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

Limited, Fallible, Sinful. Which Is It?

Arguments.So often we heap blame on our own shoulders for a failure we did not intend and could not have prevented. If you’ve ever forgotten to pick up your child from school, given a less-than-stellar business presentation or executed a pratfall instead of a grand entrance, then you know what I mean. We fail (again and again) to live up to anyone’s standard of perfection, especially our own. When humanity fell in the Garden of Eden, we became broken creatures prone to failure, but how we view that failure determines how we will handle it. So let’s take a look at several different kinds of human imperfection.

 

Limited.  Being limited is part of being human. Even in Heaven, we probably won’t be able to transcend time, know others’ thoughts or interact with millions of people at once. One person can only know, do and care a limited amount, and there is nothing bad about that. God called us “very good” (Gen. 1:31) even with our limitations. When you have to say “no” to ministry because you are already taking care of your family, when you didn’t realize your boyfriend wanted you to be at his soccer practice and when you tried all day but couldn’t reach your mother on her birthday, you are experiencing your own limitations. Any guilt you might feel about that is not coming from God.

 

Fallible.  We make mistakes. Our brains, hands and hearts don’t work as well as God originally created them to. With the best of intentions, we still fall short. We use the wrong name, forget the anniversary, lose our cell phone. Brennan Manning said (I wish I could quote this) he wanted to learn to be open and amused about his own mistakes, seeing them as good reminders of the human condition and his constant need for God’s grace. Our world would be a much better place if we could all give that kind of grace to ourselves and others. Our mistakes are not outside God’s ability to use them, and they are not sinful. You probably wouldn’t feel too guilty about getting a math problem wrong. You’d acknowledge your condition (just not that good at math) and go find a calculator! That’s what we need to do with all our mistakes: acknowledge that we are just not that good at life (NO ONE is), and ask for the help we need. 

 

Sinful.  We tend to put everything in this category which is why we feel so guilty about so much. We should feel guilty about sin – that’s what guilt is for! Sin occurs when we know what we should do before God, and we do something else (see James 4:17, Rom. 14:23 and 1 John 3:4-6, for example). Sin is, in its essence, rebellion against God. Fortunately, there is a remedy for sin and its guilt. We can take them to the cross and drop them there, running free because we know Christ already paid our debt. While guilt can be one indicator of sin, it’s not foolproof. So the next time you feel guilty, ask yourself this question: “Did I sin?” Whenever you can say, “Yes,” run – do not walk – to the cross with your repentance. Afterward, any guilt you continue to feel is not coming from God. And if you answer, “No,” then you should really be thinking about one of the other categories above.