Sunday, March 29, 2015

Desiring to Justify Myself

Location: Quảng Ngãi, Quang Ngai, Vietnam
But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” -- Luke 10:29
It is easy to scoff at the arrogant lawyer who prompted Jesus' parable about the Good Samaritan, this insolent jerk who wanted to find excuses for his hatreds--or at least his indifferences--and thus challenged the teacher to clarify the reasonable limits of love. It is easy to scoff, because most of us see more of the Samaritan in ourselves than we do the lawyer.

But if I'm honest, far too much of my life is spent desiring to justify myself.

This pursuit is not restricted to holding up my arguments as superior to others', though that is certainly part of the picture. No, this goes to the very core of my sinful psyche. Every pursuit of accomplishment, fame, respect, power, and love seems tainted by a desperate, faithless craving for self-justification. 

You see, while God clearly tells me that my life is supremely valuable based on His work in me, Satan tells me that I must make a name for myself. Satan insists that I must prove my worth. Satan mocks that if people do not think that I am wonderful, then I must be a failure.

I therefore set myself frantically to the task of demonstrating that my dirty rags can be cleaner than yours, or at least clean enough. The very hopelessness of the cause ought to drive me to the cross for a fresh outpouring of divine grace, yet time and again I prove too weak even for that. Rather, I pathetically plunge these rags back into the muddy waters of my own life and vainly scrub, defying both belief and reason.

Jesus' parable not only destroys my own self-justification, it demonstrates the healing life I am constantly shunning. The grace of the Samaritan is fully available to me at every turn, outstretched in the compassionate hand of my Father. All that is required is for me to stop striving to justify my life by my own merits, lay still, let him bind up my wounds, and take me home.

* Note, thank you to my friend, John Cheek, for inspiring this post.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Relevance of Strangers and Exiles

Location: Quảng Ngãi, Quang Ngai, Vietnam
This week, the headlines shouted and celebrated another high-profile example of the American church bending to accommodate the values of our prevailing culture. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), whose membership has declined 47% since 1967, has once again updated its constitution ... this time to embrace same-sex marriage. By doing so, it has doubled down on its bet that "relevance" is achieved when the church molds itself to more closely resemble the world around it.

But is "relevance" where this quest actually leads? No, this kind of relevance is a chimera, as attested to by the collapse of the PCUSA's membership. In fact, it is worse than that, for while it draws on our deep desire to fit in with our culture, the quest for the world's good regard is really poison to the church. This leads us into an astonishing place, for by pursuing relevance at all costs, we are gradually slouching into irrelevance.

This is because we don't understand what is supposed to make us relevant.

The church's relevance is born not of our identification with the world, but by our love for the world while identifying with Christ. Until we stop trying to be the church the world thinks it wants, we cannot be the church the world really needs.

How shall we then live, now that the culture has decided en masse that our views are no longer merely quaint or weird or puritanical, but hateful? Surely we must change?

Well, yes we must, but not in the way we seem to have decided. First, we must understand that our supreme example, Jesus Christ, wasn't crucified for his irrelevance, but rather for the way His extreme relevance threatened the culture's arbiters of what was acceptable. His relevance was built not on the compromise of his principles, but rather on his commitment to them, which was enveloped in a life-giving gospel of love.

What we must do, therefore, is much, much harder than simply repudiating the values and principles of our forebears in favor of the enlightened, modern, accepted truths of our contemporaries. Nor is it profitable to simply rail against the culture in favor of what was "traditional", a clumsy and loaded word that ensnares many into a sinister trap of arrogance and judgmentalism.

What is required of us is a bold love--one that risks rejection, isolation, stigmatization, and even real persecution for the sake of clearly speaking the truth about God's salvation--yes, including the hard parts about His wrath and coming judgment--to this lost and dying world in need of a Savior. This is the gospel of the faithful, of those who paid the last full measure of devotion:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.
The relevance of the church is tied up completely in the inherent relevance of the gospel ... a gospel which does not seek to minimize sin, but rather to maximize Christ and His grace. It means moving boldly but lovingly into the lives of those who reject Him and His truth, in order that they may see Him in us, receive His love and message and Spirit, and thus be saved.

Living the reality of the "stranger and exile" means that we recognize the sinfulness of what the Bible clearly identifies as sin, but do so with compassion instead of condemnation, because we are so keenly aware of the truth of 1 Timothy 15:
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.
Deciding to live this way will hurt, both because of the world's rejection, and because we will pour our hearts out for so many who will respond with indifference, ambivalence, and sometimes even rage. But Jesus did not promise that He would deliver us from pain in this life--in fact, quite the opposite. Our promises are anchored primarily in the hope of the indescribable happiness that will come with eternity in God's glorious kingdom, and also in the supernatural strength, comfort and joy that He provides us here, in the land of our sojourn.