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.

https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2008/10/01/why-dont-we-love-god-more-part-1/

https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2008/10/03/why-dont-we-love-god-more-pt-2/

https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2008/10/08/why-dont-we-love-god-more-pt3/

https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2008/10/16/why-dont-we-love-god-more-part-4-of-4/

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.

Why Don’t We Love God More? part 4 of 4

Do you find yourself from time to time treating your sin as if it is no big deal, not as bad as some other people you know? If you do then you will fail to experience the full delight and freedom that comes from the forgiveness God offers. You will always carry around a hidden weight of pride mixed with some nagging guilt. The pride is your own flesh. The nagging guilt is the Holy Spirit trying to bring you to your knees so you can receive the full force of Gods love.
The only way to begin to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength is to admit the depth of your sin. When you come to grips with that, and give up any hope of your own righteousness making the least bit of difference, then you are in position to receive Gods love. Only when you receive that love on that basis, the basis of your own complete and utter sinfulness, are you then in a position to live rightly, for the right reason.

Our reaction to God’s grace is a study in paradox. On the one hand we are extremely grateful for it and know that we need it. On the other hand we are often uncomfortable with it and seem to be concerned that a little too much grace might be a bad thing. We seem to be concerned that there will then be no motivation for living righteously. In some evangelistic presentations the question of what should motivate us to live rightly if we have all this forgiveness and grace is boiled down to a sense of gratitude for our forgiveness. With all due respect to those presentations, my gratitude runs out after a very short while. Certainly gratitude is a factor in obeying Jesus, but it is extremely limited in its effectiveness.

The Bible never speaks of gratitude as the reason for living righteously because gratitude is too weak a motivator. Jesus gives a rather different idea. He said very simply in John 14:15 that we will obey Him, keep is commandments, IF WE LOVE HIM! Love for God that comes as a response to His overwhelming forgiveness is what should motivate us to live differently. But in order to have that kind of love we must know and admit the depth of our sin. We do this not so we can wallow in some spiritual form of self-loathing but so we can understand the depth of God’s love for us. If you are not able to admit on a daily basis, the depth of your sin and the height of God’s mercy, you will not be able to love God with all you are.

Why Don’t We Love God More? pt3

“Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” Luke 7:44-46

St. Augustine gives is incredible insight into the nature of our heart and the depth of our sin. I remember the first time I read his famous Confessions. At one point Augustine reflects back on a part of his youth when he stole some pears. He confesses that he did not steal them because he was hungry or needed to sell them for money to clothe his mother or family. He stole them simply because he enjoy the sinful thrill of stealing them.
At first I thought that going on for a couple of chapters lamenting your sin for stealing a few pears bordered on the neurotic. But then God brought to mind a similar event from my own childhood. I was about nine years old when my best friend Bobby and I slipped through a hole in the fence that separated my yard from Mrs. Peglow, the widow who lived next door. Mrs. Peglow rarely came out of her house and Bobby and I were convinced that she was over 100 years old. We climbed the apple tree in her back yard like we often did and sat in it eating apples. Sometimes taking only a bite before we threw it as far as we could into the woods behind the house, then taking a bite from another and repeating the process. At first we barely heard the tapping on the second floor window coming from her house. When we looked up it was clear that Mrs. Peglow did not want us in her tree. She especially did not want us taking single bites and tossing the rest of the fruit. But it was also very clear that 100+ year old widow Peglow, was in no condition to come outside and do anything about me and Bobby and the tree. So we stayed in the tree and laughed.

Augustine was broken in spirit because he stole some pears. By comparison I was as wicked as they came. Not only did I steal apples. I trespassed to do it, convinced a friend to do it with me and wasted most of apples in the process. If that wasn’t bad enough i sat in a tree and taunted an old widow woman. Clearly without Christ I am scum. But guess what; so are you! No matter how we try to spin it, we are sinners in deep trouble. Only the grace of God can save us. Before coming to Christ I was, as I like to say, “On a greased pole to hell”. Only Jesus stopped the downward plummet to destruction.

The Pharisee who was Jesus dinner host was oblivious to his own condition condition of sin. All he saw was a woman who was an obvious sinner invading his home and weeping at Jesus feet. When he looked at his own moral standing he incorrectly saw himself as a man far better than her; a man who thought he needed very little from God. The result was that he loved God very little. Jesus was not condoning the little love and saying that his host really was only a little sinner in need of only a little forgiveness and therefore should only be expected to love a little in return. Jesus was forcing his host to come to grips with his own self-righteousness. We know that by the words Jesus speaks about the Pharisees conduct.

Jesus tells Simon the Pharisee that he has been living in a world of self-deception. He has convinced himself that he is a good, moral, righteous person. He is convinced that his sin is little, especially when compared to a prostitute. The message of Jesus is the exact opposite. “Simon” he says, “compared to this prostitute you are a lousy host, a self centered egotist, and a spiritual snob. And at least in the current situation you are a far greater sinner than this woman”. Simon was brought face to face with the startling reality that as good a person as he appeared to be, his sin was deep and his need for forgiveness was vast. He needed to see the deadly serious nature of his own sin so that he could experience the amazing freedom of grace and forgiveness. Only then would he be able to begin to love God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. Only then could he begin to love his neighbor as himself. As long as Simon thought of himself as “basically good”, he could always downplay his need for Gods forgiveness. And as long as be saw himself as better than even one other human being, he could hold on to his spiritual pride and look down at that person. But the moment he comes to realize that he is a desperate sinner as well, then he can love them as he loves himself. His love for himself can equal his love for his neighbor when and only when he is broken by the fact that he and his neighbor are equally sinners, equally in need of grace, and equally broken at the foot of the cross.
So the real question is, “how much of Simon lives in your heart and mine”?

Why Don’t We Love God More? pt 2

The Great Commandment is not to love the Lord your God with a LITTLE of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, but with ALL your heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is a command to love God much, very much, as much as possible. But if it is true that people, who are forgiven little, love little, what hope is there for people who have lived a decent life by all human standards and not sinned much? What about those who have lived according to Alfred P. Doolittle’s standards of middle class morality? I can just picture people like Simon saying, “Wait a minute! I tried to live a good decent life and now you are telling me that because I didn’t sin much, that I don’t have much to be forgiven for and so I am destined to not love God enough. That hardly seems fair.”
So what is the answer to this seeming “unfairness” in God? The problem lies in our understanding of our sin. Our human tendency is to evaluate our moral and spiritual standing by looking at other people around us. Invariably we look to the right and see very holy, godly people and decide that they are the exception and we should not be expected to like them. Being the next Mother Theresa is just not what we think we should be expected to do. Then we quickly look down the other end of the moral lineup and see people who we determine are far worse off than we are. Sure we can see Hitler and Stalin and Charles Manson and decide that they are clearly wicked sinners and are in desperate need of either forgiveness or punishment. But even less extreme than that we are always able to find someone who we decide is worse than we are and so we must be okay in Gods eyes. This fits perfectly with a concept in psychology known as the false attribution theory. It basically works this way; we assume the best about our own actions and motives and attribute the worst possible motives and actions to others. When you are driving in your car and someone cuts you off, you assume all sorts of nasty things about him or her; they are a jerk, dangerous, an idiot, they should never have been given a license. But when you cut someone off, it was an understandable mistake, you are so sorry the other driver should understand and be gracious to you.
We do the same with our sin. We think that because we have the best of intentions that our sin is not as serious as that of other people. As a result we think that our need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness is not as severe as that of other sinners. What we fail to realize is that no matter the depth of our sin, we are all the same. We are all destined for Hell without the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ. Being a sinner saved by grace must never be allowed to become a cliché. They are words that must burn within us and light a fire of desire to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

Why Don’t We Love God More? Part 1

It is my contention that if we really loved God in a Great Commandment way, with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, then we would be living far differently from the way most Christians currently live. The strange part is that given the level of blessing and abundance that the church in the west experiences, including the freedom we have to worship, you would think that our love for God would be abundantly manifest. You would assume that given the amount of Christian teaching that is available to us through books, radio, television, podcasts, conferences and all the rest, that our knowledge of God and thus our love for God would be uncontainable. So what is the problem? Why don’t we love God more?
I think the answer is found in an event in the life of Jesus and a story he told that deals with this exact question. It comes in Luke 7:36-50. Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee named Simon. It is a dinner party with some of Simon’s closest friends. Because Simon is a Pharisee, one of the religious teachers and strict keepers of every religious rule imaginable, his friends are only the most respectable kinds of people. So there they are in Simons house all feeling good about themselves, how respectable they are and that Jesus, this up and coming prophet is eating with them. Suddenly into the room comes a woman whom they all know to be a local prostitute. She falls at Jesus feet, weeping. As her tears drip off her face and onto his feet, she wipes the tears away using her long, undone hair.
Imagine such a scene in which you are the host. I suspect that your first move would be to intercept this woman or at least get her away from Jesus and out of the house. You might even immediately call the police. Yet in an amazing act of passivity, Simon doesn’t move. Instead he sits and ponders to himself wondering why Jesus would possibly let a prostitute, a sinful woman if there ever was one, touch him, let alone weep and his feet and kiss them.
Jesus looks up at Simon and asks him a question, all the while with the woman weeping at his feet:
“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Luke 7:41,42 NASB

Without making any connection to the current events playing out before his very eyes Simon answers,
“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”  “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Verse 43

Simon must have been confused at this point. What does that question have to do with all of this? I suspect that there was a little bit of annoyance at the question, tempered with a touch of spiritual pride when Jesus praises him for his answer. But it was all short-lived as Jesus let the spiritual hammer fall heavy on Simon’s head.

44Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.

I love that opening line in verse 44, “Do you see this woman?” How could he not see her? She has created a scene unlike anything Simon has ever experienced in his home. Yes he sees her with his eyes wide open in amazement.  He sees how she compares to him. His answer would be yes I see her. “I see that she is a whore and I am a religious man who would never associate with her. I see that she has barged in uninvited and I am holding my tongue, keeping my place and maintaining a proper decorum. I am a proper, righteous man and I see that she is a sinner of utmost filth.” But before he can even begin to express any of his thoughts in which he compares himself favorably to “this woman” Jesus goes into a litany of comparisons of his own.

You did not give me any water for my feet so that I could wash, or a towel to dry them when I came into your house. This most basic of the rules of hospitality for a guest and you violated it. Yet she has not ceased to wash my feet with her tears using her very hair to dry them clean. And it’s not even her house! Chalk up one for the prostitute. You did not even great me with a formal kiss on the cheek when I entered your home as a sign that you welcomed me as a friend, yet she has not stopped kissing my feet as a sign of her devotion. That’s prostitute two, Simon zero. Finally, you did not honor me as a guest by giving me oil for my head, yet she has anointed my feet with perfume. Final score: prostitute three, Simon zero.

Simon had to have been spiritually shell shocked at this point. Jesus has just indicted him on three counts of blatant disregard for his guest, a theological and sociological sin in Simon’s day. But if that wasn’t bad enough the worst was yet to come. As soon as he finishes the litany of indictments Jesus says,

47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

The comparison hits it apex. “She is doing all of this” Jesus says, “because she loves me, because she has been forgiven much. Just like greatest of the two debtors in my previous question that you answered so well Simon. She loves much because she has experienced much forgiveness.”  The unspoken comparison that Simon and everyone else in the room are now painfully aware of is that Simon loves “little”. For all his adherence to the religious laws of his day and all his striving to be respectable and righteous, Simon is told that he is guilty of having little love.
Now you might be thinking, but Simon was a good man. He followed the rules. He certainly was not a prostitute or other kind of blatant sinner. He was a respectable guy. Jesus himself compares one who sinned a great deal with one who sinned a little. The woman is the one who sinned a great deal so shouldn’t Simon get some props as the one who sinned a little? He was doing a respectable job, trying hard to be righteous. On the surface you might think so. But there are depths to this story that we rarely plumb.

Check back on Friday for part two and begin to plumb those depths.

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?