Principles are Better than Laws Part 6

I’ve been discussing God’s laws as principles for how he would have us live on the earth.  I have posited that God designed us to have magnificent (abundant), eternal life that starts now, even here on earth.  I mean that even if we suffer, which we will, or even suffer a lot, we can still see it that way, because our experience of life in God is, in some ways, relative.  

By that I mean that you may be poor, or you may be rich. There are certain feelings associated with those two states, but joy is relative in that sometimes poor people have joy, and often, rich people are in misery. The same principle can be applied to sick versus healthy, romantically fulfilled versus being alone, autonomy at work versus micro managed. All of the standards people usually use to evaluate joy or suffering are less relevant to the follower of Jesus.

Even to the most committed Christian, I would assume that plenty is preferable to poverty, health is preferable to sickness, and loving relationships are preferable to loneliness. Still, the wonderful fact of the matter is, for eternal beings like us, circumstances and outcomes are only of secondary importance. If they become primary, you are in for some hurt. But if kept in their proper place as gifts from God, undeserved in an ultimate, cosmic way, but earned in a “God’s created laws of cause and effect” way, they are icing on the amazing cake of eternal, abundant life in Christ.

In this light, we are looking at the Ten Commandments and considering them as principles. I’ll say again that I don’t mean to reduce them from the important and serious laws of God that we should approach reverently and obediently. I only mean to point out that they also work well as principles for an incredible life, revealing the way God originally created his image bearers, you and me, to function in this world and the next.

All of this, of course, assumes that you have put your faith in Jesus’ death on the cross to forgive you for breaking these laws all along.

In part 5 we considered the first commandment, now let’s look at the second: Exodus 20:4-6 says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love and keep my commandments.”

This commandment is not prohibiting the creation of a carved image, but it prohibits creating a carved image in order to bow down to it as your god. It is very similar to the first commandment to have no other gods. The principle is pretty much the same. Idolatry is an offense to God, and he created us to worship him. That is enough to know. But if we want to go further and consider it as a principle, idolatry is a competing principle that doesn’t work. Worshiping an idol or anything else as a god is an evasion of reality. Evading reality will always end in a bad outcome.

Much has been written about idols of the heart; money, sex, power, comfort, the approval of man. These are the false gods of our culture that do not deliver what they promise, leaving us anxious, ashamed, fearful, envious, and unbalanced. To obey the second commandment (along with the first) would be to avoid all these traps. If money is not an idol, it is a neutral tool that represents your labor. If sex is not an idol, then it is an amazing gift of God to share with your wife or husband for fun and connection, and to create new people. If power is not an idol, then it is power over earth and elements, NEVER men. If comfort is not an idol it is a Sabbath rest, or a reflection of it. If the approval of man is not an idol, then it will not rule you and drive your actions. It may or may not be a nice encouragement, but will never get in the way of truth and meaning in your life, and the pursuit of your purposes.

To break this commandment is to incur the wrath of God. Mans’ breaking this commandment is what caused Jesus to have to come and die for us. God is a jealous God, because he loves us and longs to see us do well. These verses indicate that our willingness to heed this law and principle will have an impact for good or ill on our children’s children for years to come (Ex 20:5-6).

Choose to Grow

Anything that is not growing is dying.  We are made to grow.  The very idea of lif life, especially abundant life, means that it is necessary to grow.  Sometimes, because of events in your life, growth is automatic, but most of the time, we have to choose to grow. 

You are saved by grace and reckoned as righteous by Christ’s sinless perfection.  But you still have to grow.  If you don’t like it, consider that Jesus was perfect, but still needed to grow. This may surprise you, but it’s true.  

The Bible says that he was made perfect through suffering (Heb 2:10). This begs the question. What was he before he was perfect?  In a sense, of course, he was already perfect.  Like a baby is perfect but still has a long way to go toward growing up.  In fact, Jesus was a baby at one point. As such, he could not talk, could not walk, could not do anything.  Like all babies, he had a long way to grow.  One day, his consciousness, that is, his ability to perceive, developed just to the point where he could build some minor concepts.  He would have been sitting there looking at the other kids who were slightly older than him, and he would have noticed some things. First, that they were a lot like him.  Two legs, two arms, hair, fingers, crying, eating, pooping.  He would realize that unlike the family goat, he had a lot in common with these kids.

But these other kids were slightly different than him. They didn’t crawl anymore.  That one there used to crawl, but now she’s doing something similar to his mother and father, the big people.  She is walking on two legs, upright. That created a longing in toddler Jesus.  Was it insecurity?  No. He was morally and emotionally perfect.  It was not sinful envy. But it was longing.  This new desire formed from the understanding that he could not do something, although he wanted to.   So, the next time he was able to pull himself up onto something, he took a step. 

What do you think happened to the glorious Savior of the world then? I think he crashed to the ground, and maybe he cried, until his adopted father, Joseph, having proudly watched the whole thing, came over, patted his head fondly, and stood him back up.

This likely happened again and again, until one day, Jesus was no longer a person who needed to learn how to walk. He had gone from a perfect being who crawled to a perfect being who walked. And this is one of the wonderful things about being a human. You can always grow, and the fact that you need to does not necessarily mean that you are less than perfect as you are. I am not saying you are perfect, but the fact you have to grow doesn’t prove that you are not perfect. It only proves that there is something you can learn, something you can grow in.  And to understand this is pure joy.  Have you ever seen the look on a baby’s face when he or she walks for the first time?  If you want to know what delight looks like, there it is.  

Now, by the way, this is a good time for a complicated thought:  What else usually happens in this moment that intensifies the emotion?  The baby is there and mom, dad, brother, sister, other sister, Aunt Peggy, and the UPS guy all happen to be there when this happens and what do they do?  They go crazy. They clap. They smile. They yell, “Good job! You’re amazing!”  The difference between you and Jesus is that somehow, perfect baby Jesus delighted in his accomplishment, and you (and I) got taken over by love for the praise of man (unless you are a lucky sociopath).  

This confuses everything.  Along with stern disapproval when they didn’t like what we were doing, we learned to do things to please others, or, we learned it was impossible to please others as much as our hearts wanted to, so we gave up and rebelled, which is two sides of the same coin of living for other people. There is a right way to live for others, generously, Christlike, and there is a wrong, and much, much more common way.  

But for now, just understand that growing is a part of life, and I would say a fun part, a rewarding and fulfilling part. Mastering things that were once hard is a superpower for building self-esteem and confidence.  

Wait!  Doesn’t that make it an idol?! Don’t preachers say that I need to find my esteem and confidence in what Jesus has done, and not what I do?

Now can you see why so many Christians are messed up?  We are hardwired by God to love a life of growth, but because of sin and bad (but well-meaning) parenting, we trade that for a life of seeking approval and praise from others.  And it is true that our primary identity is in Christ and in our Creator, after whom and by whom we are designed.  But here is an interesting question:  Did Christ build a false identity around walking?  Did he start announcing to everyone on Facebook that he was a walker? Did he go out and buy all the trendiest walking gear, shoes, ski poles with rubber on the end, T-shirts and bumper stickers for his car that announce to the world what he was about, walking.  No, he did not make an identity or a religion out of his new skill.  We would have done that, because we were born in sin, and so were our parents. But Christ did not. He was perfect.  

But that does not mean that mastering the skill didn’t give him some self esteem and confidence that informed his thinking when he noticed the next deficit.

Talking

“Why does it seem that the older kids seem to be saying something to each other? All I say is goo goo ga ga. What if my mom is actually trying to communicate with me and is not just making random noises? I need to learn. I am compelled to learn.” And just like you, learn he did. Then it was using the bathroom somewhere besides his diaper. Eventually it was using a mallet, and a saw. Joseph, his earthly adopted feather, was a carpenter. I’m sure that fairly early on it was reading Hebrew, then understanding the law and prophets so that by twelve Jesus could lose time in his Father’s house in Jerusalem conversing with the scribes about his Father in heaven. The Bible tells us that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature” (Lk 2:52).

And then what does it mean that he had to grow perfect through suffering?  Perfect in what way if he was already sinless?  It seems to mean that he had to suffer in order to be prepared for the ultimate suffering of taking on the sins of the world as the sacrificial Lamb of God.  Tortured. Broken. Filled with the filth of sin, which he had never experienced—my anger, my lust, my envy, my hatred, mine and yours and Adam’s and everyone else’s.  He had to endure a temporarily broken fellowship with his beloved Father in Heaven who had always been with him.   

Jesus was grown into the ability to endure all this.  He did not want to do any of it, but it was what he came to do.  In the garden of Gethsemane he even prayed that the cup of God’s wrath would pass if possible, but it was not possible.  God had to be just and the justifier.  There was apparently only one way to wipe the great sin of the world away, and God had been preparing the consciousness of the Hebrews for hundreds of years with the law and the sacrificial system.  It was time, and Jesus would say, “Not my will, but yours be done.” 

For you and I it is no less a process of growth to become what God made us to be.  Jesus deals with the sin in us, but we still have to grow spiritually. We are already perfect when we believe and put our faith in Jesus’ work to save us, repenting of our sin.  We are made into a new creation having received the righteousness of Christ as sure as he received in himself unrighteousness of us.  But we need to grow. You are perfect, but you need to and you can grow.   

See yourself right, and see your need for growth right.  Fellowship (verb) with God, abide in him (Jn 5:4), and look for what is next. What is he doing in you?  Do you still have unforgiveness? Grow. Do you still have anger?  Grow in love.  Do you still worry?  Grow in peace and trusting God.  Do you still find yourself seeking approval?  Grow in looking to what God has already done and to your own honest evaluation of yourself.  

Work with God on the things you see that need to change, and learn to delight in progress the way you did as a baby learning to walk.

But you are not alone in this. You have teachers. You have brothers and sisters in Christ. You have examples to follow. You have the Bible to learn from. And best of all, you have the Spirit of God living in you, by whom you can live and grow by his strength and direction. Choose growth and choose life. Let’s talk tomorrow about how the Holy Spirit enables us to do this.

How Jesus Restores Mankind Part 4, Freedom

The Praise of Man

Giving in Secret

The last two posts looked at the sermon on the mount to consider Jesus’s prescription for the restoration of men and women on the earth. First we looked at his words on anger and murder, then his words on lust and sexual sin, and we noted the extreme freedom that his viewpoint brings to those who have ears to hear and want something better than what passes in the world for happiness and fulfillment. 

Next in the sermon on the mount Jesus discusses divorce. In light of what he says about lust, this one should be easy.  Then oaths: If you are a truly honest person, you don’t need them.  Then retaliation: Don’t retaliate, because you are free from anger. And, love for enemies: Having this will free you from anger and the need for retaliation. After this, in Matthew 6, Jesus moves into subtler territory and gets at the heart of a prevalent issue in the human condition: Doing things, even religious things, to collect the praises of man.  

First, he addresses the subject of giving.  Most people have a hard enough time making themselves give away any money at all. Often, ministries and charities make use of our fallen nature to manipulate us to give, and that usually revolves around other people knowing what you give.  Whether it is in a church where the pastors make it known that they see who gives what, or it is a philanthropist getting their name on a hospital wing, most know that people will tend to give more in public than they will in private.  Why is this?  There can only be one answer to this question: Because we are giving what we are giving to be seen by men, rather than God. Jesus saw the problem with this and called it out in verses 1-4 of Matthew 6.  He said, to paraphrase, that we should not let anyone see us giving to the needy.  If we “practice our righteousness before other people,” then we will receive the reward we are clearly looking for, the esteem of others.  When we have received that, then there is no more reward to be had by God.  

This is tragic, because Jesus died to set us free from the shame brought on by sinfulness, first seen in the garden (Gen 3:10).  It is this shame that compels us to practice righteousness in order to be seen. These righteous acts are like the fig leaves covering Adam and Eve.  The reward that Jesus desires for us is freedom from this shame. When we are free, then we are free to give in secret. 

The reward that the Father will give us is that of freedom from the bondage of needing the approval of others that we have been seeking to cover our shame, or our sense of worthlessness.  

Rather than fig leaves, Jesus is the animal skins that the Father so lovingly gave to Adam to cover him by his work, instead of Adam’s.  Jesus says to us by his coming and his death for us that we have no need to hide behind the approval of others. When we as Christians give in secret, we reinforce the truth and starve out the lie.  That reinforcement strengthens us at the core, bringing us more peace, more joy, more stability in Christ, more of the good kind of pride, better fellowship with God, because there is less hiding. The reward of the praise of man is a cheap substitute that will not pay off in the end and keeps us from the real prize.  

Praying in Secret

All the very same principles apply in the area of prayer.  If you want to see someone put on a show, put them in a corporate prayer session.  I am a pastor, and I weekly battle the temptation when praying at the end of a sermon to “perform” the closing prayer.  I don’t even realize when I’m doing it!  It’s easier for me to notice when others are doing it.  Granted, it takes a great deal of freedom to become the kind of person who will pray in front of others in the exact same way that he or she prays alone.  You don’t have to want to put on a show for that to be what happens. I would say that for 99% of us, it is the default.  But Jesus shows us here that by refusing to participate in the normal way of doing it, praying, at least partly, for show, and instead just pouring out your heart to God when you are praying with others, or even praying only alone for a while, we will receive a reward from God in the way of answered prayer, and as with the giving in secret, in the way of a strengthening of faith and character.  

Forgiveness 

Next, after teaching them the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples that they must forgive others or they will not be forgiven by their Heavenly Father. This is some strong language.  To fail to forgive others keeps you in the bondage of sin and hell, and proves that you’ve yet to understand and accept God’s forgiveness, either because you don’t think you need it, or you don’t think he is kind enough, or loves you enough to forgive you.  If you are holding any unforgiveness, stop everything and deal with it. God will help you. 

Fasting

Briefly, fasting is a spiritual discipline that can be helpful in learning to abide in Christ.  It is also super impressive to the churchy crowd that is impressed by that sort of thing. Knowing this, Jesus warns against the hypocritical tendency of religious folks to fast and make it clear to everyone how miserable they are because they are so holy and are not eating.  Once again, what is at issue is the bondage of needing to put on a show, for whatever reason, to impress others.  The more you will engage in these sorts of practices without telling anyone, the more you will be transformed into the likeness of Christ.  

The rest of the sermon on the mount deals less with living for the attention and praise of man, and more with an inward heart towards God. We will discuss it further in the coming days.