Grace: Living in the Tension

As Christians, we walk in the gray area between Biblical tensions all our lives long; e.g., Jesus’ humanity versus His divinity, God’s sovereignty versus our responsibility, etc. But when we stray outside the limits of a healthy tension, we can end up hurting ourselves and the people around us. Today, I want to consider the difference between two kinds of Christians who are “stuck” outside the tension between law and grace – those who don’t know they need grace, and those who don’t know they have it. I have been both of those unfortunates at various times myself.

 

argue picThose who don’t know they need grace come to the counseling room in righteous indignation. This may include the spouse who drags their partner along to get fixed, the partner who doesn’t think they need fixing, the person angry with God for failing to fulfill their dreams and the one who simply cannot forgive. These people are not malleable clay in the sculptor’s hands, bending to His will; they know they are right and deserving of recognition. They have forgotten that accepting Christ means acknowledging deep and abiding sin, deep and abiding need in all areas for a lifetime. They have forgotten that they have a King who desires to confront the blackness of their hearts, and that is a blessing. I have been this kind of prideful, self-sufficient person.

 

Feeling downThose who don’t know they have grace come to the counseling room in self-condemnation. This includes the addict who believes his sin is worse than anyone else’s, the victim of abuse who has assumed a garment of shame, the anxiety-ridden teen who knows she’ll never be beautiful and the unemployed father who doesn’t feel like a man. While generally acknowledging God’s unconditional love for others, they believe they have fallen too far for grace. These people have succumbed to an odd form of idolatry: their own opinion of themselves carries more authority than the words of Scripture or the blood of Christ. They have forgotten – or never understood – that they have a loving Savior who defines their worth, and that changes everything. I can be this kind of guilty, less-than person.

 

Scripture is, perhaps, the deepest paradox known to man, for it is both the standard of judgment and the conduit of mercy. The human heart is arrogant, prone to exalt and care for itself above all, prone to judge others, prone to demand fulfillment. It is also a needy vessel, incomplete and riddled with holes that can only be repaired by the original clay of a powerful and gracious love. Scripture offers the cure for both diseases.

 

First, we must deeply understand and truly own our brokenness. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (I John 1:8) The Bible doesn’t call us to judge others; even Jesus said this about Himself. But it calls us to a continual and humble recognition of our own weakness. Whatever righteousness we possess was hard-won by Christ Himself, and it must be His great grief when we use it as a weapon.

 

Only in weakness and humble repentance can we be repaired by the generous love of God who paid for our sins and donates His own holiness to our account. More than a dry, factual righteousness, Christ proclaims our infinite worth and His eternal love for us aside from any human standard, even our own. We will live forever in a community of equals – saints and sinners all, saved by grace. There is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 8:1) Our temporary imperfection is a quality which connects us to others rather than a secret shame which sets us apart.

 

I imagine that examples of people living outside a Biblical tension have popped into your mind as you read some of the descriptions above. (They popped into mine, anyway.) Take a few minutes right now and prayerfully consider your own posture before the Lord. If you know Jesus Christ as your Savior, then you’d best not stand too tall, but you need not cringe in shame.

 


 

  • Which kind of Christian (proud or ashamed) more closely reflects your heart-attitude today?
  • What part of Scripture (that you need grace or that you have it) do you want to remember and apply right now?
  • How will you ingest the remedy of Christ throughout this day and week?

Reimagining Mary

The Nativity scene.

Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1:30)

Sweet Mary. Beatific, maternal, pale and serene, she appears quite other-worldly in our Christmas nativities. An angel proclaimed that she would be called “blessed,” and so she has been. From time to time she has even been elevated beyond her human state, a sort of demi-goddess, interceding between earth and heaven, the perfect mother of a perfect Son.

 

At the risk of shocking your sensibilities, I want to suggest a different portrait altogether. Mary is a well-known celebrity today, but she began as a nobody. Before God approached her through the Angel Gabriel, she counted for very little. She was probably an adolescent, probably poor, possibly an orphan, but we really don’t know. Like thousands of young Jewish girls of her time and place, she walked unnoticed through the world, valuable largely as an extra pair of hands. Her life was measured by her utility, and she was nothing special in that regard. Picture her in your mind as not particularly beautiful, not particularly bright, not particularly talented. Pockmarks, acne, missing teeth, a bit clumsy, too talkative, her laugh annoying, her gait ungainly, all these are possible. Perhaps it feels blasphemous to see her that way, but it is probably closer to the truth than the enhanced, marbleized and haloed versions we typically imagine. Her son, fashioned from only one set of human genes, “had no beauty that we should desire him.” (Is. 53:2)

 

Mary found inexplicable favor with God. This she was told when she received the gift of the Christ, placed inside her body by the singular action of the Holy Spirit. He approached her, chose her, implanted divinity inside her, that she might bear God’s only Son into the world. She was nothing, and then she was amazing – fertile, lovely, loved, important, meaningful, glorious and blessed – not because she stood out from the crowd but because God chose her, acted upon her and lived within her.

 

Astonishing and alarming as it may seem, this is also God’s work in you. We were born as Mary was, ordinary, broken people, chosen by God to be changed. As Christians, we now carry the Christ within our hearts as she carried Him in her womb, that we might bear God’s only Son into the world. Our mission, like Mary’s, comes through pain and struggle. It is a commission to be accepted rather than an honor to be earned. The Divine inside transforms the ordinary. No matter who or where you are, you began as nothing, but now you are amazing – fertile, lovely, loved, important, meaningful, glorious and blessed – because God chose you, acted upon you and lives within you. Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God. Rejoice, as Mary did, and bear Jesus into the world, your world, with peace and joy this Christmas.

 

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. (Luke 1:46-48)

 


I am indebted to Pastor John Haralson of Seattle, Washington for the idea for this devotion.  http://www.graceseattle.org/resources/sermon/3268/mary-filled-with-christ

God’s Struggler

I have little time to write these days, so I am repeating one of my favorites, something I think about often. I hope it encourages you wherever you find yourself right now.


I am everyone in Scripture. In reading through the Bible I often take the perspective that each character and incident reflects something about me as a human being. A previous post described me as Barabbas. I am also the woman who worshiped Jesus with her tears. I am Joseph, the one who experiences affliction which God intends for good. It is easy to see that I am Peter, denying Jesus and being restored. You get the idea. With those new eyes I want to meditate on Jacob, who wrestled with an angel. Sure, I see that he struggled with God in prayer, and I certainly do that. But there is more to the story which I have found confusing. So this post is one woman’s attempt to find herself in Jacob who was renamed Israel.

 

You will find the story in Genesis 32 and 33. Jacob was on his way to meet with his estranged and powerful brother, and he had his family and all his possessions in tow. The Bible says that he was in “great fear and distress.” In fact, he was so afraid of his brother, Esau, that Jacob sent him numerous bribes and then lagged behind the rest of the caravan. That is how he came to be by himself, wrestling with the angel of God at night. The Bible doesn’t say this, but I think that he was going to bolt. He had already done every cowardly thing short of running away, and I think that was why he wrestled God. His name, Deceiver (Jacob, loosely translated from the Hebrew), would bear this out. When morning came, Jacob’s helpless wives and children would find themselves inexplicably alone, in the hands of Jacob’s worst enemy.

 

If you read the story from that perspective, you find that by daybreak, God had still not overcome Jacob’s fear, his craven resolution to flee. Jacob’s flesh was stronger than Jacob’s faith. And so God crippled him. In this hindered state, Jacob continued to wrestle for God’s blessing. He no longer had the option to run, and so he asked for the thing he should have sought in the beginning, God’s purpose and blessing in the midst of his struggle. Our gracious God who maims then bestowed upon Jacob, the Deceiver, his new name: Israel or Struggler. The rest of the story reveals God’s faithfulness as Jacob assumes his rightful place at the head of his family. I’ll let you read it for yourself.

 

This story is about Israel’s identity as a man and as a people. It’s about my identity. It’s about the many ways I deceive myself and others, the many ways I run from the hard things, the many ways I fail even to ask for courage. If you know me, you know that I am crippled. I have an artificial leg which is the result of an amputation which saved my life. It has also kept me from running away when I wanted to and caused me to wrestle with God until He blessed me. It is a visible reminder that my name is Struggler, and that is a good thing.

 


If you’d like to hear a sermon on this passage by Mark Driscoll, click this link: http://marshill.com/media/genesis/jacob-wrestles-god.