Monday, March 28, 2011

Being Good Versus Following Christ

I had an experience recently that made me, for the first time, understand the difference between being good and following Christ.  God prompted me to apologize to someone, but not just apologize, apologize and tell that person I was apologizing because I am a follower of Christ and in this particular encounter, I had not represented Christ well.  This was the hardest thing God had asked me to do.  I could apologize, I've done that many times.  It is noble, shows character.  But to say I was sorry to this particular person, an adversary, and to explain why?  No.  This was not something I thought I could do.  Doing it the way God asked would be to divert attention from "how good I am" to apologize, to something else entirely.

I had wondered before whether there is really a difference (and what it is) between doing good things (being good) and following Christ.  I know there are millions of people out there who are not followers of Christ who do good, indeed, dedicate their lives to help the poor and bring justice for the oppressed.  They apologize when they have offended someone or acted in the wrong.  Yet, God's word says that unless you confess faith in Jesus Christ, you are not saved and will not spend eternity in fellowship with God.  This is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, fact to understand, at least from my perspective.  Is it really the case that all of the good non-believing people in the world would not find themselves living eternal life, while those who have done what we consider very bad things their whole lives, but in the end turn to Christ, will be in paradise one day?

The way I understand Scripture is that when God created us, we were in fellowship with him.  We lived in perfect peace and joy in his presence.  He created us in his image and with the ability to freely choose to obey him or not.  And then we decided we wouldn't obey him and instead sought to go our own way, sought to gain wisdom that was not intended for anyone but God.  (Genesis 2-3)  Since that time, God has been seeking to get us to turn back to him and be again in perfect fellowship, peace and joy with him.  God's redemptive plan, it is called.  That is, God's plan to get us back into relationship with him.  

God first set forth the law (the Ten Commandments).  (Ex. 20:1-17)  If one obeyed the law, one would be in right standing before God.  (Deut. 6:25)  But once the law was revealed, it became clear that we could not keep it.  And with each trespass, God required repentance and a sacrifice to redeem, or buy back, the right relationship with him.  There was so much disobedience to the law, though, that all the people did, it seems, was to constantly sacrifice to get back to right, only to fall away again the next minute, or hour, or day.  In other words, nothing we could do (other than complete obedience to the law, which we were incapable of) could make us forever right with God.  This inability to make ourselves right with God was part of God's redemptive plan:  "The law was added so that the trespass might increase."  (Rom. 5:20a) 

Then, God sent Jesus Christ, God in human form, to obey the law for us and to be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  "The law was added so that the trespass might increase.  But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."  (Rom. 5:20-21)  While on earth, Christ obeyed the law perfectly and yet offered himself as a sacrifice to redeem our (not his) relationship with God.  Christ was sacrificed despite having committed no transgression so that we could be forever in right relationship with God (Matt. 20:28), if only we repent and believe.  (John 3:16-21)  No longer would sacrificial offerings be necessary.  Grace is what was (and is) offered.  A free gift for us to accept.  No more striving, no more climbing.  When Jesus resurrected, he told his disciples: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."  (Matt. 28:18-20)  Here, Jesus revealed to us what role we have in God's plan.   

I recite all of this because it reveals the difference between being good and following Christ: to do good for the sake of goodness, to draw attention to yourself or your goodness, or to make someone else feel good momentarily does not lead anywhere in the long run.  To do good as a way of revealing Christ to others, to get them to turn to him and repent in order to be reconciled with God, fulfills your purpose in God's redemptive plan.  Jesus said: "[L]et your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven."  (Matt. 5:16)  

As Oswald Chambers said: 

"Goodness and purity ought never to attract attention to themselves, they ought simply to be magnets to draw to Jesus Christ.  If my holiness is not drawing towards Him, it is not holiness of the right order, but an influence that will awaken inordinate affection and lead souls away into side eddies." 

Beware if your good acts result in someone saying: "What a good person you are!  I am so impressed!"  That is you becoming greater.  But, the goal is that "He must become greater; I must become less."  (John 3:30)  To do good in order to draw others towards Christ is the purpose; Christ alone leads to eternal fellowship, peace and joy with God.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Been There

Two weeks ago, I spent the week with this on my hand.  It is "UN", meaning Undocumented.  This temporary tattoo is from and the idea was two-fold: (1) to step into the shoes (as much as I could) of someone who is undocumented in the United States to get a feel for what it might be like; and (2) to spark conversation about the issue and see where it might lead.    

For the first day and a half, not one person said anything to me about the tattoo.  I rode the train, I went to the coffee shop, I was at work all day.  Not a word.  Part of me thinks people just didn't know what it was -- did it stand for the United Nations? Had I been out at a dance club and this stamp meant I was old enough to drink?  (Later someone mentioned that because of the way I put the tattoo on, the only one who could see it clearly was me.  This led to other thoughts about my egocentrism, etc.)  

Just the fact that no one noticed initially kind of annoyed me.  Here I was conducting this great experiment, expecting to have challenging, life-changing conversations, and nothing was happening.  I was dying to be noticed and to tell a story, but instead I was standing around as if everything was normal.     

My thought process then shifted to what being known as my worst sin (or, at least what others believed to be my worst sin) would be like.  What if, instead of tattooing "UN" on my hand, I wrote the sin I last committed in black permanent ink.  Not just the sin, though, I would have to identify myself as if my sin is who I am.  So, I wouldn't write, for example, "Lie" but "LIAR" in big black print.  Or, not "cheat" but "CHEATER."  "ADULTERER" "GOSSIP" "SELF-CENTERED" "THIEF"  The thought of this made me cringe.  Made my stomach sink.  What if I started walking around as my worst sin?  The worst thing I have done written on my hand for all to see.  Might I start believing that this sin defined me, was all that I was, all that I had to offer?  And any conversation would have to be about that and not about who I am or what I do, how I serve, who my children are, where I go to church, that I am a child of God, made in His image.   

Over the last days of the week when people began to notice, but the conversations didn't go anywhere, I started to imagine great conversations instead.  I dreamed of setting forth a powerful closing argument that I might give to a jury of those deciding whether to deport all 12 million illegal immigrants.  What would I say, how could I say it?  I believe we should have secure borders.  I believe people who have broken the law should be accountable.  I thought of answering the question: Why not just deport everyone?  What was my answer?  I know the statistics.  It would cost in the billions.  But, is that really why?  I probed deeper and concluded that no, the cost of it is not the why for me.  The why is not even that it would break up families and that for many illegal immigrants, "going back" is like going nowhere at all because of how long they have been away.  

The why for me is much less logical, indeed illogical: it is grace, plain and simple.  And to defend grace, well, how does one do this?  People ask: Why should we give grace?  Why should we provide a pathway to legality?  They broke the law.  They don't deserve it.  

Yeah.  Been there.  
"You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."  Romans 5:8     

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Reach Down

Sometimes we think sin has a grip on us when really we have a grip on sin.

"So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.  For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.  What a miserable man I am!  Who will save me from this body that brings me death?"  (Romans 7:21-24)

Reach Down

My hand grips this sin.
My knuckles turn red and white.
My palm chafes from the pressure.
A slow ache creeps up my wrist.

Reach down, O, Lord.
Reach down.

Pry my fingers free.
Relax the hold.
Part the palm.
Relieve the ache.

Reach down, O, Lord.
Reach down.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Who Are You?

I have signed up for, eharmony, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter; I have started a blog, been interviewed, endured first dates, gotten to know new colleagues, introduced myself in a small group, talked to people on the street.  All of these encounters start with, or even have as their entire purpose, describing who I am. 

Who I am, or who I say I am, depends on who I'm talking to and who's hearing what I have to say.  To my daughter's teachers and friends' parents, I am the mom.  To my parents' friends, I am the daughter.  To people at work, I am a litigator.  To courts, I am representing so-and-so client.  To people at church, I am the lawyer who helped start the legal aid ministry.  To the people at the oil change place, I am the person with the Nissan.  We all define ourselves by relating ourselves to something or someone else.  You were the star of your high school football team.  You the the woman who walks with a limp.  You are the guy who got the last promotion.  You are the woman who aced her SATs.  You are the one who got an A on the impossible biology test.  You speak French.  You have four kids.  You are married to a great guy.  You live in a small town.  You are single.  You are divorced.  You are a Republican.  You are a Democrat.  You read literary classics.  You read romance novels.  You buy books.  You go to the library.  You are the one who takes your recyclable bags to Jewel.  You are unemployed.  You are on disability.  You are undocumented.  You are overweight.  You are never skinny enough.  You make a lot of money.  You got the best review this year.  You have a Porsche.  You have a Cobalt.  You have an Apple.  You have a PC.        

When we answer questions about who we are, it is more like answering questions about what stuff we have, where we live, what we have achieved, where we have been, and who we know.  What stuff we have says how successful we are.  Where we live says how successful we are.  What we have achieved says how successful we are.  Where we have been says how successful we are.  Who we know says. . . well, how successful we are.  All of these things identify how we identify ourselves and how we allow people to understand who we are.  How we allow ourselves to understand who we are.

This weekend, I started thinking about who I am if all that I have and all who I know go away.  If I was not employed, had no home, had no daughter, no parents, no relationships, no things.  Would I still say, I am a lawyer?  I used to have a job.  I had a home.  I  was a parent.  I had parents.  I was loved by this person.  I had a storage space full of things.  I had boxes in my garage of pictures and stuffed animals and candle holders and beer mugs.  If I had nothing at all, would I still say what I have is who I am?  Do I only describe myself today as liking wine and movies and coffee and being near the water because I have those things and access to them?  In answering the "my favorite things" or "things I can't live without" sections on the latest social network, what would I say if I had nothing?  "None"?  Or would I say my favorite things are: a safe place to hide; clean sheets; a blanket; a day free from foot pain?  In other words, would I still describe who I am based on what I have or do not have?  Probably.

Trying to figure out who I would be without all the stuff and people that currently surround me is just another way of trying to figure out who I am today.  If I really am only what surrounds me at a particular point in time, then I am nothing at all.  If I am what exists only outside of me, then I am constantly shifting and amoeba-ish.  I become what my circumstances are.  When I look in the mirror, I will see only all the stuff and people reflected behind me and I'll start to think that that stuff and my relationships are me.

I am afraid of what I will find if all the stuff behind me in the mirror is not there and all I had to look at is me.  What if there is truly nothing at the core?  Nothing holding it all together?  Isn't this what we are all afraid of and why we constantly seek to fill the core with stuff and people and knowledge?  What if we take a close look, slow down enough to stop all the noise?  If you stopped filling your head and your life with news and books and stories and people and work and i-pods and tweets and Facebook news updates and achievements and dates and drinks and food, what would be there?  What is there when all that you are in reference to is gone?  How would you describe yourself if you had nothing to use but what is on the inside as a reference?  

Who are you?

Thursday, March 3, 2011


I have been studying prayer over the last several months.  Tough subject.  Really tough.  Recently, I discovered a hole in the prayers that I pray.  My prayers generally consist of expressions of thankfulness, repentence, and submission, and requests for intervention in other lives and my own.  I would never even have considered coming before God to proclaim my blamelessness and righteousness.  I have never said to God what David said: "I was blameless before him and I kept myself from guilt."  (Psalm 18:23)  How could I?  This is simply not the case.  I have no right to say such things, and to say them to God, the one who knows intimately the darkness in my heart?  No.  If I'm really being analytical and thinking critically, David had no right to utter these words either, did he?   

I have no problem searching out and praying the Psalms to express my guilt, my worry, my fear, my repentance, my praise.  Sometimes I feel like shouting or singing the Psalms of thanksgiving and praise.  They just seem so full of life.  And God's goodness in my life compels me.  But to pray Psalms that presume my rightness before God, my goodness and lack of wickedness?  I don't think so.  This would be lying.  These Psalms do not belong to me.  They must have been intended for someone else, like Mother Teresa.  The things I know about myself prevent me, indeed, prohibit me, from claiming to be other than sinful, wicked, forgetful, unfaithful . . . on and on.  I wonder if you skip these Psalms too.  Or, when you do read them because they are part of the daily devotional you receive, you think: "Yeah right!" or "No one can honestly pray that!" or "Maybe one day, I'll clean up my act enough to say something like that." or "I wish I could be that, forgive me Lord for all that I am not."  You put the kinds of expressions in these Psalms, as do I, into the ever-growing category of traits that simply do not, and never will, characterize you.

Let me share something with you: These Psalms -- the ones that proclaim your righteousness and blamelessness before the Most High God  -- are yours to pray, to shout, to sing.  If you are skipping over them, believing they do not apply to you, you are missing something fundamental and critical to who you are as a follower of Christ.  You are foregoing a freedom of spirit that is yours to hold on to.  You are believing things about your standing before God that are not true.  Despite all inclinations and appearances to the contrary, you are, I am, blameless before God.  I am right with God.  You are right with God.  You can stand before Him with a clear conscience.  And that this is so, you know all too well, has nothing to do with anything you have done or anything about your individual make-up.  It has solely to do with what Jesus Christ did for you and for me:

"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."  (2 Corin. 5:21)

"But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.  This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe."  (Romans 3:21-22)

"But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness." (Romans 4:5)

"How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" (Hebrews 9:14)

I know you know this.  I know this.  I've read it, heard it in church.  But how many of us have actually prayed at all, let alone with confidence: "I am blameless before You."  "I am right before You."  And if we haven't, why haven't we?  From my perspective, it is hardly understandable, it stretches my mind beyond what it can comprehend.  How can I say I am something because someone else is?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: "[I]t is characteristic of the prayer of the Christian to hold fast to this innocence and justification which has come to him, appealing to God's word and thanking for it.  So not only are we permitted, but directly obligated -- provided we take God's action to us at all seriously -- to pray in all humiliation and certainty: 'I was blameless before him and I kept myself from guilt' (Psalm 18:23); 'If though testest me thou wilt find no wickedness in me' (Psalm 17:3).  With such prayer we stand in the center of the New Testament, in the community of the cross of Jesus Christ."  (Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible at 53).

What is it like to say this prayer to God?  To know exactly the darkness within you and yet proclaim with confidence and boldness your blamelessness and rightness before Him because of what Christ did?  For me, it has caused such deepening of faith and gratefulness and understanding.  It has decreased the volume and persistence of the condemning voice in my head.  It has freed me in a way I could not have imagined to do what God asks, to play my role, however imperfectly at times, in his redemptive plan.  See what it does for you.