The Plumbline

I’ve been thinking about the way people tend to cherry-pick teachings, commandments, and moral ideals from the Bible (and other religious/philosophical texts for that matter). I confess, I am often guilty of this. I ignore the parts of scripture I don’t like, or cannot obey, spouting rhetoric only about those I find palatable. Or worse, only those I think others will find palatable. Sometimes I worry that in an effort to offend nobody, we will reach them. Pay careful attention to what I’m not saying, before I go about trying to explain what I am saying; I’m not saying “offending people doesn’t matter!” Not at all. What I am saying though, is that there is something inherently offensive about the gospel to the natural man. No one desires to be wrong. No one sets out with the goal of going against the truth. The gospel is offensive on a deep and intrinsic level because it tells us “You are wrong. You are broken. You are desperate. You cannot help yourself.” The Words of God are offensive to human ears because they tell us that we cannot simply pursue whatever base impulses or perversions of the truth we may desire.

But God has preserved in us an innate understanding that there IS right and wrong, even though we, apart from Him, cannot keep the two straight in our minds. How do we know this innate understanding is from God? Well, let’s look at the alternatives, and seek out their logical conclusions.

If our morality comes from ourselves only, then we will not share a standard of morality, and are each justified in doing what pleases us at the time, and there ought not to be consequences to actions, as any behavior can be moral to any person at any time. That, I hope, does not sit well with you. Additionally, we don’t see this in human society. So we cannot, as individuals, be deciding our own moral standards. Perhaps then, moral standards are a construct of society?

If our morality comes from the society in which we were raised, from a mere general consensus of what is right and wrong, it would certainly explain the shifts in cultural behaviors over time. Unfortunately, if this is the case, we must admit that there are behaviors and acts in history, and currently happening in other cultures, that we may view as heinous, but that, for a given time or place, are good and moral to do. If society sets the standard of morality, then the majority rules, and in their ruling, may choose which, if any, rights should be maintained for the minority. This may sound right (though I hope it does not), but the position that society dictates morality loses tenability upon deeper analysis. Consider a man who views morality as a general societal construct, and nothing more. What if the general society in which he lives were to dictate that he no longer had rights? By his own view that society is able to dictate morality, he would be obligated to consent to any abuses targeting him, acknowledging  them as moral to commit. Again, we do not see this. Rather, we see oppressed minorities rising up, seeking justice, seeking reparations, seeking equal treatment.

So if morality cannot be decided by the individual, nor can it be contingent on the mere whims of society, it must come from something outside both ourselves and our culture. It must be sourced from somewhere both deeper than the heart of an individual and yet more universal than the collected ideologies of a people. And if it is set by an outside source, which it must be, a person or people’s specific opinions about the standard of morality will not affect it. The implications of this are huge.

If morality is set by an outside standard, our belief about that standard affects only whether or not we conform to it, not whether or not it exists. The common analogy is that even should I claim no belief in gravity, I will still plummet when I step off a ledge. If something is real, believing in it or not cannot alter its realness. I may attempt to shield myself from criticisms by claiming everything is “just an opinion,” but boiling water will scald me even should I hold the opinion that it is not so hot.

Interestingly, our innate moral compass serves the paradoxical purposes of both demanding that there be a good and loving and just God, and condemning us for our inability (or unwillingness) to conform to His standards. We look at His statutes and  balk at the ones which require us to give up debauchery or scoff at those that insist we adopt attitudes of humility. Yet, we will cry out for justice and an end of evil just as easily. We want the world to be without evil, and yet we want a place for ourselves in that world, with all our evil desires intact. We long for a God who will punish the wicked, so long as we are not counted among them.

Sadly, this has led many to worship or scorn different, custom designed “gods.” They look for a pacifist Jesus in the gospels, ignoring the righteous anger He displayed when clearing the temple, hoping it will allow them to avoid confrontation. Or perhaps they seek to defame God as violent and spiteful through passages in the Old Testament, ignoring the mercy He showed to Nineveh, hoping to excuse themselves from obedience. Each of us has constructed our own little god, built around our own opinions of right and wrong, and as a result, our faith is idolatry.

So here is my challenge to each of you: As I continually tear down my ideas of who God “should” be and attempt to replace them with the truth of who He is, I challenge each of you to scour scripture and seek the ways you may have misunderstood God.

The Promises of God

When I look at the state of the world I cannot help but wonder “What are you doing, Lord?”

With the Islamic State, the Ebola virus, the Houston subpoenas, the droughts permeating the American Southwest, and a myriad of other social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental issues facing both the United States and the planet as a whole, it’s so easy to throw up my hands and despair.

Last night, I felt close to that point. While sprawled across my bed at home, a deep anguish began to settle over me, thicker, even than the comforter on which I lay. Stephanie, my wife, entered and saw me, and knew right that I felt burdened.

I remember saying “I can’t quite put my finger on it. I just feel sad.” Her response demonstrates why I fell for her so easily and completely.

“We should have some prayer time tonight.”

I want to share with you some of what we prayed.

Psalm 46 popped into my mind, as it so often does in the midst of strife. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, but a few verses that struck me right away were 1-3

“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.

I felt a touch better; just remembering that God is here with us. He isn’t a distant God who we hope will get here in time to save, but a “very present” God who by our sides, walking with us through even the worst suffering our broken world can throw at us. And this Psalm ends with a promise.

I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!” God says in verse 10. It’s not a question of if God will be totally and unquestionably honored and worshiped, or even where He will be. It will happen. It will be throughout the world.

Then Stephanie and I read II Chronicles 7:13-14.

When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Though I don’t know the state of locust populations in the US, we have drought, and I’d call Ebola pestilence. This verse, though technically directed to Israel, spoke volumes to me last night, and convicted me that I never pray for revival. I do try to repent, personally, when I know I need to, but I rarely if ever ask God to stir the hearts of this nation (much less this world) and bring revival. What would it look like to see large-scale repentance and a deep, abiding desire to know God more and worship him fully? I confess, I cannot even fathom what that would entail. But I know what would cause it: The Holy Spirit moving in our lives. And there, once again, is a promise of God: “I will hear… forgive… and heal.” If I really believe we need forgiveness and healing, why am I not praying for and seeking revival?

Then the Lord lead us to Revelation 21 and 22. Again, I recommend reading the whole thing when you have time. Here’s the verses that I want to focus on:

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’

“And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.'”

No matter what, regardless of what happens with all the pain and sickness and persecution and disobedience, God has promised us that a day is coming when those things will end. He makes all things new. His promises are trustworthy and true. We have nothing to fear from this world because the worst of the worst that Satan can dish out is dwarfed by the goodness of God.

As Stephanie and I prayed through these promises of God, we praised Him for His goodness. We asked Him to remember what He has said He would do, and petitioned Him to do it in our time. To be quite frank, I had never really prayed for that; at least, not in a way that was genuine or full of faith. We asked Him to strengthen our faith, telling Him we do believe while asking Him to help our unbelief.

And during our time of prayer, I thought of Acts 4:27-30, where the church, faced with persecution and revulsion, asks for boldness and to see God move, not for a decrease in pain or suffering. My heart broke as I thought of how often I’ve prayed for my comfort and to avoid troubles. Another promise of God bloomed in my mind: “In this world you will have troubles. But take heart, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

I want to exhort you, whoever you are reading this, to think over these promises of God. Understand that God’s promises will be fulfilled. God is sovereign and we have no need to fear the future. We do not serve a god of “oops” or “darn-it” or “uh-oh.” We serve the One, True, Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnipresent, Eternal and Benevolent God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And with the knowledge of who God is, I ask you to consider and pray over the final promise of our Lord, recorded in Revelation 22:20 -“I am coming soon” to which we ought to respond, as John did, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

Shame on shame

A few weeks back I posted a quote from a lecture called “Gospel fluency” to my twitter. It said “Shame is evidence that we believe Jesus wasn’t enough; that we must first feel sufficiently bad about our sin before God will accept us.” This is how God is helping me to understand what that really means.

I struggle with multiple sins, including self-righteousness, petty anger, and lust, all drizzled with a sticky shame reduction. Some of my “bad habits” I would even say are actually addictions. Recently I felt my own inadequacy, turned from Jesus to my drugs of choice, and began to spiral towards the shamefulness that so often comes with it. God in His mercy chooses to use my faults and the accompanying feelings of despair to refine me and reveal to me my own heart.

In the car, the song “Nothing but the blood” came on and reminded me oh so sweetly that “Naught of good that I have done” will bring me to reconciliation with Christ. When I began listening to the audio Bible, I started with Ephesians and was reminded that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this is not your own doing…” And then, when I sat down to write this post, an old Newsboys song by the title “Dear Shame” came to mind, and I decided to look it up. Though the music video is terrible (no offence to the Newsboys, who I really enjoy… but it was made in the 90s), it starts with a wonderful reminder of Romans 8:1, that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Again and again the Lord brought to my mind the wonderful and freeing realization that though I am broken, and I am filled with wicked tendencies, but I am not hopeless nor am I worthless because of my sin.

Suddenly, peace has invaded my soul and given shame the boot. My value comes from the fact that I bear God’s image. He made me unique and placed me specifically where I am with His high and good purposes in mind, and though I may (and sadly, often do) fight it, His sovereign plan will come to completion in my life. As a Christian, sanctification is the natural progression of things. An analogy (from the book You Can Change, which sounds much more “Self-help-y” than it is) would be this: We often feel that sanctification is like trying to roll a large heavy boulder up a hill, but occasionally, we slip and it falls as far as it can before we catch it to begin pushing it back up. Instead, we should realize that sanctification is the other way around. We are adopted as sons and daughters of Christ, and God begins perfecting us to His image immediately, regardless of our efforts. The boulder naturally rolls down the slope into a lush green valley, but occasionally, we decide to take it upon ourselves to try and push it back to the top; that is why sin is so toilsome and tiresome, and righteousness brings such peace and joy; one is the result of our efforts and the other is a result of the Lord’s efforts in us.

This is not to insinuate that the Christian life is easy or comfortable or that it can be accomplished through complacency. No, if I were to assert that, surely I would heap more shame onto those of you who, like me, occasionally feel the noose of addiction or other repeated moral failing tightening around you. What I am saying is that, though righteousness does take conscious effort on our parts to read scripture, meditate on God’s word, seek Him in prayer, commune with other like minded Christians, and declare the gospel to others, it doesn’t feel like work, because in truth it is the Lord who will build in you a desire to know Him more. And He is fully away of the totality of our dependency on Him. He made us to be that way. He has known since eternity past each time and each way you would rebel, and He has planned for each rebellion and squelched them all on the cross of Calvary.

Shame is like feeling worried because you don’t know how you will ever pay a bill you no longer owe. When you disobey God, remember that you are not alone. You are not the first, nor will you be the last, Christian who has proclaimed to trust Christ and then walked in a manner contrary to the call. Even Paul himself admitted that “I practice the very evil that I do not want.” So then, an appropriate response to sin is contrition followed by laughing in the face of the enemy who would love to burden you with shame. Be filled with joy and lighthearted gladness that Jesus’ sacrifice has purchased you from slavery and preserved you from perishing.

Does sin carry consequences? Yes, it does.  But feelings that God has made a terrible mistake in saving me, or that I will never be worth anything, or that I cannot walk in victory over sin are no longer any of them.