Monday, March 30, 2009

What We Need Most

Outside of the purely physical -- food, shelter, and water -- what is your most basic need? Is it love? Is it a sense of belonging? Is it transcendent meaning? Is it companionship? One of our most basic needs, and one we don't often think about, is the need to be forgiven. We have all said and done things that have hurt other people. Oftentimes the victims of our careless words or selfish actions are among the very dearest in our lives. Without forgiveness, relationships are simply not sustainable. After all, there is always some measure of transgression.

It's not surprising then, given our need for it, that forgiveness is a major theme throughout the Bible. There are many excellent examples woven through scripture, from Joseph forgiving his brothers, to the very profound words of the Lord's Prayer, to Jesus forgiving the thief on the cross. But one of my favorite passages on forgiveness is the parable of the unmerciful servant, found in Matthew 18. It needs to be read in its entirety, but in essence, after being forgiven a debt on the order of $5 Billion (yes, that's Billion with a B), the unmerciful servant immediately goes out and starts choking a man who owes him $7500. (These figures are the U.S. currency estimates of Lon Solomon at Mclean Bible Church)

And we've all seen these two scenarios played out in life, haven't we? We've witnessed beautiful acts of forgiveness, and we have tremendous respect for anyone who has mercy on someone who has wronged them and caused them great pain. Unfortunately, we are more familiar with the refusal to forgive, and we know all too well the ugly mark of bitterness and the disfigurement, inwardly and outwardly, wrought by acidic grudges. Of course the telling signs are easy to see in others, but how often do we examine the depths of our own hearts to root out these destructive feelings and attitudes?

And how does a person forgive deep hurts anyway? You cannot just decide as a matter of the will to forgive, can you? As a follower of Jesus Christ, I believe forgiveness is a supernatural work of God Almighty. The more earth-shattering the hurt, the more we need God's help to forgive. But we can learn a lot from the parable as well. The first part, where the servant is forgiven a staggering, downright mind-boggling debt, represents how much God has forgiven us. Certainly the sum that is cancelled is there to illustrate a point. How could this servant repay a debt of $5 Billion? Well, clearly the answer is that he couldn't, just as nothing we could do in this life could possibly make up for how we've wronged our loving Creator.

But the part of the story that is so compelling and instructive, in terms of us trying to be merciful to others, is easily missed. When the king in the parable heard the servant's plea for mercy, his heart went out to him. In other words, he had compassion on him; he took pity on him. How often when you are wronged does your heart go out to the wrongdoer? It's profound, isn't it? You have to really humanize that person. You have to put yourself in their shoes; you have to consider that as a person with a fallen little mind and a dark heart, that you could even do what they did. C.S. Lewis said, "As regards my own sin it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think: as regards other men's sins against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think." The Weight of Glory

So what does it mean then when we won't humanize the wrongdoer, when we won't have compassion? What about when we go out and start figuratively choking the wrongdoers in our lives just like the unmerciful servant? Is it just a character flaw? Is it just something we need to work on? I don't think so. A person who truly embraces the grace extended to them extends grace to others. The capacity to forgive is actually a mark, a necessary mark, of true Christian belief. If we aren't able to forgive, we've missed what Jesus did on the cross. As Lewis said, "We must forgive all our enemies or be damned." Maybe that sounds a little harsh; maybe it sounds a little oversimplified. The truth often does.

So my prayer this week, leading up to Palm Sunday, is that I will take seriously my call to forgive. May God forgive me, as I forgive others, through the power of the Holy Spirit. Here is the link to a great sermon on forgiveness from Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Passionate Purpose

Last week I had the honor of being part of the teacher interview process at my boys' school. The school is unique in many respects, but one that is most vital to me is that the school has identified a clear and specific purpose. Every decision is made with that purpose in mind. Would this curriculum further our purpose, would this teacher embrace our vision, would this field trip enrich our stated goal for our children? Without a vision it is easy to get off track. And of course, this is the basic premise of Built to Last, the best-selling business book in which successful companies were studied and compared with less successful counterparts. The conclusion was that the companies with "Big Hairy Audacious Goals" fared better. That's not surprising, is it? Having a vision is important, not just for businesses and for schools, but for people.

So what is your big, hairy, audacious, goal? If things like live in a big house, retire early, or travel the world come to mind, let me gently refer you to Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life. By means of introduction and summation, let me just tell you that the first line of his book is, "It's not about you."

To be honest, there is a dark corner of my heart that is disappointed that it's not about me. This prideful corner tirelessly tries to convince me that, in fact, it should be about me--that my happiness is paramount, that life is about my pleasures, my possessions, and my prestige. You are kidding yourself if you think a similar darkness doesn't lurk in your own heart, because it lurks in all of us. As we seek God through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and as the Holy Spirit sanctifies us, we can shrink that corner down like some kind of a vile tumor, but we can never eradicate it completely, this side of heaven.

So does that mean we shouldn't have these big, audacious goals? That we should just live day by day and do the best we can. No, of course not. God doesn't want us to just get by. His purpose is not for us to grin and bear it. He wants us to embrace the unique purpose for which we were created, and even more importantly God Almighty wants us to embrace the ultimate purpose of all creation: to glorify Him.

The idea that glorifying God should or even can be a big, hairy, audacious goal does not come naturally. But I am learning that glorifying God is not merely about singing praises and giving thanks, it's about trusting and obeying. God is glorified when in our darkest hour we trust Him. While those around us may complain that life isn't fair, that good guys finish last, that obedience costs too much, that the Christian life is too hard, God is glorified when we stand firm for Him, when we believe and proclaim that God is good, that He loves us, that we are not owed any answers for our heartaches and troubles, that He has a plan for our ultimate good.

Trusting Him is always the answer. And I'm not saying this is easy--that's why it is indeed a big, hairy, audacious goal. But it's a goal that God wants for you and for me, and that's why He has given us the Holy Spirit to help us.

Let us daily remember that "the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations" (Psalm 100:5).

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Right Words

Earlier this month I had the honor and privilege of speaking at a fundraising dinner. I think there were between three and four hundred people in attendance. Even though my little talk was only about five minutes long, I was very nervous leading up to the event. I wanted to convey the message well, and I didn't want there to be regrets over choosing me for the task.

As I closed up my remarks and headed back to my table, I passed the leader of the organization and he spoke only one word to me, "Perfect," he said. Now, I'm not so delusional to think that the word "perfect" actually applied, but how affirming to hear it! C.S. Lewis said, "Isn't it funny the way some combinations of words can give you--almost apart from their meaning--a thrill like music?" (The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves) Words have such power, and words of affirmation, no matter your dominant love language, are gifts to be treasured.

Yet so often that treasure is withheld. I have a friend who called her parents with exciting news, longing for a few supportive words, maybe even a congratulations. Instead she faced questions and discouragement. I have another friend who craves the praise and approval of her mother, yet no matter how much others recognize the daughter's gifts and accomplishments, she endures the nagging silence of her own mother.

Choosing the right words is not always easy. As C.S. Lewis said, "to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that's the whole art and joy of words." (Till They Have Faces) There is a special satisfaction in hearing those artful, musical, well-chosen words. There is also joy in speaking them on those rare occasions we stumble upon them, but maybe beyond the art and the music people just need to be affirmed. Is there someone in your life who could really use an encouraging word, even if it isn't eloquent?

And as for the "perfect" comment I received, it was an undeserved shot in the arm, but it also symbolized a spiritual principle much weightier than any five-minute speech. After all, if you've accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, flawless is how your Heavenly Father sees you. The blood of Jesus covers every wrong thing you've ever done, and to quote one of my all-time favorite songs, The Power of the Cross, the blood of Jesus even covers "every bitter thought." How incredible to think that the Creator of the Universe looks at you and at me, and lovingly declares us, "PERFECT!"

Monday, March 16, 2009

Restoring Default Settings and Sanctification

Our hearts and minds form the motherboard of our soul which determines not only our outward behaviors but our thought life as well. And like an operating system that directs the hard drive, we also appear to have default settings. Think about that for a second. Is your natural inclination, your default setting, to embody love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Hardly, right? Our natural state is one characterized not by the fruit of the Spirit, but by sin. Left to our own devices, we are prideful, selfish, materialistic, faithless, and discontent, and what's worse is that somehow the little box with the words "restore default settings" is clicked upon every day, and oftentimes many times each day.

Yet the most basic tenet of the Christian faith is that we are saved by faith, not by works, so does that mean that this defaulting to our old behaviors and attitudes is inevitable and even irrelevant? Judging from the way some professing Christians live, that would certainly be a reasonable conclusion, but it's far from biblical. Yesterday my pastor even said that it would be better if these people would stop calling themselves Christians, and as harsh as that may sound, it is the truth. (Listen to his sermon here). It is really a disservice to the Lord Jesus to claim to know Him while living a life without evidence of His presence.

But one of the problems with addressing this issue is our propensity to slip back into a works-based mentality, and Paul's admonition to the Galatians is instructive. He says, "Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (Gal. 3:3) We are justified by grace. In fact, we have absolutely no role whatsoever in our justification. We are blameless in the sight of God because of Jesus' atoning sacrifice. And even our faith in Jesus is a gift from God, and not something we can boast about. But after justification there seems to be a fork in the road that has at least three prongs. Many people think that what they do does not matter. They cling to the thief on the cross and the promise that he would be in heaven that very day, erroneously reasoning that we need not have any fruit in our lives. Other people try to sanctify themselves, and Paul is aghast at the stupidity of it. It's as if he were saying, "What is wrong with you people, do you really think that you can grow more Christ-like on the basis of human effort?"

But there is a third option that neither throws in the towel nor relies on our own good work. Simply put, it is biblical sanctification. Again, it is Paul who sheds light on this principle, advising that we "continue to work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose." (Philippians 2: 12-13) So in this life we may still wake up every morning with a need to unclick some sort of default setting, but praise God we have a Counselor who is faithful to help us in this endeavor, who will guide us and empower us to seek and do God's good, pleasing and perfect will.

May we live by the Spirit this week, and may He lead us into all truth.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Paradox of Fear

326 verses

Knowing & Doing

I have an article in the current issue of the C.S. Lewis Institute's publication, Knowing & Doing. The C.S. Lewis Institute "endeavors to challenge, educate, and disciple those who will, like Lewis, articulate, defend, and live faith in Christ through personal and public life." As I have mentioned in the blog before I am currently doing year two of the Institute's fellows program. Learn more about the fellows program here. It would be impossible for me to overstate the influence this program has had on my life, and I recommend it to everyone who has a desire to grow deeper in their faith. Applications are due April 30th.

Click here to read Knowing & Doing. My article begins on page three, and summarizes the string of tragedies my family endured between 1999 and 2004. Although these were difficult years, I learned to trust God more deeply and to more fully embrace the blessings for today. My prayer is that, even though the article is somewhat difficult to read, that it will be an encouragement to others.