Last night I had the opportunity to go to a comedy show with a couple friends of mine. We snagged a tiny table nestled close to the stage, ordered some food and a few drinks, caught up for a little while, and settled in for the show. Anticipation built as the lights dimmed. The room was packed, table after table jammed with patient onlookers. Then the jokes started. Suffice to say, it didn't take very long for me to realize that this would be a somewhat uncomfortable evening! The bits started off harmless enough, but soon spiraled into a series of vulgarities and crude jabs at religion, climaxing when the headliner specifically mocked the letter to the Philippians, and followed up with a few gratuitous "priest scandal" jokes.
Now before you paint me as a sheltered prude, let me make myself quite clear! I was not personally offended. Not in the least. Rather, I felt sick to my stomach. I was deeply saddened that something as gorgeous as faith in God had become a spectacle, a laughing-stock, a good ol' fashioned brouhaha! I wanted to leap up out of my chair and say "Paul's letter to the Philippians is absolutely beautiful! Don't you know what you're missing!?" My second, less heroic instinct was to slink away through the exit door and peace the heck out of there. At any rate, I felt that I was participating in the mockery of God just by sitting in the audience. It all just seemed so tragic.
One of the most difficult questions that I have come up against in my pursuit of God (or rather... God's pursuit of me) is the issue of God's grace as the primary mechanism of faith. What I mean by this is: If salvation is born entirely by the free gift of grace, how can even the moral "choice" to believe and trust in God be man's own doing? Is our submission of faith considered to be a "good work?" We know that "a person is not justified by works of the law," so what then is the role of free will in our salvation? (Galatians 2:16) Would not belief itself need to be the Spirit's work for grace to remain grace? And if this is true --- that faith is the sum of God's redemptive work in our lives --- how can God condemn unbelief? It's a theological knot that has baffled theologians for thousands of years, with many of them drawing very different conclusions. Suffice to say, the implications are pervasive.
Now it is important to note that the question of free will and its relation to grace first invaded my blissful Catholic ignorance with the help of a few very well respected Protestant writers --- among them being Arthur Pink, RC Sproul, Martin Luther, and Charles Spurgeon. At the time, the doctrine of Divine Election was altogether foreign to me. I was thrown for a serious loop, and I plummeted into a period of deep confusion. I'm being completely serious --- Calvinist books should come with a bolded warning on the cover:
"MAY CAUSE CRISES OF FAITH. PROCEED WITH CAUTION."
I've decided I'm going to try and illustrate the Gospel for each Sunday. Who knows how long I'll keep this up, but it might be a good way for me to reflect on the readings each week.
This Sunday's reading was from John 20:19-31. We find the apostles huddled together in a locked room, disillusioned, afraid, and probably bitterly disappointed that Jesus wasn't who he claimed to be. Then all of a sudden, Jesus appears to the apostles with the soothing words: "Peace, be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you."
Meanwhile, we find out poor ol' Thomas somehow missed this apostolic shindig, and is understandably skeptical of their wild stories of a bodily-risen Christ. He boldly declares: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Next thing you know, Jesus lands on the scene again, and commands Thomas to do just that. This exchange is a profound moment. Thomas had to completely swallow his pride and confront the living truth --- in the most graphic, tactile sense imaginable. It's a fascinating glimpse into the mechanics of doubt, faith, and the availability of Christ's love and mercy.
I'm better than this. The words sound harmless enough, but I'm beginning to think my sinful habits find refuge in this deceptive sentiment. Lurking behind this well-wishing self-encouragement is the notion that I myself have "attained" a spiritual plateau; That I accomplished some feat, reached some plane, acquired some key unlocking the chains that bind me, and all of this on my own! The phrase "I'm better than this" subtly suggests that I am self-sufficient or that I am reliable. It whispers into my ear that I am a dependable, unbiased, and neutral judge of what is right and wrong, and even more importantly --- that I have the capabilities and resources to make those decisions solely by myself. But that's simply not true. I am altogether unreliable, and my track record proves it beyond any doubt.
A Guest Post by: David O'Neal
Just a few weeks ago, my church had its yearly Disciple Now weekend for the youth. For those of you not familiar, it is essentially an in-home weekend retreat for middle school and high school students. The students stay church members’ houses over the weekend, where sessions are held with a group leader, then meet at the church throughout the weekend for worship, to listen to a speaker, and to do a project to serve the community. I had the pleasure of being able to lead one of these groups and found the topic of the weekend to be a much needed reminder in my own life.
The theme of the weekend was being imitators of the Christ, with the main passage of Scripture coming from Ephesians 5:1-2 (ESV):
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
A Guest Post by: Kevin Riedel
In our day to day lives, we all encounter many different forms of love. Sometimes it comes as a friendly smile, a fraternal pat on the back, or a romantic kiss. Other times we see it as one person sharing in the joy of another, or an individual sacrificing his or her own good for that of someone else. Human love is bounded by time- it can come and go as the seasons of our lives pass. God’s love for us, however, is perpetual. At the moment of creation he blessed us with a free will, giving us the power to accept or deny his love. His love continued when he became man so that he might suffer and die for our sins. And to this very day, he still offers eternal salvation to every single one of us. Obtaining this salvation is really the best thing we can do with our lives, and we can get there by simply accepting and sharing in God’s love.
Even the strongest relationships hold mystery. Think of someone close to you- a friend, sibling, significant other. If we’re truthful with ourselves, we realize that we don’t know- we can’t know- everything about that person. We don’t know all of their thoughts, or their whereabouts at every single moment, or every detail of their past. Just like with human relationships, there is plenty of mystery surrounding God. After all, he is a much superior being compared to us. But do we give up on relationships because our knowledge of others is not omniscient? Of course not! We are able to fill in the gaps of our limited knowledge with faith, trusting beyond ourselves to others.
I feel I must be quite vulnerable for a moment, and ask all of my friends, family, co-workers, and acquaintances one sincere and simple request: Please be patient with me...
To be sure, patience is a charity I do not deserve, yet I feel I must be bold enough to expect it from you. And so I ask for forgiveness from all those I've ever wronged or led astray through my own fault. I beg for patience and understanding from anyone I have treated poorly by my carelessness. Whether I was condescending, rude, ignorant, immature, or unfairly harsh to you, I apologize. I ask this in full awareness of my public and private sin --- past and present. I simply ask for your patience. I do not require your excuses or pity. In fact I reject them entirely.
For I have learned that mere excuses lead to spiritual stagnation, and I refuse to be mastered by the "worldly sorrow that brings death." Rather I press on towards the "Godly sorrow" that "brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret." (2 Cor 7:10) No, I will not drown in guilt, though I do not deny the weight of recurring sin lies heavy on my conscience.
My Bible Study held a retreat this weekend at Bear Creek Lake Park, and it was a very insightful time in the wilderness with some great people. I hope everyone who was on the retreat grew in faith, and got to know friends, new and old, a little better.
The theme for the retreat was "Faith Over Fear," and the purpose of all of the talks and small group activities was to examine the different ways fear manifests itself in our lives, good and bad. On Friday night, I was thankful to have the opportunity to give a talk on the healthy kind of fear, aka the "Fear of the Lord." Sometimes it's hard to imagine what that breed of fear should even remotely look like in our lives, so I was really excited to get to write something on the topic. I will post the transcript here, along with some photos from the weekend.
My spirit is mutinous, and my mind refuses to be at peace within God's identity. I know what is just and true, for I believe and rely on the words, "Thy grace is sufficient." Yet my inward desires do not always reflect the beauty of this free gift I have accepted. The thoughts that plague me time and time again consume my mind -- they are dark, like a pit of despair. I frantically try filling this void in my soul with things unreal -- with objects apart from God Himself. These temptations are nearly too much to bear, and leave me unsatisfied. I am undone -- crippled by my inability to fully grasp God's grace and properly worship Him. I am repeatedly duped by wicked lies of failure and unworthiness. My eyes are blinded against the gracious gift set always before me. By sinful carelessness, my heart is hardened against the God I owe everything to.
Yet in spite of this shame and misery, there remains a most excellent way for you and me both -- a 'way' that slashes away the gloom and expels our doubts. At first this 'way' seems so simple, unassuming, and trite, yet it stands alone as the greatest of spiritual gifts. In those temporal moments where this 'way' reveals itself, all darkness is utterly destroyed. Sins that seemed at first insurmountable lose their grip. In these fleeting glimpses of truth, I boast in my weakness, and flourish despite my iniquities. I find my identity within this inexplicably excellent 'way,' for I trust Christ when He says, "I am the way and the truth and the life." It is my ultimate value, and whether you, the Reader, recognize it yet or not, this is your net worth as well. It's all we humans ever amount to.
"To receive all as a free gift preserves the mind from self-righteous pride, and from self-accusing despair. It makes the heart grow warm with grateful love, and thus it creates a feeling in the soul which is infinitely more acceptable to God than anything that can possibly come of slavish fear."
-Charles Spurgeon, All of Grace
I don't have any ideas for a big long article this afternoon, but this quote blew my mind wide open. It pretty much sums up everything I fumbled around with in my last post, Grace is Never Lenient. Spurgeon is officially the man. Anyways, I hope you all have a great weekend!