The Grace Dilemma

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The New Covenant is amazing! We are free from the requirements of the Old Testament Law and now have a profound measure of freedom under God’s paradigm of grace. I have, however, made it clear over my last several posts that grace is not a license to live in any manner imaginable, and that our Savior fully expects us to die to our old sinful natures.

The connecting point between freedom and obedience creates a huge point of confusion for many of us. If we are no longer under law because of grace, and if grace empowers us to a new lifestyle, how do we know exactly what’s acceptable to God and what isn’t? On the surface, it all feels very nebulous, but if we dig a little deeper, we can find a basic New Covenant framework to help guide our actions. We begin by examining God’s primary expectations under the New Covenant:

 Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.  If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. John 15:9-10 (NASB)

Photo by Sam Hakes
Photo by Sam Hakes

In a previous post, I laid out the two predominant commands of New Testament Christianity: faith and love. For the purpose of our current context, we’ll focus primarily on the Bible’s central command—to love God with all that we have and to love those around us (Matthew 22:34-40).

Love, according to the Scriptures, is so much more than our culture’s definition of love. How often do we see Hollywood celebrities getting married because they are deeply in love, only to hear of them filing for divorce a couple of years later?

I can’t help but contrast their example with that of my late neighbors, John and Roseann Palilla. As they aged well beyond the age of retirement, John and Rosanne continued to set a powerful example of faithful love, both as parents and as spouses. Sadly, Rosanne developed Parkinson’s disease, and although her mind remained sharp, her physical issues created a huge burden for both her and John. For as long as he was physically able, John faithfully cared for his frail wife’s every need—even to the point of exhausting himself. Eventually, they had to enter a personal care home where they lived together until death came knocking.

Love, in its very essence, is both free and constrained. John Palilla, for example, freely chose to marry Rosanne, but the strength of that love constrained him to be a one woman man—and a faithful one at that.

Palilla love, as opposed to Hollywood love, would undoubtedly be closer to heaven’s standard. Faithful, sacrificial, selfless love, according to the Scriptures is to be the driving force that governs our decision making processes. Thus, the one law that defines New Testament living is the law of love (Romans 13:8-10), which James also calls the law of liberty (James 1:25) and the royal law (James 2:8).

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Understanding these things doesn’t answer all of our questions, but it does point us in the right direction. In my next post, we’ll take a brief look at what I like to call covenant love and then we’ll address three specific applications that will help us to understand that our dilemma isn’t as much about confusion over what’s right and wrong as it is about a struggle between loving others and selfishly pursuing what we want.


The Twofold Beauty of Grace

Drawing by Émile Bayard – Public Domain

Just about anyone who has seen Les Miserables—even those unaccustomed to spontaneously breaking out into song—can attest to the powerfully redemptive nature of the work. I can’t help but wonder, however, how many of the modern cast truly understand the faith-based intricacies of the story. Victor Hugo, the original book’s author, possessed a particularly clear grasp of the law/grace dynamic with which the Christian Gospel is interwoven.

One of the most powerful images of grace that I have ever seen can be found in the scene in with Monseigneur Bienvenu. Here the priest not only forgives Jean Valjean of his transgressions but also enables him to begin a new life with the gift of the silver place settings, including the candlesticks. Unmerited favor is indeed a proper definition of grace, but it is not the full definition of grace. The power of grace can carry us further than even many Christians realize.

How gracious would God be if He extended unmerited favor to His people, but failed to give them the ability to live according to His expectations? Not gracious at all. Like Jean Valjean, we need not only favor beyond what we deserve but also the power to live a new life. Favor alone will not free us from the trap of a sinful lifestyle–for that, we need the means to forge a new trail. Grace is the answer to our need in every imaginable way.

Whether or not we grasp the two-fold nature of grace can be a matter of life and death. In my day, I have met no small number of people who mistakenly assumed grace to be nothing more than a get out of jail free card. It really doesn’t matter how we live, they suppose, because God’s grace to forgive is always available in abundance. They fail to understand that grace is the pathway to a new life, not a stamp of approval on the old. Freedom from the Mosaic Law does not mean license. Freedom from the Law means freedom from the dominion of sin.

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:12-14 (NASB)

Downloading Grace
Image by Sam Hakes

Do you see it? Grace gives us the power to reign over the dominion of sin—not an excuse to be controlled by our fallen desires. The issue isn’t one of perfection but one of characterization. Are we children of God who sometimes sin but find the unmerited favor to start afresh, or are our lives characterized by the lustful desires of our old, fallen natures? Those who learn to operate by God’s paradigm of grace through faith in Christ will grow stronger and stronger in their ability to say no to sin’s desires. Herein lies the twofold beauty of grace: through the cross of Christ, we find an amazing measure of undeserved favor and the ability to live a new and better life.

There are many areas of learning that can occupy our energies but grasping the nature of grace is essential to life. To dig a little deeper, you can check out the following 15-minute video clip from my Search for Me identity series:

Chapter 6 – Section 1 – The Search for Me from Search for Me Ministries, Inc. on Vimeo.

The Mystery of Violence Revealed

Wet Dog
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World peace! It is a vision long held by many. Each New Year, it seems, we try to cast off the violence of the previous year like a dog trying to shake off water. Unfortunately, dogs are much more effective in their drying off efforts than we are in our quest to eliminate conflict between humans. Why is peace so elusive? Either we don’t understand the root issues of conflict, or we don’t care enough to change our behavior.

Did you know that Cain’s murder of his brother Abel was not the first act of violence recorded in the Bible? Somewhere in the recesses of time–or perhaps before time began–the greatest of angels, the one we call Lucifer, attempted a violent coup against the Creator of the Universe.

How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
You have been cut down to the earth,
You who have weakened the nations!
But you said in your heart,
“I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.” Isaiah 14:12-14

Three particular aspects of this attempted coup are extremely relevant for our purposes:

Photo by SfMe Ministries Inc.

1. Lucifer repeatedly uses “I” to define his self-centered quest. Mysteriously, while God willingly receives worship, He is not self-centered. Always motivated by love and compassion for others, the life of Christ serves as evidence of God’s other-centered heart.

2. Lucifer also adds the word “will” to each of his five uses of “I”. Thus, one of his primary goals is for power and control.

3. Lucifer’s ultimate goal is to be like the Most High (the King of Glory), to lift himself up above all others.

When Adam and Eve fell prey to the serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, they inherited the same  three tendencies which collectively form what we call pride. (I sometimes call it “C-pride” or “collective pride”.) It should stand as no surprise, then, that Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, murdered his younger brother due to nothing more than jealousy. The rest, unfortunately, is history. Since that fateful day in the Garden, human activity has always been beset with violent sexual assaults, murders, and wars of all kinds.

I have written about much of this in the past, but it bears repeating in light of recent mass shootings in the U.S. When someone mercilessly kills 20 first-grade children, as happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, something is desperately wrong. But something has been desperately wrong almost from the beginning of time as we know it. Even societies that have all appearances of peace are not that far from being immersed in conflict. Like a virus waiting for an immune system to be compromised, the violent tendencies of human nature need only time and opportunity to fully run their course.

Really, only two options are possible for the violence to cease:

Fidel Castro
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1. We remove various layers of freedom until an authoritarian government removes all potential weapons of resistance and forces its citizens to get along. Of course, the very real danger is that the authoritarian regime will itself be violent, subjecting its people to all sorts of cruelty and injustice.

2. We provide people with freedom but change their hearts so that they are motivated by love rather than selfish hatred. Herein lies the foundation for a truly prosperous society, but eliminating the selfish, self-exalting tendencies of the human heart is no simple matter. Real change requires much more than wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, in our self-absorbed world, freedom eventually leads to moral decay, giving way to violence in the end. At the other end of the spectrum, those revolutionaries who rise up to break the grip of an oppressive regime will almost always become the oppressors themselves.

In prophesying the birth of Jesus, Isaiah called Him the “Prince of Peace”. As a revolutionary, Jesus rebelled against the oppressive, self-absorbed establishment, but He broke their power in a thoroughly mysterious manner. By suffering unjustly Himself, Jesus Christ provided the antidote for each of the root causes of violence. We call that antidote the Gospel.

Happy New Year!
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I, too, really would like to see world peace. In my upcoming posts I will highlight how the Gospel truly is the only lasting cure for deadly virus of violence, but until then, I want to wish you all a happy New Year! My hope is that it won’t be a year that goes to the dogs!

How You Can Help to Prevent Mass Shootings

Sandy Hook Shooting
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It has been several days since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School and I am still struggling to process the reality of such a horrible event. Other mass shootings in recent years have scarred communities, but this one has left deep and lasting scars for our entire nation. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 had a similar effect, but there is something different this time around. Those killings were the work of religious extremists operating from halfway across the globe. What happened in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, December 14, 2012 was the product of our own societal dysfunction. That a young man would maliciously murder twenty first-grade students, jolts suburban and rural America with the realization of what inner-city dwellers have known for quite some time:  something is terribly wrong in our beloved nation.

Of course, an intense battle will be fought over gun control. Some will contend that guns should be banned. Those in opposition will argue that law abiding citizens who carry weapons will actually help to make our streets safer. Both sides will support their arguments with various statistics and anecdotal stories. The battle over gun control, however, provides a convenient diversion from deeper, more difficult issues that must be addressed. To say that guns are at the core of the problem is to grossly over-simplify the issue, while avoiding any sense of personal responsibility for the collective citizenry of our nation.

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The bottom line is that we have become a nation of self-centered consumers. And while I would never say that such a description applies to every person in the U.S., I do believe that it is quite accurate in a general sense. Even issues such as the misappropriation of pharmaceutical drugs or the prevalence of violent movies and video games are closely tied to greed.

Our freedom that was purchased in blood has now become our demise, for freedom only works when the people of a nation collectively seek the greater good. The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians was both true and prophetic:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15 (NASB)

Today, even the Church is driven by a consumer mentality. Unfortunately, many Christian leaders cater to this destructive mindset because they believe it is the only way to get people into their churches and to fund their ministries. Our American gospel is all about what God can do for us, while the true nature of the Christian faith remains relatively untouched.

Money App
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God, it appears, has become an app that we can access in time of need. We have a salvation app, a provision app, a comfort app, and, at this time of the year, a Baby Jesus app. The sovereign King of the Universe, however, will not cater to our self-centered terms. If we want to relate to God, we must fully subscribe to His entire operating system—one that calls us to seek Him with all of our hearts as a way of life. If we would flock to our churches to seek His presence and drop to our knees in prayer with the same intensity of emotion before a national tragedy, there probably would not be the need to do so afterward.

Violence in America began to seriously escalate in the 1960’s. What brought it on? I am convinced that the roots can be found to have materialized just after World War II with our collective pursuit of the American Dream. While our nation held to a form of religion, at that point money became our national god. We honored Jesus with our lips, but the real god of our hearts was materialism. Psalm 16:4 tells us that, “The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply” (ESV). Is this not an accurate representation of our grief over the Sandy Hook shootings? The violence of our day is, at least in part, the fruit of over half a century of materialistic idolatry on the part of an entire nation.

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On a practical level, our incessant quest for more stuff, combined with the rise of secularism and the gradual rejection of the Christian faith, has precipitated the horrible decay of the nuclear family—the building block upon which a healthy society functions. More specifically still, the growing absence of loving, faithful fathers has led to an identity vacuum in the hearts of our nation’s children. Show me a culture lacking in a healthy sense of identity and I will show you a nation of young men immersed in a climate of violence.

As I consider these things, I can’t help but think of the ancient nation of Israel as they found themselves exiled in Babylon—an exile brought upon by their own idolatry. But the God who they had rejected and ignored spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah with a message of kindness and hope.

“For I know the plans that I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:11-13 (NASB)

No matter how far we have fallen, no matter how things may appear, and no matter how dark and foreboding the future may look, we can all help to turn the tide of violence in our culture by seeking God with all of our hearts, by putting material possessions in their proper place, and by genuinely loving those around us. Can there be a better season of the year to get our priorities right than at Christmas?

Avoiding Shipwreck in the Nasty Waters of the Political Sea

Photo by DonkeyHotey — CC BY 2.0

Perhaps you have noticed that politics have gotten increasingly hostile in recent years. Through even limited exposure to media, the average person is constantly battered by negativity. Cruelly worded attack ads filled with half-truths and blatant lies paint opposing candidates as uncaring, devious, and even sinister adversaries looking to plunder and pillage the poor, unsuspecting soul.

Citizens of any nation have a vested interest in their governments, and our upcoming U.S. presidential election is certainly no different. The stakes are especially high for Christians who are concerned about the poor, the unborn, religious freedoms, and the general welfare of those we love. It only makes sense that we would involve ourselves in these matters.

Sea Diamond Aground – Photo by Wikiphilip – CC BY-SA 3.0

But politics are dangerous waters and far too many unsuspecting Christians have found themselves perilously grounded on hidden reefs in tumultuous seas. Without question, avoiding shipwreck in the nasty waters of the political ocean requires a certain measure of attention and skill. Those who relax their vigilance will soon find themselves hopelessly stuck.

Over the next four posts I plan to highlight four traps in the political arena that snare Christians with lightning-like tenacity. They are the pursuit of self-interests, the hardening of the heart, the quest for control, and the susceptibility to a stronghold of fear. We’ll begin with the pursuit of self-interests.

Not long after President Obama was elected, the major networks televised his State of the Union Address as he spoke to all of the very important people in government. Regardless of whether one is politically liberal or conservative, it certainly was a historic event with America having just elected its first African American president; all of Washington was justifiably abuzz. I remember one of the more seasoned political commentators mentioning that virtually every elected official was hoping for one particular thing that evening. A brief silence followed as we all waited to hear noble and eloquent words about the altruistic motives of our elected officials.

“They all want to get their faces on TV.”

Are there no political officials who genuinely seek the good of the people they serve? Certainly, there must be at least a few. (I know they exist on the local level.) Government only works well when government officials serve the people with a concern for the greater good. But serving the greater good equates to political suicide in our 30-second sound-byte world of media nastiness. Even worse, the self-centeredness identified by this particular political correspondent is in many ways representative of our general populace–and you can be sure of one thing–political candidates have shrewdly learned how to manipulate our self-centered emotions!

Quicksand Photo by Alaskan Dude – CC BY 2.0

As much as we may care about our own little worlds, we will soon be trapped in the quicksand of self-interests if we do not learn to develop other-centered, kingdom of God perspectives. The only way that a free nation can survive is if such freedoms are built upon a foundation of love. And if those who profess Christ are concerned primarily about their own self-interests, I can guarantee you that the rest of the population will fare no better. Love is not an optional side dish. We cannot survive without love.

Both the left and the right have pandered to political self-interests for far too long. One can only blow up a balloon to be so large before it explodes. The unfortunate reality of our national debt means that at some point we will all need to pay a painful price. And if we are unwilling to pay that price, you can be sure that those who come after us will have but little choice.

I am by no means trying to tell Christians how to vote, but I am warning my brothers and sisters in Christ to steer clear of the hidden reef of self-interests. Large ships are every bit as susceptible as the small, and the personal and political consequences of running aground will not be easily or quickly forgotten.

National Lemonade Freedom Day – Seriously?

Photo by Carissa GoodNCrazy – CC BY 2.0

What will you be doing on August 18, 2012? That happens to be National Lemonade Freedom Day. No, this isn’t another installment of my quirky humor. August 18 actually is National Lemonade Freedom Day. Apparently some folks feel it is time to take a stand against what they feel is ludicrous government over-regulation. Hence, they are rebelling against a nationwide crackdown on clandestine lemonade stands (see map)—you know, the ones run by devious little kids selling dangerous illegal beverages because they don’t have the proper government permits.

When I contemplate these types of issues, I can’t help but wonder how we got to where we are; how a nation birthed with a thirst for freedom can now be waging war on children’s lemonade stands. Once again, my thoughts take me back to the Garden of Eden. Far from being a myth, the story of Adam and Eve provides more insight into human nature than all of the psychology books in the world combined.

Adam & Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil with a desire to be like God apart from God. Before they ate from that tree, our ancient mom and dad had no awareness of right or wrong. All they knew was what God had given them the freedom to do (practically everything) and what He had not (eat from one particular tree). The entire explanation is rather involved, but since that day human nature has known law as its primary motivator.

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Law, which serves as a tool to govern people’s behavior,  is not necessarily bad within itself. It genuinely does matter, however, which expressions of law guide our behavior and how we respond to those expressions. This is where the confusion begins!

Conscience is an internal, moral law that reminds us of the particular aspects of right and wrong we’ve been conditioned to believe. Breaking the law of conscience results in self-condemnation and a burden of guilt.

Historically, social law has served as a powerful tool for behavior modification. These external rules for behavior are established by the cultures of our families, communities and peers. Some social laws are good and some are bad. The same goes for their enforcement. A father killing his daughter because she was raped, for instance, serves as a clear example of social law gone horribly wrong.

Our governments establish civil and forensic laws to ensure some type of order in our societies. The enforcement of these rules is intended to keep a society from destroying itself, but they are external and do nothing to change a person’s heart toward favorable motives.

Photo by Bruce Berrien – CC BY 2.0

When the inherent social laws of a culture are strongly moral, fewer government laws are needed to maintain a healthy citizenship. As common social morality is eroded, the abundance and scope of governmental laws increases dramatically. If government laws move beyond reasonable efforts to govern and into the realm of control, a society is in trouble—as evidenced by the disappearance of children’s lemonade stands from the neighborhood landscape.

Thankfully, the kingdom of God operates by an entirely different dynamic. Regardless of whether we call it the law of the Spirit of life, or the royal law, or the law of liberty, God’s law of love serves as the most powerful available means to effectively govern healthy human behavior in a free environment. More than noble, the law of love forms the foundation of the highest form of government possible.

Photo in Public Domain

An emphasis on personal freedom apart from the framework of holy love will bring certain decay to any culture. In essence, the Gospel is our only real hope if we seek to avoid controlling, oppressive leadership and bloody revolutions.

I think I’ll be looking for a lemonade stand on August 18.

Independence Day

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Living in the state of Pennsylvania has always carried a rich legacy of history. We’ve long held the nickname of The Keystone State, due in part to the abundance of old stone arch railroad bridges built with keystones to anchor them together. William Penn, Valley Forge, the Liberty Bell, the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776—all speak of an integral era in the formation of the great nation we call the United States of America. In many ways, the heart and history of Pennsylvania serve as a reflection of our entire nation.

In March of 2004, former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell announced the state’s new marketing slogan “The State of Independence”. My family recently saw this slogan posted on a sign as we returned from a vacation in Maryland. I find it interesting, however, that little is said about Pennsylvania’s motto: “Virtue, Liberty and Independence”.  In fact, I didn’t even know we had such a motto until I took the time to look it up.

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When we think of liberty and independence, many in our culture focus on the freedom to do whatever we want whenever we want. Our forefathers saw things differently. Liberty and independence meant freedom from tyranny and oppression; the ability to live peacefully, but according to a collective moral conscience. In their eyes, virtue was the keystone that joined with liberty and independence to form the true arch of freedom. Unfortunately, virtue, or moral excellence, isn’t a word we hear much these days. And because virtue is lacking,  genuine freedom is being eroded like a beach in a hurricane.

The United States of America became a great nation because its founding documents were constructed upon a Judeo-Christian foundation. Not all of our forefathers were active believers in God, but they recognized the invaluable contribution of Biblical principles nonetheless. And really, the roots of our national freedom are embedded in no other place than the New Covenant in Christ.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1 (NASB)

I understand that few people, even professing believers, recognize this aspect of the Gospel. They tend to see Christianity as a list of rules that must be obeyed in order to placate an angry God. We need only look back to the Garden of Eden to recognize that the human race was created in an environment of freedom. In seeking liberty, we are merely trying to return to our God-given roots. But independence from tyranny is a very different creature than independence from God.

Recently I watched a news report in which a government official expressed outrage over the death of young girl who was accidentally killed as gang members sought to gun down a rival. I couldn’t help but respond with a bit of anger over the whole affair. Many forces in our nation, including many in government, incessantly push for independence from God. In the name of freedom they continue to systematically erode virtues integrated with Biblical principles. And when those virtues are gone, with disdain they lament the death and chaos that cannot help but ensue.

Independence from God, the one true source of life, will always result in death. Freedom of choice without love for God and others is not freedom at all. If our motivations are selfish, if virtue is lacking, the arch collapses because the keystone is missing. Our freedom cannot possibly last unless all Americans, from the general populace to those serving in office, are motivated by a love beyond self.

Photo by nasirkahn – morgueFile

I suppose this is my one semi-political commentary for the year. I love my country, and although I’ll probably never run for congress, or fight on a battlefield like so many of our brave soldiers, I will continue to contend for the faith and freedom from which our nation was birthed. I doing so I wish you all a happy Independence (from tyranny) Day!

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Galatians 5:13 (NASB)