When Love Hurts

Time and again he rescued them, but they went on defying him deliberately and plunging deeper into wickedness; even so, he took pity on their distress each time he heard them calling. — Psalm 106:43-44, JB

We are surrounded by an idealized, misleading, unrealistic culture of love and it sucks. It sucks for people like me who have needed a lot of grace and do-overs to become a supportive, loyal partner. There’s no room in this culture for mistakes, forgiveness, personal growth, or compromise. If it hurts, it isn’t love.

I can’t help but feel that we are setting ourselves up for failure. Standards are good, and you should never accept hurtful behavior. If, however, your partner is flawed (they are, as are you), that doesn’t mean things can’t work… Unless you’ve already decided that’s the case.

In any relationship, romantic or not, pain comes standard. Those we dare to love will always have a higher chance of hurting us, precisely because they mean so much to us. To expect anything different is foolish, and to withhold grace in those moments is cold and hypocritical.

With emotionally or physically abusive relationships being obvious exceptions, love is going to hurt and we need to accept that if we actually want to experience it. Parents, spouses, friends, children, siblings, all of them are going to mess up at one point or another.

So will you, by the way. If you wouldn’t like being given up on, should you give up on others?

As a person who has fouled up most of his relationships in one way or another, I can tell you that love is what changed me. It wasn’t overnight, and it wasn’t romantic. Love came in the form of not being dumped or abandoned, but also not being enabled to continue my destructive behaviors. It was grace with duty, forgiveness with responsibility.

That kind of love is real, and it’s what changes you.

It’s the kind of love God exhibits in Psalm 106 (and throughout the entire Bible). God knows humans will mess things up… but He still loves, forgives, and shares Himself with them. This is the kind of love Jesus exhibits in his ministries. He knows it will get him killed, but we are considered worth it.

The truth is that love, in any form, is risky. It’s an opening of the heart, and because love occurs between humans, you should know right now that there will be times it hurts like hell… But that’s okay. The question is whether or not this person is someone worth hurting over from time to time.

The biblical answer is that everyone should be treated as “worth it.” Because God (and Jesus) love us in the full knowledge of our shortcomings, so we ought to do for one another. To do so is to “be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect” by loving even those we consider “enemies” (Matthew 5:48, 44). This kind of love is radical and unsafe, and it will lead to being hurt or taken advantage of.

Without such openness, however, we would have a hard time connecting at all. Now again, does this mean endlessly accepting abuse or harm? Of course not. But it does mean we should never let pain close our hearts and snuff out the light of our love.

My wife, friends, family, and I have hurt each other many times over the years, but we chose to be stronger for it, and that love has produced real change in all of us. We are living in a time when every relationship is considered potentially disposable, and I believe we are far less gracious than we should be as a society. This must change if we truly want to witness the emergence of a better world that we can leave behind for future generations.

Love hurts. It’s risky, frightening, and it will open us up to all manner of unpleasantness… It’s also the most worthwhile endeavor in which we could ever hope to partake.

Peace be with you!

But Did You Change, Though?

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! — Galatians 6:15, NRSV

I grew up mostly “in church.” I was baptized, confirmed, took Communion once a month, and attended all the Bible studies and youth events I could. When I became an adult in ministry, I read the Bible daily, studied the faith at seminary, prayed multiple times throughout the day, and participated in service and worship projects all. The. Time.

With all of that said, it’s only been in the last year or so that I feel I have actually experienced the grace of God for myself. When I was a kid and when I was a minister, I made lots of selfish and harmful decisions. I had scars that I had never healed and unacceptable ways of coping with them. While I had affirmed all of the doctrines, aligned with all of the beliefs, and performed all of the pious acts, I had not yet been transformed by a real encounter with the grace of God.

A lot of us are like that. We use the symbols, say the right words, agree to the right doctrines, and do all the right “stuff,” yet our scars remain unhealed, our habits remain unholy, and our lives have yet to be transformed. We talk about the grace of God we see in Jesus, but we don’t feel or know that grace on a real, personal level.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, the Christians in that area were being led astray by those who valued the outward expressions of faith more than the internal transformation brought about by it. Adult Gentiles were getting circumcised to please a particular religious faction, but that sign ultimately proved empty because it amounted to “checking a box” rather than transforming one’s life to follow Jesus. This leads Paul to say what he says in chapter 6, part of which is quoted above.

The truth is that what we believe is irrelevant if it only amounts to being a part of “the club.” If we claim to believe all the right stuff, say and do all the right things, but our lives remain unchanged, it’s time to re-evaluate the depth and meaning of our relationship with God.

The love of God, when experienced and truly understood, is a powerful, deeply moving reality that soaks into one’s very being and provokes change. It inspires us to live differently because we simply can’t afford not to do so when we finally become aware of God’s loving presence throughout this entire created universe. We can’t help but treat ourselves, each other, and this good earth with the respect and dignity of beloved creations of God!

When I was faced with this grace, this unmerited love, I had to change. I had to see a counselor and heal the wounds that had long influenced my behavior. I had to make apologies and find a different path forward. I had to take a step away from what was causing me to stumble so that I might be free to minister effectively in my everyday life. I just had to do all this because it meant I could more fully participate in the love I was experiencing!

If you feel like you are just going through the motions, checking the boxes, and joining “the club” because it’s all you know, there is good news for you. If you have left faith behind because you didn’t see any depth or meaning to it, there is good news for you. If you feel that God can’t possibly love you because of the life you’ve led, there is good news for you.

The good news is that it’s never too late to change. The good news is that God is not a doctrine, a building, an altar, or a ritual. The good news is that God is already present with you and reaching out to you!

I pray that you will ponder this good news and seek to put it into action by changing your approach to life. Live as though the love of God is for you and for all others. Live as though the image of God rests upon you and all whom you encounter. Live like this world is not a resource, but a beloved creation designed to be cared for and protected. After all, it’s true.

Peace be with you!

Reconsidering Worship

So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. — 2 Corinthians 5:20, NRSV

When I use the word “worship,” most Christians envision what we call “church.” This is the designated, weekly time we set aside to sing songs, pray prayers, hear a sermon, and sometimes celebrate Communion or Baptisms. It’s a time when we do what we believe to be pleasing to God, namely saying or singing things about Him that we think He would like or appreciate.

Is this what the faith is about? Verbal praise? Sanctioned times and places when we acknowledge God before going about our typical lives?

I don’t think so.

In chapter 5 of the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Paul refers to himself and the other leaders of the church as “ambassadors for Christ” (5:20), as God is “entrusting the message of reconciliation to” them (5:19). While Paul may have been talking about the leadership of the ancient church, the same idea applies to all believers. When Paul, in verse 21, says God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” he means all of us, when reconciled to God through Jesus, are to be that righteousness in the world. As such, we are all to be “ambassadors for Christ,” representatives of His message in the world, sharing the love that we experience.

So what does this have to do with worship?

It’s been my observation that many believers opt for the comfort of praising Jesus as opposed to the struggle of following Him, as if the two are separate. It’s easier to passively experience the reconciling grace of God in a pew than it is to actively imitate and share that grace in a hostile world. We can kneel and apologize every week, participating in the beautiful ritual of the church; we can raise our hands and sing along with the talented contemporary Christian band; we can hum our agreement to a perfectly tweetable sermon. Yet all of this is only part of the greater work of representing Jesus in a world that needs Him.

Now, am I advocating for a guilt-tripping attempt at perfection? Of course not. We aren’t going to “nail it” every time, and you should already be aware that I am just as guilty as everyone else. But transformation is found in the effort of faithful living.

Just as we have received the gift of reconciliation and rightfully praise God for it, so we are also to “pay it forward” and live in honor of Christ daily. We are called to act with love and self-control with regard to that co-worker, classmate, friend, or family member we just don’t get along with. We are called to support the cause of justice, treat all others with the dignity befitting children of God, and work to bring comfort to those in need. Such practices are difficult, costly, and inconvenient, but the best we can do is to never stop trying.

We have each been gifted with reconciliation to God, as well as the invitation to participate in His saving work in the world. This is an unparalleled gift that deserves every bit of our praise and gratitude, but it also places on us the responsibility to get busy loving as Jesus did (and still does). When we start to practice the grace we have received, our worship becomes complete, and we honor the One Who has truly given us an “indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).

Peace be with you!

What is This “Grace” of Which You Speak?

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. — John 1:16-17, NRSV

If you’ve read much of my work, you’ve noticed my tendency to mention God’s grace and the fact that we are supposed to reflect that grace in how we live. I have been out of the writing game for a bit, and so I thought the best way I could come back would be a post that clarifies this idea of “grace.” I have good friends who aren’t steeped in the Christian tradition who have asked me about it, and even many of my brothers and sisters in Christ seem to misunderstand the concept (including me)!

In today’s world, the concept of “grace” is a foreign one. In one sense, we do not live in a time of forgiveness and the full embrace of one another, so it isn’t surprising that we don’t know what to do with a God for whom this is standard practice. Another common issue is actually a cheapened understanding of forgiveness and embrace that leaves us with the impression that we are free to do and be whatever we wish without any repercussions.

So what are we talking about, then? What is the grace of God, and what does it mean for us in our lives today? Grace is defined as “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification,” according to this rather formal source. In short, grace is the unearned favor of God. It’s an expression of love that transforms our lives while not depending on us at all.

Paul sums up the idea of grace quite nicely in Romans 5, saying “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” In Christ, we see the fullness of God revealed in a human being, and this God decides to take on the cross so that we may know the extent of God’s love, as well as the cost of our indifference to it (sin). But God doesn’t wait until we have achieved a sufficient amount of perfection before making His love known and offering us the way to a transformed life. Instead, God meets us where we are, as we are. We didn’t earn it, but it is given anyway, and that is grace.

With that said, just because grace is unmerited doesn’t mean we aren’t expected to honor it with how we treat each other. It’s not that there are strings attached, but for this grace to mean anything, it should have an impact on us! So what impact does God expect?

In Matthew 18, Jesus presents us with a powerful parable that makes grace practical. A slave owes his master lots of money, but cannot pay (verses 24-25). He begs his master for mercy, and the master obliges, forgiving the debt (verse 27). This slave, having just experienced mercy, meets another slave that owes him money, and has said slave thrown into prison when he could not pay him (verses 28-30). Now, does that sound right to you?

Of course not. Logically, one would assume that because the first slave knew what it was like to owe a debt, face punishment, and receive grace for no reason other than compassion, he would understand and extend that same grace to his fellow slave. Instead, the master gets word of his slave’s irresponsibility and now both slaves are trapped in prison (verse 34). Jesus ends with a warning that God will certainly be keeping an eye on whether or not those who receive his grace embrace the responsibility to share it (verse 35).

There are two big points to take away, here. First, grace comes with the responsibility to share it with everybody else. Just as the second slave owed the first money, so we will have people in our lives we feel don’t deserve our love. We will have enemies. It is important to note, then, that we don’t deserve the love of God. Sin is a part of being human, and we all have it. As the First Epistle of John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). God loves and forgives us anyway, however, and so our response should be the same. As Jesus teaches in Matthew 5, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We know what it is to be a pain in the heart of others. We also know what it is to be forgiven by God. Therefore, our lives should reflect compassion, even in the face of those that we don’t feel deserve it. That’s grace.

Secondly, when we refuse to show that compassion, and when we turn our back on others, we spit on the grace God has shown to us, and things actually get worse. Look at the parable. Had the slave forgiven his fellow slave, neither would owe a debt and neither would be in prison. Instead, both end up trapped and in debt. The same holds true for you and I when we irresponsibly handle the gift of God’s love. We grieve God with our lack of compassion and forgiveness, and we also contribute to the world’s suffering.

Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life,” and “For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (John 5:24, 26). Jesus brings God’s grace into the world that we may experience life in the way God always intended, but the story doesn’t stop there.

“Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). Those who receive the grace of God are expected and empowered to reflect it. By doing so, we truly become disciples of Jesus who follow his example and are known by their love for one another (John 13:34-35). This love sets us and others free to follow a new path that heals the wounds of the world.

I know this was a longer and more involved post, but grace is such a huge theme for Christians that anything less would feel… over-simplified. I hope that my explanation of God’s grace connects with, empowers, and inspires you to understand and accept how loved you truly are. I also hope that such love motivates you to reflect the same compassion toward others that you would want for yourself.

Accepting and reflecting the grace of God are not easy tasks, but they are vital means by which we experience the fullness of life. The life of a disciple is one of constant refinement, a lifelong endeavor to grow into the love we have received. We won’t always get it right, but the transformation that results from the effort is truly spectacular, and I pray that you will join me on this journey.

Peace be with you!

Righteousness ≠ Perfection

The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked goes out. — Proverbs 13:9, NRSV

Reading Proverbs is both a delight and a challenge. Wonderful wisdom abounds in this small, fast-paced book of sayings, but the challenge comes from historical and cultural values that differ from our own, plus one other thing: vocabulary. The word “righteous” is used quite a bit in the Bible (around 567 times, give or take, depending on the translation), and I’d wager a hefty portion of that usage comes from Proverbs.

The reason I bring this up is that in my own life, the word “righteous” has been largely misunderstood, making Scripture study rather unpleasant. If you’re anything like me, you tend to beat yourself up. Your mind plays your failures over and over again, and reading a collection of texts geared toward making us more righteous certainly doesn’t help. I have found, though, that this is because I have come to confuse righteousness with perfection.

Righteousness is a life defined by virtue and justification, but even the most righteous person in the Bible would by no means be considered perfect. In fact, God seems to go out of His way to choose wildly imperfect people for the purposes of establishing His covenant. Noah, Abram (later Abraham), Sarai (later Sarah), Isaac, Rachel, Leah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Bathsheba, Jonah, Peter, Judas, the Twelve, Saul (later Paul), and the list goes on and on. All of them are in some sense chosen and involved in the continuation of God’s covenant and story, yet none of them are even close to being perfect.

My point? The Bible has a distinction between perfection (a quality of God) and righteousness (something God imparts to humans). For us to understand the Book of Proverbs, or any other Biblical literature, we must first understand that for the writers of Scripture, sin is a fact of life. It is an ever-present part of being human. Therefore, when we read about righteousness, we cannot assume that we are supposed to be free of sin always and forever. As John says, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Rather, all this talk of righteousness and sinfulness is about the trend of our lives. You and I will inevitably mess up. Sin is a part of who we are. However, it doesn’t have to be our defining characteristic, and it won’t be if we are honest about our faults, do our best to positively affect our surroundings, and rely on the grace of God to fill in the gaps. While sinners, we can still lead a humble life that tends toward the kingdom of God rather than our own selfish pursuits. We only become truly wicked when we decide that we are our gods, having no sin because we can do whatever we wish. In short, we become defined by our sin when we give up.

We must remember the central Christian teaching that salvation and righteousness are gifts of God granted by His sacrifice in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). The love of God is given freely, and relationship with God is opened to us free of charge. This does not mean that we do not have a response to make, but it does mean that our response should come from gratitude, and not the desire to earn our way to heaven.

God’s grace is not intended to inspire guilt or a brow-beating approach to our lives. If we spend every day trying to check off items on “The Chart of Perfection,” we will soon grow resentful of that which is meant to give us everlasting joy. Instead, we are charged with living lives of gratitude, humility, and mercy, with the love of God and neighbor at the front of our minds. We will still have sin, but instead of crippling guilt and regret, we can humbly approach the God who will remind us, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

So when we hear the words of the Gospel, extolling the value of righteous living, we shouldn’t engage in self-punishment because we lack perfection. God has plenty of perfection already. What the Lord seeks is that our perfectly imperfect hearts would seek after Him and trust Him to take care of the rest. If we remember our faults (and that God has forgiven them out of His limitless love), we are able to look graciously and lovingly upon the faults of others, and in doing so we fulfill the Commandment. But that is a subject for the next post. 😉

Peace be with you!

A Grace-Full Reminder

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus… — Romans 3:23-24, RSVCE

Every once in a while, I get aggravated. It appears to come out of nowhere, but once I get the journal and pen out, I find that the same conclusion is reached almost every time. I realize time and time again that it’s hard to balance aspirations to holiness with the reality of sin in the world. We always want to be the best version of ourselves, and we expect the same of others, but every once in a while we get a reminder that there is still a very great need for the grace of God.

Such reminders would be more welcome if they didn’t apply to us. We love the idea of being gracious to others, but we don’t like the reality that we stand in dire need of unmerited favor as well. We fall short, just like anyone else, and when we forget that, we eliminate our ability to act compassionately and reflect unto others the transformative forgiveness we receive from God. To be reminded that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” is a painful but necessary truth of which we need to be consistently reminded.

Now, this is not for the purposes of guilt. Too often, we shy away from confession and the acknowledgment of the reality of sin because it makes us feel bad. This is my problem, and it is why I get so aggravated when something comes along that reminds me of my human frailty. I have a problem with self-judgment, and I tend to fall into a cycle of self-condemnation and despair rather than taking the lesson for what it is. I believe this is a truth that many of us can relate to.

So what do we do?

The Scripture above from Romans is a good start. We need to recognize that it isn’t just us. We aren’t a particularly broken or sinful case, no matter what our struggle may be. Our world tries to portray brokenness and pain as exceptions that can be rooted out, rather than the painful “other side” that always comes with free will. When Paul says “all have sinned and fall short,” he means ALL OF US. Everyone has a struggle, a battle they wage. Everyone has a journey they are on. God’s reminders of our need for His grace are not meant to be condemnatory, but encouraging. The pain of sin is something we all have in common, and the need for grace is universal.

In short, YOU’RE NOT ALONE. None of us are.

Now, take a look at this passage from Matthew, please.

Did you do it? I’m trusting you…

Anyway, I believe this story is an excellent view of discipleship. Following Jesus isn’t about “making it.” There is no time or place we can reach where we will not need occasional reminders of our dependence on God. Peter learns this first hand, as he even walks on water with Jesus, and yet, like the rest of us, the time comes when even he must cry out, “Lord, save me!”

In the future, I’m going to try not to get frustrated when those “save me” moments come my way. I hope this brief word will encourage you to the same end. If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we will find consistent reminders from God that are not designed for our guilt or shame, but for our enlightenment. If we pay attention, we can see that we are not alone. We are all walking this road of life together, bound in the love of the One who will always extend His hand to pull us out of the waves of our sin and despair. Our job is not to be pulled up, stay above water, and spend life helping others see the light. Rather, we are called to recognize that as we are constantly being pulled up, so we must also constantly reflect that saving grace to others, not from a position of superiority, but of camaraderie.

Peace be with you!

 

 

Violence and Christian Compassion

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did. — Luke 13:5, NRSV

When I look at the world and all of its violence, I always try to look and see how we as a nation are responding to it. News articles from a variety of sources, social media, church and dinner table conversations, all of these are indicators of our position regarding the death and violence that occur on a daily basis. For the most part, our position looks pretty bad.

Take, for example, the shooting of Botham Jean in Dallas. He was a man in his own apartment, which was mistakenly entered by Dallas police officer who proceeded to shoot him dead. In the wake of the shooting, news reports emerge regarding the marijuana later found in his apartment. It may seem like a trivial detail, but it’s actually an act of character assassination that is all too common, as if to say, “Sure, it happened. But look! It wasn’t one of the good ones!”

We tend to be stingy with our compassion. When someone is killed or suffers violence, our response is proportional to their innocence. Death row inmates (understandably) garner very little compassion, along with anyone who was committing a crime of any kind at the time of their death. Certain states even have laws that seem to say property is worth killing another human over!

For the Christian person, this must become unacceptable. Too many of us in the faith operate by this system of selective compassion, and it is exposing a frightful hypocrisy on the part of a belief system that centers on a God-Man who was put to death according to laws of His day!

So, if you’ve stuck around this long, you may be asking, “Why?” It’s an expected question.

After all, why should we show compassion even toward the worst of the worst? After all, don’t they deserve what they get? Perhaps they deserve worse!

Let me ask you this: do you want God to treat you as you deserve? He will, you know. Jesus says so multiple times, and it is even a central part of our most sacred prayer, remember?

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus teaches us, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matthew 5:14-15). If we know this and repeat it every Sunday, why in the world do we treat others according to a standard we hope God will set aside for us?

God weeps tears for even the worst killer in existence. He may even weep more for this lost soul. On the cross, God even bled for the worst of sinners. How then, as His people, can so many self-professing Christians not see the danger in refusing to practice the spiritual discipline of unrelenting compassion? It doesn’t amount to a lack of desire for justice, nor is it a means of condoning wrongdoing, but it is an expression of the grace we believe we have received from God. It is our way of loving back the One who died because of our hard hearts. Further, it is a practice that is applicable without regard for race, creed, profession, nationality, or any other worldly criteria that are often used to determine the worthiness of others.

The good news hidden in this message is that God does love and is eager to forgive us, regardless of our past. The challenge is that He expects us all to pay that grace forward to all others, regardless of whether or not we feel they deserve it. The Christian’s response to violence in this world should consist of heart-broken compassion and self-reflection. These responses do not exclude a desire for justice, but they do temper it with awareness, preventing us from transgressing in thought, word, or deed.

This kind of change is not easy. It takes practice and a lot of grace with ourselves and each other. However, if we start to make the effort, the promised blessing will follow. After all, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Peace be with you!