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Pride, An Enemy of Grace

Among the enemies of grace, human pride hides deepest in our souls. In grace, the Spirit comes with a pickaxe of discovery, unearthing vanity’s vein that runs hidden within. Grace exposes our desire to sit on the throne of our own vainglorious private kingdom. We think grace will expose us as frauds, when all the while grace wants to invite us to a forever feast.

Pride has a thousand faces but always the same dreary aim: to make more of ourselves and less of God. Pride is the leaven of the Pharisees; it masquerades as humility; and like a miser it hoards the grace of God. Let us attend:

Four times the scripture teaches us, “God resists the proud but give grace to the humble.” Pride itself has read the Bible, so pride’s solution is to pretend humility. False humility is our attempt to fool God himself. We think it is unseemly to celebrate our strengths, so we utter things about ourselves we do not believe. The problem with false humility is that it is false. False humility is the self-abasement we want others to reject, thus affirming our talent and skill. Meanwhile true humility celebrates the goodness of God wherever it may be. David said he was fearfully and wonderful made—and his soul knew it very well. The shepherd king did not mistake the thing made for the Great Maker. He celebrated the work of God—even in himself.  C.S. Lewis helps us guard against false humility: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself: it is not thinking of yourself at all.”

Pride is a masquerade ball of vanity. We enter the hall wearing a mask—one of many from our collection. We receive the praise of men, knowing all along that we look nothing like the costume we wear. Pride leads to the kind hypocrisy where we keenly discern the flaws of others because we are haunted by our own. Pride is the leaven of the Pharisees. It makes us seem bigger than we are, and deflates those around us. Because we detest the lies we tell ourselves we try to expose these same lies in others. Pride leads us in prayer, “I thank you that I am not like other men.” Pride tries to sell God damaged goods at an inflated rate, unaware he has already paid the highest price. We hide the very flaws he is willing to love.

Pride cannot see beyond itself. Pride whispers that if we must accept grace, we should have it all. When it is finally cornered pride teaches us inflate our sin and demand all the grace God has to give—as if a single bird on a wire could breathe all the air in the sky. Pride hoards the grace of God—as if our sin were so great we could consume heaven’s full supply of grace, when in fact our sins are common to all mankind. Pride causes us to see grace as a zero-sum game—as if God’s kindness to others means less grace for us. But grace is not of this world. Grace is the stuff of the age to come, a substance that increases all the more when we share it.

Grace comes to expose pride, but only because grace sees the beauty of what we are: objects of his love, and partakers of his goodness. Grace strips us of our rags in order to clothe us forever in his love.

 

 

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The First Word of the Good News

Imagine receiving a message so good that it caused you to re-think your entire life. The bank made a mistake years ago calculating your mortgage and now suddenly you discover your house is paid off; or a total stranger has paid off your student loans; your abusive husband has turned a corner and now treats you like a queen; the doctors call to say the diagnosis was wrong and you don’t have cancer after all.

All of these examples represent the best kind of news: no more coupon-clipping; your future is no longer clouded by debt; no more walking on egg-shells, afraid that some trivial event will anger your spouse; your fears of endless treatments and medicines vanish in a moment. The good news has come from afar and has pitched its tent with you. The old reality is gone; and new day is born. But you quickly discover a problem: the morning after the good news arrives you wake up still worried about money, still afraid that your husband will relapse, or you wake up in a sweat thinking about hospitals and death. And we immediately understand why: we have spent months, even years, thinking about life based upon our problems. Financial woes are daily woes. Fear of abuse is factored into every choice you make. Health concerns are like a houseguest who has moved in forever. Old habits die hard, and the habits of the mind must be taken to the cross. This is meaning of repentance.

To receive good news, to really receive it—to take it in and discover a new freedom—requires a new way of thinking. This new way of thinking has a Biblical name: repentance. I know: you thought repentance meant remorse, determination, trying harder, or feeling guilty. Someone has lied to you. At its very core the word “repent” means rethink your life. The trick is: you have to have a valid reason to rethink your life. A positive mental attitude is not enough; simply trying harder won’t change your world. There must be some hard-core reality that changes the equation, wipes away the past, or presents a future filled with joy. Better yet, all three. Jesus presented this hard-core reality when he said, “The Kingdom of God is breaking in. Right here, right now.” He wasn’t describing some new program or advocating a new philosophy. Jesus proclaimed the world would be forever different because God had come down and he would do whatever was necessary to set people free.

God would not be stopped: the old order of things was condemned and a new order was made real. He invited us to move to the side of victory with these words: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”

Grace comes with good news and a requirement: rethink your life because everything has changed. Repentance is a rational response to God’s grace.

"Repent" is the first word of the good news. Belief comes as we rethink our way of life based upon what God has already done. Good news requires that we rethink our way of life. Have you recalculated yours in the light of his Kingdom?

 

 

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EGR

My friend tells the story of a pastor who had a certain way with difficult people. You know: the kind of people who are whiny, needy, angry, insecure, volatile, vain, messy, picky, overbearing, ugly, no-fun, un-hip, clueless, or otherwise not-with-the-program. This pastor asked his staff to be patient with such people, and referred to these unfortunates as EGR: Extra Grace Required. The difficult people in the church needed extra grace.

Huh.

The phrase Extra Grace Required stuck with me for days. I began to wonder: how much is the regular amount of grace? Is there a Grace Manual somewhere that details the proper amount of grace for each condition? What about people afflicted with multiple shortcomings? (I qualify for several conditions listed above—but I’m not going to tell you which ones!) (OK, it’s all of them.)

So here’s the first problem: the well-meaning pastor implies that grace is a tool in the pastoral tool-kit. Reach into ministerial bag and grab some ointment labeled ERG. Apply generously, as if grace is something dispensed from the Haves and given nobly to the Have-nots. As if grace is drug, and the minister is the pharmacist. But grace isn’t a salve to be applied; it’s a feast to be shared. We welcome others to the very table we enjoy, where together we revel in God’s bounty. God gives grace. We share it.

Second: I imagine this pastor (yes, the one I never met, the one my friend told me about, the one I have turned into the object of my own creation) has read Ephesians 4:7, “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift”, and decided that grace comes prepackaged from Heaven, small, medium, large, and EGR. Yet I pause at the phrase according to the measure of Christ's gift and wonder how we measure the Lord’s gift—or even what that gift is, precisely. I wonder what size gift comes from an infinite God.

Finally, this pastor had it backwards: difficult people do not require extra grace, I do. The problem is not their requirement: it is my lack. When the depth of human need is beyond the limits of my patience and empathy, when the hurt and fear goes deeper than my ability to pray it away, when I reach the boundaries of my Christlikeness, I am the one who needs the fuel of grace. I am the one who needs grace to listen to others without the urge to move on to the next patient. I am the one who needs to see Jesus in the face of each difficult, hurting person. I am the one who requires not “extra” grace, but the real thing, the true supernatural substance from Heaven: the grace of God. Ministry based upon my own resources will produce disciples that look like me, and that fearsome thought should be reason enough to cry out for grace to sustain me.

Extra Grace Required? Well, yes: for me.

 

 

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The Three Grace Storms of My Heart

Grace is abundant and free. It’s the deal of a lifetime, no—eternity. When we understand God’s grace for what it is, we all want in. Who could be opposed to grace? And yet there are opponents of grace. Even more startling: we are ourselves are the opponents of grace.

Our conflicts with grace are the storm fronts in our hearts. I’ve seen three such storms in my own heart. I wonder if apply to you?

Pride

Three times we hear from the scripture, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  (Proverbs 29:23; James 4:6; and 1 Peter 5:5) Three times! I’ve seen pride at work in my heart in at least two ways, one ugly, and the other insidious. The ugly storm front is plain: it comes when I’m offended by the offer of grace. “I don’t want your grace—who are you to offer it to me?” To receive grace is to acknowledge our need. We must humble ourselves to hold the grace we’re given. But my pride is insidious as well: I will gladly offer grace to others because it demonstrates my superiority. In my pride, I will give grace because I think it is mine to give. Because of my position and power I dispense grace out of my own largess. The humble soul understands he is never giver of grace; he can only share the grace he has received.

Bitterness

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” (Hebrews 12:15) The second enemy of grace is our personal pain and suffering. The wounded heart draws inward and avoids even grace itself. I want to be alone, alone in my pain. But this aloneness is an illusion. This passage from Hebrews warns us that, apart form the grace of God, our bitterness and unsettled scores seep into those around us. My bitterness can defile others. We need grace for suffering, even in the everyday slights of life. In our pain, when we refuse grace we defile many. All the while we think we are suffering in silence and solitude, unaware that when one member of the body suffers, the whole body is in pain.

Scarcity

“Scarcity” is a terrible word, except that I can think of no other. My final opponent of grace is my fear that grace is a zero-sum game, that grace comes prepackaged in fixed amounts. I suspect that these 12 ounces are the only measure of grace I have—or will ever be given. My mind has yet to inform my heart that his mercy endures forever, and comes in limitless supply. I am the frightened sparrow who thinks his small breaths will consume all the air in the sky. Whatever grace I find I must keep for myself. Who knows where I’ll find more? Yet if the Father clothes the flowers of the field and feeds the birds of the air, how much more will he provide the life-giving freedom of grace? Here is the supply of Heaven: when I share the grace I’ve received, I discover the source of all grace, who gives the Spirit without limit.

These are my grace battles. And what of you? What are the enemies of grace that storm in your heart? I’d love to know. And you need to tell.

 

 

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The Danger of Jesus-Shaped Spirituality

“We know what God looks like; God looks like Jesus. We know what God sounds like; God sounds like Jesus. We know how God acts; God acts like Jesus.” Amen to all three. Huzzah for pointing our attention to Jesus, “the exact representation of God’s nature.” I’m all in with that.

It’s a popular idea these days. And who could disagree?

But from a corner of the parlour comes a polite “hem-hem” that sounds suspiciously like Delores Umbridge—except I take no umbrage with the sentences written. It’s just all the other sentences that come afterward that have me worried.

The danger of a Jesus-shaped spirituality is us: all of our preconceptions and values, deeply held and secretly directing our steps even as we announce we are “following Jesus.” When first encounter Jesus it is through the lenses have used all our lives: the lenses of our generation, our culture, our politics, our venerations, and our personal needs and hopes. We love the idea that Jesus looks like God even as we are unaware that we’ve spent our lives worshipping ourselves. One example: what good is it to say “God is love” if we know nothing of the love of God?

And so the danger: we make him our very own personal savior. Quietly, unwittingly, we absorb Jesus into ourselves. We co-opt Jesus when we see in him only those qualities and actions that already support our causes and ideas. We co-opt Jesus when we force fit him into the popular notions of our worldview, whatever it is: Jesus the patriot; Jesus the environmentalist; Jesus the socialist; Jesus the capitalist; Jesus the . . . well, the list is almost endless.

When we earnestly say we want a Jesus-shaped spirituality we’ve only taken the first step. Discovering what Jesus-shaped spirituality looks like requires every step we take after that. Jesus is not a subject to be studied and mastered. He’s not the stuff of our ideology or even our theology. He’s a living Being: infinite and wise, profound and joyful. We follow him because he is on the move, going somewhere new and mystifying.

Following Jesus is a perilous journey because he asks us to leave our home, our occupation, and our life-skills behind. Our understanding is part of the problem, which is one reason the Proverbs suggest we should not lean on it. He asks us to become little children set into a new Kingdom. He asks us to learn a new way to live. It’s his kingdom, not mine; nor should I require that your Jesus-quest fit mine.

And so, unlike Delores Umbridge, the Grand Inquisitor of Hogwarts, I have no desire to post regulations on the wall defining Jesus-shaped spirituality once and for all. I can suggest that the scriptures—all of them—reveal something of Jesus. I can point to his Last Supper words where he commends us to his great Helper, the Holy Spirit, who leads us into all truth. What I cannot do is insist that my faith expression has captured all of who Jesus is. The infinite, forever God-Man is at work forming me, and it would be wise of me to allow him to form you, too.

 

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