Fifty Shades of No Way

The movie version of runaway best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey will soon hit the big screen. The movie, like the book, treads where only fallen angels dare to go: themes of sexual bondage, domination, and sado-masochism (BDSM). The Fifty Shades book series sold over 100 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 52 languages. The writing is generally considered marginal to poor, so there must be some other draw.

I wonder what that might be.

I have not read the books, I will not see the movie, and I urge you to spend your entertainment dollars elsewhere. This is not about picketing, boycotting, or trampling freedom of expression.

It’s about protecting your own soul from harm.

By playing fast and loose with sexuality, our culture has trapped itself in a bondage it never saw coming: a weakened ability to form lasting bonds of affection.

God designed you for bonding — to form emotional/spiritual attachments that bring a sense of love, acceptance, knowing, camaraderie, and support into your life. Dogs are world-champion bonders. They bond through touch, play, sight, sound, proximity, smell. What self-respecting canine wouldn’t jump at the chance to sleep on his best-friend’s dirty socks? Every time you walk in the door, there’s your mutt, beside himself with joy, renewing the bond, and ensuring your friendship stays tight.

Anyone who’s lost a dog knows the pain of that broken bond.

Bonds that form slowly go deepest. The Bible says, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection [spiritual maturity]” (Colossians 3:14, NKJV). This well-bonded love comes last. It’s the capstone of all other virtues. A mature bond forms last, at the end of a long process, and it holds the tightest. Those old married couples who still hold hands show the power of a lifetime bond. They’ve been through everything. They’ve argued their arguments. They’ve fought over money and kids and open toilet seats. Their bond has prevailed, for better or worse. To see a well-bonded couple like this is to see humanity’s finest hour. The bond has aged to ripe perfection. Slowly. Over time.

I am a grace-guy. I’m all for personal liberty under the wide open skies of amazing grace. I’m a do-what-you-want, follow your heart, walk with God and be free kind of guy. I continually fight my urge to judge others. So I’m not writing to judge or damn anybody here. I’m writing to encourage you — and the people I pastor — to deeper dimensions of grace, especially in this arena of sexual bonding.

Movies and books like Fifty Shades of Grey will not only damage your bond, they will damage your ABILITY to bond.

Every time you make and then break a bond, it’s harder to bond the next time. Like repeatedly attaching, and then ripping off, a bandage, sooner or later, the thing stops sticking. The trauma of repeatedly tearing apart bonds can result in attachment disorders, isolation, intimacy problems, and all kinds of heart-breaking patterns. You cross legitimate boundaries, feel the pain of it, excuse yourself, and ultimately become numb to it. You need ever-increasing stimulation for ever-diminishing returns. It takes more effort to achieve less satisfaction. Once you tear down the boundaries that protect your bond, you become vulnerable. You open yourself to wounds. You invite pain.

Protect your heart.

Protect your spouse’s heart. If you’re single, protect your own heart, and that of the person you or the other might someday marry.

You’ve been given this precious machinery of bonding. You possess this miraculous engine of attachment. Don’t break it. Don’t numb it.

The acts related to physical intimacy produce life’s fastest bonds. In God’s design, you bond mentally and emotionally first, then get to the chapel and get married, and then consummate your bond physically.

Why that order? Because God loves you too much to let you run down paths that will break your heart. Physical bonding works best in an atmosphere of exclusivity and lifetime commitment. Anything else leads to needless drama and lots of tears.

Fifty Shades of Grey is porn. Plus, it associates pain with pleasure — so it’s a double whammy. It will introduce images into your mind you won’t be able to erase. It will stimulate desires your spouse may not be interested in. It will cause comparisons that will only make you and your spouse feel inferior. It will judge you and your “lame” sex life as bland. It will damage your bond. It will damage your ability to maintain your bond. It will throw a wrench into that finely tuned engine of bonding that is the human spirit. It will bring other people into your marital bed through images you’ll find hard to erase. It will dilute your exclusive bond with your spouse — or, to use another word — it will adulterate your bond. To adulterate wine is to water it down. To adulterate a marital bond is to water it down by bringing in any other partner, even in the imagination (Matthew 5:28).

Strong bonds require focus. Ask your dog.

The more partners you have — whether physically or mentally — the harder it’s going to be to erase the others and focus on “the one.”

Broken bonds haunt you.

Even imaginary ones. Some things just can’t be unseen, even with God’s grace. To see this movie, or to read this book, is to turn your back to grace. You lose.

Can there be healing? Yes. Without doubt. Can there be forgiveness, restoration, and rehab? Yes. God’s grace is never out of reach. God’s redemptive grace goes clear down to your sexuality (John 8:11). But the emotional pain of distorted sexuality is still pain. Why choose it on purpose?

Grace provides supernatural power to resist temptation. Calvary-Love offers you a better way of life. Grace offers a satisfaction the world’s counterfeits can’t touch.

I think the question Christians need to ask themselves is simple: Is the grace of God enough? Can I find happiness and love and all that my heart cries out for by laying hold of God’s grace or not? Scripture paints a beautiful picture of a husband and wife as, “heirs together of the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). Heirs together — like millionaires without a care in the world. The grace of life — the most satisfying life with the most wonderful person you can imagine, as a by-product of God’s amazing grace.

Fifty Shades of Grey will deface that picture with a bucket of pain disguised as guilty pleasure.

Go out to a fancy dinner instead, order a nice wine, and actually talk about things you both care about.

Or just take the dog for a nice, long walk.

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The Virtue of Imbalance

One of my friends told us about his daughter’s basketball coach. The coach kept the girls busy morning and night, even over the holidays. The coach told the kids, “You have to balance sports, school, church, and sleep.”

He omitted family.

Even so, are sports, school, church, sleep, and family equals to be balanced? I’ve been told to balance life’s demands, balance work and family, balance my emotions, and balance my checkbook.

Today, I say… Forget about it. Balance is not your friend.  I hereby set you free from balancing life’s demands. You’ll be trapped.

What did Jesus mean when he said, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33, NKJV)?

By his word FIRST, Jesus delivered us from the blandness of balance. Life is to be about IMBALANCE. We tilt toward God first, family second. Everything else comes down the line. Instead of thinking balance, think priorities — a predetermined imbalance.

1. A predetermined imbalance puts God in his rightful place. The idea of holding God in balance with any other person or priority is just plain silly. He is above all.

  • Honor the LORD with your possessions, And with the firstfruits of all your increase; So your barns will be filled with plenty, And your vats will overflow with new wine. (Proverbs 3:9, 10, NKJV).
  • For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come. (1 Timothy 4:8, NKJV). Amen (especially the first part).

2. A predetermined imbalance gives you permission to say no, even to legitimate and pressing needs. Jesus said no when he turned his back on a clamoring crowd that he might spend time alone with God (Matt 1:35-37). It was a holy imbalance that made the Twelve summon the multitude and say, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” (Acts 6:2, NKJV). Their NO grew out of a God-ordained imbalance toward the calling of God on their lives. Others might have resented it, but God was pleased.

We live in a culture in which people can’t take no for an answer without stomping off in a drama-queenly snit. So good luck with that. Trying to please everybody is the death of a thousand cuts.

No is a complete sentence. Practice saying it: No.

3. A predetermined imbalance helps you put first things first and keep them there. Hobbies, sports, entertainment, socializing, worship, service, Scripture, prayer, leisure, marriage, dating, parenting, caring for elderly family members, ministry involvement, keeping the home, car repairs, sleep, fitness, exercise, shopping, cooking, stewardship, education, training, margin… These things are not equals. Some are essential, some are luxuries, some are desires, some are optional. A mature person differentiates.

There is no way, holy or otherwise, to  balance the hordes of life’s demands. We shouldn’t try. Tilt toward the big stuff. Husbands love your wives, and wives respect your husbands. Do not provoke your children to wrath. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:8, NKJV). First things first. Squeeze in the rest.

Have you ever felt like a plate-spinner in a circus? Watch the video and see what balance feels like:

I hereby give you permission to let a few plates fall. It’s okay. Honest. Life will go on. Devote your energy to the important plates, and let the other ones go. God knows. He’s got plans you’re not aware of.

Priorities, not balance, is the message of Scripture.

Life is like filling a dishwasher: put the big things in first, and then squeeze in everything else.

Three Cheers for Vocabulary!

The surgeon says, “I have to pull out that little hangy thingy in your gut-parts that doesn’t do anything.”

The mechanic says, “I’ll have to brush off those shiny screwy ceramic thingies with the little metal tip.”

The contractor says, “I’ll just yank off those flat bumpy whatch-a-ma-call-its from the top of your house and see where it’s leaking.”

You’d be looking for a new surgeon, a new mechanic, and a new contractor. In each of these fields, we want experts. We want dedicated workers who have studied their craft and mastered it. We want a surgeon who knows the difference between an appendix and a spleen, a mechanic who knows the difference between a spark plug and a coil, and a contractor who knows the difference between a roof shingle and roof vent.

And I want a pastor who knows the difference between justification and sanctification, propitiation and redemption, the Hypostatic Union and the Mystical Union, Omniscience and Omnipotence. I want a pastor who has studied the craft and mastered it (not that you can ever master either God or Scripture, but you can be proficient in it at least). I know that some will immediately read me as saying all I care about is theological vocabulary… No. There is immeasurably more to being a pastor or church leader.

But clarity on theology is an indispensable foundation for everything else. Don’t tell me how to live unless you know deeply from Scripture what divine resources God has offered me, how they work, and how Jesus used them in his life… the soul-stirring vocabulary of the Christian faith.

In the realm of the spirit, I want to train you to become your own mechanic.

In olden days, everyone had the same Bible. We’d all read: Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Romans 5:1, NKJV). Immediately the preacher was forced into explaining justification… and we’d all learn it. Over the years, we’d develop a fairly sophisticated picture of justification as distinct from, yet related to, sanctification. We’d understand why Martin Luther attempted to correct his church’s theology on the doctrine, and why it mattered so enormously.

Today, however, we read in a dozen translations, some bland variation on: “having been made right by faith” and nobody needs to explain it. In fact, by obliterating the theological vocabulary, the reader isn’t even alerted to the existence of an entire theological system summed up in one word. When a mechanic says “carburetor” he calls to mind a whole piece of machinery and its interplay with the other machinery. One word conjures a vast, systematic picture.

So it is in Scripture: justified, justification, justify, just, righteous… there is an ocean of wonder to explore in this one great word.

Take the word “gospel.” It has morphed into a thousand things, mostly shallow, and mostly emotional. Yes, the gospel is good news, but it is the title for a precise theological bit of good news: that Christ died for our sins, etc (1 Cor 15:3) and that if we mess with it, then we’re to be damned (Gal 1:8,9). God help us all if “gospel” means so much that it stops meaning anything.

By losing our vocabulary, we’ve lost the riches and the wonder. We’ve lost the clarity. We’ve lost the powerful and beautiful inter-linkages that tie all of Scripture together.

We’ve also lost the subtle distinctions that protect us from heresy. After all, the early church split over a single letter: whether Jesus, in his deity, is homo-ousios (the same substance) or homoi-ousios (similar substance) with the Father. Picky? Yes! Essentially picky. Life-changingly picky. Picky the way you hope and pray your surgeon is picky. Vocabulary matters enormously.

The authors of Scripture never shied away from long sentences and big words. They developed a sophisticated vocabulary and weren’t afraid to use it.

This is not to suggest that our sermons and Bible classes become dry, academic, theological lectures. Not at all — and if you’ve heard me preach, you probably wouldn’t describe my sermons that way [I hope]. The people of God crave the deep things of God — let’s take them there, assuming we’ve taken ourselves there first. Let’s patiently build the concepts in their minds. Let’s lay out a rich feast for hungry souls. Let’s integrate deep truth into real life. Let’s go beyond the surface.

Pick up any collection of sermons from a hundred years ago and notice the dramatic contrast: ours today are painfully dumbed down. Sorry.

Paul validated his ministry saying, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, NKJV). Do we declare the whole counsel of God? Or do we settle for funny stories, thin sentimentality, and relentless exhortations to duty.

Three cheers for the meat of God’s Word and the vocabulary that expresses it!

And three cheers for any preacher brave enough to teach it.

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17, NKJV).

 

Why Grace-Oriented People Still Need God’s Law or Bring Back the Ten Commandments!

If you know me, you know me as a champion of the grace of God. I have dedicated my ministry to preaching and teaching the truths of God’s amazing grace. Along with that, I’ve dedicated my life to destroying legalism. I hate it, in Christian love.

You also know I haven’t blogged for a while, so this is something important to me. Thanks for reading.

Today’s post is prompted by a conversation with my wife. In her business ethics class at a Christian university, she asked her students how many of them would hire someone they knew was cheating on their spouse. Most students said they would. Then she asked how many would go into a business partnership with someone cheating on their spouse. Most opted out, but still quite a few said they would. When Margi pointed out that a man who would cheat on his most important relationship would find it easier to cheat on you, few were swayed. The class discussion moved on to plagiarism. Most were in favor of forgiving the plagiarist and letting him/her write a substitute paper. When it came to Bible majors or seminary students, most were still tolerant, though a reluctant few brought down the hammer of justice.

Bottom line: grace has been morphed into an ultra-tolerant, indiscriminate leniency. I have written on that before (Why Grace Isn’t Leniency) so I won’t cover that old ground again.

What I want to say today is simple: our culture is dissolving before our very eyes because we have removed GOD’S LAW FROM THE CHURCH. Yep, this is me, a Champion of Grace, pleading for grace-oriented Christians to restore the law of God to its rightful place in the grace-oriented church of Jesus Christ today. Yes, it’s the age of grace. Yes, Christ brings grace. Yes, we are saved by grace and live by grace.

But does that mean we throw out the Law? Does that mean the Ten Commandments no longer have a place in our lives?

No and no. Here’s why:

1. Under grace, the goal of the Christian life is conformity to Jesus Christ.

God is committed to reproducing the integrity and love of Christ in his people. This happens by God’s power; it is not something we work up for ourselves. Only Jesus can live the WJJD lifestyle and he will do it again through his people. If you have been born again, Christ lives in you. He constantly exerts an inward force to make you more and more like himself. And he doesn’t come with an off-switch. Grace is the power of God, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, reproducing the character and love of Christ inside of Christians.

You can’t read the epistles of Paul without bumping into this truth (I use Paul because few would argue against the assertion that he is the apostle of grace). For example:

  • “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, NKJV).
  • But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14, NKJV).
  • For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 8:29, NKJV).

2. Under grace, Jesus Christ was a Ten Commandments kind of person.

He did not come to destroy the Law and Prophets, but to fulfill them (Matt 5:17). You can’t understand the life of Christ without accepting his dedication to fulfill every “jot and tittle” of God’s law. His character reflected the character of God’s law, his knowledge reflected the wisdom of God’s law, his actions reflected obedience to God’s law, his preaching reflected the supremacy of God’s law. Nothing Jesus said or did contradicted even a syllable of God’s law. There are two important reasons for this…

3. The Laws of God reflect the heart of God. 

God’s laws are God’s laws because God’s heart is God’s heart. The commandments of Scripture are not random, disconnected requirements — they are expressions of the deepest truths woven into the universe and our psyches by the God who made us. Because God’s laws reflect God’s heart, they share a quality that is absolutely essential for our happiness and joy…

4. The Laws of God describe a life of LOVE.

Don’t forget how Jesus summarized God’s laws: “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him,” ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ “This is the first and great commandment. “And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40, NKJV).

Translation: TO CAST ASIDE GOD’S LAW IS TO CAST ASIDE THE ONLY SURE GUIDE TO LOVE WE HAVE. We are fallen, depraved people. We have no clue about what true love is. Until God explains that love means honest scales at the butcher shop (Lev 19:26), not sleeping with another man’s wife  or another woman’s husband (Ex 20:14), and not committing incest (Lev 18:6). Love means kindness to widows and orphans and maintaining your own integrity. Love means true worship, true speaking, true care for others. All of these things and more are in GOD’S LAW — covering every aspect of life. God’s law is a book of love, the New Testament even says so:

  • Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, NKJV).
  • Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not bear false witness,” “You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Romans 13:8, 9, NKJV).
  • So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty. (James 2:12, NKJV).

5. Jesus lived a life of love because he obeyed God’s laws. 

He was a Ten Commandments kind of person. The Ten Commandments, along with all of God’s laws, are like an FBI profile of Jesus. That’s how he lived. That’s what he was like.

If you want an emotionally healthy life, if you want great relationships, if you want good boundaries in your life, you will keep the Ten Commandments. God’s laws describe the LIFE OF YOUR DREAMS. God is not interested in constricting your life; he wants to set you in a realm of true freedom and perfect liberty. His laws describe the heart of Christ… which leads us back to #1…

6. Under grace, God is reproducing the life of Christ inside you — and he lived a life in perfect harmony with God’s laws.

If Jesus lived a Ten Commandments lifestyle, and if God is reproducing the life of Christ in us by his Spirit, then God is reproducing a Ten Commandments (Law Affirming) life in all his children today.

We desperately need to know the whole Bible, including the Old Testament, including the LAW, if we are to ever have a clue what Christ is trying to reproduce in us. We need the Law as our map, our guide, the lamp to our feet. We need to know where God is taking us so we don’t fight him. We need to know what God has said so we exercise faith in accordance with his Words. To throw away the Law is to throw away THE ENDGAME AND OBJECTIVE OF GOD’S GRACE AS IT FUNCTIONS IN OUR LIVES. Says who? Says Paul himself:

  • that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:4, NKJV).
He is saying that what God has been trying to create in your life since the beginning is what the Law has always taught.

What does this mean? It does NOT mean that we live UNDER the law. We don’t. “UNDER” is the wrong preposition. It does mean that the law is fulfilled IN US through Christ. As we abide in Christ, as we turn to him in dependency and faith, we will put into practice the laws of God day by day… which will produce a life of love… which will produce the life of our dreams… which is what the age of grace is all about.

It is not legalism, because it is not our power. It is not legalism because it is not external, it is Christ, by his Spirit, from the inside out. It is not legalism because it is not UNTO justification, but FROM justification, unto sanctification. It is not legalism, because it is not a demand on us, it is a demand on God. It is not legalism because it is a gift put into us through Christ himself at salvation and every day thereafter.

Jesus, Paul, James, Moses, and all the writers of Scripture were ANTI-LEGALISM but PRO-LAW. LEGALISM is humans by human effort seeking to merit the approval of God. But GRACE is God, by God’s effort, doing in and through us what we could never do for ourselves: making us like Christ.

We Christians made a big fuss about how the government has censored the Ten Commandments from our classrooms and the public arena. But haven’t we beaten them to the punch? Haven’t we so misconstrued Scripture that we’ve censored the Ten Commandments FROM THE CHURCH? We need — our young people especially — a return to the Law of God as a guide into a life of grace.

Have we as Christians become so tolerant in our attempts to be PC that we are hard to recognize as Christians?  Do we live as if there are no rules, no laws, no absolutes?  Have we morphed grace into bland leniency? Have we adopted antinomianism? The general rudeness in society, the lack of moral values, the embrace of any prodigal while still in the far country, the mushiness of our faith, and the miniscule difference between our lives and the lives of unbelievers, can all be traced to a departure from the whole counsel of God, including the Law of the Lord, which is perfect.

God bless Tim Tebow, Kirk Cameron, and those in the public eye willing to stand up for Jesus, for the Bible, for truth . . . For the law of the universe which happens to be the law of God recorded in Scripture.

Bring back the Ten Commandments, not as a way of salvation, but as a way of self-respecting love for God and others.

How do we reconcile grace and works? Simple: being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ; (Philippians 1:6, NKJV). God’s work — not ours alone– will create a life of love, a reproduction of the life of Christ in our lives. A life of God’s good, holy, and pure law which is, by definition, a life of love, which is by definition, the life you’ve always dreamed of.

Grace and law have kissed each other in Jesus Christ. May they kiss each other in your life too.

Let’s preach GRACE as the only means of fulfilling the law through the power of Christ in us.

Let’s preach LAW as guardian and guide of a life dedicated to God and his heart of love.

Grace’s Gold Standard

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked goes something like this:  I know I’m supposed to show grace, but my teenage son just broke some rules in a major way; am I just supposed to let it slide?

Or… a teacher might hear this one:  I’m sorry I didn’t finish the assignment, but I ran out of time. Will you show me some grace and give me an extra day?

An employer might hear: Yeah, I’m late again, and I missed my sales goals again, but things aren’t going so well at home, so can you cut me some slack?

Or, from your alcoholic, mooching brother-in-law who wants to live in your spare bedroom: You talk about God’s love all the time, why won’t you show me some and let me move in?

The root question is this: what does grace look like in relationships when the other person blows it? Does grace-living require me to always let the other person off the hook?  How can I show grace when someone else acts irresponsibly, dangerously, or unprofessionally?

It’s not an easy question. There are competing values at stake. On one hand, we want to show the love, forgiveness, and grace of Christ. On the other hand, we want to maintain standards, excellence, and integrity in our family, classroom, or workplace.  How do we fit these values together?

The Golden Rule offers a perfect guideline: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NKJV).  And, “And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.” (Luke 6:31, NKJV).

The Golden Rule presumes that we want others to treat us well. We have an innate desire (when we’re sane) that those who deal with us will act in our best interests — especially in our best long term interests. If that’s the standard we wish others would express toward us, then it’s the standard we should express toward others. Always act in the best long-term interests of others, as best as you can figure it out.

So, that son who broke your rule; what consequence will be in his best long term interests? That employee who misses meetings or deadlines or targets: is there a true alignment between their skills and their position’s needs? That student who chronically turns in papers late: will letting them slide do them any favors? Does it help them improve in the long run?

Some years ago in Chicago, I walked a difficult journey alongside a friend whose wife was about to leave him for another man. My friend was friends with “the other man”, and felt torn between anger and, as he put it, “grace.”

I said, Can’t grace be angry? Can’t grace enforce righteous, personal boundaries? If you were messing up, wouldn’t you want someone to confront you and speak the truth in love? Then apply the Golden Rule. It is acting in love and grace when you exercise your parental, or employer, or teacher, or leadership role to design or speak-forth consequences that are in the other person’s best long term interests. Showing grace isn’t for wimps. Tough-love is not an oxymoron. (Happily, that man and his wife reconciled and are now missionaries in Asia.)

How many times did Jesus get in his disciples’ face and call them out for fear, lack of faith, and general sissy-hood?  It’s a mistake to think that grace is always soft, that grace is always nice, or that grace always lets people get away with junk. Not so. Jesus, full of grace and truth, nailed his friends to the wall when they blew it. Not always; sometimes he let it go. But he saw no contradiction between acting in grace and chewing out stupidity in people who knew better. He loved his friends too much to let them wreck their lives making self-destructive or self-indulgent choices. He would not stand by silently. He would not subsidize their self-destruction or failure.

Love does not coddle people into a life of mediocrity.

Love acts in the other person’s interests even when you have to play hardball.  Yes, there are plenty of times for the soft-touch, the gentle spirit, and the hand of help or forgiveness. Most Christians know that. What they need to hear is that grace has muscle, too.

The tricky part is deciding what’s called for. When a street-person asks for money, what’s in his or her best long term interest? Healing. Deliverance. Probably the local mission or shelter.  BUT… sometimes, what’s in their best long term interest is a gift right then and there. Sometimes, they need food, or hope, or a loving touch immediately.

So what should you do?

Prayerfully follow your gut instinct, trusting God to guide you. You can’t tell the future, so sometimes you will give; other times you won’t. Sometimes you’ll give your son back the car keys, other times, you won’t. Sometimes, you’ll let your salesperson come in late a few times, other times, you’ll have to draw a line.  It’s nuanced. It’s not cut and dried. It’s heartfelt. You have to lean on the Lord.

But it’s always doing for others what you (on your best days) would hope they would do for you: show respect and love, even if it has to be tough love.

Grace has muscle. Grace is tender and tough. Here’s loves bottom line: are people who want to better their lives (and not everyone does) better off long-term because of their relationship with you?

Dear Anne Rice

“For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.” (From Anne Rice’s Facebook page)

Dear Ms Rice,

One of the qualities I love about you is your transparency. I’ve enjoyed a couple of your novels. Your testimony of conversion to Christ is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever read. Thank you for leading with your heart, and not hiding your truth.

I understand the temptation to call it quits on the church — the collected people of God. As a Dad with two kids, I understand the feeling of utter exasperation at their squabbles. God’s people have been at each other for two thousand years.

It’s frustrating.

But as your brother in Christ, I’d like to respectfully ask you to reconsider. I’d like to invite you to chalk up your “I quit” remarks to a person having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day… learn from it, and move on.  Much like an alienated daughter returning cautiously to Thanksgiving dinner with the dysfunctional family.

Please consider two central reasons to stay in community with the living, tarnished saints:

1. Jesus hasn’t quit being our Savior.

In your conversion story, you write, “I believe in what we celebrate this week: the scandal of the cross and the miracle of the Resurrection. My belief is total.” That scandalous cross wiped clean the spotty record of every child of God, both of us included. He erased our sins, once for all, and sat down at the right hand of God.

Anne, when you quit on Christians, don’t you a little bit quit on Christ? Don’t you spotlight sins he has forgiven? …sins heaven has forgotten?  Yes, they are all too real to us. But hasn’t God revealed his limitless forgiveness?

  • As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us. (Psalms 103:12, NKJV).
  • Who is a God like You, Pardoning iniquity And passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in mercy. (Micah 7:18, NKJV).
  • He will again have compassion on us, And will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins Into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:19, NKJV).

When Jesus hung on that cross, he effected humankind’s reconciliation with God. He did this through an atonement so deep, that the Infinite Mind of God has chosen to Forget his children’s sins.  And not through a legal fiction, but through the full payment of the ransom price via the precious blood of Christ. That humankind can fellowship with God is a mystery of love and grace we’ll never fathom.

He saved us. By that salvation, Jesus created something that never existed before: a UNITED FAMILY OF GOD.

  • There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:4-6, NKJV).

The unity is true. Jesus died to create it. It is our core identity. Our truth. Our ontological reality. Our adoption papers in heaven prove it.

  • There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28, NKJV).

Anne, as long as Jesus remains Savior, the church remains one, no matter how much we squabble. The reconciliation he effected is not only vertical, but horizontal. Person to person. Family to family. Tribe to tribe.

As Savior he made us one. That’s the first basis for my invitation to stay in the family. Here’s my second:

2. Because he hasn’t stopped being our Sanctifier, either.

As Savior he made us one. As Sanctifier he makes us united.

Jesus prayed…

  • “And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: (John 17:22, NKJV).

He prayed for our oneness to be brought into reality. He prayed for the actualization of our reality. Every Christ-follower who pulls away from that oneness only postpones the answer to Christ’s prayer. Yet one more cat to be herded back to the flock.

Anne, you might follow the steps of countless others who’ve given up on the institutional church. I get it. I’m a pastor, and I’ve been pulled that way a thousand times. I live and breath church people. I see the dark side daily. But I can’t get past this:

The unity of the church is Christ’s own creation. It is his gift to the world. We who have embraced him as Savior share the same last name. We don’t act like it all the time, but it’s true. Jesus loves the church. Please don’t hate what Jesus loves. Please don’t pull away from what Jesus is calling you into.

The church contains the mystery of Christ in us (Col. 1:27). He lives in us to sanctify us — to make us into what he says we are. This is his work, his effort, his grace. He never stops. When Christ moved within, he didn’t come with an off-switch. He always lives to sanctify us — to baby-step us closer and closer to his own radiant image. We display his likeness to the world, not only as individuals, but as a close-knit body, in community. Christ, our sanctifier.

Sanctification is a process. In a sense, we build on our spiritual ancestors, but in a deeper sense, each generation starts over. We grow toward Christ-likeness, and we grow together… and when we die, it’s the next generation’s turn to model this in the world. Let’s hand down the most united church we possibly can.

Anne, doesn’t your decision echo that of the servant who received the cancellation of a debt from his master but wouldn’t cancel fellow debtor’s (much smaller) debt (Matt 18:23-35)?

To pull away from the community of believers — I don’t care what kind of community you prefer, no matter how loosely or tightly organized — is to pull away from the primary means by which Jesus delivers his love, grace, and truth into the world. I hope you stay connected. I hope you find a church, a house church, a fellowship, or a Bible study and prayer group… any group that incarnates the love of Christ, and the truth of Scripture and delivers the gospel of grace to the world.

Anne, I personally apologize to you for my contribution to the disputatiousness of the church. I’m sorry for our “deserved infamy.” I felt bad when I read your Facebook posts. I’m sorry.

Making sausage is ugly, but something delicious happens when it’s done, this I believe.

Anne, please, stay. I’d like to invite you to our imperfect community in Redding. But you really don’t need to come here. God has his outposts in every place… please don’t give up looking.

I miss you.

Your Brother,

Bill Giovannetti

The Love Chapter (One More Time)

This post finishes a three-part series, so scroll down if you want to start at the beginning. Thanks.

Recap: The Love Chapter (a.k.a. 1 Corinthians 13) wraps its theme in the broader theme of maturity. Paul argues that Christ-like love is the by-product of maturity. It’s hard to argue with the context: “when I was a child… when I became a man…”

Have you ever loved an immature person?  It’s a lot of work.

Have you ever loved AS an immature person? Your love endures until your next tantrum.

The structure of the chapter is cool. The Love Chapter describes four shifts. If you want to love the way God wants you to love, you need to make four shifts.  (I won’t go into how the Greek offers parallel language to introduce each shift: just notice the parallel language “…but when, …but when, …but then, …but then.” Notice how the “but then/when” words introduce the shift from immaturity to maturity.)

The shifts all move you from SPIRITUAL IMMATURITY to SPIRITUAL MATURITY. Check it out:

1. From UNSTABLE LOVE to STABLE LOVE

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part. (1 Corinthians 13:8, 9, NKJV).

When your love-life is based on ACTIVITY for Jesus instead of MATURITY in Jesus, it will flame out. This passage is not about certain spiritual gifts going away in history. It is about the relation between love and maturity. When you are immature, you love is as unstable as your service, your ministry, your works of kindness. You’ll take your bat and ball and go home; it’s just a matter of time.

[Please no comments arguing cessationism, okay? thanks.]

“In part” is a reference to spiritual immaturity. You look like a kid with missing teeth.  Your love-life has gaps in it.

But when that which is perfect [i.e., spiritual maturity] has come, then that which is in part will be done away. (1 Corinthians 13:10, NKJV).

IN vv. 8,9, the loving service vanishes.  In v. 10, the fickleness vanishes. If you want to love the way Jesus loved you have to grow mature in Christ. Spiritual babies can love; it’s just that their love is unstable.

2. From CHILDISH LOVE to NOBLE LOVE

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11, NKJV).

Immature Christians display a CHILDISH LOVE.  Your speaking, your understanding, and your thinking are all childish.  So your love is fragile, and it quickly shifts into self absorption.   This is why you should pick your spouse very carefully.  If you marry someone who is spiritually immature, you will be dealing with a brat for the rest of your life.  And if you yourself are immature too, then you have two brats.  Dueling brats.  And how sad that kids get caught in the middle!

But mature Christians display a NOBLE LOVE.  Quiet, steady, passionate, and strong.  Manly love.  Womanly love, that can withstand any hardship and not collapse. A love that puts away childish things… you’re not a kid anymore, and you can endure the self-sacrifice it takes to seek another’s welfare.

Don’t you think it would be cool to see a generation of Christ-followers showing off a mature, noble, self-sacrificing love?

3. From SELF-ABSORBED to CONCERNED FOR OTHERS

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face… (1 Corinthians 13:12a, NKJV).

When you look in a mirror, who are you looking at?  YOURSELF.

When you look face-to-face, who are you looking at? SOMEONE ELSE.

One of these days, I want to preach a sermon on “staying with the other person” in a conversation. Some people never grow out of their need to talk about themselves.

I like this definition: egocentricity: The vanity that makes you wonder what people are thinking about you when they are really wondering what you are thinking about them.

4. From SHALLOW RELATIONSHIPS to DEEP RELATIONSHIPS

…Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12b, NKJV).

Plus, they hide themselves and don’t care to deeply know others. They know in part.  They isolate themselves in a cocoon of self-protective lovelessness.

Mature love is about self-revelation as much as it is about self-giving. That self-revelation is risky, but it’s part of the maturity that comes with love.

And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13, NKJV).

And now abide… Remain… Stay Steady… Character that doesn’t flame out. Not based on hype or the emotion of the moment. True love. Christ’s love in you.

This is like a half-time speech from a great coach.  There is a reward for your spiritual effort:  LOVE.  True love is the God’s reward for reaching the end zone.  You can get there.  You can get to this kind of life.  You can demonstrate the virtue love that flows from your own integrity, your own character, and your own integrity.

But you have to grow to get there.  That’s all I’m saying.

Let us love one another.

Mean Christians in an Age of Sensitivity

A while back, I asked for blog suggestions on my Facebook page (hey, let’s be friends, click for my Facebook page)… and William suggested, “Christians should tip well at restaurants.”

My mom, Dorothy, spent most of her adult life as a waitress (but I’m gonna stick with the now fashionable “waiter”). She started at a small diner in Chicago, and worked her way up to a banquet waiter at some nice hotels. When my parents moved to Florida, she continued waiting tables at different restaurants.

I learned restaurant etiquette from her, including not to blow bubbles to create foam in my milk shake, and not to pick gum off the bottom of the tables.

I also learned that the after-mass mass was the worst mass of all.

A number of waiters in my current home town tell me they dread the Sunday pm shift. Crabby, demanding patrons in Sunday best ruin the reputation of Jesus and then leave a lousy tip wrapped in a gospel tract.

Oh the humanity!

Cheap tippers lend credence to the old adage, “It’s not God I’m having difficulty with; it’s his people.” The Bible tells pastors to reprove and rebuke with all longsuffering, so here goes:

STOP IT!

STOP IT! OR I’LL…

How far from the spirit of Christ! Hypocrites! Crabby, mean-spirited, bratty so-called followers of the One who GAVE HIS ALL?  How can this be? How can you walk out of the worship of the living God and so quickly unleash your Inner Jerk on waiters “groping in darkness” to find the God who made them?

“so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; (Acts 17:27, NKJV).

And here you are, you damnable cheap tipper, putting stumblingblocks in their way.  Tripping them up. Making them tell stories about lousy tips wrapped in cheesy tracts. STOP IT!

Dear Waiters of America, on behalf of Christians everywhere, I’m sorry. I apologize.

I’m not saying you have to go crazy with the tip. Lord knows everybody’s hurting right now. But 15% is standard and go higher from there.  Or else, just order carry-out. And, for our Lord’s sake, don’t pull out one of those “tip calculation cards…”  Just figure it out and round UP. For an extra buck, you make Jesus look good to a skeptic.

Paul’s exhortation regarding the Corinthians’ offering applies to everybody when it comes to the spirit of generosity:

Therefore I thought it necessary to exhort the brethren to go to you ahead of time, and prepare your generous gift beforehand, which you had previously promised, that it may be ready as a matter of generosity and not as a grudging obligation. (2 Corinthians 9:5, NKJV).

Don’t begrudge the tip; it’s part of the price tag of eating out in our culture. You knew that walking in. And don’t be so demanding and critical of table service. Yes, you should expect professionalism, but not perfection.

Christ’s followers should be big-hearted, encouraging, and generous. Your life isn’t about how much money you kept in your wallet; it’s about how well your life pointed to your Savior.

Remember, you have a testimony. Even in a restaurant. Even with a waiter. You have a testimony. Your life witnesses to an all-gracious Savior. Remember that next time you eat out.

What you say with a tract can never undo what you say with your conduct.

Let your conduct be your testimony, and your tip be a token of Christ’s love.

Any waiters wanna sound off?  Use the comments section…

The Truest Motivator

crossceltic.jpg“For the love of Christ compels us…” (2 Corinthians 5:14).

I sat on a church board as an inexperienced 20-something. It was a big board, with over twenty men. All were older, most were grandfathers.

In one meeting we were discussing the need for more volunteers. One gentleman, a pillar in the church, asserted, “Our people should be serving Christ because it’s their duty!”

This is true. But how far will “duty” get you? Would I rather have my kids clean their rooms out of duty (which is fine if that’s all I’ve got) or out of a higher motive? Can duty really mobilize a church?

Yes. Temporarily. But the motivation fizzles as soon as you face hardship, or as soon as another, competing duty, interferes. That requires leadership to flog the church with more duty…

Doing your duty is a lousy motivation for the people of God.

When that elderly gentlemen spoke up at the board meeting, I was too timid to respond. I know, hard to believe, right? But I was younger… and they were, uh, venerable.

I don’t think I qualify for the venerable label, but I wish I had said, “Yes, but more importantly, we serve God out of love.”

The love of Christ compels us. His love for us. His love in us. His love through us. Do I buy flowers for my wife out of duty or love? Which would SHE prefer?

There is nothing more urgent than that God’s people rest deeply assured in the love of God. But there’s a HUGE problem, and it’s so subtle we don’t recognize it.

Most people today would say, “God loves me.” Even the rookie-est of Christ followers will say, “Jesus loves me.” A child can add, “This I know, for the Bible tells me so.” The love of God has been proclaimed so widely, that it’s pretty much the only thing people believe about God these days. And therein lies the fatal flaw.

Divine love, divorced from divine justice, is shaky, wimpy, and meaningless. In fact, it isn’t even love. It’s leniency, and leniency is a weakness that never motivated anybody to behave well longer than a week.

By failing to instruct the church in the dimensions of God’s love… by failing to teach the doctrines of propitiation, justification, expiation, and divine wrath, we have invented a love more worthy of Strawberry Shortcake than of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.

If God is merely love, his love is not amazing. He’s just one more of many loving persons in my life. The biggest one perhaps, but his love isn’t special enough to motivate a lifetime of reciprocal service and sacrificial love. When God points to the lever that pries our heart from selfishness to service, that lever is the mercies of God (Rom. 12:1).

Not duty.

God’s love for me had to justify itself in the face of God’s wrath against me. The process by which that happened  required the shed blood of Jesus on the Cross of Calvary. We pastors must firmly establish the indispensable link between Christ’s Cross and God’s love. Without that link, love is wimpy. But with that link, God’s love is fierce, mighty, permanent and amazing.

You cannot plumb the depths of God’s love without doctrine, without theology. You cannot explore its dimensions, or appreciate its manifold angles. You cannot be secure in His love without fathoming the mind-boggling lengths God went to to satisfy his holiness. And you won’t serve God faithfully, for a lifetime, without knowing the love of God which passes knowledge.

When the Enemy calls God’s love into question (his favorite tactic), then a thousand arguments from Scripture must rise up from within to shout him down.  We desperately need the meat of the Word.

If God’s love doesn’t compel you, you don’t know God’s love.

Tootsie Roll Spit & Cussing Pastors?

chewingtobacco“I chew Tootsie Rolls so my spit can be brown.” That’s what a pastor-friend told me. He pastored in upstate NY, where most of the guys chewed tobacco.  He wanted to relate to them better, so he needed brown spit. He popped a mini-Tootsie Roll in his mouth, and that made his spit brown.  I am not making this up.

Megachurch pastor, Ed Young, starts a recent video with some second-tier swear words. By second-tier, I mean words you can find in the Bible, like damn and hell, plus a few crude words like suck… you get the picture.  Once he has your attention, he describes a new breed of pastors that uses cuss words to relate to the audience. Ed then argues AGAINST that practice. He says it isn’t necessary, and that followers of Jesus should purify their language.

cussingSo, should pastors chew Tootsie Rolls so they can look like they’re chewing tobacco and spit brown spit? Should we spice up our preaching with a few well-timed helluva’s and pissed-off’s?  Is this what Paul meant when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22)?

As followers of Jesus, we incarnate two values:

  1. We need to get down and dirty with lost people, so we can take their hands and lead them to Christ.

Missionary Hudson Taylor shocked prim English society when he started dressing like the Chinese people he evangelized. He even grew a pony tail and braided it. He rewrote English hymns to Chinese music and used Chinese idiom to preach the gospel.

He became like them to reach them for Jesus.

Hudson%20TaylorHard to argue, right? He got criticized for being worldly.  Thank you, people of God. There is a sense in which we have to incarnate Christ’s love into a culture, even if that culture stinks. Think of how stinky earth is compared to heaven, but Heaven’s Missionary came to us in a barn.  We must live the context of the people we’re trying to reach.

But does that mean cussing or brown spit? Or–to push it the question farther–in my high school years, a group calling themselves Children of God used pornography for evangelism.  Yes indeed. They handed out Jesus-literature with pornographic drawings to get young students’ attention, and believe me, it worked.  They called it “flirty-fishing.” I later learned that group was a pretty sick cult.

Just how far should we push this thing called “contextualization”?

Not that far, says one of my all-time favorite preachers, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Lloyd-Jones gave up a medical career for the ministry. He was assigned his first church in an economically depressed, blighted urban area in Wales. High unemployment, blue collar coal miners, and a broken economy didn’t make life easy.

Lloyd-Jones was a white-collar professional–a physician. The men in his community were rough coal miners with the language to match.  What’s a young pastor to do?

For Lloyd-Jones, the answer was simple:  be your best self in Christ.

lloydjonesI read Ian Murray’s ridiculously long biography (2 fat volumes) three or four times, early in my ministry, and what a relief!  Lloyd-Jones argued that people are looking for A WAY OUT OF THE LIFE THEY KNOW.  And we who follow Jesus must manifest that WAY OUT, even as we speak our people’s language.  It’s not only our similarities to our people that forge connections, ITS OUR DISSIMILARITIES, too.  Our people need to want what we have.  They need to see that a better life is within reach.  They need hope.

That’s the complementary value to #1:

2. People need to see that a different life is within reach, and we need to manifest that life.

When I was in Africa, Dave and Becki Thompson lent me a book by an African native who converted to Christ (I forget its title).  The African writes of all kinds of westerners coming to African villages, and getting practically naked so they could be like the tribal people.  He always thought that was nuts.  The only reason his people were naked, he wrote, was because they didn’t have clothes!  They wanted clothes, but didn’t have them, and thought only an idiot would run around the jungle naked by choice.

I love the twin truths of 2 Tim 2:19:  “Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.””

  1. The Lord knows those who are his: that’s our security, our comfort, our salvation, our hope, our peace.  That’s God’s side of the coin. Grace. Salvation. Freedom.  Then there’s the flipside:
  2. Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity. Not in a legalistic sense, but in an evangelistic sense:  Jesus lifted me out of a sewer into a clean-smelling atmosphere… and he is ready to lift you too.

Plus, I’m on a low-carb diet and Tootsie Rolls won’t work for me.  Dang it.