Posted on

The lie behind my “yeah, but” spirituality

What attitude do I bring to the Scriptures when I read them? Is there an attentiveness to what is written? Is there an expectation to hear from God? Is there a readiness to obey?

Obedience is at the heart of faithfulness. If God is King and I’m not, then how can I do other than obey him?

not_so_sure_about_that.jpgBut I see in myself and hear from others a “yeah, but” spirituality, where we agree with God to a point but then put the brakes on our obedience.

I don’t mean that we should read a story like that of Jephthah (Judges 11, particularly 11:29-40) and make rash vows to God that cost the lives of our children. Rather, we ought to read stories like that and make well-considered vows to God that we follow through on as tenaciously as he did. The story is painful as a cautionary tale in its reminder of how good people can make stupid choices. But it is also a reminder of how seriously those who came before us have taken the kingship of God.

Each day, I need to hear the Scriptures and ask questions that lead to obedience.

For instance:

What does it look like for me to honor my father and mother (Ex. 20:12) without qualifying it with a “yeah, but” that keeps me from doing it?

What does it look like for me to love my wife the way Christ loved the church and give myself up for her to make her holy (Eph. 5:25-28) with no “yeah, but she said this and didn’t do that.”

What does it look like for me to hear Col. 3:23-24 as I do my job? “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

What does it look like for me to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Then. 5:16-18)? And how do I do this in a culture that teaches me to complain, to reject suffering, to spend time on my iPhone instead of praying, and to always want more for myself? How do I “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3-4)? I really want to say, “Yeah, but they’re not looking out for my interests!”

I am full of yeah-buts. They take the substance out of my Bible reading and my obedience to Christ. But what’s even worse is I project a “yeah, but” hesitancy on God as well.

Even though the heart of the Gospel is Jesus in the Garden telling his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 2:42), before obediently going to the cross, I have to admit that I often treat God as if he’s holding back, as if he’s holding out on me. Even though the Scriptures are together the story of God’s full attention on redeeming humanity, I treat God as if he’s not generous, not faithful, not intent on blessing me.

Even though “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6), I expect of God: “I would reward him, but …”

I don’t actually say these things to God. But the way I live betrays a belief that God is holding out on me, that each “yeah, but” to him from me is matched my a “yeah, but” from him to me.

I need to live 2 Cor. 1:20 —

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

I need to hear God’s overwhelming YES in Jesus and respond with a full-bodied YES of my own.

When I do so, my obedience will be that of a dearly loved child to his open-hearted Father. It will be the obedience of richly rewarded servant to his generous Master. It will be the obedience of well-taught disciple to his wise Teacher.

There is no hesitancy in God toward me. May there be none in me toward him either.

Posted on

The self-offering of worship & the importance of giving our money away

In an effort to communicate to visitors that they aren’t trying to get their money, many churches have given up the practice of taking an offering during Sunday worship. I get the intention behind the change, but it’s yet another mistake brought about by a desire to not ask too much of people and to appear relevant.

One of the key movements in worship is sell-offering, a giving over of self to God. Without this, I don’t believe anything else we do in our worship gatherings is actually worship.

The great issue in most of our lives is kingship. Who is King here? Is it me or is it God? When Adam and Eve took and ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden in an attempt to be like gods, they usurped God’s throne. They claimed kingship over their own lives, denying God’s kingship.

So, what was the central message Jesus proclaimed when he began to preach? The kingdom of God. God is King. We aren’t. Caesar isn’t. Building our own personal and political kingdoms is doomed even before they are begun. The only way to effect real and lasting change in our lives and in this world is to lay down our crowns before the throne of our God.

And what do you know? That is the very image the Scriptures give us of creation put right. God as King on his throne and us as not-kings tossing our crowns at his feet (see Rev. 4, especially verse 10, as an image of what heavenly worship looks like). Our worship should be modeled after that.

Now, we do this in bits and pieces.

Singing can be a means of emotional sell-offering.

Simply showing up for worship is a physical means of sell-offering. As Romans 12:1 urges, we offer our bodies to God in worship when we bring those bodies to worship.

But giving our money to God is worship at another level.

Giving our money to God in a regular, conscious, active way dethrones the god Mammon and our desires to rule our own lives. Money is means. It opens up possibilities. It gives us the illusion of control over our lives by giving us a bit of real control. Giving that over to God is a massive act of submission and obedience unlike almost anything else we do.

Bringing our sacrifices to God and laying them before him is one of our greatest acts of sell-offering.

About a dozen years ago, I brought a bunch of kids up front during worship and talked about this stuff. I said one of the things about sacrifices is that what you offer gets burned up. It’s just gone. No one gets to control it.

So, I pulled out a $100 bill and showed it to them. One of the kids took it to his mom, who confirmed the Benjamin was legit.

Then I pulled out a lighter and caught the bill in my hand on fire. There was a gasp in the sanctuary as legal tender money for burned up into nothingness.

“Bye, bye, hundred dollars!” said one of the kids.

Now, I had actually swapped a Washington for the Benjamin, so had only burned one dollar. But the point was made.

When I offer my money to God, it’s gone. It’s not mine anymore. It’s fragrance in God’s nostrils, not power in my pocket.

Posted on

Let it be

Let it beWhen Paul McCartney wrote The Beatles’ song “Let It Be,” he may have been thinking of his own mother Mary who died when he was 14 and not the the mother of Jesus, but he nailed the biblical Mary’s spirituality in the song’s title and key phrase: Let it be.

The very last thing said in Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel are these words:

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, ESV).

We’re told the angel left upon hearing them, meaning Gabriel took that statement as both agreement and permission for the pregnancy and birth of Jesus to take place. As such, it is both the most humble and the most audacious thing a person can say to God’s messenger.

First, there’s the humility.

The two-word Latin prayer Fiat mihi comes directly from this verse. Translated as “Let it be to me,” it is the ultimate voicing of submission. It offers no resistance. It sets no conditions. It merely receives. It takes what’s coming.

I wonder how many times the boy Jesus heard his mother tell the story of that angelic encounter and her final response to the astounding request? Because I hear an echo of it in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

The words are different, but the attitude is the same. They both have a posture of openness. They both say, “Yes,” to God.

Mary’s Fiat mihi becomes our most basic prayer as we respond to God. We humbly do what he tells us to do, go where he sends us. As we pray it, like Mary, we define ourselves as the Lord’s servants, not as those who follow our own dreams, not as those who serve our feelings and desires.

Mary’s YES to God isn’t vague. It comes in response to a specific request.

Different translations render Mary’s statement differently, but I prefer the ESV as it follows the KJV here. “Let it be to me according to your word.” As such, it becomes an opening prayer when we read the Scriptures.

Uttering that as a simple prayer before even opening the pages of our Bibles establishes a posture of attentiveness and obedience before the reading begins. “Let it be to me according to your Word.” Let these Scriptures speak to me and let me obey them.

It’s a gutsy, dangerous prayer, setting us in motion before we even know where we’re heading. It’s a trusting, beautiful prayer, setting our hearts at rest in the unfailing love of our God, knowing he is always good, always faithful.

187558_the-annunciation-gabriel-appears_lg.gifBeyond their humility, these same words of Mary are also bold words of permission. In their YES, they express an ability to say NO.

The angel leaves after Mary speaks these words. He’s dismissed by them. Before hearing them, he hasn’t received the permission necessary for the conception of Jesus to take place. Theologians have suggested that Mary became pregnant the moment she uttered her Fiat mihi.

It boggles the mind to think that Mary could have derailed the Incarnation by her refusal. But this we know about our God: He is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on anyone.

God rapes no one. Mary gets pregnant with Jesus only by giving her consent.

This is a great mystery that we all take part in. The great God of the universe allows each one of us to accept or reject him. And Mary shows the best way to respond.

Fiat mihi.

(In the painting accompanying this post — L’ Annonciation painted in 1644 by Philippe de Champaigne — Mary has a book in front of her, already showing her willingness to hear and obey God through the Scriptures.)

Posted on

False piety & the sign of the virgin

The Christmas story is one of our favorite and best. There’s no shortage to the ways it speaks to us of our great need and God’s great love.

But among all of its beautiful themes, it is a cautionary tale. It’s a head-on collision with our false pieties, our religious posturing that looks like faith but is actually far enough from it to fall flat.

The sign of the virgin in Isaiah 7:14 seems simple, even if humanly impossible:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

It’s quoted in Matthew 1:23 as part of the angel’s dream-message to Joseph. Its message there is plain: In Jesus, God is with us. As such, it pairs nicely with the very last verse in Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Jesus is the always-with-us God.

That’s massive. Millions of sermons have be preached on it and rightly so.

But the sign of the virgin in Isaiah is less like a hug and more like a slap in the face.

King Ahaz was in a tough spot. Armies were gathering and he could feel the political winds turn against him. So, he was considering what moves he could make to leverage himself against the mighty powers arrayed around him. It was into this turmoil that God sent the prophet Isaiah to speak his mightier presence with Ahaz and the people of God.

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights” (Is. 7:10-11).

In what seems like humble piety, Ahaz demurs. Who is he to ask God for a sign?

But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.” (Is. 7:12)

We’re not supposed to test God, right? Didn’t Jesus say something like that later on?

But this isn’t piety. This isn’t faith. This is rebellion. Ahaz doesn’t want to ask God for a sign, because he might get one. And if he gets one, he’ll have to trust God to do what he’s afraid of.

This is where I find myself far too often: Wanting to look and feel faithful while retaining control over myself and my decisions. I want to worship God as king while remaining king over my self-decisions.

To this, the prophet Isaiah replies, “All right then. If you’re not going to ask for a sign, you won’t get the sign you want. But you’re going to get a sign anyway. A painful, unhappy sign. It’ll be a sign of destruction. You’ll get the sign of the virgin.”

The child to be born of the young woman would be called Immanual, “God with us,” not as a comfort, but as a judgment. You see, “God with us” is vague in meaning. In which way is God with us? Is he with us to embrace? Is he with us to discipline?

The false piety of Ahaz is laid bare and the sign of the virgin is devastating: The country will be laid waste.

Almost immediately after the sign of the virgin in Matthew, we come across a similar false piety in the gospel story. Magi come to Jerusalem and the pastors and Bible scholars are called to tell them where the king of the Jews would be born. They know their Bibles well and point to Bethlehem. But here’s the problem: They don’t go there themselves.

Knowing and loving our Bibles without stepping out of our comfort in an attempt to find Jesus out there somewhere is a vacant spirituality.

So, I’m left with the question: Where has my perceived piety grown thick where my obedience has grown thin? Because of that, in what way will God be with me today?

Posted on

What are you pursuing?

If there is a motto for America, it is simply this: Pursue happiness. It’s sometimes rephrased as “follow your heart” or “follow your dreams,” but the idea is the same. Meaning and direction for life come from within and particularly from our desires.

How different then from American culture — how foreign, how odd, how holy — is it to base a life off of God’s desires for us instead of our own desires. How alien to base a life off of God’s commands and not our own impulses.

Psalm 119 is our greatest expression of a desire to desire differently. It immerses our personal human longings in the longings of God. It resolutely reorients our lives to God’s words, God’s commands, God’s precepts, God’s statutes. It is emphatically unAmerican.

Today, I’d like to spend a little time in the eight verses in Psalm 119 which start with the Hebrew letter he (pronounced “hey”), verses 33-40, to let them reorient our lives toward God and the way he has laid out for us.

Teach me, Lord, the way of your decrees,
    that I may follow it to the end.

What God has for us is a way, a path, a road. It only makes sense by following it to its end, just as it would make no sense to drive halfway to your house. Yes, there might be nice scenery along the way, but a part-way journey has no meaning. It gets us nowhere.

Kinda listening to God. Kinda being taught by him. Kinda following his decrees. That leads to a kinda life, not a full life. And the goal of God’s decrees is life to the full.

Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law
    and obey it with all my heart.

The mind and the heart find unity in obedience, not in throwing off restraints. But over and over again in every kind of movie and novel and song, we’re trained in the way of rebellion. Raised in a country founded on throwing off the rule of a faraway king, it’s not wonder we’re so well-versed at throwing off the rule of the great King.

But throwing off God’s Kingship merely leads to a fragmented life. For none of us is ruled by a single internal passion, but when we give in to one of them, we find there a legion others with voices and commands of their own. Only by obeying the single voice of the One God do we regain a unity to ourselves.

Direct me in the path of your commands,
    for there I find delight.

sinfullydeliciouslogoContrary to popular opinion, the path of God’s commands isn’t devoid of pleasure. And yet advertisers have tapped into this thought that God hates pleasure by referring to an exquisite dessert as “sinfully delicious.”

On the contrary, we discover the path of God’s commands is actually where we find delight. This road isn’t just a trudge. God isn’t a kill-joy. He is the Father of Delights. He invented pleasure. All good gifts come from his hands. It’s when we grab and steal pleasures that are outside of God’s best for us that we end up with a hangover and an empty heart. Those sinfully delicious desserts taste good going down, but their pleasures never last (though the extra inch on the waistline is remarkably lasting).

Turn my heart toward your statutes
    and not toward selfish gain.

My heart always bends toward the selfish. But living the Me-centered life is living the smallest life possible, for it crushes everything down to Me-size. God’s statutes always pull me out of myself, turning me outward to God and others in love. And the love-shaped life is a God-sized life. In includes the whole world and more.

Turn my eyes away from worthless things;
    preserve my life according to your word.

The things that dazzle my eyes and lure my heart, calling me to pursue them, always disappoint. Always. None fulfills its implied promise to satisfy. Instead, each grasp for the thing I covet leads me into some form of slavery and death. God’s statutes preserve my life.

Fulfill your promise to your servant,
    so that you may be feared.

God says, “Lean toward me that I might lean toward you.”

The fear of the Lord isn’t being afraid of God. It’s leaning toward God. It’s considering God in any and every situation. It’s seeing the world through God glasses.

When we lean toward God, we find him right there, leaning toward us.

Take away the disgrace I dread,
    for your laws are good.

There is no disgrace, no shame for those who live according to God’s laws. His laws are good and lead to the good life — a life that we ourselves experience as good and a life where goodness is extended to others. This good life ensures a good reputation.

This good life according to God’s laws is a life without secrets, a life without hiding. It has nothing in the closet to keep hidden, no shame it fears being exposed. It is one, true, congruent life that is the same inside and out.

How I long for your precepts!
    In your righteousness preserve my life.

Living this different kind of life says to God, “As I grab ahold of you, grab ahold of me. As I give myself in love for you, give yourself in love for me — and in that love, save me!”

A life lived like this, according to Psalm 119, doesn’t make a person proud by what he or she has accomplished. Rather, it makes a person humble. This isn’t the life I’ve figured out, the life I’ve crafted for myself. This is the life I’ve received. This is the life God figured out and crafted. I just get to enjoy the gift.

Pursuing happiness is an endless and frustrating pursuit. For happiness is never achieved. Never. But the pursuit of God and the following of his good ways is a fulfilling pursuit. For God is here with us every step of the way, always within reach. Always.

And beyond the hollow happinesses our culture tells us to pursue, our God offers real, deep, and eternal joy. What our culture calls slavery turns out to be a beautiful freedom.

Posted on

From Bible reading to Bible living 

Followers of Jesus have always had a sense that our Bible reading ought to lead to a change in the way we live our lives. We are followers, after all, and following has action at its heart — action that is purposeful and directed.

Now, simply getting busy is neither here nor there. Far too many of our self-directed attempts to manage and construct our lives are neither faithful nor successful. If we are to be followers of Jesus, the initiation for that following begins with Jesus, the leader, not with us. Living responsively begins with listening to him and that means turning to the Scriptures.

But the way we read the Scriptures determines what we’ll get from them. If we want to get past a dead-end spirituality, where everything is about me, we must not only read our Bibles, but ask four questions as we do so.

1. What does this tell me about God?

First and foremost, the Bible is God’s story. If it were primarily about us, it would be filled with long chapters detailing our needs and the answers to those needs. But there is not even one single chapter on parenting. There’s a bit more on romantic love and marriage, but still not a whole lot. There are a few proverbs on business advice, but not enough to fill a booklet to be read on a short business flight. The point: Our first question when reading the Bible has to be about God, not about us.

So, what does the passage being read tell us about God? What do we see him doing? Not doing? What surprises us? What do we tend to skip over and take for granted?

When the religious leaders question in their hearts, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” in Mark 2:8, we ask ourselves if they’re right and conclude that they are.

A little later, in Mark 2:15, when we see Jesus sharing a meal with the hated and notorious sinners of his day, we conclude that God is not as put-off by sinners as we are as we see his missionary heart on full display. And that leads us to our second question.

2. What does this tell us about ourselves?

As I mentioned above, the question of the religious leaders in Mark 2:16 exposes our own rejection of people whom we consider bad guys. Perhaps it’s the sinners we reject. Perhaps it’s the religious leaders we reject. But any honest reading of the passage exposes something unsavory about ourselves.

Other passage reveal beautiful and glorious things about we image-of-God humans. And still others point to our purpose on this earth amid all of the seeming purposelessness surrounding us.

Even the briefest of verses — “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) — shows us something of God and of humanity, of tragedy, of need, of longing, of friendship, of love. But we only see it if we ask to have it shown to us.

And when we see it, we begin to understand what to do with it.

3. What does this call us to do?

In a conversation, Eugene Peterson said to me, “After years of reading the Bible, I now simply ask, ‘Where does it call me to obey?'”

Since most of Scripture is story, most of it contains no direct command to us. But with the thinnest amount of imagination, we can all find an implied word to us to be obeyed.

Take that terse verse above, “Jesus wept.” If that’s all I read today, I could take from it the imperative to weep with those who weep, to not hold back my tears at the pain I see all around me — in friends’ lives, on the news, in the novel I’m reading. The command may be to soften my heart. The command may be to comfort those who weep. The command may be to find a comforter so that I may weep over the hurts I’ve been holding behind a brick wall and a stiff upper lip. The command may be to see the world as God sees it and join him in his weeping. The command may be to put my weeping in the past tense and move back into life again. The command may be to pray and work for the ending of that which has caused my tears and the tears of many others.

Again, it’s a matter of imagination, of listening to the voice of Jesus in the text calling us to follow him, of longing to obey the kindest of all masters.

And that voice ends by asking one last question of us:

4. Whom am I called to share this with?

Too often we dead-end the Scriptures with our own lives. We listen. We take them in. We personalize them. And then we stop, satisfied with what we’ve received.

But we’ve been entrusted with a message, with good news, with the greatest story ever told. This should be uncontainable.

Water that gathers and doesn’t go anywhere else begins to stink. It becomes a swamp, a bog, a wetland. It has its place in the ecosystem, but the water becomes undrinkable. We’re not to be swamps, but to be rivers. We’re to let the life-giving water of our Lord pass through us and bring that life to others.

Sometimes, this means sharing the stories with those who don’t know and love and follow Jesus in what we call evangelism.

This might be as simple as, “I was reading this story about how Jesus ate meals with people that religious people avoid. I love that about him and wish I were more like him.”

It might be, “I was reading about the time Jesus cried. I don’t know when the last time was that I cried. I wish I cared for people as much as he does.”

There’s nothing pushy about those comments. And they’d be just as fitting to share with Christians as with anyone else. What they do is combine personal reflection with the sharing of Scripture in a non-manipulative way.

If I’m willing to share my reaction to the last episode of The Walking Dead or some other show, why wouldn’t I be willing to do so with my latest reading in the Scriptures?

And so, we’ve walked in a very natural progression from thoughts about God to thoughts about ourselves to a call to action and a call to share this powerfully transforming Word of God. This is how Bible reading becomes Bible living.

[I learned these four questions from Jeremy and Maria Chase, missionaries in Cambodia.]

Posted on

Is my God really just my dog?

I love my dog.

Ebony comes when I call her. She goes to her bed when I tell her to. She’s always excited to see me. She does tricks when I offer her a treat and runs through as many of them as I want when I’m ready to feed her breakfast or dinner. In fact, she’s so excited to please that she’ll try to guess which trick I want her to do next.

Too often, I treat God that way, like a dog. And I’m not alone in this. It’s disturbing.

Think about how you interact with your God.

Do you want your God to always be happy with you?

Do you want your God to answer quickly when you call out?

Do you want your God to do all sorts of complicated tricks to make things work out well for you, even though you probably don’t deserve for things to work out well because of what you’ve done?

Do you expect to get something from your God when you’ve given him something (fed him)?

Do you expect your God to be there at the snap of your fingers and not bother you the rest of the time?

Do you go on walks with your God? (That one was kinda meant to be a joke.)

It’s kinda scary, isn’t it? Most of us want a dog, not a God.

The biblical story of Uzzah helps us resist this attempt to domesticate God into a dog.

Uzzah was a priest in Israel at the time that King David came into his throne. Where King Saul had neglected the worship of the Lord, calling on him when he wanted but letting the ark of the covenant languish in storage. (The ark was a gold-leafed box with two cherubim on its lid, representing the throne of the Lord — Yahweh is often referred to as enthroned between the cherubim.) Saul seemed more interested in securing his own throne than the Lord’s throne.

When David became king, he quickly arranged for the ark to be brought to Jerusalem, the new capitol city. (See 2 Samuel 6 for the story.) But something happened along the way. The cart the ark was being carried on hit a big bump on the uneven road to Jerusalem and was about to fall to the ground when Uzzah reacted with the speed of a short stop and kept it from falling.

Instead of the ark falling, Uzzah himself fell dead.

David was mad at the Lord because of it. In fact, he canceled the intended celebration and sent the ark back into storage, leaving it at Obed-Edom’s house for the next six months.

Think about that for a moment. Uzzah died for trying to do the right thing, for trying to protect the ark, the throne of the Lord. What could be wrong with that?

A few things.

1. Who is supposed to be doing the obeying here? Is Uzzah supposed to obey the Lord or is the Lord supposed to obey Uzzah?

When Uzzah reaches out his hand to steady the ark, he is disobeying a direct command of the Lord that no one is ever to touch it. By reaching out his hand, Uzzah not only disobeys, but he acts in a way to control. He is the man in charge.

There’s a reason why the word hand is related to the word manipulate. By handling the ark, Uzzah was manipulating God. And that is something our Lord will not put up with.

2. Is God’s throne really in danger here? Remember, the ark isn’t the actual throne of the Lord. It’s a representation. As a representation, it has significance, because it symbolizes God’s rule. And yet it’s not the real thing. There is no physical throne for our non-physical God.

Our Lord’s rule is not threatened by the possible denting of a symbolic throne being dropped. His rule is threatened by disobedience and manipulation.

When we get the direction of obedience backward, we are in danger of having our God reduced to our dog.

But how many pastors handle holy things in far more cavalier ways that Uzzah?

How many church musicians crank through worship tunes as if they were a set in a concert?

How many preachers are more interested in writing sermons than in reading the Bible?

How many theologians are more interested in the response of the academy to their papers and books than our Lord’s response?

Our God is no dog, but his treatment of Uzzah should be viewed like the warning bite of a dog who’s had her tailed pulled a few too many times by pesky punks. Hands off! There is a power here that is amazingly and lovingly controlled but which should not be treated with contempt.

We’re the ones who need to go to obedience school. Not God.