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Grace Beyond Forgiveness

Here’s why grace must mean something more than forgiveness: 

Once there was an abusive husband. He was a rage-aholic, given to fits of rage and, horribly, those moments sometimes overflowed into violence. Like the time he slammed his wife up against the kitchen cabinets. Or the time he slapped her across the face and then, in horror and shame, he ran off to find a quiet place to tremble and cry.

The wife—a Christian—forgave her husband each time he came home. He said (quite accurately), “I don’t know what comes over me.” The wife loved her husband deeply and saw the many good sides of this flawed man, but she lived in fear that the next rage-riot might bring a harm that would not heal. She stayed with her husband because each time he was sincere each time he begged for forgiveness. She knew her duty as Christian was to extend grace.

The only thing she knew of God’s grace was forgiveness. She had been told all her life that she herself was powerless over sin, and God’s grace came to forgive and restore her relationship with God. She was enough of a Christian to understand that if God had forgiven her, she should extend the same grace to others, especially her husband. 

She knew the something of God’s grace, but only enough to put her in danger.

It’s God’s grace that forgives and restores. Sweet forgiveness. Sweet—and filled with torment unless there is something more.

If we look at the wife in this story we want to scream, “Get out! It’s not safe!” Any sane Christian understands the woman has no duty to remain at home and risk injury or death because of some notion of grace, expressed as constant forgiveness.

If we look at the husband in this story we see a man trapped in thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that will mean his ruin and the harm of everyone he loves. A sympathetic view of the husband understands he, too, is a tormented soul in desperate need of help—help beyond merely wiping clean his sinful slate. The most gracious thing his wife could do would be to move out and demand that he get the help he needs to overcome his deep anger and pain.

And what of Jesus, the third member of the marriage? We could no more imagine Jesus leaving this husband in his condition than we could imagine Jesus telling a homeless man, “Go your way, be warm and filled” without giving him food and clothing.

Beyond the characters in this simple story lay a larger question: what about us? Would a grace-filled God leave us in the condition he finds us? Would he spend his days reminding us of our shortcomings, demanding again and again prayers of repentance and sorrow? Would the loving Creator wave his hand and say, “you are forgiven, now—go and sin no more” with lifting even one finger to empower us over our sin?

Sometimes an extreme example is necessary to grab our hearts and free our minds. Does God’s grace mean only forgiveness, or is there something more to his antidote for sin? Would God leave us alone in our rage, our addictions, or our isolation? A cold and comfortless God he would be if it were so.

The problem is not with the Father, nor his grace: it is our understanding of his on-going work in our lives. Jesus will not leave us to ourselves any more than he would leave a beggar in the street. Anyone who suggests so misrepresents the true grace of God.

Who could need more than the grace of God? It’s not that we need something more than God’s grace, it’s that we need all of his grace, even the parts we would prefer to ignore. Take a moment and give it some thought: how might God’s grace be available in greater measure than we have known before? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The Air Around Us

It was sometime during elementary school, but I still remember that moment when I first realized I was surrounded by . . . air! I wasn’t surrounded by nothing, I was surrounded by something. The wonder carried me away: I was swimming through the air. If I raised my arm above my shoulder, it meant the air around me was moving, too.

My childish imagination kicked in strong: what would it be like to see the air, cool blue and warm red? Was I breathing colors? I saw it with my imagination: inhale a faint celestial blue and exhale rose-colored pink. I could see the air move and mix and blend, or watch it settle, still and motionless, level as a lake. My head was filled with Impressionist masterpieces, the sky swirling with hues and shades too subtle for those in a hurry, but a rainbow for those with eyes to see.

But before long higher education crushed my wonder. In science class I learned about air pressure and wind resistance. The beauty of my childhood faded into the orthodoxy of physics, climate, and chemistry. The atmosphere became one more domain to be studied and measured.

Until one day. (I remember this day as well.) I read the amazing words of Paul as he addressed the skeptical, logical people of Athens, that city where diplomats and philosophers gathered on a hill named Mars, for the God of war. Paul quoted a Greek mystic from centuries before, and I saw the invisible God in much the same way I had imagined how the air must be:

“ . . . For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)

The child in me was released again. I saw again the living, moving, breathing God! How could I avoid him—and more important: how could I have missed him? When I walk from the bedroom to the kitchen, I walk through God. When I walk into a new situation, God is there, waiting for me. Even the darkness is light to him. He inhabits the day and the night. Intuitively I understood a distinction: everything is not God, but God is in everything. True, the theologians had already told me God was omnipresent, but in doing so they reduced him to a concept I could memorize and recite. But I do not need lifeless facts; I need him.

He is not far from each one of us.” The vast Creator surrounds us like the air. We breathe the air. It penetrates through our lungs to our very blood, and the blood delivers it to every cell. God himself is the life-giving air. Our vast swirling God is also intimate enough to be with each of us.

I used to think silence meant God was not speaking. Now, in the silence, he’s all I hear. We need not go anywhere to find him, because the slightest shift of our gaze reveals his nearness. If I am alive, if I move, I am encountering him. In every part of my being, he is here. Can you see the air?

What Time Is It?

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" ~ Mark 1:14–15

Who knows God’s timing? It’s one thing to agree with God’s viewpoint intellectually; it’s quite another to express our agreement in concrete action. Jesus modeled agreement with the Father by doing God’s will in perilous times. Mark’s gospel tells us Jesus launched his ministry at the very time that the Kingdom message could get you thrown into jail.

In an atmosphere of resistance and oppression Jesus said that the time was right to proclaim good news. Herod, a puppet-king of the powerful Roman Empire, threw John the Baptist in jail because John’s preaching had threatened the status quo. Perhaps Jesus should have kept things on the down low until passions had cooled. You can almost hear the counsel of the worldly-wise in Jesus’ day: “Wait just a little while,” they whispered. “Let the rich and powerful turn their attention away from preachers in the countryside.”

In a world overrun by a pagan power, in a world rife with political scheming and considerations, in a world where caution was the order of the day, Jesus boldly declared that good news, the best news, was within reach. Jesus modeled a ministry directed by the Spirit. What kind of person tells suffering, mourning captives that freedom is within their reach? The source of his good news had nothing to do with the powers of the age and everything to do with the in breaking of God’s rule and reign into their time.

It’s only natural to look for the “best time” to engage in ministry: wait until the economy is stronger; until the political climate is warmer; until the streets are safer, until your children are older, until your savings account is fatter. Wait. Jesus had a different schedule. He said simply, “The time has come.” He took into consideration only one factor: God’s Kingdom was at hand. The Kingdom of God does not require us to wait on the future because it is breaking into the present. God’s Kingdom was (and is) beginning to invade the kingdoms of the earth. God was on the move, how could Jesus remain still? It's true for us: we are called to imitate his example. If God is on the move, how can we remain still?

Jesus is serving the best wine now because he dwells in the now. “The time has come” each day. Since Jesus inaugurated the in breaking of the Kingdom, every day with God presents opportunities to announce and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. The only important question is whether we know what time it is.

Imagining My Father

When Jesus says something once, you can be sure it’s important. If he repeats himself a second time, it’s critical. But what if Jesus says something eleven times? Many of us have read the “Sermon on the Mount” over and over. It’s unmatched in beauty and clarity; many of its phrases have worked their way into the everyday speech of western society. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeats a simple two-word phrase eleven times.

The other day, as I was reading this passage again, I tried to imagine that I was one of the people gathered on that hillside. I tried to imagine the sound of his voice and feel the breeze soothe the perspiration on my forehead. I began to hear these words with new ears. Jesus kept repeating two simple words over and over. When he talked about the light of the world, he used this phrase. When he talked about loving our enemies, he used these words. And again, as he moved on to generosity, prayer, and fasting, there were these same words. The words I heard over and over were simply, “Your Father.”

I began to sense that in addition to the substance of the message Jesus also wanted to plant something deep in my spirit: the assurance that God Himself is my Father. “Of course,” you might think. “We are all God’s children.” Our idea of the Holy Trinity begins with ”God the Father.” But it’s one thing to recognize God’s title as Father, it is quite another to know him as such.

As I put myself among the listeners I began to perceive something beyond an idea, beyond a theological construct. I heard Jesus remind me again and again that I have a Father, a Father in Heaven. I have a perfect Heavenly Father. What’s more, my Father is within my reach. He’s able to find me in the most hidden place. He is actively involved in my day, my actions, even my thoughts, and this is a good thing, because he’s my Father.

I went back to the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, this time with a pen in hand. I made a list of affirmations about my Father and me. After closing the book, I had a list I could read aloud. Alone in my office, I read each one out loud. I heard the sound of my own voice speak the truth about God, who is also my Father. It was a list of things I could be sure of.

• My Father encourages me to love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me.

• My Father wants to perfect me.

• My Father does not reward “outward performance.”

• My Father sees what I do in secret and will reward me.

• My Father will meet me behind closed doors.

• My Father knows what I need before I ask Him.

• My Father forgives me when I forgive others.

• My Father feeds the birds; He will feed me.

• My Father knows what I need.

• My Father gives me good gifts from heaven when I ask Him.

I learned one final thing sitting on the hill with Jesus. There’s a phrase he uses only once, but once was enough for me: “Our Father.” At the very beginning of what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” Jesus doesn’t start with the words, “My Father,” he starts with “Our Father.” I saw Jesus, my brother, someone who is with me whenever I pray. I saw a picture of Jesus putting his arm around me, saying, “Whatever it is that’s troubling you, whatever it is you need, come on—let’s go to our Father together.”

Perhaps today you will rediscover Jesus, your Brother, and God, your Father. Peace!

Guest what? The Christmas Story is Also Scripture!

What we know of the birth of Jesus comes to us as divine revelation in the inspired words of the gospels. We get the Christmas story from the scriptures. As I prepare for the Christmas season I will read these passages again and again. They are familiar and comforting, and perhaps that’s the problem: because I have come to these passages so often, I am tempted to think that there’s nothing new for the Holy Spirit to reveal through these words. That would be a mistake, because the story of the birth of Jesus is not only a heartwarming tradition, it’s also useful for training in right relationship with God. What better way to prepare for Christmas than to go deeper in our personal relationship with the Father?

Let me suggest that the birth narratives (like all scripture) are life-giving meat for students of Jesus. These passages are filled with challenges to our fait, and filled with the encouragement we need to grow in God. Here are just four observations from the first chapter of Matthew.

1). Poor Joseph--God didn’t get his approval before acting. Can you imagine the real-life shock of these words: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 1:18) Mary received an angelic visitation and the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Joseph received the worst news of his life. God “drafted” Joseph into a difficult position--would the Almighty ever do the same to us? Have we ever considered the implications of God’s sovereignty? If we affirm that we belong to God are we willing to be drafted as Joseph was?

2). The narrative reveals the actions of a righteous man. In his confusion and pain, Joseph’s first concern was for Mary, he “did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” (1:19) How many of us would have this priority? Perhaps this is why the scripture labels Joseph a “righteous man.” Scripture is demonstrating what true righteousness looks like in action. It’s revealing as well that the scripture describes Joseph's righteousness not in terms of his relationship to God, but in terms of his relationship to Mary. True righteousness extends two directions--toward God and man.

3). Joseph resisted the urge to act rashly. Even in his concern for Mary and her reputation he was still determined to divorce her (in modern terms, "break the engagement"). Yet verse 20 reveals that he took time to consider his actions. When Joseph was faced with the impossible, he did not rush to judgment. The scriptures do not indicate how long he waited, but he took time to consider his actions. And in that period of time, Joseph positioned himself to hear from God in a most unusual manner:

4). An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.’” God gave Joseph a dream, a dream that would change his life forever. This must’ve been some dream, or Joseph must’ve been some righteous man, or both. Engagement, unexpected pregnancy, and an out-of-this-world explanation would be enough to give anyone dreams. But God chose a dream as the means to provide divine direction, and Joseph recognized the dream as God’s personal leading. In fact, dreams are mentioned no fewer than four times in Matthew 1 & 2. I believe scripture is teaching us that God can and does guide his children through dreams. Imagine: in an emotionally charged situation, just when we would be tempted to ignore our dreams as a product of our subconscious, God is present: leading, directing, and guiding--through dreams. By the way, there is no indication that Joseph heard anything else from God until after the baby was born. He remained faithful to God’s instructions for months, all based on one dream!

The Christmas season offers an opportunity to any student of Jesus. Can we imagine ourselves in these situations? Between Matthew and Luke's gospels, the cast of Christmas characters is pretty large: Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, the Magi and shepherds. They are the stuff of Christmas pageants, and cheesy church dramas, but they are also the stuff of God’s instruction to his disciples.