I Have Good News, Bad News, and Good News.

We have all heard it before, I have good news and bad news. Which do you want first? Most often I think people say, give me the bad news first, to get it over with and hopefully end on a high note with the good news. The Gospel, the basic message preached by Jesus is Good News. That is what the word Gospel actually means. But there is some bad news that comes first. So it is a typical bad news/good news sequence. It starts out by telling people they are sinners and deserve eternal punishment and then moves to the offer of salvation made possible because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

But what if that was not the whole story? What if there was some good news before the bad news? I think that would be a somewhat important part of the message. The bad news/good news sequence starts with the human rebellion against God as told in the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis Chapter 3. The rest of the Bible is the lead-up to the Good News of Jesus. But the Bible doesn’t start with Genesis Chapter 3. It should come as no real surprise that there are two prior chapters. Those two chapters contain the vital first good news part of the story.

In those two chapters, the word good appears 11 times. Nine of those times it describes aspects of the creation God has made. When He creates human beings, He actually looks at his handiwork and says, “it is very good”. The beginning of creation is a wonderful, beautiful, very good beginning to the universe. Human beings are made in the image of God. They are made with dignity and purpose. They commune with God and enjoy freedom and bliss like we have not experienced since, and God says, that is very good.

Of course, in chapter three, it all goes pear-shaped, and the world suffers from the rebellion that human beings carry out against the commands of God. The repercussions of that rebellion included a broken relationship between human beings and God as well as broken relationships between people. Adam and Even hide from one another and from God because of their guilt and shame. It has been the way of relationships ever since. That is the bad news. We sinned, and we continue to do so. We were then tossed out of paradise and have been suffering in a broken world ever since.

Lots of preaching starts with chapter three and how messed up we are. In recent years I have noticed that this part of the message, starting with the bad news, is falling on increasingly deaf ears. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. I mean you can only stand being told how messed up you are for so long before you just don’t want to hear it anymore. It should also not surprising that it is falling on deaf ears, because that is not where the story starts. It doesn’t start with Bad News. It starts with Good News. It starts with an affirmation that God made you for something wonderful. He made you in His image. He made you with purpose. He made you to be in a relationship with Him out of no other motivation than a love for you as the pinnacle of all He created.

All of our religious expressions, all of our spiritual seeking, are rooted in the subconscious desire to regain what we lost. Romans chapter 1 tells us that we all have a built-in sense that God is there and even all creation speaks to that. C.S Lewis put it this way, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” We were made for another world. It was a world that our ancestors lived in for a time and we long for the goodness of it.

The Good News is you were created by God with dignity and purpose and to be in relationship with Him.

The Bad News is we have messed up our lives and our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.

The Good News is, Jesus came into the world to take on himself the punishment we deserve. He experienced isolation and abandonment on the cross so that anyone who puts their faith in Him can have a restored relationship with God, not only in this life, but life eternal.

Do you want the Good News, the Bad News, or the Good News? If you take it in that order, you just may find you feel very differently about yourself, your brokeness, and the God who made you to be in a beautiful relationship with Him that is Very Good.

Blessed are the Merciful: The Irony of Angry Christians

Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
I continue to be perplexed at the anger and rejection that so many Christians heap on people whose sin is obvious and public. What befuddles me is that this is about as far from doing what Jesus did as you can get. I look at how Jesus treats the Samaritan woman at the well, or the woman caught in adultery, or the drunks and prostitutes. What I see in Jesus is a savior who was completely committed to holiness and glorifying God in all he did. Yet, He did not allow that commitment on His part to result in condemnation of those who consistently wrestled with sin and lost. Rather Jesus showed great mercy to those people. He certainly called out their sin and challenged them to live a holy life. But at the same time He empathized with their weakness and sought to lift them to higher things. And He did this even though He never sinned and therefore never needed that kind of mercy.
In the beatitudes Jesus has made it clear that we are spiritually bankrupt and in desperate need of God’s grace and mercy. If you are a follower of Christ you have received that mercy, countless times over. Knowing that we have received such wonderful mercy, how can we do other than to pass that mercy on to others?
In Matthew 18 Jesus tells the story of the Unforgiving Servant. It is about a man who was forgiven a monstrous debt by his master. The debt was so large that it would take the average worker in Jesus day, 200,000 years to earn that much. He was forgiven something he could never pay. The servant later comes upon a fellow servant who owes him the equivalent of about three months wages. That fellow servant asks for time to pay the debt. The man refuses to give him time and in great anger, throws him in debtors prison along with his wife and children. Later, the master hears of this and in his just anger, throws the servant in prison for the rest of his days. Jesus makes the point that He is the master and we are the servants who, because of the cross and resurrection, have been forgiven a debt we could never pay. In light of that, how dare we spout vitriol and anger at people who have sinned against us in significantly smaller ways. How dare we not show mercy to a fellow debtor.
Giving people mercy simply means to not push on them the punishment that they deserve for what they have done. If you throw yourself on the “mercy of the court” you are saying, yes I am guilty but please do not punish me to the extent I deserve”. If you are a follower of Jesus, you have thrown yourself on the mercy of His cosmic court. And you have received mercy. Having freely received, we are to freely give. It doesn’t mean that we fail to call sin what it is. It means that we call it what it is, but we let a person know, we will not heap anger, rejection, punishment or suffering on them, because we have received a far great mercy from the Lord.
There is a symbiotic relationship at work here. We have received mercy from the Lord so we give mercy to others. When we do, we will continue to receive mercy. When we don’t give that mercy, we can be assured that we will not be receiving it. The unforgiving servant learned that sad lesson.

Blessed are Those Who Mourn

So in the first Beatitude Jesus tells us we are spiritually bankrupt. Okay so now what do you do with that? Simple: You mourn. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Matthew 5:4 Jesus said that those who recognize that they are “poor in Spirit”, what I called spiritually bankrupt, will in fact possess heaven. The first step in a relationship with God is recognizing that we have nothing to bring to the table. But there is a crucial second step and it comes in the form of mourning that spiritual bankruptcy.
Blessed are those who mourn is not about the mourning that we all do when faced with the trials and hardships of life. Jesus said those who mourn will be comforted and clearly not every mourning in life has an accompanying time of comfort as promised by Jesus. But there is a mourning that will be comforted, the mourning over our spiritual condition and separation from God.
It is not a pleasant thing to have to deal with the fact of our sin. We want to hide it, deny it, laugh it off, or even proudly boast of it. But deep inside we are still in need of the love and forgiveness that God offers through Christ. The only way to truly overcome our bankruptcy is to admit it and mourn over it. With that comes the comfort of the loving arms of Jesus welcoming us into His grace.
If that is true, then why don’t we mourn our sin? Why try to deal with it in so many other ineffective and even destructive ways? At the heart of it all is pride and fear. We don’t want to admit that we are not perfect, that we have flaws and faults. So we try to deny and cover up. And with good reason. We have all seen enough examples of people who have failed and the feeding frenzy of ridicule and loathing that quickly surrounds them. Who wants to risk that kind of reaction by admitting their sin? No one! So instead we go on living our lives in silent sin, as we slowly die inside. In that way we are like the sick person who has a nagging suspicion that something is seriously wrong inside but they refuse to go to the doctor for fear of what they will learn.
The only way to truly be comforted is to deal with the sin in our hearts in an honest and forthright way. We need not be ashamed. God wants to remove our shame and guilt. The only way to do that is admit our need, mourn our sin, and ask for Him to forgive and restore us.
There is one additional thing that is crucial. If you are able to mourn your own sinfulness then you should also be willing and able to give grace and forgiveness to fellow sinners. One of the main reasons we don’t confess our sin and find the freedom that brings is that we have too often experienced the rejection that comes from others who will not admit their own sin. If we had a lot more honesty and transparency about our weakness, we would be a great deal healthier when it came to our relationship with God.
Mourn your sin, seek God’s forgiveness and then experience not only the comfort but the joy and freedom that is found only in Christ.

Why Be Good if I am Forgiven?

If we are forgiven by Jesus as a free gift of grace and our salvation does not depend on being good enough to get to heaven, then what is our motivation for doing the things God commands? It is an understandable question. The answer that is usually given is that when you have been forgiven you should live a life of obedience out of gratitude to God. It is your way of saying thank you.
Now there is a certain logical and even emotional appeal to that response. When someone does something wonderful for you, you should want to thank them in some way. If someone has given their life for you, dedicating your life to one of showing gratitude for their sacrifice is certainly understandable and honorable.

One problem with that answer is that for us as human beings that kind of motivation doesn’t last. We are notorious for keeping score. Buried deep down inside every one of us is a “fairness accountant”. That little accountant is always keeping score. You see it in children when one of them gets a larger piece of cake or one more present or even a longer more exuberant hug. The shouts of “That’s not fair!” can be heard across the land. Of course that doesn’t even take into account that tendency we have to always be trying to maneuver things to our best advantage.

As true as that human tendency may be in making the motivation of gratitude problematic, it is not the real problem with that answer to the question why be good. The problem is, it is not the answer Jesus gave and thus not the complete biblical picture. Jesus was clear. The motivation for a life of obedience to all that God has commanded us is that we love Him. “If you love me you will obey what I command”. (John 14:15) The ultimate motivator for obeying Jesus is not gratitude for being forgiven, as important as that is. The real motivator is that we love Jesus Christ with a reckless abandon that compels us to obey him, even when it hurts!

What does the voice in your head sound like when you read, “If you love me, you will obey me”? Think about it for a moment. Whenever we read something we have a tendency to give those words a voice in our head. When I am reading something from an author I have heard speak many time, I can hear their voice when I read their words. When I read The Provocative Church by Graham Tomlin, I hear Grahams wonderful British accent and understated humor. When I read anything by R.C. Sproul I hear the very familiar Pittsburgh accent and his distinctive inflections.

When you hear Jesus say these words, what voice do you hear? The words themselves can often dictate the voice and thus the interpretation without us even realizing it. If the words you hear are similar to a manipulative parent who used those words to force submission out of you then all you will hear in the words of Jesus is a sense of duty and obligation. You have to obey because you are forced to by a manipulation of love. In that instance the obedience becomes a burden that lacks all joy. It will result in either a lifeless obedience with no joy or an obedience marked but grumbling and discord. Either way there will eventually be an end to that behavior and a break in the relationship.

Some of you might hear a similar yet different voice. It is the voice of that person you dated who made it clear that if you loved them, you would have sex with them. That voice put you in a position of having to give up yourself or give up them. It was a voice that underneath was saying, “I don’t really love you. I just want something from you”. It was a voice that told you rejection was coming if you did not comply. It differs from that manipulative parent in that you are pretty certain they won’t go away if you refuse, much as you might want them to. This voice is more sweet and urging yet underneath more sinister.
Either way, you may very well hear a voice in the words of Jesus that has some sense of obligation to it. “If you love me, prove it. Do what I say”. It is a voice of earning something from God. It is a voice that says you are not good enough and you need to make it clear that you are by doing something above and beyond.

Nothing could be further from the truth of the matter. The kind of love motivated obedience that Jesus is speaking of has nothing to do with proving your worth or value or even proving your love for him. The kind of obedience that Jesus speaks of is one that overflows out of a heart that is head over heals, crazy nuts, in love with him. It is something that you don’t need to be forced or manipulated or pressured into. It is a love that comes rushing out of you looking for a way to express itself in obedience to all that Jesus expects or asks.

So how do we get that kind of love? Part of the answer has to do with really understanding the depths of our sin and the magnitude of our forgiveness. In the early days of this blog I did a four part series on that.





The context of John 14:15 gives us further clues one how to develop that kind of love. It has everything to do with abiding in a relationship with Christ throught the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Like any relationship of love, the more we live in fellowship with someone, share life together, serve them, care for them, hear their heart, we will grow to love them more and more. You love for Jesus will only be as great as your heart knowledge of him.

Forgetting is Not Forgiving

How many times have you heard the statement, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget”? When I hear those words they are nearly always spoken with a tone that says, “I am holding on to the pain and I will deal with the offender accordingly”. What seems to be said is, I forgive, therefore I will not seek revenge, even though I could, but, I will treat this person differently as a result of their offense. If I am right and that is what often lies behind the statement, then we really do not understand the nature of forgiveness or forgetting.

If you are to truly forgive someone then you must never forget what they have done. Yes, you read that right. If you are to truly forgive someone then you must never forget what they have done. If you forget it, then you have not forgiven. Look at the encounter between Jesus and Peter following the resurrection. In John 21 Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” At the third asking, Peter is heartbroken. Why? Because the last time Peter was asked the same question three times he denied even knowing Jesus. Jesus knew that and remembered that. In an incredible act of grace he out that event back on the table and let Peter know that it was alright. He was forgiven and restored. In order to truly forgive Peter, Jesus had to remember the betrayal. Then, in spite of the pain that the betrayal gave Him, Jesus then treated Peter as a brother whom He loved and forgave.

Forgiveness is about treating someone with the love of God, in-spite of what they have done. When you remember the pain of rejection, the anguish of betrayal, the shock of being sinned against, forgiveness becomes evident when you still treat that other person like Jesus treated Peter, like He treats you. If I never remember what they have done, I am not being forgiving. I am just absent minded.

Forgiving and remembering means that not only do I refuse to take revenge, but I also determine to do something positive. I determine to treat you with love, respect, and dignity and I will not hold your sin against you. That sounds and awful lot like the way God treats us because of Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.

Finally, the person whom we are to forgive also needs to know that we know and remember what they did. If Jesus would have never brought the denials to the table, yet treated Peter well, there would have always been a lingering doubt. Peter would never have really known if he was forgiven or if Jesus simply forgot about the denials. He would have been eaten alive by guilt and doubt. But by putting it all out in the open Jesus makes it clear that He knows what Peter did and He still loves and forgives him. Forgiving and forgetting is not the answer. Remembering and forgiving is.

What Can Lord of the Rings Teach Christians about Community? Pt 1

The classic trilogy written by J.R.R. Tolkien has been dissected countless times as people have sought to plumb its philosophical and theological depths. There have been volumes written on the world view presented by Tolkien, on the nature of good and evil, on the place of sacrifice and honor, on courage and fear, and a host of other things. What strikes me is that I have never seen anything that deals with the nature of community or what the Bible calls fellowship. What surprises me about this is that the first book in the trilogy is called, “The Fellowship of the Ring”. So that got me thinking, “What can we learn about fellowship or community from the writings of Tolkien?”

One of the most striking things that I get from the book when it comes to community is that real community requires forgiveness. It requires forgiveness even in the face of the most painful of trespasses. There are two instances where this truth is revealed. One is in the betrayal and death of Boromir and the other is the friendship that develops over time between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.

Nine very diverse characters set out on a journey that will seal the fate of the world. They must take a magic ring to a distant volcano and throw it in so that it, and the evil that inhabits it, will be destroyed. Failure to do so will mean that evil will, in all likelihood, dominate the world and destroy all men. The evil of the ring is alive and it tempts people to make use of it. It deceives people into thinking that they can use the power of the ring for good when in fact the power of the ring will use them for evil. The warrior Boromir falls to this temptation. He thinks that if he can take the ring from Frodo, the bearer of the ring, then he can use its power to save his people.  His attempt to take the ring fractures the fellowship. When Boromir quickly realizes his error, his sin against the others, he repents to the point of his own death while protecting the two Halflings, Merry and Pippin. The surviving members of the fellowship could have easily remained bitter towards the dying Boromir. As a result of his attempt to take the ring it looks as if their mission will fail. But instead they give him compassion and forgiveness and honor him in death.

For Gimli and Legolas the issue runs far deeper. Their two races have been suspicious of one another for generations. Past clashes and betrayals and misunderstandings have built a huge wall of division between two peoples who once were allies. During the course of their journey and their life and death struggles together, these two mismatched characters become the closest of friends, willing and ready to die for one another. It is truly a demonstration of the words of Jesus, “greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends”. Gimli and Legolas become that kind of friend to one another because they learn to forgive and to trust.

In both cases forgiveness does not come easy or cheap. In order to forgive Boromir the group had to recognize that they could have just as easily come under the tempting spell of the ring. They understood the truth of the proverb, “There but for the grace of God, go I”. Looking deep into your own soul and seeing your own short-comings and even brokenness is not a pleasant exercise. But it must be done if we are to have the strength and motivation to forgive others. In the case of Legolas and Gimli they both had to admit their own sin and repent of it. They both had to acknowledge that they were wrong about the other and that their actions and attitudes were wrong. They had to in some way reject generations of heritage that they were raised in, rejecting the things taught them by their own people. Any one of those things is a painful task. To have to do all of it seems nearly impossible.

There is a part of me that wonders if some measure of the popularity of Lord of the Rings isn’t to be found in our unexpressed longing for community and fellowship like that of Tolkien’s characters. Somehow there is a recognition that we are far too alone and isolated, our relationships are too shallow. We long for a world of relationships where people do forgive one another and they do sacrifice for one another and the do love one another to the point of ultimate sacrifice. Ever since Adam and Eve and the division that sin brought into human/divine relationships, we have had this ache in our souls for real community. How wonderful is it that Jesus promises to restore those relationships through the cross and by faith. The Cross opens the door for them, but we must be willing to do the hard work of forgiving others because we too have been forgiven. The Holy Spirit gives us the true power that we need in order to face our own sin and forgive the sin of others.

Forgiveness: Our Most Difficult Calling

“Bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you have against each other. Forgive as the Lord forgives you” Colossians 3:13

As Christians we are usually very in tune to having been forgiven by Christ, at least when we first come to faith in Him. What is much more difficult is forgiving people as we have been forgiven. We pray it every time we repeat the words Jesus gave us, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. Yet how often do you blow right passed those words without really asking, “Have I forgiven others in the same way that I want Jesus to forgive me”. Paul urges us to forgive whatever grievance, no matter what. After all, isn’t that the manner of forgiveness that we have received from Jesus?
Forgiveness is costly and painful. You don’t need to spend much time looking at the cross to know the price that was paid, the pain that was experienced for us to be forgiven. Jesus paid that price. He calls on us as His followers to be just like Him and be willing to face the pain for forgiving others. For us that pain is in a very real way, dying to ourselves. What we want in the flesh is to make the other person pay. We want them to somehow pay for they way they have hurt us. We want to somehow even the score. What would we face if Jesus approached us that way? We would be completely without hope. Forgiveness in the way of Jesus means that we take the pain. We die to our fleshly desire to revenge or vindication. We swallow our pride and carry our cross. How different would the world be if we forgave as we have been forgiven?