Guilty? Or not?

Many Christians feel so much shame for their sins – real or imagined – that they doubt that God could possibly love them.

And yet there are scripture passages declaring that God loves his believing children even when they mess up.

How can we square these two conceptions of God?

This week, I read an enlightening piece on guilt and grace in Grace That Breaks the Chains by Neil T. Anderson, Rich Miller and Paul Travis.

They assert that God indeed loves and cherishes his children and, at the same time, does not approve of sin.  Yet, he does not reject us when we sin because he forgave us eternally when we put our faith in Christ as saviour.

So, what about sin?  What effect does it have?

The authors say we must first distinguish between real sin against God and guilty feelings.

For example, other people can make us feel guilty because we do not measure up to their standards of what they consider good behaviour.  At one time, many churches insisted it was ungodly to go to movies.

As well, we can be made to feel guilty for not conforming exactly to the social customs of our parents – or our peers.

Among many others, the authors call this “false guilt”.

Then, what about real sin in God’s eyes?  Does God just ignore it?

No, they say, God doesn’t ignore it.

However, God doesn’t level a charge of “guilty” against us and impose a penalty.  Instead, the apostle Paul speaks of “godly sorrow” which drives us to repent of what we have done.

In 2 Corinthians 7, Paul says that he is pleased that a reprimand he gave the Corinthian church for their ungodly behaviour led to repentance.  He notes that “you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us”.

There is, of course, yet another kind of guilt – an instrument of Satan against us.  Satan tries to make us feel that we are no good and that God has turned his face away from us in disgust.  One name for Satan is “the accuser”.

Paul deals with that problem magnificently in Romans 8 where he says “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death”.

Nothing, says Paul, can separate us from the love of God.

Amen.

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The lamb and the lion

The Book of Revelation paints a marvellous picture of Jesus as both the lamb of God and the lion of Judah – lamb and lion.

As we celebrate Easter, we rightly spend time contemplating Christ as the lamb who gave his life for us.

Yet Christ is also the lion of Judah – containing within himself tremendous power which he will use as judge and leader of the forces of heaven in the war against the evil one and his followers.

The two aspects of Christ are both essential to God’s loving plan for his children.

I love the way the apostle John sketches this image in Revelation 5.

In his vision, John hears an angel ask who is worthy to open a scroll in the hands of God the Father.  When no one steps forward, John weeps.

Then, an elder tells John: “Stop weeping!  Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the heir to David’s throne, has won the victory.  He is worthy to open the scroll and its seven seals.”

You would expect to see a great and awesome figure step forward, huge and daunting.

But John continues: “I saw a Lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered . . .”

It is Christ the sacrifice who stands before the throne and everyone in heaven and earth breaks forth in song, exalting him and worshiping him.  How awesome that will be!

It is because Jesus died for us that he has the right to open the scroll and the seven seals of judgement against the forces of darkness.

And if Jesus had not died for us, we would all be condemned to eternal death.  No one would be spared because no one would have turned to Jesus as saviour.  But thankfully hundreds of millions – perhaps even billions – have taken the step of faith in Christ.

The symbol of the lamb is an image of gentleness and humility and sacrifice.  As the apostle Paul says in Philippians 2, Jesus gave up his position of power and glory in heaven to descend to earth in the form of man, humbling himself and becoming “obedient to death – even death on a cross”.

That act won Jesus the victory over death and Satan – a victory which enables us to enjoy eternal fellowship with God.

Still to come is the final eradication of the forces of evil by the Lion of Judah.  Once that is accomplished, there will be no more tears, no more evil – instead, everlasting joy with God.

Humility and righteousness, love and power – we have a great God and saviour.

Through a glass darkly

I love the Bible – it tells me so much about Jesus, ourselves as human beings, and God’s ultimate plan for humankind.

But I also love the apostle Paul’s words that, in essence, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  We will be amazed at the wonders of God when we see him face-to-face.  And we will understand fully the mysteries about our own lives and God’s great plan for the world.

Paul’s words come in 1 Corinthians 13 – the great chapter about God’s love.  In it, he is speaking about the culmination of all things when we see Jesus.

“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” he writes in verse 12, “then we shall see face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

God knows me fully – everything about me – my thoughts, my actions.  But I only have an incomplete knowledge of him.  There is much more for me to learn and to enjoy.

We get glimpses in the Bible as to what is to come.

The apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that we will have new bodies in the life to come.  In Revelation 21:4, we read that God “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain”.

The prophet Isaiah writes in Isaiah 11 that in the life to come, the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with goat, the calf and the yearling will be safe with the lion, and a little child will lead them all.

That’s a picture of peace and contentment and harmony – quite unlike the world in which we live.

We are promised in Revelation that there will be a new heaven and a new earth when Christ returns.

In his book Forever, Paul David Tripp encourages us to look forward to our coming lives with Christ where we will find joy and the perfection we will never see on earth.

Tripp, a seminary professor and counsellor, says that many of our problems can be traced to unrealistic expectations in this life.  We expect too much from our spouses, our children, our friends and our jobs – and our churches.

As believers, we can count on God’s overwhelming love for us – flawed as we are.  He sees Christ who died for us – not our sins and mistakes.

There will come a time when we can shout for joy in the presence of Christ – and understand the mysteries that puzzle us in this world.

Why me?

Why me?

That’s a question we sometimes ask ourselves – and God – when we suffer.

There is a feeling that we – or our suffering loved ones – don’t deserve the trouble we are going through.

Unconsciously perhaps, we may feel that God should prevent trouble in our lives.

Yet, as I look at the great Bible characters, none of them managed to get through life without suffering.  And Christ told his followers that they must expect trouble and persecution.

So, what’s the good of suffering?

I believe God permits pain and suffering as part of a greater plan for us and for the broader world.  But often that plan is not at all clear to us.

Ultimately, it was clear to Joseph, son of Jacob, in the Old Testament.

His story, described in Genesis 37-51, is one of unremitting trouble.

His brothers sold him into slavery because they hated him.  His slave-owning Egyptian master put him in charge of his household because he was so trustworthy.

His master’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape and he was jailed for years.  Yet he was again so outstanding and wise that he was made responsible for everything in the prison.

God had given him the gift of interpreting dreams and he was freed by the Egyptian Pharaoh after he interpreted that monarch’s frightening dream.  He was then made second-most-powerful man in the country.

As a speaker at our church pointed out, the Bible says God “was with him” throughout.

When his brothers came to Egypt for food during a famine, he revealed himself to them.  They were terrified because they expected him to exact revenge.

Instead, Joseph told them not to be angry with themselves because “God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance”.  The brothers had meant to hurt Joseph but God used it for good.

On the other hand, God never revealed to Job why that Old Testament patriarch lost his entire family and endured terrible bodily pain.  Job questioned why God would allow this in his life and the Lord made clear to him that he – God – was in control of all things and his thoughts and plans were far higher than any human being’s.

I am convinced that the apostle Paul is right when he says in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

The man who said those words was beaten, stoned, imprisoned and ultimately executed for his faith.  But, as a follower of Christ, he shook the world – for good.

I must always remember Paul’s words when the thought “Why me?” leaps into my mind.

Inheritance

My wife and I are learning that much of what we have we don’t need.

We are downsizing from a house to a smaller condominium.  We are forced to give up a lot of things we have collected – and sometimes prized – over a lifetime.

Which brings me to what is really important in life – Jesus.

The words from Psalm 16:5 caught my eye last night: “Lord, you alone are my inheritance, my cup of blessing.”

David, writer of Psalm 16, is saying that the greatest gift and treasure he has is God himself.

This is a strong reminder to me that my focus is often on the wrong things – achieving and collecting and, even, hoarding.

Like many people, I was driven to achieve a measure of success in the eyes of others through much of my life.  As well, I love books – old and new – and acquired many over my nearly eight decades of life.

There is nothing wrong with either of those activities.  They only become a problem when they tend to block out of my sight my real treasure – the Lord himself.

In a sense, God is prompting me to release my iron grip on things of this world.

This brings me to Jesus’ great parable in Luke 12 of the man who built giant storehouses for his bumper crop of grain.  Jesus was responding to a request by a man to order the man’s brother to share his inheritance.

Jesus refused to judge their dispute.  Instead, he warned them against greed, telling them the story of the rich man who decided to build bigger storehouses for his grain.

The rich man then told himself: “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come.  Now take it easy!  Eat, drink and be merry!”

Then, God told the man: “You fool!  You will die this very night.  Then who will get everything you worked for?”

Jesus finished with this punchline in Luke 12: “Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.”

A “rich relationship with God” will stand me in far better stead than all my books and other possessions.

The Lord is my treasure and inheritance and will be throughout eternity.

Compelling

When I think of Billy Graham, a word leaps to my mind – “compelling”.

When I listened to him, I was drawn irresistibly to Jesus. This quality he shared with other great followers of Christ.

This is more than passion or great speaking skills.  It is speech pouring out of a heart that is resting on the rock of truth.

He knew Jesus heart-to-heart, he trusted him, he loved him, and he wanted others to know him as he knew him.

My wife and I attended a Billy Graham crusade in Ottawa in 1998 towards the end of his career preaching to mass meetings.

Gone was the fiery passion of his younger days.  Instead, here was an old man, filled with wisdom, appealing winsomely with a loving heart to the many thousands filling a large professional hockey stadium.

He was compelling.

People poured down to the stadium floor to receive prayer and counselling – many to enter the family of God for the first time.

Certainly, there was a lot of work behind the scenes.  Churches organized prayer before hand; a mass choir was trained; people invited friends; ushers helped welcome attendees and so on.

But I believe the crusade would have had a far smaller effect if it had not been for the genuine love of Christ that Graham exuded that evening.

Graham was not perfect – other than Jesus, no one has ever been perfect.  Some, inside and outside the church, have criticized him.

But, like the apostle Paul, he could say: “For me, to live is Christ.”

The impression I gained was of a man who enjoyed God and was humble at heart.

For me, those inner qualities stand out.

They are what mark great men and women of the Bible and of Christian history.

And they mark people who may not be famous in our world, but are beacons of light in God’s eyes.

Self-esteem or God’s esteem?

It’s easy to beat yourself up.  I know – I have a lot of practice doing it.

But God doesn’t want us to wallow in our woes.  He wants us to get up from the ground, put our hand in his, and carry on – knowing that God loves us just as much as he ever did.

For many years, I was so aware of my failings that I felt that God was displeased with me. But in recent years, I have learned the real good news – God loves me even with my faults.

In fact, as many Christian writers have pointed out, there is nothing I can do that will make him love me more or less than he already does.

That is the essence of God’s grace and mercy.  It depends not on me, but on Jesus who died for me on the cross and rose again, conquering sin and Satan.  He did it for me so that I could be with him forever.

I now see that I have put the emphasis in the wrong place – on myself.

Jesus didn’t go to the cross because I was perfect – I certainly am not.  He did it because he loved me – and all others who put their faith in him.

 

God realizes I am weak and has provided me with the Holy Spirit to give me the strength to live a godly life.  And he picks me up, dusts me off, and forgives when I mess up.

That lifts a crushing weight on me.

“Performance-based acceptance is a diabolical game with no winners and plenty of losers,” writes Paul Ellis in his book The Gospel in Ten Words.

Even those who draw the applause of other Christians can fall into this performance trap.  They may begin to feel they are special.

“The love of God is not for sale,” says Ellis about this human drive to perform.  “Like everything with grace, his acceptance and approval is a free gift that comes to us through Christ alone.”

Amen.

The eldest son

I love Jesus’ story of the prodigal son which tells how a loving father ran out and embraced his contrite son returning home after living a wasted life.

But Jesus’ story in Luke 15 ends with the angry older son who is hurt by his father’s arranging a party to welcome the younger son home.

In effect, the older son says: “You’ve never done that for me!  And I’ve been a good and faithful and hard-working son all my life.”

I understand that feeling.  I have felt it myself.

When we were discussing this passage in a Bible study group this week, a woman said that she sometimes fights jealousy in her life.

The older son may have been jealous.  Or, he may have simply felt he was being treated unfairly.

Most Christians feel that the story is really about God’s Father-love for his children and how ready he is to embrace us wayward children when we come back to him humble and contrite in heart.

But the Lord probably also used the story to point out God’s love does not depend on us following a rigid set of rules.  We tap into God’s love through humble and loving dependence on him.

So, how do we believers deal with feelings of unfairness or jealousy?

I believe the answer lies in the response of the father to his two sons in this story.

He cherished both of them. The two sons were different, but the father loved each one.

In Luke 15:31, the father tells his angry, older son: “Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours.  We had to celebrate this happy day.  For your brother was dead and has come back to life!  He was lost, but now he is found!”

As a follower of Christ, I need to remember God loves me just as much as any other child of his.  We are different but we are all loved equally by the Lord.  Jesus gave his life for each one of us, showing how much he wanted us to be part of God’s family.

What more could I want?

Truth-telling

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the truth.

But God calls us to tell the truth in love when we’re dealing with other believers – and with non-believers, too.

This morning, my wife and I were attending a Bible study aboard a cruise ship when another group member said failure to tell the truth is a problem in our North American churches.

He suggested the church needs more godly mentors to help people who are struggling.  He seemed to be saying that allowing truth to go unspoken can be damaging – to the church and to the strugglers, too.

I agree, while admitting that I shrink from facing up to difficult issues.

Bill Hybels, senior pastor at Chicago’s Willow Creek Community Church, said in a leadership seminar a few years ago that he now insists on his staff members telling him the truth.  And he has extended the same offer to his congregation.

But he has one proviso – the truth must be shared in godly love, not anger and vengeance.

Hybels says that Christians often resort to gossip, attacking people behind their backs rather than seeking resolution of their issues with the persons involved.  If they’re upset with the pastor or the leadership, they may simply leave without ever resolving their differences.

There are, of course, people who love to fight.  They stand at the opposite extreme.

My wife and I have been part of a church where annual congregational meetings were a battlefield – often between the same two or three people.

Paul and the apostles in the early Church believed in speaking the truth.  But their motives were to draw people closer to Christ – not for personal glory or dominance.

Paul stepped in strongly to defend the gospel and to denounce divisions within groups of believers.

In 1 Corinthians, he was concerned that people were lining up in opposing groups, some claiming Paul as their leader and others Apollos. He pleaded with the Corinthians to see that each had his value, but the church should pull together and focus on Jesus.

In Galatians, he was clearly struck to the heart by the attempt of some Jewish believers to push new Greek believers to abide by the Old Testament religious laws even though they came to Christ by faith.  You can sense his anger at this perversion of the gospel, but all his letters shine with his love for the people he is writing to.

Paul urged believers to deal with serious moral and spiritual issues by discussing them among themselves and working to resolve them in love.

Ultimately, we Christians are to love one another.

May we pursue truth in love.

Lifeboat Christians?

Paul Ellis says many believers are really just “lifeboat Christians”.

Ellis, author The Gospel in Ten Words, says that “the lifeboat gospel is the idea that salvation is all about avoiding hell and gaining heaven”.

“The problem with this gospel,” he continues, “is that it has sidelined entire generations of believers by telling them the earth is nothing more than a waiting room for eternity.”

They have “opted out” of the current world they live in.  “They want nothing to do with this filthy world lest they get entangled with it.”

Ellis has a point.

Like many believers, I feel the temptation to live only in church circles with church friends.  It seems safer and easier that way.

But that was not the way of Jesus Christ and the apostle Paul.

They stepped out into the highways and markets of the world and talked with people, befriended them, healed them and argued with them.  They saw their role as bringing the kingdom of God into the world – not withdrawing from it.

Ellis pinpoints a major reason why so many Christians have jumped into the lifeboat – they feel life is all about being good enough to get into heaven.  And they are afraid of messing up.

He acknowledges that most evangelical Christians declare that once they have put their faith in Christ, they are guaranteed a place with Christ in eternity.

But, in their heart of hearts, they feel that they must be good enough in their everyday lives to gain God’s approval.  If not, the Lord will be displeased with them at the very least.

However, Ellis argues that the Bible is really about God’s grace which is not about us and our goodness.  It is really about God’s forgiving love in spite of our weakness and failures.

I love this truth.  The apostle Paul hammers it home repeatedly in his letters to the young churches in the first century.

In fact, an entire letter – to the Galatian church – is about calling back believers to their initial joy in salvation through grace and rejecting attempts by others to impose new rules of spiritual life upon them.

Ellis’ view is that we believers can never make God love us more, no matter what efforts we make to be perfect.  He loves us because Jesus died for us so that we would be acceptable to the Father and become his sons and daughters.

When he looks at us, says Ellis, he sees Jesus – not our imperfections.

That should inspire us to love God more and more.

And it should make us want to share the glad news with others.

Ellis is calling us – as God calls us – to jump out of our lifeboats and reach out to people struggling in the troubled waters around us.