East and Not-East

As Christians we know that we are in the world but not of it. Navigating this relationship requires more than quoting a great verse, it requires applying great wisdom. How do we know when we are appropriately in while also not being inappropriately of? How do we live here without living like here?

We can’t address every particular right now, but we can say that worldliness is a sin that should be addressed. Many professing Christians, Christian organizations, and churches deliberately adopt worldly behavior for sake of evangelism, sometimes behavior that didn’t even belong to their own pre-Christian days. Their philosophy of ministry aims to show the world how much Christians are like the world. While specific turns along the way are important, we should at least acknowledge that we can’t be going east and not-east at the same time.

Loving to be loved by the world is part of what it looks like to have the love of the world. In other words, unwillingness to stand out from the world is worldly. The world talks about non-conformity, but only to be conformed to the cool group talking about non-conformity. Christians who blur the lines of Christian doctrine and obedience are acting like the worldly blurrers, not believers.

Thinking that we can be friends of Christ and friends with the world is worldly, not obedience. Jesus’ half-brother James wrote, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4). The apostle John commanded believers not to love the world (1 John 2:15) and said, “Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you” (1 John 3:13).

We will have enemies. We will be at odds either with God or with those who are at odds with God. To the degree that we compromise our loves with the world we need to confess that as sin to God. He will forgive us, cleanse us, and conform us to the mold of His Son.

Fostering Awareness

Last Sunday was Orphan Sunday. It’s not a holiday, though many churches observe it in the United States and in other countries. For that matter, November is National Adoption Month, at least here in the States. In both cases, the point is to make special effort to heighten awareness of year-round needs throughout the world.

As a church we support Andrew Schneidler and the Children’s Law Center of Washington. He is a lawyer helping make permanency possible for families that don’t have financial resources. We give him money each month and make supplication for him almost every Sunday. As a church we also took up support for the Good Shepherd’s Children Home in India through Kidstown International. Likewise, we send money and make prayers for the kids and for the leaders of that orphanage.

We’ve promoted (and run) in the Adoption Run for Antioch Adoptions. Some of us even organized an event a few years ago to cut adoption costs for a family desiring to take kids into their family. Last Sunday night we also made a large statement through a small party on behalf of the Hall family who are closer than ever to bringing in to their home some kids who don’t have a home, kids who don’t have a place or parents to parent them.

In less brochure-able ways, we are involved in orphan prevention. We do have the obligation according to James 1:27 to help widows and orphans. We also have the obligation to love our wives, respect our husbands, and not exasperate our children but raise them in the culture of Christ worship. It may be too dramatic to call that orphan prevention, but it is not too dramatic to call it obedience to God our Father. We are to lay down our lives for one another, for others, including little others.

From our homes, to Western Washington, to other continents, God created us to love others, especially those who are weak and needy. If we only love those who earn our love, those who make it easy for us to love them, then we do not realize how potent love like God’s is.

Surprised by Sin

Even though we do the same thing around the same time in our service every Sunday morning, those who benefit most from our time of confession are probably those who are most surprised. I’m not talking about visitors. In one sense those of us who participate regularly should be more surprised each successive week that we have more sin to confess.

We are Calvinists so we have a hold on the petal of total depravity, even the one-pointers. We believe that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We believe that even when God regenerates us He doesn’t sanctify away all our sinful practice instantly but progressively. We believe that a Christian who says that he has no sin makes God a liar. So how can I say that there is a place for surprise when we come to see our sin?

We are surprised because we also believe the gospel. We believe that God saves sinners and that means we are dead to sin–in reality. Believing the gospel means that we’ve been raised with Christ to walk in newness of life–right now. Believing means that God has granted to us all things pertaining to life and godliness–for the present. Believing means that God set the seal of His Spirit on us to make us more holy–before heaven.

We are likely to be surprised by an exhortation that exposes another sin to confess because we believe that the gospel has taken root in our lives. Our optimism, our hope in the gospel, motivates better confession.

G.K. Chesterton observed that only optimists reform anything. Cynics and pessimists see evil and, well, they knew it would be. Optimists are still startled by injustice. “What?! That’s not right! That doesn’t belong!” Anyone can rail against unrighteousness. Only a man with gospel hope will want better.

The pessimist resents evil solely because it is a grievance. The optimist resents it also, because it is an anomaly; a contradiction to his conception of the course of things. (All Things Considered, 53).

We are not naive about sin, and certainly not sentimental towards it. We acknowledge that we are sinners being saved but we also acknowledge that the power of gospel overcomes the power of our sin. God calls us to mortify our sins, put them to death. He also calls us to believe that sin will in fact be put to death and stay dead, even as we confess it and repent.

Catching the Right Bus

At our Life to Life leaders’ meeting last Wednesday we discussed how discussions are going at our different Life to Life groups. In order to know how they are going it’s necessary to know where they are supposed to be going, and that leads me to make a couple comments.

The goal of Life to Life groups is not transparency, though we cannot get to the goal without it. What is “transparency”? Let’s say that transparency is speaking and behaving in a way that matches reality. Transparency hates lying and posing. Transparency requires honesty and refuses to hide. No man redeems himself by keeping his sin in the shade regardless of what our reticence says otherwise.

One stock objection to being transparent in a group setting is that if you tell the truth about your problems, your problems might hear you. By that I mean, if you are having a hard time with your spouse or your kids or your co-leader, transparency will run them over in the disrespect bus.

But before we can answer that concern, we should remember what the goal of the meeting is in the first place. The goal is not transparency, the goal is obedience. And whose obedience? There’s the bus we really need to catch.

We don’t meet together at L2L (or elsewhere) to hear about the sin of your neighbor and pow-wow about how we might get him to change, the big jerk. He may really have problems that need addressing, but what we want first is our own obedience. I may flutter my Kindness Cape around since I’m not criticizing others, but I’m still missing the point if I’m not confessing the mess in my heart.

That’s one reason why our time of confession every Lord’s day is so important. God does not want our transparency only, nor does He call us to confess the sin of our neighbor that’s making our lives so damn hard. He wants our obedience and He sees under every pose and blame and tight lip and lie. He also forgives every one who confesses and forsakes his sin; He’s faithful to do it.

We’ve Got a Long Way to Go

I have never met a runner convinced that he would race faster if only he could carry a heavier bag. Runners run better by dropping weight, not by picking it up, just as a Trans Am loaded down with a year’s worth of college accumulation doesn’t get better gas mileage. Switching illustration fields, rose bushes never trimmed never bloom as much as they could.

Often we ignore these realities in our souls. We stubbornly cling to beloved burdens and sin that makes running that much harder. We pile on worldly mindsets and wonder why we can’t get up to spiritual speed. We defend every branch of interest we have, even the dead ends and judge the emptiness of our branches as a sign that spring just hasn’t arrived.

God does not accept or make excuses for our fruitlessness. He calls us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” so that we can “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). He calls us “put off [our] old self, which belongs to [our] former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires” (Ephesians 4:22). And “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (John 15:2).

“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). If God didn’t love us, then He would let us hold on to things that keep us from true life and more fruit. Let us not despise His correction but receive it for our good as sons.

A Confession Blessing

Who gets the most benefit/blessing when we confess our sins? In other words, who do we confess our sins for?

We do confess our sins for our good. Because of the gospel, when we confess our sins, God takes away the burden of our guilt; think of the progress Pilgrim made after his burden was removed. God also gives peace to disturbed consciences. And He restores fellowship to us who broke away. We get the benefits of forgiveness and reconciliation. We sinned, we get salvation, so we confess our sins for us, right?

Yes. We do not confess for sake of our neighbor’s vindication. We’re not concerned about satisfying his desire to hear us admit that we were wrong. But the one who gets the most benefit and blessing when we confess our sins is God.

He receives glory as the law-giver. How do we know what to confess? He defines disobedience and our acknowledgement of His standard is also an acknowledgment of His authority. As the earth glorifies the sun by orbiting around the sun, we glorify God by orienting ourselves around His Word.

He receives glory as the redeemer. Where else could we go to be delivered? Who else promises to deal with our sins? He defined the bad news and gives the good news. As a doctor gets credit for curing those who come to him, God gets glory for healing those who come to Him.

So our confession of sins is part of our worship not only a preparation for worship. It does deal with the hindrance between us and Him but, as we obey and focus and trust Him, He receives honor. Be glad to know that we confess our sins for God, and He is pleased to hear us.

Not About Heaven’s Books

We are continuing to learn about the seriousness of our sin and the need to confess and forsake it. We are growing to hide it less and to deal with it more often, more quickly, and more thoroughly because we are tasting the glad fruit of fellowship.

We are not more prone to sin because grace abounds. We are not more indifferent to sin because we get frequent reminders of God’s forgiveness in the gospel. As we grow closer to God, as our love for Him warms, we are both less likely to sin and less interested in running away from the conviction when we do sin. Both steps of sanctification run on the path of fellowship. The union we have with Him draws us closer to Him and causes us to miss Him when we disobey.

A husband who blows up at his wife ought to feel like a heel and seek to make it right. A husband who blows up at his wife and doesn’t care about the relational rift is in great danger. It isn’t merely his anger that is the problem, though he should confess that sin. It’s what his anger does: it breaks fellowship. The disconnect between persons is worse than the rise in his blood pressure. If he is happy being isolated from his wife then he doesn’t know what a husband is for.

As Christians we don’t confess because we want heaven’s books to be accurate. We confess because that’s what God told us to do in order to get back what we walked away from.

Broken Pencils

Some failures cannot be fixed by getting a new sheet of paper and starting over. If the pencil is broken, rewriting the assignment won’t make the work neater.

As Christians, God’s Word provides the master image in front of the class that we’re supposed to copy. Scripture reveals what our portrait is supposed to look like. When we see an error on our paper, we try to correct it. But sometimes we assume, wrongly, that our motivation is right, it was just poor execution. We really should be more quick to take a look at the pencil.

Solomon used a different illustration: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:26). If the spring is polluted, the shape of bottle you use to contain it can’t purify the water. If the source is contaminated, giving it a pristine name won’t make it clean. If the fountain is messed up, everything downstream will be too, no matter how many EPA officials declare it suitable for drinking.

God’s Word tests our hearts. It sets the standard for our work. His law points out the problems in our behavior in order to bring to light the problems in our hearts. We confess too little when we confess disobedience if we do not also confess that the disobedience came out of us (Mark 7:20-23). We need a new pencil, a new spring, better love, not just better behavior.

Centuries Long Confusion

Our blessings are almost an embarrassment. If we were thankful, it would be okay. Instead, we disgrace ourselves with skimpy gratitude and boldness. We have considerable freedom and security for gathering to worship; it costs us very little. We have our own copies of God’s Word, let alone working eyes and the education to read it. We also have a two-thousand year long hindsight over generations of Christians who settled a foundation of clear and coherent truth for us to stand on.

What amazes and encourages me is that God controls both the course and the pace of our history. That means that He must enjoy, at least in some way, the dramatic suspense of centuries long confusion.

For a few hundred years after Christ came, the early church struggled to explain Christ’s nature. How could He be both fully God and fully man, glorious in humility and even death? Jesus’ own disciples were confused and, though they recorded truth accurately with the help of the Spirit, their disciples still struggled. From our vantage point, we live in the clarity they labored to find.

Again, I’m amazed and encouraged that this was all according to God’s plan. Does He not desire great, global honor for His Son? Does He not want all men to know His Son’s excellent glory? Does He not expect us to see and praise the grace, truth, love, and humility of the eternal Logos? Yes! A thousand times, Yes! And yet the Father was, and is, okay taking His time for the truth to spread.

We benefit from observing this process in at least two ways. First, we can be thankful for God’s gracious placement of us at this bend in the river of history. Second, we can be confident that God will continue to fix the confusion about and overcome the rebellion against His Son as we labor by His strength today. The world knows Jesus more than it did and, according to His Word, it will know more than it does now.

A Lot of Trouble

At least four sorts of trouble surface in the Bible. First there is trouble that results from our sin (think 1 Peter 4:14). We will reap suffering if we sow disobedience. Second is trouble that comes from living in a world of sinners; “man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job, 5:7; think also about Paul’s comments regarding marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:28). Thistles and cancer and gossip and orthodontist payments grow after Genesis 3. The third is the trouble of spirit that Jesus displayed when He saw pain (John 11:33; 12:27; 13:21). And fourth, there is the trouble Jesus prohibits when He told His disciples not to let their hearts be troubled (John 14:1, 27).

Some trouble is inescapable. Other trouble is disobedient. Note that this is not trouble as a result of being disobedient, but being troubled is being disobedient. A surprising number of times, at least to us natural non-trusters, God directs us not to be troubled, not to be anxious (Philippians 4:6), to put all our cares on Him (1 Peter 5:6-7), even when we’re suffering for righteousness’ sake (1 Peter 3:14).

Why does God require us to believe to the extent of not being upset? He knows how the knotty the wood here can get. He knows that there is a plot twist on the last page, and that He’s only giving us the story one chapter at a time. He knows the pain of searing loss over a loved one. So why does He tell us not to be troubled? Why would He count it sin when we are?

God requires us to trust Him in trouble because He is infinitely trustworthy. He always tells the truth. He always is faithful to do what He said. We can trust in His character and in His promises. When we don’t, we say (in effect) that we know better, that He cannot be depended on. When our hearts are troubled it isn’t that circumstances are so bad that we had to. It’s that we think the circumstances are more unwieldy than God can control. Not only is it wrong, it is a blight on God’s perfect record.