Born this Way: Human nature and the cost of following Jesus

It’s been eight years since the release of Lady Gaga’s hit single, ‘Born this Way’. The lyrics of this iconic pop anthem preached the self-empowerment of various racial/ethnic groups, the disabled, and of course members of the LGBT community. At its release it was at the cutting edge of the gay tolerance movement.

Eight years on and the message promoted by the song has become entrenched in the popular psyche. In the recent Channel 9, 60 minutes program, a segment exposed the alleged practice of gay conversion therapy. The story line implied that the modern message of inclusivity had now become so universally accepted, that any attempt to understand human nature in any sense that challenges this, especially the Christian sense, is not only misguided but harmful.  

The ‘born this way’ message suggests that the nature of a person is fixed at birth and therefore inherently right.  As such, a person’s birth status inexorably determines their life path, and is ultimately unalterable. It is even suggested in Gaga’s song that people are what they are by God’s specific design.  Consequently, no one can validly judge you, challenge you, or demand you change—that would be unethical. Rather than change, the advocates of this position argue a person needs to accept who they are—become comfortable in their own skin!

But, there is more to this than meets the eye. This subtle message flags a bigger issue that reaches into every area of every life—nothing and no one is exempt. The real issue here is not just a person’s sexuality, but their human nature and how understanding it fashions their life.

It seems that popular perceptions are so fashioning the way many Christians view themselves, others, and their relationship to/with God, that they have supplanted the role of biblical authority as the primary means of understanding and directing life and morality. In fact, many believers have lost their way, even lost their faith, because they have lost sight of divine truth.

So, if you are a Christian and are not quite sure about the claims of popular culture in relation to your essential nature as a human, you might find it helpful to revisit with me what the Bible has to say about human nature.  After all, a right understanding of the self is tantamount to a right understanding of God.

In the beginning, Genesis (the first book of the Bible), speaks about the origins of humanity. It indicates that humans are created in the image of God, created as two genders; male and female—without defect or moral flaw. Moreover, they were given dominion over all the created order, to manage and care for it. After the creation event, we read this summation: ‘God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.’ (Gen 1:31 NIV). At this point humans were perfect, the world was perfect, and everything was good!

God then placed the first humans Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In was a place they were free to do anything, except eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree represented a test. If they resisted the temptation to eat its fruit, they would live forever in this perfect world; if they did not, according to God’s rule they would ‘surely ‘die— death would enter and destroy this perfection.

Satan, an angel that had been expelled from heaven on account of prideful rebellion, took the form of a serpent with the express purpose of deceiving Adam and Eve. Beguilingly he tempted Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, she in turn convinced her husband to do the same. Upon eating, they both experienced moral guilt—something hitherto unknown. They sinned for the first time and their innocent human nature became corrupted. Any subsequent attempt to hide their sin from God was futile—for he saw and knew everything. True to God’s promise, they were cast out of the place of life and entered into the frightening new domain of a world tainted by sin; a reality characterized by pain, suffering, and death.

Moreover, the once-perfect human nature was indelibly changed by this sinful foray. Not only did Adam and Eve existentially fall from God’s favor, but all of their human offspring would forever be infected with the disease of sin—that deep inner desire to live and act selfishly independent of God’s will. It would come to permeate every aspect of their lives, body and soul.

Now, as the human population grew so did the magnitude of their sinful expression. Indeed, historically, there came a point where God could no longer tolerate it, the Bible says, ‘The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.’ Gen 6:5-6 (NIV)

As a result, the Lord sent a great flood on the earth and wiped out this human wickedness. But, mysteriously saved one man, Noah (and his family). Despite the ubiquitous presence of human sin and its destructive power, it seems God was not ready to give up on humanity. It appears he actually had a plan to save them. Noah was saved from destruction through his faith, which set the pattern for the way God would enact deliverance from that time onward.

To be consistent with his own rules, God could not simply ignore sin. As such, his subsequent plan of salvation had to incorporate a way of addressing its offence without dismissing its seriousness.

Therefore, all biblical history reveals a story of how God delivers humanity from the consequences of their sinful fallibility by providing the means to atone for sin, whilst allowing the repentant sinner to be delivered. It reveals how God calls sinners to leave their sinful ways and put their faith in his chosen means of addressing the penalty of sin —ultimately the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.

But, you might think that humans have evolved since the time of Noah. Perhaps we are no longer that bad. Regrettably it’s not the case. Thousands of years on from the great flood, the apostle Paul writes to the sophisticated Romans on this subject, outlining the human condition as follows: ‘They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity…Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.’ Romans 1:29, 32 (NIV) By the way, nothing has changed since the Paul’s day either!

So, my friend, contrary to Lady Gaga’s ideal, the Bible clearly states that humans are actually on ‘the wrong track’ from birth; not just some of us—all of us!

If, then, you take the authority of the Bible seriously, you must accept the true state of our human nature as follows: sinful, flawed, corrupted, selfish, and rebellious. It is into this reality we are all born—we are all born this way!

Becoming comfortable in your own skin only ignores the problem, not solves it!

As in days of old when the sinful arrogance of the ancient world snubbed God, resulting in their demise, the inevitable path to destruction also awaits a proud unrepentant modern humanity unless, like Noah, they leave their ways and turn to God, repent, and accept his offer of salvation and follow Jesus Christ.

But I hear you say, ‘Can God really expect me to leave my ‘natural’ desires to follow Jesus?’ Surely that is too much to expect, too much to ask? After all I am only human?

God is fully aware of who and what you are! That is actually why he asks you to leave your ways. He loves you too much to leave you the way you are; he wants you to experience a life free from the control and condemnation of your sinful human nature. You may be born this way, but he sent Jesus Christ to suffer and die for you, that you might no longer stay this way.

Let’s get this into perspective. Those who complain about what they have to give up following Jesus to attain eternal life have clearly not understood what is at stake. Jesus is offering us selfish humans a chance at escaping the condemnation associated with a life of sin, and in exchange offering us eternal life.  That’s not life as we know it with more quantity, it as a quality of life that transcends anything we might naturally experience. In this present age it represents a life of peace, joy, hope, and contentment despite circumstances; in the age to come, an unending experience of bliss in the presence of God free from: sin, pain, and death. Life beyond your wildest dreams. For those who truly apprehend the value of this, they gladly give up anything to follow Jesus.

In fact, Christians throughout history have willingly given up: lands, possessions, family, careers, intimate relationships and in many cases their own lives, all because they esteemed the hope of eternal life offered by Jesus, as more worthy than anything this life can offer. These people took Jesus at his word: ‘Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’ Mark 8:34-36 (NIV)

As strong as the ‘pull’ of the human nature is, and as convincing as the message of ‘born this way’ might be,  Jesus calls us to leave our old existence, shaped by our natural sinful desires, and follow him at the expense of all.

But, the good news is he doesn’t allow us to struggle in this endeavor in our own strength.  His powerful presence accompanies us, enabling and empowering that which he asks. Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit as our comforter and guide. The Spirit brings the presence of Jesus into our lives and with it the power of God to overcome our human proclivity to sin, moreover, the Spirit grants us an inner peace in this process.

In fact the apostle Paul specifically addresses this issue in his Galatians epistle, So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.  For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.  The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions   and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.’ Galatians 5:16-24 (NIV)

If you are that Christian who struggles to see the value of giving up your natural human inclinations to follow Jesus, whatever they may be for you; perhaps that Christian who is all but convinced that the message of ‘born this way’ might be right after all, then let me encourage you to look again to the Bible and its message of truth. Let me encourage you to look beyond this life into eternity. Imagine the great blessing that awaits all those who faithfully persevere in following Jesus.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. You won’t have to wait till heaven to get a blessing from denying yourself for Christ’s sake, either. God graciously provides you with many blessings in this life to compensate the perceived loss, as Jesus affirms, ‘”I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”’ Luke 18:29-30 (NIV)

My dear Christian friend, don’t allow the deceptions of the present age to cause you to forfeit the great blessings awaiting you in heaven, or even the blessings awaiting you now! You may have been born into a world of sin; you may have been ‘born this way’. But God has rescued you through Jesus Christ, and has set your feet on a ‘new way’, the way of life and hope—both for now and for all eternity.

Hold on, keep the faith, persevere; I promise you, it will be worth it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Penultimate Gospel

Did Jesus die exclusively for me?

Jesus’ sacrificial death for the exclusive benefit of the individual believer is regularly reinforced within contemporary Christian circles. Through the lyrics of popular children’s songs like Colin Buchanan’s, He died upon the Cross: ‘He died upon the cross, For me, for me, for just for me’, or through sermon expressions, such as, ‘If you were the only person in the world Jesus would have died for you’, the exclusive human orientation of the gospel is subtly, albeit unintentionally, reinforced.

In their well-intentioned eagerness to make the gospel more appealing, those who present the gospel in this manner, give the impression that human blessedness is God’s supreme goal in the gospel. Regrettably, the subsequent self-oriented thinking, praying, and living of many Christians exposed to this penultimate gospel reveals that this flawed message is hitting its mark.

Why do I call it a penultimate gospel? Because, in reality, it represents a form of good news that, colloquially speaking, gets off the train one station too soon. It is a message that has as its primary destination human happiness (either worldly or heavenly); a message that ignores or diminishes the true and the final goal of the gospel, God—his kingdom, his honor, and his glory!

Now, let me be clear, I am not claiming that Jesus dying on the cross to redeem individuals from the consequences of sin is not valid—not at all. But I am suggesting, that any such assertion of ‘Jesus is dying exclusively for me’ should be carefully contextualized against the backdrop of the ultimacy of God’s Kingdom. If Jesus’ death for me is not conditioned by and set within the context of God’s Kingdom and its universal God glorifying focus, this ‘me’ focus easily leads to the practical subversion of the true gospel.

Disturbingly, the subtle distortion of the Gospel’s primary focus remains unnoticed by many rank and file Christians, just as it receives little critique from the gatekeepers of the faith. It seems the watchmen are more concerned defending traditional confessional truths against technical errors, rather than paying attention to the nefarious effects of methodology on Christian belief. Could it be that such a subtle aberration has slipped under the doctrinal radar simply because of a smug reliance on time-honored orthodox truths, attended by a concomitant unwillingness to revisit them in the face of new cultural challenges?

As unbelievable as this might sound, I believe this drift toward the ‘me’ oriented gospel has come, in part, from an over-reliance on Christianity’s most accepted and valued doctrine, Justification. In  allowing ‘my’ personal status of being justified (set right with God) to become the gospel in toto, the ‘me’ focus of the gospel is easily allowed to be reinforced–without substantive critique.   

But, how could  justification become distorted like this?  Well, let’s look at it.

Every human at the core of their being, is aware that they are accountable moral beings conditioned by innately embedded divine laws. If they are truly honest, they will actually acknowledge they are sinners. This being the case, under the prevenient working of Gods’ grace, they will necessarily feel the deep need to rectify the moral disparity; a disparity between what they know is right and their lack of consistency with this rightness—in short, they want and need to be justified!

Naturally, those burdened are drawn to religious solutions; ways to be set right with the deity that holds them to account. To this end, human religion strives for the justification of the individual. Moreover, whatever the means of gaining this personal justification before ‘God’, the end is nearly always the same—temporal happiness and eternal security.

Traditional Catholicism advanced the notion that faith in Jesus, in association with religious works, would secure a person’s justification and hence a place in heaven. Protestantism, in exposing the inconsistencies within Catholicism, re-emphasized the New Testament doctrine of Justification by faith without any of Catholicism’s attending good works; thus establishing the view of justification embraced and endorsed by many  Christians today.

However, whether Catholic, Protestant, or any derivative thereof, the fundamental orientation and goal of this form of the gospel (at least as it is popularly disseminated) remains the same; the justification of the sinner so he/she can be right with God and go to heaven.

The  exclusive focus on justification, at least as it has been interpreted, oriented, and presented in many  contemporary Christian circles, has shifted the primary focus of the gospel onto the temporal and/or eternal satisfaction of the human subject. It has neglected to view the offer of salvation in the wider matrix of the Kingdom of God and the commensurate loyalty and obedience required within it.

If not properly contextualized, this view of the gospel becomes a message that takes the penultimate truth of human salvation and makes it ultimate. Invariably leading to the prevalence of the subconscious view that God exists exclusively for me and my happiness.

To be sure, human deliverance, blessing, and happiness are significant benefits of the gospel, I do not wish to diminish that. But are they the gospel’s primary focus?

Human redemption must always be seen in the light of a larger context of God’s kingdom and the eternal manifestation of his glory.  More than simply being about justification of sinners, the gospel represents the vindication of God, as these Psalms intimate, ‘For the sake of your name, O LORD, forgive my iniquity, though it is great’ Psalm 25:11 (NIV), and ‘ Help us, O God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake.’ Psalm 79:9 (NIV)

More broadly than ‘my justification, the powerful work of Jesus vindicates and validates God’s kingdom purposes, setting right everything that human sin universally destroyed, the greatest of which is recognition of the supremacy of God (Christ) over all things, and the universal recognition of his glory.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at it in Ephesians…

In love, he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will– to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment– to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.  In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,  in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:5-12 (NIV)

Here Paul contextualizes the gospel within the frame of God’s grand design. For Paul, the gospel is far more than the justification of sinners so they can get into heaven; rather it represents a divine undertaking of a cosmic scale with universal consequences oriented toward the revelation of God’s kingdom in all its glory—of which human salvation is a component.

Motivated by love, God’s sovereign initiative embraced sinners as sons, adopting them into his family; not merely for their own benefit, but as Paul says, ‘…to the praise of his glorious grace.’  He sets the forgiveness of sins and redemption within the context of God’s precisely timed grand design, supremely purposed to ‘…bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.’ Is this not a statement of the gospel’s ultimate aim?

Our election and redemption are not simply about ‘us’ getting a blessing or going to heaven, but are described as an integral component to God’s wondrous plan; a plan designed to invoke within those who have been saved by God’s grace, a disposition of worship through an obedient life–for the praise for his glory!

For Paul then, the ultimate aim of the gospel is the glory of God. If it were simply the justification of sinners, why then would he devote so much of his writing to encouraging Christians to live upright and holy lives to the glory of God?

Indeed, if you look at the majority of New Testament writings, you will agree. Paul understood the supreme goal of the Gospel as God’s glory, and any gospel that didn’t promote this supreme goal to its recipients falls short of the mark—it is a penultimate gospel!

However, there is an ironic twist to this message. When a person, who has embraced the salvation freely offered to them through Christ, and rightly offers their lives to God and his glory; they discover that all the things the penultimate gospel offers, but cannot deliver, are actually freely granted by God—in abundance!

Human happiness and blessedness are in actuality, the by-products of a life given over to God. Did not Jesus say, ‘But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.’? Or again, ‘It is more blessed to give than receive.’? The greatest joy, happiness, and blessing a redeemed human being can experience is to be found in a life focused on God’s glory, given over to the advancement of his kingdom through obedient conformity to God’s will and loving devotion to others—in this true blessedness and happiness is found.

So, what shall we conclude: Did Jesus die exclusively for me? Well, he died for me. He died that I might have the penalty of my sins cancelled, the power of my sin broken, and the presence of my sin removed. He died that I might escape the futility of human self-indulgence and live my earthly life, loving both God and neighbor—for the glory of his name. He died that his kingdom might be the primary focus of my life and not simply my own pleasure. But, no, he did not die ‘exclusively’ for me.

Jesus did not die that I might seek my own temporal and/or eternal pleasure at the expense of his glory, no matter how it is dressed up doctrinally. To embrace such a view of the gospel makes the most wonderful message the world has ever heard , penultimate–short of the mark! To believe such a view of the gospel not only robs me of  ‘true happiness’, but robs God of what he really deserves; eternal glory—the ultimate goal of the gospel!

 

 

 

Subtle Deceptions of Satan: The Real World

The world seems so real. In engaging it our five senses testify to its tangible veracity; constantly compelling us to embrace the notion that ‘this world ‘is all there is. Now, of all the tempter’s nefarious deceptions, the exclusivity reality of the material world is perhaps the most ubiquitous. In it, Satan advances the notion that everything we ‘truly’ encounter is solely attributable to our material existence; materiality is all there is and all we can ever truly know. Moreover, should we in a momentary lapse, find ourselves entertaining a belief in something beyond, it is forcefully discredited by the prevailing culture as mere fantasy. Much like the myth of Santa Claus, any idea of an eternal reality beyond this present world is explained away  in terms of an idealised projection of the human imagination— something ultimately unreal!

Furthermore, the deception of the exclusive reality of  the material world is a multi-headed monster. It is a deception that is as comfortable in theoretical philosophy as it is in the local shopping mall. From the sophisticated philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, which divides reality by positing two realms of human experience; to basic practical religious ideologies such as ‘being too heavenly minded for any earthly use’; to the advertising campaigns of Coca Cola–the exclusive reality of the material world represents a threat of colossal proportions, continually assaulting the human quest to encounter authentic life beyond this existence.

Kant’s philosophy is a potent example of the mind games behind it. He posits that human perception operates in two dimensions. Firstly, the phenomenal represents existence as it is for me—how I experience the world. Secondly, the noumenal represents existence as it really is— the reality that I may know ‘about’, but never truly know! I may experience the sun rising, but how can I know that it really is; what is really happening?  Because I, the knowing subject, am trapped in an existence of my own interpretation, the objectively real, although conceivable to my mind,  is ultimately unobtainable. Therefore, reality beyond human perception is unreachable because the knower is always compelled to embrace the experience of the world through the lens of  the self—a world created by me, for me!

Now, don’t feel bad if you think Kant’s philosophy is complex; it is really designed for those with social engineering in mind. I have simply included it here to remind you that this temptation has multiple levels of complexity.

Notwithstanding the clever philosophies running in the background of our everyday consciousness, Satan’s biggest weapon in his front line assault is good old fashioned  covetousnesshuman desire. He loves to fill people’s lives up with so many material things and the desire for more and more, such that they don’t have time to consider God or the eternal consequences of life.  Through relentless streams of marketing strategies, Satan inflames the latent human propensity for material acquisition; entrapping unwitting his victims by convincing them to embrace the manifold forms of retail therapy—producing that good feeling you get when a new ‘thing’ is bought.  It becomes an addiction, so convincing that the addict sees no point in looking for satisfaction beyond this material existence.

Of course, once people become enamoured by the material, they soon become ignorant of the spiritual, the eternal, and the divine. They become ignorant of the things that are of the greatest importance. But  this ignorance is more deeply ingrained than you might imagine. Satan creates a constant state of material anxiety by increasing temptation beyond the capacity for acquisition.  Thus, when those material things are not gained, the material addict is forced into financial debt to obtain ‘the fix’. Then they have to work harder to pay off the debt, getting so caught up in working to feed the addiction that consumes their life, that there is simply no time or space in which to think about and act on the demands of God–even if they are considered theoretically true. 

Yes, even Christians, who should know better, get caught up in this; many never having time enough to realize that the existence they are embracing is actually transitory, temporal, and flawed, and that the reality of eternity is rushing toward them at an alarming pace.

You see, in using these strategies, the enemy is constantly seeking to break any real link between what might be perceived as divine/eternal and the material existence that the human senses engage on a daily basis. He is content, so long as people don’t make any necessary connection between this world and the divine realities that impinge on it. All that matters to him is that humans, especially Christians, become so inured with this present material existence that they don’t allow any thought of anything beyond it to actually change how they live—even if they believe in God. In short, he wants them to become practical atheists.

That this is a specific deception of Satan is clearly revealed in Holy Scripture, being brought into sharp relief through the Gospel’s account of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in the desert. A temptation designed to derail Jesus and his eternal destiny, prior to undertaking his public ministry in Galilee.

Temptation was always on Jesus agenda, in fact, an element of Jesus’ mission involved a necessary time of testing. So, he is led into the desert for 40 days to prove his worth as Messiah—to be tested and tempted.  God’s ‘first son’ Israel (the nation) was tested for 40 years in the wilderness following the exile from Egypt; Jesus as God’s ‘second’ chosen representative and the prospective redeemer of humanity, would also undergo such testing. Would he fail to trust his father and give into his material appetites, as the ancient Israelites did, or would he prove faithful and trust God’s supernatural provision, despite the compulsion of his dire circumstances?

Of course, Satan waited till Jesus was at his weakest; the very point at which he would be most prone to temptation. So, at the end of the 40 day trial the tempter appeared to the beleaguered Jesus, believing that in this moment of utter weakness he would capitulate to the desperate cravings of the human flesh  as God’s former ‘son’ had done. Indeed, Satan believed Jesus would allow the exclusive reality of the material to take precedent over a belief in the divine and God’s provision, ultimately compromising the mission to establish God’s eternal kingdom.

The temptation came in three waves; and it involved three subtle deceptions.

The first temptation involved a challenge to turn stones into bread; tempting Jesus to use his power to stop trusting God, take matters into his own hands and satisfy his immediate material needs. The corresponding deception being this: Attend to your material appetites when you have the power to do so—seek first your material needs and let God’s kingdom worry about itself. But Jesus saw through it. Yes, he had the power, but chose to seek his first God’s kingdom and trust in God’s timely provision.  Jesus believed his heavenly father would meet his every need when it was ‘truly’ needed. For him, his most necessary food was to do God’s will: “It is written, Man does not live by bread alone.” Luke 4:4(NIV) Trusting God and doing his will is more necessary for human existence than striving to satisfy material appetites.

Alright then, Jesus can trust God to provide food, but could he wait to receive the promised kingdom? The second temptation appealed to the impatient ego. It represented an offer by Satan of lordship over all the kingdoms of earth— ultimate significance.

Here Satan presents a grand vision before Jesus, dominion over the entire world and a chance to be lord over the entire material realm. Satan was hoping that his weakened constitution would blind him to the deception. It did not. Jesus knew that Satan only had transitory dominion of the world, he also knew that this world order was destined to be transformed by God’s Kingdom, and more importantly he knew that exclusive worship of his heavenly father was the key to appropriating this kingdom. He replied, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’ Luke 4: 8 (NIV) Jesus focus remained clear, the allurement of this transitory world faded when the vision of God’s eternal kingdom, prompted by God’s Word, came to mind.

Satan made one final attempt. This time, knowing Jesus’ reliance of God’s Word, he quoted Holy Scripture, appearing to give credibility to his challenge. This time he was challenging Jesus to prove his divine power, to demonstrate his lordship over the forces of this natural world by throwing himself off the temple and allowing the angels to rescue him. Satan said, “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully…” Luke 4:10 (NIV) Seeing though it, Jesus knew that such a spectacle would dishonour God.  Jesus’ power over nature would be demonstrated in due time, but only in alignment with his heavenly father’s purposes.  Fulfilling God’s will, at the appropriate time, was far more important than seeking popular approval. Jesus knew temporal praise was of little worth in God’s eternal kingdom; he kept his eyes firmly on the approval of God.

Through the account of the temptation of Christ, profound truths are revealed. Satan, in every instance attempts to reduce the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ role in it, to a crass material venture. He seeks to make Jesus ministry and life all about the here and now; the gratification of one’s immediate bodily appetites; the elevation of the self to short term worldly glory; and the appeal to popular approval through gestures of power.

Not only did Jesus resist, but in so doing, revealed a manifestly eternal and divine dimension to human life in the world—a life that is not conditioned by materiality but by divine eternality. Jesus revealed a reality in which God always provides for his children’s material needs if they seek his kingdom first; a reality that gives hope of an eternal glory that far outweighs any glory this world can offer, and a reality where God’s approval is worth far more than the approval of the crowd.  Proof that Jesus’ decisions were right, was validated by the angels coming to minister to his bodily needs (Matt 4:11). Those who trust in God’s eternal kingdom, who look to the resource of his supernatural power, will never fail to procure his divine provision. They will always prove the reality of eternality.

What does Jesus’ overcoming of Satan’s temptation ultimately prove, then? As radical as it may seem to our natural perceptions, it proves that the material world we encounter and the rules we are tempted to live by in it, are not final and absolute.  It proves the divine power that creates and sustains this world is available to meet all the needs (material or otherwise) of those who are willing to seek first his kingdom.  God is real, his power is real, and his kingdom is real; and not just real in our imagination—ultimately real. Moreover, it proves that this is a reality that demands a response. A response of no longer living under the fearful limitations of this materialistic deception, a response that demands a life of faith in a God who meets the every need of those who trust him (material, emotional, relational etc), a response that embraces hope in an eternal destiny, and a response of  a life empowered by joy.

As real as it seems, and contrary to everything you may naturally think, feel, or believe, the glittering promises of this material world are ultimately lies. How can we know? Well, the same way Jesus knew. He relied on God’s Word when the temptation came: he knew it and trusted it. You can only know what a lie is when you have the truth to compare it with.Want to know what is real, true, and ultimate? Let the truth of the Bible saturate your mind. I mean actually read it, meditate on it, memorize it: Not just a devotional verse every couple of days, but get into it; maybe a New Testament book or section of Proverbs.  Take time, make time, and let God’s truth inform you of what is real, what is true, and what is ultimate. I guarantee it will be the best time you ever spend.

 

 

 

Subtle Deceptions of Satan: Relationship vs. Religion

Christians hate being called hypocrites. Hypocrites are people viewed as outwardly religious yet inwardly sinful; in some cases more ‘sinful’ than many non-believers. Hypocrites, it would seem, must have no valid relationship with God.

In reaction to claims of religious hypocrisy, someone invented the saying, ‘Christianity is a relationship not a religion’. This represents a simple, straight forward, slogan that addresses the perceived hypocrisy of religiosity by distancing religion from a real devotion to God; setting up the ideas of relationship and religion as a dichotomy.

But what is a dichotomy, I hear you say?  Well, a dichotomy is a literary device that enables the logical contrasting of opposing ideas. For example, in the context of Christian ethics/life, the apostle Paul presents Law and Spirit as a dichotomy. Yet, not all dichotomies are legitimate. Just as there are valid dichotomies there are also false dichotomies. A false dichotomy is a logical separation of ideas that should not be separated, or the juxtaposing of concepts that have no valid relationship to each other. Some people advance false dichotomies out of ignorance, others create them to maliciously deceive.

Satan, as a master of deception, loves false dichotomies. He uses them to great effect leading unwitting Christians to embrace half-truths that hinder their obedient walk with Christ. That he should use such a logical device is not news; how he uses it, in this context, is definitely worthy of a fresh look.

Satan employs  false dichotomies in an attempt to provide alleged solutions to perceived errors. In so doing, he cleverly suggests a more benign error as a solution to an obviously malignant error. But in offering the way of escape he secretly offers up an equally malignant error as that just escaped. By using simple forms of logic that ‘appear’ to push the error aside, the enemy drives the unwitting believer toward embracing a more deeply ingrained falsehood. Indeed, no error is more destructive than the one that seems so right. This alleged solution may get the ignorant Christian out of the frying pan, but it unwittingly drops them into the fire!  Given the end result of such undiscovered or unresolved errors, this metaphor is particularly apt.

So let’s look at the nefarious error at hand, the commonly embraced false dichotomy of religion and relationship.  This is how Satan likes to present it: Religion is potentially hypocritical but God loves a relationship. So let’s escape hypocrisy by dropping religion and running to relationship. Focus on the relationship with God and you will never become a religious hypocrite. Simple!

Notwithstanding this error, I want to suggest that a critical assessment of the religion/relationship phenomenon is not without justification. The Bible is replete with examples of God’s people abandoning an intimate heart-felt relationship with their God in favor of following ‘other gods’, even as they continue the outward forms of religious practices that God requires. In the Old Testament, we read of God’s appraisal of this: “ These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.” Is 29:13 (NIV) and again, “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as obeying the voice of the Lord?” 1 Sam 15:22 (NIV)

Yes, God hates religion that is devoid of heart-felt devotion. He fervently desires his people to serve him motivated by genuine love. He wants them to want what he wants, expressing this ‘want’ in practical God-pleasing obedience. But does God’s desire for relational obedience imply that he hates religion or religious practices?

Enter Satan. In the work of playing off religion against relationship, Satan does some of his most dastardly work.  Starting from the valid notion that any religious activity that lacks heart devotion is false, but then offers up the separation of relationship and religion as the apparent solution; a way of countering the alleged falsehood of hypocrisy. By doing so, he consequentially implies that ‘all religion’ is counter-productive, or at least practically ineffectual. All religion, in this case, is anything that involves some kind of a repetitive ritual or habit with reference to God.

Consequently, practices such as regular: prayer, fasting, church attendance, reading and memorizing of scripture, are presented as being ‘too’ mechanical and dry to have any real value in creating authentic relational intimacy with God.

Can you hear the tempter speaking? “Do you really want to be a hypocrite? Someone who is always doing religious things and always failing before others? Honestly, you are just setting yourself up for criticism! Come on, just get away from that stuff, and just focus on the relationship and avoid all the hassle.”

But wait, the deception is not over yet.

Having destroyed the credibility of religion and its practices, Satan then goes to work on a clever redefinition of relationship. Predictably he redefines it in a human-oriented ‘feel-good’ way. The meaning of relationship ‘now’ becomes something: inward, emotional, and exclusively private. A relationship with God is all about you and God on your terms—a private friendship that only two can appreciate.  Furthermore, he supports these ideas with more slogans like, ‘You don’t need to go to church to be a Christian’, or ‘I don’t need formal religion, I have my own relationship with God’, just to further popularize this lie.

Consequently, weak Christians are deceived into believing that valuable and necessary practices such as: regular fellowship, prayer, fasting, bible reading, charity, and service, are much less important than attending to their own inward thoughts, emotional feelings, and private reflections about God. After all, it’s your personal inner relationship that matters most, right?

Reality check: Have you ever met anyone who has a good relationship with God, that is not regularly involved in Christian fellowship, not reading the Bible regularly, not praying  regularly,  not seeking to live consistently, and not looking for opportunities to serve God? I haven’t, and I don’t think I ever will. In fact, ironically, this relational introspection actually leads to a relationship with God that actually isn’t a relationship at all, or at least, a very unhealthy one. Which, of course, is exactly what Satan wants.

However, when we look more closely at Holy Scripture, we see that no such dichotomy between religion and relationship exists. We do find, however,  a valid critique of religion that has abandoned a heartfelt devotion to God; in essence, we see a valid dichotomy between true religion and false religion.  Yes, we do see God challenging people to stop going through the religious motions and pretending to serve him, whilst all the time they are devoting their hearts to their own interests. Most of all, we find that true religion is absolutely indispensable to a right relationship with God, and vice versa.

This may come as a surprise but Jesus was a very religious person—in the right sense. Apart from attending to all the customs of his Jewish faith, he had a very rigorous prayer life, he regularly read scripture, he spent an inordinate amount of time healing the sick, attending to the needy, and conducting regular teaching sessions on the kind of religious life that pleased God. Moreover, Jesus explicitly taught his disciples the practices of: prayer, fasting, and alms giving. He showed them how to heal the sick, drive out demons, and preach the good news, as well as sending them out on missions to do the same.

Although Jesus fiercely opposed religiosity devoid of heart devotion; by his very actions he showed that religion itself was an inseparable part of a person’s relationship with God. In fact, in challenging the Pharisee’s hypocrisy, he suggested they focus on justice and love, without neglecting their formal religious practices. (Luke 11:42)

Furthermore, when we examine the wider teaching of the New Testament, we do not see the Apostles presenting a form of Christian devotion that focuses on introspective, private, emotional relationship with God, at the expense of outward acts of devotion. On the contrary, we see many examples and exhortations to a disciplined ‘religion’ of obedience to Christ: Animated by the power of the Holy Spirit, in the context of a spiritual community, and focusing on revealing God’s message of salvation to a lost world. Moreover, we see numerous exhortations: to prayer, to scripture reading, to charity toward the poor; we also see exhortations to regular meetings with other Christians, and exhortations to the service of one another as well as our non-Christian associates. Starting to look a bit religious isn’t it?

Of course, we don’t see the legal, ritualistic religion of the Old Testament, for the simple reason it has been superseded by a new Spirit-based regime.  But we do see a new religion of love and devotion to God and neighbor, a practical life empowered by a Holy Spirit, aimed at devotion to Christ exhibited in all kinds of practical and habitual ways.

In this regard, the Apostle James’ reflections are quite instructive: “Religion that God our father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” James 1:27 (NIV) James sees the necessity of a Christian religion that has two dimensions: The first is the practical service of others, where James gives the example of widows and orphans, because they are unable to offer anything in return for service rendered. As such, God values a religious devotion to others that anticipates no reciprocal benefit to the giver.

The second dimension involves the Christian’s personal relationship with God vis-à-vis life in the world. James is implying that devotional practices and actions ensure the Christians holiness is not corrupted by this-worldly agendas. Given the wider New Testament teaching, this would necessarily suggest practices such as: prayer, fasting, scripture reading, fellowship attendance, and so on, are necessary to promote and maintain this desired ‘pure life’.

Not only does James ‘not’ play off religion against relationship, he actually advocates a form of religion that enhances the believer’s personal relationship with God.

As you can see, the testimony of Holy Scripture strongly suggests that heartfelt belief, habitual spiritual disciplines, and practical service are intimately related. Relationship and religion go hand in hand, each enhancing and promoting the other to enable a fruitful life that edifies the self, loves neighbor, and gives glory to God.

Just as a skeleton gives the body’s organs structure, so the living organs nourish the bones—both support and nourish the other to enable a healthy person to function. True religion gives the relationship structure, strength, and form; relationship gives religion a heart and an intimate personal dynamic. Relationship needs religion and religion needs relationship. Embrace both wholeheartedly, and you will never have fear of ‘actually’ being a hypocrite, even though you may be falsely accused as such. Embrace both wholeheartedly, and be surprised at what God can do with such a powerful life of conformity to God’s will. Little wonder Satan expends so much energy seeking to divide them!

 

 

 

Subtle Deceptions of Satan: Truth is an idea

Satan is the master of subterfuge, he specializes in deceiving people into believing something is one thing when it really something quite different. He loves making a lie look like the truth and the truth a lie. He especially gains sweet delight from deceiving Christians into denying fundamental truths they actually think they are affirming. It is in his work on the Christian’s perception of truth, that he unleashes his most destructive  deception. This is a deception that undermines not only the content of  the truth, but the very nature of truth itself.

In biblical Christianity, the message of truth and the method of truth cannot be divided. Indeed, the Bible advocates that a person cannot claim to believe truth about God without allowing that truth to have a real and practical moral claim over the believing  person. In short,  faith in God’ truth must show itself as practical obedience to that truth.

Knowing this Satan makes a concerted effort to conceptually divide the believing and the doing in the mind of the believer; discrediting the value of either or both. Moreover, once dividing them, he specializes in getting the Christian to actually think that the act of believing truth is synonymous with the practicing of the truth believed. Of course, this deception is never more effective than when applied to the revealed truth presented in the Bible.

Satan, by manifold and secret means, advances the error that upholding God’s Word as true is just as good as obeying the truth it commands. As such, a theoretical belief in the truth of God’s Word comes to be viewed, by those who fall for this deception, as being synonymous with practical obedience. If it were framed in slogan form, it might read something like: Good intentions are just as valid as good deeds or it’s the thought that counts!

Do you recall the account of the Garden of Eden temptation, where Eve affirms the authority of God’s Word when tempted by the Serpent? “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'” Genesis 3:2-3 (NIV) She affirmed the truth! But, no sooner had her thoughts been twisted by the tempter’s smooth deception and filtered back through her own logic, she acquiesced to the subtle temptation and disobeyed it.

Incredulously, she disobeyed the very command that only moments before she had upheld. She was duped into believing that knowing God’s command was simply enough; what she did or didn’t do in relation it, didn’t really matter. It’s the thought that counts, right? However, Eve only found out the horrifying truth of failing to obey the known truth when the pangs of her conscience drove her to hide from God’s presence, and the shameful reality of sin bit hard when she and her husband were cast out of paradise.

Not only did it not stop with Eve, but the passage of time enabled the potency of this deception to escalate. In fact by Jesus’ day, the Jewish religious elite, under Satan’s gaze, had developed this nefarious error into a sophisticated art. They could now systematically uphold the theory of scriptural authority for other people whilst simultaneously denying its personal moral claim over their own lives.

The Pharisees were so adept at subtly modifying the meaning of  God’s truth to suit their hypocritical practices, that they could, for example, affirm the letter of the law when condemning a woman caught in adultery; even as they reinterpreted the divorce requirements of that very same Mosaic Law to enable them to ‘legally’ commit adultery. In their scheme, the idea of the truth could be upheld even as the fundamental essence of it’s meaning was practically denied in the most heinous way, and this without even the crisis of conscience that Eve wrestled with!

But, let’s not be too hard on the Pharisees. Even the modern orthodox religious elite are not  immune from this deception. Especially academics who reflect on the doctrine of Holy Scripture; those who resolutely defend it by means of theoretical notions such as inerrancy. So passionate are these people that they will do anything to defend it, and in the process of defending this idea ‘at all costs’, ignore the specific moral injunctions of the truths  defended, often treating with contempt sincere Christians who don’t share their narrow theoretical framing of Holy Scripture’s revelation. Yes, even defenders of the truth can uphold the idea of scripture as truth whilst disobeying its truth content. It would be funny, if it were not tragic.

All this gives Satan the greatest delight.

Furthermore, though it pains me to say it, this this deception is also rife among ordinary Christians. Those grass roots believers who willingly agree that the Bible is true,  but allow the necessities and urgencies of their daily lives to override the fundamental belief that truth must be obeyed to be valid. They allow noble intentions toward to the truth to become a cheap substitute for the real thing. Rather than allowing the Word of God, divine revelation,  to set them at odds with the world and its agendas, the Bible’s ethical and pastoral commands are taken as optional in the face of life’s pressures: ignored, dismissed, or reinterpreted to suit the their own situational ethics.

Sadly, in downplaying the practical commands of Holy Scripture, these Christians unconsciously treat people with indifference and God’s will as practically irrelevant;  except of course on major issues that cannot easily be hidden.  To put it bluntly, they  affirm God’s truth but live how they want!

In acquiescing to Satan’s subtle modification that truth becomes simply an idea that demands no moral response, their God given role in life is fundamentally compromised. Though they may not be fully aware of it, they can no longer be assured of a favorable response from God on the final day of giving accounts.

Now, having critiqued this subtle deception and some of its implications, let us now give our attention to the truth as God sees it. God’s revealed truth as set forth in Scripture, was never intended to become an abstract doctrine, a principle to be mentally acknowledged whilst being practically ignored. Rather, it is a living revelation of divine truth that demands practical obedience: on a daily basis, in all situations, and in the most mundane of details.

In fact, Jesus explicitly warns his followers about the error of thinking that theoretical truth is a substitute for practiced truth. He does so through the parable of the wise and foolish builders—a teaching immediately following his discussion on false teachers.

He teaches that the person who hears His words and obeys them, putting them into practice,  is like the wise builder; one who lays a solid foundation of life well lived before God. Such a person has nothing to fear on the day of giving accounts. However, in contrast, the person who hears the word, recognizing it as truth, but failing to obey it, is like one whose life is without a solid foundation—having an appearance of security whilst actually having none. On the great day of giving accounts to God, this person will find out that the horrifying truth: “Then I will tell them plainly, ‘ I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers.’” (Matt 7:23 NIV)

Furthermore, the apostle James makes a similar point when challenging his readers to also put their faith into practice. He writes, “Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that and shudder.” James 2:18-19 (NIV) James is asserting that claiming to trust God and his truth without putting that trust into practice is little more than a devil’s faith— that’s right, even Satan and the demons believe in the truth of God’s word!

In essence, a faith in God’s truth that does not manifest itself in practical, loving, and devotion to God and his people, in James estimation, is simply non-existent. Belief in the revealed truth of God’s word must therefore manifest itself in practical obedience to that same truth, to be in valid before God.

The message is clear: Even an apparent sound theology of the Word of God and its truth content is no substitute for obeying its revealed commands. Good intentions about divine truth do not equate with good actions. Faith in God and his Word must be actually lived out in ethical conformity to God’s will, to be counted as acceptable before God. All the good intentions and noble beliefs of the religious life count for little when it comes to giving an account to God on the final day. The only thing that really matters is, what actually was ‘done’ in response to what is ‘known’.

To put it bluntly, knowing the will of God and not doing it, is effectively doing the will of Satan! Did I just say that? Well, now the nature of the deception has been made clearer, such a statement should no longer shock or surprise us.

Therefore, the sober challenge is before us. Don’t allow the enemy of your soul to continue deceiving you with the error that noble thoughts about God’ truth equate with practically living out that truth–they simply do not. God’s truth as revealed in Holy Scripture, is actually divine revelation that demands a practical/moral response. It is not a theoretical suggestion requiring rational reinterpretation before it can be considered worthy of application. It is God’s truth, did you get that, truth originating from God the source of all truth.

Therefore, resolve today, if you have fallen for this deception, to break away from this malignant ideology and make a concerted effort to start practicing what you know of God’s revealed truth. In fact, resolve not to study any more theology about God ( in whatever form it takes) until you are willing to practically obey the truth you already know.

I want to say from practical experience, that once you overcome the fear of doing it, you may be pleasantly surprised at the joy it brings. Not only so, but the desire for the revealed truth of Holy Scripture (as divine revelation) will begin to grow in you, as your readiness to practice this truth draws you into an ever increasing thirst for God’s wisdom, and of course a love for the one who gives that wisdom.

God’s truth is not simply an idea to believe; it has hands, it has a heart, and it has a voice. It has a form that needs to be grounded in such a way as to honor God: living rightly before him and by loving those well before you.

May God bless your new endeavor to walk in the freedom of the truth.

The Myth of Ownership

In our modern world, we are led to believe all that we possess we ‘truly’ own. This notion of ownership is validated by contemporary dictionary definitions  that define ownership as: the act, state, or right of possessing something. It seems if you possess it ‘you’ own it! Contemporary views on ownership are also freighted with the belief of absolute discretionary use. That is to say, if  I own something I have the right to use it in whatever manner I see fit. Therefore, all ‘I’ possess: my house, my car, my material goods, even my body  are exclusively ‘mine’, and can be used for my exclusive benefit. Furthermore, the ubiquitous machinery of our consumerist culture, readily affirms the veracity of these claims, allowing our numb consciences the absence of guilt.

But, if we allow our minds the even briefest of moments to soberly reflect on the fate of our relationship with material things at the point of our death, we soon realize that the opposite is actually true: nothing we ‘own’ in this life is truly ours. No ‘worldly’ possession can travel with its ‘owner’ beyond the grave. Even the body, deemed by many to be ‘truly ours’, dissolves. It seems the grief filled assertion of Job, stands true: ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.’ If this is a  more realistic appraisal of our relationship to material things, then should we not take time to reconsider the notion of ownership, especially given it eats up so much of our precious time?

As a Christian who believes in the infinite wisdom of God, I am drawn to the Bible for an answer to this simple yet profound question. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells a story commonly known as the parable of the shrewd manager. An except follows…

Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions.   So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’   “The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg–   I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ Luke 16:1-4 (NIV)

Jesus relates the plight of a manager who is discovered by his master as being wasteful, and is subsequently given notice. Fully aware of his temporary station, the manager quickly devises a plan to secure his future life. So, immediately prior to his dismissal, he goes to his master’s debtors and offers  them a huge discount if they settle their accounts quickly. In doing so, he wins great favor with both them and the master (who commends his actions). Through his shrewd actions and quick thinking, the manager fully employs his master’s resources to establish the opportunity for a prosperous life following his untimely dismissal.

Generally speaking, Jesus’ parables have two main characters: one that corresponds to God and the other the individual hearer of the story. Jesus uses this story to highlight a number of important truths about the hearer’s relationship to the material possessions laid at their disposal by God. Firstly, he intimates that ownership is really stewardship (management), and that which ‘we possess’ really belongs to ‘the master’. Secondly, accountability to God for the use or misuse of those material resources is inevitable for all managers.  Thirdly, the time which those material things are at the disposal of the managers  is relatively brief, so careful management is called for. Fourthly, those possessions are to be used in such a way to grant direct temporal benefit to others and so indirectly benefit their owner (God), who values people above things. Finally, wise management implies a future reward for the right handling of the resources granted.

In this story, Jesus also offers some insights on the nature of material things. He says, ‘Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much…’ Luke 16:10 (NIV).  Jesus here suggests that the  wealth of  ‘this world’ is relatively little in comparison to eternal riches. Wise use of  the former results in the granting of ‘much’ of the latter. He also indicates that worldly wealth is artificial:  ‘So if you have been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches.‘ (v11) The suggestion being, transitory material wealth has only token value, and is not ‘true’ wealth. Finally, Jesus debunks the notion of discretionary ownership: ‘And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?’ (v12) Here he affirms that material possessions are really God’s, loaned to us as the means of proving our worth and suitability for gaining ‘our own’ wealth.

If  we are willing to accept the Bible’s perspective on material things, then we must dismiss the notion that possession of material wealth equates with discretionary ownership. Rather, we must also accept that all we ‘own’ in this life has been gifted to us by God, representing a means for qualifying for the possession of true/eternal riches. Not only so, but we must acknowledge personal responsibility; accepting  that God will call us to account for  our use or misuse of these temporal gifts.  Finally, how well we manage the temporal possessions at our disposal, will determine the greatness of eternal riches we receive when we are called to account by God on that final day.

Ownership, as it is commonly understood in our culture, is a myth. Nothing we possess we ‘truly’ own. Rather, we been given access to someone else’s resources (God’s); resources of relatively little value in eternal terms, but having great valuable in as much as they provide the opportunity to test our trustworthiness for gaining eternal possessions.  Therefore, access to these material resources simply represents the means for proving our stewardship before God, and the opportunity to gain true and enduring wealth, should we prove faithful. Those who delay their gratification to possess things, with a view to true ownership can expect far more than this life can offer. Moreover, this far more on offer, will never fade, rust, rot, or be stolen. For the faithful manager then, eternal possessions granted by God can be claimed as truly their own, for only in eternity is ownership no longer a myth.

 

Life on the Second Mile

Whether we like it or not, our human natures’ are conditioned by law—moral principles. Even if we cannot actually codify that law, it exists within us as something hardwired to the conscience, innately dictating a sense of right and wrong. Indeed, this fundamental intuition of right and wrong and the desire for justice that attends it, is never more obvious than when it rises up to defend us against personal injustice. When something happens that us that is perceived as not being right or fair, immediately our moral compass swings to true north and there arises within us a resolute appeal to be justified according to those deeply  held principles of truth.

Of course, this innate moral compass has great value in as much as it reveals there is something wrong with human nature and the fallen world largely conditioned by it, thus it prompts us to search for an answer beyond ourselves. Paradoxically, this same innate moral law also works against us, in as much as it limits our capacity to grasp the next level of existence beyond law, that God has in store for those who fully trust him.

Regrettably, when we merely exist in this reality defined and conditioned by moral law,  we unwittingly become trapped by the unrelenting human desire for self-justification. Indeed, even if we claim to be mature Christians, the next level of divine living which  transcends this legal ‘eye for an eye’ existence, always seem to elude us.

Thankfully the teaching of Jesus addresses this vexing subject. In speaking to a group of religious people whose lives were deeply conditioned by moral law, Jesus challenges them not to allow their moral framework to limit the life that God has in store for them. He offers them a view of life that transcends an existence conditioned by their rigid system of rightness and wrongness. In response, he challenges them to adopt the mindset of their loving heavenly father when dealing with personal injustice> Not by self-righteously appealing to laws in one’s own  defense, but rather transcending the law paradigm by approaching any given moral challenge through adopting the gracious disposition of God— walking the ‘second mile’ of grace.

Referring to the Old Testament ethical code Jesus said, ‘You have heard it said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you…’ (Matt 5:38).  He then goes on to describe a list of behaviors that fly in the face of the conventional  moral views on personal legal equality. He speaks of allowing evil people to strike you on both cheeks, he suggests if someone wants to sue you for a certain amount give them more, and if an enemy forces you to carry their pack one mile then respond by carry it two miles. In fact, he seems to be suggesting that when it comes to injustice toward yourself, you will be far better served in the eyes of God if you set your ‘own rights’ aside and extend special favor to the offending individual (s).

What Jesus was intimating to these well meaning religious people, trapped by a world of rules and laws, is that if you want to really understand God and understand the purpose that he has for you, then you must adopt an entirely contrarian mindset when relating to personal injustice—a way of thinking about justice based squarely on the gracious nature of God himself.

You see, if God were to respond to every act of injustice with direct and immediate ‘just judgment’ (as we humans are so readily predisposed), there would not be a single human being alive who would not have been stuck down by God’s ‘wrath’, in fact every single one of us, without exception, are rightly deserving of the ‘just’ condemnation that comes when exposed by God’s piercing righteousness.

But God is more loving and gracious than you can possibly imagine. He does not respond with self-righteous retaliation to every sin; rather he graciously perseveres with our weaknesses, failings, flaws, and sins, he patiently reminds us of the futility of such an existence through the painful consequences of our actions, and gently goads us to come back to him by various means–especially his Word.  Of course, God does not validate our moral indiscretions, nor does he overlook them (that would be inconsistent with his nature), but he does patiently bear with us in such a way that we come to see our own ‘evil’ when we are powerfully confronted by his overwhelming love.

This is actually what the bible calls Grace—the undeserved, kind, and loving favor of God.  Law simply tells us what is wrong, but grace shows us the way out of that wrongness. Grace disarms the self-righteous spirit which, in appealing to law, actually resists God’s grace!  Grace finds a way to make right what law never could, it gets under our moral defenses and touches our broken hearts with God’s love.

Jesus concluded by offering his hearers this challenge, ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.’ Matt 5:48. He is suggesting that  if you want to please God and align yourself with his desires, then stop living a self-interested, self-justifying, law- oriented life, and start living and acting the way God does—in grace.

He challenges us, to start relating to people in a manner that actually overlooks the self-righteous demanding of ‘my’ rights, and start relating to others with the disposition of undeserved kindness, conditioned by God’s boundless love. Start relating to others in the way that God relates to you! When you do this you will be living a life that truly pleases God, a life on the ‘second mile’ of human  existence:

Firstly,  this way of living sets you free from the inexorable demands of the moral conscience that drives you to justify yourself; measuring yourself against others, so you might appear better in the eyes of God. Consequently, it releases you from the culture of judging and being judged.

Secondly, it neutralizes the pride that conditions this self-righteousness. We often resist personal ‘enemies’ because we are proud. But, when in taking up the disposition of God, we start to see them as those who need to be graciously won over through love (people just like us). Consequently, we allow our pride to be quenched by the presence of God’s Spirit and start to respond with unnatural love. The balance of power now shifts in our (and God’s) favor; they are the ones now on the defense—there is nothing more disarming to an enemy than love!

Thirdly, when we decide to walk the road of ‘second mile’ of grace, we enter into a state of God dependence where we can now draw on a ‘power of God’, power that was previously unavailable to us.When we live within our ‘comfort zone’, even as Christians, we largely draw upon our natural human resources to get by. But when we enter into the realm of grace (loving enemies in a contrarian manner—and the like) these resources are no longer at our disposal–we have relinquished them. Yet, within this new state of existence God does not leave us powerless, he miraculously grants us both the external and internal resources to prevail against the seemingly impossible. This is what the Apostle Paul was alluding to when he wrote, ‘But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ 2 Cor 12:9.

Finally, in walking the ‘second mile’, we enter into a life that truly pleases God. We are no longer ‘looking over our shoulder’ to see if God is giving us ‘brownie points’ or taking them away—is he happy with me today or not ( yes, even Christians who believe in justification by faith this think like this). In the real of grace, we have now entered a form of existence that is in complete harmony with God. Firstly, we have surrendered our human wills to God in complete faith, and secondly manifested this faith in complete obedience—by actually loving others in the manner God does. In so doing, we have actually been freed from our self-righteous selves, freed to be truly human as God originally intended —human like Christ!

So, when you find yourself confronted by insurmountable opposition of all kinds, don’t fall back and stubbornly plod along the ‘first mile’ of moral self-defense, rather keep walking and trusting in God’s strength, striding on in faith. Be courageous enough to enter onto the ‘second mile’ of God’s grace, only then will you discover and experience God’s power and love  in ways that were previously unimagined. This way of living is not without a solid precedent, indeed the Apostle Paul knew it well, and was not ashamed to speak of its wonders: ‘That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’2 Cor 12

 

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