July 8, 2011

Hit Between the Eyes

What do you do when faced with a lifetime built on the wrong paradigm?

Thanks to the conspiracy of the Holy Spirit and the books that have dropped into my life this week, I’ve been reminded of a paradigm shift that is incomplete in my life--one of those belief systems that dies hard and must be weeded out root by root… Mine has been the upbringing of a self-righteous Pharisee. No blame intended, it’s just what I latched onto as a means to satisfy my need to please…

Little by little the Spirit shows me what he sees and what I need to confess and reject. I’m still trying to frame clearly in words this insidious belief system that sabotages my heart. It’s something to the effect of believing that doing the right thing, avoiding mistakes, treading cautiously so as not to slip and fall, living wary of potential failure… all these things are indispensable to maintaining a ‘right-eousness’ that will not only qualify me for the Kingdom but guarantee me an A+ standing. Yep, I got Jesus ‘on board’ at an early age too, as that was clearly the ‘right’ thing to do in my religious community, and I might need His help along the way…. Cultivating a relationship with Him was clearly requisite to maintaining my ‘righteousness’ (and bolstering my insecurities). So I did, as much as a self-righteous sinner can. But I’ve always been goaded by stories that depict great love and adoration, great mercy, forgiveness and compassion. The self-righteous generally are.

Consider, for instance, the publican and the Pharisee going up to pray. Who gets a hearing? Not the “I thank thee that I am not like that lout of a man”, but the miserable repentant sinner who pleads: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”(Luke 18).

And what’s this with the prostitute kneeling at Jesus’ feet weeping and washing His feet with her tears, trusting His compassionate heart to forgive: “Her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little." (Lk.7:47) I have long secretly envied her heart-felt extravagance.

“Little love” is not enough to empower a life of self-forgetful service and whole-hearted sacrifice! Anything short of my life a ‘living sacrifice’ is insufficient worship to offer. But giving up my fabricated ‘righteousness’ and dogged self-preservation feels like a life-sentence. Hmm… ‘death to self’ could it be? What would that look like?

I’m reading a book I borrowed from my dad-in-law entitled: Living Sacrifice (Roseveare). It’s been one of those times in my life when books conspire to nail me between the eyes with my condition. Whether Owen Meany* (see last week’s blog) and his sense of destiny to give his life to save others, or Helen Roseveare’s reflections on lessons learned as a missionary in the Congo/Zaire, or the book I have yet to mention that came in the mail this week for me to review…All point to a love that is not only willing but glad to surrender its life for another. If these are not enough hints, there’s Paul’s joyful letter to the Philippians, in which he extols the privilege of suffering for Christ’s sake. It has been granted to us that ‘for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in Him but also suffer for his sake…’ (Phil.1:29).

Paul himself experienced the rigorous life of the true Pharisee with its confidence, zeal, and blamelessness and declared it all a net loss, garbage in comparison to the worth of knowing Christ, sharing His righteousness, His resurrection power and His sufferings. It was the goal of Paul’s life to be like Christ, humbly obedient to the point of death. Where does that kind of self-forgetful zeal come from?

My guess is, love. And Paul’s own words in his letter to the Corinthians confirm it: “For the love of Christ compels us, because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died; and He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again. II Cor. 5:14,15

This kind of self-sacrificing love is unfamiliar territory for the self-righteous—wise in their own sight, self-sufficient, not cognizant of the grace in which they live and breathe. Thinking they have little to be forgiven, they love little. I wonder if you saw “The Passion of the Christ” (Gibson, 2004) when it came out? I watched alone those moments of Christ’s trial when the pious Pharisees and chief priests in all their regalia were standing smugly by and I was struck with my own culpability. But then with awe I realized that this repugnantly self-righteous lot were among those for whom Christ came to die. His piercing words to them throughout His ministry--calling them ‘white-washed sepulchers’, blind guides, children of the devil—were not meant to condemn but to confront them with their sinful selves so they could repent and be saved.

And even still Christ calls to self-righteous me, to relinquish my rubbish and rely on His righteousness alone. And again, by faith, I trade in my bankrupt agenda for His and trust Him to put His great love in my heart. I can’t serve Him without it.

It’s got to be by faith. Everything else reeks of self and sin. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Rom.14:23 I do want to ‘get it right’ but my motives are so skewed. Jesus is not only the founder of my faith, but its perfecter (Heb.12:2) It’s not about the perfection of what I do but of my faithresting my whole case on Christ from beginning to end. “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” (Col.2:6) It doesn’t just start with believing I’m a hopeless sinner and He’s my Saviour. It continues that way. He saves me from myself every day by passing day, and my only hope of walking worthy of my calling is by faith, that He is able…thus the fear and trembling of ‘working out my own salvation’ (Phil.2:12) for it is this awesome, holy, perfect, almighty God that is in the process of redeeming my life and making it an instrument of redemption…

Larry Crabb goes so far as to state: “Without an ongoing consciousness of sin, any sense of nearness to [God] is counterfeit. But with consciousness of sin, the fire of purifying holiness will sustain your faith.”(God’s Love Letters to You,44) I’m still chewing on this one.

Helen Roseveare’s stories viewed apart from such a work of God only make me squirm. Such self-sacrificial service was her response to Jesus’ love and death for her, ‘a way to express to God [my] great love for Him.’ When she speaks of this ‘insistent demand in our heart to express to Him our love’ I hesitate in self-examination. But the last enigmatic straw is this willingness to suffer, the costliness of such a love. She speaks of it as the ‘privileged opportunity of sharing in His love’, of ‘jointly demonstrating’ it to others…

Am I willing to give my whole heart, soul, mind and strength for His purposes—the loan of all I am, for His glory, without advance notice of the implications, and without life-time guarantees? This is going to have to be a process He works out in me too, by faith. When I glance through the Hebrews 11 crowd, that great cloud of witnesses to the life of faith, I am stretched.
  • choosing mistreatment with God’s people rather than ‘the fleeting pleasures of sin’
  • considering ‘the reproach of Christ’ greater wealth than Egypt’s treasures because of the reward in view…
  • enduring ‘as seeing Him who is invisible’
  • refusing release ‘so that they might rise again to a better life’
  • ‘of whom the world was not worthy’
  • ‘for the joy set before Him’ enduring the cross

    All of them were looking ahead to another reality—an unshakeable Kingdom, which made their present losses of no account. Not living under persecution or great hardships it is easy to get lulled into clinging to present comforts and shunning discomfort. I’m challenged by the perspective Larry Crabb champions in his recent book God’s Love Letters to You (Thomas Nelson, 2010) These devotional excerpts certainly don’t read like conventional ‘love letters’. They continuously point to a greater hope than the present, a bigger purpose than present ‘blessings’--God’s sort of ‘tough love’--designed to prepare us for Kingdom living. For instance:
“The greatest danger My people face today is prosperity, blessings that reinforce the false hope that nothing serious will ever go wrong in their lives if they just keep believing, expecting, trusting, and smiling….When every expectation of how your life should turn out is shattered; when I seem to you like an indifferent, cold sovereign, a promise breaker, a useless God, an abandoning parent, rejoice! You are ready for the unveiling, to meet Me as I am.” (47)
“When your life hits a bump that I could smooth but don’t, will you continue to think I should surrender My wisdom to yours and do what you think best?”(50)

“My people in Judges never repented. They remained in love with their own sense of well-being, with no understanding that love, real love, the love that defines Me, involves suffering the loss of well-being for the sake of another….You…are inclined to depend on Me for the good life of blessings and to mistake that dependence for love. You’re more afraid of losing the good life than of losing (or never gaining) a close relationship with Me. You do not yet see that being with Me is your greatest blessing, no matter what else may be happening in you life.”(20)

“Know this: those who live by faith will struggle in ways that those who live to make their lives work will never know. It is that struggle, to believe despite desperate pain and confusion that a good plan is unfolding, that will open your eyes to see Me more clearly. Is that what you want? Will you pay the price?

“The price is this: you will tremble in agony as you live in a sinful, self-prioritizing world. You will learn to wait in emptiness and frustrated desire for My plan of love to reveal itself…”(53)

And so, God loves, and we believe, as we bank on His righteousness being sufficient. And we wait for our full redemption, ‘prisoners of hope’, confident that God is working in us to make us like His Son and love the world through us in the meantime.

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe” (Heb.12:28)

God be merciful to me, a sinner,


*My book review of: A Prayer for Owen Meany is at: http://thestackofdawn.blogspot.com/2011/07/prayer-for-owen-meany.html

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