A Parent’s Worst Nightmare

Being a parent means being vulnerable to unexpected suffering. From health and safety concerns (“Will my child survive to adulthood unharmed and whole?”), to worries about success and happiness (“Will my child make good life decisions?”), to issues of character ( Will she overcome her self-centeredness” ?), there are many ways for parents to be hurt through our children. Additionally, of fundamental concern for Christian parents is whether or not our children will put their trust in Jesus Christ. How do we handle these possibilities? We can try to ignore them, but life doesn’t always accommodate us. We can choose to worry and wear ourselves thin. We can try to create our own “Bible Code” of promises that we can hold God accountable to.  Or we can renew our minds with God’s word so the truth, wisdom and confidence of the gospel can guard our hearts and minds.

If I were to boil down gospel hope into one phrase it would be this: God definitively demonstrated the full extent of his faithfulness, love, mercy, goodness and justice when the Unique Son entered human history to be a willing sacrifice for human evil. Since God has shown his character once and for all in the person and work of Jesus, we can choose to trust Him and experience a freedom of mind and heart that does not depend on our life circumstances.

GOD SUFFERED
A rescued and renewed humanity was so valuable to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that the Father sent the Son into the world (John 3:16). Disease and death are so hateful to God that the Son took them on himself to destroy them (Acts 3:15, Hebrews 2:14). Having conquered death, he always lives to intercede on our behalf (Hebrews 7:25) and his Kingdom is growing, culminating in the conquering of death (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).

Conclusion: Human sickness, frailty and death cannot undo the New Life. Even though we as parents may experience the pain of watching our children suffer, perhaps even die before we do, the Good News of Jesus the King removes the sting of death.

GOD PROVIDES
If we are to trust God with our own lives, let alone the lives of our children, we have to first listen to what he promises. After all, it is unjust to demand from God a promise He never gave. A few things not mentioned in the Bible: college acceptance, financial stability, retirement benefits, protection from the earthly consequences of foolishness and sin. Jesus did say that if we set our hearts on the things of God’s Kingdom we could trust that he would take care of our basic needs (Matthew 6:25-34). Jesus also promised suffering and a degree of persecution when we live like he did (John 15:20. Yet he also assures us that he has overcome the source of our suffering (John 16:33). Furthermore, in Christ our children can have the highest status possible: the right become Children of God (John 1:12-13) and co-inheritors of Eternal life with Christ (Romans 8:17).

Conclusion: The Good News about Jesus enriches our kids beyond anything a Fortune 500 company or government pension could do and offers a security that not even death or taxes can beat.

GOD TRANSFORMS
After his resurrection and assention, according to the long-standing promise of God, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into the world (Joel 2:28, Acts 2:17, Jeremiah 31:33-34, Hebrews 8:10-12). He brings conviction, cleansing & renewal, transforming power (Titus 3:5-6) and understanding to live like Jesus (John 16:7-15). His purpose, to draw people into relationship with the Father through the Son, stems from his desire to rescue all who will come to him (2 Peter 3:9).

Conclusion: Connected to the life of God through the Holy Spirit, our children have everything necessary to develop godly character (2 Peter 1:3-4)

GOD SEEKS
The last concern “Will my child receive or reject the gospel?” is in many ways the most painful. The other questions and answers grow from this one. Rather than hunt through scripture for promises that we can force God to keep in a legal fashion, the hope we have is grounded in the revealed character of God. Right out of the gate God promises to send a rescuer to crush the power of the Deceiver whose lies had corrupted humanity (Genesis 3:15). In his covenant with Abraham, God promises a descendent who will bless all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:3). Through the nation of Israel, YHWH makes a case study of his long-suffering, merciful, loyal love (Exodus 34:6-7) while consistently giving examples of his love for all people (Jonah 4:11). When Jesus comes on the scene he says he has not come for those who are morally pure but for the lost, the sinners, the strays (Luke 15:1-32, Luke 19:1-10). Finally, God’s own beloved Son, sent by the Father for this purpose, willingly takes the punishment we and our children deserved so that we could have life. No expense was spared.

Conclusion: We can rely on God’s amazing love to woo and guide our children to His Son despite sin, doubt, anger, pride, and hardness of heart. Anything that can be done will be done since God did not spare His own Son. (Romans 8:31-32)

GOD LISTENS
Finally, God who is a Father to us, want to walk with us, comfort us and carry us through our parenting anxieties. Parents, we must, we can, and we get to talk to our Father. We are called to cast our anxiety on Him for the very reason that He does care for us (1 Peter 5:7). We are reminded not to be anxious about anything but in everything to bring our requests before the Lord so that we can experience the peace beyond circumstances that only He can give (Philippians 4:6-7). If we parents, who are imperfect, can give and wish good things for our children, we can rely on our perfect, merciful, persistent Heavenly Father to exceed our care for our children in every way when we ask ( Luke 11:13).

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INNER CHRISTMAS TENSION

Thousands of Christmas cards and books display endless variations on scenes from the Biblical account: shepherds with sheep and angels, wisemen on camels, barnyard animals surrounding perfectly illuminated mangers. Like many adults, the Christmas season creates internal tension for me. The familiar postcard depictions draw me toward the nostalgia of a childhood that experienced Christmas without the responsibilities and knowledge that adulthood brings. One scene from the Christmas story doesn’t appear on any postcard but  I believe offers a way to reconcile the joy of the idyllic Christmas season with the realities of life in the modern world.

The human soul longs for peace on earth, rest, harmony. The Incarnation perfectly addresses this deepest of needs and, at its best, Christmas celebration blossoms from the hope of Emmanuel, “God with us”. As Simeon sang after seeing the infant Jesus:

Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel. 

Luke 2:29-32

As adults, though we feel the need for peace and hope more acutely we less able to engage with the hope. Just because December 25th is rolling around doesn’t mean we get a break from bills, or caring for aging parents. We enjoy the delight of children, but many of us feel we have to “fake it” for their benefit; we don’t want to be anyone’s Grinch. So on top of our burden of life we add the pressure of feeling cynical or hypocritical. (If this doesn’t describe you, keep reading because you will be able to care for other adults in your life who struggle this way).

Some critics have called Christianity “pie in the sky” implying that the gospel doesn’t deal with the realities of life, offering instead good feeling and crossed-fingered blind optimism. Matthew 2:16, a postcard-resistant scene in the Christmas account, dismantles this charge:

 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

Matthew and Luke weren’t writing “Christmas Stories”, they were telling the amazing news of an invasion from Heaven into a world “in sin and error pining”. Jesus’s birth was the cause of great rejoicing for many, but was simultaneously the event that motivated a grasping, jealous king to murder many innocent boys:

 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children;she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2: 17-18

So yes, as Isaiah proclaimed:

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder,and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of YHWH of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

At the same time, life continues. We remain in the world and we continue to wrestle with our own human bent toward sin (Romans 8:13), a way of thinking that is opposed to the mind of God (Romans 12:2) and with powerful spiritual enemies who actively war against the expanding kingdom of the Prince of Peace (Ephesians 6:12).

Here’s my advice to myself. Instead of feeling cynical during this season,
Let Chrismas be: 

  1.  a memento of my personal peace with God (Romans 5:1)
  2.  a foretaste of my future glory with Christ. (Romans 5:2)
  3. a reminder that the story isn’t finished yet (John 15:20)
  4. an assurance that Jesus shares in life’s struggles, even at Christmas (John 16:33)
  5. a call to think of the day when Christ will wipe away every tear (Revelation 21:4)

CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS PASSAGES

If you’ve grown up in the post television world, it’s likely you have watched one or two Christmas specials. One of my favorites is “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in which Charlie Brown picks the most pitiful and neglected Christmas “tree” to bring home. This year  I am preparing to give the Christmas Eve sermon. In anticipation of that opportunity I have been readings those neglected or underrepresented incarnation passages that don’t contain sheep, stars, angels, or wise men.

Humans are created for story and we are interested in almost anything if it given to us in the shape of a story. Case in point: although I am the opposite of a sports enthusiast I am a huge fan of sports movies because gifted writers focus on a few key characters, revealed their motivations, identified a conflict, plotted the most important moments and left out extraneous details. Yep, we sure like stories.

Problems arise in the real world when we over simplify stories. Important realities can get lost. The Christmas Story has a lot of rough edges and startling twists that don’t fit into the “all is calm, all is bright” vision of the holiday that we all enjoy. It’s important to remember that Matthew and Luke (the only two gospels from which we get the pieces of the popular narrative of Christmas) were NOT writing the “Christmas Story”. Those events we commemorate in December were a small part of a larger purpose. As Luke put it: “it seemed good to me also…to write an orderly account for you… that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” How can we recover for ourselves and our families the grand, pre-commercialized, story of Immanuel?

Step 1: Repentance
“At Christmas time? What are you a Scrooge? A Grinch? Christmas is for feeling good. What do I have to repent of?” No, really, recognize that our memories, cultural expectations, traditions and desires for Christmas may not entail the message that God’s word is telling us. Then ask the Holy Spirit to help you understand the incarnation of the Son of God more fully so it connects to the BIG STORY in a way that transforms you into the likeness of Jesus.

Step 2: Recognize the Author’s Intent
Even for the well-known Christmas passages, ask yourself why Matthew and Luke included certain details. Hint: It’s not to fill scroll space or  provide a backstory for your nativity set.

  • For what purpose are the genealogies (Matthew 1:1, and Luke 3:23) included?
  • Why does Matthew focus on Kings, and foreign dignitaries (no shepherds, or Angelic host)?
  • Why does an army (not a choir) of angels show up? Why are they praising God at the events they are now witnessing? Just what do their words really mean?
  • Why does Luke include Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25, 36)?
  • In fact, why the whole temple scene in Luke chapter 2?
  • Why does Luke include two long songs in chapter 1?
  • What’s with the brutal scene in Matthew 2:16? There is no Herod figure in my nativity set. Why did Matthew include this information? It’s not in Luke’s version.

 

 

 

 

 

Step 3: Re-examine scripture to find the point of Christmas

Mine God’s word for Christmas gold and silver. A place to start might be the Old Testament passages quoted within Matthew and Luke. What’s the context of those passages?

  • Genesis 3:15
  • Genesis 12:1-3
  • 2 Samuel 7
  • Daniel 2:36-45
  • Daniel 7:13-14

Turn to other books in the New Testament to find the significance of the Incarnation. Who was this “Son of God”, this “Word that was with God”? Were the biblical writers simply given us facts to be believed or were they describing the “engine” of our new life in Christ: live like your King, serve like your Savior.

  • John 1:1-3, 14
  • John 17:4-5
  • Galatians 3:29-4:5
  • Philippians 2:5-11
  • Hebrews 2:10-18
  • Romans 5:8
  • Romans 6
  • Romans 8:1-10
  • Revelation 21 & 22

Step 4: Recommit to having a transformative Christmas
Can you look back and say that because of Christmas 2016 you were a more faithful spouse or parent, a more joyful child of God, a more faithful disciple in 2017? Or did the good feeling, wrapping paper and food give way to a ‘business as usual’? In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Scrooge promised to keep Christmas all year round. Let us commit to living the full gospel all year round in a deepening, life-transforming way.  View the Incarnation as an example of how we ought to live (Philippians 2:5-11) along with the expectation of our glorification at Christ’s return.

Enjoy the family and friends, the warmth an laughter, the music and lights, the wonder and delight. It is a small taste of the Banquet we await with a certain hope because the God of Everything entered human history!

Let’s Talk Politics and Religion!

Aren’t those the two things we are told never to discuss at dinner?  What is it about these areas of human life that cause so much tension and anxiety? Probably you can recall an uncomfortable conversation with a political zealot or someone who has been religiously dogmatic. Perhaps you frequently find yourself at the center of heated debates. As parents wanting to equip and teach our children to love God and love others it is critically important that we don’t avoid these topics. Why? Because for Christians religion boils down to loving God and politics is how we publicly love our neighbor as ourselves. What does God’s word say about the relation of these two most important spheres of life? How can we equip our children to thoughtfully, biblically, and graciously engage their religious and political culture?

THE RELIGION
The apostle Paul gives a cosmic, “behind-the-scenes” depiction of the gospel in his letter to Titus (Titus 3:3-7). This is the engine of our new life. It is based on our need (v.3), God the Father’s grace (v.4), God the Holy Spirit’s active power in our lives (v.5), God the Son’s willing sacrifice (v.6), and our present and continue position as co-heirs with Jesus and our future hope (v.7).

This “good news” proclamation sounds like real good news! The “religion” that results is first of all humble, since we are no different from anyone else in our great need and our inability to save ourselves (vv.3, 5b). We do not need to convict people, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11). Our job is to 1) always be ready to give a reason for our Christian hope (1 Peter 3:15), 2) teach others to follow Jesus the Risen King (Matthew 28:18-20), and 3) . . .

THE POLITICS
We are commanded to “adorn the good news” (Titus 2:10b) by living as what we are: children of God and citizens of the Kingdom of the Beloved Son. Elsewhere Paul calls us ‘ambassadors”, official representatives of what a foreign country is like. (2 Corinthians 5:20).  In Ephesians 5 he describes personal holiness and how Christian households show love and serve each other in this new life. In Titus 2:2-10 he describes how a local church—as a family of families—is to love and serve each other in a visible, unmistakably beautiful and attractive way in their local community.

Finally, Paul addresses what we primarily think of when we talk about politics. Notice that Paul does not talk about voting (that wasn’t really a thing in the Empire), he doesn’t share what bills to vote for and which companies to boycott. His assumption is that the Gospel is world-transforming because it transforms the human heart from the inside. To him, it is obviously better than anything else in producing a virtuous citizenry:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:11-14

Since this is the case, Paul continues (Titus 3:1-2) by commanding true lovers of the Savior who gave himself for us, to give ourselves for the good of our community by:

  1. cooperating with the governing authorities
  2. quickly engaging in good works that benefit the polis (city)
  3. refraining from gossip, slander, and verbal abuse toward government officials… or anyone
  4. avoiding pointless quarrels, preferring harmonious living— like you might find on social media (my way is better”, I’m right you’re wrong”, “God is on my side”).
  5. being reasonable—I have in mind James’ admonishment to be quick to listen, slow to speak.
  6. Showing conspicuous deference toward everyone (Philippians 2:3).

There you have it: a clear description of the public life of every citizen of heaven “living in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope.” There is nothing controversial there. Only things that at best will “adorn the good news” and at worst “cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” Make these 6 points your main primer for teaching your children about living a life in whatever polis you live in, city, county, state, nation. Let them be the filter for how you think about the news, how you speak with guests and family and how your family acts locally for the good of your community.

“BUT WHAT ABOUT…”
Okay, I get it, Paul doesn’t live in the time and place we do. There must be some things that he’s going to miss, right? I’m not so sure.

  • Paul lived in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, pluralistic empire that was the peak of western civilization at that time. Box checked.
  • Paul was part of a subculture that was often at odds, occasionally fatally, with the surrounding culture. Box checked.
  • Paul was a citizen who exercised his rights when it benefited the Kingdom of God. Box (hopefully) checked.

POLITICAL REALITIES 
For those of you who still have “yeah, but” hanging in the back of your head, here are a few other pieces of the puzzle:

  • Persecution is an authentication of faithfulness. Christians have a foundationally unique worldview: our focus changes, our desires change, our values change (Romans 12:2). This new reality controls every aspect of our lives and, sooner or later, will bring us into conflict with any culture or society that has a different worldview. Jesus and the the New Testament writers assumed that persecution would be the natural result of following Jesus and was even a sign of faithfulness (Acts 5:41). If you are upset because of political pressures, check yourself to be sure that you are gospel-minded rather than comfort-conscious.
  • Civil authorities are empowered by God. (Romans 13:4) Just as in the church, God has empowered civil authorities to maintain order and to punish wrongdoing in this world
    .
  • Taxes are biblical. (Romans 13:6-7) You heard me. According to Paul (and Jesus who didn’t begrudge Caesar what was his), taxes facilitate order and peace in society for the general provision and protection of the population. Are governments perfect? No. Corruption? Yes. However, a quick romp through history will demonstrate that bad government is generally preferable to anarchy. “In those days there was no king. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”
  • Systems change, God’s principles don’t. Citizens of republics or democratic societies have both rights and responsibilities. Much of the inner turmoil we experience in  politics is the result of how we should use our rights and what our responsibilities are as Christians AND Citizens. In a dictatorship, we would have other concerns, but which laws will or will not pass are not among them.
  • Paul’s main point is to adorn the gospel so that others may find God’s grace. Lowering vs. raising taxes, limited immigration vs. open border, any given topic should be addressed with this key understanding. I believe that Paul has local government in mind in Titus 3:1-2. There is an assumption that the “good works” are conspicuous and local (plus Crete is an island). Local political involvement (serving the city) produces a great return and we can individually adorn the gospel and silence our detractors much more effectively. However, it is notable that Christians in the early centuries did develop a general reputation for being law-abiding, model citizens.
  • The government can never legitimately compel sinful behavior. The New Testament writers assume the general legitimacy of government. However, they also recognized that at times one may be punished for doing what is right (1 Peter 2:20-22). You may recall that Daniel and his three friends ran afoul of a pagan king’s command of idol-worship. Yet notice that in all cases, malicious resistance was never employed. Instead they entrusted themselves to God’s justice.
  • Spiritual transformation can never come from human political ideas or institutions. If getting the right president or law into place would have transformed the human heart, Jesus would not have needed to die on the cross (Romans 3:20) Living in a republic we have the right and responsibility to elect representatives and vote for laws. To the degree we are able, we should want to promote candidates and legislation that we think will benefit others in our community and serve the purposes of advancing the gospel. Ultimately however, we will have more influence in our local communities and local politics. It is in our personal relationships that we will most clearly adorn the gospel with our character. Don’t get anxious or upset over what is beyond your control or your responsibility. As in everything, submit your requests to God on behalf of your community, city and nation.
  • Our political opposition is spiritual in origin. Humans are enslaved to sin and the governing spiritual rulers of the present age (Ephesians 6:12). Whenever we find ourselves thinking in a “them versus us” context, we are operating out of a false perception of reality. “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures“. We do the work of our Father when we love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us. (Romans 5:8)
  • We must emulate Jesus by being willing to bear personal cost for the good of others, even our enemies. There may be financial costs to voting for a measure that will benefit others but impact our own finances negatively. There may be a personal cost to standing up to defend the weak and neglected. We await a glorious Savior and a certain Eternal hope. We have peace with God through our Lord, Jesus Christ. That must change how we live. Remember, Paul focuses on the manner in which we live. Can we disagree but with concern for our political opponent? Can we stand for an unpopular position without becoming self-righteous? Can we suffer a legislative defeat or a disappointing court ruling without slandering or maligning public officials? Can we jump in to help our local communities even if we disagree with policy issues in order to adorn the gospel? Can we graciously receive condemnation for our gospel-informed stance without retaliation? Can we remember that we are in a battle against spiritual entities and that the people around us are not our true enemies?

THE EXAMINED LIFE

Socrates is quoted saying “the unexamined life is not worth living”. The Greek philosopher was doggedly committed to understanding and living a life of virtue. As parents we might try our own variety of Socratic questioning with our children: “What were you thinking?!”.  Admittedly, when asking those kind of questions, I am usually asking from a self-understanding of superiority, of having “arrived”. More often than not, I am less concerned with my beloved child’s thought process than with the violation of my “perfected” preferences and standards. In God’s kindness, the gospel gives us power to address the unexamined assumption of our own moral superiority.

We first encounter the gospel through a revelation of the self. In John 16, Jesus promised that when he returned to the Father, he would send the Holy Spirit to convict the world of sin, specifically of our unbelief in Jesus as the Father’s rescuing provision. (vv. 8-9) Right out of the gate we are shown that it is not moral failure that keeps us in sin, but the unwillingness to recognize our need and God’s kindness in the Cross.

The examining continues. Once we are brought into the Family of God, we continue to gravitate toward our old self-defining, self-centered patterns. This is why the Holy Spirit continues to bring to our attention our sinful actions and attitudes so that:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9

It is even possible for us to be deceived into thinking that our way of living is perfectly consistent with that of Jesus. So Paul urged the Corinthian church:

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! 2 Corinthians 13:5

The gospel tells us that we are recipients of the Father’s unearned love which He has proved in the life, death and resurrection of the Son applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit. It tells us that we have a present, permanent status: children of God. (2 Corinthians 5:17)  But it also says that we are in a process of transformation and have not yet arrived at the end of that process. (1 John 1:8, Romans 12:2) This gives us gospel power to stand in confidence because of what God has accomplished yet at the same time with great humility because of our continual and unending need for grace. We will best point our children to the “Magnificent Three” when first , we accept them as God has accepted us — by grace, not on merit, and when we come alongside them as fellow participants of that grace.


REFLECTION QUESTIONS:

  1. Jesus said to take out the log in your own eye so you can see clearly to take the speck out of your brothers eye. (Matthew 7:4-5). Do you ever consider this passage before acting to discipline your children?
  2. How might inviting the Holy Spirit to examine your heart transform your relationship with your spouse and children?
  3. Some attitudes and behaviors require varying degrees of disciplinary action. How is your heavenly Father kind to you when you are in need of correction? How might remembering that your acceptance by God comes not from your own merit but because of Jesus’ perfect life and the realization that you (and your children) constantly need that grace affect how you approach discipline?
  4. Do you often pray for God to examine you and for God’s counsel before disciplining your children? How could you start a pattern that you can implement even in the heat of the moment?
  5. In Romans 12:2 Paul writes:
    Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
    In what ways have you grown in your understanding and application of God’s will in the area of training your children?

 

Treasuring Good News Amidst the Bad

America’s moral, cultural and societal trajectory is disturbing to many Christians. These changes are particularly worrying when they impact our children. Among other things, parents are forced to have conversations about sexuality, pornography, and identity in a manner and on a timetable we likely would not have chosen. News headlines once reflecting realities “out there” are now openly discussed in elementary school classrooms. In the midst of anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed, its good to reflect on what is true. When we treasure Gods’ Word—the definitive proclamation about reality—we can be at peace in the storm and give our children the gift of an unshakable and certain hope.

To begin, here are five pieces of Good News:

  1. John 10:14-15 The Good Shepherd knows his sheep, and they recognize his voice. They will come when he calls. Lost family members, friends, even those who seem hostile to the kingdom of God may find themselves listening to the call of love; a strong, kind voice above the din of lies and deception that permeate our modern lives.
  2. Hebrews 7:23-24 Jesus is able to save to the uttermost those who come to him. As John Wesley wrote, “all the guilt, power, root, and consequence of sin” are destroyed by the work of Jesus. He is in the business of transforming lives.
  3. John 3:8, John 16:8-11 Nothing can prevent the Spirit’s ongoing role in calling people to trust in the Wounded Son of God who rescues the lost sons and daughters of Adam & Eve.
  4. 2 Timothy 3:12-15 Jesus told us in advance how this world’s pattern plays out and what we are to do in the meantime as we wait for the glorious appearance of our great God and Savior.
  5. 2 Corinthians 2:14-16 Resting in the love of Christ, he always leads us in triumphant procession and the aroma of our lives is breathed in by those who will respond to God’s gift of life.

AVOIDING THE TRAP OF A BLURRY GOSPEL
Without being immersed in the renewing Gospel of Peace, we fall into fear and anxiety and end up sharing a blurry gospel, obscured with side issues.

In a recent conversation regarding morality in America,  I found I had accidentally drifted into a political “fencing match”. Undoubtedly, there are important political, cultural, and social implications of the Gospel. Loving your neighbor as yourself in a multi-cultural, global economy must have public expression. But without the initial gift of grace, any external shift is a surface change.

SPIRITUAL TRAINING: GROWING IN GRACE
The best training we can commit to, for ourselves and our children, is to uncover the depths of the riches of the God’s love so that we who have been forgiven much can love much. Just as Paul, set aside the lofty speech and human wisdom of the Greek philosophers of his day (1 Corinthians 2:1-2), we should “resolve to know nothing but Christ, and him crucified”.

Training our minds with the knowledge of God informs our actions in the world. Remembering  we are a people in possession of a certain, living and unshakable hope, we don’t lose heart or give in to despair. Acknowledging we are more than conquerors through him who loved us, we endure evil without bitterness and personal indignation. Recalling Christ came for sinners of whom we are the worst, we have great love and grace toward each other and the lost:  the calling card of those who follow Jesus (John 13:35).

SHARING THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD
My house is often disorderly and cluttered; “creative chaos” is how I like to think of it. The point is, the state of my house would likely raise the eyebrows of the immaculately neat. If we are honest, sometimes we wish others in our society would simply conform to our personal moral standards instead of making our lives more challenging and our television-watching options more narrow. We might not particularly care if they were still dead in their sin as long as it didn’t splash on us. This is not the gospel. The gospel targets something much deeper than individual sins: righteousness.

When we think of the Good News about Jesus the King, repentance from sin is front-and-center. A Kingdom mindset requires us to understand the morally perfect nature of  God, a standard of righteousness required for all who would live with Him in His Kingdom. John the Baptist proclaimed that the reason for repentance from rebellion to God was because “the Kingdom of God is at hand”. John’s was a general call based on the general reality of the rebellious treason against God’s rule at the center of the human heart that had existed since the Fall in Genesis 3. But was this a call to “clean up your act” in order to merit a place in God’s Kingdom? That seems like a righteousness based on human effort. What about “through grace alone by faith alone”?

After describing the ineffectiveness of the Law to generate inner righteousness. Paul gives a shout of joy:

For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.  — Romans 3:20-26

To stand in God’s righteous presence, in God’s righteous Kingdom, we are GIVEN God’s righteousness through trust in the saving work of Jesus who died on the cross to rescue us from sin and death and lives to give us life.

Here’s where repentance comes in. Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount that “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” will have their hunger completely satisfied. Those who hunger for the righteousness only God can give, cast away all rebellion and self-righteousness, eagerly anticipating the appearing of the “bread of heaven” that alone gives life and, when He appears, put their trust in Him alone, the only Way to Truly know the Life-giver. (1 John 4:9-10)

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
To bring this airplane in for a landing, here’s what we can “teach” ourselves and pass on to our children:

  1. We ourselves were once prevented, by our own inadequate self-righteousness, from enjoying the life-giving presence of God, the author and source of all that is good, beautiful and enjoyable. (Titus 3:3).
  2. Because of His great love, God temporarily overlooked our sins (Romans 3:25-26) until He provided us with His own righteousness through His beloved Son by means of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-6) and not because of any good thing we could do.
  3. As a result, we now have the righteousness of God, an equal inheritance of eternal life and are being renewed so that we now live and think like our Father in Heaven (Titus 3:7, Romans 12:2). Everyone who has put on the righteousness of God, is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).
  4.  As a result of this new creation reality, we find ourselves increasingly in conflict with the righteous standards of imperfect, humanity (John 3:20). In fact, we are guaranteed two things: 1) if we want to live in this new, righteous life of our adoptive Father, we will face persecution, and 2) people who reject Jesus will continue down a slope of unrighteous living ( 2 Timothy 3:12-13). But we don’t let those things bother us or stop us from sharing this live-saving Good News, because Jesus, God in the Flesh, willingly suffered rejection so we could have his righteousness (Hebrews 12:1-3).
  5. Now, we are ambassadors of reconciliation—we can meet God’s demands of perfect righteousness offered in Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:20). Since our future is assured and we have fellowship with God that can’t be taken away (Romans 8:38-39), we aren’t silent in sharing that God’s Kingdom has drawn near and is open to all who turn from their own self-righteousness and receive the perfect righteousness of the Risen Son. No sin is too ugly, no sinner too distasteful for Jesus, who came to our rescue in full agreement with the Father’s love (1 Timothy 1:15) .
  6. Everyone who hears and trusts in the righteousness of Jesus is a full participant in the story (2 Peter 1:1) and receives the full, rich, quality of life and unshakable future hope that Jesus came to give (John 10:10).

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION:
Imagine a conversation with someone who holds onto their own righteousness (e.g. “My lifestyle is OK.” “I can do what I want with my body/money/time” “I can define myself anyway I choose” “As long as I don’t hurt anyone else…”. “The government agrees with me”, “I’m basically a good person, I never killed anyone.” etc.) 

  1. How would you share the good news about the Kingdom of God and the way through Christ to enter into friendship with God?
    • What potential pitfalls would you need to be aware of to prevent slipping into a political or sociological discussion?
  2. Do news headlines cause anxiety and fear? Does it help to know that we are promised a degree of suffering? Does it help to remember what Christ endured to rescue you?
  3. Is it helpful to think about self-righteousness vs. God’s righteousness rather than the sins of others vs. Christian morality?
    • How can you communicate this in a discussion with someone who has not turned from their self-righteousness to receive God’s righteousness?
  4. How will this understanding change your conversations with your children about the issues they face in the media, in school, and with their peers?
    • How might you differentiate between good moral behavior and the righteousness of God?
    • How do you differentiate between the good works that grow out of the new life in Christ and the morality that is common to most people from every nation and culture?

DOUBT IS NOT THE ENEMY OF FAITH

In popular imagination, faith and doubt are pitted against each other, especially in the realm of religion. Were you to ask the average person what ‘faith’ and ‘doubt’ bring to mind, you’d probably get a religion-centric response; not scientific progress, marriage, political concerns, or their own economic future although all those things also involve faith and doubt. Doubt is no stranger in the life of a Christian, often generating deep internal conflict. Having a clearer, Bible-informed understanding of doubt and its relationship to our Christian hope can ease our internal conflict and help us to navigate through times of doubt.

WHAT IS DOUBT, ANYWAY?
Like faith, doubt is not a tangible thing but is a state of being. Doubt is part of our reasoning faculties and is necessary due to the limits of human knowledge. Doubt indicates that what you know about reality has come into conflict with information that seems to contradict that knowledge. Your mental picture of what you ‘know’ to be true has to be updated to include or account for the confusion.

CONFLICT OF THE KNOWN AND UNKNOWN
For example, if you had to swing across a rocky pit on an old rope hanging from an old tree limb, your limited knowledge of the rope’s ability to hold you and the sturdiness of the branch stand in opposition to the sure knowledge that a plunge into a rocky pit will likely inflict bodily harm results in doubt regarding your survival. Until you were in that specific situation, you never had the opportunity to doubt: it is conflict of known and unknown that produce doubt.

DOUBT IN THE BIBLE
As discussed in a previous post, YHWH highly values trusting, relational cooperation: faith. Contrary to  claims by skeptics, this relational trust is reasonable. In the Old Testament faith is never required without sufficient evidence given of YHWH’s identity, character, nature, and power. This is as true of Jesus, (God with us) in the New Testament as it is in the Old Testament.

John 10:25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me

 

John 10:38even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

 

John 14:11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.”

Jesus repeatedly states that ample evidence has been provided to support his claims; trust at this point is more than reasonable.

To return to the analogy of the rope and rocky pit, if you took time to test the rope and branch and determined that it would hold you, or if you saw a larger person swing over first, the unknown factors causing your doubts would be sufficiently addressed to make the rope swing option reasonable. In the same way, the God of the Bible has provided ample evidence throughout history to support his claims of faithfulness, kindness, goodness, and love toward His people, notably in Christ’s death on the cross (Rom. 5:8).

DOUBTING THOMAS
The Christian life is a life of interpersonal faith: reasonable, trusting cooperation in YHWH, the three-in-one God of scripture, what He has done and what He has promised. Repeatedly in the gospels, Jesus explains his nature and purpose, provides signs to authenticate his claims, then calls people into a trusting relationship with the Father through himself, the Son. Having been Jesus’ constant companion for three years would have given Thomas adequate proof to trust that Jesus had risen from the dead. But in light of our understanding of doubt as conflict of known and unknown, I think Thomas’s response was completely reasonable.

Thomas knew about the brutality and professionalism of Roman soldiers regarding crucified prisoners. Besides Jesus, no one he knew could raise the dead back to life, and now Jesus was certainly dead. This new knowledge came in direct conflict with his previous ‘knowledge’ about Jesus. In his understanding, death was the ultimate unknown, the unsolvable, untestable end of all trust. Yet Thomas offered a criteria for overcoming his doubt, a way to “test the rope” and solve the doubt conflict: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25). Jesus did not disappoint:

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” (John 20:27)

Jesus respected Thomas’s need without judgement, offering him the very evidence he required to overcome his doubt. Only after supplying the necessary proof does he call Thomas to renewed trust: Do not disbelieve, but believe.

DOUBT AS AN OPPORTUNITY
The nature of loving relationship requires active trust (faith). Inter-relational trust is dynamic, not static. Episodes of doubt can serve to increase trust, love and enjoyment in another person. Doubt is therefore not an enemy of faith (or love) but an opportunity to reaffirm the inter-relational connection with the Personal God of history.

AN ILLUSTRATION FROM MARRIAGE
A couple considering marriage provides an excellent example of how doubt is opportunity. One or both parties in an engagement can have ‘cold feet’; doubt about whether or not to go ahead with the marriage. Most often nothing has changed with the other person: the doubts are not (usually) due to a complete misunderstanding of the future spouse’s character or intentions. Instead, the unknown future of a married life, its challenges, demands and dependence on another person, creates a conflict. Reviewing the proven qualities and character of one’s spouse-to-be and considering the wise counsel and example of older married couples can overcome the future doubts, not by guaranteeing certainty, but by providing reasonable grounds to step forward into the adventure of marriage.

BAD DOUBT
In closing, I should note that there is a wicked kind of doubt. Doubting someone who has always been faithful to you, or who has provided ample evidence of  their trustworthiness or ability without cause is unjust. When the one being doubted is the Triune God of Everything, this kind of doubt is literally inexcusable.

In the garden of Eden, Eve was deceived by the serpent who slandered YHWH’s credibility. Taking the word of a lesser being over the word of God, Eve’s previous knowledge of God’s goodness was tarnished by alternate ‘facts’ resulting in tragedy for all of humanity.

In the New Testament, Paul animatedly denounces the Judaizers who had added circumcision to the gospel:

Foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith (Galatians 3:1-5)

Paul indicates that the Galatians had ample evidence of the truth of the gospel through the Miracle-producing presence of the holy Spirit. Doubt in the face of overwhelming proof can not be rationally explained; it is either the result of deceptive “bewitchment” or will-full ingratitude and rejection (Romans 1:18-23).

REFLECTION QUESTIONS:

  1. Have you viewed doubt as something to be avoided and feared?
  2. Do you avoid books, speeches, films, etc. because you think they will shake your faith?
  3. Does your working definition of doubt see it as an opportunity to know and trust the Savior more?
  4. Can you think of anytime in the Bible in which God provided no proof of his power or authority prior to asking for an exercise of relational trust?
  5. Is absolute certainty a requirement for the relationships you have? Does absolute certainty or reasonable certain better characterize human activity?
  6. How can the definitions of Faith and Doubt in this article give you greater confidence in how you live and share your Christian hope?