Grace, Karma, and Viral Video

There’s a beautifully made video making the rounds on the internet this week. It’s an ad for a Thai telecommunications company, and it’s intended to highlight the value of a selfless life. Watch the video, then return here to read the rest of the post.

When I first saw the ad, I’ll admit it brought tears to my eyes. It reminded me of a very short version of the old movie It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart plays a man whose life of faithful kindness is finally rewarded in his own moment of terrible need.

Upon further reflection, though, I had a major concern about the video’s content: It’s really a movie about karma rather than grace. The message of the ad (produced, incidentally, in a majority Buddhist country) is that the good deeds you do now will be rewarded later. Put positive energy into the universe, and you’ll get positive energy out of it. Although it’s generally true that being kind to others will cause them to be kind to you, the karmic philosophy behind the video isn’t really Christian. Karma is at the root of most major world religions, but not Christianity.

Christianity is based upon the concept of grace rather than karma. Despite our good works, karma would eventually kill all of us. If my future is dependent upon how much positive energy I send into the universe now, then I’m in serious trouble. And so are you. The scales will never balance in our favor, especially if we serve a holy God who can’t abide any sin.

In contrast, grace offers what we don’t deserve. In grace, God offers us eternal blessings that we haven’t earned. He offers them freely, through the death of His own Son, despite our selfishness and sin.

So I’d love to see a viral video that highlights grace instead of karma. What if we saw a man who didn’t deserve the kindness of others, a man who was unkind and selfish and sinful, but who was granted grace in his hour of deep need. What if we saw a person whose life was literally saved by someone who knew he didn’t deserve it but chose to help him anyway?

Such a story would be closer to the story of my own life. It would accurately reflect the heart of God in Jesus Christ. And I think it just might make me cry. 

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Miley Cyrus Isn’t Real

I know I’m extremely late to the Miley Cyrus blogger party, so you might not care anymore. But my blog was down last week, and I felt I had to write this post. In the midst of all the concern and anger about Miley’s infamous performance last week, I think we’ve failed to notice one key concept:

Miley Cyrus is no more real than Hannah Montana. Yes, there is a real person named Miley Cyrus. But you and I know virtually nothing about that Miley Cyrus. What we know and see is a facade, a carefully constructed public persona. That may seem obvious to you, but bear with me: this has some serious theological and spiritual ramifications. 

Hannah Montana was always built on the idea of a double life. By day, she was just Miley, a normal kid with normal friends. By night, a major pop star with legions of fans. The whole concept of Hannah Montana was that one’s public persona can be radically different from the private reality. 

What most of us missed was that Miley Cyrus herself was simply an image. Even the off-screen moments we saw were designed to fit the image that Disney and Miley wanted us to see. None of us had any idea what Miley was like in private. We still don’t, for that matter. The Miley that the world saw a week ago, “twerking” and gyrating, might bear absolutely no resemblance to the Miley known by her parents and closest friends. For all we know, she’s shy and demure and even chaste in private. From the perspective of the entertainment industry, none of that matters as much as what she presents to the world.

In other words, the “new” Miley is no more real than the “old” Miley. The public Miley is as real as the perfect family portrait you took last Christmas. Everything is planned, posed, and carefully executed. The old Miley was designed to appeal to the longing that we parents have for our kids to have positive and sweet role models. The new Miley is designed to appeal to a whole different crowd. She’s designed to appeal to the millions of young women who find themselves wanting to break free of their parents’ values and morals. The shock and outrage that we parents felt last week was the whole point of the performance, in other words. Parents, Miley wasn’t doing her act for the likes of you and me.

All of this leads me to my main point: We live in a world obsessed with one’s public image, often to the neglect of one’s private integrity. As long as Miley’s public image was wholesome, we were fine with her, even though not one of us knew what she was truly like off-stage. Once that public image became offensive, we turned on her in a major way. What’s ironic is that the Hannah Montana image itself suggested that it was all an illusion. It celebrated the type of prevarication that ultimately creates a huge disconnect between one’s character and image. To top it off, Miley and Disney actually told us that from the beginning. They were tongue-in-cheek and subtle about it, but they told us nonetheless. So the deeper problem is really that we want the image to be well-scrubbed, even if we have no idea about the reality behind the image.

This isn’t just about Miley, by the way. We do the same thing with our kids, and even with ourselves.  We emphasize “clean” language, inoffensive Facebook and Twitter profiles, outward obedience, and dirt-free ears. None of those things are evil — in fact all of them are good and even necessary — but we often focus on those public displays of righteousness to the exclusion of inner holiness. The result is a shiny peel with a rotten core. Or, as Jesus put it, we clean the outside of the cup while leaving the inside virtually untouched (Matthew 23:25). As long as the public persona seems clean, we assume everything is fine. We rarely care to look deeper until the pretty facade falls apart in such a cataclysmic way that we have no choice.

Jesus consistently directed us to look beyond the outer appearance to the heart. That’s the basic message of the Sermon on the Mount. Our outward conformity to certain standards will never pave our way to the righteousness of God. We need the inner transformation that comes only through the Spirit of God. That transformation comes to those who recognize their failure and trust in the One who can provide true goodness, a goodness that penetrates to the very core.

The Miley Cyrus debacle reminds us of the danger of putting too much stock in one’s outward image. We need to remind our kids and ourselves that celebrities craft their public personas for a particular purpose — to get us to watch and to buy merchandise. The objectives of the entertainment industry are at odds with the purposes of Jesus Christ. It goes deeper than Hollywood, though. The problems we face are ultimately found at the center of our sinful hearts, and they find their solution only in the cleansing work that God’s Spirit can provide from the inside out. 

The Miley Cyrus we saw last week wasn’t real. But Miley Cyrus is a real person, and like every person — you and me included — she needs the kind of transformation that can’t be found in the office of an image consultant or publicist. And just like Miley, we need the same eternal and lasting change, granted to us by the One who created us and promises life that is new and real.

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Grace is for Rule Breakers

(This is a guest post by my friend Timothy Ateek, the director of Vertical Ministries in Waco.)

Are you a rule follower or a rule breaker? If you’re not sure, just think back to your high school years. If you’re a rule breaker, you were probably a nightmare for your parents and teachers. You threw crazy parties when your parents were out of town, abused drugs or alcohol, and snuck into R-rated movies.

If you’re a rule follower, you probably spoiled the fun for all your rule-breaking friends! While they were wondering how to get away with stuff, you were worried about them — what if they got caught? You certainly didn’t join in their debauchery, since it was against the rules. Teachers loved you, your parents bragged about you at dinner parties, and the police didn’t even know you existed!

Would it surprise you to know that rule followers sometimes have a hard time understanding and accepting grace? Once rule breakers believe in God, they tend to see their need for grace. After all, the rule breakers know how much they need forgiveness.

On the other hand, rule followers often view their lives through a filter. If you’ve ever used Instagram, you know what I mean. You take pictures and run them through a filter, and they suddenly look like beautiful art! Rule followers often look at their lives through a similar type of filter, convincing themselves that they’re better than they actually are. Rule followers sometimes think they don’t need grace.

The parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) is directed to a group of rule followers, also known as the Pharisees. The younger son in the story is a classic rule breaker — he asks for an early inheritance, rejects his father, and runs into the world to break a bunch of rules. The world welcomes him at first, but then it leaves him broken. He finds himself living among pigs, and he reaches a moment of clarity — true life is back home with his father. He’s on his way home when his father sees him, runs to him, and embraces him. The father brings his son into the house, gives him a robe and throws a party.

All the rule breakers say, “Amen. You can’t earn God’s favor, because He gives it freely.” But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus writes another son, a rule following older son, into the story. The older son has been holding down the fort, doing everything right, while his crazy younger brother has squandered the inheritance. He’s angry that the father would so easily accept the younger brother back into the fold.

Jesus’ parable ends with the younger son inside, enjoying the celebration, and the older son standing outside, refusing to go in. The rule breaking son is swimming in the father’s favor, while the rule following son is completely missing out on it. It seems that sometimes following all the rules can keep us from experiencing the Father’s favor. Why?

First, because it’s possible to follow the Father’s rules without being connected to the Father Himself. We have a tendency to look at how great we are at following the rules, instead of at how great God is for letting us know Him. “I’ve never gotten drunk. I haven’t missed a quiet time in 3 months. I don’t lie. I don’t cuss.” It’s hard to need God’s grace when all you can see is how great you are for following the rules.

Second, rule followers tend to slip into a mentality that says, “If I perform, God will provide.” It’s like God is a cosmic vending machine. If you get the right combination, if you follow rule A and rule 4, then He will drop everything you want into your lap. You think you don’t need God to give you his love as a free gift. You think that you can manipulate Him into giving it to you as a payment for following the rules. “I went to church, I gave to charity, I served the community. I’ve performed, now You provide.” But God doesn’t work that way.

The truth is that you can be a rule follower on the outside, but a rule breaker on the inside. Your pride, bitterness, and resentment make you a rule breaker. Every single one of us is a rule breaker. The life of a rule follower is not good enough for God, because even rule followers have rule-breaking hearts.

Sometimes my 3-year-old son Noah comes home from pre-school with “artwork.” Sometimes the artwork is just a piece of paper with something like a purple line on it. I’m going to sound like a bad parent here, but there’s nothing particularly praiseworthy about it. On the other hand, he sometimes comes home with some impressive stuff — paper covered with carefully arranged cotton balls and glitter, and his name written in amazing handwriting. Of course Noah didn’t create it — the teacher did! But we celebrate anyway, since he is so proud of his “work.”

Here’s what you need to know: If you’re a rule follower, all of your best days put together are no more than a piece of paper with a purple line. The only way to experience God’s favor is through the beautiful work that somebody else has done on your behalf. Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again to pay the penalty for your rule breaking heart. Jesus leaves the older son standing outside because He wants to be clear: the celebration is only for those who know that the Father’s favor can’t be earned. It can only be received as a free gift. Whether you’re a rule breaker or a rule follower, ask yourself this: Have you received it?

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Why Sunday School isn’t the Problem

I grew up in church, going to Sunday school pretty much every week. Like any activity, some of it was useful and encouraging, and some of it was not. We did motions to songs that I didn’t really understand at the time, like “Father Abraham” or “Deep and Wide.” We made crafts and listened to Bible stories, some of which didn’t contain the theological nuances of God’s grace and the reality of human sin.

Some of the kids in my Sunday school classes rejected God later in life. Others are still walking with Him closely. On the whole, Sunday school was a mixed bag. Just like almost everything in life.

Over the past week or so, many of my social media friends have posted an article that traces the spiritual destruction of our kids to Sunday school. Many elements of the article resonated with me — after all, if we teach kids to emulate the “heroes of the faith” without explaining to them that God sent Jesus to save sinners, then we’re missing the boat in a bad way. As one of my friends said, kids can’t reject a Gospel they’ve never heard before.

Sunday school isn’t the problem, though. It’s easy to blame “church,” because “church” isn’t a person who will take offense at being blamed. I see that trend over and over again in the articles and blog posts popping up on Facebook lately. But kids spend 1 hour in Sunday school. They spend the rest of their week with parents, friends, and school teachers.

“So are parents the problem? Are their friends the problem? Is it the secular school system? What about movies, television, and the internet?” 

To all of the above, the answer is yes and no. The spiritual development of a child, or of any person, is a complicated issue.

It’s hard to explain it when seemingly “good” kids abandon the faith as teenagers or young adults. Our temptation is to find a scapegoat, somebody we can blame. It’s true that in some cases, parents who are inconsistent or who don’t model the faith well can create a host of spiritual problems. In a few cases, a very bad Sunday school teacher can traumatize a child for life. Violent video games, heretical Disney films, and internet pornography can all contribute to a child’s spiritual destruction. So can bad friends.

Sometimes, though, people just choose to reject the faith for no apparent reason. What if it’s not always somebody else’s fault, but the result of sin, combined with the fact that God has given each of us a measure of delegated responsibility for our own lives? What if there isn’t a pat answer, a “one thing” we can fix that will make it alright?

The idea that spiritual growth is mysterious and complex is frightening and liberating at the same time. The recognition that we can’t control our kids drives us to pray for them, to beg God to save them and lead them toward adulthood as faithful men and women. We tell them about Jesus, not because saying the right words will make it all work out okay, but because there isn’t any other way for them to survive spiritually. Understanding that the right curriculum won’t save my kids will hopefully make us realize how dependent we really are on God’s grace.

I do think the article is right in one very critical respect: the grace of God in Jesus will save our kids, not a list of moral requirements. One or two of my friends who posted the article told me that it was that message they wanted to reinforce. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s not just Sunday school teachers and those who write the lessons who are called to remember that. It’s all of us.

So does Sunday school provide anything of value at all? I think it does. We need teachers who live and model God’s grace, who teach kids that Jesus died for them and loves them, and who show our kids living examples of what walking in grace looks like. We can even glean lessons from the “heroes of the faith,” as long as we also communicate how dependent they were upon God.

(I would also add that children are concrete thinkers. Abstract concepts are tough for them. Sometimes we use examples and illustrations because it’s easier for them to look at the lives of others and understand how God used them. Sometimes we don’t give them all of the terrible stories of sexual sin and violent patriarchs because very young children aren’t quite ready for those. Where we often fail, though, is that as they grow older we don’t help them transition to the deeper concepts of the faith. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong to keep it simple and concrete when they’re small.)

So Sunday school isn’t destroying our kids. Sin has already destroyed them. Sin has destroyed all of us, and the solution isn’t adjusting our curriculum. The solution lies in asking God for His grace and kindness, and in working together to help our kids accept that grace when it shows up.

I’m sure you have opinions about this, and I’d love to hear them. What, if anything, can we do to help our kids avoid spiritual disaster as they grow older? 

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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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An Envelope of Grace

When I opened the envelope, I began to cry. Acts of grace, truly free gifts, are rare. They’re nearly non-existent in our world. We grow up hearing how there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and for the most part it’s true. Nothing is free. Even Christmas gifts sometimes come with strings attached.

Yet here we were, my wife and I, on the receiving end of such a gift. Tears were inevitable but also inadequate.

I was in my first year of seminary, and we were way over our head. Shortly before the start of the Fall semester, my car broke down in the worst possible way. I needed a new engine. $2200 that I simply did not possess. We borrowed the money, uncertain how we would repay it.

Two months later, I had a frightening episode of heart palpitations after dinner one night. Fortunately, a series of medical tests revealed that I was basically healthy (just a little bit overstressed). Unfortunately, my cheap insurance plan didn’t cover any of the medical costs. Another $5000 we didn’t have.

I’ll never forget the feeling of absolute helplessness. Three months into my ministry training and we were financially sunk. I asked a couple of friends for prayer.

About a week later, one of the pastors at my church invited Shannon and me to breakfast. He said he just wanted to encourage us and pray for us. As we were leaving, he handed me the envelope.

“A few people heard about your needs. They got together and decided to help you out. They want to remain anonymous, so they sent me to deliver this gift to you.”

We waited until we got to the car and opened the envelope. Inside was several thousand dollars in cash. In fact, it was enough to cover the gap between what we had and what we needed. (Actually we were $15 short, but that only added to the hilarious joy of the moment).

I cried, but my tears were only partly about the money. I cried because I knew grace when I saw it, a grace that seemed to mirror the One Wonderful Act of Grace so long ago.

It was a gift I could not have earned, and one I certainly could not repay. They didn’t give me the money because I deserved it — to be honest, we had only attended the church for a few months, and we hardly knew the congregation. They gave because of grace, because they had received and they felt compelled to give. They didn’t do it expecting a special reward, a pat on the back, or a chance to repay God. They did it because Jesus was in them. They loved because He loved.

That’s what grace means, by the way. Anything you have to earn isn’t grace. Anything you’re expected to repay isn’t grace. If you have to prove you’re worthy of it, it is definitely not grace. Grace is a gift. It’s free. It’s the payment of our debt by the only One who is qualified to pay it. And it’s in short supply, even among those who claim the name Christian.

I want to live and breathe and preach and give away grace. It was the mission of Jesus’ life, the reason He died and rose again. God, let it be my mission as well.

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Doubt Lets the Grace In


Sometimes I doubt.

That might be surprising, even disconcerting, to some. Is it normal for a Christian to doubt what he believes? Is it alright for a pastor to have doubts?

I used to ask myself the same questions and wonder what was wrong with me — why couldn’t I attain absolute certainty about matters of the faith? Yet the more I’ve studied the Bible and talked with mature Christians, I’ve come to recognize that faith seldom (if ever) exists without a degree of doubt. To take it a step further, most people who are absolutely certain of everything haven’t really wrestled deeply with the bigger questions of life. Faith is not the same thing as certainty. Faith, by its very nature, is trusting in God even when we cannot attain certainty — I think this is the key point of Hebrews 11. We believe what we do not see. If we saw everything clearly, we would no longer have any reason to trust in the unseen.

Absolute certainty about anything is an illusion. Why? Because we are finite creatures. Whether we’re talking about scientific discovery or spiritual truth, my limited point of view necessarily means that there will be a bit of doubt lingering around the margins of my faith. (That’s why doubt is not merely a part of the Christian experience, but a part of the human experience.)

Most of us freak out when we experience doubt, and as a result I think we often miss one of its greatest benefits: Doubt is often a conduit for the grace of God. Doubt inherently places us in a position of helplessness and need. We cannot see everything, we cannot understand the things we think we do see, so we are utterly dependent upon the wisdom and kindness of God.

When James tells us that the doubting person will not receive anything from God, I don’t think he means that absolute certainty is required when we approach the Father in prayer. I think he means quite the opposite, in fact. The word for “doubt” in the Greek language carries the idea of “double-mindedness.” I think James is telling us this: The person who approaches God for wisdom, yet thinks he already understands everything with certainty, isn’t truly inclined to listen to what God has to say. He’s curious about God’s wisdom, but isn’t desperate for it. As a result, he doesn’t receive wisdom. Wisdom comes to those who approach God single-mindedly, asking Him to provide what we do not possess.

When Peter experienced his own bouts with doubt (see, for example, Matthew 14:22-34), they became stunning opportunities for the grace of Jesus to pour into his life. True, Jesus chastised Peter for his doubt, but it was sinking into the water that caused Peter to cry, “Lord, save me!” Only by sinking did he learn to cry out to the one who could pull him out. Peter had to learn faith through the troubling lens of doubt and fear, and Jesus knew that. The bold Peter we see on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) would not have existed were it not for the lessons he learned on the water, and the pain he experienced when he denied His Savior.

I’ve learned to view doubt as a frustrating but necessary element of the Christian life. Until we see Jesus face to face, we will have to operate by faith rather than certainty. In the meanwhile, God uses our limitations and our doubt to reshape us. Through the process of wondering and questioning and asking God for the wisdom we lack, we slowly begin to grow in our own faith. Seeing God move in our lives despite our doubt and fear encourages us to take another step closer to Him.

To put it simply, doubt lets God’s grace come in. That’s true, if we view doubt as a renewed opportunity to trust Him. On the other hand, if we push away the doubt with our own reasoning, our own intelligence, and a sense of arrogant self-sufficiency, then we will not find the faith we’re seeking. Nor will we find certainty. Instead, we’ll become proud and distant from God. It’s only by acknowledging the doubt and bringing it to the feet of our all-knowing God that we can grow. Wisdom isn’t found in certainty, but in a growing understanding of our own limitations and our utter and absolute need of God’s wisdom.

So what do you think? Is doubt inappropriate for Christians? Do you ever struggle with it? How do you handle it? 

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