The gospel is news, a message. Jesus died for our sins and came alive again conquering the effects of sin. This is a simple message with mind boggling implications. The implications do not apply unless someone believes the message and trusts its veracity. This means the gospel does not automatically apply to everyone. New birth and union with Christ are necessary for the message to apply. Only God the Spirit can effect this transformation in someone’s being. The critical crossroads is trusting that God will do what He said He has done in the gospel. This message changes everything, and rejection or acceptance of it is cataclysmic.
Our self-created heart idols often are good desires. We think if we could only have or obtain such and such we will have a full, happy life. If only I reached this in my career, if only my kids turn out, if only I have this relationship, if only I get this status, if only I feel this way about myself, then I will be happy. These idols are the heart’s fondest desires or the most fundamental hopes we hang on to. What do I hope in for my future? If I lose that hope and feel despair and worthlessness, then that is probably an idol in my heart.
God promised Abraham an heir – a son. Having a son in that culture and time was extremely important and highly valued. It was a good thing to have a son. God gave the promise, yet Abraham waited for several decades. Decades! Did God fulfill His promise?
Abraham’s Potential Idol
Abraham received a son years after the promise. Those were years of growing in faith and trusting the character of God. Not long after, God told Abraham to go to the mountain and sacrifice his promised son, Isaac. Abraham went and almost killed his only son on that altar to God. Abraham was not just willing to sacrifice, but he was in the act of sacrificing the good, promised, long-awaited child. God knew Abraham’s heart. God was purifying Abraham’s love for God. Abraham surely would have made Isaac an idol of his heart. This idol would have destroyed Abraham and his relationship with his son, for idols always brings bondage and destruction.
Similarity between Abraham and Me
I can really relate to Abraham’s story! God has given promises (Ro. 8:28; Ps. 37:4; John 10:10; 1 John 1:9). I can’t even hardly begin to list all the promises God gives. Yet often don’t feel that I am experiencing those promises. Scriptures often depict the Christian life as one filled with overflowing joy. I experience a lot of pain, disappointment, despair, and joylessness. I’m amazed when I trust God and cast aside my latest anxiety or disappointment caused by my current idol and feast on God’s strength and character that I experience a sweet peace and deep joy.
Touching the Divine
It’s an intoxicating experience touching the Divine. I suppose we were designed at our core to find the fullest joy and satisfaction experiencing intimacy with the Holy Other by touching the One who did not spare His own well-loved Son but gave Him up for us so we could have a relationship with the Divine! Love so amazing so beautiful so overwhelming! Idols seem so foolish and small in comparison to the real thing.
Hope for the Future
I also find hope in Abraham’s story. Hope that my faith and trust in God can grow. I often feel that I struggle with the same junk and issues and idols. It seems my faith and affections don’t change. Abraham grew! That place of affection and trust in God is so vital to our fullness and happiness in this life, meaning as I get older the happier and more fulfilled I become because my experience and trust in God are growing!
Recently I’ve started meeting with a small group of Christian men in the Beaufort area. We’ve just started so I’m not sure exactly what our time together will look like, but I’m excited about the creation of spiritual community. We decided to work through Tim Keller’s Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters. These are all issues that most men struggle with in everyday life. I’m hoping to blog through each chapter as we go through it in our mens group.
Tim Keller’s premise is well-presented throughout the Introduction: “If anything becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity, then it is an idol” (xxi). Idolatry is fundamentally a heart matter – an affection disorder. God says the core issue is “these men have set up their idols in their heart” (Ez. 14:3). True idolatry is not necessarily bowing and sacrificing to carved images rather it is a much deeper issue, cutting to the core of our being.
I can really relate to this affection disorder. My heart is a big mess of conflicting desires and passions. I desperately want connection, happiness, and meaning in my life – what Charles Taylor calls the “Place of Fullness.” I passionately seek it in a variety of ways. Surprise! I have a big idol grotto inside me. Worse, I have a heart that continually creates and recreates idols as John Calvin lamented.
Our idols control us and destroy us. They dominate our emotions, our choices, and our affections. They rob us of peace and happiness. They take away the beauty and joy of life. They create despair and a cluster of serious problems. The first step is exposing and identifying the idolatry in our hearts and in our culture. But that’s not enough. The rest of Keller’s book exposes those idols and points us toward our only hope and freedom.
“The only way to free ourselves from the destructive influence of counterfeit gods is to turn back to the true one. The living God, who revealed himself both at Mount Sinai and on the Cross, is the only Lord who, if you find him, can truly fulfill you, and, if you fail him, can truly forgive you” (xxvi).
People often see the pasting of their life as different chapters or seasons. This is only natural in our Western culture because the year cycles through four seasons. Each season brings different joys and hardships. Most people have a favorite season but each season provides experiences and opportunities none of the others can give. Seasons are not something we chose rather they come and go independently of our willing or desires. Seasons in life are often not our choosing despite our cunning plans and desires (Prov. 16:9; James 4). Regardless, we are responsible for the choices we make and the responses we have toward our life situation.
Just as each natural season has unique joys, so each life season has unique joys unknown in the other seasons. I argue that the center or fountain of joy in life is unchanging – God (Ps. 16:11). Every happiness, pleasure, or joy in life reflects the Trinitarian joy of God. Why bring in the big technical word? Because the joy God experiences within the mystery of the Trinity (Father, Spirit, Son) is the only way to describe this vast infinite the fountain of joy.
As we live through difficult, gloomy seasons or bright, happy seasons, the center of joy is experienced differently. During a hard season, the nearness and warmth of God may be experienced and known. During a season of routine and busyness, the steady, stabilizing and energizing presence of God may be experienced. The experiences of joyful living are infinitely diverse and unique to each person. Only God gives the power to enjoy all the different things and experiences that come in our lives (Ecc. 6:2). God gives joy in study, friends, lovers, nature, travel, art, family, work, kiteboarding, worship, Scripture, music, food, and the list could go on. Some of these joys happen more often than others depending on the season of life. We are called to receive by faith and enjoy each season to the fullest as a wonderful gift from God the source of all joy (1 Tim. 4). We should not look or long for any of the other joys found in future or past seasons. All are reflections of the joy found in God himself. The joy of God alone is the only joy we should want and seek more of for all other joys point toward the exploding ocean of the joy found in God.
Imagine an uninvited prostitute forcing her way toward an honored guest at a church dinner party. She embraces the honored guest and begins crying at his feet, identifying him as a friend. This scandalous image is how Tim Chester begins chapter two of A Meal with Jesus. Chapter two expounds on Luke 7:36-39 when Jesus was eating dinner with the Pharisees and a unwelcome prostitute came and embraced Jesus, crying and letting down her hair. Tim explains the cultural context surrounding the dinner and the culturally shocking behavior of the woman. Jesus knew exactly who she was, and yet he permitted this woman to join her identity with his own. Tim emphasizes that Jesus is not the rebel rather he becomes the sinner for us. He dies the death of a rebel.
Not only does Luke 7 depict Jesus welcoming sinners but also records how a sinner welcomes Jesus. Imagine the shame this prostitute felt, busting into a party with a bunch of self-righteous religious folks. I can imagine the scorn someone like this would feel if she, as my friend, walked in as a prostitute to our small groups, Christian parties, youth groups, and church services. I can already hear the whispering amongst the church kids and the elderly saints about how he or she is dress, smells, and talks much less how I even know someone like them. She did it because of her overwhelming love for Jesus.
Of course, we are more subtle and tolerant of such people today in our churches. Still we won’t actually link our identity with them. Our love doesn’t cost us. We don’t get involved with them as people. We only identify with them because we want them to become like us or “get saved” not usually because we care about that individual. Do you actually desire to share in their messy life and then extend the life-giving grace and forgiveness of God? Or do you just want them to love Jesus because they are a messy problem and your “holy”, boring life is so much better? Tim Chester emphasizes that loving relationships with broken people begin with personally experiencing God’s grace as a fellow sinner. It is only then we will direct others to the joyful, overflowing grace and love of Jesus.
The chapter continues at length by explaining how meals create community and how the church should be like a meal (Acts. 2:46). The early church gatherings are described by Tertullian as a feast. Meeting in homes, hospitality was a central part of the church. Feasting together on a meal, prayer, the Word, and teaching characterized these early gatherings. Broken people find acceptance, healing, and life around the meal table of the church.
Many people love the idea of the church as a community. But when we eat together, we encounter not some theoretical community, but real people with all their problems and quirks. The meal table is an opportunity to give up our proud ideals by which we judge others and accept in their place the real community created by the cross of Christ, with all its brokenness. (Chester, 48)
The church is a community full of differences that humanly speaking ought to result in conflict. But we have a shared life-and-death experience. (53)
Here’s the community of the broken gathered around a meal, finding hope in the grace of Jesus. This is what church is to be: a community of broken people finding family around a meal under the tree of Calvary. (54)
As a side observation not found in the chapter, I find it interesting that the Lord’s Supper is one of the ordinances/sacraments instituted by the Jesus. This is a whole different issue, but I’ve always found the celebrating the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper as odd in our modern churches. After reading this chapter about how the church is a feast for the broken, I think the Eucharist makes a bit more sense. And maybe the church should integrate and view it differently…
Some songs enliven a difficult truth about God and draw us into worship. Every Day is such a song. Several months ago I discovered this song on Sovereign Grace’s album Come Weary Saints when I was struggling with some issues especially finding a job. In the past months, it has become richer and more meaningful as God has brought to life the words and truth in this song. God gave an incredible job beyond what I could imagine, but also He gave a deeper, more intimate relationship and knowledge of Himself. Open your heart and worship our great, sovereign God!
In Your grace, You know where I walk
You know when I fail
You know all my ways
In Your love, I know You allow
What I cannot grasp
To bring Your praise
Thank You for the trials
For the fire, for the pain
Thank You for the strength
Knowing You have ordained
Your great power is shown when I’m weak
You help me to see
Your love in this place
Perfect peace is filling my mind
And drawing my heart
To praise You again
In my uncertainty, Your Word is all I need
To know You’re with me every day
Words and Music by Joel Sczebel and Todd Twining.
© 2008 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music/Sovereign Grace Worship
I’m currently reading through A Meal with Jesus by Tim Chester. I just finished chapter one and wanted to meditate upon it a bit. The book’s basic premise is that Jesus fulfilled his mission through relationship especially via the community created by eating and drinking. Chapter one is an explanation of Luke 5:27-32 when Jesus partied with the sinners and tax collectors.
Tim Chester emphasizes the scandal of this passage. Jesus ate and drank with God’s enemies. It wasn’t just that the Pharisees didn’t like these people; they thought they were traitors to Israel and in opposition to God. And yet here was Jesus partying with them. Tim Chester expounds on the significance and meaning in partaking in a meal with someone in the ancient world. The Jewish food laws automatically created boundaries and a certain culture that excluded certain types of people.
The central idea of this passage is that God is creating something new that eclipses the old religious shadow-figures. Touching the leper no longer creates uncleanness but rather brings healing to the leper (Luke 5:12-14). The paralyzed man is not just healed but forgiven (vv. 17-26). The temple rituals of forgiveness shadow the reality, the Word. Fasting gives way to celebration (vv. 22-25). The new way cannot be amended to the old (vv. 36-39).
This new way is the way and life of grace. Grace works opposite of religion. Religion views life as a ladder. Satisfaction comes from moving up the ladder and feeling righteous about yourself. Tim Chester makes the point that we all have an idea or belief about what will make us satisfied, happy, and fulfilled in our lives. From these ideas, we create “rules” or self-expectations. Failure to reach one’s ideals leads to feelings of fear, insecurity, and anxiety.
Tim Chester brings out that Jesus didn’t come to condemn but to offer grace and salvation by taking our condemnation on himself at the cross. He knows what really gives us satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment. And it is something we can’t reach, find, or achieve. Our old ways of fulfillment always fail. Salvation is God accepting and transforming us. Our response should be faith and belief resulting in joy, feasting, life, and worship.
The chapter continues by expounding the three parables in Luke 15. I could write much about these parables, but the point that Tim draws out is that Jesus calls all to himself – the traitors and the self-righteous.
“Compare the old way with the new way. The new way is gracious rather than religious, inclusive rather than exclusive, welcoming rather than unwelcoming. It is characterized by feasting rather than fasting, rejoicing rather than grumbling. It recognizes its need and finds hope in the Savior rather than feeling self-righteous and therefore rejecting the Savior.” (Chester, 26)
Are we living this new way?
We’ve all experienced that reeling, crushing pain. A hurt that dazes us and makes us feel numb. Everything in the world seems dull and pointless. I dislike suffering and pain, and try to avoid it as much as possible. But God sometime gives us seasons of grief and hurt. There is a type of suffering that comes from our own mistakes and sinfulness, but suffering sometimes comes by God’s graciousness and goodness. This type of suffering is honestly tough for me to grasp because it seems paradoxical. Oddly enough, God gives a deep, satisfying joy through these seasons of grief. I want to explore this idea a bit more in future writing. But now I’m going to write backwards about this topic, starting with practical application.
What are some helps while facing suffering? I’m not an expert on this area of life because my life has been relatively easy and painless. But the Spirit has given some concepts that I’ve found extremely helpful when I’ve walked through seasons of suffering and grief. I’m giving the practical application and then plan to write later about the theology and thinking behind the surface of the practical. The theology and thinking really make the practical much richer and less rigid, but unfortunately we, including myself, often do not have the patience or appreciation for the reasons, thinking, philosophy, and theology that drive everyday life. I’m sure we could create a longer list or a list tailored for your situation. Hence, this is a good reason for knowing the theology and the thinking behind the practical; you can create your own application based on correct thinking and truth. Anyway, here we go…
1. Remember God loves you and really likes you and has deep affection for you (1 John 4:7-10).
2. Remember God is doing this for your good and has your best in mind (Ro. 8:28).
3. Preach the gospel joyfully to yourself even when you don’t feel like it (Heb. 12:2-3). Jesus experienced the greatest pain and suffering possible, making our suffering look almost insignificant and much less painful.
4. Pray God would draw you into deeper intimacy with himself (Phil. 3:10).
5. Pray for the gift of contentment and enjoyment of the now (Phil. 4:11-13; Ecc. 5:18-19).
6. Go to church and gather together with other Christians.
7. Read theological books and learn to think and reason deeply.
8. Get into nature and mediate upon God and the beauty in his art gallery.
9. Reach-out and value relationships with people in your life especially family both flesh and blood relations and also your spiritual family.
10. Sing worship to God by yourself and with the church.
11. Keep a private journal expressing all your thoughts, emotions, and prayers.
12. Remember there is incredible hope in the future.
13. Seek help and guidance from friends, pastors, and counselors.
14. Verbally and emotionally cast all your care and pain on Jesus (1 Peter 5:7)
15. Pray against and guard against influence and destruction of demons (1 Peter 5:8-9)
16. Eat well and exercise your body even when you don’t feel like it.
17. Remember it’s not all about you. It’s about the glorious, beautiful living God.
18. Cry for mercy from God and have faith in him for in the end only He can heal, restore, and bring new life to you. We are just blind beggars in need of grace and mercy. (Luke 18:35-43)
Two years have pasted since I last sat and took up the pen. I’m amazed at all that’s happened. I’ve made new friends, met and left a new community, moved and left a new city, started and finished a degree, and found a dream nursing job. But I’m most excited because I know and feel that my relationship with God has changed. God has and continues to draw me into a deeper, richer intimacy. He’s given amazing victories over sin and doubt. He’s walked with me through the deep, dark places, yet He pours his overflowing goodness upon me. I’m discovering the amazing joy, peace, and life God lavishes.
Why start blogging again? Why write to the anonymous public my thoughts and musings? Some have recently encouraged me to exercise the gift again. I hope and believe through my outpourings that God may touch another. I hope these may stand as a testimony to the living God in our confusing, broken world. A genuine faith tested and tempered by fire for the worshipping and glorifying of God. This is more precious than pure gold and priceless.
My church recently started teaching through Philippians. We’ve just started a couple of weeks ago, but it’s been an incredible experience so far! Not only are my pastors excited about Philippians, but also the people are really excited about learning from Philippians! I’ve never experience such community effort and involvement in an expository book series. Its almost like Philippians is a fresh, new letter from the Apostle Paul to Sovereign Grace Church of Greenville, and we’re thrilled to learn from it!
The key to this community effort is the small groups throughout the week. I meet with my community group every Friday night from 7p-10:30p (SGM lingo “caregroup”). A lot happens during my community group such as cultivating relationships, accountability, confession, prayer, healing, and breaking the bread; but a central part of my community group is the 2 hours we spend together as believers praising God and discussing the biblical text we heard on Sunday. Our goal is to discern how God is speaking to us as we live our everyday lives in Greenville 2009 – some Fridays it’s encouraging; other Fridays it’s really messy (as sin always is); but always I leave with hope in the gospel and a deepened bond with the body of Christ.
This last Friday night at community group, the community group leader asked a similar question for discussion that was asked the previous Friday before. “What robs us of our joy, and how does understanding the gospel and who we are in Christ remedy this problem?” I remember thinking about this the previous week but not sharing it for various reasons, so this time a response was burning on my mind, and I had a rare opportunity of group silence to blurt out some weak jumble of words about what robs me personally of the joy I should experience in Christ. I feel that I’m a better writer than speaker, so let me share what is burning in my mind and what I was trying to say. This happens to me a lot at community group; but for various (usually selfish/prideful) reasons, I don’t share.
What robs me of my joy in Christ is selfishness. Various specific sins are involved in my selfishness such as greed, laziness, idolatry, lust, pride, fear of man, and ignorance; but it all points back to me. I love being the center of my universe. Paul lived a life that is antithetical to how I generally live. Philippians speaks of this selflessness over and over again. The point was made at community group that we are created for another. He ought to be the center of my universe. Paul says in Philippians 2:17 that he rejoices when he is poured out like a drink offering for their sake. Paul found joy when he was totally forgotten and taken advantage of. This is not a selfish sadistic pain in pleasure but a pleasure in reaching outside oneself for the glory and profit of another.
I know that my life does not reflect this reality. I’m always thinking about me: “How do I feel?”
”Why is my energy so low?”
“Why doesn’t so and so do this?”
“How can I receive God’s blessing?”
“Maybe if I say this then so and so will be impressed and think I’m such a grace-filled Christian.”
“Maybe God will know how much I love him if I do such and such.”
“My life is great because I haven’t done any serious sin and I read my Bible everyday and go to church and pray for the missionaries and witness to at least one person a week.”
I’ve been guilty of all the above multiple times. Even the pursuit of joy itself can be selfish. Joy is a result of pursuing hard after God. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit. Joy is a product of totally living for another.
In reality, this is an anti-American lifestyle. Our pop culture teaches us that it’s all about me. Our churches teach that it’s is all about you pleasing a stern God or conversely you receiving some blessing from a loving God. Even forgiveness of sins can become selfish if we lose sight of why. It was mentioned at community group that Jesus endured the cross because of the joy set before him in glorifying the Father. It’s all about the Father. We suffer for the Father. We feel good for the Father. We breathe for the Father. We laugh for the Father. We are forgiven for the Father. We play for the Father. We serve for the Father. We love for the Father. We joy in the Father.
When we reach outside ourselves, then we experience true joy. As the Father reached out of Himself to us, so we must reach out of ourselves to Humanity. The Father loves the church, so I must reach outside myself to the church. The Father loves the world, so I must reach outside myself to the world. The Father loves me so I must live my life wisely and with stewardship and yet reach outside myself to others no matter how ugly, dirty, or beautiful. I am bad at this. I hate reaching out of myself, yet I can testify that I’ve experienced the greatest joy and growth when I stretched my limits of self-comfort.
I don’t fully understand selflessness because it almost seems like a logical contradiction. I don’t quite comprehend the fact that I am entirely God’s possession not my own. I don’t know how to live this fact out without erring on the side of selfishness whether legalism or passivity. This is where the gospel (God reaching out to me for his glory) comes into play every single day. But I do know that I’m called to reach outside myself for the Father. It is in this pursuit I find joy.
This is why I loved community group this last Friday. God is a relational being who has ordained a relational community to exist on earth bound by the gospel called the church whom I love as Paul loved. May we pour out ourselves as sacrifices in this modern world for the Father and thus experience joy.