Two weeks ago I concluded a sermon series on the Ten Commandments entitled “How To Be Perfect.” You can find the whole series here.
I thoroughly enjoyed preaching the whole series, but the first 9 minutes of the sermon on honoring your father and mother was simultaneously the hardest and the most enjoyable moment. My mom was there that day. And so I took the opportunity to say some things to her publicly. In the twenty years I’ve been preaching, this was the most emotional I’ve ever been.
I’ve been preaching for twenty years and, to be honest, I’m so embarrassed by many of the sermons I preached early on. I wish I could go back and apologize to all the people who heard them. My primary concern at that time was to get people to do more, try harder, live radically for God, and change. The end result was stunted spiritual growth for our people because I was causing them to fix their eyes on themselves rather than on Christ.
Eugene Peterson has wisely said that “discipleship is a process of paying more and more attention to God’s righteousness and less and less attention to our own.” The way many of us think about sanctification is, well, not very sanctified. In fact, it’s terribly narcissistic. We spend too much time thinking about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We spend too much time pondering our spiritual failures and brooding over our spiritual successes.
Ironically, I’ve discovered that the more I focus on my need to get better, the worse I actually get—I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with our performance over Christ’s performance for us actually hinders spiritual growth because it makes us increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective—the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about yourself. As J. C. Kromsigt said, “The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth.”
In those early early days, I was treating the Bible like it was a heaven-sent self-help manual. The fact is, that unless we go to the Bible to see Jesus and his work for us, even our devout Bible reading can become fuel for our own self-improvement plans, the place we go for the help we need to “conquer today’s challenges and take control of our lives.”
What I’ve learned since those days is that the Bible is not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. The Bible is not a witness to the best people making it up to God; it’s a witness to God making it down to the worst people. The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with his rescue; our sin with his salvation; our failure with his favor; our guilt with his grace; our badness with his goodness.
So, if we read (or preach) the Bible asking first, “What would Jesus do?” instead of asking “What has Jesus done” we’ll miss the good news that alone can set us free. Evangelicals desperately need to recover the truth that the overwhelming focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. This means that the Bible is not first a recipe book for Christian living, but a revelation book of Jesus who is the answer to our unchristian living.
While the cross may be the symbol we treasure in Christianity, the way most of us Christians live is as if the symbol of our faith is a ladder rather than cross.
We like our Christianity to be muscular, triumphant. We’ve come to believe that the Christian life is a progression from weakness to strength—“Started from the bottom, now we’re here” (Drake) seems to be the victory chant of modern Christianity. We are all by nature, in the terminology of Martin Luther, theologians of glory—not God’s glory, but our own.
But the hope of the Christian faith is dependent on God’s display of strength, not ours. God is in the business of destroying our idol of self-sufficiency in order to reveal himself as our sole sufficiency. This is God’s way—he kills in order to make alive; he strips us in order to give us new clothes. He lays us flat on our back so that we’re forced to look up. God’s office of grace is located at the end of our rope. The thing we least want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: the fact that we’re weak. The message of the Gospel will only make sense to those who have run out of options and have come to the relieving realization that they’re not strong. Counter-intuitively, admission of weakness is our greatest strength.
So, the Christian life is a progression. But it’s not an upward progression from weakness to strength—it’s a downward progression from strength to weakness. And this is good news because ladder-Christianity is exhausting and enslaving. The strength of God alone can liberate us from the burden of needing to be strong—the sufficiency of God alone can relieve us of the weight we feel to be sufficient. As I’ve said before, Christian growth is not, “I’m getting stronger and stronger, more and more competent every day.” Rather, it’s “I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how weak and incompetent I am and how strong and competent Jesus was, and continues to be, for me.”
Because Jesus paid it all, we are set free from the pressure of having to do it all. We are weak. He is strong.
That confession is the beginning of freedom.
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)