Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"There, But For the Grace of God..."

Partial Theological Truth in a Lost Conversation Piece

I don't know the first time I heard the statement, but I heard it a lot in the first third of my life, and a fair amount in the second two thirds thus far. I remember a number of older people in the church of my youth saying it, and hearing various presenters in talks, actors in roles, and people in conversations say it, even though some didn't seem to know what they were talking about.


You don't hear it very often today.


It's the rather dramatic statement: "There, but for the grace of God, go I."


I think it isn't used much anymore because the concept of the grace of God isn't well understood or even contemplated in our contemporary setting. I'm not sure that everyone who used the phrase in earlier years really understood what they were saying all that clearly.


For those of you unfamiliar with the saying and how it was used, it's pretty simple. In conversation, someone would mention a person known to all in the conversation who had just experienced a bad turn of events, or worse, created a bad turn of events that led to all sorts of negative consequences. Usually the speaker would describe the terrible results of the actions or choices of the person under discussion. As the description came to a close, the speaker, to make sure you did not assume that he (or she) was somehow enjoying this story of personal misfortune or gloating over someone else's pain, would say, somberly, "there, but for the grace of God, go I." What they usually meant was, "that could happen to me (or by extension, any of us)!"


Of course, in the realm of human hurts and tragedies, the statement is exactly right. We hear about cancer, and know it could come to us. We learn of someone making a decision that goes horribly wrong, and know that we could make just as bad a decision. And if we are humble enough, when we hear of a great sin committed by someone who knows God and thus knows better, we recognize that, in our own hearts lie the seeds of the very same sin, or sins very much the same in character. 
And the difference for all of us is the grace of God.


God's grace saves me, so that when others remain hardened in sin, die, and face the coming judgment without salvation, the only difference is grace.

God spares me some disease that others contract, or spares me the consequences of a stupid decision that has cost others greatly, or does not cause me to experience all the natural consequences that I could experience due to my sin. It's not because I deserve any of these things, but because of grace.


And so, any time I consider another's difficulties that I am not experiencing, I know that it is God's grace that has spared me.


And yet, this old saying is only partially true. For God's grace is also present and active when I do get the disease, or have to face the consequences of bad choices or sinful rebellion, or any of the negatives that others go through. I don't know if people meant it this way, but there was often a kind of pious sigh of relief in the statement, as if this sufferer wasn't as in touch with God's grace as the speaker. But that isn't necessarily true--perhaps the sufferer was someone with an especially close relationship to the Lord Jesus and his grace--after all, Paul said in Philippians 3 that knowing Christ intimately would be to enter "the fellowship of his sufferings." 


I can be sure that any and every good that I receive is a result of God's grace. But I should never forget that often it is in the sufferings and setbacks of providence, the crises and the consequences created by my own actions, and the heavy and hard times I go through that God's forgiving and enabling grace is most clearly seen: sustaining me, strengthening me, correcting me, and comforting me. 
Perhaps, sometimes I should say, with relief and gratitude, "there, but for the grace of God, go I."
And in the other times, I can say, "there, within the grace of God, go I."



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Starting and Ending Your Day with God

You know as well as I do that God never leaves or forsakes his people. He is always there. However, we can easily lose sight of that truth, and move through our days as if we are alone--sometimes liking it, sometimes not. I would like to suggest some steps I have found that help me begin and end my days with purposeful awareness of God and his nearness.

To begin, I seek to begin my day with thoughts of God. I do this before I even get out of my bed. I pray a prayer of love to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Then I try to think of one thing (or more) for which I can express gratitude to God--it can be something about creation (its beauty, enjoying the weather, the joy of sunrise), or a material blessing (my home, a job where I can support my family, my bed), or a spiritual blessing (my salvation, the Word, the ability to pray, forgiveness), or a relational blessing (my wife, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my co-workers). Obviously, it's not a long prayer, just one or two things to prompt gratitude for God's work in my life.

Next, I submit myself in prayer to God's purposes for my life today. I express my dependence in relationship to the Trinity--confessing my trust in the Father (often reciting Proverbs 3:5-6), my resolve to abide in Christ (quoting part or all of John 15:1-11 is the way I do it) and my commitment to walk in the Spirit (I recite Galatians 5:16). I commit the day to the Lord and commit myself to obey God's Word.

Here would be a sample:
"Father, today I want to tell you I love you as my Father. Lord Jesus, I love you--my Savior; and I love you, Holy Spirit, as you dwell in me and empower me. I thank you for the spring, which reminds me of the renewal of life, and eternal life that is mine and is coming. I submit myself to your purposes for me today. I trust you Father, and won't lean on my own understanding. I want to abide in you, Lord Jesus so that I would bear much fruit. Holy Spirit, help me walk in your ways and power today so I won't fulfill the lusts of the flesh. This is your day, not mine. By your grace, I will seek to obey your Word."

It takes about a minute. 

I get up, have my devotions (and my coffee), and head out for the gym and the rest of the day.

As my day ends, I also want God to be the last thing on my mind. So, I usually will either read a short passage, or more regularly now, review one of the passages I've read that day in my devotions. I try to think of a verse with a phrase or two that I want to make into a prayer to close my day. I will pray it and then repeat the verse or phrase over and over again as a final meditation as I am going to sleep. Ideally, it will be my last waking thought.

Here's an example. I read Psalm 56 today, and verse 3 says, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you." So my evening prayer might be, "Lord, even though things in the world today can be unsettling or frightening, when I might be tempted to be afraid, let me trust in you."

Then, as I am falling asleep, I repeat to myself, "When I am afraid, I will trust in you." Or maybe I just repeat, "I will trust in you." What a great assurance to have as I fall asleep.

This isn't original with me. I learned it from Ken Boa--I read it in one of his books and heard him share it at a conference. He probably got parts of it from others. I hope it will be an encouragement to those of you who might need something like this.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Enduring Hardship for the Great Commission

            I am often asked two sets of questions about the importance of global missions engagement for our church. The first set are easier: why do we spend what we do (currently about 20% of what we receive) on global missions; why do we support some missionaries and not others; isn't everyone a missionary? These are important questions, and I have ready answers for all of them. But those are for later.

            Today, I want to turn my attention to the more important questions that are often thought, but not always verbalized: should we knowingly go into situations that are not safe?  And should our missionaries continue to stay in places where they might face difficulties, persecution, and death?  These questions reflect a way of thinking that tends to characterize American Christianity.  Thoughts of danger or death and the will of God do not go together in our minds.  “God’s will is pleasant,” we seem to think.  It involves ease and comfort, and prosperity would be nice, too. 

We have forgotten that Jesus said to his disciples, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10: 16).  Paul wrote, “For to you it has been granted for Christ's sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…” (Philippians 1:29).  Peter exhorted his readers, “For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps…” (1 Peter 2:21).

I still cannot get out of my head hearing Dr. Josef Tson’s powerful message at a conference almost 20 years ago.  A Baptist pastor from Romania, Dr. Tson escaped from there to pursue theological training, and then went back to Romania, where he faced constant threats, persecution, arrest, and finally deportation after 20 years of preaching the gospel.  It had been hard to escape, yet he gave up freedom to go back to oppression.  As he faced possible death, his wife encouraged him to face it bravely for Christ.  They did not flee their homeland but stayed until forced to leave.  

He said to those of us attending the conference that he thought it was interesting that American Christians seem so concerned to know whether or not they will go through the Tribulation, while believers in other parts of the world think they have been in it for 2,000 years!  I have often wondered whether the passionate commitment to “pre-tribulation rapture” thinking (and that is my position) of many in America is due more to a theological conviction or a fear of persecution. 

God’s will is dangerous to a life of comfort and ease in this world.  It should not fit in with the dominant culture.  Going to places where gospel preaching is not tolerated will add to the difficulty.  Such ventures, though, are part and parcel of the fulfillment of the Great Commission and have been readily embraced by true believers down through the centuries.  We can do no less than taking our turn in answering the hymn writer's questions:

Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own his cause or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize or sailed through bloody seas?
Are there no foes for me to face, must I not stem the flood?
Is this vile world a friend to grace to help me unto God?
Sure, I must fight if I would reign; increase my courage, Lord!
I’ll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy Word.
-----Isaac Watts-----

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Broken Up People

Why do we hurt those who are already hurting?

[The following was a pastoral note I wrote to the congregation of my church a number of weeks ago, as I was dealing with a few situations that reminded me of a few other situations, and there you go. We have a very healthy body, but as with any family, we have people of varying maturities and understandings, and we're all quite fallible--so this note was prompted. This was an attempt by a fallible pastor to address a problem that can occur enough (and once feels like too much) to warrant warning and/or correction. It's not unusual (although it is rare) for me to do this, so for those of you reading this who are not a part of our family, let this preface set some context.]

The body of Christ is called to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2). What is the law of Christ? One clear answer is the "new commandment" He gives in John 13:34--"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another." This is who we are supposed to be. And many times, we are. There have been occasions beyond my numbering when I (and many of you) have been encouraged by the love and support of members of the body here at Grace. And as a church, we have sometimes had to do the hard work of loving confrontation, and even discipline. Thankfully, most times never go far, and bring reconciliation. This kind of loving involvement and encouragement is very special indeed. It is a proof that we are Christ's followers (see v. 35). It is a measure of the reality of having known the love of Christ ourselves. It is beautiful.

But it isn't universal. In recent days I have talked with or been made aware of multiple situations in our fellowship where families who are hurting have a big fear: the harsh words and judgments (potential or already experienced) of their fellow Christians in the midst of these painful circumstances. The circumstances are widely divergent, but the fear is the same, and the sad reality is that there is some basis for expecting the worst. In fact, a few already have, either in the past, or sadly, even here more recently.

Let me ask you this: have there ever been circumstances in your life where you had to take actions, or deal with the consequences of others' actions, and in doing so you knew that there would be people who would misjudge your situation, cast blame because they didn't know the whole story, or rush to tell others of what they perceived as your failure to do what was best? If that has ever happened to you, then you know what it feels like. But unfortunately, a few of us seem all too ready to believe the worst about one another, and then share it with those who may not be in the loop.

What makes this especially troublesome is that I have found some of the people who do the talking about others have experienced, in their own lives, large hurts and pains that they do an excellent job of concealing or denying--situations where they would be mortified if anyone knew about them.

I only write what I write because I have been made aware, not just of these situations, but of some of the harsh words that Christian brothers and sisters have used--sometimes directly to the sufferer, and sometimes to others about the sufferer, that have been ill-advised, judgmental, loveless, and even cruel. I can't know the motives of such questioners, but I do know the effects of their questions.

I don't want to violate the privacy of those who are hurting, so let me give some general examples of what we ought not to be saying:

1. The mother whose toddler is throwing a tantrum does not need to be told, in love, in that moment, "She just needs a firm hand!"

2. The parent whose teen is rebelling does not need to be reminded that had they "trained up" their child in the way he should go, they wouldn't be having these problems. And adding how you instilled Christian virtues in your children through rigorous scripture memorization isn't helpful at the moment, either.

3. The newly divorced person isn't looking for your relationship advice on how to get their partner back, or your sage observations on what went wrong, or your conclusions on whether they would ever have the right to remarry.

4. The man who just lost his job can do without your stories about how your work ethic made it impossible for anyone to let you go.

5. The couple that suffers a miscarriage doesn't need to be told right then that the baby is fine in heaven and after all, he may have been a terrible person so God is probably sparing you heartache later.

6. The friend of the person going through a painful circumstance isn't wanting all sorts of well meaning, probing questions about the problem in the midst of the crisis, such as, "why do you think this happened" or "how is your friend, really?"  When you have never asked how this person's friend is before, but now seem to want a play by play description of what is going on, you are not helping the person or the friend.

And none of the imagined sufferers above are relying on you to pass on your judgments or concerns to others so that they too can join in seeing how mistaken they were!

I've actually heard variations of the above comments in these kinds of situations. These are NOT what I've heard recently. Sadly, some of the things I've heard are worse.

Have people who are in hard circumstances never done wrong, contributed to their problem, or never need counsel? Of course that is not the case. In some of these situations, there would be a place and a need for counsel and instruction, and perhaps even repentance if sin has been committed. But such counsel should come from those who have earned the right through demonstrated spiritual maturity, love and support over time to enter a situation, and who demonstrate the ability to sympathize. Even Job's lousy counselors knew that sitting quietly with him for a week was the right first step, even if their advice and judgments were as bad as what I've just suggested.

Let's commit to a better way of doing things--Christ's preferred way of love. Let's do all we can always to assume the best (love believes all things and hopes all things). When we hear about a problem, let's ask, "how could I be a blessing" to the people who are hurting. Let's not think that we always know the whole story of a circumstance where there is an obvious problem. Let's not make it our aim to assign blame in troubled situations, but to bring the comfort of Jesus to our brother or sister. Let's keep confidences, and not be what the Bible calls a "tale-bearer" (who "reveals secrets"). Let's assume the elders may already be at work in the situation, and if you are sure they are not, a discreet mention to one of us that a situation might need our help could be all that's needed. If someone is obviously floundering and desperate, consider coming along side, praying for God's peace and help, and then perhaps offering to go with them to one of the elders for prayer or counsel or help.

I know that this is not what you want to read. It's not what I wanted to share. And I don't believe that it reflects the actions or hearts of the vast majority of our family here at Grace. But when even only a handful of people act in ways that are hurtful, the ripples can spread the pain to many others. Instead, let's set up what the old youth chorus sang about--"waves of mercy, waves of grace."

And to the vast number of you to whom this does not apply, can I encourage you to pray with me that even the slightest hint of this kind of insensitivity can be overcome with the love and encouragement that can flow from God to the hurting through the rest of us?