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Thursday, October 1, 2015

When you don't do well, well

**Disclaimer: What I'm about to describe is unusual. 80-90% of my life is lived on the more familiar highway that connects my frequent guilt to God's amazing grace.

This one starts like a success story, but don't worry, it doesn't last long. Welcoming into our home for the weekend a child whose mother has a terminal disease, praying with and for church members who are struggling, opening up our home to bless and pray for missionaries, encouraging others with God's truth. "Yes, this is the Christian life I want to live. It's been a pretty good weekend." Can you see it coming? I don't always do well, well. Subtly (in fact, only looking back can I see the thought process) I think to myself: "Yeah, God's pretty satisfied with me." And He is, but not with my so-called good performance.

I encounter on Tuesday morning this prayer from the Psalmist of Psalm 119 (v.149):
Hear my voice according to your steadfast love;                                                            O LORD, according to your justice give me life.
Have you ever had that experience when, looking at your life compared with someone whose skill, work ethic, or morality exceeds yours and yet that person finds themselves in a dire straits? My friend Brian was a year ahead of me in Seminary. Brian was smarter than me, godlier than me, more gifted than me. Yet he struggled to get a job upon graduating. I remember secretly fretting for weeks: "Wait, if he can't land a job, what will I do?" The psalmist loves and almost certainly does the commands of God like perhaps none other East of Eden and West of Nazareth. He never feels embarrassed talking about God's law (Ps. 119:46); God's commands are like best friends (Ps. 119:24); His most extreme emotions well up inside of Him when others forsake His commands (Ps. 119:53; Ps. 119:136); He organizes his daily schedule around God's commands (Ps. 119:164). 

Yet, such a lover and doer of God's Word feels he must cry out and appeal to God's promised covenant love, for God to hear him. This law-keeper pleads with God to give him life. He is something less than secure with God's saving love - "I hope for your salvation, O LORD" (Ps. 119:166). If the ultimate do-gooder is insecure, what about me? Sure, I've done pretty well recently so I feel a little self-satisfied and a largely self-secure - but it's a mirage. Here's a man who spent His life (not to mention the longest psalm of 176 verses) dedicated to the loving, singing, cherishing and doing God's commandments - he's pleading, crying out, and hoping God will come through with love, life, & salvation. 

So what now? People usually don't read blogs or articles when they've done well.  So in addition to preaching to myself, I might only be speaking to a few of you. If you feel pretty good about your performance and self-satisfied in your deeds, I hope the above has you a bit worried. The Bible suggests three ways to regain genuine peace & move forward with a proper perspective. 

1. Take another look at your deeds (what motivates you). During the time of the prophet Isaiah, religion was flourishing in Israel. Sacrifices, fasting, temple-attendance. Everyone assumed God would never impose on them the curses of covenant such as deportation or death. "We are God's people and we are pretty good (or at least better than our neighbors)." The problem was God knew their hearts. They did good deeds not in response to God's love for them but to either achieve a sense of relief (ie. tick that box, God is off-my-back, I'll now do what I want) or a sense of self-satisfaction (ie. I'm one of the do-gooders and I'll impose my do-gooding on others). The LORD God gives a "word" to Isaiah for these actually quite insecure, soon-to-be-deported people: "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like polluted garments" (Isaiah 64:6).

Did I just read that correctly - "righteous deeds" are like "polluted garments"? Yes. And those "polluted garments" refers to some very real thing for women that I can't even say on this blog. You also read correctly - Isaiah (the prophet) doesn't exclude himself from God's divine message: "We have all become like one who is unclean..."

Jesus challenges our conception of good with his own measuring stick (see the rich young ruler - "No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:20). There is a germ of corruption behind every good thing and deed in this fallen world. As the wise J.C. Ryle once said in his 19th century context: "Our best things are stained and tainted with imperfection! They are more or less incomplete, wrong in the motive, or defective in the performance."

When you find yourself self-satisfied and largely self-secure (you can tell when you are looking for a little pat-on-the-back or are looking down on others), it might be a sign that your righteous deeds are polluted, stained, tainted. Perhaps you've done well to satisfy God sufficiently to get Him off your back or to build yourself up when God's free but invisible love doesn't seem to be doing the trick. Run to the cross and confess this to God. He gets out stains! "He is faithful and just to forgive our sin and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). 

2. Take another look at your salvation  (who changes you). In verse 149, the psalmist cries out for two things - life and a relationship with God. "Life according to justice"; "hear me (relationship!) according to your steadfast love." At the cross of Jesus Christ, love and justice meet to give us life forever and a relationship with God. Jesus lived the perfect life to satisfy on the cross God's just punishment toward sin (Hebrews 7:26; Hebrews 9:14; 1 John 4:10). Jesus got up on that cross because He loves us and would get to be with those of us who trust Him forever (Romans 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:10). The psalmist didn't yet know this Jesus who offered the most airtight and secure salvation by living the very perfect life he knew he couldn't. The psalmist looked forward to the day of the Good Shepherd who chases down lost sheep: "I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek your servant" (Psalm 119:176; cf. Luke 15:4). For you who do good to justify yourself, Jesus already has!

This Good Shepherd continues to save us also. He changes us. There is a word for the transformation of our minds - metanoia, which is translated in the New Testament as "repentance." Listen to who is behind this change of mind and how you view the world: 
Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:4).
So now that you're justified before God, it's easy to "presume" your pretty good behavior deserves God's kindness and it's your innate goodness that produces love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, self-control. But it's God's active kindness at work in your life (GRACE!) that produces good, profitable, and lasting fruit translated as good deeds.

We can do well, well by even now offering honor, praise, and glory to God for even the impulse to want to do good - it comes not from me but from Thee! 

3. Read and listen to challenging words (what moves you). I once heard Sinclair Ferguson, a pastor and theologian I respect, say that in the many of years of his pastoral ministry he counseled two kinds of people: Those overly comforted and those overly discomforted. His job, thus, was simple: Comfort the discomforted and discomfort the comfortable

Isn't this what Jesus did depending on the person before him?! Most often I need words of comfort because the Holy Spirit is quick to show me my obvious sin and resulting guilt (cf. John 16:8). But for that other 10-20% of the time, when we are rolling well - I need to hear and read hard truths that grabs and shakes me toward a deeper reliance upon Jesus.

For instance, get yourself in front of the Luke chapter 14, where you will be confronted about storing up riches, counting the cost of following Jesus, and your willingness to forsake anything to follow him. Click on links with thoughtful biblical content like this one (for all Christians) or this one (for those married and/or with kids). Follow the lifestyle of some of the missionaries we support like our friends Terrill and Amber Schrock. Sing not only modern praise music meant to console and comfort, but also hymns meant to instruct and reorient us to truth we may need to hear. Listen to sermons by gentleman like Matt Chandler, who confronts my comfort with a reorientation toward the sufficiency of God's grace, or to devotionals like Charles Spurgeon's Morning and Evening, which provides for me a healthy mix of comfort and discomfort (I use this version, which employs the ESV as opposed to the KJV translation - available for just $10 on kindle).  

We need not fear divine discomfort! One of the most important verses in my life is Hosea 6:1.
Come, let us return to the Lord!                                                                                He has torn us, that He may heal us.                                                                             He has struck us down, and He will bind us up.
This verse aptly summarizes God's activity in a Christian's life as both Lion of Judah and Lamb of God. Lamb to comfort us when we are full of guilt and shame, when our sin and weakness lies exposed, visibly naked before us. Lion when we our self-satisfaction and self-assuredness needs to be torn down - so we might be bound up to once again do well, well. 

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