Pleasing God…

Every child wants to know if they please their parents. This is certainly true of young children whose very identity is shaped by the affirmation and attention of a mom and dad, but I also believe this is true of us even as we get older. I remember the time when I was in my 30’s and I had spoken in chapel at Wheaton College, IL. My mom had sent for the tape of my message and when she received it she called me with delight. Billy Graham had spoken the week before and so his message was on the tape as well. Mom said, “David, you’ll never guess who they put on the backside of your tape!” Well, I knew who was on whose backside, but my mom affirmed me as only a mother could.

In the same way, I believe that every child of God desires to know whether they please their Heavenly Father. We go to great lengths to evaluate our actions and measure our behavior. The problem is that we tend to do this evaluation by our standards, which are tinged with self-focused guilt and cheap-grace legalism. The times I think I am most pleasing to God may be the times I am most lifted up with Pharisaical pride. The times when I feel I am the most despicable me, may be the very time when I please Him the most. This makes John’s counsel wise indeed, “for whenever our hearts condemn us God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” (1 John 3:20)

And so I go round and round, like a gerbil on its wheel. Is there any recourse, any truth that would help me stop wasting time in taking my spiritual pulse and finding a false heart rate? Yes. The truth is found in two prepositional phrases that characterize Paul understanding of Christianity: in Christ and Christ in me. I want to focus on what it means to be “in Christ” and how it relates to pleasing God. The person in Christ is the one who believes in the gospel and through that faith has entered into a union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When a person comes to see him/herself as a sinner and believes that Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection has dealt once and for all with his sin and guilt, there is a divine relational transaction that occurs. The believing sinner comes into a faith-union with God’s Son so that all we are not in relationship with God (our sin) becomes swallowed up in all that Christ is in His relationship with the Father (righteousness).

V. Raymond Edman tells the story of the banker whose son was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. One day another soldier walked into the bank and up to the father’s desk and handed him a note. The young soldier was in a tattered uniform and his arm was in a sling from a wound. The note read: “Father, this is my friend who is like a brother to me. He was wounded in our last action. Please take care of him; treat him as you would me. Love, Charlie.” The father recognized the handwriting of his son and took the young soldier and put him in Charlie’s room to rest, gave him Charlie’s clothes for dress, and put him in Charlie’s place at the table to eat. This young man was beloved for the sake of Charlie. Likewise, we are loved for the sake of Christ.

I have often used an illustration of taking an ink-splotched piece of paper, representing me and my sin, and placing it into my open Bible, representing Christ and His righteousness. The act of faith is depicted as putting the paper into the book and enclosing it. Thus when God looks at me, who does he see? Christ. Whatever relationship that Christ has with the Father, I have with the Father. Christ’s history becomes my history; His future is my future. By faith, the very righteousness of Christ becomes my righteousness. “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Romans 3:21-22).

Paul uses a legal term “justify” for describing what happens when we believe the gospel. He never infers that righteousness is somehow infused into us when we believe in Christ so that we actually become righteous. The Bible teaches that through faith, God imputes or places the righteousness of Jesus Christ on our account and we become “just-as-if-ied” never sinned in relationship to God. And herein was Martin Luther’s certainty and mine as well. If my salvation comes as the result of what Christ has done for me, then I have the complete assurance of knowing that it is enough. The more my relationship to God depends upon my efforts the less certainty I have of my acceptance with God. Have I done enough? Am I sorry enough? That is why we see the cry of Martin Luther to the recovered Gospel: sola gratia, sola fide, solo Christo.

Thus the first thing I need to do when taking my spiritual pulse is not to ask whether God loves and is pleased with me, but whether God loves and is pleased with Christ. And since I know the answer to that question and I am in Christ, therefore, I may have the confidence of knowing that God loves me today and will always be pleased with me as his son in Christ! It is by this standard of measurement that “the Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:16, 17). Did you notice the last part of this verse, “…provided we suffer with him”? Sometimes we doubt God’s love for us because we suffer, but here we assured that our family shield includes suffering as well as glory.

Somebody, Dim the Lights!

This morning I am thinking about the Ferguson situation as we await the decision of the Grand Jury whether or not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for shooting a black teenager, Michael Brown; a decision that will be explosive either way because of the racial divide that still exists in this country. I am also thinking about the killing of 4 Rabbis (and a police officer) in an East Jerusalem synagogue by Palestinians; the attackers were killed and families were evicted while their homes destroyed by the Israeli authorities in retribution. I am also thinking of the car bomb that went off in Irbil, N. Iraq where my son is working, killing 5 and injuring dozens; an act which continues the sad and violent generational conflict between Sunni and Shia.

In the face of these and the grudge matches we carry out in our own lives, we read these very arresting words flowing from the lips of our Lord and Master: “Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:43-45).

I would like to share with you some great insights on the subject of revenge from a sermon preached by Martin Luther King at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama, on 17 November, 1957.The title of the message was Love Your Enemies:

“It’s not only necessary to know how to go about loving your enemies, but also to go down into the question of why we should love our enemies. I think the first reason that we should love our enemies, and I think this was at the very center of Jesus’ thinking, is this: that hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. [tapping on pulpit] It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, that it doesn’t cut it off. It only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.

I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: ‘I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.’ And I looked at him right quick and said: ‘Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.’

Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs…. And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history. Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, and toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”

MLK concluded with the thought that gives me the greatest hope because the power of God is unleashed by our loving our enemies. “I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies’ [because] that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals…. But if you love your enemies, you will discover that at the very root of love is the power of redemption. You just keep loving people and keep loving them, even though they’re mistreating you. Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that. Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive, and this is why Jesus says love. There’s something about love that builds up and is creative. There is something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.”


To Forget or to Remember?

My mother-in-law had dementia. It was so sad to see the mind of a very sharp woman unravel into confusion and forgetfulness. She knew something was wrong, but did not know what was happening. Her confusion was due to the fact that the select button on her memory delivery system no longer worked. She was not able to control the difference between remembering and forgetting. That must have been so painful for her. I know it was for her family.

It seems to me that so much of life is defined by the things we forget and the things we remember. What good is it if I remember our anniversary, but forget my wife’s name? (I would never do that to you, Kathy.) I remember God’s goodness in the past, but that is often neutralized when I cannot forget my own sin, shame, and guilt. We may remember to give thanks for our family, but the sheen is taken off when we cannot forget (or forgive)  a certain family member for what s/hehas done to us.

We must learn to develop a selective memory; to know the difference between what we should remember…

“You shall remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh…” (Deut. 7:18).

“You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years…” (Deut. 8:2).

“These stones shall be a remembrance to the people of Israel forever” (Joshua 4:70).

“Do this in remembrance of me” (1 Cor. 11:24).

“Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other…” (Isa. 46:9)

And what we should forget…

“Remember not the former things; do not consider the things of old. Behold I am doing a new thing…” (Isa. 43:18).

“Forget not all his benefits” ( Psa. 103:2).

“But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind me and straining forward to what lies ahead…” (Phil. 3:13).

My dear mother-in-law could not control her confusion, but we can. Thus while we still have the ability to do so, let us wisely choose between what we remember and what we forget. How many of us are defeated in our battle against the world, the flesh, and the devil because we focus on our own shame rather than on the forgiveness and faithfulness of God? We remember and forget the wrong things. We remember our former things that we should forget, and forget God’s former things that we should remember.

Perhaps we find all this impossible to accomplish because of how deep the rut of our shame runs. Maybe we need to narrow our focus onto the simple reality that God never gets confused as to what to remember and what to forget.

“Can a woman forget her nursing child…? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you (says the Lord). Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isa. 49:15).

Gay by birth or choice?

There is a new twist to the “born this way” debate. In the past, the logic has been that if a gay person is determined by their genes, then it is illogical to suggest that they can be “cured” by treatment or religion. However, since there is the recognition that no research has yet proven that gayness is biologically determined, therefore, a new rationale may be needed.

Brandon Ambrosino, who wrote a 2013 article in the Atlantic entitled, Being Gay at Jerry Falwell’s University, has recently written that he was not born this way; he chose to be gay. He claims that the aversion to the word choice in the LGBT community stems from the belief that if we can’t prove our gayness is biologically determined, then we won’t have any grounds to demand equality. In America, we have the freedom to be a well as to “choose” to be. I see no reason to believe that the only sexualities worth protecting are the ones over which no one has control. After all, isn’t trans-activisim fueled by the belief that the government has the responsibility to protect all of us regardless of our sexual choices? And aren’t protections for bisexuals based upon the same presupposition of sexual autonomy?…

One of the reasons I think our activism is so insistent on sexual rigidity is because, in our push to make gay rights the new black rights, we’ve conflated the two issues. The result is that we’ve decided that skin color is the same thing as sexual behavior. I don’t think this is true. When we conflate race and sexuality, we overlook how fluid we are learning our sexualities truly are. To say it rather crassly: I’ve convinced a few men to try out my sexuality, but I never managed to get them to try on my skin color. In other words, one’s sexuality isn’t as biologically determined as race. Many people do feel as if their sexuality is something they were born with, and I have no reason to disbelieve them. But as I and other queer persons will readily confirm, there are other factors informing our sexualities than our genetic codes. Part of what it means to be human is to be adaptable and elastic, to try on new identities, to try new experiences, to play with the paradigm, to bend the norm to its snapping point and see if it cracks under the pressure of its own linguistic limitations. The re-inventiveness of our human condition is one of our greatest traits, and it is worth protecting both legally and philosophically.

Then he utters a challenge. I understand that the genetic argument for homosexuality is a direct response to the tired “You weren’t born that way” rhetoric of religious people. But in my opinion, we could strip that religious argument of much of its power if we responded like this: “Maybe I wasn’t born this way. Now tell me why you think it matters.” I imagine many religious people haven’t really though through the implications of their own rhetoric.

Why does it matter?

First, it acknowledges what many have been saying for years; that there is far more to same sex attraction than one’s genetic code and that it is inaccurate to place it on the same level as race. To concede on this point is nearly tantamount to an atheist admitting there might be a God, but then saying that it really doesn’t matter since he has the right to believe whatever he wants. But it does matter.

Second, Ambrosino’s effort to place something as important as sexual identity and behavior at the level of choice opens up a whole discussion of morality and values, especially for the Christian who is trying to slog their way through the issue of same sex attraction. We are not as flexible and adaptable as Ambrosino has suggested. The snapping point is not due to linguistic limitations, but to the agony of the heart searching for an identity. It also means that what defines me as a person is not so much determined by how I we feel about myself, but by what I choose to believe and how I choose to act. I may be tempted to act out on any number of desires tumbling around in the dryer of my past and present, yet my life will be defined by what I believe and how I choose to act on that belief. It really does matter.

Third, Ambrosino’s argument about choice and government protections propels us to think through the bigger issue of freedom and liberty. As John Milton warned in his Sonnet XII, “License they mean when they cry liberty!” When we take our Founding Fathers and Mothers desire for freedom without their core beliefs and habits of the heart, we expose America’s Achilles’ heel and the fact that the worst enemy of freedom is often freedom. Os Guinness has said that since there is such a crisis in cultural authority (faith and values in America), “the center no longer holds; the core has lost its compelling power; the moral and social ecology of the nation has been contaminated; the different spheres of society are undermining each other; and the escalation of extremes is underway.”

So, yes, it does matter.