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Scandalous Mercy

I am one small, finite, little-hearted, mortal human being, and my capacity for mercy toward others is really pretty meager.

The God who created all things, and whose language is that of infinitude, is not like that.

Let’s say you embezzled a hundred thousand dollars from an employer – knowingly stealing what wasn’t yours. Or you destroyed the reputation of a co-worker through gossip. Or you regularly lashed out in anger at those around you because of your petty and selfish heart.

Or you commited adultery – repeatedly. Or you curse(d) God on a regular basis. Or you were/are a card-carrying racist. Or you beheaded Christians in Iraq.

The zealous Jewish Pharisee Saul, who became the apostle Paul, was such a Christian persecutor. Yet Jesus Christ reached into his heart and turned him God-ward, forgave his sins, and gave him the commission to carry the gospel to the far reaches of the Gentile nations.

Scandalous mercy, that. How could such a murderous sinner find compassion from an offended and holy God?

Or how could good King David, having experienced all the rich blessings of God, turn around and commit adultery with Bathsheba, and try to cover up his foul deed by having her husband Uriah killed?

“God has taken away your sin,” said the prophet Nathan, once David woke up from his sin-soaked stupor and repented. Oh, David had to live with the consequences of his actions, and he experienced the sting of them for the rest of his days.

But where we might have given up and cried out for only justice, God’s heart swelled with both justice and mercy.

Justice carried out by substitutionary atonement – the death of one to cover the sins of another. The Lamb of God, to take away the sins of the world.

Mercy to receive back the transgressor – even, as the apostle Paul called himself, the chief of sinners. Yes, even your sins and mine. All of them. No matter how foul.

We cannot be severe enough in our assessment of our own scandalous state. We are all sin-infused hypocrites (thank you for the reminder yesterday, Scott Sauls). But God’s mercy is an ocean, not a puddle. Forgiveness even for THAT? Even for ME???

Yes. God is big enough to cover you. He’s got this.

Scandalous mercy for scandalous people. That’s the good news.

Every once in a while, a dark and heavy thought floods my mind. I try to dismiss it because I know it’s not going anywhere healthy, but when things happen like the recent suicide of Robin Williams, I can’t avoid it.

What if I sink, too?

dark cloudsIf you’ve had a history of depression, I suspect you know the train of thought I’m talking about.

I remember feeling this profoundly the first time I watched the movie, “A Beautiful Mind.” Russell Crowe’s portrayal of mental illness in that movie rocked me to my core. It scared me.

Despite the fact that my depression is currently under control, what if the darkness returns and overwhelms me? What if I, like hymnist/poet William Cowper, enter a darkened state that plagues me for the rest of my days? Or – what if I develop Alzheimer’s disease and degenerate into helpless forgetfulness?

Morbid, I know – but you’ve thought about it too, right? Come on, be honest – our minds wander into these dark places whether we want them to or not!

That’s why this reading from Charles Spurgeon’s classic devotional book, Morning and Evening, was such a comfort today:

“And I will remember my covenant.”
Genesis 9:15

Mark the form of the promise. God does not say, “And when ye shall look upon the bow, and ye shall remember my covenant, then I will not destroy the earth,” but it is gloriously put, not upon our memory, which is fickle and frail, but upon God’s memory, which is infinite and immutable. “The bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant.” Oh! it is not my remembering God, it is God’s remembering me which is the ground of my safety; it is not my laying hold of his covenant, but his covenant’s laying hold on me. Glory be to God! the whole of the bulwarks of salvation are secured by divine power, and even the minor towers, which we may imagine might have been left to man, are guarded by almighty strength. Even the remembrance of the covenant is not left to our memories, for we might forget, but our Lord cannot forget the saints whom he has graven on the palms of his hands. It is with us as with Israel in Egypt; the blood was upon the lintel and the two side-posts, but the Lord did not say, “When you see the blood I will pass over you,” but “When I see the blood I will pass over you.” My looking to Jesus brings me joy and peace, but it is God’s looking to Jesus which secures my salvation and that of all his elect, since it is impossible for our God to look at Christ, our bleeding Surety, and then to be angry with us for sins already punished in him. No, it is not left with us even to be saved by remembering the covenant. There is no linsey-wolsey here–not a single thread of the creature mars the fabric. It is not of man, neither by man, but of the Lord alone. We should remember the covenant, and we shall do it, through divine grace; but the hinge of our safety does not hang there–it is God’s remembering us, not our remembering him; and hence the covenant is an everlasting covenant.

The book of Isaiah uses striking language to make a similar point:

“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
    and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
    I will not forget you! (Isaiah 49:15)

Even the bond, the memory, of a mother for her child may be broken. But God is way beyond these human limits. For which I am profoundly grateful.

I might, in fact, lose it. I might sink. I might forget. But my hope isn’t in MY remembering. It is in God’s infinite memory, and commitment, and power, and covenant. He alone is unfailing.

Ashes for Beauty

We’ve all heard of the phrase “beauty for ashes” – a lovely image of trading off a lowly and filthy state, for fresh, renewed beauty.

It is the language of the gospel. It is the language of the prophet Isaiah in chapter 61 of his book.

It is the hope and yearning of any honest person who looks into his/her soul and sees the ash heap of sin and selfishness that defiles every one of us.

We mourn, and a symbol of that mourning in the days of Isaiah was to cover oneself with ashes in sorrow and humiliation.

But that’s not the end of the story.

beauty for ashesLater, in chapter 61:10, Isaiah proclaims that the period of ashes is to be followed by its opposite – a state of newness, light, and cleansing. The language is striking and even romantic:

I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, my soul will exult in God;

for He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Some people – and I confess that I am one of them – seem to feel more comfortable wallowing in the ashes, than rejoicing in the freely-given robe of righteousness. Instead of trading up to beauty for our ashes, we trade down – neglecting the good news of an infinitely forgiving and cleansing God in order to stare at the soot and the filth. As if a right posture before God was one of unending mourning. “Thanks for the beauty, but I think I’ll just cover myself with ashes again today…”

The mourning period is temporary. It is meant to lead us to repentance, then to embracing the beauty of Jesus Christ while putting away our ashes of self-will and unbelief.

Yes, we will still sin, and mourn our profound imperfection. But we’re now alive. We’ve been granted pardon and been adopted. We have righteous robes. We have beauty instead of ashes.

It’s time to clean up the mirror and see as God sees…

photo credit: sparktography via photopin cc

That was the title of a book I read many years ago, by author J.B. Philips. I really don’t remember any specific content, but the title pretty accurately sums up the core message.

We think small thoughts of God.

At times – many times over the years, truth be told – I’ve wondered if God could forgive my sins. If He could actually “do” this salvation thing. Can the Lord truly renew a wreck like me?

But then I thought – when I walk outside, I don’t question whether I’m going to feel enough of the sun’s light and heat to survive the day. I am confident each morning that the sun is big enough for me (and everyone else on this lovely planet, for that matter). There is so much more than enough sun that it would be silly to question its riches of power.

Yet, how much of the sun’s total energy output actually falls on the earth?

Oh, about one one-billionth of a percent.

Were I to stand at a street corner at 11 am, anxiously looking up at the sky and wondering if the sun would still be warm at 2 pm, I’d rightly be considered by my neighbors to be a bit daft. And my anxiety and questioning really wouldn’t change the nature of the sun anyway, would it? Doubt doesn’t diminish a single photon.

Sun

Do we walk out the door and question whether there will be enough air to breathe that day? Do we stand at the shoreline of the ocean and wonder if there’s water enough for a swim? Do we think the sun is insufficient to give light today, tomorrow, and next week?

Yet God, who made all of these things and billions of galaxies beside, is not enough to take care of me??

Hmmmmm….

On Purpose

Confession: I yearn for Purpose. I live for Purpose.

I want to see the big picture, create the big strategy, and have a roadmap full of answers. I want to live on Purpose. Not just the destination of being conformed to the image of Christ. I want to know the Purpose for MY little life path so I can then make the suitable plans and…..ahem….be in control. Is that too much to ask? :>}

In other words, I want to be God, who alone knows the big-P Purpose(s).

However, in my hankering for grasping some personal big-P Purpose, I tend to neglect the very clear precepts that define my daily small-p purpose.

Actively love my neighbor. Actively use whatever gifts I have. Lead and serve, today, the people who are around me, today. I need to learn to trust that the big-P Purpose will become clear over time as I fulfill God’s little-p purposes.

Purpose

For instance, walking the dog this morning around our new neighborhood in Franklin, TN, I found my mind wandering into its usual default realm of trying to figure out God’s big-P Purpose(s) for us being here. What (massive overarching goal) am I to be pursuing?? How does all this fit into The Plan??

Not only is such a thought process laughably futile, it also leads to paralysis.

What am I to do today to serve God and others? Well, that’s actually pretty clear.

It’s enough to actively, today, seek to fulfill the little-p purposes. The rest will be unveiled in time.

Two Cats

For many years, we have had two cats – brother and sister (though they look nothing alike!)

TwoCats

That’s Spike on the left. Mittens is on the right.

They not only look different – they also have quite different dispositions.

When there’s food involved, Mittens will come and rub up against me. She’ll show the bare minimum of affection, based on immediate felt need. Once she’s fed, she pretty much keeps her distance – always a bit skittish, and never wanting to be picked up and held. She’s not hostile – just not warm and cuddly.

No-one would conclude that at-ease trust is her strong suit.

Mittens is as pretty as all get out, with lovely soft fur – and I wish she’d just relax and enjoy our company more. We care for her, but can’t really express it very directly, because she’s more into a paws-length relationship.

Until she needs her daily bread. Then we’re….useful, I guess.

Spike, on the other hand, is our lover. Just look at that face! When I’m on the deck trying to read, he’ll hop up into my lap for some extended petting time. Spike purrs freely. He likes to be brushed. He initiates contact. He doesn’t mind being picked up and held.

He just wants to be friends.

Two cats, same family, same master who cares for them both.

There’s a lesson here. I am far too much like Mittens in my disposition toward God.

I think Spike has it right.

The apostle Paul was bummed out.

Here, he had proclaimed the gospel of grace – the good news of Jesus Christ – among the Gentiles of Galatia, and many received the truth gladly.

Formerly outsiders, now invited into the family of God? Previously excluded from the nation of Israel, but now given free access to God through the Messiah – the Savior not only of the Jews, but of the whole world? What a marvel!

They received the gift of God. Emmanuel – God with us – anywhere, everywhere, no longer just among people of a physical nation.

But there was a problem.

Some misguided Jewish believers came in and taught that these Gentiles needed Jesus Plus. Specifically, they needed to become Jews also.

You know, circumcision and all that. Ouch. “Jesus is just all right with me,” sang the Doobie Brothers. These folks had a similar approach. Jesus is great, but…not enough.

Substitutionary atonement and gracious forgiveness and divine adoption – the gospel isn’t enough. We need more than Jesus to make us whole before God! We need external rituals and signs. It’s not sufficient to be grafted spiritually into the trunk of Abraham – the price of admission was also a foreskin and a litany of legacy Jewishness that had already been fulfilled in Christ.

Going backward, in this case, was not going forward. It was apostasy to embrace any form of a Jesus Plus gospel. That’s because any plus is a huge minus, detracting from an all-sufficient Savior whose free, complete, and unfettered grace needs no addition of human efforts and forms.

Paul’s language was unsparing. He wished that those who taught the necessity of a physical circumcision would – gulp! – just go ahead and castrate themselves.

He knew that any form of Jesus Plus = a fall from grace (Galatians 5:3-12).

In our day and age, many Christians won’t be subjected to the Judaizing form of Jesus Plus. But there are many other shape-shifting forms this error takes.

What’s the one that afflicts me most? Jesus Plus Steve-has-to-get-his-act-completely-together-with-all-the-right-beliefs-and-behaviors-right-now-or-else. Jesus plus fear-driven perfectionism. It’s the insidious mingling of justification and sanctification.

In theory, and theologically, I fully understand the distinction between the one-time and permanent pronouncement of a right standing before God based on faith alone (justification), and the gradual process of conformity to His image (sanctification). But in my heart, I still have this default setting that irrationally looks to Jesus Plus how-I’m-measuring-up-right-now for my comfort and peace.

Decades after turning to Him, I still need the gospel of grace. You?

 

 

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