When Faith Seems Hard To Come By

Whether you have grown up in Christian culture or not, it’s probable that you have heard the religious term ‘faith’ many times. It’s a buzzword really. It’s denoted with admirable spirituality and is loaded with the unknown–and people use it a lot. You’ve likely heard an assortment of the phrases “take a step of faith” and “place your faith” and “just have faith” with different spins and various applications. However, while we we hear about ‘faith’ time and time again, I’m afraid that our understanding sometimes fails clarity, objectiveness, or practicality. Speaking from personal experience, I think the notion of ‘having faith’ often comes across as ambiguous, mysterious, and subjective, which isn’t always helpful when it’s understood as the prerequisite for something as significant as salvation, among other things. Indeed, it’s crucial to Christianity.

And while there is much to be said about ‘faith’, Tim Keller provides some insight about the overall nature of faith, what it looks like, and how it plays out in our lives in his exposition of the biblical account when Jesus calmed the deadly storm. What he says here gives much clarity to that term in Christianity that is so crucial, yet sometimes so pervasively ambiguous and foggy.

Check it out:

Jesus asks the disciples, “Do you still have no faith?” That could actually be translated as “Where is your faith?” I love that way of phrasing it. By asking the question in this way, Jesus is prompting them to see that the critical factor in their faith is not its strength, but its object.

Imagine you’re falling off a cliff, and sticking out of the cliff is a branch that is strong enough to hold you, but you don’t know how strong it is. As you fall, you have just enough time to grab that branch. How much faith do you have to have in the branch for it to save you? Must you be totally sure that it can save you? No, of course not. You only have to have enough faith to grab the branch. That’s because it’s not the quality of your faith that saves you; it’s the object of your faith. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the branch; all that matters is the branch. And Jesus is the branch.

People who believe more must not be hard on those who believe less. Why? Because faith ultimately is not a virtue; it’s a gift.
If you want to believe but can’t, stop looking inside; go to Jesus and say, “Help me believe.” Go to him and say, “So you’re the one who gives faith! I’ve been trying to work it out by reasoning and thinking and meditating and going to church in hopes that a sermon will move me—I’ve been trying to get faith by myself. Now I see that you’re the source of faith. Please give it to me.” If you do that, you’ll find that Jesus has been seeking you—he’s the author of faith, the provider of faith, and the object of faith.†

I love that. Much uncertainty, ambiguity, and doubt can be traced back to the fact that we are measuring our standing with God  by the degree of our faith instead of Jesus’ finished work for us on the cross.

Oftentimes, our faith frequently drifts off its proper orbit around the gospel of Jesus and spins off into space, carried only by the momentum of its own separation. However, its the gravitational force of the gospel that pulls our faith into constancy and assurance. Outside of that orbit, our faith is left to forever drift into further dimensions of uncertainty, ambiguity, and ambivalence. It’s the planet of the gospel, not the orbit itself, that gives the metaphorical orbit of your faith assurance. If you’ve ever taken an astronomy/science class, you would know that it’s the existence of the plant first that causes the existence of the orbit. The planet and its gravitational force is what produces the existence of the orbit. Therefore, orbits are maintained and upheld as long as the planet is there. Similarly, true faith is not caused by our trying to orbit, but is produced by the gospel simply existing. If the gospel is the center, your faith won’t spin off into unknown dimensions of space.

To relate this idea to another analogy, think of a bicycle tire: faith is like the spokes and the gospel is like the hub. So long as the spokes of your faith are connected to the hub of the gospel, the tire of your Christianity will stay moving. But when you regard the spokes of your faith as the centerpiece, you’re gonna start having some major problems.

Thus, faith actually cannot come from the inside, but only from the outside. Faith cannot rise from the depths of our sinful hearts; it can only come into existence–like the orbit–by responding to the reality of Jesus’ loving sacrifice and resurrection.

This is important because it has two significant practical implications. First, if faith was primarily about what you could muster up, then you would inevitably boast in yourself because you have more faith than others; and if not, you would  inevitably despair because you can’t seem to naturally muster up enough faith like other people. Both ends of the spectrum are busted morally. However, if faith is primarily about what Jesus has done, then you have no reason to boast in yourself, but only in Him. This destroys all notions of pride and despair, which is what a holy God aims to do in our lives anyways.

Second, if faith was primarily about what you could muster up, then gaining assurance of your salvation would be impossible. How much is enough? Am I working hard enough? Do I need more faith to finally be right with God? How do I know? The problem with inward faith is that you will never know how much is enough. You’ll constantly be anxious. But that is not the way God wants us to live our lives. He loves us and wants us to know that. And so the answer is not to look inward at your degree of faith, but to look outward at his decree of grace. Looking at the cross and the resurrection–outside of yourself–you can be assured that Jesus paid it all for your sins. Therefore, if you lean the weight of your soul upon how much faith you have, everything will crumble; but if you lean the weight of your soul against the unmoving and completed work of Jesus, you will finally find peace and assurance.

If you have a hard time believing in Christianity, these are moral proofs of why Christianity could be true when we look at the notion of faith. Its founder, Jesus, produces a type of humility (not boasting) and confidence (not fretting) in us that we could not possibly produce in ourselves. Other religions will ultimately tell you to trust in how well you have kept the moral code. Morally, this philosophy ends in either pride or despair (based on how well you have kept the code), and also never gives you the peace of assurance. Sure, such living will look good on the outside, but the inside will inevitably suffer from self-righteousness, self-deprecation, or self-doubt. Yet, if Jesus is the savior who alone brings salvation, then we can’t boast (since we didn’t achieve it), we can’t despair (because we can’t lose), and we can have peace of assurance because the cross and resurrection prove it. 

Truly, our faith decreases–not increases–when we focus on the degree of our faith for Jesus. Instead, our faith grows more–not less–when we focus on the work of Jesus for us.

To conclude, if you’re like me and you have struggled with mustering up ‘enough faith’ to please God or to ‘be a good Christian’, I encourage you to give up these vain attempts of self-help. You’re only going to find such help for self by clinging to Jesus anyways–because He hasn’t given you advice about what to do; He’s given you news of what He has done. So, today, drop your checklist of what to do to get a stronger faith, and start believing Jesus that “It is finished”.‡ And while you’re fixating on that, your faith will seem to naturally refuel.

_____________________________

Footnotes:

† Keller, Timothy. Jesus The King, p. 130-132.

‡ John 19:30

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Don’t Go To Christianity for Joy, Rationale, or Ethics

I’ve been reading a book recently that, honestly, has been rather irritating. It presents theological ‘itches’, per se, but the ‘scratches’ it provides as solutions just barely touch the edges of those itches, such that the ‘itches’ are unfortunately worse than before. Because the ‘scratch’ doesn’t hit the main ‘itch’—but only the edges—it renders the itch even itchier. Ya know? (Lol at this analogy). Now, I don’t mean to come down hard on the author—I’m sure he has good intentions—but one explanation he gave particularly encapsulates what I believe is painfully true for a majority of modern day Christianity.

To establish context, he tells disappointing stories of people who left the faith and why they did so. However, in recounting the disappointment, he interestingly presupposes upon multiple ideas that are fundamentally contrary to the primary substance of Christianity. Meaning, he implicates reasons of secondary importance (joy, rational, ethics) about why Christianity is ultimately worth following, over the primary ones (Jesus is who he says he is). That might sound too picky or cerebral—but check out what I mean. How it plays out practically is huge.

Here’s the text:

Chloe was raised in a strict Christian home. She obeyed all the Christian rules—no drinking, no smoking, no swearing, and, of course, no naughty sex with her boyfriend. Once out of her parents’ home, she tried checking off the list of dos and don’ts during early adulthood. She decided to walk away once she realized religion couldn’t bring her joy or peace, fulfillment or contentment.

Michael was a classmate from high school who seemed adroit in Christian apologetics. If a skeptical student attacked Christianity, he was the first to turn them back with carefully rehearsed arguments. When I ran into him in a grocery store checkout line years later, he told me he doesn’t ascribe to any religious tradition. His college religion professor spun his spiritual logic around with counterarguments. Because he saw Christianity as a series of rational arguments, the religion of his adolescence slipped like sand between his fingers.

And then there’s Michelle, who began attending church after she had children. Michelle longed for her children to acquire a strong ethical framework, and the local Christian congregation seemed the most commonsense place for such things. Three years later, she watched the church build expensive buildings while much of the community around it crumbled in poverty. I thought Christianity was supposed to make you a good person, she thought as she left the church for the final time.1

So maybe while you were reading, you picked up what I was putting down. Maybe you sensed a feeling of “well… that’s good and all… but it sounds a little… off…”. And if not, that’s fine too, just let me clarify:

Per Chloe: You shouldn’t go to Christianity for the primary reason of getting joy, peace, contentment, or satisfaction—if that’s what you want, then… go to a carnival. And like Chloe, why do we think that dry-rule keeping is the formula for happiness? Sure, Christianity does bring peace, joy, contentment, and satisfaction—the fullest and truest of all good things; but it also brings suffering, pain, and trial. If Jesus’ life was marked by suffering, insult, persecution, and pain, why do we assume ours won’t be—especially if he tells us we will suffer? (Jn 16:33). Ultimately, if your Christianity is built on the sand of positive vibes, sentiment, and feeling, then what do you do when the waves of reality come crashing down on your shore? Just smile anyway? White-knuckle a positive ‘Christian’ appearance until your face turns blue behind your plastic mask of Sunday-best deception? I would give up too, and maybe that’s what describes the Chloes of Christianity—it doesn’t bring as much joy as you had hoped. So like a junkie, might as well go look for the next hit, whether it’s spirituality or not.

Per Michael: Furthermore, you shouldn’t go to Christianity for the primary reason of finding a bulletproof worldview whose rationale you can fully understand and depend on at all times. Yes, Christianity is incredibly rational. Even so, the times where human rationale can’t grasp God’s rationale is, in fact, a rational angle of Christianity, since God is higher and better than us. However, if Christianity is primarily logic to you, then what happens when the professor presents a counterargument about minor Bible doctrine or history? Like a Jenga set, your whole Christianity will come crumbing down because of one wooden piece that seemingly supported the rest. Additionally, if your Christianity is about your degree of logic comprehension, then it might as well be a matter of GPA—and lucky for you, you happened to be on the favorable end of the bell curve. What of those who aren’t as smart? Despair? And what of those who are? Pride? Logic as the primary substance of Christianity fundamentally results in a busted morality. Nevertheless, while Christianity may be the most superior explanation for the world, it never primarily appeals to logic in the Bible—it centrally appeals to Jesus. And if he rose from the dead, then he is who he said he is—LORD—who can be trusted even when we can’t depend on logic. In other words, we can be at peace with what we can’t/don’t know (lofty arguments) because of what we can/do know (Christ raised from the dead). If Jesus is Lord, then we can trust him.

Per Michelle: Finally, you shouldn’t go to Christianity for the primary reason of finding ethics. Sure, Christianity is inherently ethical because it models after a God who presented himself concretely in Christ as completely holy, loving, and just. However, so many people approach Christianity as a means to the ends of ethics. They need stability and morality in their life or the life of their kids. The unspoken motto pervades American culture: “might as well add the ingredient of religion to the mix of good academics, good friends, and good opportunities, and that will set me or my child on the right course for a successful and stable life”. Jesus didn’t come to be the means of anything other the end of Himself. Not to be harsh, but don’t you think it would tick Jesus off if you did the ‘spiritual’ thing of recruiting him as your apprentice to help you get what you really want in life? The highest of our affections and loves should be Jesus—not a stable or successful life. Idolatry is one thing, but asking God to help you more fervently worship your idols is another.

In conclusion, you shouldn’t go to Christianity primarily for joy, rationale, or ethics. Sure, those things are there; but they are there on their own terms. That’s because Christianity does not exalt those things at its center—joy, rationale, ethics, etc. They are not of first importance. They are secondary. They are not the roots; they are the stems, leaves, and fruits. Christianity exalts Jesus as first importance—the foundation, the cornerstone, the roots. Therefore, going to Christianity primarily for joy, rationale, and ethics is like grabbing only for the stems, leaves, and fruit. Ultimately, it will turn out to be disappointing, because without the roots, those stems, leaves, and fruits will wither up in a week’s time, proving useless. But if you go for the roots and abide in Jesus, you’ll reap the stem, leaves, and fruit as well. Similarly, if you primarily go to Christianity for joy, rational, and ethics and not Jesus, you’ll get neither. But if you primarily go to Christianity for Jesus, you’ll get both and an abundance. 

Go to Christianity primarily because of Christ. Because he rose from the dead, and truly is who he says he is. Don’t go for joy, rational, or ethics. Don’t mistake the secondary things for the primary thing. Go for Jesus—and find the rest in abundance.

________________________

Footnotes:

1. Merritt, Jonathan. Jesus Is Better Than You Imagined, p. 224-225.

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5 Responses to the Notorious Phrase: “I Love Jesus, but not the Church”

Hey guys, earlier this year I wrote a similar blog on this same topic, however, I wanted to tweak it a bit by condensing the content, changing the approach, and drawing from some analogies in order to more clearly communicate each response. In addition, I also changed the format from text in trial #1 to video in trial #2. You might notice that the video offers only 4 responses, not 5, which was done for the sake of length. However, I did add the 5th response in text below the embedded video.

To be honest, I’ve felt hesitant to share the video because 1) it’s kinda weird watching yourself 2) I don’t wanna come across as self-promotional and 3) I feel like I am going out on uncharted waters a little bit. I don’t have a lot of experience doing/making this type of thing, but since YouTube is beginning to take off as an interactive online platform (like present day social media), I figured I might as well put some content out there for whoever stumbles across it.

So here is the video and, again, the 5th response is below it.

#5: I love Jesus, but not the church… yet, the local church is the vehicle for the Great Commission to our community. You are much more effective as a witness when fighting with the army of the local church around you instead of striving by yourself. A convincing picture of the gospel to the world will not be the attempts of one person, but the combined, multifaceted ways a community collectively declares and portrays the person and work of Jesus.

 

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What is ‘Nearness’ to God? || Psalm 46

Psalm 46 is one of the most referenced chapters in the book Psalms when any notion or experience of suffering, trial, or hardship is in view. Surely, it’s popular because it speaks clearly of God’s steadfast character in a wavering and unclear world, and declares comfort for the ever-changing and harsh ‘whats’ with an emphasis of a never-changing and loving ‘Who’. If you’re a Christian, you’ve likely heard or read this passage seemingly countless times. In fact, I happened to read it again this week, and when I did so, I noticed some notes I had jotted down from back in 2011 that I wanted to more fully elaborate upon and then share in this blog. I’ve copied the text below and then have written some thoughts in response.

Here’s Psalm 46:

1 God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
how he has brought desolations on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
10 “Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
11 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

One thing that particularly strikes me in this passage is verse 1, which promises that God is very near to us, being a “very present help in trouble”. Initially, many of us think of God’s presence as this ‘ethereal essence’ or ‘spiritual zone’ we enter into when we have mustered up the right amount of emotion after listening to some hype worship music. Or we think of God’s presence as a feeling we get after we have done a good job of taking steps toward God.

But this verse completely shatters those preconceived notions into a thousand pieces. This verse, in fact, says just the opposite! It explains that God’s presence is just as near and pervasive when we are at the end of our rope and life is at it’s worst as much as when we are ‘in the spiritual zone’ or on that ‘spiritual high’! To be sure, God’s presence is not a changing feeling, but an unchanging truth. God’s presence is not gained by our righteous deeds towards God, but is given because of Christ’s perfect righteousness credited to us by grace. His presence is fundamentally about being in a relationship with God that is positional—not transactional. In Christ, you have been adopted as a child of God brought near to himself—and that cannot be changed. His presence is not transactional where you ‘do for God’ or ‘get right with God’, and in exchange, he will ‘be near to you’ or ‘bless you’. In Christ, your positional nearness to God is not based off the two-to-three steps you make towards God every day, but is based on the trillions of steps Jesus made towards you through his coming to earth, perfect life, and death on the cross in your place. Thus, your boast about being in his presence can only and ever be credited to His work—not yours. Indeed, this makes sense, because God has always been committed to leveling the playing field among all people and destroying the sin of our pride and self-sufficiency, making us humble and dependent on him.

One important caveat: sometimes you can feel his presence, but that does not necessarily mean that the truth of his presence and love is only there when it is felt. In fact, a majority of times, you won’t feel that presence. For example, let’s say a daughter has the complete love of her father. But sometimes, the daughter might feel the truth of that love more so when the father sweeps her off feet, spins her around, and gives her a big hug. But nevertheless, the truth of that love is always there. Sometimes she feels it, but all the time she knows it. Be sure to never define the facts by your feelings. Rather, you should place the facts at the forefront, believe it by faith, and let your feelings respond accordingly. In other words, feelings should respond to the facts, but should never define them. Facts should influence feelings, but never the other way around.

Furthermore, in the following verses, the text significantly connects God’s sense of “very present nearness” to us with his incredible greatness, power, and love. Though the biggest mountains give way and the earth falls apart, we still have no reason to fear because he is very near, very present, very powerful, and very loving. Even if the most seemingly sturdy, unmovable things in our lives fail us, crumble beneath us, or break apart, we can be assured of one truer anchor for the soul—God’s love for us in Christ. I love how Hebrews 6:19-20 relates to this verse; it says, “We have [God’s promises] as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” To briefly exegete these two verses, “a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain” essentially means that our hope is based on the certainty of God himself, his holy and unchanging character, and his presence, which Jesus proved and accomplished for us in his perfect life and substitionary death as the perfect mediator (or priest) between us and God.1

So, practically, what are those things in your life that seem like unmovable mountains that you think will not fail you? Money? Health? Status? Security? Family? None of these are sinful—in fact, they are all blessings—however, they were never meant to support the weight of your soul, and if your soul leans on them completely, then they will completely fail you, unforgivingly. They are good blessings, but terrible gods. “Though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the sea”—whether that be a lost job, health problem, economic crash, passing family member—there is only one steadfast, eternal hope for the soul, and that is God himself.

Moreover, the text says that God makes wars cease, “even to the end of the earth”, and he can break any bow, shatter any spear, and burn any and all chariots. These allusions might seem ancient and irrelevant, but they are significant because these were the strongest weapons of warfare in the times that Psalms was written—they were the strongest instruments and vessels of conflict and infliction. And God boasts of being above it. Everything that is above your head is still under God’s feet. He’s in control and in power.

Overall, God is saying to those in Christ that there is no need to fear—in fact, it is illogical to worry in light of his greatness and great love for us. Through any hardship, we can “be still and know” that he is God and that he is constantly “with us”—in Christ, positionally, and because of that, in crisis, personally.

Even in our greatest trial—our separation from God and everything truly good—God has victoriously reconciled and redeemed us back to himself through Jesus, who lived the righteous life we should have lived and died the death we should have died, taking our sentence of justice and giving us his reward of right standing with God as a gift of grace. If He is able and willing in love to meet our greatest spiritual needs when we were his enemies, what makes us think He is not able, or does not want to help us in any other need, which is significantly less weighty than our redemption, now that we are his beloved children?

Therefore, let’s rest in His love, the assurance and abundance of His grace, will, and strength, knowing that “He is God”.

_______________________________________

Footnotes

  1. The historical allusion to the high priest of Melchizedek highlights that Jesus is the perfect priest/king figure for all peoples under the promise God gave to Abraham in Genesis for bringing salvation to the world through his lineage.

 

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The Grand Canyon Isn’t About You

Do people go to the Grand Canyon to enhance their self esteem? No, of course not. You go to take in the incredible majesty of all that is around you. Thinking of the outward glory of the Grand Canyon only as means to inward enhancement is appallingly illogical and psychopathic. In view of the Grand Canyon, you simply lose all bearings of yourself, and you forget yourself entirely because of the immense gravity of the beauty around you. And ironically, quite the reverse happens: soaking up that grand view—instead of indulging on yourself—is what makes you better all along. It’s better medicine for the soul. Indeed, forgetting about enhancing yourself in that moment is actually what enhances you.

That’s the striking paradox I want to cover in this blog: forgetting about improving yourself is what actually what improves you all along, because it’s what finally snaps your natural, compulsive, underlying tendency to make everything ultimately about you.

So then, how does one forget about himself/herself? We simply don’t have the luxury of living in view of the Grand Canyon for the rest of our lives. However, I will propose that we begin to lose a sense of ourselves when we to begin to gain a sense of God’s glory.

And so my question is this: if it’s simply illogical to view a Grand Canyon type experience as a means for self-enhancement, then why approach God on the same terms? So many people in the church approach God as a means towards their own personal enhancement. God is not seen as LORD in our life—he is so often reduced to an apprentice who mediates our own love affair with ourselves and idols. We ask him to do things for us because we want things—not him. We treat him like a vending machine or spiritual Santa, such that if we just put in the ‘coins’ or update the ‘resume’ of our good works, then he’ll ultimately enhance us by giving us what we want. We illogically substitute the Creator for the creation, the Giver for the gifts. But God is not only the ultimate Giver, but the ultimate Gift! If you have the Giver, then you have all that is his. But if you only have the gifts, then that’s it.

This issue is fundamentally about our design: if we were designed for God, then our own self-enhancement only and truly happens when God is in ultimate view—not ourselves. The thought that we can use God as a means for the end of self-enhancement is grounded on the false presupposition that we are best fulfilled when God serves our glory. But quite the opposite is true: God designed us to serve his glory. Therefore, we will only and can only find ultimate satisfaction by glorifying God.

Besides, when do you feel more alive: Soaking in the glory of the Grand Canyon, or being locked in a room of mirrors? The contrast is alarmingly stark. 

As John Piper says, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him”. And to add to that, I’ll say, we are most enhanced when God is most glorified in us. Meaning, we become more optimally ourselves when God is most optimally glorified in us. 

Indeed, when Christianity becomes only about our life transformation and enhancement, it makes us wonder who we are really worshiping after all. Christianity is not about the Christian and his improvement, but about the Christ and his glory. And ironically, it is only in view of Christ and his glory where Christians truly improve after all. Christ’s glory is what finally melts and reorients our natural, inward bent to a selfless, outward posture—and that’s when we feel most alive, burn hottest with passion, grow fastest in humility, love stronger, and persevere harder and more gladly in God. That’s what we were made for.

“Sin is man substituting himself for God. Salvation is God substituting himself for man.” -Stott

As all sin, death, bitterness, and hopelessness can ultimately be traced to an emphasis of ourselves over God, conversely, all saving, redeeming, sanctifying, and glorifying can be expressed as an emphasis of God over ourselves. Therefore, any spiritual growth methodology that takes the trajectory of ‘ourselves over God’ is essentially a seed planted on infertile soil—it’s its own coffin. However, any seed planted on the grounds of ‘God over ourselves’ is an explosion of spiritual growth because that’s what we were designed for.

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Gospel as Manual or a Man?

One thing that I am continually learning in my walk with Christ is that the theoretical  and the applicable are indeed connected, though in a very specific way that I was once unaware. Of course, you need the theoretical blueprints before you can build anything practical. So in an analogical sense, I guess you could say I am learning that the main blueprints for Christian living is not primarily a manual to live by, an example to live up to, a guide to follow, or a formula to adhere to in order to accomplish or succeed. Rather, the blueprints for true Christian is actually a person, Jesus, whose life, death, and accomplishments are mine by grace through faith. What I mean is that following Jesus and trying to be like Him from a ‘manual, example, guide, or formula’ approach–which I think is especially characteristic of modern day Christianity–is a futile attempt. It just doesn’t work.

On the converse, here is what I propose and what I think is most biblical anyways: True Christian growth is not a byproduct of living by the metaphorical blueprints of the Bible or life of Jesus, but rather living in light of the life and accomplishments of The Blueprint–the Cornerstone, the Author and Founder of our faith–Jesus Christ.

I’m afraid that when we manual-ize, formula-ize, or make Jesus and his life to only be an example to live by, we fundamentally lose the igniting force of what His life and death actually means to us, both personally and corporately. Making Jesus and his life into a moral manual, theoretically, means only our behavioral compliance, practically. But understanding Jesus and his life and death as a gracious sacrifice for me when I least deserved it, theoretically, means melting my heart of stone-cold affections for God into fervent love, practically.

Indeed, is stone-cold affections for God, yet with behavioral compliance, what He wants? Or behaviors that are an overflow of love? Certainly the latter: “The greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and mind and love your neighbor as yourself”(Mt. 22:37). Therefore, the gospel’s power is ignited not when it is theoretically legislated into a manual, formula, or checklist for living, but when it is embraced as the news of a Person. The gospel’s power is not tapped when we make it to be a manual, example, or formula to live by, but a Person to live in light of.

Another way to say it is that life applications (about what to do for Christ and others) are only fueled by gospel implications (about what Christ has already done for others and me). What He has done for you fuels, informs, and changes the nature of what you should do for Him and others–not from the prod of compulsion, but from a response of love.

Essentially, I am learning that the power for everything I try to do, or want to do, or strive to accomplish spiritually in my life–whether that be spiritual fruit, personal growth, etc–is not fundamentally linked to my own efforts to improve, but is a power only tapped into by gazing upon Jesus’ life, accomplishments, fruit, and efforts for me. Not my efforts for Him.

Here’s an example:

Those who want to become generous shouldn’t simply try harder to give more, or try harder to be a cheerful giver—as if the fruits of generosity and cheerfulness can be emotionally mustered up from the infertile grounds of our own naturally ungenerous, selfish hearts. Rather, if you want to become generous and cheerful in giving, then you should focus on the generosity and cheerfulness of Jesus, who gave you everything when you least deserved it.

“I am so flawed that Jesus had to die for me, yet I am so loved and valued that Jesus was glad to die for me” -Tim Keller

Meditating on the generosity of Christ is what will fuel an organic engendering of generosity within you. Or, to say it another way, focusing on the generosity of Christ for you is what will produce generosity for Christ in you. If you want to become generous towards God and others, ruminate on God’s generosity towards you until you want to give.

And so it goes with all other spiritual fruits: dwelling on the forgiveness of God to you is what will lead you to be forgiving to others; thinking on the graciousness of God to you is what will lead you to be gracious to others; ruminating on the acceptance of God to you is what will lead you to accept those who are unlike you, even your enemies. An encounter with Jesus and his greatness is what will compel a response to Him and others that resembles His characteristics.

To conclude, I encourage you all to not make a law of what to do out of the good news of what has been already been done. Indeed, the greatest thief of the gospel’s declaration of What Has Jesus Done? might be legalism’s emphasis of What Would Jesus Do?.

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Takeaways from Mark 6:14-29

I have been reading through the gospel of Mark recently, and I wanted to share some thoughts about Mark 6:14-29 with a particular emphasis on verses 23-24, which I have marked in bold font. For purposes of structure, I’ve simply put the text below and then jotted down some main points below it.

Hope it encourages ya:

The Death of John the Baptist            

               King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

               But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14-29 ESV)

Yeah, I realize the bolded text—which is the particular focus of this blog—isn’t exactly something one would expect to be the focus of an expositional blog. But I think there are some significant takeaways about sin and its distorting effect on us that can be directly gleaned from this odd account where a woman eagerly trades half a kingdom for the execution from one man.

There are 2 main points that I think particularly standout in this account:

Point 1:

It is beyond frightening to think that our sin can convince us to trade incredible blessings in life (such as a kingdom) for its own bidding (murder)—and we might just be so blinded and caught up in our sin that we don’t even realize the whole scenario of what could be potentially gained or lost. This account indicates that sin can lead us to neglect the things that are actually valuable and, in turn, place incredible value on things that are actually quite trivial or wrong. In this episode, Herodias values the death of her righteous enemy over the acquisition of a kingdom, wealth, and status–showing us that sin can lead one to willfully shortchange heavenly—and even earthly—blessings. God can be offering you so much blessing, and sometimes sin can convince you to choose something else of incredibly lower value. In this case, sin was her kingdom of choice.

One potential caveat: this isn’t a prosperity gospel type of message where you “follow God and then you’ll get earthly blessings;” quite the contrary. In fact, I would argue that most of the world with earthly blessings either 1) rejects Jesus or 2) values their earthly blessing over Jesus (which is arguably the same). There is nothing inherently wrong with material wealth—it’s our heart’s relationship to it that makes it a moral issue. I’ve heard it said, “If you can’t give up your earthly blessings, then you no longer own it—it owns you.” I’m only saying that the overall, analogical message is that sin shortchanges the blessings of God in your life. If you are not following God, you aren’t really gaining anything anyways; you’re spiritually bleeding to death. I love CS Lewis’ quote here: “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only.”

Point 2:

This account reveals to us the weightiness that conviction can take on. Imagine the opportunity of being offered anything by a king—up to half an empire—and instead, you choose to kill the one imprisoned man who exposes your sin.

This is proof that the heavy conviction of the guilt of our sin can be such a totalizing, all-consuming, weighty thing that we will do and give up almost anything to resolve, alleviate, and depressurize it’s incredibly oppressive force over our life. That is scary. This means sin functionally kills something or someone—and practically speaking, it either drains the life out of you, or it threatens to drain the life out of you so much so that you direct it on another person in a way that drains the life out of them. In this case, the pressure of conviction upon Herodias’ sinful desires became so overwhelming that it was unbearable to deal with. So instead of accepting the weight of her sin and confessing her wrongdoings and repenting, she decided to remove the pressurizing source of conviction: John the Baptist. So she had him killed. But the thing is, even after she had killed him, the guilt of her sin remained. That’s because the true source of conviction was not John the Baptist; it was God’s Word. John the Baptist was merely a vessel declaring God’s declaration of the law and gospel to her.

Similarly, with us, even if we attempt to remove the source of the exposure, pressure, or conviction, we still can’t run away from it, because the ultimate source is God. Sure, you can run away from Him your whole life, but you’ll eventually face him at Judgment. Own your sin now. Christ can’t be your functional Savior until you functionally recognize the reality of your sin. In one rotational movement, turn from your sin and turn to Jesus; you can’t secure forgiveness of sins or the righteous requirement for salvation any other way.

But here’s where the story gets juicy, where it can reveal a significant reversal of sorts, preaching the gospel message in a multidimensional kind of way. Here’s what I mean:

As the story accounts, King Herod offers Herodias anything she wises, up to half the kingdom; yet, under the powerfully distorting influence of her sin, she chooses the unjust murder of the righteous prophet in society instead. Sure, we can draw direct parallels between how God offers us blessing in life but how our sin disorients our values, distorts our morals, and shortchanges our joy.

But there are other, bolder parallels at work here—parallels that, once realized, will allow us to concretely draw parallels between this story, our own story, and the greater, overarching story of the Bible: As the metanarrative of the Bible accounts, however, The King of Kings offers us not just half a kingdom, but a whole one, being heirs with Christ. Yet, under the influence of our sin, we chose to reject God—the source of all that is righteous, good, and eternal. And in our cutting ourselves off from the Ultimate Good, we died spiritually. Our sinfulness hates God’s righteous authority over our lives, and the pressure his conviction brings on our sinful wants becomes draining; indeed, sin drains life—indeed, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

As I mentioned earlier, when we feel the weight of our sin, it either drains the life out of us or we redirect it upon someone else so that they pay instead. Ultimately, someone has to existentially (or actually) die. In this account Herodias had John the Baptist killed to remove the conviction. Similarly, in the greater story of the Bible, humanity attempted to remove the source of its conviction by crucifying Jesus. Ironically, however, humanity’s murdering of Jesus actually accomplished what they had hoped, just in the most unexpectedly, ironic, and uncanny way possible. They killed Jesus thinking that it would end conviction he brought into their life. They thought they were getting rid of the source of conviction so that the weight of their sin could be relieved—either by a sense of their own self-righteousness or lifestyle of self-indulgence. All along, however, God sovereignly used their actions to eradicate the source of conviction to ultimately eradicate all guilt once and for all, with Jesus being both the source of conviction and wellspring of forgiveness—“full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14, grace paired with forgiveness, truth paired with conviction). God reversed humanity’s climatic evil for ultimate good.

God sent Jesus to take the wages of our death, and humanity’s attempt to kill the source of righteous conviction was actually a powerful display of God’s sovereignty to reverse and redeem the curse of sin: Jesus dying in our place and offering his righteousness as a gift. In this account in the gospel of Mark, John the Baptist casts a vague shadow of Jesus. While this story shows that John the Baptist was murdered for the sake of righteousness, the greater Biblical narrative shows Jesus volunteered to die for stakes of Righteousness. John the Baptist preached about righteousness, but Jesus was the righteousness he preached.


 

* The Greater Context, A Moral Apologetic, & Personal Applications *

See, all of history is God’s ultimate plan to redeem humanity and the cosmos of its broken state because of the infinite weight of sin. But the only thing to save the world is to fully displace the infinite weight of sin with the infinite righteousness of Jesus. And he accomplished it. “He who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God” (1 Co. 3:25). God is both the just (truth) and the justifier (grace), and the only way we can most clearly see the uncompromising qualities of God’s truth, holy, and righteousness and God’s love, grace, and forgiveness is at the cross of Christ—the intersection of all the qualities of God fully necessitating and fulfilling one another in the most vivid, concrete, and marvelous way.

There is only One who can resolve our sin, and he loved us enough to volunteer for sin to destroy him instead of you. As a great hymn declares, In my place, condemned he stood, hallelujah, what a Savior. According to the codes and design of reality, sin will cause someone to suffer and die. And though we deserved it, Jesus took it from us; he suffered the ultimate blow of sin—existential and actual death—so that we wouldn’t have to. He was condemned in our place before God so we wouldn’t have to be. Jesus bore the weight of our sin and was crushed by it so that we wouldn’t have to be.

In contrast, other religions say, “God is merciful, so you’re sin isn’t really that bad, as long as you’re a good person” and “you can save yourself by your own works, just try harder and do better.” But a God who compromises truth and righteousness isn’t really that good or loving. He isn’t strong; he’s a pushover. Moral dilemmas abound all over the place if this God bends absolutes to make loopholes for ‘grace’ and ‘forgiveness’. In all true cases of forgiveness, it’s the giver who takes a loss. And to respond to “just work harder, do more, be better”—this isn’t a message of salvation; this is a mere proof of trying to alleviate my inadequacy in my own strength and prove my self-sufficiency, which means there is no rest for the soul—there is only trying to prove myself again and again; and if I fail, I despair. If I succeed, I am self-righteous and actually quite delusional.

On the contrary, Jesus’ “It is Finished” for accomplishing our salvation declares that we are at rest in our soul—no more proving myself to God—we are loved, forgiven, and secure because of his work for us—not ours. I don’t despair because it’s his work that counts—not mine. I don’t slip into delusional self-righteousness because it’s his work that counts—not mine. I can’t boast in anyone because I didn’t do anything to save me—I can only boast in Christ! This leaves me both humble and confident. Humble—because the only thing I contributed to my salvation was my sin. Confident—because even though I was more wicked and hopeless on my own accord than I could ever imagine, I am—at the same time—more loved and secured by God in Christ than I had ever dared hope (Keller).


 

In conclusion, the account of Herodias in Mark 6 is a real life story that not only directly comments upon the effects of sin in our own lives, but also gives glimpses of the metanarrative of the Bible: God’s loving offer of blessing, our rebellion and sin, his redemption of us in Christ in spite of and through our rebellion, and his restoration of all things for eternity.

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