Beyond Good Intentions
by Linda Rex
Watching my teens go through the process of deciding what kind of career they want to pursue has caused me to reflect on the angst I experienced back during my senior year in high school and when I first attended university. I remember taking surveys on skills and interests. And I remember the effort I put into making sure I passed the SAT and other required exams with as high a score as possible. I wanted to be able to attend my college of choice.
I intended to enroll in my church’s college, but my parents advised me not to, telling me that they were not teaching the “truth” there any more—I may as well attend a secular university. So I applied to the University of Santa Barbara, and I was accepted. My objective was clear. I was going to graduate with a degree in astrophysics, and one day, I was going to be an astronaut on a space shuttle.
I had the best of intentions, and I really thought I could do it—I was an A student and a member of the honor society. But when I got to university, I got a D in chemistry, and I almost flunked calculus. My first attempt to succeed in finishing undergraduate school failed.
Okay, maybe I wasn’t very realistic back then. Maybe I didn’t know myself as well as I thought I did. But honestly, how many of us actually achieve on the first try the exact thing we set out to do?
As I’ve gotten older and have experienced the ups and downs, successes and failures of life, I have become more conservative in my estimations of what I can and cannot do. I am learning not to rely solely on other people’s opinions and preferences, and to not presume I can do whatever I want to do or think I can do. I’ve realized I need a sober estimate of the truth in the light of my relationship with Jesus Christ.
This is especially true when it comes to matters of a spiritual and moral nature. I have learned my utmost efforts to do the right thing in every situation are flawed at best, and I am utterly dependent upon God for any possibility of doing things the way they really should be done. I am too easily swayed or distracted from where I should be, and too easily influenced to do the wrong thing, especially in difficult situations.
I’m mindful of Peter’s experience when he told Jesus he would follow him anywhere, even to the point of laying down his life for Jesus. But Jesus was no fool. He knew the truth about Peter—in the midst of the intensity of the moment when Jesus was taken captive and interrogated, Peter would deny him three times. And sure enough, Peter did exactly that.
But amazingly enough, doing this did not change Peter’s status with Jesus. After the resurrection, Jesus restored his relationship with Peter and instructed him to feed and tend his sheep. Jesus already knew what Peter would do, and even though he did do it, doing it did not alter Jesus’ love for Peter or his commitment to what he was doing in Peter’s heart and life. In fact, after the resurrection Jesus renewed Peter’s call to ministry, and when the Holy Spirit came, Peter stood up and gave a powerful, moving sermon which inspired many people to repent.
This is so comforting to me. Jesus is not put off by our failures or inability to perform perfectly. Since he already knows we are going to come up short, and he has already given us grace by including us in his death and resurrection, our failures and shortcomings are not an issue. They are already taken care of before they ever happen. Jesus’ relationship with us is not dependent upon our performance, but solely upon the nature and character of God, which is love.
Knowing this isn’t intended to make us want to go out and do awful things—rather, we find we don’t want to presume upon the grace given us. We are so grateful Jesus cares that much, we are compelled even more so to do the right thing in every circumstance.
God’s love for us demonstrated in Jesus and poured out into our hearts and lives by the Spirit moves us to think, say and do those things which agree with who we are as God’s children made in his image. We love God so much in response to his love we don’t want to harm or wound our relationship with him in any way by doing, thinking or saying things which we aren’t created for.
It is when we feel strongly we are in control and able to handle things ourselves we are most likely to get ourselves into trouble. Indeed, pride is our downfall—we trust in ourselves and our ability to do the right thing in every situation—and we find ourselves doing and saying things we never meant to which are hurtful and destructive. And like Peter, if we recognize it and look into the loving, gracious face of Jesus at that moment, we will be heartsick and broken.
And this is where and when God in Jesus will go to work. The Spirit will begin to bring us to that place of true humility where we recognize only by God’s grace can and will we ever be who God created us to be—children made in his image and likeness to reflect his nature.
Even though I had a rough start many years ago, God has never stopped working with me. My vocation has totally changed, my circumstances are entirely different. But my relationship with God in Jesus by the Spirit has only grown stronger and deeper. God has been faithful to me, and he is teaching me to be faithful to him. He is slowly and surely making me into the person he meant for me to be in the first place.
And he will do the same for you. It does not matter how old you are, what you have done, or what you have been through in your life. God will start with you where you are now and begin to work. And in time you may see he has been at work all along, even though you never noticed it before, or responded to his efforts in a negative way when he did try to work with you.
God will finish what he has begun in your life and mine—and his plans are so much more wonderful and adventurous than ours. He has amazing things in store for us—whether we believe it or not. And that’s something truly to be grateful for.
Thank you, Father, your plans for us are so much better than those we make for ourselves. And thank you for offering us the grace to grow up into all you mean for us to be. May we respond to each and every effort you make to grow us up in Christ by your Spirit, and allow you to transform our hearts by faith. In your name, we pray. Amen.
“Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you lay down your life for Me? Truly, truly, I say to you, a rooster will not crow until you deny Me three times.’” John 13:37–38 NASB
God In the Midst of the Dying
by Linda Rex
I’m seeing more and more that what we unconsciously say and do often reflects a belief about who God is and who we are in relation to him that is unhealthy and even wrong. Even our language as followers of Christ is often filled with a deep anxiety that God’s not going to come through for us. Deep down we believe that if we don’t get things exactly right, the outcome is not going to be good.
I hear this a lot of times when people are talking about the growth and development of things they believe God wants them to be doing, such as ministries or churches, or even families. There is an underlying belief that if they just get all their ducks in a row, so to speak, then everything will turn out wonderful. If they follow this particular plan or complete these specific tasks in the correct order, then something awesome is going to happen. And if they don’t, all hell will break loose.
This God-concept also shows up when I talk with people about the darkness or chaos in their lives. And truly, how can I blame someone for seeing God in this way, when everything they are experiencing or have experienced in their life tells them it is true? What could I say that would convince them otherwise?
I know what it feels like to have everything you believe in fall into pieces at your feet. I know the pain of deep betrayal by those you trusted and counted on, including God. I know how it feels to be surrounded with mountains of problems that can’t be climbed. The despair that goes with such hopelessness can be overwhelming.
Whether we like it or not, we are faced with these ultimate questions over and over in life: Is God trustworthy and good? Does he really love me? Will God come through for me when I need him? Can I count on him? Does he really forgive sinners?
For whatever reason, we are never fully satisfied with the truth about who God is and who we are in relation to him, no matter how many times we are told it. It seems as though we have to experience the truth before we allow it to shape us and transform us. God spends our lifetimes bringing us through one circumstance after another, showing us the truth of his goodness, mercy and love.
It is refreshing to come to the realization that the whole issue about the success or failure of anything isn’t whether I’m doing it right, or someone else is doing it correctly, or whether we’re just letting God do it all himself. The real foundational paradigm is participation—sharing in relationship—doing it together. It’s not really about what you’re doing, but about doing it together, in relationship with God.
We get worried about the goodness and badness of things, and are agitated about having everything fulfill the perfect plan (whoever the architect may be). But God is interested in the process and in sharing life with us. It’s the conversations we have with him as we are doing this, the building of intimacy with him, that he cares about. It’s the knowing and being known that matters.
I read somewhere that what children remember most about their childhoods is not necessarily the gifts they were given, but the special times they spent with certain people doing things that were meaningful. It was the relational sharing, the sacrifices made, the unconditional love and grace in the midst of brokenness that was most significant.
Likewise, it is the abusive and harmful significant relationships that are so devastating to children. When authority figures or trusted people do not image God’s love and grace, but the brokenness of our humanity to children, it causes them to question these very core beliefs about God and who they are in the midst of such a dangerous, chaotic world.
We find ourselves then, as grownups, faced with all the same stuff, and our response hinges upon these fundamental beliefs about God, ourselves, and each other. William Paul Young said recently at Grace Communion International’s Converge 2015 conference that it took him 55 years to get the face of his father off the face of God. Personally, it has taken me much of my own life to see God in some way other than how I believed a father was, since my only experience with a father was with my own dad.
Thankfully, as we grow in our relationship with God, he works to change how we think and feel about him as Father, Son and Spirit. That’s what’s involved in repentance—changing our minds and hearts about God, who he is and who we are in relationship with him. We begin to see how we were totally wrong and we turn around and go the other way.
It takes great faith to be caught in the midst of devastating circumstances and still be able to say to God, “I trust you.” It takes a deep assurance of God’s love to stand strong in our relationship with God when it looks by all appearances as though he has turned and walked away. It takes great humility to allow God to work out circumstances in whatever way he thinks is best, when we would rather take the easy road, or go our own way.
This Holy Week teaches us that Jesus paved the way in all these areas. Even though he asked his Father to find a way different than the cross, Jesus yielded to his Father’s will and wisdom and took the high road to the cross. His final words to God, even when he was experiencing the silence of our humanity, was that he entrusted his Spirit to the Father. He knew his Father well enough to know that he was not leaving him or going away. Nothing can or will divide the Trinity.
There is a deep rest that Jesus created for us in his relationship with the Father by the Spirit. He proved that even in the midst of dying and death, there is resurrection. Our God can be completely and totally trusted. His love never fails. However bleak things may look or feel, the truth is that God’s got it. He’s going all the way with us, to and through the cross and tomb, to the glory of the resurrection. In the end, all that matters is that he was with us through it all and will be with us forever.
Thank you, Father, that you are indeed who Jesus showed us you are, and that your Spirit never stops working to show us the truth about who you are. Thank you that we are held each moment in life and in death in your loving embrace, and that you have given us the hope of the resurrection. We trust you to finish what you have begun in us, just as you finished what you planned before time began through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from him; But when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” Ps 22:24 NASB
Blinded by the Light
By Linda Rex
I was watching a show the other night in which a crime took place within the walls of a building. Everything about the crime involved hiding—the murder of innocent people, hiding bodies in cement, and so on. The objective of the main characters of the show was to bring the truth to light, thereby exposing the guilty parties and bringing them to justice.
It put me in mind of the conversation at our small group the other night. We were talking about how those things we bury inside of us can drive us and control us. They tend to become or fuel our vices. And often it is not until we bring those truths to light, by opening them up to the scrutiny of safe people, that we experience freedom from the habits or addictions which control us.
Anyone who has walked the path of a twelve-step recovery program knows how important it is to speak the truth, to be transparent about one’s brokenness and failures. And they know it’s most helpful to speak this truth to someone who has already walked that path of recovery, since they are most likely to be compassionate and gracious, while at the same time refusing to allow dishonesty about one’s problem.
One of the things we learn to do as we grow up is how to hide. We hide our hurts, our shame, our guilt, and we often find ways to self-medicate so we don’t have to face up to or feel our brokenness. We create an image or mask so that we can continue to function in our world.
Brokenness is unacceptable, especially when we’ve adopted a religious viewpoint that demands moral perfection. Darkness is preferable to light in these situations, because there is great fear and dread in being exposed for who and what we really are.
The thing is that we forget that God is light and in him, the Scripture says, is no darkness (1 John 1:5). In Psalm 139, the psalmist poetically describes how there is no place where God is not present—even the darkness is as light to him (v. 7, 11-12). The apostle John wrote how the Word came into our cosmos and took on human flesh, and became the light of the world, which lightens every man. (John 1:4-5, 9) There really is no way to escape the Light of God in Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
We cannot escape the Light God is, not even when we bury things deep inside ourselves. No matter how deeply we bury them inside, we still cannot hide them from the One who already knows all about them and loves and forgives every one of us anyway.
We cannot hide anything from God because he was, is and will be present in every situation and circumstance, and offers us his grace. He is intimately connected with our humanity through Jesus and in the Spirit, so he shares in all that we go through. He does not condemn—we are the ones who condemn ourselves and others.
Don’t get me wrong—just because God is present doesn’t mean that he is obligated to do anything about what we are experiencing. Most of the time we live, act and speak as though he’s not even present. We blame him for stuff that for the most part, we or someone else are responsible for. He gives us a lot of freedom as human beings and does not violate this personal freedom. God often waits until he’s invited and until it is best for all involved before he acts in situations.
This may cause us to feel that God is a capricious God, or a God who doesn’t care. Our view of God, unfortunately, is twisted or bent by the behavior and words of the people in our lives who were supposed to be reflecting God accurately to us.
Our view of God, then, if it is of a capricious, uncaring, unloving, God of wrath, will motivate us to hide. We will seek out the darkness, and having gone there, we will run as far from the Light as we can go.
Being in the Light is painful for someone who is seeking to hide in the darkness. This is why when someone is close to healing for some hidden grief or sin, they often find ways to avoid exposing themselves so they don’t have to speak the truth or face up to the reality of what they’ve done or what was done to them.
People who habitually live transparently and openly, in contrast, don’t try to hide their brokenness and failures. Rather, they are open about them and are willing to expose them to the scrutiny of others. They speak and walk in the truth. And as they do so, they not only find healing but they also help others to heal.
And notice, the focus in John’s writing was not on moral perfection, but on truth. Jesus is our truth—we live and walk and speak in him by the Spirit. He is our Light, and he enlightens each and every one of us broken sinners. And he does this so that we can bring that light to others who are hiding in the darkness.
There is much in this world that seeks to keep us focused on the darkness. There is a strong pull on each of us to hide and bury our true selves away. But the Light of God is already shining and there is no place to hide. There will come a time when every dark deed and thought will be exposed. But in Christ and by the Spirit, God has already provided a way for us to open our true selves to his Light even now.
We don’t need to hide, nor do we need to live bound by chains of darkness. We are not left alone in a dark world. God, in Christ and by the Spirit, is the Light of the world. Even now we stand, as we will then, in the brilliance of the glory of God in Christ and by his Spirit and share in the glories of the world to come. May our hearts and lives ever be open to his Light!
Father, the first thing you created in our cosmos was light—light that is a reflection of your unchanging, faithful divine light. You are the Light of the cosmos, present in all things at every moment. Thank you for the grace you give us that we can be real, living and walking in truth in your presence without fear. Thank your for calling us out of darkness into your marvelous light. Bring to light the hidden things so we may find healing and wholeness. Inspire and empower us to share that light with others so they may enjoy its brilliance as well. Through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” John 3:19–21 NASB
The Naughty and Nice List
by Linda Rex
I’m always amused by the Christmas song that tells us that Santa has a naughty and nice list, and that we’d better not be naughty if we want something other than coal for Christmas. And it’s interesting how many Christmas movies show Santa checking out the list, and since he doesn’t want to give anyone coal, he is extremely gracious and makes excuses for the naughty kids, giving them presents instead.
I was speaking to a dear friend this morning about our human proclivity to not get things right, especially when it comes to how we treat other people. We find ourselves being insensitive, unforgiving, and irritable even when we want more than anything to be loving, warm and gracious. We want to be nice, but we end up being naughty instead. And so we go around in a funk because we can’t get it right.
I know it’s been said before, but we have to quit treating God like he’s a Santa Claus with a naughty and nice list. The whole point of Christmas is that he doesn’t have one. Instead going by the naughty and nice list, he gave us the gift of his Son. This little baby born on that Bethlehem night was a real person, who in the Spirit lived that perfect human life that we all struggle to live. Immanuel. God with us. God in human flesh, born to be a king, but living as one of us.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, talks about what Christ did for us. It’s described by theologians as the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. Christ in our place. Jesus for us, in us, with us.
When he was born, we were reborn. The life he lived, he lived for us, in our place. When he was baptized, we went down into the water with him, and came out, receiving the Spirit as he did. As he wandered in the wilderness, battling the evil one, we were right there with him. When he died, we died, and we rose again in him. We ascended with him and are seated in heavenly places in him.
And most significantly, even now, he stands in our place in the Father’s presence in the Spirit, interceding in every situation. We are the fallen Adam—the ones who can’t get it right. He is the second Adam—who did everything we should have done and didn’t and couldn’t do—and offers us his perfected humanity in our place.
We have adopted the mentality that in some way we are the ones who have to work out our badness and goodness. We are the ones who have to get our relationships right and handle every situation perfectly. I don’t know how well you are doing at that, but personally, I am a flop. I can’t and don’t get things right like I should.
But that’s not a bad thing. Actually that is the very thing that God uses to bind us to himself in Jesus. It is our weaknesses, our failures, and our faults that Jesus comes into the midst of by the Spirit and uses to draw us to himself. We turn away from God in guilt and shame, but God calls us to himself and offers us grace and a new life in his Son. He embraces us in our naughtiness and declares us nice instead.
This is unfathomable. How and why can he do this? Because God knows that it is his goodness and his kindness that brings us to repentance. In the offering of forgiveness, free unmerited pardon, we are shown that we have been wrong and need forgiveness. In receiving that forgiveness, we are in the same moment having to admit that we need to turn our back on the old Adam, to reject the naughtiness that plagues us and holds us captive.
It is an incredible exchange God is offering us. We hand him all that we are as human beings, both our naughtiness and niceness (since even our niceness is faulty) and he gives us Jesus and his perfected humanity instead. We participate in Jesus’ perfect life—he stands in the presence of God in our place.
What we do now is to live moment by moment in that relationship. We look to Christ instead to ourselves for the answers. We listen to, trust in and obey the voice of the Holy Spirit as he speaks to us and guides us throughout our day. We surrender to God and allow Christ to live in us the life he has created us to live. This does not make us any less ourselves, but rather we become more fully the person we were created to be.
And when we hear the jingle of the naughty and nice list come up, telling us that we’re going to get coals in our stockings again this year, we can laugh. Because we know that what we have coming to us are all God’s heavenly blessings in Christ Jesus—something we could never earn, but God has said already belong to us. And that’s what Christmas is all about.
Thank you, Heavenly Father, for giving us the most perfect gift of all, your precious Son Jesus and the gift of your Spirit through him. Thank you, Jesus, for standing in our place and interceding for us moment by moment as we struggle through our niceness and naughtiness. We trust you to finish what you have begun so that one day we can fully experience all the wonderful things you have in mind for us. May we experience them even now and throughout this New Year. In Jesus name, amen.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” Eph. 1:3–6 NASB