Saturday, November 15, 2014

Sad Slaves

Performance-based Christianity is a burden that will kill you. I'm more convinced of that today than I've ever been. It may not take you out physically (although in some instances it might), but it will kill your joy and turn you into a sad and heavy laden person. It will turn you into a Christian Eeyore, full of gloom, despair, and unending agony. Nobody wants to be around that person because they're so dark and joyless. They're like that because they're so turned in on themselves. Having become convinced that the Christian life is about them and how well they're performing, they've become enslaved to their own performance and they don't even recognize it. They're sad and enslaved, and they want you to join them. Paul was dealing with a similar group of enslaved people when he wrote this:
...[They] slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery... Gal. 2:4
Those enslaved by their own performance are constantly recruiting. They have an agenda - to find those who have been set free by the "it is finished" message of the gospel and turn them into slaves - unhappy and joyless slaves just like themselves. Their singular goal is to "bring us into slavery" because the freedom that the gospel brings really bugs them and they can't stand it. You're free and they're not, and that eats away at them. So they become spies. They start stalking you, looking for chinks and weaknesses in your armor. When they think they've found an opportune moment, they rise above the surface just long enough to throw a dart but if it doesn't produce the desired affect, they drop below the radar once again and resume their stalking of you, waiting for your next move.

I've seen this kind of destructive hit and run tactic tear apart relationships, destroy life-long friendships, and create an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. I'm sure you have too. I've seen what feels like endless character assassinations and name-calling by those covert Christians who are trying to rescue us from the freedom we have in Jesus and bring us back into the same slavery they're stuck in. Heretical accusations like "antinomian" "hyper-grace", or "easy-believe ism" seem to flow freely from the lips of those still enslaved because they're desperate to find some way to bring you back into slavery with them and they know they're losing you to God's radical one-way grace. But here's how Paul responded:
...to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. Gal. 2:5
The gospel and performance-based Christianity are stark enemies. They can't be mixed. Performance-based Christianity is hostile to pure grace. It can't stand it! In performance-based Christianity, the "it is finished"-ness of the gospel is a threat that can't be tolerated. There is no room in performancism for "it is finished." Performancism's agenda is to overthrow the radical notion of one-way grace by bringing us back into slavery. But Paul wouldn't allow the radical message and purity of the gospel to be diluted.

To those sad slaves spying on those who have been set free, who still think the Christian life is about them, their rule-keeping, and their progress, Scripture poses this simple question, "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" Gal. 3:3

-Mike

Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Gospel and My Social Awkwardness

I feel like my understanding of grace and the gospel has made me socially awkward in a lot of ways. I'm really sensitized to law preachers who preach as though law was God's final word. The further away in time I get from my own crash and burn (it's been six years), the more sensitized I seem to be getting to law preaching. My law radar is on all the time now. I see law masquerading as good news all over the place and it's become easier than ever to recognize. I'm not anti law. I love God's law. I love God's word. But law isn't God's final word. The gospel is. Moses isn't God's final word to us. Jesus is. Unfortunately, most Bible preaching and teaching pulls up short and stops with law as though there was hope there. That used to describe me.

After hitting a wall of performance in early 2009, the now power of the gospel gripped my heart and turned my predictable little world upside down. We ended up leaving the church I helped plant nine years earlier, as one of its founding pastors. People got mad at us and then we got mad at them for being mad at us and not understanding. It wasn't a pleasant time. In fact, it was a very sad and heartbreaking time for us. Our heads were spinning and we were trying to sort through what had just happened and what God was up to. It became increasingly clear to us that staying wasn't an option.

We found a gospel-centered church soon after our departure that proved very healing for us. We were welcomed and after we shared our story, we were embraced without criticism or judgement. They were glad we were there and week after week, we heard the gospel and healing began. That went on for about two years until the lead pastor felt called to go elsewhere and the church merged with another one, and what we had known and experienced those two years basically morphed.

Then the dreaded search started again. And it's still going. Yep, I've become that guy. The guy I used to judge in my performance days. The guy who seems to always be church shopping, but never lands anywhere. I don't want to be that guy, but here I am. I'm broken and I'm a mess. Go ahead and judge me if you must. But I'm not alone. I've discovered that in in this area alone, there are pockets of people (a lot of people) in the same predicament. People who haven't left Jesus but to varying degrees, feel that the church has. People who are simply looking for a church that preaches "it is finished" instead of "you need to pull yourself up and get er done. Here's your checklist."

But I'm tired. And as my understanding of the relevance of the gospel increases, I feel I'm becoming more socially awkward around those who haven't crashed and burned or who just don't understand the now power of the gospel, but sometimes try to fake it. Gospel-centeredness isn't optional for me because I've seen and experienced the ugliness of not being gospel-centered. Unfortunately, in searching for a gospel-centered church, references to the gospel are becoming a popular tag line on many church web sites, whether they truly get it or not. I've been to some of those in my search and law and condemnation were so thick, I just wanted to run. In one of them, we did just that. We got up and left because the condemnation was so thick. We couldn't get out of there fast enough! Sad, but true.

Please don't misunderstand me. I love the church. Jesus died for the church. I'm not looking for a perfect church. I just want to hear "it is finished" and "no condemnation" over and over because I constantly forget it. There is no hope in to-do lists. I want to be reminded that in my messy brokenness, Jesus runs to me and loves me. As my substitute and savior, Jesus is my only hope and none of this is riding on me. But when I mention that to most church people, it makes them uncomfortable and I start to feel socially awkward again. On many days, I want to throw in the towel and give up because it seems to be such a waste of time and I've become that guy I used to judge and criticize. Oh well. Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so. My understanding of grace makes me a socially awkward mess at times, but I'm his mess and a work in progress. He knows what he's doing.

-Mike

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

My Big Fat Sloppy Sanctification

Life is messy. Sloppy, really. We like to pretend it isn't, but it is. We prefer hiding behind whatever mask we're wearing in the moment that we think hides our messiness and undone-ness from others. But it doesn't. Not really. Nowhere is this more true than inside the church. It's there that we refer to life on the ground as sanctification with the incorrect assumption that sanctification means continuous movement away from life's messiness into some type of have-it-togetherness. We equate sanctification with self-sufficiency. That's because the message we've heard for so many years has been heavy on progress and light on justification. Heavy on behavior modification and light on mercy and grace. The banner of the Christian life has become my (and your) progress. "Am I pulling it off?" has replaced "it is finished!" If it appears you aren't pulling it off like I think you should be, I morph into fix-it mode which I think gives me Biblical permission to put you in a spiritual headlock until you cry "uncle!" and superficially produce the "change" I need to see in you in order for me to be happy. At least, that's how I remember it.

But God's acceptance of me in Jesus has nothing to do with my progress or lack thereof. It has nothing to do with whether or not I look a certain way or if I fit someone's mold of what they think a believer should look like. God isn't going to abandon me in my sloppiness because his acceptance of me is due to the fact that he has declared me righteous in heaven's court apart from anything moral or pleasing in me at all. But that sounds so impersonal. Maybe this sounds better: God loves me so much that he stepped into his creation to rescue me by doing for me what I could never do for myself. Since God's standard is perfection (Matthew 5:48) and not progress (Matthew 23:27-28), he has, by grace alone, made me perfect apart from progress (Hebrews 10:14) based on the merits of another: Jesus. He has freely placed into my account the perfect record of Jesus, while putting to death my old record in Adam. In Adam, all die; in Jesus, all are made alive (Romans 5:18-19); all of this, apart from my progress or works of any kind. Jesus died the death that I deserved and in so doing, he gave to me his perfect record of righteousness and took upon himself, my bad record in Adam. God loves me because Jesus is my substitute and savior, not because I'm getting better, making progress, or becoming self-sufficient.

This is good news because none of it depends on me! God freely justifies the wicked (Romans 4:5) and when he does, they are counted righteous. That righteousness comes from outside of us. Thank God! There is no room for boasting in my progress or fretting over my sloppiness and brokenness. I'm just as righteous in Jesus on my crappy days, weeks, months, years, or decades as I am in those brief moments where I've deceived myself into thinking I'm pulling it off or accomplishing something. My righteousness doesn't depend on my progress or lack of progress. Life gets sloppy. Life gets dirty. But in the midst of all my sloppiness and undone-ness, Jesus loves me and he wants to be with me not because I'm making progress but because he loves sinners like you and me just as we are.

There is amazing freedom in that! I can't screw this up. I've mentioned before that I can't perform my way into God's kingdom and once I'm in, I can't sin my way out of it. The Bible calls that grace. While my sanctification is messy and sloppy, my justification is perfect and pristine. God loves me, not because I'm making progress, but because he has declared me righteous and no amount of sanctification sloppiness will ever change that. I'm a mess, but Jesus died for messes like me. That's good news and it sets me free! God's love is put on full display in my weak messiness. Those most intimate with their own brokenness are those most intimate with grace.
Jesus is not repelled by us, no matter how messy we are, regardless of how incomplete we are. - Mike Yaconelli (Messy Spirituality)
- Mike

Monday, August 4, 2014

The Phone Rang So I Answered It

In my previous post I wrote a blog about a good friend of mine who called it quits and walked away from the faith. It's probably a good idea to read it before reading this one. It's a post called We Don't Need Another Hero. I hadn't heard from him in many, many years but more recently, he's been on my mind. Then today, he called me. Right out of the blue. We haven't talked in so long I don't remember our last conversation. I had no idea where he was and I certainly didn't know how to reach him. But he found me. He tracked me down, found me, and called. That's crazy, even for a five point Calvinist like me.

I'm so glad he didn't call me six or seven years ago when I was so deeply immersed in performance. I couldn't have offered him hope if he had called me then. The only thing I would have had to offer then was law. An endless to-do list of behavior modification that only leads to hopelessness and despair because none of us can pull that off or ever be good enough. Instead, we talked about Jesus. We talked about the good news that Jesus loves train wrecks like me and my friend. We talked about how we got it all so wrong all of those years ago, believing God was mad at us if we screwed up. And man did we screw up. I reminded my friend how Jesus likes to hang out with sinners. He loves us in our messiness and we're all a mess. We just didn't know it then. We thought we were supposed to be strong and competent because that's what we were being told. But that's a lie and no one is like that. Some people just have so many layers of masks that they're wearing that they've become experts at hiding their true selves, or they're just better liars. But let's be honest, we're all screwed up. Jesus knows that and he loves us still. He doesn't just love us. He likes us. When he was on earth, he wanted to be with sinners. And he still does. That's good news because there aren't any non-sinners.

We talked also about Jesus' final word on the cross, "it is finished." We talked about how that means we can't take credit for any of this. Salvation is all God's doing, not ours. We can't perform our way into the kingdom and we can't sin our way out of it. That's grace! The pressure to perform and measure up is off because Jesus performed and measured up for us. We can't add anything to what he's done and we can't take anything away from it. He knows we're weak and that we can't pull this off, so he came and pulled it off for us. We have been set free!

I could tell my friend was hesitant and a little apprehensive to say much at the beginning but the more we talked and the more I shared my own crash and burn story with him, the more he was softened by the message of grace. Grace does that. Law hardens us and scares us away, but grace melts us and draws us in. And grace is so easy and freeing to talk about because it's what rescues me every day. The gospel isn't complicated. It's simple and yet so profound. Jesus came to set the captives free and rescue sinners, of whom I am chief.

We're going to talk again soon.

-Mike

Monday, June 23, 2014

We Don't Need Another Hero

My friend walked away from the faith a couple of years ago. Not all at once. It was more like a slow walk. A leisurely stroll. But one that brought him to a bad place. From his first exposure to Christianity and his profession of faith, he was full of zeal. As a young believer myself, I remember one of the first questions that always came from my friend's mouth when we would see each other was, "What are you doing for Jesus? God's done so much for you, what are you doing for him? What are you doing to pay him back?" I remember how uncomfortable that made me feel, even as a new Christian and being so young in the faith and naive. It made me squirm. It made me feel guilty and condemned because God had done so much for me and I seemed unable and grossly inconsistent and incompetent in doing much for Him. I eventually started avoiding my friend, at least for the first few minutes after he would arrive. Once the preliminary "what are you doing for Jesus?" Q&A with everyone else in the room would subside, I would emerge from the back room, breathing a sigh of relief and congratulating myself that I had successfully avoided another interrogation. Sad, but true.

That's what "do more" Christianity does. It doesn't make you do more, it makes you give up altogether! It's not good news. It's bad news. It ties heavy burdens on our own backs and on the backs of others that we can't possibly bear and leaves us feeling condemned because it's never ending and we can never do enough and we'll never measure up. That's what eventually happened to my friend. After years of hearing and asking "What are you doing for Jesus?" and convincing himself that he needed to be "on fire for Jesus" 24/7 for God to be pleased with him, he finally despaired of the whole thing, lost his family, and threw in the towel and walked away.

Not unlike my friend, I used to think strong and competent was the normal Christian life. I used to think I was strong and competent and that my strength and competency somehow put a smile on God's face, until I hit a wall of performance. Then I discovered the freeing and beautiful truth that I'm a mess and Jesus already knows it and loves me anyway. Jesus doesn't call me strong. He calls me beloved. The truth is I'm not on fire for Jesus. Jesus is on fire for me. It would be nice to be able to say that I'm on fire for Jesus but the truth is my affections are fickle and my devotion is all over the map. But even in the midst of my divided affections and sucky devotion, Jesus both loves me and likes me. He wants to be with me. He's not fretting or wringing his hands over my inability to be a spiritual giant. There are no spiritual giants. I'm not the hero of the story. He is. He's holding me, I'm not holding him. He is my substitute in all of life and because of that, his perfect record is mine and nothing can tarnish it, not even me.

That means that because my prayer life is weak and there are times I can't pray or don't even want to pray, he intercedes for me (Romans 8:26). Because I am weak and broken and unable to fix myself, I have a sympathetic and strong High Priest who lavishes non-stop grace and mercy on me even on my messiest and ugliest days (Heb. 4:15-16). Because even my repentances suck, I have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. (1 John 2:1). Because my worship is fickle and my heart divided, he worships perfectly for me (Heb. 2:12). That's good news! That's the gospel applied to my real life.

I wish I could see my friend again and tell him these things. The Christian life isn't about me and you. The beauty of the gospel is that Jesus is the only hero of the story and he loves broken people. And we're all broken. Jesus didn't come to set the competent free. He came to set the captives free.

-Mike

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Bruised Jars of Clay

In early 2009, I hit a wall after years of performance Christianity where, among other things, I thought God's opinion of me rested upon my progress as a Christian. God was pleased with me, so I thought, when I was getting better at the whole Christian life thing. Was I reading? Was I being hospitable? Was I improving as a dad and husband? Was I becoming a better pastor? Was I becoming a better counselor? Was I becoming a better teacher? Was I becoming better as a worship leader? Was I meeting regularly with other believers? Was I growing in my knowledge of God? And on and on the list goes. I, I, I, me, me, me. The Christian life became all about me and my supposed progress. I believed in grace alone thru faith alone in the finished work of Jesus alone but functionally, I was obsessed with my own behavior modification and the behavior of those around me. They in turn were preoccupied with my behavioral progress as we would casually toss around phrases like, "A believer looks like [Fill in the Blank]" in order to passive-aggressively manipulate one another to try harder to convince each other that we were getting better at the whole Christian thing. Add to that the fear of punishment and possible public humiliation if I didn't look like a believer (whatever that means!) and the mask-wearing begins. Out of fear of rejection and exposure, we start wearing masks to fool those around us (who are also wearing masks) into thinking we have our act together so they will leave us alone and not come after us. That, my friends, is law-laden performancism. And I lived the dream for years.

Enter, God's gracious crash and burn. When God brought my world down around me in early 2009, I wrote a blog. It was different than my previous blogs which, looking at them now, had become lifeless, dry, cold, theoretical, and impersonal. Fact-filled, but dead. Right perhaps (perhaps not), but not real. Fake. Then all of that crumbled to the ground and out of the ashes God showed me anew, my own weakness and his all-sufficient grace and power, which is made strongest when I am at my weakest. It was at that time, in February 2009, that I wrote the blog I'm sharing with you below, for which I took quite a bit of flak at the time because I talked about how weak we are instead of pretending to be strong. I've resisted the temptation to tweak it in any way in order to preserve what I was thinking at the time and to allow you to see what I was coming to grips with in that moment. From February, 2009:

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I'm going to write this blog not knowing exactly where it's going. But that's ok because spontaneity doesn't ALWAYS have to be planned! Just most of the time. I've been coming back to 2 Corinthians 4 over the last week or so, and reading and rereading it as a devotional. Maybe I should put it here for you so you can have it in front of you.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)
The treasure that Paul is speaking of is "the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" from verse 6. It is the life-altering power of the gospel. It is the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. It is a participation in God's glory because of the cross of Christ. It is knowingChrist intimately and knowing the power of his resurrection (Philippians 3:10) firsthand. It is the forgiveness of sin and unconditional acceptance with the Father because of the cross. It is a knowledge OF God, not a superficial knowledge ABOUT God. This is experiential knowledge as every believer experiences God. Every believer experiences saving grace. This is treasure! This is true and lasting treasure! This is priceless treasure (Matthew 13:44) that never fades away and is reserved in heaven for those who believe (1 Peter 1:3-5), and it can never spoil, fade, or rust away. God himself is its keeper. This is true and lasting treasure.

This is ours in Christ by grace alone. And yet, we have this all surpassing power in jars of clay to demonstrate that our perseverance is from God and not ourselves. We are weak but he is strong. He is always strong and we are always weak - even when we think we are strong. Paul goes on,
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (2 Corinthians 4:8-9)
Possessing this treasure in jars of clay means that we are weak in ourselves. Our humanness is fragile, but God is strong. We may have times in our walk when we feel crushed, in despair, forsaken, and even destroyed. We'll think we've reached the end of our rope and our life may start to unravel before our very eyes as things seemingly spiral out of control. What we are experiencing can be very real and we may think all is lost. But if we are truly his, we aren't really crushed, in despair, forsaken, or destroyed, as real as those things can seem at times. We're really just afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, much like Paul was. It's easy to lose our perspective when life's coming at you fast. In the midst of feeling crushed, we can easily melt down for a time. In the midst of being perplexed, life can seem to unravel in front of us and nothing makes sense anymore as we begin to question every motive. In the midst of persecution, we can experience moments of anger or even hatred which can lead us to the conclusion that God must not be at work in our lives, all is lost, and we are on the road to destruction.

We must be patient and give those in severe trials room and time to encounter God through them, allowing the Holy Spirit time to accomplish his purposes in them. A heart can be a fragile thing, not because we run the risk of failing to persevere ultimately, but for the simple reason that it is housed within a jar of clay and that jar is fragile and easily bruised at times. Perseverance is housed in a fragile jar which means that trials can knock us around and sometimes overwhelm us. But not ultimately. During severe trials, perseverance can look as though it's been temporarily interrupted. But it hasn't been derailed. We simply lose focus sometimes because of this fragile jar of clay.

But here's the good news: we have this treasure in jars of clay for the express purpose of showing us and the world that this all-surpassing power is from God and not us. He is strong even when I am weak. In fact, He is at his strongest when I am at my weakest. Ultimately, we will persevere, not because our love for him is so strong or because we have our act together, but because he loved us first. He is the author and finisher of our faith. Not us. We dare not become impatient with those experiencing fiery trials, nor expect a superficial level of performance from those in the midst of severe trials. Trials are real. Especially to the one in the trial. I recently read someone who said that the Holy Spirit seems pleased to work in decades, not days, weeks, months, or even years. Our only job is to be a patient resource and help to those other jars of clay who are feeling afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down and to gently come alongside to lovingly remind them that God would never crush them, put them in a place of utter despair, abandon them, or destroy them.
Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. (Galatians 6:2-3)
-Mike

Postscript: I recently posted a blog entitled, My Valentine's Day Grace Massacre that tells a little more of my story. If you're interested in reading it, you can see it here.  ---->  http://www.livinglifeloved.org/2015/02/my-valentines-day-grace-massacre.html