Your News Feed is Lying to You

On Facebook, all your friends are getting married. You’re the only single person left in the entire world. All alone you drift, while the world moves forward without you.

On Facebook, everybody else’s family is perfect. Couples don’t argue. Their kids do extremely cute things at every hour of the day and night. They don’t say potty words to the Sunday school teacher, yell at their parents, or throw toy trucks at their sisters.

On Facebook, everybody has “awesome bosses,” “unbelievable weather,” and they mostly sing praise songs all day while eating chocolate cake and losing weight at the same time. Their hair is perfect and their skin is smooth and blemish-free.

Oh, and on Facebook everybody was invited to that big party except for you. All of your friends got together, planned the biggest and coolest get-together of the century, and deliberately left you out! (By the way, they probably did that so they can talk about you.)

If you spend enough time with social media, you might begin to believe that the lies above are actually true. People I know have believed all of the above at different times. Not just other people, actually. I have believed these lies from time to time.

Here’s the truth: Facebook is the perfect platform for showing people an idealized version of our lives. It’s not that the stories you read there are untrue, it’s just that they’re incomplete. Those beautiful wedding photos aren’t accompanied by a description of the terrible argument the young couple had on day three of the honeymoon. The cute kid photos hide the fact that three minutes earlier the kid was covered spit-up and full of rage.

I’m not being cynical here. Instead, I’m making the point that if you compare your real life to everybody else’s idealized version, then your real life will always fall short. “Do not covet” is one of the Commandments for good reason. When we want what we think others have, we fall into sinful desire, which leads us to discontent, which leads to sin (James 1:14-15). 

God’s blessings are too many to count, but we spend so much time counting what we don’t have. We tally up the blessings God has given to others and wonder why we don’t have the same ones. I don’t want to minimize the pain of social rejection and loneliness. Instead, let me suggest that we bring that pain to places where we can legitimately find healing. If the pain is too much, then let’s turn off Facebook for a while. Engage in face-to-face relationships with people who love us. Fall on our knees before the God who gave His Son for us. Cry to Him, praise Him, learn about Him, and thank Him for what He has given. Fill our minds with God’s Word, a Word that speaks consistently and clearly about the One who knows us and offers so much more to us than all the things we think we need.

Engage deeply in real life, and watch the idealized versions lose their power.

Yes, your news feed is lying to you. The only question is whether you’ll buy what it’s selling.

Have you ever struggled with discontent and comparison as a result of social media? How do you handle it? 

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Lance Armstrong, Splitting, and Our Only Hope

The fall of cyclist Lance Armstrong has captured the attention of Americans like few other sports stories I can remember. (Even the bizarre tale of Manti Te’o only briefly distracted us from Armstrong’s Oprah interview last week).

Many people are wondering, “Who is this guy? How did a man construct such a heroic narrative about himself and tell it successfully for decades, when in reality it was largely an illusion?” Is Lance Armstrong good or bad, noble or evil? How do we reconcile the philanthropist and disciplined cyclist with the lying and cheating bully who has emerged in the past few weeks and months?

At one point during the interview, Oprah actually asked Armstrong whether the “real Lance” is a humanitarian or a jerk. Armstrong’s response was telling: Both, he said. I am the philanthropist, but lately everybody has seen that I’m also a big jerk.

Nearly every news story I’ve read about Armstrong engages in what psychologists call “splitting.” Splitting is the tendency we have to reduce complex issues to black-and-white categories. We view people as entirely good or evil, and place them in a box accordingly. It’s more comforting to us than accepting the reality that we all act like angels and devils at varying times and for varying reasons.

From a theological perspective, of course, we are all sinners — we are all evil (Romans 3:9-20 is a classic passage on that topic). On the other hand, we have also been created in the image of God and given attributes that reflect his beauty and purity and goodness (Gen 1:26-27, 31). Even the “Gentiles,” Paul says, have an instinctive understanding of right and wrong — the Law of God is written on our hearts from birth, and sometimes we even obey it (Romans 2:14-15). So it’s accurate to say that all of us — Lance included — are humanitarians and jerks.

Armstrong mentioned at one point that his story was so “perfect” for so long. He was a victorious athlete, a cancer survivor, and a generous philanthropist. When the story was perfect, we categorized him as good. We wore our LiveStrong bracelets and repaired our old bicycles in an attempt to imitate him. When the story turned sour, we placed him in a different box — the evil one. We created funny Facebook memes about him, clucked our tongues at his sin, and felt good because we had never injected ourselves with another person’s blood.

In truth, a person’s sin is often simply the dark side of his strengths. Armstrong’s drive to win, his desire to make a name for himself, and his fighting spirit all contributed to this long and complicated narrative. The same impulse that led him to win seven Tour de France titles and to establish his own cancer charity also led him to lie and cover up the fact that he cheated his way to the top.

At its core, Lance’s story is our story. Our story started so perfectly — in a Garden, walking with God, made in His image, bearing His beauty. The story turned terribly sour when we sinned and covered it up. For thousands of years, the cycle has been repeated billions of times, every moment of every day. We sin, we hide, we’re found out. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

And at the end of the day, Lance’s hope is our only hope, as well. We look to the grace and forgiveness of a God who sees all, who knows that we are created to be good and yet are terribly broken and rebellious. He sees what we’re hiding. For most of us our sin will never be an international news story. But God knows. And through Jesus, God offers forgiveness to liars, bullies, cheaters, and sinners. People like Lance Armstrong. People like you and me.

The story was so perfect, and one day it will be perfect again. Sin will be gone, the earth will be restored, and we will walk with God once more. Just as He always has done, God extends His hand to you and me, offering us a way out of the devastation of sin. Jesus died. Jesus rose. He promises true redemption and restoration. It’s the only true redemption for Lance Armstrong, and it’s the only true redemption for you and me.

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4 Reasons Legalism Can Destroy Your Spiritual Life

In the past two weeks, I’ve written about grace, legalism, and obedience.  If I’m honest, my interest in discussing this topic stems from the fact that accepting grace is hard for me. I believe in grace, but I often live as if I have to check off certain boxes in order to be a “good Christian.” In the past year or so, I’ve found myself increasingly humbled and amazed at the freeness of grace.

I’ve come to realize, more and more, how legalism is a dangerous threat to the Christian life. The apostles fought vigorously against legalism when it threatened the spread of the Gospel among first-century Gentiles (Acts 15:1-35). Paul didn’t concern himself too much with whether people worshipped on Saturday or Sunday, or whether they ate meat (Romans 14). He was passionate, though, to defend the fact that salvation is never earned on the basis of law-keeping. He was nearly rabid when legalists tried to create a caste system within the early Church, placing the Law-keepers at the top and the uncircumcised on the bottom (Galatians 2:11-16; 5:1-15).

Why is legalism so destructive? 

First, legalism badly underestimates the wickedness of the human heart. Legalism assumes that I can be good enough, either to earn God’s approval or to elevate myself above other people. That’s a false premise, though. Everybody is desperately wicked and sick and sinful, even those of us who are respectable and well-dressed and polite (Romans 3). Some sin is less obvious than other sin. Some sin, in fact, creates more devastating relational consequences than other sin (e.g. pride is often viewed as a virtue, while adultery is not). All sin, though, separates me from God and places me in need of His grace.

Second, legalism minimizes God’s holiness. One of Christ’s major points in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is that sins of the heart are just as sinful as those of the body. If adultery is sin, it’s because it springs from a heart of lust. If murder is sin, it springs from a heart of hatred for other people. God is so holy — a word that actually means, “set apart,” in the sense that He is greater and better than I — that I simply cannot meet His standard of righteousness.

Third, legalism undervalues God’s love for me. This is a bit less obvious than my first two points, but still critical. In my own life, I’ve found that legalism stems from a desire for God and others to love me more. Of course, it’s true that some people might approve of me if I’m particularly kind, good, loyal, pure, or whatever. But the love of other people is not the same as the love of God. God sent Jesus to die for me while I was still a sinner (Romans 5:8). That’s an astounding reality — as Paul says, nobody voluntarily dies for a criminal, but that’s exactly what Jesus did for us. When I’m legalistic, I fail to recognize that God already approves of me and loves me in Jesus Christ, and not because of what I have done.

Finally, legalism undermines my relationships with others. It’s tough to be at peace with other Christians when I think I’m better than they are. It’s hard to share the good news of God’s grace with sinners when I think I’m no longer a sinner. Legalism prevents me from fulfilling God’s purpose for my life, to be a representation of His character, full of truth and love (John 1:14).

I’m still wrestling with these issues practically, but I’m grateful that God continues to impress upon me the depth of His grace and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

What other dangers does legalism pose for the spiritual life? How do you think we can fight it in our own hearts and our communities? 

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What is the Difference Between Legalism and Obedience?

In my last post, I defined a legalist as a person who believes that God is pleased with him or her on the basis of certain actions or characteristics. In other words, a legalist believes that God approves of him because of something he does, rather than because of what Jesus has done.

The natural question, then, is, “What is the difference between legalism and obedience?” The New Testament certainly exhorts Christians toward moral excellence, in behavior and in thought (e.g 1 Peter 2:12; Phil 4:8). So why do such commands not constitute legalism? Furthermore, why does Paul discuss his desire to be “pleasing to God” in 2 Corinthians 5:9 if we cannot please God with our works (thanks to Cameron for asking this question after my previous post)?

The first key to unraveling this distinction is to understand that a legalist believes that his works (or lack thereof) actually change his status before God. If you ask a legalist the question, “Why does God love you and approve of you,” the answer will be, “Because I’m good.” In fact, Jesus pointed this out in Luke 15, in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The elder son in the story believed that he was entitled to his father’s love because he had done so many good things. He had been faithful, he had worked hard, he had stayed home, he was frugal. The father, on the other hand, tells his older son that he has always been entitled to everything, simply because he was His son! The father lavishes grace on both sons, regardless of their obedience, because he’s that kind of Dad. He’s the sort of Dad who loves the screw-up as much as he loves the straight-A student.

As a father, my love for my kids does not waver depending on their obedience to me. Do I want them to obey? Certainly. Are there consequences for disobedience? Absolutely. Are there blessings for obedience? Yes. But their obedience has no impact on their status in my family. It has no impact on whether I think of them with love, tenderness, and gratitude. The legalist (and I am a legalist at times) truly feels that he is better, more loved by God, more legit when he obeys.

On the other hand, a grace-filled Christian recognizes that obedience has many benefits, but it doesn’t change God’s approval of us or our status as His children. We obey for several reasons. Paul says that we obey because we’ve been set free from sin — we have died to sin through Jesus Christ (Romans 6:1-11). We also obey because sin leads to slavery and death, and not to freedom (Romans 6:12-23). Sin can destroy us and enslave us and prevent us from living with the freedom and joy that God intends.

I don’t obey to earn God’s smile. I can obey because He’s already given me His smile through Jesus Christ! Because God approves of me through Jesus, He also gave His Spirit to live in me. Because His Spirit lives in me, I am now capable of living in freedom from sin and death!

Furthermore, as I reflect the grace and holiness of God, others see it and are drawn to Him. My practical obedience, then, allows me to fulfill my purpose for being — to proclaim the glory and grace of God in Jesus Christ so that the world can know Him.

God is pleased when I obey, not because He likes me better when I obey, but because it makes Him happy when His children live with purpose and freedom. In the same way, it makes me happy when my own kids obey me, not because I love them more, but because I know that obedience is the best way for them to live. It’s not always the easiest, but it is the best. In the same way, God knows that obedience is not always easy, and not always rewarded in the way we would prefer, but it is the best path for those who want to fulfill their purpose for existing.

When Paul discusses trying to please God in 2 Corinthians 5:9, he’s actually talking about his mission as an apostle. When you read the context carefully, Paul is actually saying that God is pleased when Paul preaches the message that we are reconciled through Jesus — apart from works, legalism, and external judgment. What pleases God the most is when His children trust Him for their righteousness and proclaim (with words and with actions) that knowing Jesus is the way to know God.

In a nutshell, legalism is a terrifying treadmill on which I run in vain to earn God’s love and approval. Christian obedience is a joyful response to the death and resurrection of Christ and to the Spirit of God who lives within me. What’s most interesting, of course, is that we can do the same actions for very different reasons. I can give money to my church as a legalist or I can give money to my church as a Spirit-directed follower of Jesus. The action itself is often not as significant as the motivation and power behind the action.

My next post will discuss why legalism is just as dangerous to the Christian as immorality (and maybe more so).

What questions or comments do you have on this topic? Do you agree with my definitions? Would you add or remove anything?

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Why You Might Be a Legalist (and Not Even Know It)

When we hear the word “legalist,” most of us think of Christian groups who forbid people to watch movies, dance, or wear shorts on hot days. We don’t consider ourselves to be legalists, because we don’t adhere to those sort of rules, or insist that other people do the same.

However, you probably are a legalist in certain areas of your life. I know that I am at times. Let me explain.

I am a legalist if I believe that certain actions or characteristics determine whether or not God is pleased with me. For example, the Pharisees of Jesus’s day adhered to an elaborate and complicated interpretation of the Old Testament Law. They considered anybody who could not (or would not) keep to their system to be spiritually inferior. If you didn’t properly wash your hands before eating (Mark 7:1-5) or if you forgot to tithe from your spice rack (Matthew 23:23-24), then God didn’t like you quite as much as He liked those who kept the traditions.

By the time Paul wrote Galatians, the defining issue was circumcision. Circumcised Jews looked down upon uncircumcised Gentiles, believing that “real Christians” would not only believe in Jesus, but would be circumcised as well. They also created rules about when and how you could worship God, and insisted that others had to keep their rules (Galatians 4:10).

Legalists are those who believe either (1) that receiving eternal life depends on works or (2) that certain behavior qualifies a person to be a “better Christian” than another person. Anytime we set up a spiritual caste system, with ourselves at the top, we become legalists.

Let’s see if you recognize any of these symptoms of evangelical legalism: 

-  “I have a ‘quiet time’ every day for at least 45 minutes. God probably likes me better than my friend who can’t seem to focus on reading for very long. His quiet times are so anemic and pathetic.”

-  “I can’t believe what that girl is wearing to CHURCH! Her heart is full of lust and wickedness and all sorts of evil. Good thing I’m wearing a sweater and long pants.”

-  “I kissed dating goodbye. People who date are immature, weak-minded, and just looking for sin.”

-  “I never worry about ‘first-world problems’ or pray for better parking spots. My prayers are tons better than those people who pray for their puppies.”

- “I give money to the poor every month and I only drink fair-trade organic coffee. People who spend $40 a week at Starbucks are evil and oppressive advocates of modern slavery. I can’t believe any Christian would do such a thing — they probably aren’t even Christians!”

Is any of this sounding familiar? If you’re like me, you’re thinking, “Actually, I’m better than any of those silly legalists quoted above.” Yep.

Legalism is dangerous because it seems so reasonable. We seem wired to believe that our works earn us favor with God and others. It’s frustratingly hard to remove.

Of course, whenever I discuss this topic, somebody asks, “What’s the difference between being a legalist and simply pursuing the holiness of God? Doesn’t the New Testament encourage us to be pure, holy, and godly in our actions and lifestyle?” Yes, it does. So how do we distinguish between legalism and New Testament righteousness? I’ll take that up in my next post.

In the meanwhile, ask yourself this: “Am I a legalist?” Even better, ask yourself, “In what ways am I a legalist? What artificial measuring sticks do I use to measure my spirituality and the spirituality of others?” If you’re measuring your righteousness by any standard other than that of Jesus Christ, it’s legalism. (We will talk more about Christ’s standard of righteousness next time).

I’d love to hear from you:  What are some other common evangelical manifestations of legalism? Do you struggle with any of them? 

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