You’re Not a Good Christian (But Jesus Loves You)

Sometimes I feel like a bad Christian. I might be the only one, but then again, I might not.

We’re surrounded by articles and books and blogs telling us what we need to do in order to be better. Spend too much time on Facebook or Twitter and you’ll be convinced that you’re not giving enough money to Africa, your kids are bratty, your diet will kill you, you’re not being nice enough to your spouse, and God generally finds your attitude crummy.

I’ve been leading a Bible study at my church on the subject of grace. After my recent talk, a young man approached me and informed me that he was deeply impacted by a very popular Christian book. He said, “After reading the book I realized that even though I believe in Jesus, I’m not doing enough to really call myself a Christian.” He felt that was a good thing. I don’t think it is.

Let me suggest that we don’t primarily need to be told how to be better Christians. Yes, part of discipleship is explaining God’s standards of righteousness. Yes, the Scripture is clear that God cares for the poor and the weak and the vulnerable, and He calls us to do so as well. It is true that Christians are called to reflect the character of Jesus.

And yet, despite all the calls to action and all the guilt trips and all the hard-hitting books, most people don’t really change. Instead, most people simply feel overwhelmed, guilty, and sad. They throw up their hands in defeat and slowly convince themselves that they will never do enough to earn God’s smile. Most of us are keenly aware that we don’t measure up, and the constant reminders only make us sad.

The message we really need to hear is that God, in His matchless and infinite grace, loves you and me despite our bratty kids, terrible diet, self-centeredness and crummy attitude. I think many leaders are afraid to preach the unqualified grace of God, for fear that it might exacerbate the problem of sin. Interestingly, Paul faced the same concern when He preached the Gospel of grace. After all, isn’t it dangerous to tell people that God loves them unconditionally and has forgiven them through Jesus?

What Paul wrote in Romans 6 is still true today. It’s the realization of God’s grace that provides us with the power and motivation to reflect Jesus! The reason that guilt trips don’t make us any better is because, like the Law, they provide a terribly high standard without any means or reason to accomplish it. On the other hand, when we accept what Jesus has done for us, and when the Spirit of God enters our lives, we suddenly have a foundation on which to build our obedience. We don’t obey so God will like us more. We obey because He’s already told us He loves us beyond imagination.

So every exhortation toward good works needs to be preceded by and immersed in the message of God’s grace. If it isn’t, it’s just the old law in a new costume. When the magnificence of grace finally seizes our hearts, we find that obedience is a privilege and joy rather than one more thing to check off our list.

So if you feel like a bad Christian this morning, the good news is that God loves you. If you feel exhausted by everything you’re doing wrong, remember that Jesus died for all of it. When you serve and obey, then, do so in response to the Spirit who lives in you. Don’t obey because somebody on the internet made you feel bad. We all need discipleship and exhortation, but for Christians the primary “law” we obey is the law of the Spirit (Romans 8:1-4).

The message we need most is that God’s grace is incredibly good news. It frees us from slavery to sin, the finality of death, and the tyranny of the Law. We don’t have to jump on the treadmill and hope God likes us today. Instead, we jump into the arms of our Savior and obey Him, because He’s proven to us in Jesus that He loves us with an infinite love.

Do you ever feel like a bad Christian? How do you remind yourself of the good news? I’d love to hear your practical ideas. 

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Why the Christian Mingle Ads Bug You So Much

A while back, I obliquely referred to the dating site Christian Mingle in a post about whether or not we have “soul mates.” Since then, Christian Mingle has become very well-known for their television ads, which promise to help clients “find God’s match for you.” The soundtrack for the ads is the popular Jars of Clay song, “Love Song for a Savior.” In their original context, the lyrics, “I want to fall in love with You,” obviously refer to Jesus. In the context of the ads, however, the lyrics have taken on quite a different meaning.

I’m not opposed on principle to internet dating sites. I’ve had friends and family members use sites like eHarmony. I recognize that the internet is a reality of our world, and it can often be a portal for what eventually becomes a more serious in-person relationship. In some ways, internet dating sites are just the electronic equivalent of being “set up,” in which a friend introduces you to a person you might like to know better.

However, the Christian Mingle ads have stirred up no small amount of consternation. Most people I’ve talked with are simply annoyed with them, but can’t quite pinpoint why. Why do they are so annoying and seemingly offensive?

I think the major problem with the Christian Mingle ads is the way they try to use Christianity as a lure for those seeking a romantic relationship. Using the Jars of Clay song as the soundtrack is a perfect illustration of the issue at hand. The song is about the love that Christians feel toward Jesus. It isn’t remotely about dating or marriage. Listening to the lyrics in hindsight, I recognize that its romantic imagery makes it the perfect target for this kind of misuse. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was never intended as a song about finding your perfect mate.

By co-opting a song about Jesus and using it to sell a dating service, the owners of Christian Mingle have trivialized Jesus and managed to insult a number of single Christians at the same time. I think the song, though, is simply indicative of broader theological problems. The way Christian Mingle presents God and relationships is deficient in a few key ways.

First, the love of God is qualitatively different from the type of romantic love being “sold” by Christian Mingle. God’s love is fierce, intense, perfect, and always dedicated to the growth of our character. Rich Mullins referred to the “reckless raging fury that we call the love of God.” C.S. Lewis reminded us that God is not “safe, but good.” In other words, Christian Mingle is selling a picture of interpersonal love that feels shallow and trivial when placed alongside the love of God. If God created marriage, then romantic love ought to reflect His love. Yet the breed of romantic love promoted on the ads confuses God’s love with a sort of sentimental mushiness that seems at odds with the impression of God’s love we get from the Bible.

Second, the ads clearly make false promises. Christian Mingle assures us that the right mate is definitely out there, and that God has a perfect match for each person. As I’ve written before on this blog, the Bible offers no such promise. The danger, of course, is that somebody could watch the ad and conclude that it speaks for God rather than just for a profit-motivated dating website. To be clear, God never promised to provide everybody with a mate, with children, with lots of money, or anything of the sort. He’s promised eternal life for those who know Jesus. He’s even promised abundant life, meaning a rich relationship with God through the power of the Holy Spirit. But it’s patently false to claim that God has a definite match for each person and then to imply that said person is also using Christian Mingle.

Third, the ads imply that Christian singles should view their relationship with God as simply a means to find a spouse. Most Christian singles I know don’t believe that. Most of them would be offended at the implication. The ads seem to subordinate the word “Christian” to the word “Mingle.” Or to put it another way, being Christian is less important than being married. In reality, it’s the other way around. Marriage, for those who enter into it, is one of many relationships in which we’re called to live out our relationship with Jesus. It’s an important one, to be sure, but it’s not the sum total of our existence. I fear that Christian Mingle’s ads promote the mindset that the important thing about being a Christian is that you can go out with nice girls or guys. 

I realize that in the final analysis, we’re only talking about television ads. The company that owns Christian Mingle also owns dozens of other dating sites encompassing every religion from Buddhism to Judaism. So I suppose I shouldn’t expect them to adhere to high theological standards. However, sometimes it’s helpful to evaluate why we feel uncomfortable with ads like this. In the final analysis, it’s because these ads trivialize God and humanity at the same time. They present a woefully deficient picture of God’s love and what it means to be made in His image.

We have an opportunity, once we get a grasp of the problems, to present a better picture. God loves each of us unconditionally, regardless of our marital status. For Christians, that love is the basis of our actions and thoughts and the foundation of our relationships. It drives everything we think and do, and it dramatically affects how we view marriage and romance. It gives us a more complete and positive picture, and we now have the chance to communicate the greatness of God’s love to world that obviously is dying for love. When people don’t understand God’s love, they will grasp at straws. They’ll accept cheap alternatives. We have the privilege of offering the real thing to a world that seeks it desperately.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one. Do you agree with my assessment? How do you think Christians can best reflect God’s love to people who grasp at cheap alternatives?

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Five Lessons I Learned From My Dad

I’ve been a father for nearly nine years, and it’s by far the most complex and demanding role I’ve ever tried to fill. It’s also the most fulfilling in many ways, but I quite frequently find myself perplexed by the variety of challenging situations presented by raising kids.

However, I’m blessed to have had a good dad that I’m now able to look toward as a model. No, he wasn’t perfect. As soon as he reads this, he’s likely to send me a note or call me and tell me how he failed in different ways. It’s not that I’m unaware of my dad’s flaws. As I get older, though, I find myself able to better appreciate his strengths.

Here are a few things my dad taught me that I hope to pass along to my own kids: 

1. Jesus died and rose for you. I first believed the gospel after listening to a kids’ record (yes, I said record) on which the speaker talked about what Jesus did to secure eternal life. My dad was out of town at the time, but when he came home he took me aside and explained the gospel more thoroughly. He was faithful to simply preach the Gospel to his kids, and we all still believe it. His example helped me see that pointing my kids to Jesus is my greatest responsibility and my primary mission as a father.

2. Doubt and faith are not incompatible. Dad struggled with very serious doubts over the years, but he maintained his faith in Jesus. That might seem like a small accomplishment to some, but it’s not. It’s not easy to keep believing and to keep encouraging your kids to believe. Life presents seemingly innumerable challenges and opportunities to ditch the faith, but Dad kept it. In the process he taught us that doubt isn’t something to fear, but to bring into the open where it can be discussed and dealt with.

3. Use your brain. My dad loves to debate and discuss ideas. Our dinner table was usually a lively place, filled with animated discussions about the Bible, politics, social issues, and a variety of other topics. Even today, Dad can’t let a bad idea pass by him quietly without challenging it. I didn’t realize it as a kid, but he gave me an invaluable tool: the ability to evaluate and consider different ideas. It’s a skill I use every day in my work as a pastor, and one that I hope I can pass along to my own kids.

4. Never stop learning. This is related to the previous point, but my dad is a voracious reader and writer. One Christmas, Shannon and I gave dad a thick book on the subject of creationism. We gave it to him at 8:00 in the morning, and he finished reading it by 4:00 in the afternoon. We were just a tad disappointed that our gift didn’t last longer, but that’s typical of Dad. He spent his free time reading, writing, and learning. He taught me that learning isn’t a chore, but a privilege.

5. Adversity is an opportunity to develop character. My parents have been through some major trials in the course of their marriage. Cancer, unemployment, difficult relationships, financial hardship, and even disobedient kids. Some people grow bitter at life’s trials and challenges. Yet I’ve seen my dad become more patient, kind, and open over the years. I attribute his growth to the Spirit of God in his life. Adversity seems to have made him stronger and better, rather than weaker and bitter. That’s the sort of character I hope to show to my own kids as they grow. I can’t control my life’s circumstances, but I can become more like Jesus as I face them.

So I’m grateful to my dad for helping me know how to be a dad to my own kids. And I’m grateful to God for him this Father’s Day.

In the spirit of Father’s Day, what are some things you learned from your dad that you hope to pass along to your own kids? 

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What Your Worship Leader Wants You to Know

I was a church worship leader for ten years. During that time, I led the music at several different churches and organizations. I loved the job. When we’re worshipping, we’re simply telling God how great He is and thanking Him for all he’s done. It was a privilege to help Christ’s people do that well.

I often noticed, though, that people didn’t show up on Sunday morning prepared for worship. It’s hard to blame them. Sometimes I wasn’t prepared either. Sunday morning is often a blur, a frantic rush to get out of bed, get dressed, dress the kids, argue with your spouse, speed to church, look for a parking spot, and hurriedly plop down in the pew. Add to that our modern over-emphasis on public speaking and you have a perfect recipe for the neglect (and perhaps even abuse) of corporate singing.

So how can you make the most of the corporate singing time at your church? How can you turn your mind and heart toward the worship of God during those few critical moments?

Here are a few things your worship leader would say if your pastor would ever let him preach a sermon:

1.   Prepare. On Saturday night or Sunday morning, spend a few minutes before God preparing your heart and mind to worship. It will be busy and crazy while you’re getting ready to go on Sunday. So prepare ahead time. Pray that God will give you an attitude of internal peace and worship in the midst of external pandemonium.

2.  Arrive on time. This might sound a bit harsh, but if you can get to church ten minutes late, you can get there on time. Plan for the unexpected — the parking might be full, the room might be crowded, you might hit traffic. My guess is that you plan like that on school days or work days. You can do it for church days as well. That will leave you time to sit down and quiet your mind and your heart before the songs begin.

4.  Don’t consider it the “warm-up” for the sermon. Singing does prepare you to hear from God’s Word. But it’s much more than a prelude. It’s a chance for you and your fellow Christians to sincerely focus on God. To actively participate in the service. To say to God what you hopefully feel about Him all week. So take it seriously. Don’t chat at the back of the room, spend the first three songs filling up your coffee, or look at your watch in eager anticipation of the sermon.

3. Sing. Seriously. Open your mouth and sing the songs. You don’t have to sing louder than everybody in the room. And there are appropriate times to be quiet and reflect on the lyrics. But if you never sing, you’re probably not getting the point of corporate worship. It’s not a concert designed for the worship leader to show you his skills. The idea is that we’re all worshipping God together…by singing (Psalm 47:6-7).

4. Reflect. Think about what you’re singing. In some cases the lyrics are excellent descriptions of God’s character and work in history. In some cases not so much. Either way, you’ll learn a great deal by paying attention to what you’re singing. And just like prayer, worship requires that we know what we’re saying to God.

5. Remember it’s not about your preferences.  A wise older man who faithfully attended our young-ish church would tell me occasionally that our music wasn’t really his speed. “But it’s not about what I like,” he would say. “It’s about connecting these students to Jesus. I can tolerate the noise if it helps them to understand the Gospel.” Amen. One of the beautiful things about corporate worship: it can remove us from thinking about ourselves and help us to focus on God and others. If we allow for it.

6. Finally, remember that it’s corporate worship. That means you aren’t supposed to completely tune out everybody else in the room. It’s really not just about you and God. You and God are there, but there are other people there as well. Be conscious of those who are singing around you. What can you do to help them worship more effectively? How can you take joy in hearing them sing to the Lord? How do the lyrics point to a common and shared faith rather than merely an individual faith? If worship were simply private, we’d just stay at home and crank up Spotify. It’s intended to draw us closer to Jesus as a group and as individuals.

What ideas or concerns do you have about corporate worship? Do you agree/disagree with my suggestions here? 

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My Fruit-of-the-Spirit Arch-Nemesis

I grew up learning about the Fruit of the Spirit at home and in Sunday school (Galatians 5:22-23). We sang songs about it and rehearsed the list over and over again. As parents, Shannon and I have taught it to our kids. I think both of my daughters could recite this list of character qualities well before they could read: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control. (Now that we have Steve Green’s Hide ‘Em in Your Heart CDs, I just sing the song anytime I forget part of the list).

One quality on that list seems so unfair to me, though. Not that I practice any of them perfectly (or even close to perfectly), but one of them trips me up every single day. 

As a dad of young kids, patience is my arch-nemesis. It’s a funny thing, but parenting is a process that simply refuses to fit my calendar well. The harder we push our kids to fit our timeline, the harder it seems to be to get them to do so.

For example, sometimes we’ll ask a kid to clean up his or her toys before bed. After about 5 minutes, we check on the situation to find that the child has taken out more toys! We explain that taking out more toys was not the goal. Putting the toys away was the goal. We stay in the room to supervise this time. This supervision provokes a flurry of tears and anger (from us and the child), which then requires a long conversation about how we’re not trying to be cruel, but instead trying to put the child in bed because we are tired and want to play Tiny Wings on our phone for just a few minutes. What should have taken 5 minutes has now stretched to 30 minutes. We do not feel patient or Spirit-filled. We feel grumpy and selfish.

Lately, though, I’ve started to realize that I often pursue the wrong parenting goal. All too frequently, I’m trying to control my children when I need to be training and loving them.  I suspect my kids know the difference. There’s a huge distinction between trying to train and love somebody and trying to control them.

Control is all about me: I try to control other people because then I can make them fit into my needs, my schedule, or my plans. On the other hand, training is about the other person. I train my kids (a process that does include correction and discipline at times) because I want them to grow up to be men and women who know Jesus and exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit! And that includes patience. In other words, I train them because I love them. In a nutshell, it’s the difference between discipleship and dictatorship.

When I try to control them, when I become impatient at their delays, resistance, and general childishness, I am teaching them something. It’s just not what I’m hoping to teach them. When I’m impatient,  I’m teaching them that people who don’t fit my schedule deserve to be rebuked, shunned, or punished. I’m communicating to them that I care more about a few minutes of “Daddy time” than I do about them. Ouch.

The irony of all of this, of course, is that I can’t seem to make them hurry up anyway! For all my fussing and fuming over their delays, I never seem to save more than about 30 seconds. In the process, I manage to increase everybody’s stress level. I also manage to slowly indoctrinate them with a “hurry-up” attitude that will not serve them well in their relationships with God and other people.

So instead of resenting that whole “patience” thing in Galatians 5, I’ve decided I’m going to try to roll with it. Let me rephrase that: I’m going to pray and pray and pray that God will make me patient. Because I am not patient. Patience is my arch-nemesis still, but I’m trying to befriend it.

My prayer is that I will discipline and train and lead my kids with the same attitude of love that God demonstrates toward me every day. I cannot escape the fact that God is holy and just, but also exceedingly long-suffering. He waits and waits and waits for me to change and to grow and to obey. And then He waits some more. All the while, He gently and lovingly pushes me to be more like Jesus. He’s never needy or impatient like I am.

So I’m praying for patience. In the meanwhile, I guess I’ll sing that Fruit of the Spirit song again and hope it sinks in. 

Question: Is patience your arch-nemesis? Is there another Fruit of the Spirit that trips you up?

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