Message #18 in The Latter Letters on 2 Peter 2:10-16.
Here is message #31 in From Faith to Faith on Romans 15:23-33.
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Some of the commands in Scripture sound oppressive sometimes. Take the first and greatest command for instance, “Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your strength.” Really?! Don’t I get a break? What about when I’m disappointed in life or worn down through constant struggle? Honestly, what kind of person commands others to love him at all much less to love him constantly with every fiber of our being? Doesn’t that seem like a bit much?
The command to love sounds oppressive, but in fact it’s the exact opposite. To love God with our whole being is the only way our souls can find rest. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Life in Christ is paradoxical. That’s why it requires faith.
A couple of days ago, I was in my study praying. More specifically, I was complaining to God again about all of the ways things haven’t gone the way I’d hoped. Then a thought baffled my venting – “I’m already living the dream because I’m a child of God and coheir with Christ!”
I’m like a lot of people; I tend to think I must achieve to be happy and I must be unhappy to achieve. False. The paradoxical truth is that happiness, or more precisely joy, is the default of every redeemed soul. The presence of joy indicates life and health of the spirit just as a heartbeat does for the body. Paul’s command, “rejoice in the Lord,” was aimed at protecting the Philippians’ spiritual health.¹
You might wonder, “If joy is the default like a heartbeat, why would Paul have to command it?”
Joy might be the default for the believer, but only as she or he believes. Success or even the near proximity to success can lure our hearts away from joy in the Lord. Perhaps our supervisor at work tells us we’re in line for a promotion and we start daydreaming about more engaging tasks, bigger impact, and, of course, more money. Our daydreams then start providing us with a shot of endorphins and we shift the source of our joy from the Lord to the prospect of the new position. Since we still feel good, we don’t even notice we’ve left our first love.
Not until we’ve been passed over or found the luster of the new position has faded, do we realize something’s gone wrong. Sadly, many Christians become so deceived that they fail to recognize the reason for their renewed discontent. They might even come to think that God’s promises failed.
There are only so many new and exciting life changes available for anyone, and eventually everyone lands in a state of perpetual discontent which they must salve, often through destructive means.
For people in ministry, the danger of false joy can be even greater because their tasks appear even more significant. The highs of “success” are higher and the lows of “failure” are lower. This is a big reason so many religious professionals fall to moral failure and the consequent scandal.
Jesus being the good shepherd recognized this danger looming ahead of his disciples and warned them about it:
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. (Luke 10:17-21 NIV)
Here’s the irony of the disciples’ celebration, by rejoicing in the power they had over Satan, they were in danger of becoming just like him. I think this is why Jesus’ first words to them were about Satan’s fall. Christ had already seen someone fall in love with their God-given authority and power. His disciples’ false joy evoked that image afresh in him. His warning to them could not have been more direct or clear, “do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you.” To apply his warning to our lives, we might hear him say, “Do not rejoice that you’re top in your field” or “Do not rejoice that your selfies get lots of likes” or “Do not rejoice that you’ve led several people to Christ.”
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be happy when good things happen or when we’ve reached a goal, it means that we’ve got to make sure that our joy is never rooted in the results we see.
We’re safe when we rejoice in the Lord. What does that look like? In the Luke passage above, Christ gives us both a command and an example of lasting joy. He says that we’ve been added to the role of the coming kingdom. Then he models joy by rejoicing in the Holy Spirit that God’s will was being done.
As I think about these two bases for joy, it occurs to me that they’re consonant with the first two petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We rejoice in what we most long for and we will receive the same.
- “Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.” (Philippians 3:1 NIV)
Watchman Nee, the Chinese house church leader, refused the newly ascended communist regime’s invitation to head their efforts to assimilate Christianity. In retaliation, they published a full page editorial cartoon which depicted a cutaway view of a two story building. On the top story, hapless church members poured their money into a funnel on which was written, “Render Up!” referring to a sermon Brother Nee had given about rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. Below them, on the first story, sat Watchman in a pile of money, holding a bottle of booze, with a prostitute on his lap.
When his wife saw the cartoon, she exclaimed, “You’ve got to do something!” To which he responded, “When I am praised I am still Watchman Nee. When I am slandered I am still Watchman Nee.”¹
How could he be so nonchalant in the face of such brutal, public defamation? He believed the gospel which taught him two immovable truths: 1. No amount of positive regard could change the fact that his sins had sent Christ to the cross. 2. No accusation could change the fact that he’d been justified by grace.
Every church goer claims to believe the gospel, but faith is like strength – it can only be measured by what it enables a person to do. You can know the degree to which you believe the gospel by how you handle blame. A person who never can say, “I was wrong,” or one who constantly works as their own PR rep is counting on their own merit to save them. They might mentally agree to orthodox Christian creeds, but their hearts have yet to fully receive the truth.
The tendency among “Christians” to retain their personal merit while claiming the blood of Jesus has been so prevalent that we’ve even made it a virtue. I remember church people admonishing me to be careful to “protect my witness,” and by that they meant I shouldn’t hang out with people of ill repute. Could any advice be more opposed to Christ’s call? How could we claim to follow the “friend of sinners” who died a criminal’s death between two criminals by trying to maintain appearances?
If we believe the gospel, what people say about us won’t matter. We’ll be able to fearlessly assess and confess our own failures. We’ll even be able to praise God when we’re lied about.² If we can’t do these things, we need to repent of our self-righteousness and unbelief right now. Go to the cross. Imagine him suffering and dying there. Was that really for your sin? Go to the empty tomb. Meet him in the garden. See his loving smile as his life announces that the sacrifice was enough to save you for good.
- Kinnear, Angus. Against the Tide
- Matthew 5:11-12
2012 was the perfect year for our family to go to Disney together. With twelve years between our firstborn and “the baby,” Jamie and I had reckoned that there’d be a narrow window when Caleb was still young enough to enjoy it with us and when Lydia would be old enough to remember it. Somehow, our resources met the cost of a vacation there in that narrow window and so we went.
We can’t always afford vacation and certainly not Disney, so my wife and I spend months planning every detail. We look up official and “unauthorized” books and websites. I create detailed schedules for each day. Yes, I’m a geek, but it works for me.
Most of the time.
Our first day on property proved that happiness isn’t a place on earth. Everything went wrong and we tumbled into our “cabin” that evening wondering how we’d failed so miserably at having fun.
After we’d all tucked in, I lay awake lamenting the loss of such a rare, and costly opportunity. Then, a clear image came into my mind of my family circled on our knees in the morning, asking God to be on vacation with us.
I’d always assumed that since Christ called us away from materialism that having things and enjoying luxuries was wrong. I hated vacations because they always felt like a flight from God. I only ever went for my family’s sake. In that vision I realized the fatherhood of God on a deeper level. I’d always thought that we should only ask God for what we need. That was wrong. I give my kids what they need whether they ask for it or not. It’s not something I particularly enjoy. It’s my job. I do enjoy the opportunity to give my kids something they really want – something special. I derive pleasure from their pleasure. God is the same.
The next morning we knelt on the floor as a family and asked God to be on vacation with us. He was. The only word I have for the rest of that vacation is, “blessed.” Crowds seemed to part as we went through. We’d walk into a restaurant and a table our size would empty. One time we just happened to end up on the ferry back to our lodging as a fireworks display erupted over the water. That trip wasn’t “magical;” it was miraculous!
I tell you all of this to say that freedom from greed doesn’t mean a life of ascetic, guilt-ridden, joyless penny pinching. We’re only free from greed when we know we’re free from need. Greed comes from a place of perceived scarcity. Greedy people must stockpile goods because they live in a closed system where the only resources are the ones they generate. Greedy people overspend to compensate for a dearth of self-worth. If God is truly our father, then we can eat, drink, and take occasional getaways to the sea.¹ We can be extravagant with the ones we love knowing that God has enough to also give to the poor.²
The Apostle Paul said it this way:
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17)
At the end of the day, life in Christ is free. We’re free from soul hunger and so we’re never compelled to spend. We’re free from judgment and so we can spend, and give, and live with open hands. All we need to do is take God with us.
- It wasn’t until a course in my MA in Ministry program that I realized Jesus took his disciples on a beach vacation. Read about it in Mark 7:24.
- In Mark 14:3-9, Jesus rebukes his disciples’ for their utilitarian approach to material goods and commends a woman for her wasteful extravagance. So important was this lesson that he made it a rider on the story of his passion.
Over thirty years later, the image of my teenaged self pains me.
I wasn’t okay. I longed to connect with people but whenever they came near, insecurities buzzed in my brain. My attempts to comport myself became social spasms.
I remember near panic at the thought of an evening alone. I remember the utter dread of social rejection.
I look back on my teenaged self with pity and shame.
Then, I found the friend and mentor I needed.
A penniless, itinerant rabbi strutted out of the wilderness and into my consciousness. I was rapt by his way and his words. He seemed unapproachably perfect, but I knew he wanted me near him…always. I gave in to the desire of my Desire.
The need to be with other people vanished. It’s absence surprised me. For the first time, I was okay by myself. To this day, I can tell whether my faith is healthy by my ability to be okay alone. The need for other people and dependence on God can’t inhabit the same heart. This present world system knows nothing but the former. The kingdom of God is built on the latter.
Since the way of the world is bondage to other people, believers in Christ must assert their freedom by getting alone on a regular basis. Nobody is strong enough spiritually to constantly be surrounded by other people. Even Jesus went to great lengths to get alone with God. We must do the same or else we’ll find ourselves entangled and overcome.