Monday, April 25, 2011

Disapproval and Insufficiency: Freedom in Disguise

Only the losers win
They've got nothing to prove
They'll be the ones with nothing to lose
I've been thinking, thinking
I've got a plan, to lose it all...
~Switchfoot, "The Loser"

Very often, we forget that we cannot earn God's affection and approval. It is not that we actually forget, but really that this knowledge makes us want to try harder to earn it. We come face to face with the fact that nothing we do in our own flesh will ever be good enough for God, and suddenly we kick it into overdrive, trying to do something (still in our own flesh) that will earn His favor.

That is not how it is supposed to work.

First of all, it is not like God is just being mean, sitting way up above us on His throne, refusing to accept that we might have anything to offer Him. That may be how people work, but it is not how God works. God made us. He knows what is in our hearts, and He knows how that flows over into our words and actions. He is God. He is wholly other than us, and He is holiness personified. He created us in His image, sure, but we were pretty quick to step away from that and try to strike out on our own. Which is precisely what we did (and continue to do): strike out.

So there is good reason why our best efforts are still "as filthy rags." Because He is God, we are not, and yet we keep trying to be.

Instead of being infuriated by the fact that our best will never be good enough, the insufficiency we exude while acting in the flesh is supposed to motivate us differently. We can never, ever earn God's favor. That being true, we are still faced with the fact that He offers it up to us. He sent His Son to die on the cross (bearing our sin and shame), and be raised from the dead (giving us victory over it). We cannot earn that, and yet...He offers it to us freely.

This fact should motivate us to humble ourselves, accept His grace, and move forward to please God by His grace alone. You see, we can please God. We just need His help to do it. Hebrews 11:6 -- while listing a long line of people whose actions pleased God -- puts it this way: "Without faith, it is impossible to please God (emphasis mine)."

When we find ourselves lacking the approval of the God who longs to lavish His love on us, the only action that makes sense is to receive His means of acquiring holiness and righteousness.

Stop striving. You cannot do this on your own. But God wants to give you the means to please Him. He wants to pour out His grace on your life in ways that will just continually amaze you.

Our inability to please God on our own is actually freedom, because it means we can stop trying to. We can stop wearing ourselves out to "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with [our] God (Micah 6:8)," and start allowing Him to work that in us. This does not, of course, mean turning our backs on righteousness, but on our ever-striving flesh.

But people...people are another story...

Why not take a moment here and be blatantly honest. When people disapprove of you, it is not so much because they are so much better than you that they have a right to, as it is fear. I personally think it goes back to the fact that God is absolutely true, absolutely right, and absolutely God. Because we know that no one can be right but Him, we have this unspoken (most of the time) need to be right all the time. We (wrongly) fear the repercussions of being wrong.

Thus, when faced with another way of doing things...we usually react by stating (either through our words or actions), "Absolutely not. You HAVE to be wrong, because I HAVE to be right!"

So, there will often be times when people disapprove of us. This, too, is freedom.

You are probably thinking, "What? How on earth can that be freedom??"

In Luke 14:12-14, Jesus gives the sage advice of only inviting the poor over for banquets, because there is no way we can pay them back. (Be patient with me here, this is not evidence of my ADD, this actually directly correlates).

If someone does not know how to humble themselves and learn from you, if someone does not know how to open their heart to you, or offer you their approval or respect; they are truly poor. I do not say this so that you can condescend to people like this, bolstering yourself with the idea that you are better than them; because chances are that as much as someone may treat you like this, you treat someone else like this, too.

We are all poor, in our flesh. None of us has the grace and the strength on our own to put ourselves aside and hear someone else out. And as much as we, as Christians, are inviting Christ continually into these areas where we are weak, in order to grow us into His likeness there, there is always an area or two that will still need work (and this side of Glory, that is how it will be. We are works in progress, waiting for our true completion on the "day of Christ (Phil 1:6).").

But Jesus said to show our acts of kindness to those who cannot repay us. If someone has decided that they want you to do things their way, and they will not be happy with you until you do...

If someone has decided that no matter what you do, you will never be good enough, even if you mimic their every action and word...

If someone has decided that, while they like a lot about you, there are certain things/traits/facts they will never accept....

Stop Striving!!

Accept the freedom we have in Christ to love these people completely. I am not saying that you should do everything they say (that would be striving, people!), but that you should love them.

Recklessly. Deeply. Truly. Pray for them, ask God to show you ways to pour out His grace into their lives, knowing that -- until and unless He transforms their heart -- they will never be able to pay you back with their approval, words of praise, or affection.

The fact is, there is no way you can possibly please everyone. There is a very good chance that more than one person will disapprove of you in your life, and that those people would disagree with each other on exactly what is wrong with you (or the way you do things). The odds are that you disapprove of some of these people, too. It is by no means a one way street.

This fact is freedom. If you cannot please man, then you can stop trying. Be who God made you to be. Walk in the light of His grace and mercy. Seek His approval (but only in His grace and strength, not in your insufficient and sinful flesh). Lavish His love on everyone around you, especially those who cannot return it.

He has shown you,O mortal,what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly, and to love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God.
~Micah 6:8 (NIV)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Getting Un-Stuck

I wonder now if the choice was mine
The door was open I walked inside
Nobody had my arm twisted
Nobody made me stay
The face of freedom can show up small
A tiny crack in a prison wall
A song that rises up from silence
A voice that wants to say
No more chains...
~Nichole Nordeman, "No More Chains"
No animals were harmed in the writing of this blog entry.

While my husband was away recently, I had to take care of the baby chicks we had just received.  They needed to be fed several times a day, and on one of these occasions I found that the chicks had knocked the bottle out of their feeder.  The chicks are fed with a gravity feeder, which is a plastic bottle that screws into a feeding trough. I picked up the bottle and was shocked to feel a tiny little heart pounding away inside!  One of the chicks had found its way into the bottle, tempted by the remaining food that lay inside.

The bottle is similar to a Nalgene, or even a Mason jar.  There is a lip after the opening, so the chick could not just back out of the bottle.  He was stuck!  I called my mother (my parents have chickens, too) for help, and had her on speakerphone while I tried to extricate the poor bird.

I tried shaking the bottle upside down -- cruel as it sounds -- to no avail.  Every time I turned the bottle upside down the poor little chick was trying to climb farther up into the bottle.  He did not realize that in this instance, gravity was his friend.  Mom suggested that I try and reach for one of his feet, so after gently shaking him one more time, I was thrilled to see a little foot slip down, and I latched on (gently) with my finger and thumb.  I then tried to find his other foot.  In the effort, the chick managed to get the first foot back...and I cried out (with tremendous exasperation), "Why won't you let me free you?!?!"

"Do you think that maybe God feels like that sometimes?"  My mother, still on speakerphone, transformed this little part of daily life into a prophetic moment.  Wow. I let the gravity of that question really sink in for a minute, before continuing to free the bird.

Eventually, I was able to get hold of both of the chick's feet and slowly, cautiously pull him out of the bottle. It was not a comfortable experience for him, and -- once he was freed -- he did not even stop to show any gratitude. I set him down in the pen and he scurried across to the other side and was immediately lost in a sea of frightened chicks (we had 81 chicks at the time). Again I was struck by how often this rings true in my walk with God.

Sometimes we cannot see beyond a situation. All we know is that we are stuck, and being stuck is frightening. How do we know if we will ever be able to get out again? What will happen to us if we cannot get free? 

But then, just when we start to resign ourselves to our fate, something happens to jolt us, shaking us out of our comfort zone and into a frightening new place.  

When all we know are the walls around us, those walls can start to look pretty good.  I mean, at least we know what life looks like, here.  We know exactly how much (or how little, to be more accurate) is expected of us, and we know the boundaries. Freedom is...well...unknown. And the unknown is scary.

I imagine all that the little chick could think was, "Why are you trying to pull off my leg?  How can I save myself from you?"

We might say something like, "God, what did I do to deserve this situation? Why are you punishing me?  Why can't things go back to normal?" Sometimes the only alternative to where we are looks so scary, that we think the prison we are in is a palace. Sometimes we would rather be in a dark, rotting dungeon, than have our eyes blinded by sunlight.

When the Israelites were leaving Egypt -- a place where they were persecuted, horribly oppressed and abused -- the uncertainty of the road ahead had them all crying out, "At least we had food in Egypt! (Numbers 11)"  Really? You are telling me that you would rather be forced to kill your new born sons, be beaten all day long, and be forced into heavy labor, than traveling with your people to someplace new? It sounds so ridiculous to us, yet we make these decisions all the time. We complain about not knowing where God is bringing us, when we were stuck in a place of bitterness, of guilt, of pain, or of uselessness. We only want freedom if we recognize it as such right away. 

We only want freedom if we can gain it without growing. We only want freedom if it requires no faith.

When a "dangerous" new sect threatened the time-honored faith of a man named Saul, he railed against these "heretics" with a murderous vengeance.  When he was finally brought face to face with Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, the Lord said to him, "Saul, is hard for you to kick against the goads (Acts 26:14)?" Another word for "goads" might be "restraints," but they were restraints designed to cut into an animals hooves should he decide he wanted to go a different way.  God was basically saying, "Dear one (using a name twice was an indication of affection), you are only hurting yourself.  Please try this my way." 

How many times have we all, like the chick in my story above, seen something that looked good.  We go after it, only to find ourselves ensnared.  We walked into it of our own free will, and here we are, crying out to God for deliverance.  Then, the walls start to shake. The floor falls out from underneath you. Suddenly, you do not even know which way is up anymore. "Never mind, God!  I will stay stuck in here if it at least means I know what is going on!"  Sound familiar?

Maybe it was, "OK, God, I would rather have a job where I am taken advantage of and unappreciated, than to be unemployed and actually have to depend on You. I know I prayed that you would get me out of this job, but I meant I wanted you to give me a new job FIRST!"

Or maybe it was any number of other situations where we feel like the sky is falling. It is true.  Too many times, I will opt for the security of a prison cell, if it means I will never have to wonder what the next step is, or where my next meal is coming from, or who will pay my bills.

But when we -- no matter what is going on around us, whether God caused it or He is simply using it for our good to His glory -- choose to trust Him, we feast on manna and quail, drink water from miraculous springs. Or like Paul (who was Saul), we heal the blind and lame, reach many for the Kingdom of Heaven, and find a new life beyond anything our old life could have promised. Is it all rosy? Absolutely not.  But it is liberty!

"Because sometimes the things we call freedom enslave us." (quote on a OneTruth T-Shirt entitled "Liberty")

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Who Are You Hearing?

"There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the righteous requirement of the law may be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh have their outlook shaped by the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit have their outlook shaped by the things of the Spirit. For the outlook of the flesh is death, but the outlook of the Spirit is life and peace, because the outlook of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to the law of God, nor is it able to do so. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you (Romans 8:1-9a, Bible in Basic English, emphasis mine)."

Recently, I found myself thinking about the differences between my faith when I was in college, and my faith now.  I was reminded of late night prayer sessions with some close friends, where we called on the Lord at the top of our lungs, and for long hours into the early morning. Now, trying to sit and pray for an hour seems next-to-impossible, some days.

Memories like this flooded my mind, and I instantly felt a sense of shame.  How could I let myself get so off-track and so distracted?  Why would God even want to still use me?  I still believe the same things I believed back then, but the fire has not always been burning quite as bright as then.  I allowed these thoughts of shame and guilt to pummel me, with no regard to what the memories were meant to accomplish.

People very often respond to these memories in one of two ways: They either write off their youthful zeal as ignorant and naive, or they feel condemned, and beat themselves up for not fanning the flames.  Neither of these ways bears any fruit.

Romans 8:1 tells us, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."  What God brings up in our minds and hearts, He never brings up to condemn us (I will break here to say that the antonym of "condemn" is not "condone." God does bring up things to challenge us, to keep our hearts broken before Him, and to discipline us -- as well as to encourage and strengthen us --but He does not condemn. There is a big difference between discipline and condemnation).  What use are we to God if we deem ourselves useless?  God is not trying to beat us over the head with our own humanness.  If -- as in my case -- the sin I recognize is inconsistency, complacency, and lack of zeal; then the appropriate response when God brings to mind the passionate faith of my youth is, "God, make me even more hungry for You now than I was then!"

God brings the former days to mind to make us hungry, to give us something to hope for, to aim past.  It is not that He is not looking for repentance. Make no mistake about it, He is!  But repentance does not sit about it sackloth and ashes saying, "Woe is me! I will never be of any use to the Lord! I used to be on fire for Him, and I will never be zealous like that again!" Repentance does an about face. Repentance says, "Lord, I have been so complacent! Fan those flames into an even greater fire than they were back then."

Isaiah 6 recounts Isaiah meeting God in the temple. When Isaiah sees the Lord "high and exalted, seated on a throne," his first thought is of his own sin. Isaiah cries out, "Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty."  This is his gut reaction, the recognition of his own sin.

Now, Isaiah could have fled the temple, realizing that his own sin made him kindling wood, in a very real way.  Or he could have tried to brush it off (which, in that day, would have led to the kindling wood idea, again). But when God provided a way out, Isaiah repented.  An angel pulled a hot coal off the fire and touched it to Isaiah's lips, removing the offense. Then, we hear the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"  Does Isaiah say, "Well, I am a man of unclean lips, remember? I cannot go."  NO!!  He says, "Here am I. Send me!"

My memories of my earlier passion for the Lord do not have to evoke a sense of self-loathing or shame. What God intended from those memories is that I be hungry. Hungry to see Him working in my life in the same way now as He did then. Hungry to see even greater things than those. Hungry to walk in the Spirit in such a way that the rest all just falls to the wayside.  Not self-condemning, not nonchalant; just hungry to be used by God and to see Him move.

The Enemy of our souls will try to sneak in with shame. He knows that shame renders us useless.  When times in your life where you were more or less "holy" than you are now, you need to choose how you will respond.  Do you listen to the Enemy, and beat yourself up (even thinking that this self-abasement is holy or humble...gross!); or will you submit your heart to Christ, knowing that you are free from condemnation?  Repent and move forward, do not hold yourself back, or put yourself willingly into shackles when Jesus paid everything for your freedom.  It is for freedom that Christ has set us free!