Conditional

conditional

Yes, you read the title correctly.

Last time, I wrote about “unconditional” love and grace.

I want to look at the other side of the coin today, mainly to make clear what that article was not insinuating. It was *not* promoting universalism (the idea that no matter what, everyone is okay in the end). To move on with even a chance of leaving that impression would be a dire mistake.

God’s love is unconditional. At no point do I want to reverse or undermine that idea. It is a core truth, and our freedom depends on knowing and believing it.

Let me say it again. His love is unconditional!

But our relationship with Him is not.

Let me explain.

First, Jesus was very clear when He said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Entering into a relationship with God is certainly conditional … conditional on only one thing – the need to trust that Jesus Christ was God and He died for us. But conditional nonetheless.

Second, the quality of our relationship with Him is conditional.

Jesus: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21).

Paul: “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

So apparently, our actions and attitudes influence not only the existence, but also the closeness of our relationship.

We tend to want to sometimes paint with a broad brush.  Either (1) obedience is key, so everything is conditional – God absolutely won’t bless you unless you have everything in order, or (2) God’s love is completely unconditional, so everything is okay, and God will love and automatically rescue you in the end.

The truth is actually somewhere in the middle.

So…from the top, just to make sure we’ve got it:

Nothing is beyond the reach of God’s love and grace.  We can never mess up so bad that He won’t rescue us (unconditional).

But we have to ask for that rescue (conditional).

And the more we obey, the more precious is our relationship with Him (conditional).

I’m not saying God will bless or withhold blessings based on our actions. Sometimes it works that way, but not as a rule. We can point to lots of biblical examples where God blessed or didn’t bless based on people’s actions. But I can also point to plenty of examples where blessings fell on the dishonest (scheming Jacob, socially deviant Samson) and curses fell on the obedient (righteous Job, humble Ruth). Jesus Himself said that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45).

What I am saying is we will feel more connected to Him, recognize His activity around us, and hear His voice more clearly as we live the way He desires for us to live.

Allow me one more example: Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

A sheep that is standing at the other end of the field and refusing to pay attention doesn’t hear very well. The Shepherd is not deserting him. The Shepherd is not punishing him. But the quality of the relationship is definitely affected.

We have to get away from this image of God as some sadistic bully hovering over us waiting for an opportunity to punish us. We must also not allow ourselves to go to the other extreme of thinking of Him as some washed up pacifist who indiscriminately doles out passes to Heaven.

God is an uncompromisingly just Judge, who loves extravagantly.

He is a pure unconditionally loving Father, who does not abandon His perfect standards.

We can never allow one to cancel out the other. Both coexist, because Jesus reconciled them.

He came to open the door to that one condition that would make the unconditional accessible to all of us.

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What Not to Wear

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“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” (Romans 13:14)

Sort of an odd statement, isn’t it? “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Why didn’t Paul say “get in step with” or “devote yourself to” or “obey” the Lord Jesus Christ?

Paul used the imagery of ‘putting on’ something for a couple reasons.

What we wear covers and protects us.  It keeps undesired elements (wind, rain, paint spray, poison ivy, sand fleas – you name it) off our skin. Appropriate clothing means harmful or unwanted things cannot get to us.

What we wear also shows something of us to the world. Even those who give the least consideration to fashion have to admit that their wardrobe choices, intentionally or unintentionally, are made with purpose. It may be as simple as to draw attention (get noticed) or to avoid attention (fit in), but clothing selection has meaning.

So our spiritual attire is important. Proper dress matters in our most private moments because it protects us from harmful things. And it matters when we step out in public because it reflects our most basic choices.

Let’s thumb through our closets and see what should and shouldn’t be there.

Writing to a different church, Paul lists some things we should be wearing:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14).

Makes sense, right?  Putting on Christ means being like Christ. So let’s don the things we see in His example.

On the other side, Paul and Peter both give some hints as to the sort of things we need to be rid of:

“So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1).

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21).

Some of these are blatant enough that they are no-brainers – everyone knows sorcery and orgies should be avoided.  Others are more subtle – like envy, jealousy, or dissensions. But blatant or subtle, choosing the wrong apparel can be limiting and enslaving.

So, can it be any clearer what needs to make up our wardrobe and what needs to go to the curb?

One final point, because I don’t want clothing selection to become the main point and result in a legalistic checklist exercise. Remember, we started with the idea of putting on Christ. Our freedom comes from abiding in Him and allowing Him to empower our choices.

We will slip up sometimes. But the question is: were you drawn into it because you had a weak moment or did you intentionally pull it off the hanger?

When Paul says “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” he is not saying that if you fall you are disqualified – just that the consistent rejection of proper attire and choice of ‘trashy’ clothes reflects a heart that isn’t focused on following Jesus.

If you are putting on Christ every day, He’ll help you put on the right things. And the rest of that stuff can be left for the moths to eat.

Courageous Grace

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“Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:9

I wrote last time about battlefield etiquette. Particularly, how to properly care for the wounded among us on the spiritual battlefield.

This takes courage.

It’s easy to show grace to someone who has been hurt by someone else or by their circumstances.

But it’s much harder to show grace to someone in the throes of addiction or suffering the consequences of their own poor choices.

First, we must get past our initial ‘religious’ instinct to condemn and distance ourselves.

Then comes the hard part – facing all of those who insist on clinging to that religious instinct. You see, not everyone manages (or even desires) to work past that initial reaction. Some people are perfectly happy in their religious reaction.

Often, whether we admit it aloud or not, we fear the condemnation of these people if they see us helping a broken person.

What rumors will start about me? Will I become guilty by association? Will the religious lot suddenly put me in the ‘condemnation box’ with them because I am coming to their side?

The truth is none of these things matter.

The words in Joshua 1:9 were spoken by God to a man who was about to venture into a foreign land and step onto many physical battlefields.  If you look through the entire quote (verses 2-9) you will see that God used the term “be strong and courageous” three times (vv 6, 7, 9).

God knew that when Joshua led the armies of Israel out onto that battlefield, he was going to be hit all sorts of opposition.  Not only was he going to face sword-wielding adversaries from outside his camp, he was also going to have to deal with criticism-wielding antagonists from within.

God wanted to be sure he knew that if he was doing what God expected of him, he could hold his head up and know God was beside him.

It’s the same for us.  We may not be facing savage blood-thirsty warriors who want to split our heads wide open. But we sometimes face assailants who are trying to get into our heads and maybe even soil our reputations – intentionally or unintentionally.

If you are loving people the way God wants you to, though, know that “the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” and because of that you can be “strong and courageous.”

Next time I’m going to write a little more about how God has our back, and why we can confidently draw courage through our trust in Him.  But for now, let me leave you with a quote from Joe Dallas:

“Courage is not an absence of fear; instead, it is a willingness to do the very thing you are afraid of.”

So don’t be afraid to step out there and help the wounded. Be courageous. He has your back.

What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

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Years ago, a friend helped me through a tough time in my life. There are many things that she said, and I value much of the advice she gave during our talks.

But there was one phrase she came back to repeatedly – and it always seemed to make me stop and say ‘hmm’:

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

Used properly, this ranks among the greatest questions of all time (in my humble opinion).

Here’s the deal – the things that we dread thrive in the darkness. When ideas are half-formed and fears are nebulous, they seem very overwhelming.

But when we start to take a closer look and actually think through them, we realize that they are not nearly so disastrous.

It’s the nature of the unknown. Unknowns often seem larger than they are.

Have you ever noticed that when you travel somewhere new, the trip there seems to take much longer than the return trip? Or if you go back again to the same place it doesn’t take nearly as long as you remembered it taking the first time?

That’s the nature of the unknown.

So, the key to conquering fear, dread, and anxiety is to tackle and expose the unknown element(s). When you start to feel these emotions forming, step back and consciously think through whatever is causing the angst.

Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen.”

And then slowly, calmly and purposefully – with lots of deep breathing, if necessary – answer the question.

If circumstances permit, take the time to sit down and write out all the things that could happen.  Map out the possible paths and consequences. Think through all the alternatives. Literally find the worst possible scenario.

Then think about the probabilities of each path coming to reality. Realistic probabilities. If it helps, use a numbering or a high-medium-low scale to grade the likeliness of each one happening.

When you go through this exercise, the monsters that panicked you will usually prove to be toothless and ineffective in the light of clear thought.

I’m not saying that there will never be scary possibilities. There may be things that are terrifying! But I can almost guarantee they won’t be as terrifying as they were before you put them into words.

They may be hard, but they are things you are perfectly capable of handling – especially when you have a God who said “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5).

Snake Charmer

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“He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15b).

“Behold, I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you” (Luke 10:19).

I was contemplating the concept of ‘power’ the other day, particularly as it relates to our battles with temptation and sin.

How often do we treat temptation as if it is a snake and we are merely a desperate snake-charmer, trying our best to either placate it, hold it at bay or dodge its next strike – allowing it to have the control, and reacting as best we can to avoid getting bit? Giving it the position of power does not give us freedom. It binds us.

To keep something at bay while playing defense is a recipe for defeat. Just ask any football fan who has watched his or her team blow a fourth quarter lead thanks to the ‘prevent defense.’

To compromise with wickedness is equally a recipe for defeat. Just ask the nations that thought a peace treaty with Hitler was a good idea.

But look at the Genesis passage above, and put your particular weakness in the role of the serpent for a moment. I see here two important truths related to that confrontation.

God tells the serpent “he [man] will bruise your head, and you will bruise his heel.” Let me work right to left.

God said “you will bruise his heel.” What this tells me is that sometimes our sin lands a blow, and that’s okay.

Well, I mean, it’s not okay, but it’s okay…if that makes sense.

We’re human. We make bad choices.

John writes “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins” (1 John 1:9), which presupposes we have sins that need confessing. In fact, he even goes on to write that if we say we have no sin, the truth isn’t in us (v. 10). (And remember, John is writing to church-going Christians here!)

Missteps and offenses are part of life. Temptation and weakness will get the upper hand once in a while. From the very beginning God acknowledged as much. It doesn’t mean we have a free pass, but it means His grace is enough to cover it.

The best part of this passage, though, is where God tells the serpent “he will bruise your head” or, in the NIV: “he will crush your head”.

God is using language that suggests not merely avoidance or keeping our sin at arm’s length, but outright aggression.

We were intended to meet the enemy head-on in the power of Christ. In Luke 10:19, Jesus tells His disciples “I give you authority to trample snakes and scorpions…” Again, His intention is for us to conquer.

Paul starts his ‘Armor of God’ discourse with the phrase, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might…that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (Ephesians 6:10-11).

He didn’t say find a safe place to hunker down. Or learn some good footwork so you can dodge the blows. Or give it some slack so you can avoid the ‘big sins’.

He said “be strong, take on God’s power, and stand !”

So next time you’re faced with that habit or addiction or weakness that plagues you, remember that God doesn’t empower you to dance around it, He empowers you to meet it head on.

Don’t dance with it, don’t flirt with it – claim the power that resides in you as a believer, and crush it!

Let me close with one more verse. Something to cling to whenever you start to think that the serpent is too strong for you and all you can do is compromise or avoid…

“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory” (Ephesians 6:20-21).

Hate Properly Placed

Signs 51That title caught your attention, didn’t it?

Yes, it’s what I meant to type.

It wasn’t auto-correct changing a misspelling to the wrong word…though I have certainly cursed the auto-correct feature many times for doing just that.

It isn’t some private rant mistakenly posted to my blog…I keep my private rants in pen-and-ink so that they’re easier to control (how’s that for transparency?).

And nobody hacked my website and posted it in an attempt to embarrass me…I am perfectly capable of embarrassing myself without any help.

No, the intended topic today really is Hate Properly Placed.

First, there are circumstances where hate is proper. But before running with that statement, let’s go a little deeper.

Humans – and particularly Christian humans – can be very adept at displaying hate, anger and other negative emotions. We justify it in various ways. We tag the word ‘righteous’ onto it as if that word will somehow make whatever we are thinking, saying or doing pure and holy. We enumerate why the target of our judgment deserves it and why everyone else should hate them as well. We defend our actions and reactions by claiming we are defending our loved ones, or innocents, or baby seals, or even God.

But here’s what I know: any time our hatred, anger or other negative emotion is aimed at a person, it is wrong.

It doesn’t matter how good the reason is.  It doesn’t matter how justified I feel. It doesn’t matter how many people agree with me or cheer for me or stand on their desks and recite Walt Whitman poetry (who can name that movie reference?).

It is never okay in God’s eyes to hate a human being. We can be upset, irate, or angry about what they are doing. We can hate the things they stand for or the activities they support. But when the hate is directed toward the person, it has crossed the line.

Many of us have heard the term “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” It’s become something of a cliché in the church, but it’s the best rule of thumb by which to check our emotions. It’s what God teaches us. It’s what Jesus modeled for us.

Think about it. When people see a need to justify their anger or hate, what is their go-to bible story? Jesus chasing out the money changers (Matt 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:14-16). “Even Jesus got angry,” they will say, as they flip pages to one of those passages in a huff.

But notice one thing about this story…Jesus does not get angry with the people, but with what they are doing! He overturns the furniture, He dumps their wares and upends their cash boxes, He even makes a whip and runs them out of the courtyard. But all the while His criticism is directed at what they are doing, not who they are.

Or look at all the places where He contends with the religious leaders (which incidentally are the only ones that He ever really gets harsh with – if Jesus were in some of our churches today, He wouldn’t get nearly as upset with the abortion doctors or the gay rights activists or the drug addicts as He would with the people so arrogantly condemning them).

Anyway, back to Jesus and the religious leaders: He calls them hypocrites, blind leaders of the blind, etc. But He always specifically tells them what the issue is…because His indignation is leveled against their actions and their attitudes, not their persons.

When we aim the hate at the person, we are shackling ourselves in chains that will hold us much tighter than they will ever hold the subject of our hatred. Because, in that case, what if that person changes? Answer: Our hate will remain – in fact, we’ll probably look for other reasons to hate them. Essentially, we develop the attitude portrayed in the sign pictured above – shoot the trespassers, and if they survive (i.e., try to make positive change), shoot them again!

Jesus could love and accept Pharisees like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea and Saul of Tarsus because he didn’t hate them for being Pharisees, He hated the religiosity and the judgmental attitudes that Pharisaism represented.

Does that make sense?  I hope so.  Because I have one more thing to cover. I know I’m already running longer than normal, but bear with me as I work out this last very important piece.

Our hate should never be directed toward a person.

You are a person (profound, I know).

So guess what that means?

It means that no matter how ugly you think you are inside, no matter what mistakes you’ve made or how you’ve blown it, no matter who has broken your boundaries or how much you are convinced you are somehow responsible for them doing so, no matter what broken overgrown pothole-covered trail you have traveled to get where you stand today – you have no right to hate or be angry at you!

You can hate the bad things you have done (that’s part of repentance). You can be angry about the poor choices you’ve made (and honestly, you should). You can be upset about the fact you hurt people (again, as you should).

But never, never, never, ever turn that hatred and anger on yourself personally. It’s counter-productive, it’s self-defeating, and it’s a ploy of the Enemy to keep you in chains!

So the next time you feel that hate welling up inside of you, check it.  First, of course, make sure it’s proper. Then, make sure your sights are directed down-range at the offense, and not at the guy standing next to you on the firing line or at yourself.

When you get that right, you’ll realize you’re in a much better position to experience – and show – the love of God.

Named!

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Your name is who you are. It’s that unique combination of words that encompasses your identity.

A couple months ago, I had a birthday. My wife and our Sunday night small group surprised me with a cake. Inscribed on the cake were the words – wait for it, you’ll never see this one coming – “Happy Birthday Doug!”

(We won’t go into the other décor on the cake such as the number 50 or the little rocking chair that was perched atop it – they’re a real humorous bunch, that group).

About three days later, while getting a cup of coffee, I decided to have a sliver of cake. As I opened the box and looked at the remnants inside, I noticed all that remained was the piece that my name had been written on. My name was wholly intact, but everything else was gone.

In that moment, God whispered, “I’ve kept your name intact. Not the name you’ve striven for. Not the name you tried to build for yourself. Not the name you thought you had established. But the name I gave you.”

And I knew it was true. Through the trials and the turmoil, bad decisions and their consequences, hurt I caused, hurt others caused, gossip, rumors, temptations, struggles, failures, exposed ugliness…through it all God had kept my name intact.

But the important thing is which name He preserved.

You see, God isn’t interested in the name we build for ourselves. He’s interested in the name He has given us.

The Doug who was striving to be significant through credentials and performance was not actually the Doug that God had blessed since the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).

The Doug who caved in to temptation, hurt people, and sank into the mire of guilt and shame over those failures was not the Doug He had known before He formed me in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5, Galatians 1:15).

Even the Doug that tried to serve and encourage and counsel as a pastor was not the Doug that He declared to have plans for (Jeremiah 29:11).

Those Dougs may have at times been living out some aspects of the Doug God created, but it wasn’t him.

That was someone trying to build the labels that he thought necessary to make him valuable.  But the truth is God had already declared him valuable!

Stop for a moment and think about where you are today. Are you striving to check boxes so that you can be the person you think God wants? Are you working your tail off so that you can somehow attain acceptance with God and make a name for yourself?

If so, stop! God gave you a name before you ever entered this world. You don’t have to make a name for yourself, because the name that is important is already firmly a part of you. Each of us is already “complete in Him” (Colossians 2:10). Live out of your true name.

Or, are you carrying around labels resulting from past failures? Are you allowing your inner voice, or accusations of others, to define who you are? Are you resigned to thinking that you have to live the life of an addict or loser or convict because of your past?

If so, enough! Those failures were certainly not part of God’s plan for you. But that doesn’t mean they change who you really are in God’s eyes. Don’t get caught up in thinking that failure inevitably leads to continued failure. Live out of your true name.

No matter what you have done. No matter what others have done to you. No matter how wildly successful or miserably unsuccessful you think you’ve been, your true God-given name has not been enhanced or tainted one iota. He has preserved it just as He intended, and will continue to do so.

Put all those false self-imposed or others-imposed names behind you and live out your true name. Live redeemed!