Monday, September 8, 2014

redefining perfection

Shortly after last week's post, I came across this gem of a quotation. It so accurately summarized the aim of my recent posts on grace and surrendering spiritual perfection to the Lord.

The tension of living in the aim while feeling like you continually come up short creates humility which is God’s aim in the first place. Even through our “failure” we are often hitting the true target. I have found in my life failure has produced as much fruit as devotion when I don’t yield to condemnation but rather throw myself at His kindness and strength. The Potter is aiming at humility, gratitude and meekness. His goal is not perfection in the way we define it, but perfection in Love and the one who is forgiven much, loves much. It’s all working for me, if I keep running to Him, never give up the aim and don’t get caught up in measuring myself. I don’t want to be preoccupied with my success or my failure, cause only He can see the true target and His hands are working good in me, if I just don’t give up, hit delete on the good and the bad and keep aiming.

~ Misty Edwards

Friday, September 5, 2014

preoccupation with spiritual life

Last month, I shared some personal words on my post, In the Lack of Response and Receptivity. This post is a continuation of that same thread of thought. Let me share a story that has proven to be my healing and yours as well. A story that has proven to be our redemption, our hope, our life!

In the book of Genesis, we briefly catch a glimpse of an Egyptian female servant name Hagar. She is the servant of Sarah, wife of Abraham. For years, Hagar's mistress is infertile. She must have seen her lady eaten up with some anxiety and sadness over this barrenness, especially after the Lord promised them a child who would bring a multitude of generations. In effort to obtain that promise, Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham to sleep with and produce a child. This did not go as Sarah had planned. Hagar looks upon her with contempt after this and Sarah is offended by her servant's attitude and behavior. This results in Sarah dealing harshly with her which forces Hagar to immediately flee.

Stop for a moment and think on this. We are familiar in how this passage of Scripture is taught today. Obviously, it was an act of the flesh and produced nothing good. Hagar and her soon-to-be-child represent the fruit of the flesh. It is the lineage of slavery, not of life or freedom. True.
 This vein of teaching on the flesh continues further today, sometimes so subtle and almost unnoticeable that we do not realize the conclusions it is pushing us to. If the flesh equals nothing but slavery and death, therefore we must "do away with it." Therefore, we must stomp out everything that comes from the flesh, in our lives, in others' lives, in media, in music, in the world, in everything. We must call it out. We must proclaim it for what it is. We must not allow it any part of Christianity. It must not taint. There must be a security system set up within our lives and our churches to ensure that it does not spread and taint the purity of the free life of the promise that we have in Christ. We must manage, we must control...our own lives, our family, the lives of those around. Set up the sin-management security system, folks, because we must protect the sacred church!

While there is much to be said for upholding Truth and values, the attitude and methods we've adopted to enforce them have all come from one source: fear. I can't say (even for myself) that I meet many Christians who just simply trust God with the messiness of His own children.

Now, let us return to the story. Something very sweet is about to take place here...

"The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur." Genesis 16:7

The Lord found her. Oh, He found her! The Lord gives her something special in this moment. He promises her a son whose offspring He will multiple. Even though her son will become a man whose hand is against everyone, and everyone's hand against him, his name will be Ishmael, which means "God will hear."

"So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing," for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi (the well of the Living One who sees me); it lies between Kadesh and Bered." Genesis 16:13-14

The story continues in Genesis Chapter 21 soon after the birth of Isaac, the true son of Sarah and Abraham. We are not given many details, but Sarah catches Ishmael laughing. Was he laughing at Sarah and Isaac? Was he mocking them? I get the feeling that Ishmael may not have been the sweetest boy. He might have lacked respect towards Sarah due to the upbringing of his own mother, Hagar. Nevertheless, God allows (again) for Hagar to be driven out after Sarah demands Abraham,
Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 

This section stood out to me in a way I never realized before. It sounds like Christianity's moral police. Sarah would have been immensely humbled if she had been given a peek into the future and how both their lineages would share in the same Promise, only it would come about very differently than anyone could have ever imagined.

Before Abraham casts them out, God actually talks to him and says not to be displeased with Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham then sends them off into the wilderness with food and water.  At some point during their wandering, Hagar runs out of water and food for her and Ishmael. Life has become extremely bitter for them. She truly believes she must watch her son die. So, she walks a distance away from him and weeps. Then, something amazing happens! It says, "God heard the voice of the boy..." (Gen 21:17). 

Was Ishmael praying and calling upon God? Had this boy's heart softened in the affliction? I wonder how old he was, how much he was able to comprehend from the struggles between his mother and Sarah, and did he understand why they were sent off to the desert? Had he grown up hearing about God from Abraham? What did Ishmael know of God? Clearly, it was enough to lead him to say something to the Lord. Then, it's as if the heavens open...

 "...the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.  And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow."
Genesis 21:17-20

In both chapters, there is a well or spring of water. The second time, God actually opens Hagar's eyes to see the well. The word used for "opened" in this passage is the same word used in Isaiah 42:6-7 in a prophetic word about Christ coming to be a light for the Gentle and open the blind eyes. Also, the use of a well or spring of water is often used through Scripture, particularly in Isaiah, as a symbol of life and rebirth in the Savior to come. And it is almost always in the context of a wilderness.  


Hagar. An instrument of the flesh. 
Ishmael. A product of the flesh. 
Yet, through Abraham' and Sarah's child and lineage, a great favor was extended to Hagar and Ishmael. The Lord set upon them and their lineage - heathens, idolaters, Gentiles - a promise that He would see and He would hear them. The Lord was going before them. He would make a way.

That is Grace. Amazing Grace. The Lord says, I will make a way. I will provide a way to put my favor upon you.  

 Grace. So gentle. So ridiculous. So unrelentingly good.
Every day available. Every moment, free. All because of Christ. All because of this untouchable God that, since day one of humanity's existence, wanted us to touch Him and be the very part of Him. He would have it no other way. 

I once thought that there was such a thing called cheap grace. Yeah, you know...the "license to sin under the banner of Jesus." The freedom to follow the flesh and do whatever I want while still claiming Christ. 

One day, I got hit on the head extremely hard. 

The Bible never once teaches cheap grace? 

I followed the jargon, the Christian lingo, the ideas produced from pulpits and thought it was fully outlined in Scripture. Then, during a tumultuous season of my life, I was awakened to the deep, interconnected relationship between Grace and Identity and Receiving IN Christ. If separated from these, Grace becomes merely a nice idea, but easily redefined by Christendom. Grace is never, ever separate from Identity. In fact, Scripture never separates unconditional favor and who we are in Christ. The two play hand-in-hand. Most often, when we say a Christian is willfully sinning, we might say they believe in cheap grace, which is really just a shallow phrase for what we see happening on the surface level of that person's life, their choices, their actions, their behaviors, etc. It's easy to think, "Oh, they are taking advantage of the free ticket just so they can do whatever they want." In truth, what is occurring beneath the surface is an enormous identity crisis. Perhaps that person is trying to run from this inner-confusion unscathed and still be thought of as favored and loved. We have all done it in varying degrees. Such is our human nature. And we often misplace our identities, yes, especially us Christians.
 It's what I had realized that I have done over and over again. My identity became holy perfectionism, the call of the upright, the victorious Christian life, the gentle and meek and selfless heart, the ever-deepening and intense relationship with Christ. Rather, my identity really only comes from Christ Himself. 

But, one might say, isn't holiness, selflessness, a deepening relationship with Christ, etc all part of taking upon His identity? Yes, I would agree. But it is not those things, in of themselves, that makes us who we are. Because when those things aren't visible in my daily life, I need something absolutely real and solid to fall back upon. When I'm shattered by life experiences and feel myself changing with the ebb and flow of this earthly existence, I need something, someone, who is unchangeable. Christ. And I need Him to be the One to define who I am in those moments when I cannot recognize myself, to remind me of who I truly am in Him, because of Him.

Can I accept that I don't have to pray at certain times for certain lengths to achieve more holiness?
Can I accept that I don't have to read the Bible at appointed times and lengths to achieve more holiness?
Can I accept that I don't have to go to church, manage my own sin, think continually on spiritual thing, do the right "Christian" acts to receive a special, more intimate favor from the Lord?
Can I accept that I don't have to toss out that immodest piece of clothing, that rated-R film, those CDs that speak nothing about Christ to remove the "fleshly hindrances" that keep me from "going deeper with Christ"? 
Can I accept, now that I am in Christ and He in me, that I don't have to do more, be more, and say more to grow in holiness? 
Can I accept that increased devotion and diligence will not make me feel close to God again?
Can I accept that I don't have to keep flagellating my own heart for those mess-ups I did the other day? 
Can I accept that I don't have to put myself on an orderly and strict daily schedule to keep my flesh and sinful tendencies in line?
 Can I accept that I don't have to work for my sanctification and make it "happen" because God wants to do it all His way and in His time?
 Can I accept that I am just a child and that maturity is not the "next level up" but rather an attitude of the heart in receiving what He wants to share with me right here, right now and depending entirely on Him (and not my spiritual unction) to produce fruit in my life, to grow me, and get me where I need to be on His time?
Can I accept slow progress? Can I accept slow growth in myself and others? 
Can I accept that Love is truly patient? 
Can I accept that God doesn't put me on a time-table? 
Can I accept that He doesn't need me to do anything to get me perfected in His love?
Can I accept that real life is not always going to be victorious?
Can I accept that sometimes sin abounds so that His grace can abound all the more?
Can I accept that I won't always experience peace, joy, and some nirvana spiritual/emotional state through every trial? 
Can I accept that the all-encompassing truth of His never-ever changing affection for me is enough when the rubber meets the road?
Can I accept that I am born-again child of God still stuck in a human shell and never will be some superhuman on this earth? 
Can I accept that the motivation of grace will always bear greater fruit than the coercion of demand? Can I accept that He values me, all of me, because He made me?  
Can I accept that instead of trying so hard to become godly, I can just trust that I already am?
Can I accept that I am free from lists, rules, and demands?
Can I accept that who I am as a Christian and who I really am have become the same person?
Can I accept that God is not afraid to risk the consequences of what we do with His grace
Can I accept that God is infinitely less interested in my vision of holy, Christ-centered perfection than He is with my person?
Can I accept that God is totally patient with my self-centered habits and thoughts and motives? That He knows it will take time, experiences, failures, and joys for me to realize I don't have to hold onto them since those aren't who I am in Him?
Can I accept that fragile but authentic trust is more enjoyable to God than strong inborn capacity?
Can I accept that on my worst day, Christ is in me, loving me, treasuring me, adoring me, pursuing me?

It's scary, I know. To relinquish all forms of control in my own sanctification, my own growth, my own maturity, my own relationship with God. I know very well the thoughts that unravel from this:

"So you're just saying to give into the flesh? To do what you want? To forget Scripture, prayer, church, etc? To watch any film you want to watch? To wear anything you want? To speak however you desire? To listen to whatever music you want? To just go on living as if Christianity is not life-changing and doesn't set us apart from non-Christians?

 I have questioned myself with these time and again. But Christ never said that the world would know us by how much we pray, or read Scripture, by what films we watch or don't watch, what clothing we wear or don't wear, what church we attend, what words we speak or don't speak, etc. He said they would know us by our love for the other. So, I conclude that, even when we mess up, even when we don't speak the right words, even when we don't go to church, even when we don't look, act, or live a certain way, there has to be one thing that remains consistent about us: Love. It's got to be the one thing that remains, day in and day out. It's got to change the way we view God, the way we view ourselves, the way we view others - and others will see that and it will baffle them! If Christ had meant for there to be a certain lifestyle or culture about us, He would have said so and clearly outlined it. Instead, He desires us to learn along the way, not to get it right all at once. The Holy Spirit is the One too speak, guide, and confirm in us and, yet, it takes time for us to become attentive and dependent on that Voice. More and more, I have become aware of how much being a Christian is like starting out as an infant and growing through many long years of childhood as He does His work of maturing us. While children inherit the physical qualities of their parents, much of childhood and even in the early years of adulthood, the child may not reflect at all everything their parents instilled in them. For some individuals, it does takes years and years of patience. It is very much the same with us. We can hammer ourselves and others all day long about being childish and needing to grow up, but none of that will ever produce true maturity. It may takes years of Christ patiently touching and whispering to our hearts for us to finally become open to receiving what He has been saying to us the entire time. Just like a child who may have grown up being taught principles and values, etiquette, how to do this/that, and even hearing his parents tell him how much they love and adore him. It might not come until a later point in that child's life when he awakens to experience those truths and decide to receive them as his own.

So, how shall we live?

Questions on the practical aspect are always good questions, but not always necessary. The answers come slowly as one opens to receive and experience grace and identity through Christ. It's not a straight-line to glory. We find those answers along the way, not always all at once. Yes, the Scriptures has some specifics. The purpose of this post is not to debate or discuss those specifics. That's for another day. I write all this merely to express and outline my personal revelations, growth, questions, and thoughts concerning the fundamentals of the Christian faith. There is so much noise in modern Christianity today, from every angle, from every denomination, theological circle, pastor, blogger, worship leader, etc. So much noise and not enough quiet honesty.In fact, authentic honesty is what is missing from much of Christianity today. We are still human, my friends.

Preoccupation with the spiritual life is often one of the most dangerous forms of a misplaced identity. I know it because I've suffered from it. And I am still recovering.