strange fire

Fire was important to Israel’s worship, both in the Tabernacle and the Temple, as it was to be kept burning continually on the altars of incense and of the burnt offering. In both the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and the Temple in Jerusalem, fire on the altar was set ablaze by God himself (Leviticus 9:24; 2 Chronicles 7:1-3). This fire was special; this fire was sacred; and it was to be tended continually.

But in the wilderness, at the very institution of the priesthood, came tragedy born of human foolishness:

Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them. So fire went out from the LORD and devoured them, and they died before the LORD. And Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke, saying:
‘By those who come near Me
I must be regarded as holy;
And before all the people
I must be glorified.'” (Leviticus 10:1-3).

Our great God is love and mercy and goodness; he is filled with lovingkindness, and he pardons sin and iniquity. But we must never forget that he is holy and pure, and evil cannot dwell with him (Habakkuk 1:13; Psalm 5:4-5).

The body of Christ has entered a season of increased consecration, where the Holy Spirit is causing all of his people to live a greater maturity in the faith. His call has always been that we would walk in the truth he has shown us, and believe the written Word and the promises he has quickened to our hearts. As the coming of our Lord draws nearer, and this present age nears its completion, it is vital that we know him and trust him, finding our life and strength in him.

There are many powerful promises God has revealed to us, and encounters with his presence to comfort and encourage us, reminding us of his power and his commitment to our welfare. But when we find ourselves consumed with vain imaginations such as regrets from the past (I wrestle with this) or fear of the future or insecurity about the Lord’s love for us, are we not coming before him with “profane fire”? When our identity is determined by our accomplishments or the fleeting approval of men, and we find ourselves consumed with fleshly desires and grasping after security, isn’t this placing before the Almighty an offering that he has not commanded?

And when we come before him, seeking to pray the right way, or repent correctly, or worship with the right forms and words; when we demand that he answer our questions so we can understand and believe; when we think we can somehow find favor in his sight through our devotion or our religious activities; are we then not just as guilty as the sons of Aaron, kindling strange fire on the altars of our hearts?

Our Father knows us intimately, and he wants us to bring him our cares, our fears, our doubts, our anger. We cry out to him from our brokenness, and in mercy he heals us. We pour out our anguish because we only know in part, and see in part, and there is so much we just don’t understand.

There is a place we are to bring all our wickedness, our unbelief, our fear, our foolishness, our pain, and our emptiness. It is the cross of Jesus. We lay it all down; and then, when our backs are unburdened of our load of care, our shoulders untethered from the yoke of slavery, and our hands emptied of our own accomplishments, we lay ourselves prostrate before him, knowing that he has taken upon himself every agony, every filthy action, every injustice from every instant of human history–past, present, and future. Then we arise, having boldly entered the Holy of Holies, the very presence of our eternal God, knowing that our hearts have been made clean and our bodies have been washed with pure water. The flame that we then find kindled within is like that inferno that roared from heaven upon the wilderness altar; the glory that flattened Solomon and all Israel at the Temple dedication; the wildfire that exploded on Mount Carmel, silencing the shrieking of Baal worship; the blazing eyes of Jesus that caused John the beloved to collapse as though dead.

We glorify him and he burns within us as he reveals his passionate love, the flaming heart of holy mercy that gives light to our darkness and warmth in our coldness.

fire-heart

encounter

In the deep spirit of a man the fire must glow or his love is not the true love of God. (A.W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God).

Nothing of this tangible world–no possession, no deep and loving friendship, no sensual experience, no mood-altering substance, no religious pleasure–can comfort and fill the human heart with joy and delight like the presence of Jesus.

After many years, I have found that all my “spiritual stuff,” upon which I depended so heavily to bring me into wholeness and holy living, amounted to nothing but, as Paul wrote, a pile of dung. My pleading, my grasping, my agonized wrestling, my guilt, my shame, my repentance, my hopeful but ultimately vain promises to “do better”; the memories of these are seared across my soul; welts caused by the fiery brand of dead works.

But to be engulfed in the inferno that is the love and presence of the Triune God; to encounter it, even if but for a moment, kindles within me the light of truth and flame of holy passion. It alights my spirit and creates a desire for, and a delight in, the will and the ways of God. Encountering Him causes my heart to “burn within me.” Encountering Him burns away the hindering claw of the flesh and releases me to run with Him to the mountain of spices, where His fragrance perfumes the atmosphere and permeates the physical surroundings. I dance with hind’s feet, rejoicing with the Lover of my soul.

When I encounter Him, even for an instant, I want to follow and obey; I wish to lay down my life that He  would take it up and make of me what He will. I desire to forsake all for the sake of knowing Christ Jesus and dwelling near His noble and magnificent heart. I am connected to the Vine by His grace; I have but one desire and holy passion: that I may dwell in the house of YHVH all the days of my life, to behold His beauty and inquire in His temple.

I find my only true satisfaction and genuine knowledge of who I am by encountering the One who created me. By ravishing my heart, He makes me pure. So I cry:

Kiss me with the kisses of Your mouth–
For Your love is better than wine….
Your name is ointment poured forth….
Draw me away!
I will run after You.

In humility, drenched in His love as with the morning dew, we follow even as we seek, we cry for more even as He satisfies us, we mourn even as we leap with joy. The “now and not yet” is in our hearts, the sure and present promise of His great glory within us and His inheritance of majesty shown now to the powers and principalities of this present age, with a destiny to proclaim throughout endless ages the majesty of His awesome beauty and His powerful work in us, His chosen beloved.

The rational minds of men and women cannot–and will not–grasp the beauty of this truth. Rebellious and relentless reasoning constantly batter us, strengthened by the pervasive clamor of our culture and the self-demonstrating world of our senses and the seductive, whispered lies of the infernal enemy of our souls; they conspire to cast us from the delights of the Garden: walking in the cool of the day, basking in innocent and free communion; and thrust us squalling and fighting our way into the tyranny of false godhood, enchanted by the siren call of pernicious, tower-building skepticism and the arrogant cynicism of the “knowledge of good and evil.”

In his search for a statement that could not be doubted, Descartes arrived at “I think; therefore I am.” So many believe that their own rational thoughts are the sum total of their explanation for existence. But our staggering, blistering hubris has led us to destruction and silenced the gentle whisper of the Voice within us. The power of the human mind, our fractured reasoning, without humility, has slaughtered love.

I choose instead:

Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

Just as intimacy between a man and woman produces a new human child, so intimacy with God produces a new creation, birthed in glory, swaddled in love–an extravagant reminder, once again, of His mercy, and an expression of hope that can change the world.

the Nikean creed

One morning, I was minding my own business, getting ready for work, when the Holy Spirit spoke to my heart so clearly, it was almost as if I heard an audible voice.

“Jeffrey, you are not the savior of the world. I am.”

I know what you are thinking. Duh—right? But it stopped me dead in my tracks.

I have written about my youthful desire to “burn out for God.” Heroes of the faith loomed large in my mind, and I pictured myself praying and eventually becoming a man who would live every aspect of his life in sacrificial devotion, twenty-nine hours a day; I would become a heroic, selfless, humble soldier for Christ who would be willing to take up my cross, endure any hardship and face any danger with martyr’s courage. I would live inflamed with zeal to be a demon-destroying, injustice-shredding, glory-spreading, Word-wielding  warrior for Christ.

Also, of course, I was also completely responsible for everything that happened in my marriage and family. Surely, as head of the household, the well-being of my wife and children depended on me.

Not. Even. Close.

I believe that everyone’s life affects others, especially if we are “of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), because we are part of one Body, and therefore joined together under one Head (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:18). But I notice something important in those Scripture passages: there is one Head, one Savior, and it isn’t me!

Unfortunately, many of us still are obsessively performance-oriented. It seems instead of following Jesus, we follow hard after the philosophy of a famous sportswear manufacturer:

JUST DO IT!

God saved you, after all; don’t you now owe him the courtesy of trying, with all your strength, to love him with all your heart and behave as he would expect you to? Aren’t we responsible to fix everything in our lives and the world around us?

Our weird works-based theology springs from the fallacy that knowing good and evil makes us like God. It doesn’t. God created us in his image, but we have all sinned, and spun off onto our own roads leading into the dark swamp of self-worship.We desperately need him to grab us by the shoulders, steady us, and set us on the path that leads to life. If we humble ourselves before Jesus, he creates something new out of our lives, declaring that we all have a great and glorious destiny and wonderful exploits to perform on this earth. But these spring from the desire and power of our King.

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Get it? You are saved by faith; but God gives it to you. You are a marvelous new creation; but God did the creating without your help. You have incredible, world-changing works to do, but they were all planned out for you a long, long time ago.

Guess what? It’s not about you. It’s not about me, either.

We can try—God knows some of us try—but we can’t make ourselves holy, or zealous, or courageous, or loving, or merciful. We are absolutely dependent on the mercy and power of our Lord, not anything we can do. God desires and requires us to have hearts of grace-filled love, humbled by his mercy. So, in kindness, he gives them to us. He loves it when we trust him and place all our hope in what he accomplished for us through Jesus.

Our response of devotion springs from hearts filled with the powerful and merciful love of God. We can never earn that love, or pay him back for the sacrifice he made for us. He truly deserves that we would offer him our lives; so by HIS grace, we are able to respond to his gracious invitation with amazed gratitude. This is really good news for those of us who labor under a self-imposed yoke of sacrificial religious duty. Take a moment to read and ponder what Jesus said:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30, The Message).

So, let’s take a deep breath, cease striving, and know that he is God!

Now, where did I put my copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs…….?

king of the trenches

The person who has never doubted the goodness of God either lives in denial, or has never suffered even so much as a headache. Sometimes the most sincere, trusting believers wrestle with doubt and fear and anguish due to unanswered prayers, unaddressed issues of injustice, and fearful trouble.

When circumstances scream that we have been left on our own, it seems easy to doubt God—or become angry with him—because he did not do a certain thing or answer our prayers a certain way or make things work out the way they ought to. We think: If I were God, I would never let _____ happen! So we try to be faithful and trusting, but we harbor secret doubt in the deep recesses of our souls. Is Christianity really true? Maybe it is for some people but not so much for me. Or perhaps I don’t have enough faith. Or I haven’t believed correctly. Maybe my faith isn’t strong enough.

And maybe—just maybe—the wickedness of my past has shipwrecked my life.

In 1 Kings 20, we read that Ben-Hadad, king of Syria, had formed an alliance with a number of other city-states, conquered much of Israel, and then besieged Samaria in order gain its wealth, taking the silver, the gold, and the loveliest of their wives and children.

King Ahab was aware that his army was no match for the one assembled by Ben-Hadad. But an unnamed prophet appeared, promised victory to the king, and outlined how the battle was to be fought. The king listened and obeyed (for once), and Israel triumphed, recognizing that their victory didn’t come from their own strength, but from the hand of God.

The Syrians also understood that they had been defeated because God helped Israel. But servants of Ben-Hadad believed that it was because the battle occurred in the hill country, and they devised a plan for victory:

Then the servants of the king of Syria said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills. Therefore they were stronger than we; but if we fight against them in the valley, surely we will be stronger than they” (1 Kings 20:23).

Do we think as the Syrians thought? Is he God of the hills, but not the valleys? Is he God only when prayers are answered, and we dwell in security and comfort, and we are kept safe from every enemy? Is he God only when our souls are satisfied and we are healthy and happy? If we are walking in faith and obedience, is that when he is God?

Could he also be God when, without warning, life spirals into sheer wretched cruelty and decimates our world with shocking suddenness? Is God truly aware when we are sick and hurting, yet we are not healed? Is God truly YHVH-Yireh—our Provider—when we don’t have enough money and we face financial ruin? Is he really our God who cares when loved ones suffer horrific injustice  for no good reason?

God of the hills only? Could the Creator of life also be God of the drug addict, dying in the gutter covered in vomit, or God of the young girl abducted and raped and left to die in her own blood? Is the LORD of purity capable of being God of the pedophile, the murderer, the human trafficker? Is he God Almighty when powerful, wicked rulers oppress their weak and innocent citizens, stealing their dignity and hope? Is our God still good when the immoral sewage of our self-serving culture has swamped our homes and poisoned the minds of our young people with perversion?

Is he God when all life seems dark and hopeless and there is no reason to suffer another moment with unending, searing, soul-shredding agony?

Scripture is brutally honest about our world and its terrible pain and suffering. We are told that all creation is in a state of catastrophic brokenness, and any relationship we might have had with our Creator has been ravaged by rebellion and selfishness. We want to think we are basically “good”–for instance, many years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book titled When Bad Things Happen to Good People–but when we look at society, we see it spiraling into chaos, bloody with hatred and violence and fear. We realize, in the words of Fleming Rutledge, that “something is terribly wrong and needs to be set right.”

The pronouncements of atheists and evolutionists and nihilists in our culture are wrong. We are not products of blind chance, clawing for the fittest to survive a few pointless years, destined for oblivion. Deep within, we know there is more to life than this and we agree that the wrong must be made right.

And because we were helpless, and because we were hopeless, God himself stepped in to our world, suffering humiliation more dreadful than any damnable human valley of death.

God of the hills only? No, he is also God of the valleys. Jesus swallowed death and destruction for us all. He surrendered himself to the dread horror of sin and out of mercy for us, bore our state of helplessness in the assault of unrelenting, violent Evil. His body was sliced by every torture we could devise, yet he cried out, over and over, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing,” proving that he would not abandon us to our selfishness and utter cruelty. He is able to comfort the most wretched, heal the most damaged, and deliver the darkest and most depraved of us.

If I ascend into heaven, or dig down to bed myself in hell—there you are!
If I say “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.” (Psalm 139:8, 11-12)

The great I AM is not a “tribal god.” He is Lord of the Hills and Lord of the Valleys, Lord of all existence, creator of heaven and earth. He does not compete with the dark powers of sin and satan; he has utterly triumphed over them through the cross. He will not bow to our systems and customs and governments. He is the infinite One who loves us with burning passion. His purity cannot be tainted by uncleanness and his holiness is greater by far than any contagion of our sin. The blackest human darkness is not dark to him. He is able to “save to the uttermost” anyone who will call on him for mercy. “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men” (C.S. Lewis) and his mercy is everlasting, stretching to a thousand generations. Outside of time, and beyond eternity, he knows what he has determined and he will cause it to be.

SONY DSC

The king of Syria believed that God was limited in what he could perform. “Ben-Hadad” was not his name, but a title for the king meaning “son of Hadad,” son of the “god” of the realm; a god of storm and thunder.

When life and circumstance howl and rage against us, when the “storm” and “thunder” of darkness and violence seem overwhelming, when evil desires to crush all the earth in its iron grip, we recall that it is our God who is Lord of everything. All authority and power has been given to Jesus, the holder of the keys of hell and death. He is not limited in his love, his goodness, his kindness, or his power to comfort and heal and save. No matter the desperation, no matter the darkness, no matter the valley, he is with us, his love is our light, and his presence is an impregnable fortress of mercy!

faith and foolishness

It is no secret that our materialistic, western culture has no time or interest in matters of genuine faith, unless of course we follow the acceptable party line of allowing faith to exist privately, as a talisman or a balm soothing our own frazzled psyches. Of course, there are all sorts of “feel-good” self-help ideas and techniques we are encouraged to try, and when life becomes hard and dark, we hear repeated the ever-present mantra that informs us, with artless sincerity, that we need to “have faith.” But faith in what? Faith in human ability and reason, or in human goodness, or in the goodness of the earth, or the fidelity of the universe–faith in faith. Anything but faith in a supreme Creator based on the assumption that such faith represents a connection with reality as it actually exists, despite our inability (usually) to encounter such reality through physical sensation.

And of course, for some individuals, faith is an enemy of humankind, a slog through the toxic waste of superstition and stupidity, an engine of repression and hatred through millennia of history. People who subscribe to any religious belief or spirituality deserve ridicule; or at least condescending pity. The so-called “new atheist” assault (their ideas are not necessarily all that new) on religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is alive and well and shows no sign of abating. It is not surprising that people who hold to these dogmas are intent on scandalizing and attacking “faith” with pure, empirically-proven reason on every intellectual front.

Christians stand for truth, and boldly proclaim the reality of a kingdom “not made with human hands.” Unfortunately, many believers quietly harbor fears and doubts regarding what they believe, and may even ignore a nagging suspicion that perhaps, if they were smarter and better-educated, they might actually find that their faith seemed foolish to them, too. They read about new advancements in science and technology, or ponder the worldview of brilliant philosophers, or try to engage angry and potent—and sometimes surprisingly entertaining—arguments from individuals such as the late Christopher Hitchens, and something inside just sort of wilts. But, they determine to believe, just the same, and do their best to marshal facts and evidences to buttress their faith. Unfortunately, often such people have intellectually and emotionally equated their faith with their opinions.

Let’s be clear: faith is not opinion. We are not ushered into relationship with the God of the universe, the Father of Lights, the One those image we bear, by an opinion we have formed! Opinions are necessary and we can’t come to conclusions about any aspect of life without them. Reason is vital for human life, and it is actually a valuable component of our faith. Our ability to reason is a good gift from our Creator and it enables us to sift through ideas and concepts that compete for our attention. However, we run into trouble when we insist that faith in God’s existence make a case for itself under cross-examination from our limited understanding of life in a vast and (so far, still) incomprehensible universe. Faith is not opposed to reason, but neither is it subject to reason. The honest seeker in this Internet age can find all kinds of resources that give good, reasoned answers to their questions; answers that will at least give them something to honestly ponder, even if they are not ultimately convinced.

Because, even though it rubs against our nature, the truth is that we become citizens of the Kingdom of God through faith, not with faith. In other words, we do not get to figure everything out. We don’t carry a parcel of faith as a gift for entrance into the glorious privilege of being made children of the King of kings. We do not base the reality of our encounters with him on our knowledge or our feelings. We base our hope on the sure confidence we have in God’s faithfulness. His promises are true, and he never changes.

Now, I am aware that I am arguing in circles. I am saying I have faith because it is true, and I know it is true because I have faith. Unfortunately for our rational minds, that sort of is the deal. Faith requires humility; humility conceives faith. To see with eyes of faith requires a different way of looking at our lives and ourselves. Very early in our existence, we learn that we are the Most Important Person Alive. We gain our ability to navigate life by the knowledge we discover through our five senses; and then, as we grow in intellect, we come to understand the power we have to determine our reality and truth. But pesky old faith runs counter to that very common understanding, and forces us to confront mystery and admit that we don’t have all the answers. The glorious gift that accompanies faith is that faith allows us the privilege of pleasing God, because it is admission of our own creature hood. It is acknowledgement of our limitations.

Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées that God “…so regulates the knowledge of Himself that He has given signs of Himself, visible to those who seek Him, and not to those who seek Him not. There is enough light for those who only desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who have a contrary disposition.” The apostle Paul told us the same thing in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made….” And over thirty centuries ago, the warrior-poet King David wrote:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
And the firmament shows His handiwork.
Day unto day utters speech,
And night unto night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.
T
heir line has gone out through all the earth,
And their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19:1-4).

If we will be honest, we humans do not like the fact that we are finite, because we want to be in charge of our lives and our thoughts. The Bible teaches us that the essence of sin is insistence that I am right. I have the right to control my life and my view of reality and the world. No one can tell me how to think, how to believe, or how to act (other than obeying laws that are for the common good of society. Although some people won’t even agree to that.) Certainly there is no overriding, ultimate authority that I must answer to. Some things are true, but there is no such thing as Truth.

So ideas such as “faith” and “ultimate truth” are foolish vapor, intellectual cotton-candy for the masses who want to comfort themselves with sugary thoughts. Individuals who are truly rational are the courageous pioneers of our species, determined to live solely by intellect and reason, free-thinkers protecting us from primitive superstitions and comfortable, sculpting-clay philosophy shaped by the mentally deficient. They will not be confused or deceived by such twaddle.

But the man who insists on living by his own understanding is already confused and deceived.

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1.)

You may have thought I was just like you; but I will rebuke and indict you to your face. (Psalm 50:21.)

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man is he who listens to counsel. (Proverbs 12:15.)

I know these passages might seem like in-your-face, “my dad can beat up your dad” playground posturing, and it would be if God were not real. But if God is real, then in kindness, he is letting us in on some inconvenient truths, which unbelievers dance away from with their fingers in their ears, humming their own tune and refusing to listen.

Our Creator loves us. He has given us life and provided a good world for us to live in (and yes, there is tremendous injustice and cruelty, but we will discuss that soon in another post). We have been made in his image, and he cherishes every person as a unique representation of himself. He woos us with his kindness. If he chose, he could explode upon the earth with an overwhelming display of his power and glory, silencing every tongue and destroying every enemy. But he chose instead to treat us kindly, subverting our propensity for self-exaltation by humbling himself and appearing on the planet as the Man, Christ Jesus. He then destroyed our foolish pride through the grotesque and unexpected: He died a criminal’s death on a cross; bloodied, beaten, and treated with contempt. And then, with supreme, delicious irony, he returned to life, exalted beyond all measure!

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe…because the foolishness of God is wiser than men….(1 Corinthians 1:18, 20-21, 25).

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:8-11).

Whenever we think we are getting really smart, the Lord shows us up to give us a dose of reality. In Jesus, all God’s promises and goodness are on display, and he invites those who are willing to come and receive all that he offers. It is glorious, and it is free for anyone who will believe.

ex tenebris lux

You never change in the Land of Shadows….

I was a young man of seventeen when the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the reality of Jesus, and I fell absolutely in love with this Man who gave everything to me. It was exciting and wonderful, and I found out I had become part of a large family of (mostly) really interesting people, who just a short time before I had thought were mentally disturbed, and perhaps dangerous.

But now, I found that God was real—actually real—and this “Christian thing” was fantastic. I was freely given a new life of joy, and adventure, and forgiveness.

Pretty much right away, I learned that there was lots of stuff for us Christians to do to keep us busy and walking on the right track with Jesus. Pray, worship, go to meetings, fast, read and study the Bible, witness, give money, love everyone.

I also learned that those who “had a real heart for God” were the kind of people who “pressed in” with everything in them to know him. No sacrifice was too great. I decided I wanted to become a missionary, because they were the best—and most dedicated—people in the Kingdom. If I could live in a leaky tent somewhere, eat disgusting food, and cast demons out of bloodthirsty heathens before they could kill me, well, life would be good. If I was truly fortunate, I would end up a martyr; but even if I didn’t, Jesus was returning soon (this was in the mid-1970’s) so there was no time to waste.

Except.

The years passed, and much as I still wanted to live a life of devotion greater than any that had yet been seen on this earth, I found that I failed a lot more than I succeeded, and I liked comfort a whole lot more than I realized.

Plus, there was this nasty issue of sin that kept getting in the way. I wanted to do right, I wanted—really, really wanted—to be holy as HE is holy. So, I knew that he offered forgiveness freely. But I sinned A LOT, and somehow lived with this continually empty feeling that I was letting God down. Badly.

Over the years, I heard enough sermons and read enough books to know that rationalization was a horrible scourge of the human heart, and I was terrified of becoming someone who would give in to that, so I kept strict watch on my life. A good portion of my prayers were centered around asking forgiveness, seeking to feel horrible about the wretchedness of my sin, and begging God to draw me closer to him. Other people that I knew, or read about, had amazing encounters with the Lord that filled them with hope and joy and a constant sense of refreshed purity that energized them. I, on the other hand, felt just a little dirty most of the time, and felt like God was probably pretty darn sick of the mess I was.

I am keenly aware that there is nothing unique about my experience. There are many who go through this. We know the truth, but we just don’t feel it.

So, we seek to feel closer to Jesus by repenting, desiring to mourn greatly over our sin. The preachers tell us we HAVE TO HATE SIN. (For the record, I do happen to believe that is true. But you won’t get too far hating it by focusing on it.) So we cry, and confess, and pound the ground, and promise this is it! From now on I’ll serve only You, not myself! In my case, I tried to dig into the very core of me to encounter all the wretchedness and sewage that had to be down in there. If I could somehow see the awful full accounting of my rottenness, then my repentance would be real and God would be pleased. (“Aww, hey, look! This guy’s finally Really Sorry!”)

Oddly—tragically—by focusing on the darkness, darkness got deeper and darker, and self-absorption flourished and spread like a fungus. Self-loathing masqueraded as a desire for holiness and the abundant life of Jesus.  I was a modern version of the medieval flagellants, whipping themselves for their sins in a desire to ward off the Black Death.

So for all us guilty ones holding whips, preparing to lay into ourselves, here is liberating truth, “…a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners….” (1 Timothy 1:15). The heart of our Creator is lovingly displayed in Jesus and radically revealed through the Scriptures, if we have hearts humble and open enough to just believe that he is faithful and he doesn’t lie.  Jesus did everything for us. He is the Light that dawned in our darkness. He is the one who leads us out of our foolishness and our duplicity. He is the one who makes his way straight before our face (Psalm 5:8).

It is human presumption and foolishness to think that we have to grovel our way back into the “good graces” of the One who is grace and truth. We feel dirty, unclean, and ashamed to come before him. We mourn and sigh over our failure and inability and lack. But he is everything and wants to be everything to us. There is no need for us to make him feel better about forgiving us because we are “truly sorry”, or feel “truly guilty” and repentant, thereby proving we want to change.

When I insist on pressing in to know him or get close to him through my faithful effort, I am believing a lie and focusing on my own works, or lack thereof. I spent far too many years in unnecessary sorrow, always focusing on me and my failure of performance and my wickedness of heart. But the white-hot holiness of Jesus is so much greater than the contagion of my sin or your sin. He paid the full price; absorbed every filthy thing satan and our depravity could assault him with, and he arose, our Conqueror Hero.

And when we simply believe that, he gives us a new heart with all his ways and his laws written within, and Holy Spirit living in us as a down payment of his glorious inheritance in us.

When we insist on dwelling the Land of Shadows, all we will perceive is darkness, and we are not conscious of his light. Staring continually into the abyss of failure eventually causes our legs to falter, and we become dizzy and fall in. Jesus has come to give light and remove us from the miry pit. Light shows everything clearly. Light brings life and joy. Light allows us to live and work for him with clear focus, understanding that we have been redeemed. We do not hide from sorrow, or from our need for holiness. Without holiness no one will see the Lord. But it is he who makes us holy.

With what shall I come before the Lord,
And bow myself before the High God?
Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?

 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
Ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

 He has shown you, O man, what is good;
And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly,
To love mercy,
And to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:6-8).

We are to humble ourselves and trust him and follow him, to allow him to teach us what is good and true and right, and to vanquish our sin and uncleanness—as indeed, he has! We are to focus on HIM, filled with joy as people released from bondage, who lived in darkness and now live in the glory of his great light.

He has made the way for us to leave the land of darkness and shadow, and bask in his shining love.  Let us believe, and dwell there!

the real victors

Who has ever seen a king who enters battle waving a white flag of surrender?

Our great Savior did just that. Behold Jesus, Eternal Majesty humbly come to earth, standing silently before the people he had created as they spit accusations and foamed and raged against him. Roman governor Pilate, perhaps frustrated that Jesus would not defend himself, finally asked him “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied that his kingdom was not of this world; if it was, then his servants would take up arms and fight for him. But the “not-of-this-world” kingdom is not advanced by physical exertion of violence; rather, it is advanced through subversion of the evil standards of the earth through bearing witness to the truth. Our world’s Babylonian systems of influence through power and manipulation cannot stand against the tide of truth and love. The spoils of war will go to the one who fought by wielding the supreme weapon of pure, unadulterated, sacrificial love and complete obedience to his Father’s will, with no thought for his own welfare, no consideration of his own deserved glory.

Jesus’s death seemed to be grotesque and crushing defeat, the end of all hope and promise. But come Resurrection Day, all the universe—seen and unseen—was blinded by the flash of life and promise as the angel rolled away the gravestone and our Living One strode up from decay, into the land of the living. His death and resurrection completely blindsided satan; made mockery of the powers of hell; thoroughly defied and vanquished the pollution and depravity of sin; was victorious over our dreadful, final enemy—death; and breathed life into a people without strength or hope.

So, anguished helplessness became overcoming victory; humiliation and surrender became exaltation and triumph. The people who had dwelt in darkness, then rejoiced as they saw a great light, and then were plunged into despair as that light was viciously snuffed out, now realized with astonished clarity that the Light of the world, alive and glorious, had been revealed to humble earth and was the true Lord of life and Conqueror of wickedness. “So powerless that he could not save himself, Jesus was dying to save others and embrace the whole world.” (Os Guinness, Fool’s Talk). By stretching his arms out in ignominious death, Jesus extended the embrace of the Triune Eternal One to all creation.

In a world that seeks power and influence, the one who did not grasp after his own glory bids us to come and bow in humility, with love and gratitude for all he has done for us. In Jesus, all God’s promises and goodness are on display, and he invites those who are willing to come and receive all that he offers. It is glorious, and it is free for anyone who will believe.

And the angel showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb…And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely (Revelation 22:1,17).