Entries in effort (2)
Perhaps you’re like me: from time to time I catch myself thinking, “If only I had a little more faith I could be a better disciple.” Actually, we could substitute nearly any other quality for the word faith, “if only I had a little more teaching, time, energy . . .” Most of us are keenly aware of the qualities we lack as followers of Jesus. We possess the assurance of our weakness instead of the assurance of his faithfulness.
Let me share with you a passage from Peter’s second letter that changed my life forever:
"His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort . . ." ~ 2 Peter 1: 3 - 5
When I read this passage several years ago it flashed like lightning across my heart, and the thunder still rattles my everyday life. Let me share seven meditations from these amazing words. Perhaps you could carry them with you, one each day, though even a whole day is not enough time to consider the implications of each statement.
• “His divine power . . .” As followers of Jesus, our everyday life in Christ should be based upon his divine power, not our human strength.
• “has given us everything we need for life and godliness . . .” The problem is, most of us think that God did everything on the cross and now the rest of our life in Christ depends upon us. Good news: he isn’t finished dispensing his grace!
• “through our knowledge of him . . .” Road block—our western mindset leads us to believe that the knowledge of him comes through mere study. A more fruitful approach is to know him by experiencing his presence.
• “his own glory and goodness. . . ” 21st century Americans have difficulty understanding “glory,” but his glory can impact our life—and he is good beyond all measure. Better yet: his glory and goodness are directed toward us!
• “He has given us very great and precious promises . . .” Do we ever reflect upon his promises? I’m afraid that for most of us his promises are like autumn leaves: beautiful, but not very useful.
• “So that through them you may participate in the divine nature . . .” Here is where the lightning flash knocked me over. We can participate in God’s nature, right here, right now. Who knows the full meaning of this phrase? Whatever it means, it has to be good!
• “and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires . . . “ Many believers are trapped into thinking the gospel is only about forgiveness, but the good news is even better: we can be set free from the cycle of corruption!
These are the seven meditations, but there remains one further step. The scripture calls us to action as well:
“For this very reason, make every effort . . .” Notice that “effort” comes after we encounter his divine power, his glory and goodness, and his precious promises. Too many disciples of Jesus, serious in their commitment to follow him, believe that their effort comes first. Instead, our effort is a response to all he has done.
“For this very reason, make every effort . . .” But there is another segment of Christians who think effort is opposed to grace. For these friends we can only quote Dallas Willard (as we do so often!) “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.”
The challenge of this passage continues into verses 5 – 11. The danger of these next verses is that we believe we can accomplish the list apart from his divine power, his glory and goodness, and his precious promises. Don’t be in a hurry. Take a week to meditate on what he has done. It will take a lifetime to “make every effort.”
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.