DEEPER HOPE

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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Grace

Grace is the victim, dead in the dust.

Grace is the trail I leave behind.

Grace is the posse’s pounding pursuit.

Grace the Marshall who takes me alive.

 

Grace is the jailer who hears me curse.

Grace is the cellmate who hears me cry.

Grace is the parson who visits the jail.

Grace the lawyer at my side.

 

Grace is the verdict.

Grace is the sentence.

Grace the appeal, denied.

Grace the guilt that bids me die.

 

Grace is the sentence, carried out.

Grace is the rope that does not break.

Grace is the hush of the people who watched.

Grace the undertaker who paused at my grave.

 

Grace is the new light of a new day.

Grace is new clothing shining in white.

Grace is the feast that never ends.

Grace is my victim, seated beside.

 

 

Paining, Gaining, and the Lottery: What's Our Task?

I ran into this guy at the grocery. He was ripped. I could tell by his gym shorts and spandex shirt. I couldn’t help but staring: he had (maybe) 5% body fat, uber-cool tattoos up one arm, and salt’n’pepper brown hair. This guy was an absolute Adonis, and he caught me staring.

“Hey, man. What’s up?”

“Um, yeah. I won’t lie: you’re really fit, and that makes me feel a bit self-conscious.” A bit? I’m a puffy, pear-shaped suburbanite on the north side of 50—way to the north.

“Well, thanks. You know, I own a gym: you could shape up in no time.”

Call it the ultimate impulse-buy, but right there in the baked goods aisle the guy sold me a six-month membership (owner’s discount, he said). He pulled out his phone, swiped my debit card, and charged me his fee before either of us got to the checkout lane.

It took a day or two, but since I’d already spent the money (and before my wife saw the charge) I found my best cut-off sweat pants, my favorite XL T-shirt, and drove to the gym. I took a deep breath and pulled the door open. I should have turned around right there. The mural on the lobby wall shouted in four-foot letters, “NO PAIN, NO GAIN.” Then I heard someone scream. The guy at the grocery store didn’t say anything about pain.

Forget spoilers, let’s just fast-forward to the climax: I’m still a puffy, pear-shaped guy. He sold me the membership without a word about the work, because the product looked good. I had no idea about the paining and the gaining.

Right: so maybe I made this up (or did I?).

Certainly there are segments of the church that want to make following Jesus sound like boot camp. The tougher the better. “None of this greasy-grace,” says the Drill Sargent. “God wants everything you have, and if you’re not willing to pay the price, don’t waste your time.” Call it Xtreme Faith. Sweat equals holiness.

Just as surely there are other segments of the church focusing on the promise of Heaven. “There’s nothing you can do to earn God’s love and forgiveness,” says the Cruise Director. “God loves you just the way you are.” Call it Win-the-Lottery Faith, holiness optional. (In this second case, I suspect that one reason this part of the church sticks with heaven-preaching is because we can find ourselves changed in an instant—an instant that comes after we breathe our last.)

Of course, both presentations are overstatements; the call to follow Jesus is completely different. We can’t get mixed up with a self-sacrificing God without embracing death to ourselves. And this is displeasing to both camps: we don’t become Xtremely Faith-Fit by feeling the burn of our own efforts, and neither to we experience deep change by remaining in the baked goods aisle. The radical truth of the gospel reveals a people hooked up with a dangerously-loving God who is not impressed by our own righteousness, nor is he willing to let us remain comfortably self-serving. God doesn’t have a gym, but neither does he have a spa.

Here’s how Paul and Barnabas wrapped up their first missionary expedition:

But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead. But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:19-23, ESV)

Did you catch the content of Paul’s “encouraging” message? Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. This incident must have been formative in Paul’s life of faith. Years later he encourages his protégé, Timothy:

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:10-12)

Timothy’s maturity was no accident; it was an inevitable result.

Transformation isn’t our task, but it involves our compliance. We present ourselves to the pressure of the Potter’s strong hands. Dallas Willard says it differently, and better:

A part of our problem with understanding hell comes from the way we think about heaven. We think about heaven as some kind of comfortable resort, but the greatest thing about heaven is going to be the presence of God. He has allowed us to avoid him here on earth in some measure if we want to, but if you go to heaven, God’s the biggest thing on the horizon. You’re no longer going to be able to avoid him. And that would be the supreme torture if you haven’t gotten over thinking of yourself as God. That’s why I sometimes say that the fires of heaven burn hotter than the fires of hell.

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 Well of Grace

Last week I heard myself saying about a certain situation, “I think the grace is running out on this thing.” Did I hear what I was saying?

“This thing” had been going on for more than a year. The details are not important: I can tell you a year is a long time. But the fact was I was simply tired. I had run out of patience. And without pausing to think about it, I had slapped a religious label on my feelings—the very kind of religious label that allowed me to apply “God’s will” to my lack of patience.

How quick we are to suppose God sees things the same way we do! And perhaps the danger is greatest among those who’ve walked with God long enough to learn a few of his ways.

God’s grace has taught me plenty: I’ve walked with God enough years to have learned the “correct responses” to many situations, and I’ve ordered my life around the priorities of the Kingdom enough to tilt in the direction of righteousness, peace, and joy. I’ve tapped into wellsprings of life flowing from the Spirit and his inspired words.

An image: walking with God is a bit like digging a well. We go deep and discover the sweet wellspring of the waters of grace. The surprise in this metaphor is that our hearts are the well. We dig down below our self-will and discover the sweet source of life available to every student of Jesus. We’ve opened up a well of grace. But even a good well needs maintaining. It can go dry or go bad.

But does grace really ever run out? Actually, yes: if we’re talking about the well of grace in our own hearts. The well of grace yields pure water, but in some seasons we must dig a deeper. More accurately, God’s grace hasn’t run out at all; we must tend the well. “Watch over your heart with all diligence,” say the Proverbs, “For from it flow the springs of life.”

No one who digs a well takes the water for granted—in the first year. Still, through countless trips to draw the water we need, we might take the flow for granted. We forget what first opened the spring. Jesus himself cautioned a faithful and persevering church to remember their beginnings, and to do the deeds they had first done (Revelation 2:2-5). He called them to repent, which means to rethink their way of life. Why would a believer need to rethink the way of life?

I can tell you personally: the goodness of God flows so surely we begin to think of his grace as our own possession rather than his daily gift, and when we begin to mistake his supply as our own strength, we find ourselves making foolish statements about grace coming to an end. We might be tempted to think that because we drank deeply of his grace we are somehow the suppliers of his mercy. In the everyday challenges of life we might just presume the well will flow forever, even while we fill it with the debris of our bitterness, envy, or self. Worse still: we might poison the well and yet draw the waters.

The Spirit supplies water without limit. Still, the very practices that first brought us to the well of grace must continue if it would remain pure. Our thirst, our humility, and our repentance are the maintenance of our hearts. From his hand grace abounds forever, yet our hands must tend the well.

Why I Wrote "Deeper Grace"

Set aside the question of Heaven or Hell when we reach the afterlife: what about Heaven or Hell while we live? It’s only by God’s grace that we reach Heaven, but the good news is better than we know: by God’s grace Heaven can reach us. The scripture teaches we are saved by grace. Grace begins the work of salvation in here-and-now and completes whatever is left undone in the there-and-then. Both flow from the indispensable grace of God. The world needs grace. We need grace. I need grace. Not for my last breath but for every breath.

The fabric of everyday life is alive with the grace of God. Grace forgives, but it also guides. Consider these amazing words from Titus 2:11-12: For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age . . .” In these words we can hear the full symphony of God’s grace in three movements:

Grace for Salvation: This is the gospel we know. God’s grace reaches everyone, because no one can reach God by his or her own efforts. The melody of God’s grace sings in every language, for all peoples, at all times. God loves the world. He always has and always will. By his grace we are saved because in Jesus God paid every debt: past, present, and future. But grace goes beyond the song we first learned.

Grace to Deny Ungodliness: By grace we are not defenseless against sin’s call. The same grace that saves can also teach, instructing us how to say “no” to worldly desires. True, there will be times when we stumble and fall into sin, but we are more than sinners in need of grace, we are saints lifted out of sin’s power. If we wait until we’ve sinned to call upon the grace of God, we’ve squandered the greater part of grace. Grace restores, but it also leads us on.

Grace to Live Godly: Not only does God’s grace instruct us to deny ungodly ways: it teaches us the how-to of life: how to life sensible, upright, and godly lives in this present age. God’s grace is about more than repair; it is also about preparation. The scripture describes the Christian life as a journey from glory to glory. We are called to be conformed to the image of God's Son. We need grace not because our sin is so great but also because our destiny is so grand. We are called children of God—and that is what we are!

How will the watching world see a demonstration of the grace of God? This is how the Kingdom of God comes to earth: through the lives of grace-filled believers. The Kingdom glides in on wings of grace. The Kingdom brings righteousness, peace, and joy—and best of all the gracious Holy Spirit leads us to experience (and share) these three in everyday life. The Kingdom is never attained; it is received. How will we receive the grace of the Kingdom today?

Time and again the apostle Paul urged his friends to lift their vision higher and closer. There's grace for salvation; there's also grace for transformation. Grace helps us discover the source of all growth in Jesus, and the foundations of life with Christ. God’s grace is the wellspring of spiritual formation, but too often we have shortened “Grace” to mean only forgiveness. Grace can bring more than forgiveness; it can bring change. Disciples use grace as the fuel for transformation.

We need a greater grace. Grace reminds us again of the wealth of Heaven available to every student of Jesus.