Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Nice Place to Visit

Many amazing people have come and gone in my life. People that (whether they like it or not) will always hold some real estate in my heart. I'm sure it is no surprise that those I treasure most are also those I've lived and worked with. Living in community, for better or worse, accelerates all kinds of antics and attachments. Such is the nature of sharing all things in common. Unfortunately this is not an entry about the fun times that living in community brings. The topic at hand is bit heavier.

My faith journey began fourteen years ago and sadly, I have seen many of the friends I alluded to above leave faith in the Biblical Jesus. The same Jesus they once knelt to in weeping prayer and devotion is not the one they follow today. Every Christian is vulnerable to this but still I wonder, how does this happen? Why do they leave? Maybe the harder question is, how do any of us stay? I've asked myself these questions over and over. Sometimes I lay awake thinking, "how can I help bring them back? Will my efforts, for whatever reason, only drive them further away?"

Jesus, wisely addressed this problem. His is clearly the best take on it and is found in Matthew 13:1-9 and 13:18-23. This is the parable of the sower. To summarize (for those aren't familiar with the passage) this parable explains how and why some remain rooted in Christianity while others take the more common road. The seed planted by the sower represents the gospel and the earth/soil represents the state of our hearts as we process what it means to follow Christ. Jesus illustrates four types of audiences.

Christ describes the seed that falls on rocky soil. These hear the gospel and quickly get excited about God and a spiritual life, yet these are easily uprooted during hardships and sacrifices connected to Faith. They, for a variety of reasons, will not be transformed by the Lordship of Christ. They may visit church and claim a loyalty to Jesus but there is little evidence of true conversion in their lives. The next group of hearers described don't make it quite that far. Either poor examples of Christianity or misguided attempts at intellectualism keep them far from church doors. Their ears are trained to equate the gospel with myth and superstition of no more value than Goldie Locks and the Three Bears. Jesus explains that, in this kind of listener, the seeds of the gospel are quickly eaten by the birds.

Jesus goes on to depict yet another kind of audience. She is the one who listens to the gospel. It takes root, deep in the heart. She is the person that despite death of loved ones, doubt, disillusionment, temptation and various seductions remains loyal to Christ. Granted, she may stumble... a lot... she may fail tragically, but she has the kind of loyalty that will not relent. God has His omnipotent grip on her and she grasps back, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, she is rooted in good soil.

Finally there is the type of hearer that I love deeply. Maybe my attachment to this next group reveals more about me than I'd like to admit. I can relate to their plight all too well. These beloved people are choked out of the faith because of the cares of this world. Many hear the gospel and devote their lives to following Christ. They stay in the faith for years and even decades, but eventually, through a variety of anxieties, temptations, disillusionment's and counter Christ belief systems leave faith in Jesus of the Bible. Commonly, their new Jesus is tamed, one who only promotes love, tolerance and peace. Of course love, tolerance and peace are all things Jesus embraces but the meaning of these words morph under this docile Christ. The new meanings condemn parts of scripture that draw lines between right and wrong. Many cannot accept that Jesus is the only way to salvation and it would seem that the pages of the Bible are cut into paper dolls removed in the image of the new belief system. This cut out only includes the truth claims that the new world view can endorse.

I want to be very careful here in the way I describe these things. Much of what I am detailing are beliefs held by people I love and respect, and to be quite honest, many of them are much brighter and more loving than me. To be fair, many "loyal" Christians also morph Jesus into their own image. I would even say that many Christians are guilty of this very often. Proof is everywhere. Some groups of Church goers dress Jesus in an American flag, consider Him a Republican or fill His mouth with hateful rhetoric. This is a much more sinister poison in the church today, and is a topic for another post. The people in particular that I'm speaking of are the ones that have consciously walked away from the foundational truths of Christianity, the same truths they thought they would never forsake.

Partial blame for this "falling away" can be placed on a misguided understanding of our identity as Christians. Forgive me, as this may seem like somewhat of a stretch, but from my experience the two are connected. Misunderstanding our nature leads to numbers of Christians remaining trapped in addictions, while others (as I have stated above) simply leave the faith all together, in part because of a false view of the self. Christians who feel trapped in habitual sins commonly do one of two things. They run to legalism and become ultra religious and self-righteous or they go to the opposite extreme and create a version of Christianity that allows them to indulge in their particular cravings or life styles. Our Path is a narrow one, but real liberty and empowered living are there alone. I struggle to walk this fine line often, but the more I understand what it means to be "born again", the easier it becomes. The key is understanding our new identity and divorcing ourselves from defeated mindsets.

An unfortunate approach to humility in the church today is to give our psyche a home in the reality of our sin nature. Early in my Christian life I was taught about the depth of my depravity. That is, I was taught that apart from Christ I am a wretched sinner, hopelessly enslaved to wrong doing. Either through my own twisted thinking or bad teaching this truth morphed into an idea quite poisonous to my spiritual health. The idea was this, that with or without Jesus the depth of my sin perverted me to the core. I was, without hope, defined by my wretched fallen nature. Unconsciously, I began to live as if Jesus Himself couldn't reach as deep as my sin dwelt. I know I am not alone in having believed this, which is why I write. Too many people of faith find a false identity in this twisted doctrine in its various forms. Too many walk away from Christianity because they think their "forbidden desires" (over-indulgence in alcohol, drugs, food, homosexuality, pornography and an infinite number of other cravings) define them and they resign to the notion that their final identity is the sin nature. Some resort to legalism to ease the guilt, hoping that rigid rule following and contrived good works will somehow change them or at least distract from temptation.

Others make Romans 7 a home for their defeated psyche. A false relationship with these scriptures can be crippling. It's best just to read Paul's words to see where some have gone wrong in the application of this portion of scripture. I recommend reading Romans 7:14-25 to get a clearer picture, but here is a glimpse of scripture that is commonly misunderstood:

"21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin." Romans 7:21-25 NLT

Paul uses powerful wording here. It's no wonder so many believers have interpreted this passage as a permanent definition of themselves. My purpose in this particular blog is to remind us that we are also called NEW CREATIONS! We are being transformed more and more into the image of our Father each moment we accept Him doing so. Each time we show love to our children, appreciate others and cheerfully give of ourselves the reality that we are created in the image of God is proven. All the while taking an honest inventory of our own sin, seeking forgiveness and pursuing repentance. Clearly, we still struggle with imperfections and maybe at times we're overwhelmed by sin in both thought and deed. I am in no way denying that we still have a sinful nature. This is painfully true. My grief lies in the reality that too many of us stop there. Not only do we stop there but we live there, soaking in our depravity until it's all we can see, engulfed in the sin of self hatred. Many often, then approach God in groveling self-loathing or confused hostility, rather than grateful sons and daughters.

Unfortunately some turn their hatred towards God or the church and despise them for "making them feel guilty for who they are". I've seen this too many times and I've lost too many friends to this way of thinking. So this is a call to wake up! We are God's beloved children, "the joy set before Him", and the reason He died. Parents get a special glimpse into this kind of love. We love our children, naughty or nice. Most of us would still give our lives for them on any given day, because to us, they are immeasurably valuable. Fortunately for us, we have a unconditionally loving Parent who has called us the apple of His eye. That's the identity we ought to live out of, the new-creation-image-bearers of the one true God kind of identity. After all..."As a man thinks, so he is". Proverbs 23:7.

I think Romans 7 was meant to be a note of empathy towards us. Proof that even the most prominent apostle struggled with unrelenting sin, a reminder that we are not alone, even in our failings. Which is why Romans 7 is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. This is also true of many of the Psalms. It's good to know that even the great King David, a man after God's own heart struggled with depression and hopelessness at times but clearly his feelings are not recorded so that we learn to be depressed and hopeless. We've got to be wise in how we apply what we read. Doing so in the wrong way can lead us directly out of our narrow path.

One key encouragment in all this is that we have a major part to play in becoming the type of hearer that thrives in spiritual life. God gives us an active role and blessed responsibility regarding the kind of soil our hearts offer Him. Our job is to seek Him, wait on Him, rest in the knowledge that we are His child and not our own project and then wait some more. Soft, open hearted patience is a mighty aid in the creation and maintanance of good soil.

Sow righteousness for yourselves,
reap the fruit of unfailing love,
and break up your unplowed ground;
for it is time to seek the LORD,
until he comes
and showers his righteousness on you. Hosea 10:12 (NIV)

The parable of the sower serves as a warning, a self check tool that reminds us that we can be choked out of our faith if our minds dwell in the wrong place. Living in a defeated mentality will inevitably lead us to defeat. If we're going to go the long haul with Christ without resorting to legalism or indulgence then our only option is to believe the Bible when it tells us that we are not only sinners but saints. A wise teacher once said "sinners are saints in progress."

By the grace of God we've been given the proper dwelling for our minds. My new home is found in this:

Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 2 Cor. 5:17 (KJV)