all about perspective. I spent most of my career at a single employer before downsizing terminated my job in 2010; being well into my middle years, I don’t have the same shelf life as younger prospective employees and employment has been an on-and-off again prospect. At 59 years of age, I’m usually the junior employee and the first to be laid off when there’s a slowdown.

It’s easy to get discouraged.

God’s reality has to be foremost in my thought. I read of a God who binds Himself with an oath to care for His children; whose “loving kindness is better than life” who cares about justice and help for the lost and hurting. Of a God who incarnated, actually lived as a man in history, died, and rose again, promising resurrection and eternal life to any who would choose to put their hearts in His hand. Of a God who promises to use ALL things for my benefit, calling me to a wonderful destiny and remaking my heart.

I need to fill my head and heart with these things (this is where regular reading, thinking on scripture and being in community with other Christians comes in), and when I do, my perspective returns. All will be very well.

And when our satisfaction comes from God rather than security, job status, or what others think of us, we can relax. We’re freed up to explore how we can make the world a bit better.

I wish I could say I do all this perfectly. I still struggle; but I know which way to run when the emotional storms come, and I find refuge.

Many people, when they’re told they need to change the way they’re going, will tell you to stop judging them. That’s not always a fair thing to say, for we may genuinely wish their good and are honestly trying to help.

But we need to be careful of how we say it, and we really need to consider the state of our own hearts. None of us is perfect, and only an appreciation of our own faults, and an awareness of the basis on which God accepts us will give us the authority to tell it like it is. We’re all guilty, and are accepted because of Christ’s sacrifice for us – certainly not because we’re better than anyone else. A joyful recognition of this gift in our own lives is the only proper foundation for encouraging others to change.

Judging says, “You’re such a loser. Why aren’t you doing better – like I am?”.

Encouraging says, “we’re i this together, and I make mistakes too. Let’s both set our conduct according to God’s Word”.