Just Go Play

It was in the context of my begging my kids, probably for the fifteenth time in ten minutes, to say “thank you,” that I thought of Jesus’ warning that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17). Jesus is telling us to be like children? Really? Doesn’t he know what children are like? Especially my children?

I think, however, that it just may be (in a certain sense) our kids’ obliviousness to say “thank you” that Jesus is suggesting we emulate.

Saying “thank-you” is a particularly adult practice. And, interestingly, the quality of our “thank you” varies depending on the quality of the thing we’ve been given. It’s as if we want our thank you to repay the original kindness. Big kindnesses get big “thank-yous.” This is why we get uncomfortable when we get really good gifts. We know that simple “thank-yous” won’t cover the debt we owe. If someone gives us a truly wonderful gift, or helps us in a really selfless way, we’ll do anything we can to balance the scales again. Being in someone’s debt rankles.

Kids have no such problem. When someone gives them a gift, they unwrap it and begin to play immediately. It’s us parents who chase after them pleading, “Say thank you!” We might as well be saying what our subconscious is screaming: “You’re going to anger the gift-giver!”

Jesus wants us to receive the gift of his love like a child would: running off immediately to enjoy it. After all, doesn’t the gift-giver want to see his gift played with? Wasn’t that the whole point of giving it? The most glorious irony is this: our unfettered and without-thought play turns out to be more law-abiding than our starched-shirt and pleated-pant “thank-yous” ever could be. Our joy in a wonderful present engenders the kind of thanks (that which is from the heart) that the gift-giver was interested in.

Let’s receive God’s gift of Jesus like children. Your enjoyment of the gift of God’s one-way love is a precious kind of “thank you” to him.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming devotional It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News)

True Love Is Given, Not Earned

The parable of the 11th hour workers is well-known (Matthew 20:11-14). The master of the house hires laborers in the morning to work his vineyard at an agreed-upon wage. At different points throughout the day, he hires more workers, including some that are hired at “the eleventh hour,” that is, an hour before the end of the workday. At the end of the day, he paid the workers who had worked the least first, and decided to pay them the wage that he had promised the laborers who worked all day. Understandably, the all-day laborers were excited to see this, thinking that they would receive some exponentially larger figure, since they had worked exponentially longer hours.

They were, of course, distressed to receive the same pay that they had agreed upon at the beginning of the day, the same wage as the 11th hour workers. When we read this story, it’s easy enough to understand why they feel cheated. Wouldn’t you? Of course you would.

But we forget that in the economy of the gospel, we are the 11th hour workers. Some people are pretty good at keeping it together, and so it’s easy to convince ourselves that we deserve some greater reward. But the truth is we’re far worse off than we think. Are you ever not “all you can be?” Do you have regrets from a damaged relationship? Do you have a dark secret that you can’t share with anyone? Jesus says, “You. You there that no one else thinks deserves much of anything. I’m here for you. Not because you worked hard, but because I am generous. I give you the same free gift, bought and paid for with my own life, that I give to those who you think are better than you.”

Jesus’ point is that what we need most–true love–is given, not earned. It is a free gift from God, earned for us by the work of His Son. It’s a love for which you never have to work.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming devotional It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News)

Grace > Performance

We Christians may talk about God being loving and forgiving, but what we often mean is that God loves and forgives those who are good and clean—who meet His conditions, in other words.

Or maybe it is more subtle than that. Maybe you are a Christian, and you rightly believe that God forgave your past indiscretions—that was what drew you to Him in the first place. But once you made that initial Christian commitment, it was time to get your act together and be serious. We conclude that it was God’s blood, sweat, and tears that got us in, but that it’s our blood, sweat, and tears that keep us in. We view God as a glorified bookkeeper, tallying our failures and successes on His cosmic ledger. We conclude that in order for God to love us, we have to change, grow, and be good.

Author Jerry Bridges puts it perfectly when he writes:

My observation of Christendom is that most of us tend to base our relationship with God on our performance instead of on His grace. If we’ve performed well—whatever “well” is in our opinion—then we expect God to bless us. If we haven’t done so well, our expectations are reduced accordingly. In this sense, we live by works, rather than by grace. We are saved by grace, but we are living by the “sweat” of our own performance. Moreover, we are always challenging ourselves and one another to “try harder.” We seem to believe success in the Christian life (however we define success) is basically up to us: our commitment, our discipline, and our zeal, with some help from God along the way. We give lip service to the attitude of the Apostle Paul, “But by the grace of God I am what I am (1 Cor. 15:10), but our unspoken motto is, “God helps those who help themselves.”

The liberating truth of the Christian gospel is that God’s love for us and approval of us has nothing to do with us. The Christian life commences with grace, continues with grace, and concludes with grace. Jesus met all of God’s holy conditions so that your relationship to God could be wholly unconditional.

Thanks to Jesus, I am clothed in an irremovable suit of love and forgiveness.

What Compels Compliance?

indexThe other day I saw a truck that made me laugh out loud. It was a truck from Premier Booting Services, one of those companies that comes to put the bulky metal lock on your front tire when you’ve parked illegally. Not that funny, right? What was funny was their slogan: “Your Source for Parking Compliance.” Something about that line struck me as appropriate for the Ministry of Information in George Orwell’s 1984. So I laughed. But while I was laughing, I realized that their slogan had profound—and unintended—theological implications as well.

Premier Booting Services doesn’t actually want to provide parking compliance. It would put them out of business. Their business model, in fact, depends on people getting booted, and then getting booted again. It’s not in Premier’s best interest for people to learn their lesson and start parking legally. They’re not actually in the compliance business, they’re in the punishment business. They say that they provide “compliance” because it doesn’t sound as nasty.

Preachers who think that simply telling bad people to be good—applying the boot to the tires of our spiritual lives—will actually produce compliance misunderstand the law’s purpose. The law tells us that compliance is required but the law is incapable of producing a compliant heart. We would all agree that compliance is a laudable goal. We want people parking legally and we want people loving their neighbors as themselves. But how might compliance actually happen?

Counter-intuitively, it is grace that produces compliance. Grace—that love that comes to the undeserving—is the thing that causes the kind of heart change that can actually generate true obedience. Punishment and judgment don’t create a reformed heart, they create—at best—a heart full of fear, and—at worst—a heart full of rebellion. Love and grace replace a fearful heart with a grateful one, a heart that desires whatever the lover asks.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming devotional It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News)

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