Hope: Friend or Foe?

Hope LetterpressI’ve been thinking about hope lately.

Last year on Mother’s Day, we assembled a panel of moms from our congregation, and asked them questions. My wife was on the panel, and part of what she talked about was our own struggle with secondary infertility before the birth of our second child.

One of the challenges she mentioned was how we faced a constant battle with hope. We wanted to have another child, but there was no guarantee that we would. The hope itself was painful at times, but we couldn’t let go of it either. We needed our hope, but our hope also punched us in the gut every single month for nearly 2 years.

Most of us face this tension at some point or other: Is hope my friend or my enemy? What if the things I hope for never happen? Am I a fool to hope for things I cannot guarantee will happen? Should I simply give up on hope altogether? But if I do, won’t I just turn into a faithless cynic?

I’ve often read Romans 5:3-5 and wondered what Paul was trying to say. What does he mean when he says, “hope does not disappoint”? It seems strange; there’s no doubt that sometimes hope does just that – it disappoints us. Is he simply saying that we should give up on earthly hopes and just accept that all our hopes will be realized in heaven? But then what’s the point of enduring earthly trials at all?

If it’s clear that some kinds of hope disappoint us, what kind of hope doesn’t?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to wrestle with the paradox of hope more and more often. And I think I’ve started to see a slightly clearer picture of what Romans 5 is talking about. The hope Paul wrote about is a hope that is forged specifically through enduring trials. He describes this chain of events: trial brings about endurance, endurance brings about proven character, and proven character brings about hope. And that type of hope, the hope that springs out of trial, doesn’t “put us to shame.” It doesn’t humiliate us or let us down.

I used to think, “OK, so hope doesn’t put us to shame, because we are hoping to go to heaven one day, and then everything will be alright again.”

But that’s not what Paul says here. Our hope is not rooted in going to heaven someday, at least not right here in this passage. This hope is rooted in something else, something we have right now: “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

Our hope is rooted in God’s love, the love we have right now through the Holy Spirit. Our hope emerges from an ever-deepening understanding that God loves us. God loves us so much that He gave His Son for us (Romans 6:6-7). That’s the objective proof of God’s love. But Paul takes us even further than that.

The reason that endurance produces hope is that enduring trials leads us to a greater and greater understanding of the love of God on a personal level. In other words, we don’t simply know about God’s love, we actually feel it. As our character is tested by trials, we paradoxically feel God’s love in a deeper way – not some future version of God’s love, but a “right-now” version of His love. In our hearts. Today.

Here’s what I’ve found on a practical level in the midst of trial: At every single stage of that trial, I am forced to ask myself, “Do I really believe that God loves me? Even now? Do I really believe that He is the Giver of every good gift, even now?” If my answer to that is, “No,” then my suffering is meaningless, and my hope turns to despair. If God doesn’t see me, if He doesn’t care, than hope truly is my enemy. But if the answer to that question is, “Yes,” then there is always, always hope. And it’s a friendly hope.

It’s a hope that is rooted squarely in the reality of God’s love for me. He loves me right now, He’s working everything out for good right now (that’s Romans 8:28), and He sees me right now, and He’s with me right now. Yes, I have the hope of a future resurrection, but I also have the hope that something critical and meaningful is happening in me and through me right now.

And the more I train my mind and my heart to cling to that type of hope, the more I come to realize that it never disappoints me, even when things don’t work out like I hoped they would. I start to see all of life through the lens of a greater hope – I see evidence of God’s work where I previously saw a barren wasteland of hopelessness. The trials don’t hurt any less, but somehow my hope in God grows ever deeper.

This isn’t a straight line of ever-increasing hope and trust, by the way. All too often, when I ask myself the question, “Does God love me, even now,” I find that my heart and mind respond, “I’m not so sure.” But the longer I walk with Him, the more I have days when I say, “Yes. I don’t see it clearly right now, but I trust Him anyway.”

And so my character is trained to trust Him. Because either God is at work in the midst of life’s pain, or despair is the only logical option. And the deeper I lean into the love of God, poured out in my heart through the Holy Spirit, the more I see that this kind of hope never disappoints. Regardless of what happens to me next, God loves me right now, and God sees me right now, and God is at work even now to make all things new.

So there is always hope. And we can make friends with hope, because we know that this sort of hope never disappoints.

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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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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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The Internet Didn’t Make You Do It

It didn’t make you look at pornography today.

The internet didn’t hit you over the head and force you to procrastinate.

Facebook didn’t type those angry words on somebody else’s wall.

You didn’t neglect your friends or your family because the internet made you do it.

So why did you do those things?

Because you tend to be a lustful, lazy, angry, selfish person.

Me too, by the way. It’s in all of us (Romans 3:10-12).

The sin is inside our hearts — it didn’t start online (Matthew 15:19).

So here’s the deal: because the problem began inside of us, it can only really be solved inside of us.

No internet filter will fix it. Don’t get me wrong — internet filters can be helpful and often are a necessary precaution. But they won’t fix the problem.

No Facebook hiatus will make you a kinder, gentler, more patient person. Yes, it might remove some temptation. And it might allow you time and space to think about why you are angry or impatient or unkind. But it won’t fix the problem. You’ll be as angry when you’re not on Facebook as you are when you’re on it.

So what will fix the problem?

Or rather, Who will fix the problem?

Since the problem is our hearts, we need a transformation of our hearts. And only the Holy Spirit can accomplish that. Once we admit we’re sinful, that we really are sinful, God stands ready to give us His grace to obey (Romans 8:1-17).

We pray, we listen to Him, we depend upon Him. We fill our hearts and minds and spirits with His word. We allow His people to speak the truth to us. And we let Him slowly but surely transform us. It won’t happen immediately, and it won’t be completed in this lifetime. For most there will significant setbacks (and forgiveness and grace when those happen).

But the real answer is not more rules. The real answer is depending on the Spirit.

Because the internet didn’t make you do it. And simply logging off won’t make it stop.

Question: Do you struggle with legalism in your spiritual life? How do you overcome it?

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