Saturday, November 21, 2009

Before and After

Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6.9, 11)

Solution and Solvent

I once saw a great spoof of TV spots featuring an “ordinary” housewife’s laundry detergent testimonial. She points to a grimy t-shirt and says, “I never believed I could get the stains out of Bobby’s shirt.” Then she points to a pristine t-shirt. “But just look! Here’s the same shirt after I used new and improved Cleanse-Away.” Obviously, they’re not the same shirt and the irony gets big laughs. Thinking of it less as a send-up of marketing moxie than a metaphor of transformation, however, removes the irony. Our past and present coexist. Who we were lives on in memory while who we are exists in actuality. That allows us to contrast them side-by-side, looking at the grime we once sported and seeing the miraculously clean condition we now enjoy. Paul describes the before-and-after comparison in 1 Corinthians 6.11 as, “This is how you were. This is how you are.”

“You were washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by God’s Spirit,” Paul explains. In terms of the detergent analogy, belief in Christ is the perfect cleaning solution for our unsalvageable state. In Romans 10.13, we’re told, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (v13) Thus, salvation isn’t a mystery. But its cleansing effects are, since God’s Spirit functions as the solvent that removes the residues of self-indulgence and recklessness. Once it cleans us up, it remains active to keep us clean. “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit… so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life,” Titus 3.5 and 7 read. Faith in Christ makes the difference. The Holy Spirit makes the difference happen. And acknowledging the difference between how we were and how we are makes us grateful.

Works in Progress

When we restrict our concept of salvation to the moment our faith reached out to Christ, our reasons to thank Him end up limited to what He’s done. But when we realize salvation initiates constant cleansing, we’re able to thank Him for what His Spirit is doing. While this has no impact on “before”—how and who we were doesn’t change—it significantly alters our understanding of “after.” How and who we are tomorrow will look different, hopefully better, than how and who we are today. Each day’s improvement generates new reasons to thank God. As we grow, our thanksgiving also grows.

We are works in progress. Daily, God’s Spirit refines us into purer reflections of His image. This inspires us to monitor the process closely—to note which impurities have been fully removed, which are fading, and which are resisting His cleansing. What this does for us is most amazing. It alerts us to lay aside guilt we shovel on ourselves when we fall short and turns our thoughts to how far we’ve come. An anonymous songwriter captured this mindset this way: “I’m not what I should be, but I’m not what I used to be.” Waiting until the work’s complete to offer God thanks cheats us of the joy and confidence we can gain by expressing our gratitude for what’s been done so far. Worse still, it totally paralyzes our desire to thank Him for what He’s presently doing.

Grateful on the Go

That’s why we remain grateful on the go, rather than beating ourselves down for not yet being where we should be. If we commit ourselves to thank God for every advance we make—whether a tiny step or a giant leap—we also commit to noticing every improvement His Spirit makes in our lives. We constantly contrast before and after, always thanking Him that “after” keeps getting better. We become aware of stubborn thoughts and habits steadily losing their grip. How we are looks less and less like how we were.

Resentments and prejudices that stained us are vanishing. Desires and ambitions that sullied our appearance are weakening. Shame and fear that convinced us we were unfit to be seen are fading away. If we withhold thanks for these things, we’ll lose track of how much smaller and less significant they already are. Yes, we thank God for His finished work in our lives. But as we enter Thanksgiving week, let’s also thank Him for unfinished work. “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion,” Philippians 1.6 reads. What’s not done will be done, and more gets done day by day. For that, we’re truly grateful.

Unlike classic “before-and-after” ads, the Spirit’s cleansing is continual, and “after” constantly changes. It gets better all the time. So we thank God as we go, rather than wait for the final results.

(Next: One in Ten)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Do It Yourself

When you offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the LORD, offer it of your own free will. (Leviticus 22.29; NKJV)

Freewill Offerings

Leviticus, the third book of Mosaic Law, basically serves as a how-to manual addressed to the Levites, Israel’s priestly caste. Overall, it’s a snooze—a tedious compendium of intricate regulations and rituals that try the modern reader’s interest and patience. This is how you offer an animal sacrifice. Here’s the recipe for a grain offering. These people are acceptable to enter the tabernacle for worship; these groups should be excluded. These sacrifices should be salted; these should be roasted in oil. These rituals should take place at this type of ceremony. And on and on it goes. By the time the reader gets to chapter 22, he/she is cross-eyed trying to keep track of all the particulars. The first half goes into excruciating detail about what to do if unsanctified (i.e., unacceptable) worshipers attempt to offer sacrifices. But then the chapter takes a fascinating turn to set protocols for freewill offerings.

Freewill offerings aren’t tied to prescribed seasonal rites or forgiveness and purification sacraments. And while they’re equally specific in their demands, their voluntary nature sets them apart. People opt to offer these sacrifices in response to God’s goodness in their lives. What’s more, everyone—even foreigners—is entitled to bring freewill offerings to the priest to sacrifice on his/her behalf. The text identifies three categories of freewill offerings: rites symbolizing personal vows to God, peace offerings, and sacrifices of thanksgiving. They spring from our need to honor God’s love and regard for us, rather than other sacrifices that attest to our love and regard for God. Thus, freewill offerings are always welcome. They're uncalled for, but never inappropriate.

On Our Own

From front to back, the Bible urges us to give thanks. Yet the writers, not God, consistently voice these entreaties. “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,” Psalm 107.1 reads. Paul writes in Colossians 4.2: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” Hebrews 13.15 admonishes, “Let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” (NKJV) The reason God never requests our gratitude is too obvious to wonder about. Genuine thankfulness is something we do on our own. It’s an automatic reaction born of utter amazement and delight. If we have to be asked to say thank you, we strip its sincerity and joy. It becomes a polite gesture, not an expression of love and humility.

That’s why, as God lays out the specifics for sacrifices of thanksgiving in Leviticus 22.29, He says, “Offer it of your own free will.” Spontaneous gratitude displays our amazement and delight at His goodness to us. Waiting until we’re asked to say thank you evidences our lack of awareness of all He does for us. It shows how little we understand how reliant we are on His mercy and protection. Not a day passes without literally hundreds of blessings we can thank Him for sending our way. The mere fact we wake up is a good start. That we can stand on our feet, see where we’re going, speak and hear, and every other physical capability we enjoy merits thanksgiving. And while we may feel comfortable taking these gifts for granted, they’re important enough to God for Him to ensure they’re ours day after day, minute by minute. Thus, it’s our privilege to make our lives sacrifices of thanksgiving of our own free will.

Moments We Spare

Non-believers associate “thanksgiving” with a holiday feast sometimes preceded with a perfunctory prayer of gratitude. Casual believers may think of it as a season when Christians are supposed to be more mindful of their blessings. But as truly engaged people of faith, we understand thanksgiving has nothing to do with dates and seasons. It’s a do-it-yourself opportunity that occupies moments we spare every day. We sacrifice time to remember God-given wonders in and around us—love we share, lives we touch, lives that touch us, provisions of health, shelter, sustenance, and hope, and innumerable other examples of our Creator’s kindness toward us.

Thanksgiving is an art we refine through disciplined practice. The more we do it, the better we become at it. It flows more easily through our days. It surfaces unexpectedly in our thoughts and pours from our hearts. Over time, it turns into a tool that lifts us from dejection and despair. It changes us from oblivious, greedy children into observant, gracious adults. Freewill offerings of thanks come from our desire to recognize God’s love in our lives. In 2 Timothy 3, Paul goes to great lengths in describing people who love themselves more than God. “Ungrateful” makes the list, alongside other unflattering adjectives like boastful, proud, unholy, unforgiving, brutal, and conceited. “As for you,” he says in verse 14, “continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of.” We have learned God is good all the time. We’re convinced He deserves all the thanks we can possibly offer Him. We don’t need anyone to give us a reason or season to thank Him. Just thinking of His goodness is all we need to do it ourselves.

God doesn't ask us to be grateful. We do it on our own.

(Next: Before and After)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Overflowing with Thanks

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2.6-7)

Discipleship in a Nutshell

On occasion, as we read Paul’s letters and he’s rolling along, dispensing one illuminating truth after another, we begin to sense exasperation rising until he throws up his hands in dismay. Such a moment surfaces in Galatians 5. Legalistically prone Jewish Christians have rattled Gentile believers by insisting circumcision—i.e., conversion to Judaism—is necessary for redemption. That the Galatians would credence such nonsense alarms Paul, given how he and other Apostles constantly preach God’s grace is free for all without condition. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” he says in verse 6, just before bewilderment overtakes him and he exclaims, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (v7) If he were writing to modern believers mired in similar controversy—say, demands that believers disavow gender, ethnicity, or orientation to qualify for God’s acceptance—Paul might put this to them: “Why are you hung up by this?” The Galatians have let patently false doctrine impede their progress, steal their focus, and shake their confidence.

Jesus tasks the Apostles with one primary mission: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” (Matthew 28.19) But they soon learn making disciples goes beyond convincing people to believe in Jesus; it calls for unswerving commitment to Him and His teaching. Therefore, it’s equally vital for the Apostles to encourage believers to continue in the faith. New life in Christ is the key that opens the door to living in Christ. “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness,” Paul urges in Colossians 2.6-7. Keep going. Keep growing. Get stronger. Stay thankful. That pretty much summarizes discipleship in a nutshell. And, pulling his advice to the Galatians into this mix: Don’t let anyone cut in on you and keep you from obeying the truth.

It’s Got to Be Real

Living in Christ means living by faith, and since the natural mind and senses are critically crippled by the need to know and feel, living by faith is the most elusive pursuit we can undertake. Faith gives us nothing visible or tangible to go on. Yet it’s got to be real. That’s why Paul includes “overflowing with thankfulness” in his set of instructions. Thanksgiving transforms belief into reality, faith into fact. It’s the aftermath of complete trust in God’s unfailing mercy and care for us. “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life,” David writes in Psalm 23.6. As we move forward, living day by day in Christ, we take time to glance back and recognize how good God has been to us, how He’s proven Himself repeatedly, consistently.

Thanking God gives voice to His grace and concern in every detail about us. We entrust Him with our lives and He validates our faith by completely involving Himself in them. No matter is too great or small for His attention. Sometimes He reveals His presence in expected ways, answering specific prayers and honoring certain promises. Just as often (if not more so), He demonstrates His love in startling fashions—surprising us with unanticipated blessings, shielding us from unforeseen detriment, or guiding us through treacherous stretches we’d prefer to escape. However He rewards our trust, though, pausing to express gratitude for what He’s done informs blind faith in current situations with insight gained by experience. Thanksgiving makes abstract faith concrete. It secures our roots and builds us up. It keeps us going.

Faith Rises

Years ago, Fundamentalists got swept up by a teaching every bit as caustic as the circumcision doctrine that plagued the Early Church. Known as “word of faith” theology, it quickly entered Fundie slang as “name-it-claim-it.” Its advocates said all believers had to do to exercise faith was “speak the word” to remedy their problems. As usual with fringe doctrines, “word of faith” found a few scriptural hooks to bait weak, unseasoned believers, and they swallowed them whole. Overnight, churches teemed with sick people saying, “I’m healed,” financially strapped ones claiming, “I’m rich,” etc. This went on quite a while before it faded, sadly taking a lot of disillusioned, disappointed souls with it.

During this craze, I noticed believers who genuinely lived by faith didn’t “name-and-claim” anything. Nothing anyone said and nothing they faced hindered them from obeying the truth. In spite of everything around them, they kept their hearts overflowing with thanks. While others confused imagined outcomes with expressions of faith, their expressions of gratitude generated real faith that produced outcomes. They exemplified Philippians 4.6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." They obeyed 1 Thessalonians 5.18: “Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” They taught me living by faith is living in thanks. Confidence to move on comes by looking back at how far we’ve come. As “Amazing Grace” brilliantly reminds us: “’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me on.” Faith rises when thanksgiving overflows.

Faith for the future is borne on the tide overflowing thanks for past mercies and grace. We look back to move ahead.

(Next: Do It Yourself)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hidden Thanks

The LORD will surely comfort Zion and look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. (Isaiah 51.3)

Going Through the Motions

It’s been an unusually tough year for an unusually high number of people. Maladies of every sort—physical, financial, emotional, and moral—have rampaged with extreme virulence. Inability to curtail unemployment, warfare, the N1H1 pandemic, political strife, violence, discrimination, environmental crimes, and other ills has severely impacted many on deeply personal levels. This Thanksgiving season finds some of us grasping at straws to give thanks. Having dealt with serious setbacks, even the most generic reasons for thankfulness strain our spirits. And struggling to feel grateful is one of the emptiest sensations any believer can possibly experience.

Israel was very familiar with similarly hollow feelings. Its history seemed stuck in a pattern of one step forward, two steps back. Time after time, God favors His people by routing their oppressors and returning what was stolen from them. They replant their farms, rebuild their cities, and gather to celebrate harvest, joyously singing Psalm 107: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the LORD say this—those he redeemed from the hand of the foe… Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men. Let them sacrifice thank offerings and tell of his works with songs of joy.” (v1-2, 21-22) Then, once they’re prospering, their enemies come back to seize their fields, destroy their homes, and enslave them all over again. The harvest festivals still take place. The songs remain the same. But for many who lose their land, security, and freedom to forces beyond their control, just going through the motions of thanksgiving takes all they have.

Products of God’s Promise

Isaiah is no stranger to these cycles. In almost 50 years as Israel’s preeminent prophet, he sees it rebound, fall, and rebound again three times. He watches Jerusalem, or “Zion,” toggle between a war zone and reconstruction site his entire life, and it distresses him to observe God’s people going in circles. To grasp his concern, imagine Jerusalem is modern Kabul and he's responsible for the faith of a tattered city serially besieged by three regimes. His office gives him a prominent role in annual thanksgiving services. Facing the congregation of weary souls, he reaches for words to reinvigorate their hope and renew their joy.

Rather than press the people to be grateful, Isaiah does what every great prophet does. He steps aside and lets God speak. He begins His message by saying, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” (Isaiah 51.1) God draws Israel’s memory back to Abraham and Sarah, its parents. When I called Abraham, He says in verse 2, “he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many.” The people realize they’re products of God’s promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12.2) This primes their faith to receive God’s promise to them: “The LORD will surely comfort Zion and look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.” (v3)

Living Proof

Notice the subtle distinction between what God has yet to do and what He’s already done. He will comfort Jerusalem and show compassion on her turmoil. He will replenish her losses and heal her lands. But He’s already instilled her with joy and gladness, thanksgiving and music. They’re hidden deep within her, waiting to be found. Therefore, they’re not contingent on Israel’s capacity to conjure gratitude despite its miseries. They remain eternally present within its people because they represent the fulfillment of promise. When Israel digests this—and why that makes it precious to the God Who vowed to raise a great nation from Abraham’s seed—its joy, gladness, thanksgiving, and singing will be unaffected by fluctuating circumstances. It’s living proof God honors His Word.

We, too, are living proof of God’s faithfulness. When the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost, Peter proclaims, “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Acts 2.16-17) All people—that’s each and every one of us, with no one excluded for any reason. Being products of this promise makes us precious to Him. But not only are we living proof of God’s all-inclusive promise, we also verify its longevity, which Peter describes in verse 39: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” We’re walking, talking vessels of hidden thanks just waiting to be found. Knowing joy and gladness, thanksgiving and singing reside in us primes us to receive God’s promises. He will comfort us and attend to our struggles. He will replenish our losses and heal us. If we can’t find it in us to feel grateful for where we are presently, we can rejoice and thank God we’re here, exactly as He promised through Isaiah, Joel, and Peter thousands of years ago.

As living proof God honors His promises, thanks is already and always in us, unaffected by our hardships and circumstances.

(Next: Overflowing with Thanks)