Echo and Narcissus

The question arises, how do we persuade people to cross over to the beautiful land of grace? How do we persuade people of the greatness and liberty and power and true virtue of the life of freedom? How can we convince someone that it is enough to believe that we are God’s beloved pearl, the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son, greatly longed for and greatly rejoiced over when found? How can we convince people to finally let go of their fears and enter into the joyous universe of God’s passion and love for us? Under grace, what is evangelism?

God came to earth and clothed Himself with flesh. God spoke in simple stories, stories that anyone could understand. God became a part of the culture He was born into, while at the same time speaking and acting in a fashion so contrary to its comforts that He was killed for it. We can do no better, and we can expect that if we speak the very truth of God Himself, only for the love and benefit of all, we can expect all the more opposition. It is no shock if we are often ineffectual. Instead of responding with faith, they killed Jesus for being perfect, and we are far from perfect.

We live in a massively narcissistic society. There is very little honor for the things other people have done, that other people have said, for the deeds and successes of others. We do not read because we would rather be on FaceBook. We fashion our lives around consumption: consumption of the flickering shadows of fake entertainment people, cars and gadgets and such. Real life, real authority, real adventure, real heroism, lies with the entertainer who is far away and fake. Real people, even celebrities themselves, hold no honor for us whatsoever. We delight in the revelation of their failure. People do not want to listen to our message, to God’s message. They want to talk, they want inoffensive entertainment. Even as we talk to each other, we listen only enough to fashion our interruption. No pastor is free from the constant threat of the ire of his congregation. Even as we coexist, we only tolerate our lives until we can escape to be entertained. It is fine to offend as long as it doesn’t offend me, as long as it doesn’t challenge me personally to change.

The church has become dishonored and irrelevant, but not because it no longer speaks truth or has answers. It is because the church seeks to break into the zombie-like trance of a world enslaved by glowing rectangles, in order to speak an unwelcome message of substance and beauty. The resistance isn’t generally a thoughtful resistance, it is an irritated and distracted resistance.

This is not a phenomenon which is peculiar to our times. From the garden of Eden onward, people everywhere of all times are more interested in being their own god than in hearing from the actual living God. We are at heart self-interested, self-absorbed, and enraptured by our own cleverness and beauty. We cannot be spoken to, we are too enraptured with ourselves and with our own opinions and thoughts. We want to be our own Lord and Savior, we do not want to let another assume that role for us.

The infant is completely self-absorbed, it can only express that it needs or wants something, and it doesn’t even quite know what. That is our society, a perfect picture. How can we talk to it? You start by getting down with the baby, and meeting its needs. You start to echo its own meaningless cooing noises, mixed with words it cannot comprehend and filled with a love it does not fathom. You cannot demand a child’s rapt attention by threat; you get down and play with him with the same toys that he is interested in. Communication happens by courtship, and appeals not to reason, but to desire.

Jaques Derrida uses the Roman myth of Echo and Narcissus as a metaphor to understand the problem of communication. In the myth Echo is a wood nymph, and is a constant chatterbox who will not stop talking. She apparently is so offensively talkative that the gods curse her to speak only by repeating the last part of the utterances of others. Narcissus is a handsome youth who is infatuated with his own appearance reflected in a pond. Echo falls in love with Narcissus and tries to break through to communicate with him by repeating his own phrases back to him in subtle ways that began to make him realize there was some ‘other’ communicating.

Communication is an incredibly deep and complex event, it does no good at all to oversimplify this. We must use our present culture, however flawed we think it may be, and echo its own icons and memes and images and words in ways that cause it to wake up from its self-absorbed fog to consider that there is a great Other calling. God longs for this narcissistic world, He calls to us all across the incessant noise of our internal self-absorbed blather to enter a life of cosmic romance and adventure. He calls us all, all men and women, to stop and listen to the sound of the Grand Quiet, to step out of the universe where we seek to be our own God and savior, into the infinite timeless joy of the universe of grace. He loves us very greatly, and He calls to us to enter into this romance, this great embrace, to come away with Him to a new universe where love is all the rule, and great gifts are given without requirement or payment.


Grace for the church

I have heard SO MANY terrible things about the church! Everyone I talk to, Christian, agnostic, and atheist, seems to think that it is the most flawed institution ever. I am certain that it is the root of all prejudice, hypocrisy, greed, heresy, small-minded ignorance, and petty fear. It is too inward, too materialistic, graceless, homophobic, too easy on sin, avoids hard issues like eternal hell and damnation, is seeker-sensitive instead of Christ-sensitive, culturally irrelevant, and on and on and on. The church is hopelessly out of touch with real scientific truth, and is full of morons and stupid people who won’t even acknowledge the obvious truth of evolution. Most churches probably believe the earth is 6000 years old and flat. Maybe at one time the church was great and highly influential, but now it has descended into a morass of complete and hopeless evil and worthless impotence and irrelevance.

I am here to criticize this criticism on the church’s behalf. Yes, it is a bit surreal, but I am going to go with it. I am a little tired of all the self-proclaimed prophets and apostles (like myself!) who constantly prattle on about their little soap-box issues, which may or may not be valid points, as if our soapbox and our criticism is the problem with THE ENTIRE CHURCH.

Here is a news flash: the church is full of sinners. After Christians come to Christ, they are still sinners in need of mercy. It is full of people who don’t really know what they are doing. Every single one of them. Including its members who so easily criticize what the other members are trying to do. Even the best pastors have trouble juggling multiple competing issues and directives in a balanced way, and not every pastor is perfect. So even if they have a clear and right mandate from the Holy Spirit, they are not perfectly executing on it. Is there not grace and patience for that?

The old zeitgeist was that the church was hopelessly culturally irrelevant, was not enough about relationship, and was not seeker sensitive. The new zeitgeist is that the church is trying so hard to be seeker sensitive that it has thrown out the substance, is too hipster, is too frank about sexual matters perhaps, and is not reverent and even liturgical enough. The church should be more timeless.
Here is the real point; when church leaders criticize this way, they begin to define themselves by their criticisms, and the times when they need to be more seeker-sensitive or culturally relevant, or timeless and non-hipster and reverent, they have been so vocal against the idea that they can’t comfortably step into that paradigm. If they would shut up they might have more options in following the leading of the Holy Spirit as things develop.

So, if a particular church’s vision and mandate is to be seeker sensitive, then for God’s sake it should be seeker-sensitive. Its leaders should perhaps listen to the criticism and see if there is any way they might improve, but they should also realize that God terribly loves their church and is far more committed than the critic to seeing its vision and ministry succeed.

If a particular congregation is middle class and affluent, and is basically inward and not into helping the poor, it could conceivably come under fire from the people who say that the problem is that it is callous and inward and unconcerned about the unfortunate. Well, maybe that congregation is truly guilty of this. Its members did not join because they were fired up about helping the poor now did they? Are they going to hell for this? Are their wounds and concerns and problems any the less? Maybe that church’s leaders want to lead them to more concern and work for the poor, to be less busy toward some lesser concerns. But they have families and children and jobs and it isn’t so easy an issue. Is there grace enough to let them fail and to lead them into true relationship with the Father and into true concern for all people, including the poor?

Here is the point. The real message of the church is grace. Oddly enough, grace applies to the church! Grace is required most when it is challenged. It doesn’t mean there aren’t problems in the church. It doesn’t mean the church is doing it right at all. Look at it like this: my wife is fantastic. She isn’t perfect, but I am not going to be happy about it if someone is going to go on and on and on delightfully pointing out her flaws so they can look smart. They don’t look smart when they do that. They look like a self-aggrandizing malicious fool. And this is what most of these criticisms of the church look like.

So, to the critics who lead the church, I say, stop it. These are all difficult issues in a very difficult modern environment, and we are more than ever under fire. If you want the church to be like this or like that, say so with respect for the dignity of the church. Hipster seeker-sensitive churches or liturgical churches may not be your style, but they are doing what they think is best. Maybe you think that most churches in North America don’t do enough for the poor and prisoners and such; how can you best influence them? Personally I think most churches don’t emphasize grace enough, but you know what? They mostly believe in grace to a certain extent, and I would like to be able to helpfully and GRACIOUSLY speak into their environment in a way that they can receive it. As my wife is constantly pointing out to me, it does no good to preach grace ungraciously.

Almost all North American Churches:
1. Care about seeker sensitivity somehow, and want to welcome non-Christians
2. Have a degree of timeless reverence
3. Have a concern for the poor and downtrodden
4. Believe in holiness and repentance
5. Hold to the essential doctrines of the faith
6. Truly believe in the grace and mercy of the Father
7. Are locally and globally missional, to some extent

So, to the leaders in the church, if we are going to speak into churches, we need to realize that no pet idea or doctrine is going to cover every congregation completely. The very impulse to get down to the beating heart of the best criticism of the church is damaging. The first thing to realize is that God loves every human, however flawed, and God especially loves His church. He calls it His bride. He knows about the flaws. He also loves that certain people have enough passion and thoughtfulness to think about the church in such broad terms. However, the idea that it is somehow helpful to go on pinpointing what is wrong with the church, setting ourselves up as some kind of infallible judge, is harmful not only to the church, but also to the criticizer. Sure the church has a degree of “cognitive dissonance”, betraying and transgressing its own best principles, but honestly is this confined to the church? The commands of Jesus are meant to be almost impossible to keep. Why is it shocking that people ‘claim’ to follow Jesus and do a poor job of it? Of course they do a poor job. We are all sinners, flawed and lazy and incomplete and selfish and misguided in many ways, in need of a savior. He is here to forgive, to bless when there is no merit for it, and to lead us truly and with grace and dignity to better pastures. None of these flaws are really the complete truth about the church or any of its members. It does no good for us to turn around and stand our ground and yell at the sheep for being lost or out of the pasture. We completely miss God’s heart for His church this way. Instead, speak grace to His church, with a sensitivity to His heart for His bride. We cannot see what the church is like until we at least try to see the church with His eyes, and His eyes are full of love and hope.

The Grace Which Humbles Us

“And He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” Deuteronomy 8:3, NASB.

How could it be that a God of grace, a God who loves us with kind intent, humbles us, and lets us be hungry? The notion behind grace is that God has loved us with an everlasting love; yet here we have a seemingly sadistic streak in God, willingly leading us into physical and emotional distress. How does that jive with grace? This is not just a disciplinary measure, but something enacted on a whole nation of the chosen, many of which were faithful.

When my son asks for, in fact demands, official Nike socks, when I resist and deny him, it isn’t from cruelty. I don’t think that he is in sin because he wants a certain kind of socks, so this isn’t an issue of discipline or correction. Note also that I do not deny his request from lack of funds; I have the money for it. I want him to have the things he wants, and I weigh out his requests and desires carefully. The truth is, I want him to reexamine what he wants, to deepen and broaden the way he looks at the world, to change his values. As he goes forward, it will be a much greater gift to him to learn to be satisfied with otherwise identical but non-branded socks, because his money will go much further. No one looks at or cares about the brand of your socks, and if they do, they need to change the way they look at people and the world. In other words, there is a much greater gift being offered than socks, and the socks are being denied towards a much greater end. I am trying to give him a taste for wisdom.

We see this directly in this verse. God doesn’t deny them and let them be hungry out of punishment or discipline or cruelty. This lack of provision is intentional, from the very hand of God, towards a good end. He intends that they UNDERSTAND that motive and principle and the underlying thoughts of a man must be fed by the words of God, and this is a much greater need, a much greater hunger, than food. Notice that he does not say, you don’t need food, you only need wisdom. He provides both; He provides physical sustenance in a manner which also leads to wisdom.

Note as well that their lack of provision was not from some lack of diligence or work on their part. This is clear. “HE humbled you and [HE] let you be hungry.” Their very lack was in fact an act of grace. They were humbled, they were hungry, by DESIGN. In a strange way, their lack of provision was God’s provision for them. They themselves valued bread above wisdom, but He saw through it and pressed them into the greater gift.

Notice that they did not ever lack provision. They just didn’t get the kind of provision they were expecting, from the sources they were used to. However, they also gained something far greater. Grace presses us into blessings which we can’t envision and perhaps don’t even think we want through circumstances which often at the time do not seem desirable. Faith says,

“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28, NASB.

Now, what of children in Africa who die from hunger? This is not discipline, this evil, and the pure love of God must burn with great wrath against the people who are responsible for such things. We must not press this message into places where even God would not take it. When the circumstances of life and the convergence of the evil interests of men lead to injustice and the harm of someone who is largely innocent, I believe the God who loves us seethes with anger the same as a parent who is grieved for their child who is killed by a drunk driver. There is a walk of faith where provision is hard to see forthcoming, and yet provision comes, and teaches us, and then there is harsh evil. There is a line there, we must embrace the discipline, but fight evil. There is no reason to be crazy.

For those walking in faith, sometimes those things that are working together for good do not seem gracious, but we can expect in the end to live in the good land with a joyful heart full of truth and wisdom. The grace of God not only endures through difficulties, sometimes the grace of God engineers them, to press us into greater blessings that we could not otherwise enter.

Discipline and Grace

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you. Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you.” Psalms 32:8, 9, NASB.

We tend to use the word ‘discipline’ in two ways. There is self-discipline, or the ordered and focused life that is effectual in its purposes. The disciplined life says yes to the right things, even when it is hard, and no to the right things, even when it is hard. The disciplined life knows its own callings, gifting, and strengths, and forsakes other pursuits in order to excel in them. The disciplined life lets others win at their callings, trusts others to excel in their areas of gifting, and focuses on its own complementary success. In fact, Jesus took great care in choosing disciples, and led them and trained them in a very unique and individual way.

The second kind of discipline is God’s discipline, or rather the discipline of another imposed upon an otherwise undisciplined person. This is a correctional action taken when an individual does not seem to be capable of self-discipline. In both cases discipline means the same thing – the focus on a higher and better goal through sometimes difficult means. If one does not or cannot discipline themselves, if they cannot bring themselves to a place of order and focus, another must impose some form of force to bring them to do so. It is the same idea, but its source is either self, or another person, or God.

Jesus’ Example of Self-Discipline
We tend to think that the spirit-led life, the life of grace and mercy, is a life of free-wheeling ‘where the wind blows’ craziness. To a certain extent it is. We see this in the life of Jesus:

“The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8, NKJV.

If you ever try to do a study on Jesus in terms of time management, productivity, or discipline, you will find that there is nothing there. He’s going here, going there, up praying at 4 AM unexpectedly (if He always did this, wouldn’t the disciples have known what to expect?) He would hang around and then leave town unexpectedly. The disciples never had any idea what He was going to do next. It’s almost like the defining characteristic of Jesus’ walk was its complete unpredictability from day to day. Some need came along and He turned aside; yet in every case it served as a teaching moment for the disciples, and in every case it all fit some larger purpose.

Despite the apparent chaos, there is an order, an intensity, a focus to Jesus’ way of living. He had a tremendous vision to seriously offer the kingdom of God to the nation of Israel before we see a clear shift in focus where He turns away from that and begins to focus on His disciples and building up the seed of the church. This is way beyond the scope of this chapter, but next time you read through one of the gospels watch for it, and in the middle of the craziness and the wind-blown itinerary, we see a focus and a discipline to teach certain things to certain groups and not to other groups, to heal people for a time in an area and then leave others unhealed and move on.

Look at this passage:

“Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; “and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”” Mark 10:32-34, NKJV.

This is toward the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, and we see that the disciples were amazed, because they understood the danger, the impending calamity, that certainly awaited Him there. He knew what He needed to do, it was not pleasant, and yet the Spirit led Him, just like it led Him to the desert to be tempted, to His crucifixion. He marched ahead of them, facing up, moving surely toward His fate. On the way, as usual, He is interrupted and heals people and takes on the issues and problems and addresses the misunderstandings of the disciples. The discipline and order of the spirit led life is not one that avoids difficulty, nor is it one that avoids the messy problems of real people along the way. Peter, who was on that road with Him, and was one of the amazed ones, presses the point:

“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God.” 1 Peter 4:1, 2, NKJV.

ARM yourselves with the same purpose! If you are ready to suffer in the flesh, if you have it in mind to do God’s bidding no matter the cost, if you have set your face toward the place of your cross, you are ARMED, you are dangerous to the forces of evil. If you are distracted, seeking comfort and entertainment, led astray with spiritual ‘ADD’, if you are not ready to face your obvious purpose and fate, you are unarmed, harmless, aimless, wandering, and ineffectual.

It is strange, but you can always bet that the one thing you are avoiding is the one thing that is the most important thing you need to do. Once you lay that aside, once you set your mind to suffer, once you are of a mind to set your face like flint toward your Jerusalem, you are freed. It is strange as well that it is usually one thing, one simple thing, that faces you, and it is not that you lack revelation or understanding, it is that you do not want to suffer, you enjoy your aimless comfort. It is a problem of the will, not of the lack of some mystic revelation, that prevents you from being in the stream of the strong purpose of the Spirit’s leading.
Paul, the guru of grace, has much to say about all of this. One of my favorites is in his letter to Timothy:

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” 2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV.

and here:

“You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. The hard-working farmer must be first to partake of the crops. Consider what I say, and may the Lord give you understanding in all things.” 2 Timothy 2:1-7, NKJV.

We have an agenda, a clear manifest. We are not called to cordon ourselves off from the random needs of people and the daily pressure of the unexpected, but rather we are called by the Spirit to arm ourselves with the strong purpose to take up our cross, and go forward into the amazing adventure of following Him who did the same for us. Jesus’ example of discipline under grace is broader and more free than keeping a planner perfectly with each 15 minute time slot filled in. Discipline under grace is effectual and gets to the heart of us in the most direct way. When a jazz musician plays music, instead of following an exact page of music note for note, he or she plays along with the other musicians in a freely improvised way that follows the same set of chords. This is the self-discipline of Jesus. He was a great improviser, and He knew how to follow the changes perfectly and with great creativity and originality.

Grace vs. Imposed Discipline
If we are asked BY GOD to suffer in the flesh, to ‘arm ourselves with the same purpose (1Peter 4:1)’, how does that harmonize with the operations of a God of love and grace? Are we allowing bondage and servitude and legalism in the back door through teachings on discipline? Before you go on with this, I want you to pause and let yourself really inwardly ask this question, to honestly consider it. You might pray, “Lord, if it is true that You LOVE me and have mercy and grace so strongly for me, WHY all this talk about discipline and such? Why do You make it so hard?” It is important that you truly own up to your own doubts and internal fears and anger about this, you can’t just go day by day reading trite theories about things. There is certainly a danger in teachings about God’s discipline, in that it leads to a wrong fear and a subtle underlying disbelief in His love and mercy and grace. Some people become very dejected in their faith and are constantly expecting to be punished and disciplined all the time, and expect that most of God’s dealings with them are going to be harsh and disciplinary. Let’s look at the most famous text for this subject:

“You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin; and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, “MY SON, DO NOT REGARD LIGHTLY THE DISCIPLINE OF THE LORD, NOR FAINT WHEN YOU ARE REPROVED BY HIM; FOR THOSE WHOM THE LORD LOVES HE DISCIPLINES, AND HE SCOURGES EVERY SON WHOM HE RECEIVES.” It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” Hebrews 12:4-13, NASB.

One of my sons sometimes has a bit of trouble keeping current with his school work. Recently when I called him to task, and grounded him from a number of things, he got very upset and wanted to know why I was “going Nazi” on him about it. He later went on to say that he feels that he can’t talk to me about anything any more, and he feels that I am always angry with him (we are actually quite close). From my perspective, I love him, I didn’t even raise my voice, and I seek nothing except success and healing for him. We have a tendency to overplay the harshness of our discipline, don’t we? If God reveals through our conscience that we have an area needing correction, in our immaturity we are likely to view all of His kindnesses through that lens, because it speaks most loudly. However, this discipline is far from the final message God has for us. There is a very big difference between punishment and discipline. Discipline sees weakness and failure and brings whatever measures to bear to bring strength and healing. It has nothing to do with justice or moral wrong-doing. Punishment has more to do with facing the consequences for moral wrong-doing. Here we are talking about discipline, not punishment. In the end, discipline is meant to be joyful, but not in the moment of pain. Discipline leads to peace and fruit, in the end.

In fact, the discipline of God is the surest sign of His grace. He means to keep with us, to lead us on, to take us to a point of blessing and peace, even when we ourselves resist. He is more committed to our good fortune than we ourselves are! Isn’t it true that our closest friends, the friends we trust most and have known the longest, are the ones who tell us the things we really need to hear? God is not less committed to us than our friends. Grace means God really means to bless us, to keep with us, to bring us to a place of true and lasting joy, even when we ourselves go astray and lose our heart. Discipline is one means to this end, but it is not His whole voice nor is it by any means the only thing He has to say. It is an occasional season of revelation to us when we are having trouble hearing more reasonable voices.

Discipline Under Grace
The picture that emerges is that whether discipline is self-imposed, or imposed by another, it is still a very present necessity under grace. Grace says, though you define blessing in a certain way, God has enough grace to redefine you. Even when you are set against God’s definition of blessing, and insist on a lesser definition of blessing, God’s grace will still prevail over you to your ultimate benefit. He does not cave in to your childish tantrums and strong-willed notions of what you think you want. He persists in real love and real blessing even when you completely misunderstand Him. When we begin to understand this, we begin to go along with it. We begin to arm ourselves with the purpose of suffering in the flesh. We begin to focus on the discipline that is certain to be imposed anyway. We set our face like flint to the cross at hand, knowing that beyond the pain we once feared and desperately avoided lie resurrection and joy.

Let the boy win!

A certain young musician was gifted and enthusiastic. He came under the tutelage of a teacher who had a reputation as being very effective in guiding young musicians to great skill. The student practiced diligently week after week, and at each lesson the teacher pointed out many flaws in the student’s playing. Month after month, he sought to perfect his playing according to the teacher’s guidance. Always, the teacher was able to point out something else the student was doing wrong. Finally, after several years of this, the joy had left him, and the young musician exploded at the teacher in the middle of a lesson. “I can NEVER do right by you, you only and ever see what I am doing wrong! I can never win, never succeed with you! When will I ever do well in your eyes?” The teacher smiled serenely and replied, “Showing you what you are doing wrong is my job.”

Everyone is starving to be recognized for their success, to be applauded for their efforts. I remember an incredibly powerful art installation in a coffee shop with the words “Let the Boy Win” written in large letters over and over hundreds of times on the whole side wall of the place. Between fathers, teachers, bosses, girls, sports, peers, virtually every relationship that is possible, it is incredibly rare that boys experience a win. Their lives are often so fragile and tenuous, their efforts at pleasing all these disapproving groups of people are so rarely successful! Young men in particular can get so beaten down in every relationship. Girls have their own sets of impossibly difficult judgements at every turn.

There is a certain way of looking at grace that would rob us of the possibility of winning. We might imagine that grace is all about our acceptance despite our failure. It sees our failure over and over and over. In this mindset, God is ever the merciful, the piano teacher in the sky who only constantly wants to correct our technique, but never lets us win. It is the father who always sadly shakes his head but would never dream of disowning the damn kid. Under this rubric, God loves us such that He is only and ever tolerating and correcting us. This is such a flawed and limited view of the nature of grace. In fact, it is the nature of law, not grace, to point out our flaws, to keep moving the finish line.

It gets much deeper than this. If it is by grace and not by works, then there comes the expectation that we must joyfully do stuff, and expect no reward at all, because rewards are based on rules and earning favor by effort. Grace, in a strange way, becomes a law that asks us to work happily without reward, which I think is one of the things that legalists rebel against in their hearts. If we get every blessing regardless, and there is no reward for our efforts, why do anything at all? The dynamic is similar to this little story Jesus told:

“”But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat’? “But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk; and afterward you will eat and drink’? “He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'”” Luke 17:7-10, NASB.

In context I think it is worth noting that He is explaining to the disciples how it is possible that they should forgive seven times per day! He says it requires faith like a mustard seed, and such forgiveness is like magically uprooting a tree and casting it into the sea. He says, once you have achieved this monumental forgiveness, don’t seek thanks!

On the other hand, we are in various places exhorted to expect reward:

“”Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:11, 12, NASB.

“But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” Romans 2:29, NASB.

“For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.” 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, NASB.

In a way, we seem to be constructed such that we want to excel at things and be applauded for it. I believe that part of our identity that comes from being made in the image of God is the desire to be excellent and to be praised for it. However, It is height of folly to think that we should only do things for reward; it is like the 3 year old who says, “I will only love you Mommy if you give me another cookie!” We do what is right, like persistent forgiveness, because the right thing is inherently beautiful in and of itself. On the other hand, we are mindful that the Father is pleased with our efforts and sacrifices and work. He does not withhold praise and reward, but He seeks for us to act in love and mercy simply because it is best.

Ironically, the grace which comes through the justice which is satisfied by Jesus’ blood, is a door to the the recognition of the reality of our own virtue. Whereas those under law want to say that we can perform righteousness, in fact the law can only continue to point out more wrong. It is a hungry monster whose appetite can never be satisfied. Righteousness under this dynamic becomes just like the parable of the locked door- a repeated and futile attempt to open a door to a party which will just not ever open. Grace allows the freedom to screw up, to know you are forgiven, to stand up again, and to recognize legitimately that maybe your fall this time was a better failure than the last time. It gives you the power to extract the precious from the worthless as concerns yourself, without being insane. Under grace, you acknowledge your failure freely, you recognize that justice is only satisfied by His sacrifice. However, under grace you are also able recognize your success, you can see the precious there. You can say, yes, my righteousness may be as filthy rags, but it is indeed true righteousness! The constant flow of the accusing invective of the law crashes on the rocks of grace, and we emerge as righteous, the precious that is there in us can be seen as real.
Jesus views us as the precious pearl, worth selling all to obtain. Who are we to say He is wrong? He is not wrong, He is right, and the sooner we start to believe that, the sooner we start to live under that rubric, the sooner we start to allow this dynamic of the Kingdom of God to manifest in our lives, the sooner we can put away our sullen failure and live with joy as the greatly desired bride that we truly are.

Repentance Under Grace

Two guys were standing at the edge of a great canyon, a huge gaping gash in the earth. They stood on the edge of the cliff, looking down to the tiny ribbon of the great river flowing so far below. It was a bit dizzying and frightening to look over the edge into such a great abyss.

One of the guys said, I bet you I can jump over to the other side! The other looked at him, and said, of course you can’t. Are you crazy? The other man insisted he could do it. Finally, the skeptical man said, fine, go ahead and show me.

The man stepped up onto a large rock, well away from the edge of the canyon. he said, “See! I can jump to the other side !” He jumped easily over a crack that led down to the edge of the canyon, a nice jump of about a foot. “That’s part of the canyon, and I jumped over it!” The skeptic shook his head and smiled, and looked back across the canyon and down into the splendor below.

The man under law wants to redefine the law so that it is doable. This definition ends up reducing the difficulties it presents to a practical human level, ignoring the obvious difficulties that performing the law truly represents. Ironically, putting oneself under the law reduces its message and reach. Grace sees a bigger picture, and recognizes the scope and sweep of true holiness. The man under grace can recognize that his own righteousness is as filthy rags:

“For all of us have become like one who is unclean, And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment; And all of us wither like a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” Isaiah 64:6, NASB.

C.S. Lewis tells the story of a shrewish controlling overprotective woman, who views her own greatest role in life to be that of a mother to her children. Her own greatest gift to her children was also her greatest failure; she smothered them until they couldn’t wait to get out of her clutches. Her mothering was not for the sake of her children, it was all to serve her own sense of self worth. Her greatest selflessness was completely and utterly selfish.

Even so, it is often true that our own greatest strengths and sacrifices are really nothing but self-serving rottenness. The things we think we most need to repent of are often our least offensive attribute, and the greatest successes we have may be our worst sin in the perfect light of God.

The point of all this is that repentance could never be only about the sins we feel bad about. Not only will we have trouble perfectly conquering these things, but these are the least of our problems in the end. Nothing but a repentance of belief, that God alone knows us and truly loves us, can take us across to sustainable change. Jesus’ message is that of a God who is like a Father who perfectly loves us, washes away our fears of judgement, and removes the impossible task from our shoulders of measuring up to the law’s standards. Our only hope is easy-believism, because that is the only thing we can understand to be honest and true as a point of faith. Anything else waters down the true imprint of the law upon us, and greatly diminishes the scope of the reach of repentance upon our lives and desires.

Repentance and Fruit
Repentance in the New Testament is the English word translated as ‘metanoeo’, which occurs in the NT 54 times. ‘Meta’ means, with, or after, while noeo means to understand, perceive, consider, think. So we can understand the word to mean, to live after pondering, to change after consideration. One might observe simply by the nature of the word that repentance is primarily a change in the mind, such that one begins to live differently. I aim to show that this change of mind is much more than a human resolve to be more moral, instead it is a change of mind about how we think of God and how we believe He perceives us. It is this kind of change, a change in belief rather than a change in mere behavior, which leads to fruit in keeping with repentance.

We find early in John the Baptist’s ministry that he is preaching repentance:

“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” Matthew 3:8, NIV.

We find that Jesus goes quite far in agreeing with this idea of repentance that produces fruit:

But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig-tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “”Sir,’ the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'”” Luke 13:1-9, NIV.

If you look closely at Matthew 3:8 and Luke 13:1-9, it is clear that repentance is not the fruit, repentance is that inward state, that frame of mind, that leads to fruit. Jesus’ parable shows that, even though there is no visible fruit, yet true repentance might be present, and might eventually manifest with fruit; wait a year and see if repentance manifests with material evidence. John uses the idea of repentance and fruit in the traditional law-based sense, which is to say that he uses it as a weapon to beat up his hearers and to prove to them that they haven’t really repented. This was a crucial introduction to Jesus’ sense of repentance as a joyous reconciliation, as we’ll see in a bit; John’s ministry really served the purpose of the law, to show people their true need for grace. We see from John through Jesus’ early ministry to his later ministry, that if you produce fruit in keeping with repentance, that means the repentance itself is not the fruit, but that true repentance brings fruit. There is a false repentance and a true repentance; true repentance is not fruit but leads to certain fruits, certain evidences of repentance. There is a division between what repentance is and what fruit is; they are different but interrelated. This is very similar to Paul’s notion of the fruits of the Spirit:

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:18-23, NIV.

In Paul’s universe, this repentance that leads to fruitfulness is a passage from fleshly dependance on the law to a Spirit-led dependence on grace. This is the interpretation that is consistent with this scripture as well, and harmonizes with the meaning of the word itself. The mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace.

Repentance as Reconciliation
As His ministry moved forward, Jesus’ way of teaching about repentance caused sinners to rejoice and gather around, and caused the religious to grumble and complain. Here we find that He emphasizes the role of God in our repentance, and we find the emphasis on the bearing of fruit to be only marginally present:

“Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering round to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners, and eats with them.” Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” Luke 15:1-7, NIV.

Please notice this. Jesus addresses the issue of repentance in such a way that sinners flocked to Him. How many times have we seen this in our churches? Generally, teaching about repentance makes us want to slink away and disappear. Jesus depicts repentance as a homecoming, a joyous reconciliation. Not only that, but He puts a great bulk of the responsibility for finding the sinner, the pivot of repentance, upon Himself. The shepherd goes and looks for the sheep and finds it. It is not so much the fruit of human resolve, but the willingness to be carried along after being lost. In fact He rebukes the Pharisees and teachers of the law for making repentance to be all about conformance to their ideas about law. He is saying, in effect, that true repentance is about reconciliation. This is the repentance that brings fruit.

Notice in the scripture that it is not the persistent fruit of repentance that causes rejoicing. It is the pivotal change itself, the change of position of the sinner. The 99 righteous do not elicit a heavenly party, it is the one who repents. How could this possibly work? Do the heavenly party-goers have that much faith in this sinner’s ability to repent and stay repentant? Do they really believe that strongly in his new-found moral will?
It can’t possibly work that way. They really could not be celebrating because he suddenly had a gust of guilt and made a decision to stop doing bad moral behaviors. Paul is clear, and my own personal experience is clear, that this could never ever work. There is no way this is what they are rejoicing in. A call to moral repentance, and some beaten down resolve to stop repeating embarrassing behaviors, can never last. So what is the dynamic at work?

I think it works like this:

The problem with repentance under the law is, the moral change is incomplete, and is insufficient to satisfy the justice of God for the sin. It assumes the justice of God is satisfied with the remission of our sins simply because we promise not to do that sin any more. This is a small and erroneous view of the justice of God. Repentance under law also says that the blood of Jesus has nothing real to do with my ability to enter the favor of God, it has all to do with my own moral change, meaning that with a few embarrassed flawed promises to ‘repent’, we can manipulate God’s very justice. Morals under this paradigm are also seen as something to be done as obligation apart from favor, thus disconnected from the favor of God and performed entirely under human animus.

If repentance means a change in moral behavior, it can only mean a verbal or mental promise of change. It cannot mean a true complete change, because no one knows what will happen or what they will do. They can only promise verbally.

If this verbal promise is the basis of forgiveness, then if one becomes weak or is tempted again in an area of weakness and fails, then forgiveness is forfeit. If one fails a small bit, since the basis of forgiveness is forfeit, the door is no longer immediately open to mercy, and so one continues in sin, whose pleasures become the only comfort available. Under grace, real scandalous grace, the door remains open to enter back into holiness when one strays, and one can expect the help of God instead of the wrath of God, all without sacrificing God’s justice and holiness. Thus repentance as belief in grace is the only door to sustainable holiness, the introduction into a spiral of ever-decreasing sinfulness.

Repentance under grace has far more ability to achieve the lasting fruits of repentance, because it assumes the help of God, which assumes forgiveness PRIOR to moral change. It satisfies the genuine justice of God and beyond, the sentence of death for all we do wrong. Moral change is given as a gift, and is not seen as that which manipulates the favor and action of God. Repentance understood as belief in grace is a true sustainable inward change, the kind of change that can be expected to lead to real fruit. This is the kind of repentance the angels and heavenly host celebrate, because it is an entry into the favor and power of God in a person’s life. It really is more like God finding us, rather than us promising not to leave God.

Notice that we are talking about repentance UNDER GRACE. I am not saying that we are justified over and over again by this process. The idea is that we make behavior affecting mental changes because of grace, not to achieve it. We do not let our repentance, our ongoing purification, our sanctification, intrude into our justification; on the other hand, our justification must constantly inform and empower our sanctification.

Tullian Tchividjian sums the whole idea up very nicely like this:

“We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Christ alone, and God sanctifies us by constantly bringing us back to the reality of our justification.” (

Mere Belief
We generally are not comfortable with the idea that repentance means mere belief. Belief is too vaporous, too ephemeral, too easy. Manly religion asks for real repentance, repentance with hair on its chest, full of valor and deeds and proof and grand promises of change. Jesus does not share this idea:

“They said therefore to Him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”” John 6:28, 29, NASB.

The door to real repentance does not go through the decision and will and persistence of man. If it is based on a man’s moral fortitude and vigor, then we probably wouldn’t need repentance in the first place. The repentant man is a failed man, a weak man, a sinful man. It is a man who has the desire for sin etched deeply into his habits and psyche. The drug addict can drive into a strange town and know by instinct exactly where to go to find drugs. The repentant man is a practiced expert in the art of the forbidden. Sin is powerful and the man’s genius and skill have in his history been fully engaged in seeking sustenance for his desire there. It is no small task to change these things. A man’s singular decision to change cannot depend entirely upon himself. Repentance must include in itself the seed that will grow to consume his life, with the understanding that he will be weak and failing in it at times. It must include room for mercy, for grace, for instant help. It must have God’s favor, it must believe in the kindness of God, right up front, before there is fruit. This belief is true repentance.

We have trouble believing that God is able to accomplish this level of change in us, that we can trust God that the work He has begun in us, He will perfect until the day we meet Him (Philippians 1:6). We want to change ourselves; God only speaks with a still small voice and we demand an earthquake of change. We want to repent ourselves because we actually don’t believe God is able to substantively help. This is why belief is the pivot point, the central issue. The main point of human agency is faith, and repentance does not lie outside of this equation. This transfer of the desire from the gratification of sin over to the love and trust and favor and fellowship of God and His people is the real change that leads to true repentance from the heart, a repentance without regret. Thus Paul says:

“For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” 2 Corinthians 7:10, NASB.

Boldly to the throne of grace!

“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:15, 16, NKJV.

This is an awesome verse from the first section of the book of Hebrews, in which the author is going on and on and on about the excellence and superiority of Christ. He talks about His deity, His superiority over the angels, the power of His word, and His incarnation – that He became flesh. And so we come to this little gem.

He is a High priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses! He knows what it is like to be tempted, weak, and confused. He knows, He has been there. God has assumed flesh and understands!!! This was one of the points of the incarnation. He was in ALL POINTS tempted AS WE ARE. Temptation to greed, compromise, laziness, gluttony, sexual things, slander, covetousness, murderous anger, He understands it all. This is a tremendous comfort, He is never shocked by our weakness.

Now, here is another thing to notice: He was without sin. Him. HE was without sin. The obvious point of the verse is that it is clear that no one else is without sin. He experienced our weaknesses, but whereas we sin, He does not. The implication is that it is known that WE SIN. Whatever else the writer of Hebrews is talking about anywhere, being diligent to enter rest, getting discipline, being of faith, whatever, you can bet that he knew that he was talking to SINNERS. Ragamuffins, scoundrels, chest-beaters, beaten down bruised reed type of people. Weak, tempted, and NOT without sin.

If he meant that it was all in the past, but that now in Christ we are largely sinless, then why would he be going on talking about going boldly to the throne of grace? He is talking about NOW, real sin in our current experience. Otherwise we would have no further need of the throne of grace. Well, I don’t know about you, but I find that comforting and a pretty helpful thing!

Here is the kicker: Jesus uses this experience, this knowledge of being weak, not to rub our noses in His success and our failure, but to foster sympathy. When we are weak and tempted and actually fail, He thinks, I know what it is like, I know the power of forces that led you to failure. Therefore I sympathize, therefore I have arranged for grace! Instead of using our failure as an opportunity to execute justice, He uses it as an opportunity to show mercy.

Now, if we are thus to come boldly to the throne of grace, does that mean we sin, and go through our obligatory guilty period, until we have enough repentance under our belt experientially that we can prove that it is OK to pray again and maybe expect favor, as long as we have excuses and promises of change ready? That isn’t coming boldly!!! You think you can ‘repent’ better on your own without God’s help? How is that working for you? When we sin, our place of healing and forgiveness and change IS the throne of grace. It is, after all, a throne of GRACE!! The only place you are going to get forgiveness and absolution and real repentance and true change is the throne of grace. You want to change, you want to repent, you want to stop certain behaviors? Where else do you think that is going to happen? It happens there, at the throne of grace. Go boldly confess freely, admit everything. It is, after all, a throne of grace!

Here is a great thing. The seat of ultimate justice, the seat of ultimate power, the center of ultimate judgement, is also a throne of grace. If God ministers grace from His throne, you can bet that the justice that you fear in your conscience is dealt with completely. It is not a fake coping mechanism to make you feel good, a psychologist’s pill to cover over your turmoil with a narcotic fog. It is truth. There may be consequences in this physical world, but the tables are turned. In all actual truth, in REAL LIFE, the ultimate seat of judgement has extended mercy and favor, and in the end that will stand forever.