Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings



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The Challenge of Grace

It seemed like he would never get off the phone, and I had somewhere to go right now.

We’ve all been in situations like this: late for an appointment, packing up our things while talking on the phone so we can bolt the moment the conversation is over. “When will this guy finish?” I thought. “I should have left five minutes ago . . .” and then it hit me--I was in my office, but I was talking to him on my cell phone. I could have left the office and headed for my appointment while he rambled on!

My real problem was not the long-winded guy on the phone, it was that everything I learned about the telephone came from a time when using the phone meant staying in one place. What a lesson: there are times when we must examine the things we think know, when we must clear the slate and begin again.

In my opinion followers of Jesus must see the grace of God through new eyes.

To those of us who have been in church for some time, grace means that Christians have gotten a great deal. In church circles, grace has variously been defined as “not getting what we deserve,” or “God’s unmerited favor,” or “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” I am coming to see that all of these ideas about grace are true, but only tell half the truth.

The more I read the New Testament, the more challenging grace becomes. Instead of presenting grace as sin-cleansing bargain, the Bible seems to present a grace that comes with some challenges. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to a young pastor:

The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope - the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2: 11 – 14 NIV).

What kind of grace is this? If grace means getting off scott-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me a new way to live? Most believers are very comfortable with “the grace that brings salvation,” but why would grace instruct us to “deny ungodliness?” Isn’t that a little judgmental? I thought God loved me just the way I am.

Apparently God’s grace is not finished with us at the moment we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. The grace of God wants to teach us a new way to live. “God loves me just the way I am.” Everyone is comfortable with that statement, but how about this one: “God loves me so much he won’t let me stay just the way I am.” First his grace saves, then it teaches. I think everyone is OK with “being saved,” but perhaps we skip school when it comes time to learn how to deny ungodliness, deny worldly passions, live sensibly and live upright lives.

Richard Foster, a man who has spent his adult life encouraging Christians to grow in the grace of God, points out that the message of grace is the more than the first step, it is necessary for every step. Sadly many Christians have been taught that any effort on their part runs counter to God’s forgiving grace. “Having been saved by grace,” he writes, “these people have been paralyzed by it.”

The Apostle Peter concurs on the subject of God’s grace: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (I Peter 5:5, NIV). In fact James, the brother of Jesus, says the very same thing (James 4:6). It turns out they were both quoting Proverbs 3:34, those inspired words written nearly a thousand years before the church came into being.

If Peter and James both latched on to this teaching from Proverbs, it must be important. First, it tells us that God gives grace. Fair enough: isn’t that what God is supposed to do? But this verse also tells us that God gives grace to certain kinds of people—humble people. Finally it also tells us that God can withhold grace from another kind of people—the proud. Keep in mind that Peter and James were writing to believers.

So it’s true that God is in the giving business, but apparently there is something we are supposed to do as well. We should be the kind of people who humble ourselves. On the other hand, if we do not humble ourselves, we may just find out that God is opposing us. I’m not sure what that looks like, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not a good thing. Many believers are surprised to learn that there is something we can all do to bring the grace of God into our lives: we can humble ourselves.

Some will object that this sounds a lot like “works.” We can’t work our way into heaven, can we? But Paul’s advice to Titus says that grace does at least two things. It saves and teaches. Perhaps that’s why theologian Dallas Willard says that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but it is opposed to earning. Two pretty different things, aren’t they?

The Bible is full of surprises, and for me some of the biggest surprises come from words and concepts that I think I already know. Grace is about more than knowing, it’s also about being. If God wants to give me the grace to be more like Jesus, and if it takes a little effort on my part, then count me in.

The Impossible Mentor?

I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. Sitting in my office was a young man who had been cheated out of $200 by someone else in the church. Both men attended our church, and one guy really did owe the other $200. But the guilty party wasn’t in the office, the other guy was--and he was full of anger and frustration because of his loss. That’s when I made my hasty suggestion:

“You could forgive him his debt,” I suggested. “Jesus told us to do just that.” Big mistake.

“Well I’m not Jesus!” he nearly shouted back at me. End of discussion, end of ministry time, end of opportunity to take the yoke Jesus offers. It was my mistake. Not for suggesting a perfectly Biblical remedy to his anger and frustration, but for expressing the solution in such a way that he would consider it impossible.

It’s impossible to be like Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus was perfect. He led a sinless life. He was God-come-to-earth and his life sets the bar impossibly high for any of us.

I believe that the central problem in nurturing followers of Jesus in North America is our view of Jesus as the Impossible Mentor. It’s a paradox: nearly everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus as a worthy role model, but almost no one seriously believes it is possible to live up to his example. Our esteem for Jesus’ life of obedience to the Father and our desire to be “just like Jesus” does battle with the deep-seated notion that it is impossible to be like him. Who would choose a mentor who is impossible to imitate?

Some passages in the Scripture inspire fill us with confidence. Some light the fires of hope in our hearts. Other passages seem too idealistic, too fantastic to find their way into even our dreams, much less our daily lives: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8: 29) Is this possible? Does God really look at each one of us and see a destiny in which we look like Jesus?

Whatever our theological foundations regarding this passage we should all recognize that it is about God’s intention for each of one us--to become “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” Simply put, God desires to have more children like Jesus. Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, but we become his sons and daughters by adoption. The destiny of those adopted into the family of God is that we, too, should bear the family likeness. That is: we will look just like Jesus.

In a conversation with a dozen young Christians this week, I asked them if they felt it was possible to live a life without sin for even one day. No takers. So I rephrased the question and asked if it is possible to go for an hour without sinning. Only one of them thought it was possible to stay within the will of God for a single hour.

These questions are not academic. They go to the heart of our life “in Christ.” If our intuition tells us that following His example is impossible, for one day or even an hour, how can we have the confidence to pursue his vision for us? The bottom line is that God has a greater vision for what is possible in our lives than we do. Perhaps the reason the Apostle Paul instructs us later in Romans to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is so we can see the possibilities of a life lived in harmony with Jesus. A practical, day-to-day moment-by-moment harmony capable of generating the rest and peace he promises.

Let me encourage you this week to ponder the foundations of your commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. Here are a few suggestions for meditation and prayer:

Is it possible to learn from him?

If Jesus is my mentor, have I committed myself to failure with no possibility of success?

What kind of Master would invite me to be his apprentice if he thought there was no possibility to follow in his footsteps?

The answers spoken from our heart will determine whether discipleship is possible.

The people of God

Recently I saw this post on a blog: “The Apostle Paul was never a member of one church and one church only.” Other people who posted to the comment section quickly agreed with the statement.

Here’s a cultural truth: we bring to our reading of scripture whatever values we currently hold. Our eyes and hearts are sensitized to recognize the things we already agree with, and to ignore those things which run counter to our convictions (and yes, I will readily acknowledge that I do it, too).

And here is a cultural challenge for those who live in North America: part of taking the yoke Jesus offers is our continued association with other believers. This association is more than friendship—it is a calling to become part of the people of God. When God graciously saves us, he also has a plan to plant and nurture us.

The first three verses of Acts chapter 13 are clear beyond cultural leanings—Paul and Barnabas were fully invested in the body of believers at Antioch. The church in Antioch was a powerful testimony of a multi-ethnic community that embodied the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Just look at the very diverse list of people in leadership at Antioch.

Paul and Barnabas were a part of a leadership team who heard the voice of the Spirit together and, even after hearing, prayed and fasted together before ordaining two of their own to mission the “mission field.” Then to drive the point home the Scripture reports that at the end of this journey Paul and Barnabas returned to their home church and gave a report of what God had done (Acts 14: 26-28).

From time to time someone I don’t know comes to me at our church—I’m one of the pastors—and says to me, “I need a ‘covering’ for my ministry. Will your church be my covering?” My response is usually something like “Yes! We’re all about releasing people into their calling and ministry. Why don’t you hang out with us for six months or so and we’ll consider laying our hands on you and asking for God’s blessing on your calling.” It only takes about two weeks, and usually that guy is gone!

Is six months too long to get to know someone and—together—to affirm God’s calling on someone? How about ten-to-fourteen years? Depending on how you read Galatians, Paul indicates that he was a part of his local church for a considerable length of time. Take just a moment and compare Acts 11: 19-26 with Galatians 1:11 - 2:5. These two passages show a man possessed by the sovereign call of God, who displayed radical obedience to the voice of the Spirit, and still respected the Church. I’m willing to give way to an interpretation that comes up with the shortest possible length of time, but that’s still more than a decade. And then there’s always the danger of comparing ourselves to Paul, the giant of the faith who influenced Christianity more than anyone other than Jesus Himself.

It’s true that the Apostle Paul had a unique and powerful ministry on the road. It is also true that he did more than “preach the gospel.” The record of the book of Acts and the epistles is that he planted churches. Everywhere he went he shared the good news of Jesus and, significantly, established bodies of believers to provide a context for living out the gospel. Each of his letters testifies to this second fact—establishing churches. Even the letters to Timothy and Titus are about corporate church life. That leaves only the letter to Philemon, which was likely read out loud in front of Philemon’s home church.

So are pastors simply those who are out to prevent people from following God’s sovereign call? It must be recognized that there are probably pastors out there like that. But most are trying their best to follow a Biblical model of church-life as they understand it. Even if local church leadership is lacking in some way, should we ignore the example of Scripture just because other people have not fulfilled their roles?

Part of Spirit-led Bible study is to ask for the grace to open our hearts to His value system, not ours. And in North America and Europe, we should be on guard against Biblical interpretations that simply affirm our biases. It is deeply ingrained in our culture: "be yourself." But Jesus came not only to save us for heaven, but to save us from ourselves.

Here’s my prayer: “Gracious Lord and Savior, please save us from being ourselves.”

Lessons from a Bad Church

One of the reasons I like watching the “reality shows” on TV is that compared to those people my life seems pretty squared away. It’s too bad that there aren’t any shows like that about churches, so I could compare the “reality church” to my own congregation.

Actually, there is a place observe struggling churches that don’t have it all together. It’s the New Testament. This history book of the early church shows things the way they really were, complete with greedy people, religious crazies, hurt feelings, and racial prejudices—and these are the good guys! It’s one of the reasons I love the scripture so much: it casts a cold hard stare on its subjects.

For example, take the church in Corinth. There are plenty of Biblical resources available if you’re interested in a real “reality show.” The church in Corinth was a crazy mix of spirituality, worldliness, excess, and beauty. In others words a church very much like the most churches in North America today.

The church in Corinth started off with a bang, God himself spoke to the apostle Paul in a vision: “Don’t be afraid, and don’t give up on this town,” God said. “I have a lot of people here.” (Acts 18: 9-10)

So “Apostle Paul” unpacked his suitcase and became “Pastor Paul” for a year and a half. Can you imagine having Paul of Tarsus, the towering colossus of Christianity as a pastor? This church must have been a model church right? Well, not exactly.

Paul invests 18 months of his life in these people, and then moves on to continue planting churches. Imagine the quality start the church in Corinth received: a year and a half of the very best in ministry, miracles, and teaching. But after he leaves, Paul gets a note from the folks who meet at Chloe’s house, “Paul, there are few problems here we’d like to ask you about.”

A few problems? Let’s make a partial list:
• Believers in Corinth were “choosing sides” concerning who was the best spiritual leader: some said Paul, some Peter, some Apollos, and the really spiritual people said, “I only follow Jesus!”
• A regular attendee of the church was sleeping with his father’s wife (yikes!). Everyone who attended the church knew about it, but no one was doing anything about it.
• Church members were racing each other to courts of law because they couldn’t settle their disputes between one another inside the church.
• There were major arguments over who should eat what kind of food, and why.
• People were getting drunk at communion or the equivalent of a church “pot luck” dinner (I know that sounds hard to believe, but you can look it up: I Corinthians 11: 20 -21).
• And we haven’t even touched on problems like worship services that were pretty strange: spiritual gifts, spiritual pride, arguments about dating, and incorrect views of the resurrection!

I don’t know where you go to church, but even the worst church in my town doesn’t come close to this list of problems in Corinth. If I want to gawk at a bunch of immature believers, I don’t even have to leave home. I can just open up my Bible and read about the church in Corinth.

Now, you might think that Paul wouldn’t have anything good to say to these believers. He had labored hard for a year and a half, and this was the fruit? What kind of words would he have for them?
“I always thank God for you . . .”
“You have been enriched in every way . . .”
“You do not lack any spiritual gift . . .”
“He will keep you strong until the end . . .”
And these words are just from the greeting in the letter—the first nine verses. Perhaps Paul was just “being nice,” or diplomatic—except this is Paul writing Holy Scripture, and I don’t think the Apostle Paul told polite white lies.

What lessons can we learn from a terrible church?

For one, Paul didn’t give up on them. There was a lively correspondence that lasted for years. Paul was committed to them the rest of his life.

Second, even though they questioned Paul’s position and authority, Paul responded with a passion that reflected his true fatherhood. “You really are my children,” he said. Even though they were unfaithful to him, he remained faithful to them.

Next, Paul continued to teach patiently. Even the greatest church-planter in history had things to fix. If someone like Paul can produce a church like Corinth, perhaps we should cut some slack towards pastors who don’t rise to the level of super apostle.

Finally--and this is the most challenging to me--Paul let them continue to operate even though they were making mistakes. If I had started a church that later went crazy with spiritual gifts, I think I would have been tempted to write to them: “Everybody stop! You’re doing it wrong! Just cut it out until I get there, then we’ll talk about it.” But Paul said, “Tongues are good, prophecy is good, and don’t forbid them.” Even though they were doing it wrong! The answer to the misuse of spiritual gifts isn’t to shut them down; it is to teach them up.

The church in Corinth is reality-TV written down for us in the Bible, and if they can go down in history (and scripture) as a that church God loves, a church to whom God speaks, and God nurtures, why can’t our churches be the same?

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