In an email newsletter for pastors there was a link to a short note from a woman who has been a high-profile Christian. She announced that her marriage of 27 years was ending in divorce. Jen and Brandon are sweet people, sharing ministry, adopting kids, doing cool things for the Kingdom. They were featured in a popular TV program on HGTV a few years ago. They invited us to watch them remodel an old farmhouse for their family. Bev and I laughed along with that show, sharing their joy. So, the news of the divorce left me deflated, wondering how that happened, and tempted to look for some hidden character flaw in them. It’s so easy to distance myself from the suffering, failure, and pain of other Christians by convincing myself, “I’m better than you!” But, I’m not!
Christians deal with human frailty and sin with two responses that are held in tension –
we must be full of love that always seeks to help and heal, and,
we must pursue God with our whole heart at the same time.
When we fall short of God’s plan for us (sin) we must never excuse our behavior saying: “Well, I’m only human.” That is true enough but God gives us life and the power of the Spirit to grow in grace. Yet, in the same breath, we must resist the lure of perfectionism that inevitably leads to hypocrisy and self-loathing.
Jesus, on seeing the external perfectionism of some of the religious leaders of His time, pointed out the truth about them: “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! You are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! Blind Pharisees! First wash the inside of the cup, and then the outside will become clean, too. “How terrible it will be for you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity.” (Matthew 23:25-27, NLT) Was Jesus suggesting that they should abandon their pursuit of lives that pleased God? Not at all. But, He wanted them (and us) to know that it starts with the heart.
He cautions us about becoming God’s moral police but remaining ignorant of our own issues. “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log from your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5, NLT)
At the same time, it is an awful error of tolerance, a failure of genuine love, if we excuse all sin, remaining silent about the wrong choices of our friends and family. When we see them speeding toward a cliff, heading for hurt and/or destruction, the most loving thing to do is to engage, to warn, to invite to change. And yet, we must never do so from the heights of self-righteousness that implies ‘I’m so much better than you nothing like this could ever happen in my life.’ Fact is apart from God’s grace and kindness, none of us has even a faint hope of pleasing the Lord.
Oh, the wisdom of the Word where we are taught to be oh so loving. “If someone falls into sin, forgivingly restore him, saving your critical comments for yourself. You might be needing forgiveness before the day’s out. Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.” (Galatians 6:1-3, The Message)
Yesterday, I wrote about the ‘grace and peace’ that God gives which allows us to ‘participate in the divine nature.’ There is no other starting place for the Christian life. Peter finishes that thought by instructing us to a life of faith that commits to living God’s way. “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8, NIV)
Our faith cannot be just a ‘get me ready for Heaven’ idea that is disconnected from ‘real’ life choices about how we act, who we love, where we go, and the ways in which we invest our lives. Each day we pray for the Spirit to make us fruitful. But, we never allow ourselves to begin to think that we have become better than those ‘ordinary sinners’ that we live among. Paul remembered where he came from and that each day he needed to “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”
A grace-based Christianity will let us take the focus off of ourselves and put it rightly on Jesus. Through Him we gain the ability to say, ‘no’ to ungodliness and ‘yes’ to the Spirit. What all of our self-discipline, peer pressure from other Believers, and moral codes can never accomplish – making us truly good and completely acceptable to God- begins to take place from the inside out! He relieves me of the need to pretend to be perfect.
Brandon and Jen, I am not better than you are! We are both sinners in need of the grace of Christ. I love you and pray that you can find light, life, hope, and courage in the love of Jesus and that His family will surround you with profoundly loving grace and give you space to work through the brokenness and pain! And, I pray for myself in the same moment that I will live in Jesus’ grace, the Spirit’s power, that I will be kept whole and holy for the glory of God.
Father, Your love for me is astounding.
Your favor extended to me makes me both glad and uncomfortable.
Defeat my sinful tendency to perfectionism and religiosity,
which leads to judgment.
Stir up a love for You in me that spills over to others,
that takes no thought about what they deserve.
Thank you, Jesus, entering in our world,
mysteriously becoming a Man, “God with us;”
and thank you for the Cross that shows me Your love and sacrifice, and
thank you for the Empty Tomb, which assures me that my salvation
is a completed work, that Heaven is my eternal home!
Spirit of God, guide me into all Truth today.
Keep me centered on You.
Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me….
yes, for the glory of God alone. Amen.