Not as Children

Ahh…the Kingdom of Christ.  I’ve had the opportunity to interact with children who consider themselves kings.  (They live in our homes, attend our churches, play soccer together – you get the picture.)  They may know about discipline, authority and obedience; maybe even that those things come from God and return to Him in worship.  Yet, inevitably (when a sibling perpetrates a self-defined no-no) the real views of the little regents become clear: my rules, my judgments, and my kingdom.  So much of their experience of joy in this life is wrapped up in their comforts, their peace, and their prosperity.  Of course, they are just like the rest of us only it’s usually easier to see in them.

What makes them childish in their thinking is they lack the vision to see how temporal joys and discomforts fit into the bigger picture.  I find grown-ups who think this way.  The John 10:10 Life is the here-and-now life.  We’ve seen how this thinking extends to our parenting: our efforts and goals with our children do not extend beyond the planes of the here-and-now-plus-maybe-high-school-graduation.

The gospel directly affects kingdoms.  It brings one that we didn’t know anything about right into the throne rooms of our kingdoms – it swims the moats and scales the walls subduing all the guards.  Its presence there is beautifully crushing: over time, all the vestiges of our former reign melt under the weight of the glory of the kingdom of God.  Its effects transcend time and space unlike our own pitiful realms.  Whereas its approach was unexpected and unknown, in Christ, we have been given this kingdom via the indwelling Holy Spirit.  In Christ, it is as much yours as your two lips!

I was reading in John Calvin’s Institutes about Christ as King (book 2, chapter 14, paragraph 4).   Here’s a sample of what he wrote:

…the whole course of our lives [is] to war under the cross, our condition here is bitter and wretched. What then would it avail us to be ranged under the government of a heavenly King, if its benefits were not realised beyond the present earthly life? We must, therefore, know that the happiness which is promised to us in Christ does not consist in external advantages—such as leading a joyful and tranquil life, abounding in wealth, being secure against all injury, and having an affluence of delights, such as the flesh is wont to long for—but properly belongs to the heavenly life. As in the world the prosperous and desirable condition of a people consists partly in the abundance of temporal good and domestic peace, and partly in the strong protection which gives security against external violence; so Christ also enriches his people with all things necessary to the eternal salvation of their souls and fortifies them with courage to stand unassailable by all the attacks of spiritual foes.

We should not be child-like in thinking that this new realm’s reach is only as small as our own peace, comfort and affluence; that the keys are no worry, no pain and no effort.  While in this life trouble might be a large portion of our lot, it will always be mingled with the grace of God in the face of Christ.  And beyond?  Trouble we will leave behind and all that we longed for here and now (that make terrible gods) will be ours because He will manifestly be ours.  Praise God for His steadfast and enduring love!

God: Our Greatest Gift

Part II.

Previously on 24…I was making the point that we all live with goals in life.  Those of us who believe in Christ include in our goals spiritual ones: less of this, more of that.  That we would put on more goodness and put off more yuck.  These are not bad in any universe. Until…

Until we arm ourselves with the incorrect tool.  I was talking about Radio Man Stan and his commitments in Lent.  Once again, to buckle down to more Bible study is a good thing.  To use Lent as a means to spur one on to that end: good thing.  What struck me at a visceral level was both how charming he thought he was being in doing so and the fact that it might be true that his (our) failures had more to do with him (us) than with God.

So, in that universe of thinking, God is a tool: the means to a better you or your best life now.  In that universe of thinking, what’s most important is that I be better.  We aren’t actually living for His glory but for our own ever increasing glory (or happiness).  We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do and be better.  We watch other parents and spouses and co-workers and etc. and tell ourselves that we should and can be better.  We even see others who serve more and love more and die-to-self more and we tell ourselves that we should and can be better.  (And we’re probably right.)

Then we realize (quickly) that we aren’t.  Or, if we are, we might’ve picked the ones against whom we stack up pretty nicely.  In this universe of being better we are always looking for tools.  Of course we need them because without them (i.e., status quo) we aren’t better.  According to the laws that we set down for ourselves, we fail to keep them at best or we regularly break them at worst and God as our tool to better selves doesn’t work too well.  We end up still screaming, pouting, failing, manipulating and getting caught.  So the problem must be God – He’s just not enough.

Now, I don’t know anyone who actually talks that way, but, I do know a whole lot of people who are disgusted with the regularity of their sin and they don’t know how to stop or change.  (Hint: They’ve “used” God and it hasn’t worked.)   Suggest to them something simple and they get the glazed eye look.  I once had a seminary instructor who was livid after a guest chapel preacher mimicking James 5 told folks that if they are sick, they should confess their sins and see if it is related.  He was blathering on about how simplistic and stupid this man was!  The thought that sin and sickness could be related (even though it’s clearly in the passage).

I’ve seen something shocking in the faces of believers who are desperate for something different: gospel boredom.  The life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means little.  It means a lot when we talk about eternal address, but parenting?  Communication?  Mercy ministry?  Forget about it.

We have become a people who demand something complicated.  How is that so when folks are typically clamoring for the books and teachers who have the easiest and most practical messages?  They are the ones who say citing simplicity and relevance, “Sermons must have applications that are relevant!”  These balk at those who beckon them to something more mysteriously complicated (they think) because we want it complicated not simple. We’d never say that though.

Check your heart: is the life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return of Christ where you turn when bombs start exploding in your marriage?  If I were to tell you what Paul tells us in the Scriptures, you would be skeptical.  You’d accuse me of oversimplification.  You’d tell me that maybe that works in seminary but not here.  Really?

The greatest gift we could ever have is a perfect life, an atoning death, a completed resurrection, and an assurance of an exorbitant inheritance, right?  Do we not see that in Christ that is exactly ours?

For us, in Him; in us, for Him.  It’s all done.

God: Our Greatest Tool?

Part I.

I was recently listening to a Christian radio station with my kids – safe for the whole family, you know – and the DJ was talking to his cohort about Lent.  As you may know, Lent is the time period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.  It is 40 days (not including Sunday’s) in which, historically, new church converts prepared for their Easter baptism.  But later in history the church used the time to prepare itself for the celebration of Easter.  It is historically a time of deprivation, repentance, and fasting.  With Ash Wednesday past and several of us engaged in Lenten deprivation, I was curious to hear what this guy would say from his bully pulpit.

He started to explain that for him Lent wasn’t really about depriving himself of something nor was it about preparation for Easter.  Rather it was personal – about being more focused on what he’s doing.  His focus: personal devotions – Bible study.  He had not been too consistent or faithful, he said, and so Lent was when he was really going to buckle down and get ‘er done.  So, no deprivation, rather earnest focus and voila: he has his Lenten plan!  It was interesting to note that he saw Lent very personally as a time to buckle down and just do it!

I have two problems with this.  First, this is just what this guy should be doing year round.  Any college student engaged in some college ministry could tell you that we should be in the Word regularly.  Sure, Lent provoked this guy to return to this discipline and that’s probably a good thing.  But, shouldn’t it have provoked him to this discipline simply because he should be doing it?  And then provoke him still to a real Lenten practice?  Far from deprivation and preparation, this guy resolved to do what he should do – and he thought he was doing something praiseworthy.  Here in the American church we have forgotten that obedience is our obligation according to Luke 17:10; that’s another post….

Set aside for the moment that this guy’s observance of Lent looks completely different from the historic church’s intent with Lent going back centuries (our American penchant for re-writing history to make us look good here in the present is subject for another day). When did we in America begin to think that we were doing something extraordinary by simply doing what God commands?

Interestingly (and secondly), the radio-dude exemplifies something that we need to see about ourselves.  The way he presented himself on the radio, for him, Lent was really about him.  It was a tool that he was going to use for his own spiritual self-help.  He needs to be a better him, so Lent provides the opportunity for that to happen.  Sounds like a good plan, right?  Isn’t that a very practical and useful way to do things?  We underestimate that at some point, practical and useful can become ungodly – maybe even from the beginning.  The ungodly thought process goes like this:

  • I’ve not been reading the Bible; I need to start.  “God please help me.”

My problem + God’s help = my success.  You could substitute many things in for “my problem” like “my troubled marriage” or “my pitiful parenting” or “my harsh communication.”  In this line of thinking, God is our greatest tool; He is the best and strongest means to an end.

What end?  Typically that end is guilt-free or worry-free living.  For many of us, what’s the greatest trouble with our failures?  In other words, what’s our biggest problem with our failures?  Isn’t it usually how they make us feel about ourselves?  Unfortunately, we are most often content to moan about what our failures mean to us rather than how they may grieve the Lord.

One way to check ourselves is to ask: is God is really necessary to be more consistent in reading the Bible?  Can’t you just arrange your schedule so you have time?  Set an alarm?  Get accountability?  Pledge to teach a passage?  Take medication?  Seriously, do we really need God to read more consistently?  Here’s what C.S. Lewis said about this:

I haven’t always been a Christian.  I didn’t go to religion to make me happy.  I always knew a bottle of Port would do that.

Radio-Man Stan’s (not his real name) consideration of Lent and his use of the time highlights what so much of the American church thinks about God and Christ: tools for us to use to better ourselves.  I know, you’re thinking, “the guy was going to do Bible study – how’s that self-focused?!” Generally speaking, we tend to think in terms of “how can I get where I need to go?”  We think that way about our weight, our jobs, our communication, our use of money, our knowledge of Scripture verses, our marriage or our parenting.  Why wouldn’t we turn that kind of thinking to our relationship with God?  No one ever acts without a reason or even a point.  We are constantly using things to get other things.  How do we know that we haven’t somehow been doing the same thing in our spiritual lives?  Why wouldn’t we “use” God – the greatest of all powers – to get what we want?