Square One

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There’s a key foundation upon which our freedom rests. Before you can experience true freedom as Jesus intended it, you must have a personal relationship with Him. That relationship is the unbreakable, uncompromising thread that holds together every truth that makes up real freedom.  

Some who are reading this may not have that relationship. The last thing I want to do is neglect that core concept and lead anyone into a false sense of security, putting them on the path to destruction with a lot of comforting words and no eternal substance (see Matthew 7:13, 21-23).  

Jesus said “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to comdemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).

Unless you’ve been living in a cave your whole life, you’ve heard this quote before. But you may not have known that Jesus said it Himself. He did, in a conversation with a man named Nicodemus, a religious leader who was trying to wrap his head around this concept of eternal life.

Jesus told Nicodemus “You must be born again.” Nicodemus’ response was essentially: “Huh???”

I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase ‘born again’ thousands of times, and maybe your own response was the same.  

Here’s the crux of our situation: In our natural state, we are incapable of having a relationship with God. We can’t even know how to relate to Him. Now, we can debate the fairness or unfairness of that, or discuss the conclusions some would draw about a God that would let that happen. Or we can step through it, try to understand it, and see what can be done about it.

Let’s examine…

  1. He is a perfect God.
  2. He chose not to force anyone to love Him but allows us to think and act for ourselves. As a result, we have done things that have separated us from Him. We are disobedient, rebellious, and antagonistic, among other things.
  3. Because He is perfect, He can’t just let that slide. Because to let it slide means to compromise, and to compromise means imperfection. And imperfection cannot be any part of a perfect Being.
  4. But, in the midst of all this, He still loves us beyond our comprehension!  

So, in review: a perfect God, who loves His creation immensely, yet recognizes that embracing them in their imperfection is impossible. How does He reconcile that?

Here’s how: He sent His Son “that the world might be saved through Him.” As God in the flesh, Jesus was able to live a perfect life (something no one else has ever accomplished). He then died for our mistakes and offenses (so the price was paid and justice was satisfied), was buried in a tomb (evidence that He was actually dead), and then after three days got up and walked out of that tomb on His own power (proving He was able to deliver on His promises to save us). See 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. 

Because of this series of actions, we can have a relationship with God. The imperfect can now be embraced by the Perfect, because One who was perfect stood in our place and took the punishment due for all our imperfections.

One simple thing He asks – trust Him.

It comes down to a simple conversation with God – one that says, in your own words: Jesus, I believe You; I trust You; I put my faith in You; I want You to save me and allow me a relationship with You. One simple prayer, and it’s done (see Romans 10:9-10, 13).

 That’s what “born again” is about. It’s bringing to life that spiritual part of us that was dead (alienated from God) by trusting in His work, not ours. It’s the ultimate chain-breaker. It’s Square One of living out Christian freedom – except the best thing about this Square One is you never have to go back to it. Once you’ve been there, it’s all on Him, and He never breaks a promise.

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Distant Replay

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Here’s the scenario. Stop me if you’ve been there and know how it goes. More accurately, stop me when you recognize that you’ve been there and know how it goes.  

It’s just a normal day. You’re driving to work or mowing your lawn or watching a mindless TV show while you wind down in the evening. Or maybe – gasp! – you’re in church on Sunday listening to the music or the sermon.

Then suddenly, without warning, there’s the little clickety-clickety-click sound as the projector in your head kicks in and the canvas screen of your conscience lights up. Splashed across that screen, in detail more vivid than you care to see, is some past mistake or moral failure. Suddenly the traffic fades, the drone of the mower is distant, the TV show or (Pastors, please skip to the next paragraph before reading any further) the sermon you were listening to has become the incoherent ‘waa wawaa waa’ of Charlie Brown’s school teacher (whose name, for you trivia buffs, was Mrs. Donovan).

It can be agonizing when our own sub-conscious reminds us of a past that our conscious mind would rather forget. I can remember times over the years getting hit with my past in this way, sometimes to the point where an audible groan would escape my lips involuntarily, as I tried to shut it down.

So what do we do?  How do we keep that screen from coming to life on us? We know the past is past. We know that our purpose is to look forward to what God is calling us to and not backward to what we used to be or the mistakes we made. But that doesn’t always keep the old memories from spinning up.

I don’t know that there’s a fool-proof answer. But I do know that God doesn’t intend us to be enslaved by highlight reels of yesteryear.  

Remember Galatians 5:1? “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.”

When Paul wrote this he was addressing a church that was being drawn back into ‘religion’ (a.k.a., performance and rule-keeping). They – like all of us – tended to define themselves by what they did or didn’t do rather than who they were in Christ. Paul was saying “Don’t go back to that place where the highlight or lowlight reels of your past, or the checkboxes that you check in the present, imprison you. Jesus says you are free, so live free!”

Try this: the next time the memories start to flow, resist the knee-jerk reaction is to push them away or pull the plug.  Watch the film.  Allow the mistakes of your past to play through.  Accept them.

And then, paraphrase 1 Cor. 6:11 and speak these words: “such was I; but I was washed, but I was sanctified, but I was justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Say it again. Say it aloud if you need to.

Because that’s who you are! You are made new by Him. Even when the memories and regrets pop up, or even when some of the weaknesses still tug at you – remember who you are, not who you were.  

Don’t be intimidated by your past. Don’t be disqualified by it. Don’t be haunted by it. Face it, and break free from it.

In other words, live like new!

 

One. More. Step.

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“But one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 3:13-14

Many of us have been there. That place where we don’t think we can take another step, what feels like the very literal end of our rope.

Maybe you’re there today.

Maybe your own bad decisions have caught up with you. Maybe you’ve finally realized that that habit or addiction has control of you instead of the other way around like you always claimed. Maybe your latest burst of anger has resulted in serious injury to someone. Or maybe your secret sin has been exposed, or that past which you hoped above all hope you could carry to your grave.

Perhaps someone else’s decisions have caught up with you. Maybe a loved one’s secret sin or hidden past or covert addiction has surfaced and tore your world apart. Or a friend’s rush to judgment or outright betrayal has completely knocked the emotional wind out of you. Or possibly you feel as though you’re being crushed under the weight of the rumor mill, unsure if your reputation will ever recover from the roaring and fast-moving wildfires started by a loose tongue.

In writing to the church at Philippi, Paul made it clear that he was always reaching to obtain greater fullness in his relationship with Christ. And in so doing, both the achievements and mistakes of the past were of no use to him.

“Forgetting those things which are behind…”

That meant every bit of knowledge he’d acquired to make himself acceptable to God, every good deed he’d done to achieve a godly appearance, every shred of righteousness that he’d accumulated.

That also meant every bit of misapplied knowledge that made him unacceptable to God, every bad deed he had done that gave him an ungodly image, and every shred of unrighteousness or fake piety he had donned in his striving after self-made righteousness.

Our past deeds, and others’ past deeds, are just that – past. They have no bearing on our forward walk with Christ. They won’t get us any closer to Him, nor keep us any further from Him. Those things form the definition of self that relies on lies and labels and false identity.

“…I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God.”

Pressing toward the goal involves looking forward, defining ourselves by God’s call and who He says we are. It means constantly, moment by moment, putting all those things which want to define us behind, and stepping forward with the knowledge of what truly defines us.

Particularly if you’re in the midst of the storm, this can be a step-to-step exercise. Possibly all you can do right now is pick up your foot and take one more step. That’s okay. Paul didn’t say that forgetting those things that are behind is an easy endeavor. It takes work, practice, resolve. But that one more step will get you that much further along in your journey.

So wherever you are this moment: take heart, know that God is there, remember what defines you (it’s what’s ahead, not what’s behind), and step out.

The walk will get easier. Your strength will build. The resistance will fade. And one day you’ll look around to find God did bring you through it after all.

Owning It

A proper perspective says that freedom and obedience are both part of the gospel equation (see my previous post here). We can’t just ride the wave of grace and freedom without committing to obedience.

And when it comes to our wrongs and offenses, proper perspective doesn’t merely include obedience in the now but also taking responsibility for the past. We cannot dwell in the past and allow it to define us, but we can and should own our mistakes and the hurt they caused.

Freedom in Christ means we are redeemed and forgiven for our failures. In the courts of Eternity, we won’t have to answer for those things. Jesus paid the penalty, and so in God’s eyes our record is purged. But we can’t get caught up in what Dietrich Bonhoeffer refers to as “cheap grace” – the attitude that grace is our free ticket out of responsibility. Because though the offense is forgiven by God, the hurt caused by it is still very real in the lives of those offended.

In my own case, I am grieved by many of the poor decisions I’ve made in my life. I recognize all too well the hurt I’ve caused – hurt inflicted on people very dear to me. What I’ve done and said cannot be undone or unsaid. There’s nothing I can do to erase it. Their pain is still very real, and doesn’t just go away.

Yes, those things are under the blood of Jesus, but that doesn’t make the scars disappear. Every offense is as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12), but that doesn’t alleviate or cancel out the lasting effects of the wounds. Their pain persists. And while I am forgiven in God’s eyes, from the human perspective the responsibility for those choices still rests on my shoulders.

So when we preach grace and freedom, don’t confuse it with thumbing our nose at judgement and saying “Okay, I got away with *that* – ha ha!”

True grace and freedom couldn’t be more different!

True grace – “costly grace” to quote Bonhoeffer again – and real freedom in Christ means we take responsibility for our bad choices, we pray for and love those we’ve hurt as best we can, but we step forward knowing that God has given us a new day and new opportunities to make good decisions.

Take a look at Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 1:13-16. Paul says he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, an insolent man (some translations say a ‘violent man’ or a ‘violent aggressor’). Do you think there were lasting wounds in the lives of people who he had imprisoned or whose loved ones he had executed? You bet there were. He refers to himself as the chief of sinners. He doesn’t dismiss his history. But sprinkled throughout this admission is a recognition that he was counted faithful, shown mercy, grace and love, saved, and enabled for service in ministry. Paul owned his past, but he was defined by his calling.

Always take ownership for your mistakes, whether past or present. But don’t ever let them define you. This is the true perspective taught by scripture.