Are You Raising A Pharisee?: Modeling Justification

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Romans 5.1

I recently listened to a sermon by Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian where he talked about justification by faith. In his own brilliant way he explained in an easy to understand manner how justification by faith works. My huge takeaway was that most lifelong Christians really should begin to repent of the ways they try to justify themselves. In other words many of us start conducting our lives in a way that says, “even though Jesus through his perfect life, his death, and his resurrection has become my justification, I am going to eventually justify myself by being a good Christian. By reading my Bible, Christian service, giving, church attendance, local church involvement, moral obedience, evangelism, ministry involvement, etc, I will eventually earn my peace with God through my deeds and behavior.”

He used the illustration of a job resume. That when we apply for a job we are looking for more than a source of income. We are seeking the acceptance and approval of the person making the job hire. Our resume is more than just a listing of our previous job experiences and qualifications. It is the deeds that we use to justify ourselves even applying for the position in the first place. Being hired is more than just getting the job over and above the other applicants, it equates to being accepted and approved of.

This got me thinking a lot and one of my thoughts relates to how we parent in this respect. How are we modeling justification? Sure we may teach our children John 3.16 and that God’s love for us is unconditional and that there is nothing we can do to cause God to love us less or more, but how are we modeling justification? This is a crucial question for all of us to be in the habit of asking, especially if we tend to be people pleasers, or pursuers of the approval of others. If our drive to attend church, obey God’s moral conduct code, and practice spiritual disciplines is centered on pleasing God then you are modeling a faith in your deeds not in Christ. If your pursuit to please and gain the approval of others runs your life then others have become the god you seek to be justified before and have peace with.

Warning signs that you might be modeling a justification in something other than Christ can be seen in how much you value any of the following.

  • Success
  • Promotions
  • Image and Appearance
  • Where you are seen and who you are seen with
  • How clean your house or car is
  • How busy you are
  • Your social calendar
  • Fitting in
  • Finding others who are just like you
  • Having it all together
  • Being on time

Notice that any number of those things are in and of themselves good things or values neutral (not bad), however, if we demonstrate an inordinate amount of importance on those things with the displeasure and disapproval of others or God as the consequence to be feared then it has become your justification. I know in my own life the things I tend to confess are the very things that I secretly fear God will or should hold against me. Without or them or because of them I’m endangering my status of being accepted and approved of by God. Now having a daughter I’m curious and concerned about how I will model an understanding of justification before God through my lifestyle as opposed to what I say.

Justification by faith is modeled correctly when you are freed to simply be in the presence of God and of others without the constant worry and fear of keeping the peace with them. By faith we know that we can never lose the peace with God because of Jesus. By faith we know that while uncomfortable losing the peace with others isn’t the end of the world nor defines us because they are not God.

Death is Not Natural: Stuff Pastor Prado Said

At the first church I worked at one of the other pastors on Staff was a man by the name of Jorge Prado. A native of Brazil he was the pastor of the Spanish Speaking Congregation at our church. Jorge is one of those rare kind of people that has seen everything and so when he talks you listen, because he is likely to tell you a great story or drop a nugget of wisdom on you. After a funeral at the church for a longtime elderly member he dropped a boulder of wisdom on me that I’ll never forget. “My friend,” that is how Jorge would address you, “death is so difficult for us to deal with because death is not natural. It was never a part of what God intended.”

Consider the story of scripture; there is no death in Genesis 1-2. Death is not a part of God’s original design for the earth and creation. It is not part of the good that God wove into the human experience. Death doesn’t enter into the human experience until Genesis 3 when Adam and Eve sinned against God by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In other words as Jorge said, “People die everyday yet we can not handle it because it was never meant to happen, and therefore God never wired our hearts to be able to deal with death and dying.”

In the past four months I’ve had the opportunity to come alongside two students and one friend, all three of them girls, who had unexpectedly lost their father to death. The cause of death was different in each case, but it is fair to say in each case that no one saw death coming. All three dads were under sixty, all three daughters were between the ages of 15 and 25. With all three I had the opportunity to come alongside them within 12 hours or less of it happening; one the morning after, one two or so hours after he was pronounced dead, and one I was one of the people who delivered her the news of her father’s death. What do you say to someone who has just lost someone? What do you say to a girl who just lost her father? I remember what Jorge said.

I tell them, as I told my students last night, that there is no formula for grief. That is the “so what” to the why of death not being natural. Because death is not natural, and because we are not wired for death as being part of our human experience even though it is very much a part of our human reality, there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief wouldn’t be grief if there were a step-by-step formulaic way of doing it. That kind of loss creates an inward lost-ness that there is no way to navigate, you must simply walk through it. Walking through death is not like walking across the street; there is no other side to get to. Well, that’s not completely true, but those of us who believe know that none of us know exactly when the other side will arrive (Revelation 21.1-4). So in the interim you must simply grieve.

Don’t let anyone make you feel as though you are not grieving properly. Grieve in the manner in which you are grieving. If you are in such shock that you can’t muster any response and stare into the abyss with silent numbness then be still. If you are filled with such pain and misery that it causes you to fall apart with tears until you have none left, then flood the room. If you are instead flooded with happy memories of good times that cause you to laugh with joy, then fill the halls with your laughter (or chuckle quietly to yourself if you don’t laugh loudly like me). If you are ravaged with questions that have no easy answers because you just need to vent, then find a safe audience (which by the way includes God). If you are angry, then give your anger a voice (just be cautious about giving it an activity). All of those feelings come at you during grief, and in no particular order.  They come in no natural expected order because death, though normal to the human experience is not natural.

Life Isn’t Fair: Stuff My Mom Said

Over time my sisters and I figured out that it was pretty much pointless to complain about something being unfair to our mother. Rest assured her response was always the same, “Well, life isn’t fair.” We used to hate it when she said that but I’m glad she did, because she is right.

Scripture testifies to the unfairness of life we just so often miss it or are not taught it. This is why I believe so many Christians struggle to understand and live with difficult circumstances in our lives without experiencing a crisis of faith, doubt, or resentment towards God.

Mistakenly we often attribute difficulty in life to God and his will, instead of attributing difficulty in life to where scripture places the blame; the Fall. The Fall is the reason we experience pain, death, sickness, and loss. The Fall has turned a good world and good existence for all of creation into a not so good existence. From a Biblical perspective good isn’t simply pleasure and happiness, good is flourishing. As it pertains to creation flourishing as God intends is meant to be universal. The result of Adam and Eve eating from the tree so that they (so they were led to believe) could be on par with God cannot be overstated. Flourishing totally depends on all of creation being in proper relationship with God and one another. The curses given in Genesis 3 in a way is God allowing for parts, not all, of flourishing to depend on creation being in proper relationship with us, as though we are gods.

The first problem is that there is too many of us (Thus the importance of our Trinitarian theology emphasizing three in one. One only need look to Roman and Greek mythology to see the chaos that ensues from there being more than one God, each of whom has different desires and view of the world than the others). The second problem is that none of us are God nor possess his power to create something out of nothing, to bring life from death, to bring about and maintain complete order from complete chaos.

In other words, bad things aren’t simply brought into our lives by God so that he can teach us something or bring about some good that does little more than maintain a ying and yang balance to the world. Bad things simply happen! They happen because the world is fallen, broken, and things don’t go the way they ought to go. Our cries of life not being fair is little more than us crying out to anyone who will lend us ear that a piece of our life isn’t happening the way it ought, that instead of experiencing flourishing we are experiencing suffering.

Make no mistake, it is not God’s fault, it is our fault. Not in the sense that there was something very specific that we did that directly resulted in this bit of suffering. Rather it is in the sense that humanity was to blame, is to blame, and will be to blame for life not being fair until… Christ returns to put everything right, to judge and to rule, and to make everything new. Furthermore he is not obligated to step in and end our suffering, any part of it, before Christ returns. Sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn’t, but he is not obligated to. Nor can we some how earn the right for God to end our momentary suffering. Yes, even physical death for the redeemed is only a momentary suffering. We can pray to God and ask, but he can always say no like he did to Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane/Mount of Olives (Matthew 26.39, and Like 22.39-46).

Speaking of Jesus praying that God remove the cup of his wrath for the sins of mankind, and not pour it out on him, to the point that he was in such agony that even the appearance and strengthening from an angel of God didn’t divert him from praying more earnestly to the point that he was sweating blood. Thank God and praise his name that he wasn’t concerned with being fair in that moment. Cause if God were about what is fair he would have surely answered Jesus’ request with a resounding yes, and we would all be doomed to suffer forever beyond any suffering we will experience her on earth.

God is not obligated to fix every situation, to heal every sickness, to make sure we flourish or prosper every moment of every day of our lives. His goodness doesn’t depend on him stepping in every time, or even some of the time, because Jesus already stepped in when it mattered most. God raised him from the dead and he ascended to heaven where he is able to be present to us amidst flourishing and suffering and all the in between, and present us before God unstained (Hebrews 8.4 and 9.24)

For me this has meant learning to live with suffering, with life not being fair. I understand that suffering is simply a part of life until Christ makes all things new (Revelation 21.4-5).  That suffering difficulty and trials are not an indictment declaring that I have become unjustified, because Christ is my justification. I cannot undo Christ’s justification for me to my detriment or to my benefit. I simply use my faith to embrace a life that says he is my justification (Romans 5.1). Suffering is simply a reminder that Genesis 3 is true and is real.

Someone will surely say, “What about Romans 5.3 that says, ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope’?” To which I would say Paul never says that God brings about or produces suffering to produce all those things in us. For Paul suffering is just a part of life, but God in his sovereignty and great power is stronger than suffering, and can accomplish what he wills even in suffering. Even in life not being fair.

Do you struggle with life not being fair?

How Long Should We Shield Teens From Evil? (Reflections on Teaching the OT)

This past Sunday I taught on Genesis 4 the story of Cain and Abel. After giving them a minute to read the chapter in its entirety before discussing it, I gave them an opportunity to share their thoughts. One of the observations that some of my students made was how violent of a story it was and how they were somewhat disturbed by the violent nature of this scriptural account. My response to their disturbance was little more than, “you ain’t seen nothing yet”. That may seem like a dismissive response but seriously, it’s going to get really gruesome and disturbing as we move along in our journey through the Old Testament. Next week we’ll be on The Flood, which if you think about the implications there would have been hundreds if not thousands of rotting corpses of men and beast floating in the flood waters and lying on the ground when the flood waters subsided. By the time we get to Judges I may have to send a waiver form to parents to notify them of the content we’ll be covering (okay not really but you get the picture). All that to say it has spawned a question that I have been pondering this afternoon over a nice cup of coffee Reese’s Cups and message prep.

 

In our effort to shield our teens’ eyes and minds have we over sterilized them to the gruesome nature of the Old Testament? Is there a downside to trying keep our teens away completely from things that we have a moral objection to unless it’s presented in a highly stylized fictional and fantastical manner?

 

The dilemma I’m weighing is while I don’t want my students being desensitized to evil and wickedness I do think that at some point if you really understand the nature of men as scripture presents it you won’t be shocked by their evil and wickedness. Saddened and grieved? Absolutely. Shocked? I’m not certain that is a healthy response for an adult to have to the evil and wickedness of men. Obviously pre-teens and early adolescents aren’t adults yet, but they are getting closer to that destination than they are to being children. So how do we transition kids from the innocence of their childhood to the sober realizations of adulthood? My concern is that Christian students will grow into the kind of adults that avoid evil at costs even if it means never confronting evil in a manner that seeks to bring light life and healing to the darkest and most depraved corners of our society culture and world.

Ministry to Introverts: Trying to Figure it Out

This is something I have done a lot of thinking on lately, “How do you minister to introverts?” A few months ago I wrote a blog/article, “Is Youth Group Optional?”, where my opinion was fairly unequivocal.  My reply to whether or not youth group should be optional has not changed, however it must be said that making youth group involvement for a student who is an introvert by nature is a much more ominous task than it is for students who are not.

Extroverted kids typically want to come to youth group especially a youth group at a large church. They thrive in large group settings. They are energized by environments that are high energy, and high volume. They love being around people. Extroverts may well make up most of the population or at least that is the perception because… well… they are so easily noticed. Often because of that perception introverts are perceived as not being normal, and given an unfair rap.

Generally introverts are perceived to be socially awkward, too quiet, and sometimes not as smart as their louder, more gregarious, engaging, and charismatic counterparts. All that to say introverts are often thought of as having issues, and not normal.

I don’t want to swing the pendulum the opposite direction as some have done and suggest that it is actually the extroverts that have issues and are inferior. I simply want to point out a few things I’ve learned and observed as I am learning how I can better minister and facilitate life formation for introverted students whom I’ve observed are less likely to even want to come to youth group.

  1. Large Groups Are Exhausting. In the same way extroverts are energized by crowds, introverts become drained when in the company of a large group of people. It’s nothing personal against everyone else. It’s just the way they are wired (by God). In my youth ministry context this means that while these students may find Sunday School very intellectually stimulating they have to endure being in the company of 50+ plus people in a very social atmosphere for a good chunk of time before I even begin to teach. For some this means they are mentally exhausted before I even begin to teach. For some introverts this feeling of exhaustion is so profound and intense that they feel it well before they arrive in the large group setting at just the thought of going.
  2. Small Groups Must Be Small. It only makes sense that introverts would fair much better in a small group setting as they are less likely to become exhausted, or at least not as quickly. However, the issue becomes whether or not the small groups are truly small. For some even a group of 10-12 is too large whereas a group 6-8 could make all the difference between them being able to engage.
  3. Engagement Looks Different. Studies of introverts vs. extroverts have shown that extroverts tend to be more spontaneous whereas introverts are more deliberate. In other words they often think before they speak, make a decision, or act. This is a strength that can often be perceived as a weakness in a culture that values self-expression which often values mere expression over content and means of expression. Introverts need to be given the freedom and space to deliberate in their response and engagement because often times it results in something very profound and insightful being said and shared. Likely you know someone who says very little but when they speak everyone listens because every word is rich, because you know they always taken the time to really think about what they say before they say it.
  4. They Are Normal. I am becoming more and more convinced that the greatest need of a young teen is to know and feel normal. So much about them is changing and it creates an overwhelming sense that they are weird and that something is wrong with them. Whereas extroverts will tend to act out and seek attention when they feel uneasy about being normal, introverts will become even more reclusive.

Conclusion

I’m still trying to figure out what is the best way to minister to introverts. I’m not okay with the fact that many of the students who fall through the cracks in a large youth ministry contexts, like mine, are introverts. I understand that their involvement is going to look different even borderline nominal but I still desire that they would benefit from a ministry that is exists to minister to them too. I’m still trying to figure out what the best way is to accomplish that. For now the two best things I’ve found so far is to connect with them personally, acknowledge and affirm.

If I can connect with them or find someone to connect with them personally, it increases the likelihood of their future involvement. Introverted students whom I’ve acknowledge their introversion and how it can make youth group an exhausting environment for them, helps them feel understood and not quite as weird as they otherwise would. Lastly, the students whom I’ve had a chance to affirm their introversion as a gift, a strength, and just plain normal I’ve seen grow more comfortable and less exhausted by coming to youth group, because they know that I see them as being normal.

If you are an introvert or the parent of an introvert I’d love your thoughts and feed back.

Don’t Be Scared II: Parent’s Edition

A few weeks ago I gave an encouragement to my students to not be paralyzed by fear. “Fear not” is the most frequently given command in scripture. No surprise when you talk to people today and find out how much fear influences their decision and perspective of life.

This week I want to give the parents an encouragement in the same vein. Christian parents desire to play a significant role in the spiritual formation of their children. However, many are often hindered from fully asserting their influence, their authority, and exercising their responsibility as stewards of their children largely due to fear. So what is it that parents fear when it comes to the spiritual formation of their children? What fear prevents parents from using their authority to be intentional in steering their children towards life in Christ?

1. Want your kids to like you. If you primarily operate out of a desire to be liked by your kids you will inevitably make choices and compromises that doesn’t prepare and equip them for life lived in Christ. Parenting is a role of stewardship. A steward is temporarily given the authority to manage the property or affairs for someone else. When it comes to the stewarding of children they are the property of the God who created them, and his affairs is to be honored and glorified as King over all creation. Throughout scripture’s narrative we see God accomplishing his affairs by revealing himself in creation, to his creatures, and by making and fulfilling his promises. In a day and age where so many are “claiming the promises of God” as a way to declare and demand that God give them the life they want, I feel it is important to clarify what God’s promises in scripture are; God’s promises always point us toward his kingship, kingdom, and the glory of his name.

2. Fear of our kids being unhappy. As parents if we are primarily concerned with being liked by our children then we will ultimately make ourselves, and God, out to be about their happiness. Which if you look at the trends of parenting over the past few generations it makes sense. Up until the 1960s in America parents were concerned with their kids conforming to social mores. Parents would preach conformity even if it alienated their kids, because they feared their kids being outcasts or rebels. In the 1970s a shift happened that leds us to today where parents want their kids to be happy and achieve their dreams. Thus parents today preach self-actualization and individuality even if it means, in the case of Christian parenting, not doing things that fosters a relationship with God.

3. Fear of pushing your kids away from God. The natural response to point two above is, “But I don’t want to push my kids away from God.” If we truly understand that everyone is born into sin, apart from God, then no one starts from a position of being with God. We are born with a predisposition of not honoring God as God, because we are separated from him. Therefore to not point them towards God because they may think we are being pushy and respond negatively toward God and us, only leaves them right where they are in the first place. Not to say that parents can’t be pushy about faith in Christ. I would argue that pushy Christian parents really aren’t pushing God at all. More often than not pushy parents are pushing spiritual disciplines, moral obedience to God, and allegiance to a doctrinal position. None of which is the same as pushing or pointing them towards relationship with God and Jesus. Your kids don’t know you primarily through the chores they do, the things you provide (food and shelter), and core values you promote. They know you because they spend time with you enjoying your presence. Point them towards God’s presence, and trust that God will show them who he is.

4. Fear of being a hypocrite? Many of us have sordid prodigal pasts, filled with wild days and nights that cause us to pause in a moment of self-abhorrence. I’ve heard many parents say that they would rather me talk to their kids about sex or other things because they “made a lot of mistakes in those areas as a teen”. Their fear is that if their child knew their teenage or young adult exploits it would instantly disqualify them from speaking into those realms of life. If that is the case then we should go through the Old Testament Thomas Jefferson style and eliminate/cross out everything written by King Solomon. King Solomon’s wisdom and perspective on life is shaped by a lifetime that was filled with righteous living for God’s glory, and extreme extravagant waywardness. Solomon’s wisdom is powerful, because he never celebrates his times of departure from God’s ways. Without going into vivid explicit detail Solomon is transparent enough to give us an authoritative warning to not walk down the wide way that leads to destruction.

Some fear that if they share their shameful exploits it will give their kids license to do the same. If that were to happen then they will be held to account for that by God not you. Not to mention when they are exhausted and empty from their days of wild living they know they can talk to you because you’ve been there. Don’t become a hypocrite because you fear being a hypocrite; be responsibly transparent with your children.You will be able to testify to God’s grace and goodness and the emptiness of pursuing pleasure and fulfillment apart from God.

Conclude—The story of Samuel in the Old Testament is a very interesting one particularly, I think, for parents looking for some wisdom or guidance in how to raise godly children. Samuel is one of three boys raised by Eli, the high priest of Israel at that time. All three of the boys grew up learning to minister to the Lord at the Tent of Meeting. In other words, Samuel, Hophni and Phinehas, were given more access to and rearing in the ways of the Lord than any child in all of Israel. Yet we are told very early on that Hophni and Phineas were “worthless men”, scoundrels who used their access to do evil to the people and sin against God.

So what was the least common denominator between Samuel and the other two? When God called Samuel he answered. God calls to all people, and he calls to your children as well. Do all that you can to raise your children to be people whose lives are shaped by God in Christ without fear. And when you pray for them don’t just simply pray that they would become Christians and be good people. Pray that they would hear God calling out to them and answer him. Fear not and trust that God is pursuing them for he desires to dwell with them.

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Dark Night… Evil Rises Again Will it End?

With yet another tragic, senseless, act of evil, the Dark Knight massacre has us reeling again. Once again we are grappling for some sense of understanding how and why things like this happen. We wonder what the appropriate answer or response should be. Not surprisingly the 2nd Amendment debate will spike for a time as the national wound of this lays bare (the irony being that conservatives are capitalizing on building fear on a privilege not an inalienable right, and liberals will never change that privilege because they would lose one of their rallying cries).  We are amazed that someone with “obvious intellectual capacity” is capable of such deranged evil, as if only intellectual limited people are capable of such evil because they are “stupid” and uneducated. As if education is the antidote to evil. At the end of the day there is twelve graves being dug, each one representing a collection of family and friends for whom none of this discussion helps, because evil has struck a fatal blow. There are at least 38 other people for whom just going to the movie theatre again may never happen. Not because it’s likely to be repeated, but because the replay of that dark night on July 20th, 2012 is all to painful and accessible for them.

It’s not the movies. Any good story has conflict in it Good stories involve problems that need a resolution. The great stories, and therefore great movies, go beyond the basic good versus evil plot, but deal with more systemic evil. Evil that is systemic is so huge, so all encompassing, that no simple resolution is going to put an end to evil. Blowing up the Death Star only solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil all together. Casting the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil for good. Defeating Lord Voldemort and learning to be cordial with Draco Malfoy solved that problem, but it didn’t end evil.

Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, especially the latest and last installment, takes an honest look at systemic evil. Its subtle brilliance is in the way it juxtaposes proposed answers to the problem of evil. Dark Knight Rises demonstrates that even those with good intentions can and do get sucked into the vortex, and the evil that lies dormant inside them stirs, and often is unleashed. All they need is a little push. The complete body of work of Nolan’s Batman movies show us how just when you solve one problem more, and often greater, problems arise. The new problems are often greater in scope and magnitude than the one just resolved, but it’s the same evil. Too often those who seek to solve the problems of evil become an instrument of evil or provide temporary solutions that are themselves riddled with problems. Problems are only symptoms of something much darker, the presence of evil. Peace is only evil catching its breath, unless of course evil dies once and for all. Humanity with all our achievements, politics, progress, enlightenment, technology, philosophy, organized religion, and compassion must face the facts that we are only capable of treating symptoms. We will never have the means to end evil once and for all.

The Christian Story is ultimately a story of evil meeting its end never to rise again. It claims that God has the means to end evil once and for all, has been and is in the process of ending it, and will eventually once and for all end evil. Pastors and preachers often don’t highlight this enough as they make the Christian Story more about personal relationship, personal salvation, personal happiness, and personal help (self-help/behavioral modification).  Jesus on the other hand tells his disciples to “take up your cross daily and follow me” (Matthew 16.24-26)? One way or another humanity is destined for death, because ever since the fall evil resides in the heart of man (Romans 3.10-18), and evil must be dealt with. Though we may never, we are all capable of what this young man in Aurora, CO did, and deserve the exact same judgment from God as he (Romans 3.23). Because the only true way to end evil forever is to kill evil forever, every last drop. The Christian Story calls us to a point of decision, which has been communicated shorthand many ways. We can either die daily now, put on the new-self daily now, or we can die daily later. One kind of death leads to life, the other kind of death has no end. God has made a way for all to receive life by dying the first death, and desires that none experience the second kind.

Praying a prayer doesn’t end evil, avoiding bad behavior doesn’t end evil, adherence to a moral standard doesn’t evil, service projects, mission trips, church attendance, evangelism doesn’t end evil. All those things are good but they don’t end evil, only death does. But death is not end of the story, not for all. Those who choose to die with Christ now will rise again and enter a world where God’s reign is complete and evil can’t touch it (Revelation 21.1-8, 26-27)