Sunday, April 4, 2010

Stop Trying To Please God

"Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly." -- Jesus, Matthew 11:28-30 (The Message)
"For those with ears to hear." It is appropriate that, even though this particular blog entry has been in some stage of being written and edited for several weeks, and the topics have been a primary subject of thought and meditation for me since early January, it is finally being posted on Easter Sunday. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the capstone to all the other redemptive activity of God throughout eternity; the victorious resurrection of Jesus makes possible all else that is promised in the good news of the gospel.

The good news of the gospel of grace and peace is exactly my primary topic for today, especially as contrasted with the anemic substitute offered by religion. In writing about these things, I am, of course, reflecting my own understanding and perspective. I realize that many people have different views about much of what the gospel means and its implications.

If what is written doesn't speak to you, it is not written for you. Go your way in peace. However, for those who are "tired . . . worn out . . . burned out on religion", I write these words for you. The good news of the gospel is actually great news, especially against the pathetic backdrop of what religion tries to pander as the gospel.

Stop trying to please God. If you are doing anything or not doing something – anything – to try to get God to be pleased with you, love you more, accept you or feel differently about you, relax! Get off the treadmill! Because of the finished work of Jesus Christ accomplished in his death, burial, and victorious resurrection, God already accepts you, loves you, and is totally pleased with you.
Most Christians are familiar with, at least vaguely, and give passing assent to, what Paul says in Ephesians 2: our salvation is by grace, through faith – and even that faith is not rooted in us, but comes as a gift from God.

Putting aside for now the fact that for most people, at least evangelical Christians (who represent, I suspect, most of the people reading this blog), when they think of salvation, they think of having their sins forgiven so they can go to heaven when they die (and it means much more than that – see the sidebar “About Peace Offerings” for one idea about this), something happens to many believers after they initially come into relationship with God: they get religious.

Most of the time, when someone comes to know God, they are told the good news that God loves them just as they are and they can come to him by faith in the finished work of Jesus and nothing else.

Then, soon after, they are given, directly or indirectly, lists of things they must do to grow as Christians: reading the Bible, praying, going to church, witnessing, giving. And they are also given, directly or indirectly, and greatly varying depending on which church or group they are part of, a list of things they must not do. And in the context of whatever group they are part of, they are judged based on whether they are doing and not doing these things. And they judge themselves most severely.

The gospel of peace: God knew you, loved you, chose you. The Bible says that before the world we live in was ever created, before time and space were spun into existence from the spool of eternity, before sin was even a possibility, God knew you. He knew you inside-out; past, present and future; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Psalm 139 is one good meditation about this reality written by David.

God didn't just know you at your best, but he knew you at your absolute worst: your lowest, most secret and shameful moments. He knew you – and knows you – completely, more thoroughly than you know yourself.

And in that worst, lowest, most secret and shameful moment, he loves you. From eternity past to eternity future (which is really not even a valid concept – there is no past or future in eternity, but I use those terms for a reference point), he loves you. Not at your best, but at your worst.

And then, he chose you. Eyes wide open, knowing and loving you at your absolute worst, he chose you for himself.

All this has nothing to do with you – never did, never will – but everything to do with God and who he is. God is love.

In the sacrificial and finished work of his son, Jesus, the Father knew you, loved you and chose you. In the finished work of Jesus, all that could ever separate you from God was done away with. God is not angry with you, but is at peace with you.

The good news of the gospel is that God has been reconciled to you – completely and forever.

The only thing keeping you from God is your own choice to believe the good news or not. All that could possibly separate you from God was done away with, once and for all, in the finished work of Jesus.

It's all about the heart. Everyone of us lives out of our heart. All that pertains to us in any dimension or expression of our lives is rooted in the condition of our heart. Proverbs engages us to guard the heart because out of it proceeds the rest of our life, for good or ill. Jesus said it this way to the religious leaders: "It's not what goes into a man from some external source (including behavior) that makes a man pure or impure, but it's what comes out of him" -- from the heart. We focus on the external -- what we do, how we perform -- but God always -- never an exception -- focuses on the heart. Your heart determines who you are, which determines what you believe, which results in what you do.

In looking at the heart, God's motivation is only love, his intentions are only good, his attitude one of compassion, his perspective one of acceptance. God sees the woundedness and brokenness of the heart, his marred image that we bear, and his only goal is to bring us into a place of wholeness, completeness.

God's goal in relating to you is not to get you to behave a certain way, to perform in a certain manner. It is to help you come to know his love and acceptance, and from that to come to a place of wholeness.

Once your heart begins to be influenced by God's love and acceptance, it affects what you believe and that affects what you do. Your being, believing and doing proceed from the wholeness and healing brought by your relationship with God.

Living in grace. But what about all those things we are supposed to do – reading the Bible, praying, witnessing, going to church, giving – and anything else you can think of?

Here is the key: do those things as a faith response to God's love, acceptance, forgiveness, and peace in your life; not in order to gain them.

Anything you set up for yourself as a law – to do or not do – reduces you to your own efforts, which will always be futile. The result of anything in your life you set up as a law – something you do to get God to be pleased with you or not be angry with you – will bring death, guilt and condemnation, cutting you off from experiencing the grace and life of God accomplished in the finished work of Jesus.
The writer of Hebrews calls these things “dead works”.

Here's a practical illustration: reading my Bible. If I set up a law for myself that in order for God to be pleased with me, to love me, to accept me, I've got to read my Bible every day, my perspective totally changes. Instead of getting into the word to hang out with my Father, for the life that's there, for the wisdom that's there, the revelation that's there, I'm reading so I can check it off my list and move on to the next thing (probably prayer).

And if I miss a day, I'm wracked with guilt and condemnation – God, I'm so sorry, forgive me. I'll do better. My perspective is so much on myself and my failure that I miss the opportunities to minister to someone else that day perhaps. And I miss the life, the victory, the relationship that God intended me to know with him that day.

Free from law. The finished work of Jesus totally abolished the law with regard to our righteousness, and with it, our own efforts to be and do right based on certain rules or standards.

Now, if you come from a religious background, rooted in what you do or don't do determining your relationship with God, as the earliest believers did, that probably shakes you up. If there is no law, if God loves and accepts me no matter what I do or don't do, doesn't that mean I can do whatever I want? Paul addressed that issue in several places, but especially well in Romans, particularly chapters 5 to 8.

If your perception of grace is that it drives you to sin, you don't understand grace. Once you understand that God loves and accepts you because of the finished work of Jesus alone, it doesn't make you want to sin. It frees you from it.

Un-Shack-led: Reflections on the novel The Shack. I had never heard of the novel by William Paul Young called The Shack. But the first time I was in the Topeka Public Library (a great library for the size town that Topeka is – I love it!), I was browsing in the new books section, and I spotted a small book that got my attention: Finding God in The Shack by Roger Olson.

What is The Shack? I wondered. I glanced through the book and found out that The Shack is a novel. My interest was piqued enough from what I saw in that first small book to look for the novel. I found it and read it.

The book has won incredible acclaim and has sparked intense opposition and controversy. Some people whom I respect have charged that the book contains heresy or new age ideas about God or warped theology. I disagree with this assessment completely.

While I don't agree with everything contained in the book, it's a novel, and wasn't written to be a theological treatise, even though it does address some sophisticated theological concepts. Mostly what it does is provide a parable about the incredible love of God and the lengths he will go to be in relationship with us. It's a great illustration of much of what I've written about above as the gospel of grace and peace.

I recommend the book to you, especially if you are struggling with doubts about the goodness of God, his love for you, or the problem of evil in the world. I intend to give the book away to people as the Lord leads me to do so as I minister to people the Lord brings across my path.

I also recommend the other book by Roger Olson to you (referenced above). Roger Olson is a theology professor at a Baptist seminary in Texas, and has some insights and perspectives about the theology in the The Shack which might be useful to you.

Topeka, Kansas. For the first time in over 20 years, I am renting an apartment. For the first time since I've been driving a truck, over five years, I have a home besides my truck. (For 15 months in 2006 and 2007, I did live in my grandmother's house when I moved back to my hometown of Rome, Georgia, to try to help care for my grandmother; it was home, but I always knew I wouldn't stay in Rome forever.)

I got to Topeka on January 19th, a Tuesday. Terry had been here since the previous Thursday. He had brought his camper up from Little Rock, and for the first month, we stayed there in cramped quarters – but it was a comfortable place to sleep while we waited on things to really get rolling for our new jobs.

I knew that God opened the door for me to come to Topeka to focus on making money in order to pay off my debts so that I can eventually get off the road, move back to Dallas, and let God work out his call on my life to ministry however he wants. But I also believed that God sent me here in order to grow, to have a ministry here, and come to a deeper understanding of all that he has begun to do in my life since the day he brought me back to himself last December.

I didn't know how I'd like Topeka – I've driven a truck through here several times over the past few years, but never stopped here, never thought I'd want to visit, let alone live here for a while. But I've found it to be a wonderful small city, with lots to do (even though I'm generally only here less than 36 hours on the weekends between runs to Denver and back), and friendly people.

Now you know a little of what's been going on with me for the past couple of months. Thanks for sharing this time with me. I'd love to hear from you!

Until next time . . . Jesus is Lord! Jesus' Love Rules!

I love you all . . .