Saturday, March 7, 2009

No Regret

Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.

                        2 Corinthians 7.10

Two Sorrows

The ability to distinguish great preaching from routine sermonizing is a knack you acquire being reared in a pastor’s home. You learn to look for signs indicating the strength of what the preacher’s about to deliver much like a poker player watches for “tells” indicating whether his/her opponents are betting or bluffing. When a guest preacher at my parents’ church began by following the sermon’s subject with its definition, my brother and I slunk into our seats in anticipation of being bored silly. So I start today’s post in the same manner with wincing reluctance. Yet grasping the truth in 2 Corinthians 7.10 requires us to remember “sorrow” has two vastly different, if closely related, meanings.

The Random House Dictionary defines it as: 1) distress caused by loss, affliction, disappointment, etc., and 2) a cause or occasion of grief or regret. Paul’s use of modifiers (“godly” and “worldly”) explicitly tells us he’s writing about two sorrows here. But which is which? Obviously, godly sorrow is better; it “leads to salvation and leaves no regret,” whereas worldly sorrow “brings death.” Indeed, Paul’s comparative usage of a single word to explain two conditions urges us to embrace the first kind of sorrow to escape the second. In emotional terms, though, both sorrows are basically the same, a feeling of sadness and remorse. How then do we know when sorrow is good and not bad? Here the dictionary becomes a friend, since Paul isn’t discussing sorrow as an emotional response but the thing itself.

Where, Not What

What causes sorrow? Random House ends its list of contributing factors with “etc.,” which we can lump together as mistakes and misfortunes. Thus, it’s fair to assume godly and worldly sorrows spring from similarly, sometimes identically, regrettable circumstances. Yet Paul’s take is radically astute. He’s less concerned with what leads to sorrow than where it leads. And he implies we decide if our sorrow will be godly or worldly, if it will lead to salvation or death. Type I sorrow—distress caused by mistakes and misfortunes—is the lethal, worldly strain. It feeds a victim mentality that produces self-pity and apathy. Either we adopt a woe-is-me attitude or we resign ourselves to accept our sad fate without question. We neither admit to past failures that generate sadness nor do we change how we think and act to avoid future sorrow. On the other hand, Type II godly sorrow is an occasion of grief and regret. It’s the moment we repent from old attitudes and behaviors that created sorrow for us to pursue healthier lives. It leads to salvation and leaves regret behind.

True Repentance

Salvation only comes with true repentance—abject sorrow for all we’ve lost and suffered because of our sin. This is more than telling God we’re sorry we’ve displeased Him. It’s realizing our need to change and trusting His grace to help us overcome thoughts and desires that foster sin. In 1 Chronicles 7.14, God lays out a multi-step protocol for repentance: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin.” If we pair this with Paul’s advocacy of godly sorrow, we see repentance begins by humbling ourselves to admit our errors. Regretting wrongs we’ve committed against God, our neighbors, and us kindles urgency to seek His forgiveness, which He readily offers. 1 John 1.9 promises, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” What John glides over, however, is God’s expectation that we’ll truly repent—that we’ll turn from our sinful ways.

Forgiveness for sin remains open and available for every time we fall short. Yet we can’t misconstrue this as a license to ill. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace my increase?” Paul asks in Romans 6.1, answering, “By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Godly sorrow kills our desire to sin. Worldly sorrow, on the other hand, lives with the distress sin causes. It allows regret to linger, slowing leeching the love, faith, and hope that make life worth living. It leads to death. Godly sorrow works entirely to the opposite. It’s initiated by profound regret, yet it moves us away from regrettable errors, leading us toward salvation and ultimately leaving us with no regret. It draws our focus from past mistakes to see a future bright with hope. In the end, it makes us glad.

Regret for wrongdoing brings true repentance--turning away from sin--that leads to salvation and leaves no regret.

(Tomorrow: Deadly Lies)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Search Me

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

                        Psalm 139.23-24

An Unfinished Manuscript

Psalm 139 reads like an intimate letter from a gifted author to the beloved editor who patiently, attentively shaped his sensibilities. David begins by confessing total trust in God’s close scrutiny of his story: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me.” (v1) He marvels at God’s awareness of every move he makes, how he thinks, and what he wants to say. Without hesitation, David credits his Maker as the Source and Force driving his creativity. “You created my inmost being… I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful… All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (vv13-14,16) Over their longstanding collaboration, David has learned to cherish God’s insights and guidance. In verse 17, he exclaims, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!”

But recent developments are frustrating David. Critics, perhaps reacting to his shortfalls, now attack God’s name and methods. Angst over this infects David’s work. His first-person protagonist has got away from him. He’s written himself into a corner and can’t find his way out. He ends presenting his life as an open book—an unfinished manuscript—for God to examine page-by-page, line-by-line, for character flaws, illogical plot twists, and thematic lurches steering his story toward a pessimistic resolution. “Give what I’ve written a look,” he asks, “to see where anxieties and prejudices pop up and throw me off-track.”

Course Correction

Whether we’ve ever been bitten by the creative writing bug or not, we can relate to David’s dilemma because life operates very similarly to fiction. We make it up as we go. Often we lose control of our narratives. Unexpected curves come our way. Characters enter our stories, not always for our best. Critics deride our work and our reliance on God’s guidance, stirring doubt, frustration, bitterness, and anger that filter into our words and plans. We wind up feeling cornered, unable to extricate ourselves from dead-end situations. Every possible strategy we conceive seems to lead us away from the happy, meaningful way we want the story to end. Instead of writing and writing and getting nowhere, it’s time to fire off a note to God, asking Him to look at what we’ve done so far and provide much needed course correction. “Search me,” is how our letter begins.

God’s Business

Flannery O’Connor, the great Southern writer, once said, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for a writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” By submitting the book of our lives to God for His scrutiny and revision, our story—its glorious passages, as well as its problematic parts—becomes His business. In prayer, meditation, and study, we listen closely for His comments and direction. He highlights habits of self-indulgence, places we need to tighten our focus, pointless repetitions, characters and plot lines we should cut, and others requiring added attention. He underscores moments we allow personal anxieties and prejudices to infect our story, mar its clarity, and impact its final outcome.

“The Spirit searches all things,” Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 2. “We have not the spirit of the world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us.” It’s our story. But the gift to write it comes from God. He made us. He knows us. He can read us like a book. When we find we’re losing our way, we seek His Spirit’s guidance and make the necessary corrections. Knowing what to do with our story requires us to know what to do with our gift.

Our lives are like unfinished manuscripts—works in progress that we submit to God for scrutiny and revision.

(Tomorrow: No Regret)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Repost: Entertaining God

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

                        Revelation 3.20 

Not Suitable for Company

Earlier in this chapter, God promises to open a door no man can close to us. Next, He turns His attention to a door He can’t open. Who comes and goes through the second door is completely ours to choose. He wants us to open up, welcome Him in, and show Him genuine hospitality: invite Him to stay for dinner, spend time together around the table, tell Him what’s on our minds, and hear what He’s thinking.

A lot of us keep Him waiting. We know He’s there—we hear His voice. But we look at our lives and think they’re unsuitable for company. They’re cluttered with attitudes, habits, fears, and doubts we’d rather He not see. So many hurts and resentments are piled under the carpet we can’t help stumbling over them ourselves. Our pantries are stocked with pop-culture junk food; mold grows over the untouched bread and meat of His Word. Unable to tidy up quickly and worried we have nothing decent to offer, we let Him wait.

The Other Houseguests

Then there are the other houseguests to consider, the other gods we’ve invited into our lives and graciously hosted: success, popularity, prosperity, pleasure, pride, intellect, self-love, and dozens more. We’ve coddled and fed some of them until they’ve taken over the house. They’re simply too fat and lazy to move out. Still, we like them. They make us feel good. So what if they’re not as fun as when we first let them in? We’re used to living with them. God’s knocking unnerves them. “Ignore Him!” they plead. “He’ll give up and go away.”

Let Him In

They’re liars, and we know it. God waits as long as it takes for us to get over ourselves and let Him in. When we open the door, He politely steps into our mess. We discover He didn’t come to inspect the premises and check out who’s there. He came specifically to visit with us.

When God crosses our threshold, He instantly makes Himself at home. He arrives with the makings of a healthy meal. He pitches in to help us make sense of our chaos. One by one, the old hangers-on sneak away with hardly a whimper. With everything in place, we sit down with Him. We have all the time in the world, because we’re dining with the One who created time, the world, and us. There’s no shortage of His interest in what we tell Him, no end to the love and wisdom in what He says. Entertaining God is, in every way, the feast of a lifetime.

Originally posted 7/31/08.

No matter how messy our lives are God still wants to come in.

(Tomorrow: Search Me)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Repost: Be Prepared

The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

                        James 5.16 

Unequalled Opportunity

Our ability to ask for things significantly affects our personal and professional progress. When major opportunities surface, we gather our thoughts and outline our requests in advance. We do our best to be fully prepared to convey our desires and needs clearly and to persuade those we approach we’re sincere, trustworthy, and sensitive to the nature of our request.

This hardly needs saying, but when it comes to asking for things, no one on Earth compares to God. His concern for us is supreme. His enthusiasm is tireless, His wisdom unfathomable, and His authority absolute. For these reasons—and dozens like them—it’s smart to regard every prayer as its own unequalled opportunity. James 4.2 is very emphatic we have only to ask to receive what we need: “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” So does it seem odd to anyone else that we spend hours prepping to ask for a raise, yet we’re OK with praying on the fly?

What Do We Really Need?

Preparation isn’t about style or eloquence. Nothing in Scripture indicates fancy talk impresses God. “Without faith,” Hebrews 11.6 says, “it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” So before we pray, we should wrap our minds around two things. God is real, and He expects us to be real. He’s not Santa Claus and prayer isn’t like hopping on his lap to ask for a shiny new toy. Before asking Him for anything, we ask ourselves, “What do we really need?” This is essential, because it determines exactly how we frame our prayer, which in turn affects how we feel about His answer. Why is that?

Staying in the Picture

Without preparation, we reduce prayer to two types of non-prayer: customer complaints and pipe dreams. We describe our needs and desires to God yet conveniently step out of the picture, asking Him to deal with everything and everyone but us. For instance: “Dear Lord, please help my parents accept that I’m gay.” But is that ours to ask? No, that’s their problem. If we think things through and stay in the picture, our prayer becomes: “Dear Lord, please help me love and accept my parents as they are.”

If our prayers don’t produce desired results, we should revisit the conversation. Inevitably, we’ll see getting right answers depends on asking right questions. Thoughtful preparation refines the request. No longer is it “Fix it for me.” It’s “Fix me for it.” This is what James is telling us. A righteous attitude going into prayer produces powerful and effective results coming out.

Originally posted 8/10/08.

It’s odd that we prepare to ask the boss for a raise, yet we pray on the fly.

(Tomorrow: Entertaining God)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Repost: The Unnatural Lifestyle

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.

                        Hebrews 11.1

Redefining Terms

Less than two years ago, the Center on Halsted, Chicago’s magnificent new home for GLBT-related services, opened. A Whole Foods grocery was up and running next door not long thereafter. Strolling along the opposite side of the street with a friend, he halted to stare at the adjacent establishments. “Do you see what I see?” he asked. Both places were busy. Both were beautiful—particularly given the block-long eyesore they replaced. Both were tremendous assets to our neighborhood. Knowing my friend, who never passes an opening for a zinger, I felt sure he spotted something I missed. “Look,” he said, motioning toward Whole Foods with a gesture worthy of Vanna White, “all natural.” OK. So? “Now look,” he said, directing the same smooth move toward the Center, “all unnatural.” When I didn’t respond, he offered to replay it. “I get it,” I said with obvious irritation. “You’re clever. Too bad you’re not funny.”

“Unnatural” is a despicable word loaded with malicious connotations. Worst of all, though, people who tag others as “unnatural” at the same time boast of being “natural.” They expect everyone to define the world—and themselves—on their terms. Such arrogance and ignorance are astounding. With very, very few exceptions “unnatural” is a misnomer because it’s no easier for humans to override their native instincts than any other creature. What seems unnatural to one is inherently natural to another. And while I seriously doubt someone would, or successfully could, consciously defy how he/she is created, there is an unnatural lifestyle every one of us should pursue. If we do, we’ll discover it redefines how we act, speak, think, and what we believe about everything else.

Living Right

Anyone with a glancing knowledge of Christianity knows that its followers—make that its true followers—hope for one thing only in this life: to live righteously before God and man. Not once, but three times, in three different epistles written to three different audiences, were early Christians given the key to living right: The righteous shall live by faith. (Romans 1.17; Galatians 3.11; Hebrews 10.38) This concept seems basic in theory, but it’s supremely difficult to practice. It ignores social logic, disputes life experience, discounts personality, and rejects common sense. It’s entirely counterintuitive to our emotional—and in some cases, physical—wellbeing and survival. In fact, when we follow Jesus, we embrace the most unnatural lifestyle known to man.

Proof the Christian walk completely defies human nature isn’t hard to find. It’s right in front of us, in black and white. Read everything Jesus said.  Never will you find Him endorsing “natural” thinking and behavior. Look no further than The Beatitudes (Matthew 5.3-10) and you’ll discover a sterling example of how thoroughly unnatural His impulses were. They rule out every “normal” characteristic and response we have. They oppose every emotion we channel to protect against every real or imaginary threat to our earthly success. They accept—they actually welcome—situations and outcomes we instinctively avoid. According to Jesus, the losers win it all—heaven, comfort, the earth, righteousness, mercy, God’s presence, and God’s name. And how do they gain these divine riches? By faith—remaining confident in their hopes and holding to what’s true with no visible evidence to support it. To the natural mind, this is crazy talk.

Radical Shifts

But Jesus knew what He was saying and He meant every word. Essentially, He pressed His listeners to forget everything they’d learned about earthly life and adopt the ways of perilously naïve creatures. He urged them to walk through the world like aliens who look at and experience what everyone else does yet draw entirely opposite meanings and rewards from it.

And that pretty much sums up how following Christ works and what it feels like. It lifts you out of the world—out of yourself—to see and understand things from a radically different angle. It hoists you above human instinct and reason. It confuses those around you and dramatically alters how you manage your life.  Consequently, it often leaves you alone with your doubts and problems. When you follow Jesus’s unnatural lifestyle, however, you see them through eyes of faith. You look at doubt and discover hope. Visible problems become invisible solutions. There's just no better way to live.

Originally posted 7/12/08.

Following Christ's path is the most unnatural lifestyle known to man.

(Tomorrow: Be Prepared)

Monday, March 2, 2009

Repost: I Surrender!

For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.

                        Matthew 16.25

Lost and Found

The financial term for recovered loss is “made whole.” This intrigues me, as it derives from a King James Version euphemism for healing. The hemorrhaging woman, for example, is “made whole” by touching Jesus’s cloak. The modern usage is altogether appropriate, since restoration is the overarching theme of Christ’s ministry. His parables constantly return to “lost and found”—the lost sheep, coin, pearl, etc. And in Luke 19.10, He defines His ministry: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” He came to make us whole, to restore our lost hope and relationship with God. Then, in one of His many classic reversals, He tells us we’ll find what we’ve lost is by losing what we have.

Taking Stock

It takes a few goes to bank that hairpin. Our first impulse focuses on the verbs: save/lose, lose/find. But it helps to consider what Jesus says we must lose and what we’ll find. Although He uses one word (“life”), He’s speaking of two things. This lost-and-found message isn’t retrieval. It’s replacement—the exchange of an obsolete, dysfunctional, selfish life for one that’s relevant, effective, and caring. What must be lost, then, are habits, attitudes, and fears that contradict His principles. (Notice the subtle insertion of “for me” on the lose/find side of the equation.) We like to say we “give our hearts to the Lord.” If only it were that simple, handing ourselves over to let Him sort out our mess! It’s not, though. Taking stock of our lives, discarding everything unsuitable for His use is our job.

What’s in Your Closet?

“Coming out” isn’t an exclusively gay rite. Our individuality requires all of us to leave some kind of closet. We all worry how others will respond when we muster the courage to be ourselves. In the process, we amass piles of prejudice, resentment, and disappointments—along with selfish desires, expectations, and beliefs. At first, they help solidify our resolve to live our own lives. But once they’ve served their purpose, we don’t toss them. We stash them away, just as we cram our actual closets with derelict appliances, funky clothes, and cheesy memorabilia. We can’t use them, don’t like them, are embarrassed by them, and need the space for better things. Still, we hold on to them in case

So what’s in your closet? We all need to take a realistic, pragmatic inventory of our closets, haul out everything that gets in our way, look at it one last time, say, “I surrender!” Then, we need to throw it out once and for all. That’s how we lose our lives and how we find them.

Originally posted 9/22/08.

We find what we've lost by losing what we have.

(Tomorrow: The Unnatural Lifestyle)

Sunday, March 1, 2009


Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified… Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or believing what you heard?

                        Galatians 3.1-2 

Before Our Eyes

After spending the entire Advent season on thematic posts, I promised myself to go lighter during Lent—if only to avoid staring at a blank page, waiting for guidance to a missed message or unexplored angle. I still hope to veer off occasionally for a “palate cleanser,” but so far, my plan has backfired in an odd way. Every time I open the Word it leads me back to Lenten themes: penitence, redemption, resurrection, self-denial, etc. Instead of searching for something to say, I say too much. Posts get longer and more involved (I apologize), as it’s increasingly evident subjects pertaining to Lent comprise the wealth of our faith. If I spent 46 consecutive days reflecting on them at length, I’d barely begin to plumb their riches.

As Paul reminds the Galatians, truth and power of God’s unfailing love is right before our eyes, clearly portrayed in Christ’s death. We gaze at Mercy Incarnate from the foot of the cross and behind Him we see our vast Heavenly inheritance. After receiving so much for so little, surely more is required of us than simple faith and obedience. Looking at the extreme duress Jesus endured for us and His immeasurable love in spite of it, what He asks in return doesn't seem good enough. We think doing more for Him means making things harder for us. We revert to all we know—copious rules and regulations—imagining “higher standards” compensate for His sacrifice. But Paul admonishes us efforts to do more by working harder are woefully misguided.

Bothered and Bewildered

A rising trend among Early Church leaders and parishioners takes hold as legalism creeps into Christian doctrine. No less than Peter supports the notion, urging Jews and Gentiles alike to observe Mosaic statutes. Paul is bothered and bewildered by this. In Galatians 2.21, he writes, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” As Jesus explains in John 3.16, He came so we can believe—steering our hearts back to God and away from judging how one another behaves. If legal compliance is all it takes, Paul says, belief in Christ becomes superfluous.

Few grasp legalism’s seductive powers like Paul. He’s aware how easily religious law strays from divine principle. He knows legal focus on action rather than motive inevitably results in contradiction. As a Pharisee zealously stamping out early Christians’ embrace of belief over behavior, he participated in their arrest, torture, and murder. He broke the Law trying to keep it. This dogs him for life and after finding freedom from Law by grace, he opposes legalism with the same passion that drove him to defend it.

Tribal Traditions

From the sound of Paul’s letter, legalism is sweeping Galatia, a province in present-day Turkey. We see his urgency to contain it when he addresses all of the region’s churches at once. (Galatians 1.1) He wastes little ink on formalities. By the third paragraph, he says he’s shocked that they’ve forsaken his teaching for “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.” (v6-7) After reviewing his credentials and untangling knots in legalistic theology, Paul goes off. “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3.1) We’re apt to read this as personal outrage at their disloyalty. But there’s more to it. Galatians subscribe to tribal traditions. Chieftains make the decisions and enforce the rules. Thus, they’re culturally predisposed to legal authoritarianism, making Paul’s reproach a wake-up call. “Tell me this,” he seethes. “Did you receive the Spirit by legal compliance or faith in God’s Word?” He asks if they’re now so foolish to think they’ll attain their goal by human effort rather than God’s guidance. He then puts this to them. “Does God give you His Spirit and work miracles in you because you behave, or because you believe?”

Modern readers can’t help but be struck by an added irony. Over two millennia, Christianity has evolved into a tribal culture of distinct hierarchies, traits, and traditions. We’re so accustomed to being divided we anticipate feeling strange if, for instance, we worship with another tribe. This is unfortunate purely on a philosophical plane. But on a spiritually pragmatic level it must grieve God’s heart. Tribal tendencies predispose us to forsake faith for legalism, to stress behavior over belief, to obey chieftains rather than God, to misjudge God’s gifts as rewards. So many—possibly most—of us jump through hoops and bend to standards earnestly hoping to repay our debt to Christ. We fear we’ll never match the price He paid for redemption. Yet as Jesus tells the synagogue ruler in Mark 5.36, He also says to us, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” God’s love compelled Him to assume our identity solely to restore our belief. Tribal traditions have merits. Respect for leaders is important. But following rules doesn’t equate with following Jesus. We mustn’t let tribal imperatives bewitch us. We must believe.

He came so we can.

(Tomorrow: I Surrender!)

Postscript: Second Looks

I’m traveling on business through Thursday. When I’m away, I’m hampered by time demands and disorientation, as I try to listen, think, and write quickly in unfamiliar places. It’s a lousy way to work that always leaves me feeling I’ve given less than my best. Hoping to avoid that—and delayed posts, another concern—the next few days will be devoted to second looks at earlier posts, many of them very early. I’ve selected them for seasonal topicality and reworked some of them, hopefully to their improvement. I trust you won’t stay away while I’m away, because I’ll continue to check in several times a day to respond to comments, check the blog traffic, answer email, etc. I ask your prayers as I travel and truly appreciate your patience and understanding.