The Depths of Christian Liberty

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.  I will take you as My people, and I will be your God.”  Exodus 6:6-7

In the Jewish Passover Haggadah, four cups of wine are shared in the course of the meal to recall the four great works of redemption that the Lord wrought on behalf of His people as expressed in Exodus 6:6-7.  The Jewish service is structured so that each generation reminds the next of the great salvation which is their heritage, lest it be forgotten and lost somehow.  Indeed we might venture to say that this salvation is what truly makes them the people of God.  It is not necessarily their ancestry, or their race, but rather the express choice of God and the outpouring of His liberty upon them in full measure that makes them His.  There is something instructive in these verses for us, the Church, as well.  They speak clearly to us of the depths of God’s liberty and our Christian freedom.

I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians…Who of us has not been burdened by the weight of a sin-bruised conscience, or been smeared with the defilement of a guilt whose filth we could in no wise wash away, or felt the intense shame of wrongdoing?  Sin is a terrible burden.  The shoulders of a man or woman were never meant to bear such weight, and they are stooped over and cruelly bent by its magnitude.  And when it seems we can bear no more, the words of Jesus ring out in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you shall find rest for your souls.”  In His forgiveness, the burdens are lifted from our shoulders and we straighten up with our created dignity again.

I will rescue you from their bondage…Forgiveness is a balm to the sin-weary soul, but it is not a curative that goes deep enough to the very root of the cancer that eats at our nature from within.  A man forgiven a debt may breathe free for one moment, but if he has no means of support, it is not long before he finds himself in debt again.  Furthermore, habits of vice are hard to quickly lay aside.  It is as if we entered a sodden pigpen, washed clean the sow within it, and left with the command for her to remain clean.  Neither the nature of the sow nor the environment she is in is conducive to fulfilling that command.  So it is with the corrupted human nature set in a perverse world.  It is to such a state as that that Jesus declares “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…and to set at liberty those that are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).  To his forgiveness is added deliverance, and the enemies of our soul are put to rout.

And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments…The law of sin and death is a hard taskmaster.  The man who stands accused by its statues must forfeit his life, for justice demands that the full penalty be paid.  Mercy would sweep away all indebtedness, but cannot do so without doing harm to the divine dictates of justice.  And our accuser ever rails against us, not with twisted lies about our life, but with the truth of our faithlessness recounted as if read from an open book.  In the face of such iniquity, who can stand?  “I see another law…bringing me into captivity to the law of sin…O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:23-24)  Where shall we look for our deliverance?  The answer resounds from the heavens, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 7:25 to 8:1).  To the washing of forgiveness and the wonder of deliverance is added redemption entered into by the outstretched arm of God shaking the very powers of the air, and with great and final judgment upon sin and death.  But it is not judgment without cost, for its justice claimed the innocent blood of the Lamb of God Himself.  The bloodguiltiness of our sin, both original and actual, was satisfied in His blood, and it is paid for by His death.  And in that redemption we are, as it were, legally free of any claim which the law could ever lay to our account.

I will take you as My people, and I will be your God…Forgiveness, deliverance, redemption; all that we need to live in relative freedom upon this earth is graciously given to us.  But wait!  Behold the further depth of God’s love.  “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom (Luke 12:32).  It is not enough that we are no longer slaves, but now we are made sons and daughters.  Such is the unsearchable depth of God’s freedom.  As forgiveness, deliverance, and redemption forms the body of His liberty, so adoption informs its heart and very soul.  By it we are made sons and daughters of God, heirs to the kingdom, and fellow heirs with Jesus.  Freedom in this life is given in full measure and in the life to come, eternal life.

Four cups of wine are laid before us by the hand of God and we are invited to drink our fill of forgiveness, deliverance, redemption, and adoption.  Just when we thought we knew all that there was about the love and liberty of God, we are reminded that they have dimensions that we have not yet experienced.  “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness, O God.” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  May we ever be reminded of the length and breadth and depth and height of the love of God, and, in that, glimpse the true extent of our Christian liberty in Him.

4 Ways God’s Kingdom Does Not Meet Our Expectations

tall grass at beach

Expectations are things that need to be adjusted once in a while. For example, I have a wife and four young children. If I expect to get out of the door on Sunday morning as fast as I used to when I was a single man, I am in for a world of frustration. There are four other little people in my home who need help getting ready and I am called to play a role in helping. Tying shoes, brushing teeth, buttoning dresses and shirts. Time and practice have helped me adjust my expectations–getting ready for church is no longer a 20 minute ordeal, but more like an hour or more ordeal.

For every one of us, our days are overflowing with expectations, many of which develop naturally. I expect traffic to be a certain way and the weather to be a certain way. When early May rolls around every year I expect the temperature to go up and the flowers to begin poking through the snow. I expect my alarm to go off at a certain time and my car to start. I expect my mom to be a loving and kind when we speak on the phone once a week, because that’s the kind of person she is. When it snows I expect to have to shovel off my porch and driveway. And there are a thousand other expectations we make week in and week out that don’t need much adjusting except when something major in our lives changes (we move, get married, have kids, change jobs, etc.).

When it comes to the kingdom of God, things are no different–we all have expectations. But sadly, on this front, many of our assumptions about the kingdom are wrong. Here, we all need to fine tune our expectations.

Jesus was not ignorant of this fact so he taught frequently about the kingdom. In the second half of Matthew 13 he gives us several parables that begin with the phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like…” I think these short teachings are one of the many ways that Jesus sought to reshape our expectations about the kingdom and to correct common misconceptions. In the parables of the Mustard Seed (verses 31 to 32), the Leaven (verse 33), the Hidden Treasure and the Costly Pearl (verses 44 to 46), and the Dragnet (verses 47 to 50), four things about the kingdom are revealed to us that do not meet our natural expectations. What are they?

First, in the kingdom of God, very big things come from very small things. In our world we expect big things from people of noble birth or with great intelligence or with great wealth. But this is not the norm in God’s kingdom. In fact we see the opposite (see Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31). God chose Israel, the smallest of the nations to be his chosen possession (Deut. 7:6-8). God reduced the army of Gideon to a mere 300 men to defeat the many thousands in the Midianites army (Judges 7). God chose King David, the youngest and smallest of Jesse’s sons to be Israel’s greatest king (1 Samuel 16). And in the Parable of the Mustard Seed God says that kingdom of heaven will grow from very a small and insignificant size to something very great, starting with a common carpenter and some fishermen in Galilee.

Second, in the kingdom of God, change begins where it cannot be seen, namely, in the heart. The world wants to believe that it’s biggest problems are external. We commonly hear:

“If I only had more money,” “If only the government would…”, “If only my husband would start…”, “What we need is a better educational system.”

While these things may help relieve some stressors in our lives and may promote general welfare to a point, all of these common mantras betray the false belief that our problems are outside of us. Jesus says, that it’s what comes out of a person’s heart that defiles her, not the external things that we do or consume (see Matthew 15:11). We see this in the Parable of the Leaven as well. The large lump of dough is completely changed by the tiny amount of yeast placed where it cannot be seen. The transformation (the rising of the bread) happens mysteriously and invisibly. We cannot see it happening with the naked eye, but in the end the change is stark. So it is with a person. Change happens in the invisible places of the heart and the result is a completely changed life.

Third, in the kingdom of heaven, it only takes one thing to satisfy us completely: Jesus Christ. The consumer culture in which we live preaches to us that we need many things to be happy. A bigger TV, more followers on social media, the latest iPhone, good looks, personal freedom. More of this and more that. But in the Parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Costly Pearl we see the reverse. What satisfies is less of the world (selling our worldly goods) and owning the one field with the treasure in it or the one costly pearl. What is the treasure? We needn’t guess. The apostle John tells us clearly:

“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).

Jesus Christ is the treasure. Jesus is the costly pearl. He is life. If we have Him we will never be thirsty forever (John 4:14).

Fourth, in the kingdom of God, only the clean will be kept. In Jesus’ day, there were many Jews who believed they would be saved simply on the grounds of their ethnicity. The Pharisees and Sadducees boasted that they were descendants of Abraham and were therefore secure (Matthew 3:7-10). And today, the broader culture of our time believes that anyone and everyone who dies and lived a sincere, decent life, will be accepted by God. Jesus teaches in the Parable of the Dragnet that just as a fisherman only keeps the clean fish (i.e., those that conform to Jewish kosher seafood laws, see Leviticus 11:9-12, fish that have fins and scales are permitted), God will only receive people that are clean by God’s standards. Race, color, age, intelligence, goodness, badness, religiosity, wealth, are all irrelevant. God shows no impartiality on the basis of worldly standards. What matters is whether or not a person is clean. Heaven is squeaky clean and no dirt is allowed inside (Hebrews 12:14). So how can sinful, dirty, unholy people like you and me be made clean? Only by the blood of Jesus Christ:

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

These four principles are not what we might expect. In many ways, these four principles are contrary to the commonly accepted wisdom of our age. But simply because they do not meet our expectations, that does not therefore falsify them. Jesus wants us to be ready for the kingdom. He wants us to receive the kingdom. Let us therefore adjust our expectations that we may have this abundant life that he offers us. 1

  1. This article was originally published by Josh Moore on LInkedIn. You may view it on LinkedIn here.

Fruit of Following God #13: Sacrificial Living for Christ

Frans Floris painting, The Sacrifice of Jesus Christ Son of God Gathering and Protecting Mankind

Eventually a growing disciple realizes that not only does Christ call His followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23), but he also calls them to live sacrificially. The self-life must die and Christ must live. Christ Himself was a sacrifice for us. Paul writes, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).

In daily living, believers are to sacrifice themselves as an act of worship. Paul lived out this admonition in his own life and ministry. Writing to the believers at Philippi he says, “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all” (Philippians 2:17). The author of the book of Hebrews also states, “Through [Jesus] then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.

Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:15-16).  Giving up ourselves, our possessions, our time, our personal rights and perceived privileges should be part of the Christian life. Each disciple must understand the will of the Lord in such personal matters and decisions but each disciple must also ask himself, “What am I giving up in order to serve Christ and/or help fulfill the Great Commission?” C.T. Studd, the missionary pioneer to Belgian Congo in the early 1900’s, once made this compelling statement, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him” (Grubb, 141). A growing disciple becomes sensitive to what he can give up for the Savior who gave Himself for His own.

What You Already Know

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.”  –1 Thess. 4:1-2

Our culture is fascinated with the new.  Old stuff doesn’t sell.  New stuff does.  We like it “fresh” and disposable.  American culture today is “progressive.”  Many want progress just for the sake of progress.  Out with the old and in with the new.

So when churches focus on a message that is 2,000 years old, they’re called “regressive.”  When the values and the positions and perspectives and worldview that we propagate sound the same every year, every month and every Sunday, many scratch their heads and wonder what our problem is.

Even within the walls of the church, the infatuation with the new has taken serious hold.  The folks in the pew desire something fresh and entertaining every Sunday.

But the writers of the bible did not share that infatuation.  In fact, as we will see from this neat little passage in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul thought that we needed to hear the same things over and over again–not something new and fresh.

We Have No Need to Write You 

In this passage to the church in Thessalonica, Paul gives this young church instruction on how to “live in order to please God.”  He starts by encouraging them: “I see you” he says.  “I see your good works.  Keep it up.”  No doubt an exhilarating thing to read from the pen of God’s apostle.

What follows from there is interesting.

“You know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord” he writes.  You know them.  Your life reflects the fact that you know them–you’re living right.  Then, contrary to what we might expect, he repeats the instructions again.  “Maybe, just maybe,” Paul thought to himself, “they forgot.”

Nope, that’s not it–for he just said–“You know the instructions.”  If they know them, then he’s not repeating himself because they had forgotten.

Read on down a few verses and we find the same thing again in verse 9:

“Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other…”

He affirms their lifestyle and their love.  He says, “we do not need to write you” about this!  You get it!

But then… Paul goes ahead and repeats himself anyway.

Let me get this straight.  The Thessalonians are living godly lives, they know the instructions God gave them, their love for one another is evident, yet, Paul says, I’m going to give it to you one more time.  Am I reading this right?

Yes, that’s exactly what Paul is doing.  You couldn’t ask for a better way to get ignored in today’s world.

In fact, this whole section here (verses 1 through 12) is focused on the idea of repeating what they already know about pleasing God.

Not Because You Sinned

We tend to think that you repeat an instruction or a command when a person fails.  Right?  When a person goofs up, we tend to think they need to hear it again.  “Now I told you not to do that, remember!”

But there’s nothing here in this passage that indicates that the Thessalonians have sinned in some major way.

He’s just spent three chapters encouraging this young, fledgling group of converts.  They imitated the apostles (1:6), they received the word even when it brought intense persecution (1:6), they were an example to all the churches in Macedonia (1:7), they turned from idols (1:9), and how they’ve put their hope in Christ’s return (1:10).

Seems like their faith is pretty solid to me.

But maybe Timothy brought some information to Paul that there was sexual sin taking place in the congregation?  Maybe this explains the call to sexual purity in verses 3 through 8 of chapter 4?  Maybe.

No doubt the world they lived in at the time had extremely low moral standards with regard to sexual sins.  Prostitution was everywhere.  It was not uncommon to use mistresses, concubines, and house slaves for sex.  Many of the pagan religions of the culture would have had religious ceremonies that involved sexual activity.  Temptation was great in that world (not unlike our own today).

So maybe there’s something going on in the Thessalonian church that Paul is responding to, but we can’t be certain.  Most likely, I think, he is just giving general warnings and exhortations here to this church that he would have given to any church in the Graeco-Roman world of the time (a part of the instructions they “already know”).

There are two reasons why I think this:

Well, as we’ve already pointed out, Paul says: “to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living.” (Not to mention all the high praise he gives them in chapters 1 and 2!) Would Paul offer up such general praise if they were living in overt sin?  Probably not.

Secondly, Paul makes no explicit mention of sin in the passage (as he does in other letters to churches: 1 Corinthians 5 and Galatians 1:6-10 come to mind).

What other reasons could there be then for Paul’s repetition?

Repetition Is An Aspect of God’s Love

When you consider the great love that both God and Paul have for these Thessalonians we begin to see that repetition is an aspect of that love.  The apostle’s repetition of what they already know is not scolding the group because they have fallen, but love–because it’s good to hear it again.

God loves these people.  Paul loves these people.  Over and over again Paul expresses his affection for these people.

“Having so fond an affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess 2:8).

Because we are so dear to the Father, he communicates the same things to us over and over again–wonderful, exhilarating, beautiful things about Himself!

And since He doesn’t change (Heb. 13:8) , why should we expect a “fresh” message?

Really, when you boil it down, I’m afraid our obsession with the new is really more of a boredom with the “old” truth.  Truth doesn’t change, but sometimes our appetite for it does.

I pray God would restore to the Christian church an appetite and passion for what they already know.

The Three Questions

I have been a Christian long enough to know that none of my own ideas are very good. That is to say, if I know something really important, or if I say something that’s deep, I didn’t come up with it. My growth as a follower of Jesus Christ has been dependent on two things: listening very carefully to what the Holy Spirit says in Scripture, and listening very carefully to what he tells me through other people. In short, everything I have, I’ve received (1 Corinthians 4:7).

One thing I thank God for receiving more than most is a particular set of questions. It’s more of an idea, really. And this is the idea: we expose ourselves to a lot more goodness when we read the Bible with other people. Whatever we lack in understanding (and it’s always a lot) can be shored up by the people around us, especially those who, through their faith in Christ, have the Holy Spirit at work in their hearts to help us. Instead of trusting ourselves to know it all, believe it all, and obey it all on our own, why don’t we humble ourselves enough to let other people help us?

If you can admit that much at least is a good idea, you’ll wonder exactly what that looks like. It certainly happens when faithful and wise Christians teach the Bible to us, whether as part of our worship together on Sundays or otherwise. But knowing that the Holy Spirit is present and working in all who know Christ (Ephesians 1:13-14), and knowing that everyone who believes the gospel has knowledge of the truth (1 John 2:20), doesn’t it make sense that you don’t have to be a capital-T Teacher in order to be a good teacher? Don’t you have some insight, some wisdom, some example in your life that could really help me?

But where do you start? Enter: the Three Questions.

Technically, the Three Questions have a collective name: the Swedish Method. If you’d like to read much more about the Three Questions (including how they acquired such a weird name), this article will tell you all you need to know. (I really do recommend reading it—it’s fascinating.) But suffice it to say that, for a number of reasons, I prefer my own (highly boring and non-creative) phrase of “the Three Questions.”

What are the Three Questions? They’re three simple things to ask yourself and others whenever you read the Bible:

  1. What’s interesting about this?
  2. What’s confusing about this?
  3. What should I do with this?

Of course, you can use the Three Questions to guide your personal Bible reading to make sure that you’re doing more than running your eyes over the page. But I get much more mileage out of them when someone else asks me the questions as part of a normal conversation.

There’s no need to come up with anything impressive-sounding as a response to the question. In fact, I actively discourage people from trying to do so! Be honest. Be simple. Just answer the questions!

Here’s one example of how the Three Questions can spur good conversations that go beyond the words on the page. Today I read Ecclesiastes 1-2 with a friend at a coffee shop. In no particular order, here are some of the ways the two of us answered the first question (“What’s interesting about this?”):

  • The book doesn’t have a named author—just someone named “the Teacher.” That strikes me as interesting, even strange.
  • The first chapter has a lot of poetic, philosophical language. That’s different from the stories of Jesus’ life or the teachings of Paul. I bet it would appeal to people who aren’t naturally into those parts of the Bible.
  • In fact, the first couple chapters really seem to directly challenge what the rest of the Old Testament (especially Genesis) teaches. The Preacher really slams some biblical ideas—that life has a purpose, that God is working out a plan in the world, that wisdom has eternal value, etc.
  • In Ecclesiastes 2:8, the Teacher says that he availed himself to “a harem”—and calls the women “the delights of the heart of man”! That’s interesting, to say the least!

As you can see, the interesting things lead to lots of questions. In this passage, some of the more confusing things we saw led to questions like these:

  • How did this book even make it into the Bible?! Can a biblical book also be un-biblical?
  • Is the rest of the book going to answer that question?
  • Who is the Teacher? Is it Solomon? Could someone else fit the self-description in Ecclesiastes 1:1?
  • What does the Teacher mean by “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3 and elsewhere)?

Finally, we asked each other the final question: what should we do with these chapters?

  • We definitely need to read the rest of the book to see where the Teacher is going!
  • We need to examine our lives—are they really “meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)? We need to compare these chapters with the rest of the Bible to figure out what’s going on here.
  • The Teacher writes that chasing after wine, women, and song is a waste of time and totally pointless (Ecclesiastes 2:9-11). Am I chasing after pleasure like he did? Am I setting myself up for the same disappointment?

What answers would you add?

The questions are short and simple—there’s no rocket science that makes them so powerful. But ask yourself: how could you use them?

  1. What if you and your spouse picked a book of the Bible to read through together? You could meet up once a week—even nightly—to share your answers (and spur each other on to even better, more personal answers).
  2. What if you used the Three Questions to discuss a passage of Scripture with your kids or grandkids? That’s what I’ve been doing this year—using the questions to talk through the Gospel of Mark with my six- and five-year-old sons. Their answers are always surprising, frequently hilarious, and sometimes shocking. It is never boring or a waste of time.
  3. What if you used the Three Questions to invite a curious non-Christian to study the life and teachings of Jesus for herself? This is my favorite form of evangelism—instead of memorizing a script, get out of the way and let Jesus speak for himself!

At the end of the day, only the Spirit himself can help us grow and learn and experience more of the grace of Jesus. The Three Questions assume that, in prayer, you’re entrusting him to do the real work. But he uses tools to do that work, most especially the word of God—and other people.

Why not use a simple tool like the Three Questions to see what he would do for (and through) you?

The Psychology of Self-Deception

It’s one thing to be clueless. But have you ever known someone who was clueless about being clueless?

Maybe she saw herself as a great cook, but anybody who tasted her food would strongly object.

Maybe they figured they were the picture of health—despite what their friends (and doctors) kept saying about their diet and exercise (or lack thereof!).

Or perhaps he considered himself a fine handyman who never had to call the professionals—until he’d created a much more expensive problem than he originally had.

In another post I wrote about the New Testament’s strong warning not to let ourselves be fooled. In Hebrews 3:7-4:13 the pastor-author warns his beloved friends that, like the ancient Israelites, they too would fall short of receiving God’s promise of a secure resting place without each other’s help and encouragement. Here are the key verses:

See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

—Hebrews 3:12-13

I’ve taught about the critical importance of the church in many contexts. I’ve used many different examples from Scripture and modern life to illustrate what the Bible’s saying. Like any teacher, I have a couple favorites. But as of today, they were all relegated to secondary status. You see, today I discovered the Dunning-Kruger effect.

For those (like me) who had no idea what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, here’s the briefest of explanations: a pair of researchers at Cornell University studied and described the phenomenon of highly incompetent individuals believing that they were, in fact, above-average at a given task. The researchers’ interest was inspired by the story of a man who was arrested after robbing two banks. The man was quickly apprehended because he had intentionally not worn a mask, only to have his face caught on security cameras. Why make such a huge mistake? Because the robber sincerely believed that rubbing lemon juice on his face would prevent the cameras inside the bank from recording any images of himself. When presented with the video evidence against him, he could only respond in disbelief: “But I used the juice!” This poor man’s mistake wasn’t that he was dumb; it was that he was dumb but truly considered himself to be clever. In other words: he was clueless about being clueless.

The researchers at Cornell found that this kind of behavior isn’t a disorder that’s unique to America’s dumbest criminals. In fact, all of us can have this cognitive bias. They convincingly showed that, in many cases, when incompetent people are asked how good they are at something, they don’t just fail to see their incompetency—they tend to think they’re absolutely great at it! The delusion is so powerful that, when another person performs the same task much better than they do, the incompetent person still can’t recognize the other person’s superior skill. It turns out that the worse we are at something, the more our deluded self-perception drives us to think we’re awesome at it. In fact, one of the researchers was saddened to realize that, no matter how inaccurate our view of ourselves is, we’re trapped in it. In order to see the truth about our lack of skill and self-delusion, we need someone else to point it out to us—and even then we might not see it. 1

I hope some of the applications of the Dunning-Kruger effect to our lives as Christians are clear:

  • It’s no coincidence that, before Paul instructs the Roman church in how to use their spiritual gifts, he first warns them, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). He has to throw in that warning because it’s far too easy for us to do just that: think too highly of ourselves!
  • How amazingly well these findings line up with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount! As he told the earliest disciples, it’s much easier to see the minor flaws of others while overlooking our own massive failings (Matthew 7:1-5). Be careful about judging others: it’s a lot easier to be a hypocrite than to be a helper!
  • Notice what a scary position we find ourselves in a self-deceived sinners. We think we’re good, decent people. We sincerely believe we’re not as bad as the people God condemns throughout the Bible. We somehow trick ourselves into thinking that other people sin while we only “make mistakes” or occasionally “do things that are out of character.” On the contrary! Despite what we naturally believe, we are our own worst enemies. We can’t even grade ourselves accurately! How true, then, is the consistent message of both the Old and New Testaments: “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10).

If all that is true, and we can’t even know how bad we are—let alone fix ourselves—what can we possibly do? Three thousand years before the Cornell researchers came to the same conclusion, God himself gave the answer: our only hope is to stop trusting our own understanding and to put all our chips on God’s word being true (Proverbs 3:5-6). We need—and we have—a Savior who sees us for who we are but isn’t ashamed to love us anyway (Hebrews 11:16). What self-deceived, blind, ignorant sinners need isn’t more information or (God forbid) more affirmation that we’re okay. We need someone to give us the gift of faith and make us believe the truth despite ourselves. And that’s exactly what the good news of Jesus does for us (Ephesians 2:8-9).

And what else does the good news of Jesus do? It doesn’t just create a relationship with a God who sees us perfectly and teaches us how to see ourselves through his word; it creates a global community of others to help us. The ultimate solution to the Dunning-Kruger effect isn’t becoming more mindful or self-aware; it’s choosing to be vulnerable and let others know us really well. It’s taking off our armor and handing other Christians a sword, knowing they can either defend us or run us through. God’s solution to our self-deception isn’t only giving us spiritual life from the dead—it’s the church.

Are you experiencing the encouragement of Hebrews 3:12-13? Are you practicing it yourself?

  1.  “Ignorance for Dummies,” This American Life 585. Accessed 25 April, 2016.

The Fruit of Following God – Part 12: Walks by Faith

Hebrews 11 is the chapter that summarizes so many demonstrations of faith in the Bible. In some ways, it is amazing that the author of Hebrews wrote such a short compilation since evidence of faith is seen throughout Scripture. Of course, the author did write:

“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets…” (verse 32).

One might even ask, “What about Job?!” Nevertheless, God’s people indeed “walk by faith, not by sight,” (2 Corinthians 5:7). And we cannot walk by feelings either, although the presence of feelings and emotions about the Lord are not to be dismissed as inappropriate in the Christian life.  As we trusted Christ for our salvation from sin and hell, so we must continue to trust the Lord through our entire lives.

“This is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith” (1 John 5:4).

The disciple of Christ learns to trust God though the good and the bad, during the blessings and the trials. In his prayer life, the disciple is able to express desires and hopes and to cast his every care and worry upon Him because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus exhorts the burdened in His day and assures them of His help when He says,

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

As growing disciples, we gradually learn that God has a plan for us and that He also has the power to provide for us. And He answers prayer. We can give Him our worries (Luke 12:22-26) and our future (Matthew 6:34) as He knows every need of our lives (Matthew 6:25-34). The disciple lives a life of faith even when the feelings and the sense of the presence of God is missing. Habakkuk learned this lesson as Babylon hovered over Israel and the threat of losing everything loomed large. The Lord told him, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Habakkuk finally reached a point of resolution, recognizing that even if he were to lose everything, He would still have God and he could rejoice in that assurance:

16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. 17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:16-19)

This is the walk of faith: trusting God when all that you have is God.

I still recall working on a construction site in west Fort Lauderdale, Florida as a new Christian back in the summer of 1973. There was a Hispanic worker named Louie serving on the same site with a crew separate from ours. But he found out that a lot of our crew were Christians, as we were serving together during the summer with a Navigator ministry summer beach project. He was excited to know this, since he had just recently become a Christian. The joy in his salvation was evident and although his English was somewhat limited, he and I could both talk together about our newfound faith. But one day Louie came to work and it was obvious that he was “in the dumps” emotionally. His joy and happiness were missing – he was a young man who wore his heart on his sleeve. When I asked him what was wrong, in his simple English he replied, “God seems gone. I don’t feel Him with me.” I had been there before, so I explained to Louie that sometimes God intentionally removes His presence (or a sense of His presence) to test us and to strengthen our faith. He wants to see if we love Him or His blessings more. Louis seemed to understand and in time he was back to his “old/new” self. The Westminster Confession of Faith states that sometimes

“God withdraws the light of His countenance”; yet believers are “never truly destitute of that seed of God” in their lives (18:4).

This is what it means to walk by faith, clinging to Him and trusting Him even when the darkness appears to be prevailing!

My Friend Grant

Last week I reacquainted myself with an old friend. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years. But the time we spent together was the most important important time in my life. Without overselling it, this friend did more for me than anyone else I know. And now that we’ve reintroduced ourselves, I can’t wait to dive back in and pick up where we left off.

My friend isn’t an old work buddy or classmate. My friend isn’t even a person. It’s a set of bookmarks.

I call it “Grant.”

Let me back up.

I first heard of Grant in 2010. A blogger I follow recommended it as the best thing ever (that’s how it came across to me, anyway). In the article (you can read it here), he explains how he had come across a Bible reading plan that actually made him want to read the Bible. Every day. And he didn’t want to give up. I had to keep reading.

The beauty of the plan is its insanity. Here’s the gist: the Bible is divided into 10 sections, and you read a chapter from each section every day. Yes—you read 10 chapters of the Bible every day. And, as he explained, you actually like it.

This didn’t make any sense to me. I had become a Christian several years earlier but had never really read the Bible with any regularity outside of church services. I was on the up-and-down see-saw of guilt when it came to reading the Bible and learning more about the gospel. So it seemed insane to think that I would go from a starvation diet to a 7-course meal . . . every day.

The only thing more insane than this plan was how well it worked for me. If I read a chapter that didn’t jump out as particularly relevant or significant to me, no problem—there were plenty more opportunities that day. The time required to read everything meant that I couldn’t slow down and meditate too much on any passage. That turned out to be fine. Since I knew so little of the overall story of the Bible, my meditations often led me to thoughts and conclusions that sounded spiritual but (come to find out) were directly condemned in other parts of the Bible! By seeing the “big picture,” I became better and wiser at seeing how all of Scripture (even the “boring” parts) were essential to God’s plan to make me more like Jesus (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

Why the name “Grant”? Because the plan was put together by Professor Grant Horner, an English professor and Christian who started using it in graduate school to keep himself connected to God’s word in all its beauty. (You can read his story as well as his explanation of the system here. There’s even a snazzy set of bookmarks to print out for yourself at the end.)

How does this work itself out in my day? When it’s time to sit down and read my Bible, I open up to the first section: Gospels. I read the chapter at a brisk pace, not pausing for too much reflection. When I finish, I try to summarize the chapter in my head with a sentence or two, aiming to use the passage to answer the questions “Who is God?”, “Who am I?”, and “What does God ask of me?” Then, without further ado, I turn straight to the second section (Pentateuch) with the help of bookmarks. (My wife printed out the ones above and laminated them for me. She’s the best.) And so it continues, until I read all 10 chapters or (as sometimes happens) I run out of time. In those cases, I pick up where I left off later in the day. (Note: I also spend time every day memorizing Scripture, since it’s the best way I know to meditate on truth and work it through my head into my heart. Read widely and deeply!)

Without fail, I read at least one thing every day that thrills me, intrigues me, jumps out to me, or obviously applies to me. It often happens in my favorite part of the Bible, the Old Testament’s wisdom literature (covered in sections 5, 6, and 7). But now that I’ve got more experience with the Bible’s overall story, it also happens when I’m reading Paul’s letters or the Old Testament prophets. I have even been moved to tears by Leviticus (really, no kidding), in part because reading the entire Bible helped me see how each of its parts connects to Jesus and to myself.

Take a peek at my friend Grant for yourself. Get to know it yourself. But more importantly, get to know the God and Savior he showcases.

Saddest Christmas Song Ever

Advent brings out an interesting mixture of emotions for me. On one hand, I remember the Decembers of my childhood and the anticipation of Christmas, presents, and an obscene number of cookies. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve been initiated into “grown-up Christmas.” Finances can pinch. Weather can threaten. But more than anything, Advent is a time when we remember what we’ve lost. We think about loved ones who won’t be attending the family Christmas party. Divorce, addiction, and death break the shiny image of our culture’s “perfect Christmas.” Loneliness is never more acute than when it seems everyone else isn’t suffering from it. The colder temperatures make it physically harder to bridge those emotional gaps. For large numbers of our neighbors—including our neighbors in the church—it really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

Thank God for the gift of music, which gives us a way to express the truth in a way that engages our hearts as well as our minds. I hope you don’t think it’s strange, then, that I’m so thankful for sad songs at Christmas. I need songs that help me express the sadness and longing that, to my surprise, sprout out of my heart during this season. Without them, I wouldn’t just feel cut off from the people around me—I’d feel cut off from God.

Perhaps the saddest song for this season is the medieval “Coventry Carol.” Set in a minor key to a haunting melody, the carol tells the saddest part of the Christmas story: Herod’s panicked order to kill every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-15). The song, presented from the perspective of the women of Bethlehem, laments the impending doom of “the holy innocents,” as church history has remembered them. Here are the lyrics, which have been updated very little over the centuries:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

(You can listen to a beautiful choral arrangement on YouTube here. For those with more eccentric tastes, Sufjan Stevens’ version is just as beautiful. You can find it here.)

Why do I love this song so much? First, it’s a beautifully bittersweet song of loss and mourning. But secondly, I’m comforted at the deepest level of my heart to know that I am not the first person to feel sad around the holidays. Far from it! In fact, the very first years following Christ’s birth were marked by pain in the holy family itself: the pain of out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy; the pain of staying committed to your betrothed despite the shaming whispers; the pain of fleeing from violent authorities and sojourning in a foreign country. In other words, the song encourages me to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer at the holidays.

As a Christian, I am part of a big, timeless family that has always shed tears, not in spite of following Jesus, but precisely because of him. Jesus’ own mother would have her soul pierced to see the humiliation and death of her beloved firstborn (Luke 2:35). Our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake in prisons and in slums simultaneously remember the unspeakable joy and the unspeakable sorrow that is theirs only because of Jesus. Those of us who feel abandoned by our friends and families, who have made decisions with devastating consequences, who have to bear the scars of sin within and without—Advent and Christmas are for us. They always have been. And, because our suffering Savior is now our triumphant King, they point to a time when no more children will die, and the sufferings of this present time won’t compare to the glory we enjoy—provided we suffer with him (Romans 8:17-18).

Image credit: “Sorrow” by Alexander Boden via Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0. Original was cropped to fit slider.