Cheapening Forgiveness

Forgiveness: self-sacrifice, or self-help?

Forgiveness is just as prevalent a topic of discussion in self-help books as it is in Scripture, and in recent years, I think many of us have subscribed to the notion that forgiveness simply means to let go of an offense.  Whether at church or in a counselor’s office, I hear many of the same ideas that forgiveness is about our own emotional health.  One catchy phrase I have often heard is, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” We speak of “letting go” and “being free” and “moving on.” We say that once we forgive, we’re off the hook and it becomes the other person’s problem.  We don’t have to deal with the pain of being wronged.

Recently, though, while I was reading The God I Don’t Understand by Chris Wright, I came across this thought-provoking quote:
“[Forgiveness is] costly, for the offended one who chooses to forgive chooses to bear the pain and cost of the offence rather than hold it against the one being forgiven.”

When I look at the cross of Christ, I see that the quote rings true.  Christ ‘drank the poison’ and willingly died, and throughout eternity, even when all has been made right, His body will still bear the scars of his forgiveness.  He hasn’t forgotten or moved on, and praise God that in His darkest moment of suffering, He NEVER let go of us.  He held the offense close to His heart, and held us closer still.

Sometimes I forget this, when I haughtily decide to ‘move on’ because the person who hurt me ‘isn’t worth my time.’

I’m afraid that I’m guilty of cheapening forgiveness.

When we forgive, a deeply spiritual transaction takes place.  We transfer the hurt of the offense by declaring that the pain the other person deserves to hold in their guilt, we take upon ourselves to hold in our humiliation. We have the power to hold them guilty, or to declare them innocent.  The choice is ours.  Refusing to forgive is possibly the natural and just thing to do, and it continues along the predictable downward spiral of humanity’s fallenness.  Forgiveness, though — forgiveness is the choice to create a new reality, to live in the reality of the Kingdom.

When I speak of forgiveness as a form of emotional therapy, I rob it of any spiritual meaning and power.  When the purpose of forgiveness becomes about the benefits to me rather than about bearing the offense for the sake of another, I have neglected the very heart of forgiveness: namely, the other.

Was forgiveness ever really about my happiness in the first place?

Or do I distort it– do I cheapen it — by making it all about me?

“Forgiveness is costly,” Wright says.  Am I willing to pay its price?

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Showing Hospitality…to Yourself

There are seasons of my life in which God teaches me through repetition. This semester, it seemed that every experience, every casual conversation, every class period, indeed every moment, somehow tied into the larger theme of hospitality. From reading Henri Nouwen, to struggling through the awkwardness of hospice visits and learning to be comfortable in discomfort, to receiving the hospitality of others, I have thought and journaled enough about the idea to write a little book on it. Maybe I will one day. But until then, the blog will suffice.

So if I could sum up in a single sentence what I have learned about hospitality, it would be this: Hospitality is an attitude of the heart.

Until we have peace within ourselves which we can extend to others, hospitality is merely a matter of going through the motions – and recipients of this “hospitality” can often sense its shallowness. This is not to say that those who extend this sort of hospitality are insincere in their intentions. Rather, because hospitality by its very nature welcomes, affirms, and eases discomfort, anything less seems forced and awkward. To make others feel at ease, we must cultivate an atmosphere of peace and create an environment in which others feel free to be themselves.

Yet we cannot accomplish this until we are comfortable with who we are and experience peace within ourselves. Thus, the first person to whom we must show hospitality is ourselves.

A while back, I had an eye-opening experience in which I learned to offer grace and show hospitality to myself. I was among a small group of fellow theology majors, and one of my classmates led us through a self-examining meditation. In our imagination, we were to picture a five-year-old child coming to us and sitting on our lap – a five-year-old version of ourselves. What do you say to the child? She gives you a gift – what is it?

My imagination wasn’t working, and I inexplicably became frustrated, even angry. What stupid, cheesy gift would five-year-old me give me? “Heck if I know,” I thought. “This is dumb.”

Yet as another of my classmates shared through her tears how she just wanted to let the little girl know how beautiful she was, it illuminated some very deep feelings inside me.

The reason I couldn’t picture the little girl was because she repulsed me. I didn’t want her there ruining my hard-earned awesomeness with her five-year-old awkwardness that I had tried so hard to put away and forget about. I was ashamed of her and didn’t want to be seen with her. I was angry at her for not being athletic, for not being fashionable, for not being perfect. Forget telling her she’s beautiful — I wanted to shake her by the shoulders and scream at her to get with the program because she had made my life difficult.

A lifetime of built-up resentment came out in a startling, choking sob as I realized that this criticism is something I have always done to myself, as I punish my past self and try to live up to expectations of my tyrannical future self.

For most of my life, these deep underlying insecurities have prevented me from creating a hospitable environment. Acutely aware of my own insufficiencies and punishing myself for every awkward moment, I have fought against them rather than accepting them as a part of me and working with them.

When we as hosts feel tension inside ourselves, some intangible quality of discomfort is keenly felt by all. In addition to creating a negative atmosphere, insecurity with ourselves is self-centered rather than others-centered. When we worry more about how we come across, rather than making our guests feel comfortable, we are neglecting the very core of hospitality.

In the days after the meditation, as I overcame my reactionary pain, I knew what I had to say to my five-year-old self.

I had to tell her I was sorry for the guilt and the blame I had put on her, and the pressure to be perfect that I would never put on anyone else.

But it took me a little longer to recognize the gift she gave me.

My dad has always loved to tell the story of how I, as a little girl with a pure and generous heart, would offer to give away my last piece of candy. That little girl hugged and kissed everyone, even strangers, and wanted to be best friends with everybody – probably even a bitter 21-year-old.

She would accept me, even as I rejected her. The gift that 5-year-old me gave me was one I had never had the courtesy to offer her.

She gave me the gift of hospitality.

Published in: on December 19, 2013 at 10:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, and a Touch of Compassion

The thought first came to me while watching a video on Mother Teresa. I still find it difficult to articulate. But if I could attempt to describe it, it would be something along these lines: We are compelled to serve others in humbling ways simply because their humanity, in all its brokenness and — well, humanness — deserves recognition.

It came to me during a shot of Mother Teresa caressing the fingerless hand of a leper. Something inside me drew back in revulsion, and then was ashamed at my reaction. I tend to shy away from what is gross or uncomfortable, but after all, the hand is suffering and can’t help how it appears. It is a very human part of a soul whom I am called to love, and I must love it because it is a part of them. I must honor the mundane and even the downright unpleasant, because it is a part of God’s good creation, and it is a privilege to care for it.

We cannot shy away from the unattractive parts of our humanity, or pretend they don’t exist. We must embrace the blood, the sweat, the tears, the snot, everything that makes a person human.

I find feet to be creepy and disturbing, but they deserve to be washed with all the respect and tenderness of Jesus.

Hands deserve to be held.

Faces deserve to be touched.

Eyes deserve to hold a steady gaze.

The broken, the diseased, and the deformed yearn to be touched, and to be the one whose touch brings a smile to their face or tears to their eyes is just as great a privilege as holding the hand of a boyfriend or girlfriend — because in so doing, we affirm their humanity and our own.

The second time I thought — or rather, felt — this concept was when I saw these poignant pictures of Pope Francis blessing a man whose face was disfigured with a rare skin disease.

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It was fascinating to read comments like these from non-Christians who were touched by a picture of authentic love: “I assumed that any religious figure in public life was a fraud, but this guy makes you want to go to church to hear more. I’ve never felt that before.” And they say this because, from what I know of Pope Francis, he spends more time simply living like Jesus than pontificating stuffy religious principles. And profound theological insights, unless they manifest themselves in service which is profoundly practical, are not profound at all. We must spend at least as much time washing the feet of society as we do theorizing about heady ideas.

Very few speak the language of theology…

…But every broken person longing for a touch understands the language of love.

When, like Jesus, we engage in the brokenness of the world, it declares that humanity is worth something. Love is not only a feeling or a stagnant reality. Real love declares a truth, and in so doing, creates it. It does not merely exist, but by its very nature it calls into being the reality which it chooses to profess. In other words, by loving those whom the world considers unworthy, we declare a new reality — that they ARE worthy — and our very act of loving them makes them so.

Jesus took up His cross and declared that we are worth dying for.

As we selflessly love and serve and give, we profess the same reality — and in so doing, bring the Kingdom to earth.

Sex is Not About Sex

holiday“Sex makes everything complicated,” said Cameron Diaz to Jude Law in a 2006 romantic comedy called The Holiday. “Even if you don’t have it, the not having it makes things complicated.”

She’s right. Sex is complicated. This may be because sex is one of the most misinterpreted and misrepresented things in our culture…and I include church culture in that statement. As such, this post is going to look at sex not from a typical evangelical Christian standpoint, but from a Jesus standpoint.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

Throughout His ministry, in every word He preached and every parable He told, Jesus was concerned with matters of the heart. This has never been as abundantly clear to me as it has been these past few weeks as I’ve studied the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus seeks to reframe a legalistic understanding of the law by showing us that we tend to focus more on the action than on the intent. As the Pharisees demonstrated, it is often easier to regulate and micromanage our actions than it is to undergo a radical change of heart. The former requires control; the latter, surrender. It is more difficult to navigate the ambiguity of the heart than it is to impose fixed outward regulations.

The church’s teaching on sex has become a vicious cycle. Most teenagers growing up in Christian homes are admonished to save sex for marriage. However, for some, this has created a stigma that makes it impossible to have guilt-free sex even within the context of marriage. How can something that has been bad, bad, bad, suddenly become okay? This deeply rooted mindset cannot be overcome in a 15-minute exchange of vows when our minds have been shaped our whole lives by a warped understanding of sex.

And so as it became more acceptable to talk openly about sex, churches began talking about it. A lot. To combat the shame associated with sex, Christians began teaching their children how great sex is, explaining that it’s a special gift from God that we don’t want to “open too early.” Obviously this approach is hardly better, as it dangles sex like a carrot that they can’t have for another 8 years or so. The pendulum has swung too far — now we focus on sex more than we probably should.

With this new understanding came another misconstrued notion about sex, which claims either explicitly or implicitly that if you save sex for marriage, your sex life will be far more gratifying than it would otherwise be. Youth pastors become statistical machines teaching us that monogamous couples have more sex, pure couples have better sex, and it’s all about sex, sex, SEX.

But I’m going to be so bold as to say that Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, teaches that sex is not really about sex at all. And searching “sex” in your concordance to figure out what God thinks about it won’t get you very far, because a well-developed theology of sex is found in:

1) A true understanding of creation. “In the image of God He created them; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27).

Our humanity is uniquely defined by its status of being “in the image of God.” When we truly understand this, not just with our minds but with our hearts, it changes the way we see the rest of humanity. Each person is incredibly valuable regardless of gender, age, race, or social class, and we must treat with reverence whatever God’s holy hands have touched.

We must also understand that God’s creation is what it is; it is neither more, nor less. Pornography is damaging to relationships because it presents an unrealistic expectation of women and of sexuality. It not only causes men to see women as sex objects, but as inferior to the porn stars that feed their addiction. This is a horribly distorted view of creation — a woman’s body is “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Her beauty should be loved and appreciated for what it is, and should not forced to compete with unrealistic fantasies. God created each woman, and each woman is a good creation. Respect her, because she is the image of God and the work of His hands.

And to the women — we tend to be pretty hard on the men because they struggle more with the physical side of this, and sex is a physical act. But if Jesus is right, and lust is a matter of the heart, where does that leave us concerning emotional affairs? When we dreamily indulge in steamy romantic movies and fantasies of Prince Charming, this is also a distortion of reality that the good, honest men in our lives can never live up to. Don’t spend your time wishing that the perfect man exists, because there is no such thing. God created each man, and each man is a good creation. Respect him, because he is the image of God and the work of his hands.

2) A true understanding of surrender. “You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1st Corinthians 6:20).

A theme that I see running through each teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is this unspoken phrase, “It doesn’t belong to you.” You don’t have a right to be angry (Matthew 5:21-24); you can’t just dismiss your wife because she isn’t your property to dismiss (Matthew 5:31-32); don’t resist the one who takes your tunic, because it’s not really yours in the first place (Matthew 5:38-42). If even you are not your own and therefore must honor God with your body, then it must surely be true that because she is not yours, you must honor God by the way you treat her body. To use someone in any way (not just sexually), is to objectify them and demean their created status. Lust and pornography are so damaging because they declare that God’s creation exists solely to satisfy our appetites and is not worthy of our respect. We must understand that whatever we desire is not ours for the taking. The creation belongs to the Creator.

3) A true understanding of relationship. “Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

The Bible speaks of equality, of mutual submission, and of sincere love far more than it speaks about sex — but I think that every one of these relational qualities is inseparable from a true understanding of sex. Sex is only one of the many ways that we can choose to selfishly gratify ourselves at the expense of another, but it so easily reflects an imbalance of power and further contributes to chaos and brokenness within the creation. If we were to outdo one another in showing honor, women would not seduce and men would not solicit. There would be no “If you love me, you’ll show me.” Instead, valuing each other as equals, we would seek the highest good of the other.

Marriage doesn’t automatically make sex right. If it’s still a power play within the context of marriage, it’s just as wrong as adultery, because it devalues your partner in the exact same way. If your marriage fails because you’re “sexually incompatible,” you’ve missed the entire point of covenant faithfulness. If your demands cause your partner to feel inferior or ashamed, you have failed to honor him or her. This is what I mean by the phrase I used earlier, “the ambiguity of the heart.” Because there’s not one straightforward rule that divides appropriate sex from inappropriate sex, we have to critically examine the motives of our hearts. And sometimes that can be more difficult and painful than following a set of rules.

How does this change the way we teach about sex?

1) These foundational principles apply to far more than sex. 

If you reread the first two, you’ll find that a theology of environmentalism flows just as easily as a theology of sex. If you understand the second two, you’ll learn that leadership in any capacity is a matter of servanthood, not of coercive power.

If we teach our children these fundamental truths of Kingdom living as a framework for their lives, rather than rules about sex that have little or no context to support them, it will make far more sense in light of the big picture.

2) It shifts the focus from sex to purity.

Creating rules about sex is like treating the symptoms of an illness rather than the cause. When we constantly teach abstinence, the focus is still on sex, when sex is clearly not the main point of sex at all. When we teach relational (not just sexual) purity, questions like “How far is too far” become irrelevant. These principles shift the question from “How selfish can I be?” to “How unselfish can I be?” They don’t just tell us why sex outside of marriage is wrong; they teach us why purity outside of marriage is right.

3) It reframes the whole biblical discussion of sex.

Why is the Song of Solomon in the Bible? It represents a loving, egalitarian sexual relationship.

Under the law of Moses, why would a man who raped a woman have to marry her? Because he had dishonored her, and now he was bound to care for her.

Why did Jesus say that divorce is tantamount to adultery? Because both treat your spouse as disposable, rather than caring for him or her as a precious creation of God.

When we seek to understand the Word of God, proof texting misses the mark. All of Scripture is bound up together in a beautiful mosaic of Kingdom values, and until we see the big picture, we won’t understand where each piece fits in. If Scriptures about sex aren’t about sex, they must be about far more.

So take a moment and examine your heart. Do you view your brothers and sisters in Christ with reverence, or with objectifying lust? Does your sexual relationship honor and validate your spouse, or does it just satisfy your desires? Is sex about sex for you? Or is it an expression of something far deeper?

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for one another, love one another deeply, from the heart. –1st Peter 1:22.

For further reading that has recently helped to shape and refine my understanding of sex and relationship, you can click on the following links:

The Porn Myth — Naomi Wolf

My Virginity Mistake — Jessica Henriquez

Christians Are Not Called to Have Amazing Sex — Rachel Pietka

How a Critic of the Church Became a Lover of the Church

To some extent, I get why my generation as a whole is leaving institutionalized Christianity. They’re coming to see the missional call of God as something that is better expressed outside the church, because in many cases, the church has failed to live up to its own missional calling. It has turned inward rather than outward, becoming exclusive and judgmental and self-centered. There are plenty of things wrong with the church. Like Adam and Eve, like Hosea’s wife, like Israel, she has prostituted herself to the gods of American culture.

I get it.

But Jesus still loves His unfaithful bride.

I’ve had to come a long way to understand this. I empathize with my generation; I’m part of it. Having spiritual gifts that I believed were worthless in my church tradition, having a restless heart, a progressive mind, and a revolutionary spirit, I went through my own phase of bitterness and criticism.

My story is similar to the stories of my peers, but with one big difference. I understand the frustration and the temptation to give up on the church. I have experienced the pain that the church has caused. I’ve been judged for my appearance, been told I’ve overstepped my bounds as a woman, and even been accused of heresy.

I’ve waded through misinformed doctrine, bad theology, judgmental attitudes, and all manner of distorted truth and confusion and contradiction, stripped away the layers of tradition and preconceptions, and torn off the ribbons and adornments of centuries of religious assumption built upon religious assumption, until my naked hope found a beautifully simple and uncluttered Jesus.

And now I find myself in a unique position. I was raised in a conservative church tradition, broke the mold, rethought and reshaped practically all of my beliefs…and came back.

I came back to the tradition I swore I never would, because I believe that God has a unique role for me to fill. My role is not to run away and be some individualistic rebel without a cause. My role as a broken, messed-up person is to be in community with the broken, messed-up body of Christ. My role, as one who has experienced and empathized with both sides, is to bridge the gap between them.

Here’s what I’ve learned on this journey.

1. Unity doesn’t mean uniformity. I don’t have to agree with your views on predestination or premillennialism to accept you, love you, answer your phone calls at 2am, or call you my best friend. I believe that God calls us to a unity that transcends uniformity. Jesus said, “If you love only those who love you, what are you doing more than others?” By the same token, if we only consider those who share the exact same beliefs on every minute detail to be part of our community, how will we look any different to the world? All these denominations who “took their toys and went home” just look like a bunch of squabbling children. Again, Jesus said we would be known by our love, not by our exclusivity.

2. It’s a misconception that one can just “read the Bible” and find the one solid, absolute truth on any topic with no trouble. There are a lot of things the Bible is unclear about, and just about any position can be argued either way — and it’s been that way for centuries. There’s a reason that much of our theology is widely debated. Just because your brother or sister comes to a different conclusion, doesn’t mean that he or she hates God and is trying to destroy the church.

3. You can discuss differences without debating them. But the moment the Bible becomes a weapon, the moment it becomes about winning rather than about shared discernment and community, you need to backtrack quickly, repent of your divisive attitude, and reconcile with your brother or sister — who, by the way, is still your brother or sister.

4. Community is hard, but God intended for us to live in community. If you peace out because you’re tired of the uphill battle, you’re telling our Triune God that His greatest gift, indeed His very nature, isn’t worth fighting for. Jesus said that he who seeks will find. If, as I did, you hang on with dogged determination to what you know must be underneath the layers of confusion, you will find community there.

5. Leaders don’t leave behind. Think about it. If you turn around and there’s nobody following you, you’re not a leader. You’re just a loner. God has given me a passion for leadership and the strength to blaze trails, but if I become bitter or impatient and strike out on my own, I’ve forfeited my gift and have a lot of wandering sheep to answer for. What good is a scout who explores uncharted territory but doesn’t go back to tell those with him that there are green pastures ahead?

6. If you dislike the church as an institution, then love the church because of the people. If you dislike Christianity for the negative connotation often carried by religion, then love Christianity because of Christ, and love the church because He loves it.

7. It’s a little ironic, isn’t it, to be intolerant of intolerant people? Truthfully, I can’t stand them. I still struggle with it. I find it so much easier to have compassion on truly horrible people of the world than on members of the church who are bound by self-righteous legalism. And although Christ did tend to call these people out more so than “sinners,” it was not out of a spirit of hatred but of love. His righteous anger was for the self-made chains that bound those whose knowledge should have made them the most liberated. But have compassion on the intolerant, and pray for them to awaken to freedom.

8. As I said in another recent post, for every reason to leave a church, there are a million ones to stay. Every smile, every hug, every moment of fellowship, is like an anchor that pulls at my heartstrings and tethers me to the church. I can leave because of pride…or I can stay because of people. Broken, imperfect, irritating, beautiful people…just like me.

Do I still have growing pains? Absolutely. Do I still call out the church for its blunders? Yes, or I wouldn’t be true to my calling. But now it is in an entirely different spirit — one not of bitterness and one-up-man-ship, but of a loving leadership that desires the church to find its full expression of life and freedom in Christ.

And these lessons, beloved brothers and sisters, each one learned along a difficult journey with blood and sweat and tears, are how an angry critic of the church came to love it passionately, learning to make sacrifices and serve in humility. Because in the end, we’re all just trying to be like Jesus — but since the beginning, Jesus just wanted us to be together.

Exposing Shame and Condemnation

She looked at me intently. “What do these self-condemning voices tell you?”

I shook my head and tried to laugh it off. “I mean, it sounds ridiculous…I don’t know.”

But she was serious. “What are some of the things they say?”

My uncomfortable laugh gave way to a single tear and my loud, overconfident voice faded to a whisper. “That I’m not good enough. That I don’t deserve anything good. That I’m…a faker. All I do is hurt other people and…” I swallowed hard. “…ruin everything, no matter how hard I try. That I’m not…I’m not worth it.”

She continued to look at me, pen poised over paper. I was mortified that these things were being written down. “What else?” she prodded gently.

I took a deep breath and continued.

And the healing began.

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This picture is of me. I realize how awkward that is, especially since I’m not depressed. In fact, I had to set my camera very precariously on a chair, click the self-timer, and throw myself against the wall in a depressed heap in 6 seconds. This is what happens when your roommate is gone, leaving you model-less.

But the scene I described above was the first time I had ever actually voiced aloud the self-condemning thoughts that have haunted me my whole life. And I share this with you because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. I’m pretty sure that, on some level, all of us have dealt with shame and condemnation.

Most people who know me would describe me as an ambitious, confident person — and most of the time, I am.

But sometimes, I’m not.

And so tonight, at the risk of destroying that image, I’m going to publicly uncover the lies I’ve believed about myself — because I want to empower you to do the same.

Here’s the first thing you need to know about shame: It’s not from God.

Conviction of sin comes from the Holy Spirit and it is constructive. If you have hurt someone and you feel a prick of guilt that prompts you to make things right, that is conviction. But if you have overwhelming, dehumanizing, relentless shame that attacks who you are rather than what you’ve done, that’s a sign that there is no truth in it. 

“I’m disgusting.” “I’m worthless.” “I’m damaged.” These are all statements that focus on identity, but even if they stem from things you have done in the past, your actions do not determine your identity. If you are in Christ, you have a new identity that is not based on anything you have done. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). You are a child of the King, He loves you, He wants you to have abundant life, and He never intends for you to be paralyzed by guilt. Conviction is enabling; shame is incapacitating. If you recognize it as something that holds you back, it’s a lie that needs to be exposed.

And that is the only way you can begin to defeat shame: to expose it for the ridiculous lie it is, to speak it out loud and watch its power disintegrate.

You see, shame only exists inside your mind. It thrives on secrecy and solitary confinement. You feel as though it’s too shameful to be revealed, and so you keep it inside where it builds on itself, where it hides in the dark corners of your mind and consumes you.

But you are not alone.

You are not alone.

The longer you keep it inside, the more doubt it creates. The truer it seems. The more it paralyzes you.

When lies remain unspoken in your mind as vague and abstract thoughts, as intangible concepts that you can’t capture or put your finger on, they control you.

But when you identify them, when you force them into words, when you speak the lies out loud…

…they sound ridiculous. They are baseless accusations that only appear daunting because they hide in shadow, looming over you, larger than life. But when brought into the light, they wither away. They cannot intimidate you, because they are only ominous when cloaked in darkness. They can no longer control you.

Speak them. Write them down, in all their humiliating, hideous glory. It doesn’t matter who you are or what image you think you have to uphold.

“There’s something wrong with you.”

“You’re a waste of time and money.”

“How can you even call yourself a pastor? Who do you think you are?”

“You’ll never get better. This is who you are and all you’ll ever be.”

“You’re the only one.”

“You can’t tell anyone…what would they think of you?”

Whatever that thought is that you’re thinking right now — force it to speak, force it to show itself. It’s the only way to be free.

I’m begging you not to suffer in silence. Don’t wait, hoping it will disappear; it won’t go away unless you expose it. The moment you hear a voice of self-condemnation, before you even allow it to take root, write it down, tell someone, and laugh at its absurdity. If you feel like you have no one to talk to about it, please shoot me a message. It doesn’t matter who you are. You just need to get it out there.

“Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said, ‘Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'” –Ephesians 5:13-14.

Make the choice to be free today.

 

Published in: on September 13, 2013 at 12:12 am  Comments (1)  
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The Society Gap

A few days ago, I was having a conversation with my uncle in which he mentioned that Christians keep at an arms length away from society.  I started thinking about that comment.  It kept me up that night as I mulled it over.  For some reason, it didn’t quite sit right with me, but I wasn’t sure why.  And then I realized.

We talk about being “in the world, but not of the world,” based on Jesus’ words in John 17:14-17.  But I think we focus more on the latter half of that phrase — “not of” — more than we focus on the fact that we are, indeed, very much “in” the world, and I believe we are called to be right in the middle of society.

Why?

First, if we look at the life of Jesus, we find Him in all the places we would tend to avoid.  With Samaritans (Arabs?), tax collectors (crooked lawyers?), lepers (AIDS patients?), the demon-possessed (mentally ill?), and prostitutes.  Jesus didn’t keep an arms length away.  There was no society gap that His love didn’t cross, no barrier that wasn’t swept away by His indiscriminate tidal wave of compassion.

Second, we consider that we must separate ourselves from society in order to distinguish ourselves as upright, moral people.  But truthfully, Christians did not invent the society gap.  There are thousands of society gaps created by racists, sexists, politicians.  All of them want to separate themselves as wheat from the chaff.  Nobody wants to be associated with people groups that they consider in any way inferior; everyone is trying to make some sort of statement by their separatism.  People are very used to being excluded from various groups, and Christian separatism is no different to them.  We think we can make people change their behavior by not associating with them in any legitimate capacity until they conform, but it doesn’t work that way.  Instead, they simply think, “Another group who thinks they’re too good for me.  Whatever, I don’t need them.”  We want to be known by our reputations of high moral character — but Jesus said we would be known by our love.  Jesus wasn’t concerned with His reputation.  In fact, in many circles, He had a pretty crummy reputation, but He didn’t bother defending Himself to those who misjudged Him.  The outcasts who truly encountered Him were forever changed, and that was enough for Him.  It was worth the risk to His reputation.  You see, we think distancing ourselves from society will make us stand out, but it doesn’t, because everyone else thinks that as well.  Here’s the paradox: if we want to look different from the world, we have to plunge headfirst into it.

Why don’t we?

I think in a lot of ways, it’s far easier to distance ourselves from society than to wade through the gray areas of unconditional love.  You see, love is messy.  Really messy.  It gets into all these complicated issues of accepting people vs. condoning behavior, loving the sinner and hating the sin, etc., etc.

Do we throw a baby shower for a baby born out of wedlock?

Can we enjoy hanging out with an alcoholic?  Or do they have to be a project, a charity case?

How many times do we let someone mess up before they’re a lost cause and we cut them off?

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions.  They’re hard questions.  But I think we need to confront and work through the tough stuff instead of brushing it under the rug and pretending it’s not there.

Dean Barham from Woodmont Hills church of Christ once spoke on the parable of the sower, introducing a new twist I had never thought of before: the Sower didn’t plant His seed carefully.  He scattered it at random, without concern for what kind of ground it would land on.  It didn’t matter if it landed among the thorns.  It just mattered that He sowed it.  And it’s the same way with us.  We can’t be selective about who we love.  We’re not called to invest in the ones with the most potential.  Sometimes we just need to scatter the seed of Christ’s love without worrying about where it falls or how it’s received.  Really, isn’t that what unconditional love is all about anyway?  You can’t rein in the radical love of Christ.  Sometimes — no, all the time — we just need to let it spill out onto everyone around us, whether that’s buying a stranger’s lunch or being the only one to have compassion on the preacher who was fired for embezzling.  When justified scathing judgment is hemming him in, maybe a bit of unexpected, undeserved love is what will bring him to his knees.

Not only is it easier to distance ourselves, but it’s also a great deal safer.  As much as we talk about surrendering to God, I’m pretty sure that very few of us have actually surrendered our reputations.  A lot of it we excuse by saying, “I can’t be seen hanging out with this person because it will damage my witness!”  To you — and to myself, because I’m guilty too — I’ll say the following: first, that’s just an excuse.  That’s you wanting to be in control of what people think of you.  You say that you’re trying to protect Jesus’ reputation, but He didn’t care about protecting it, and He doesn’t need you to protect it.  Second, if you’re worried that people won’t be able to see a difference between you and the world, you’re probably not living right yourself.  If you’re all out for Jesus, it won’t matter who you hang out with.  They’ll see the difference.  They’ll know.

We also want to protect ourselves and our kids from the influence of the world.  With kids, I’m a little more understanding, because they’re like little sponges.  But if it’s about you, forget the fear and get your head in the game.  You might be introduced to some new ideas and difficult questions outside the security of your Christian bubble.  Good.  You can’t find truth if you never have to look for it, and you’ll never get answers if you never ask questions.  Being in the world turns theoretical discussions into practical ones and makes you think about why you believe what you believe.  It’s like being pushed out of the nest — it might be a little uncomfortable and a little scary, but that’s how you learn to fly.

What do we do about it?

Living in the world, in the gray areas, takes a lot of faith.  It’s not all black and white out there, and like I said, love can be really messy and really awkward.  So the first thing you have to do is rely heavily on Jesus.  You have to trust Him with your reputation and trust Him to guide you through the murky waters of messy love.  You have to feel your way through when to confront in love and when to let go in love, when to speak in love and when to be silent in love.

Pray a lot.  Love a lot.  Live a lot.  Read about the life of Jesus over and over.

See people as people, as beloved children of God.  We all have a common denominator; we’re all broken and we all need Jesus.  Some people may not be receptive right away, but they still need Him.  He loves them, and so should you.

He breathed the same life into that struggling addict that He breathed into you.

He counts the tears of the “slut” who cries herself to sleep trying to find acceptance.

He carefully formed each little finger and toe of baby Hitler.

No one is an accident.  No one is a mistake.

If nothing else, we must love people because they are His creation of whom He said, “It is good.”

And maybe as we start to strip away our own pride and complacency and see a lost, broken, hurting world, rather than a bad, sinful, malevolent world…

…maybe love and compassion will take over and the society gap will begin to close.

Faith and Worry

This kid has a theological pet peeve.

Actually, I have more like a million.  But tonight I will bring one of them to your attention.  Typically, I can’t handle cute Christianese phrases.  I shudder every time I pass a church sign that says “Seven days without prayer makes one weak.”  It’s like fingernails on a chalk board.  Homonyms are tacky.  Rhymes are possibly even worse.  And there is little to no theological depth behind any of these little maxims.

As such, one of my least favorite phrases is “Too blessed to be stressed.”  Even worse is its evil cousin, “Too anointed to be disappointed.”  Three-syllable rhymes are even more unacceptable than one-syllable rhymes, and the theology here is crushingly bad.  There’s no other word for it.  Just bad.

For one thing, it’s horrendously smug.  When you paste on a self-satisfied smile and tell a struggling person, “I’m too blessed to be stressed!”, it sends the following message: I am a super-Christian. You are ungrateful and have no faith.

Disappointment in this life is a very real obstacle, regardless of how “anointed” you may be.  But when you say that you’re above stress and worry because you have superior faith in Jesus, it makes a very normal person feel very alone in their struggles.  Now in addition to the cloud of worry hanging over their head, which is probably very legitimate and justifiable, they have a sinking feeling in the pit of their stomach and the nagging thought, “I’m not a real Christian.”

When we don’t allow people to feel their feelings, we lose a vital sense of transparency — and thus, community.  Honest communication shuts down, and we get the fake little plastic smiles as we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to make ourselves super-Christians — happy little robots who are too anointed to be disappointed.  And somewhere in the midst of all this pretending, we lose the entire point of the gospel.

You see, Jesus didn’t come so that we would never experience these negative emotions, but so that we would have hope in the midst of them.

I have heard people before use Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:25-34 as a strict command, as if a dark and angry Jesus is towering over us gravely shaking his finger in our faces and saying ominously, “Stop worrying! That’s what the pagans do.”  I have heard people reason, “Worry signifies a lack of faith…worry is a sin!”

It was a cool concept.  It made sense to me.  I eagerly jumped on the bandwagon and quickly agreed, “Yeah! Worry is a sin!”  Whenever I worried, I would slap myself around a little bit and anxiously repent, “God! I’m sorry! I’ll do better!”  And I would shove the worry into a closet and slam the door and paste on a fake smile, hoping that all that worry wouldn’t build up and come bursting out in a panic attack.  What kind of witness would that be?  What would that say about my faith?  I would be an ungrateful, un-anointed un-Christian, that’s what.

But then one day I saw Jesus’ words in a new light.  I saw a gentle, loving Jesus stooping down and tenderly cupping my face in his hand, saying in a soft voice, “Don’t worry, beloved.  I have it taken care of.”

At this point in my life, I truly do not believe that faith and worry stand in opposition to one another.  Rather, I see worry as a chance to exercise faith.  I do not believe stress to be a sin.  If you’re insistent on viewing it in a negative light, you could see it as a temptation.  But instead, I choose to see it as an opportunity: not to shove it in a closet or pretend it isn’t there, not to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and be a super-Christian, but to snuggle into the arms of the Savior and childishly, trustingly tell Him that you need help.

I’ve mentioned in another post, Dear Grace, that sin is less about doing something wrong than it is about a state of separation from God.  I’m open to correction, but this is the way I see it.  Jesus didn’t die because you parked illegally in a handicapped spot; He died to bridge the gap between God and humanity, to draw you back to Himself.  Following this logic, I would consider it more destructive to our relationship with God to pretend we’re fine when we’re not, than to allow ourselves to struggle.

The point of the gospel isn’t to ignore our brokenness; the point is to address it.  Salvation isn’t about denying our humanity; it’s about surrendering it to Jesus.  Don’t put Jesus off until you’ve got your act together; your messed-up-ness is the entire reason you need Him.

Don’t put contempt or condemnation behind words that are meant to be comforting and reassuring.  You don’t have to shoulder the burden with all the bravado of Superman.  There’s another way:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Love as Defined by Culture…Love as Defined by Christ

A few days ago I was chatting with a friend about love.  Being college girls in our early twenties, just a year away from graduation and still without prospects like we were promised at freshman orientation, we spend a lot of our time discussing it.  Probably too much.  This particular time, we were discussing the difficulty of seeing a long-ago friend-zoned guy in a romantic way.  And then I said, “One day, we’re probably going to figure out that this whole marriage thing is really more about being with a steady, supportive companion anyway.”  And I think what I said was right, but why can my words not connect to my heart?

In other blog posts, I’ve ranted on and on about how desensitized we are to our culture and how, even though we think we follow Christ, we often follow culture instead because it’s all we know.  I’ve been so convicted about taking off the blinders and seeing the narrow road for what it is.  And tonight God showed me a new aspect of that: we have warped, twisted, and disfigured His idea of love into some wishful, lustful, fantasized romance.

Love is unconditional – yep, we got that.  But we’re only going to unconditionally love the people we choose, and we choose the ones who are good enough for us, which really erases the need for the whole unconditional part.1-corinthians-rings

I’m not saying that we need to return to a system of arranged marriages, but think about it for just a second.  It’s hard to comprehend, because we’ve never known such a thing.  The thought horrifies us.  Learning to love someone after marriage?  Learning to love someone simply because you have to, because you’re stuck with them in spite of hardships and grievances and petty annoyances?

Hmmm. Sounds uncomfortably like the love of Christ.

In the movie The Wedding Planner, Mary’s father tells her how he fell in love with her mother:

“Your mother and I had an arranged marriage.  We met on the day of our wedding.  We wouldn’t even look at each other.  I was in love with another girl, and your mother wanted nothing to do with me.  She said I had big eyebrows and a low IQ.  Anyway, one day I got very sick with scarlet fever, and she stayed by my side.  She took good care of me.  For the first time, I appreciated her.  Then appreciation grew to respect.  Respect grew to like.  And like grew to love…a deeper love than I could ever hope for.”

We’re conditioned to flinch at the thought of being with someone we don’t “love,” but what do we really mean by that?  Someone we’re not attracted to?  Someone who doesn’t meet our every need?  It’s not about being with who you love, but loving who you’re with.

A while back, I was journaling my thoughts and prayers and asked God to bring me a man of spiritual maturity and depth who would be more in love with God than he would ever be with me, who would be a good father and who would care about me and support my call to ministry.  I’m ashamed to admit this, but then I panicked a bit, realizing that this type of person might also be a sensitive man who cries, or a romantic who’s a little more into PDA than I.  So a part of me wanted to add, “And who never embarrasses me in public, please God, amen.”

Yes. I can be that shallow.

But the words never passed my lips, because as soon as they entered my brain I realized their utter ridiculousness.  Instead, God brought me to my knees in humility as He convicted me of my cultural short-sightedness and began to show me a glimpse of real love.

You see, our society has taught us to believe that we’re defined by who we love.  If we love somebody bold and important and exciting, that elevates our social status.  Conversely, if we love someone who’s not cool, that must mean we’re not cool.  If they do something awkward, we feel embarrassed because we consider it a reflection on ourselves and our taste in men/women.  But we’re not defined at all by who we love; we’re defined by how we love.  Jesus said that all men will know we are His disciples if we love one another (John 13:35) — regardless of how easy to love the “one anothers” are.

No marriage will be without its frustrations or irritations.  The vows of “sickness and health, richer or poorer” are not just nice fluffy words.  There will be hardships and pain, and yes, times that you want to hide and pretend you don’t know your spouse.

But if God does bring me a man of integrity who loves Him above all else, whose only fault happens to be that he makes dumb jokes or embarrasses me with PDA, it won’t kill me to laugh and to hold his hand in public.

But even if it did, isn’t unconditional love something we’re supposed to die for?

the cultural church. take 2.

Assignment for class: Write an iconoclasm treatise on something you want to change in the church.

Idea: Steal the title and first sentence of an old blog post and build on that foundation.

Product: See below.

In a culture consumed by consumerism, infiltrated with individualism, and saturated with syncretism, I have to wonder just how well the typical American church measures up to what Jesus intended for His body.  The place where contrite sinners used to come on their knees has become a trendy self-help workshop.  The place where Christians used to surrender all other loyalties is decorated with sentiments of nationalism and materialism.  The place where people used to find community has become a resource for expanding their own self-centered networks.  Gifts have become budgets and shepherds have become CEOs.  The church has become a corporation.

When a heart is replaced by an agenda and the Spirit quenched by “the way we’ve always done it,” when the counter-cultural call of our faith is replaced by a formula that mimics society a little too closely, the church has become nothing more than a lifeless structure.  The structure appears well made and carefully crafted, but it is hollow and in danger of collapsing.  At first glance, everything appears to be in place.  We have the programs, the technology, the board of directors, and a healthy bottom line.  But somewhere in all of this religious programming, one vital component is missing: God.

Throughout history, God has been an advocate for the poor, the needy, the desperate, and the ostracized.  People turn to Him at their lowest point when there is nothing else to depend on.  Yet, conversely, when we feel secure apart from God, we see no need for Him in our lives.  This is why Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).  Could it be that in our zeal to do right, we have stored up a sort of legalistic wealth that keeps us from hungering and thirsting for righteousness?  Could it be that in our careful structures and organization, we have come to a point where going through the motions of our religion no longer requires the fuel of the Spirit?

In Revelation, Jesus instructed John to write to the church in Sardis, “I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1).  Could that describe many of our modern American churches?  When the religious program is carried out week after week; when tradition, rather than the living, active revelation of God, defines our faith; when people leave unchanged time and time again; is there life in the church?  Or has our heart ceased to beat inside our perfectly-structured ribcage?

In the dawn of the church, it was an underground movement persecuted for its counter-cultural values.  But we American Christians, complacent in our first-world status, have fallen in love with our culture and modeled our faith after it.  We seek power, wealth, and affluence, advertising ourselves and exploiting others to be the best of the best.  Have we not employed this same mindset in our churches?  We advertise our selling points as better suited for the population’s needs than the church down the street.  Needing to keep up our image, we hire dynamic speakers with Ph.D.s and professional worship leaders and showy youth pastors.  Inside this web of key church leaders, we create power structures and assume everything can be solved with a formula.  The pastor is above the worship leader because he has a Ph.D.  The worship leader is above the secretary because he is more visible to the public eye.  This particularly stood out to me when we drew our home church’s structure of authority on the whiteboards in class.  There were carefully drawn little “technical” lines and “realistic” lines and squiggly political maneuvers, but there was little room for God in any of those equations.

The church has failed to distinguish itself from the world.  We have become so consumed by our own businesslike strategies that we hardly know what it means to be a community of people that follows Christ.  As such, we have lost our witness to the world.  We do not model the freedom Christ offers.  Instead, we market ourselves as insurance against hell and invite people to join our legalistic hamster wheel of Christian production and consumerism, keeping up with the latest and greatest evangelistic strategies and architectural styles.  I have to wonder, if Jesus were to come into the typical American church, would He come in with whips and overturn the tables?

Jesus never called anyone to comfortable discipleship.  He called them to radical discipleship.  It is time for us to stop settling for security and go outside our comfort zone to follow Jesus.  There are times when it will be difficult and painful.  There will be times when we are afraid.  True discipleship is not easy, but it is worth every mile you walk, every dollar you spend and tear you shed, every piece of your heart you give away.  True discipleship is the adventure of a lifetime.  Perhaps it is time we rethink the way we “do church.”  What if it were less about the building and the budget and the bottom line, and more about a group of disciples coming together to encourage and challenge one another to make a difference?  What if it were less about the structure and more about the meaning?  What if it were less about business and more about community?  What if…what if it were less about us and more about Christ?

Such a paradigm change would require some drastic and uncomfortable changes in the way we have typically thought of church.  For some of us, maybe the answer would be to abandon the corporation altogether and begin again in homes.  For others, it may be prayer and fasting as we cast a new vision for our trajectory as the church and seek guidance from the Spirit.  We need to take a good hard look at ourselves in a mirror and see if we look like the world, or if we look like Jesus.  If we resemble any structure or ideal other than Jesus – if our identity is found in something other than a simple, undecorated gospel — are we really Christians at all?