Category Archives: Grace

“Hidden Christmas”

There are some things that just go without saying. Or at least, we think they do.

The world is round. Gravity makes things fall (unless you’re on a moonwalk). Never shake a soft drink container.

But we haven’t always known these things. At some point in our lives, someone told us these truths for the first time—and sometimes we didn’t believe it the first time we heard it. Like the investors of Colombus’ day, doubting the likelihood of a round earth, we question something that sounds…shocking.

However, once we have decided it is true, these facts eventually lose their wonder. It no longer shocks our socks off to think of our planet turning on its axis as it spins around a giant burning star. We take it for granted.

Just like that, we lose our amazement to things that truly are amazing. Unfortunately, this is what we do every December. Continue reading “Hidden Christmas”

For the Fools We Are

Jesus once said that anyone who hears His words but doesn’t apply them in life is a fool; someone like that might as well be building their house on the beach with only shifting sand to hold it up (Matthew 7:26). In another parable, He told the story of a rich man who made plans as if he could guarantee his own future—but died that night (Luke 12:20). Another fool.

In the first eleven verses of Proverbs 26, there are ten unflattering references to fools and the choices they make. But before we rest in our self-righteousness, we read there’s more hope for a fool than for some of us.

Surely not us, right? We remind ourselves that we know what we are doing and we know how to make wise decisions and avoid foolish choices. We convince ourselves we’re really not that far off from the goal—not realizing how close our steps come to the edge of the precipice.

“Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him” (Proverbs 26:12).

Wisdom Never Comes From Us

Ask most Sunday School teachers about wisdom and they’ll point you to the book of Proverbs. Israel’s King Solomon, possessing “wisdom and understanding beyond measure” (1 Kings 4:29-30), wrote out common-sense sayings full of wisdom for whoever would listen to take to heart.

At first it all seems easy enough: Read the book, follow the rules, make common-sense decisions, and you will succeed beyond any fool who doesn’t listen. This is where we usually think we have it figured out.

“‘Who has made man’s mouth?’” God thundered after Moses’ list of excuses (Exodus 4:11), and we know He gave us even more than that. Who gave us any ability to think and reason and learn? Where did we get common sense, or even the guiding principles in the Bible itself? “What do you have that you did not receive?” Paul asked the Corinthians. “If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7)

While all this is true, we forget something even deeper than the source of our common sense. Perhaps we’ve reached the highest point of foolishness when we weigh all our “wisdom” and think it can get us home.

What is Wisdom? Really?

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” Solomon wrote (Proverbs 9:10). Too bad he forgot that.

Solomon’s wisdom was so great that it drew attention from far countries, yet he foolishly threw away his own kingdom by letting his heart stray from honoring God. He followed other gods and left the only God who gave him his kingdom and his wisdom.

Solomon’s problem wasn’t just that he acted without wisdom—he left the Source of the wisdom he had.

In the beginning of his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul points out that all the wisdom in the world never led anyone to God.

“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

Like Solomon who—despite his unsurpassed wisdom—left God for lesser things, all of our human reasoning and ideas don’t get us any closer to God. All the arguments and reasonings and writings and speeches of experts and philosophers and any other human beings never get us anywhere we need to go. All our collective wisdom is pointless.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.” Solomon was right, even if he didn’t always live what he wrote. It is only through accepting our complete inability to find wisdom on our own and then trusting in the truth He has revealed that we will ever have any true wisdom.

When we do that, it won’t look like “wisdom” to most people.

Become a Fool

“Let no one deceive himself,” Paul wrote to the Corinthians. “If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise…” (1 Corinthians 3:18-23).

There are only two paths, just two choices. Wide and the narrow. Building on sand or building on solid rock. Following the world and its dead ways or following the living God. If we choose the narrow path, with its rocky terrain and walls on each side, we will probably look like fools to most people. Are we ready for that? Are we prepared to be called a fool (or some other name) in order to follow the narrow path and truly become wise?

When the world’s idea of common sense diverts from what we know is God’s leading, the only wise thing to do is silence the call of the crowd and build on rock instead of sand. When we walk away from our own “wisdom” and embrace the words of God, as foolish as we may look to others (and sometimes feel ourselves), we are wiser than we ever were on our own.

Hope

Jesus told a story of two men praying at the temple. One, a self-righteous teacher of Jews, prayed with pomp and pride and puffiness, reminding God that he was actually a pretty good person if you look at it right. A tax collector stood next to him, despised by his fellow citizens and essentially excommunicated by religious leaders, offering a simple prayer:

“‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13b)

The tax collector wasn’t pretending to humbly refuse what he secretly felt he had earned, but was bluntly acknowledging truths he admitted he saw in himself. This wasn’t false humility or even common sense, but a right understanding of himself, of God, and of mercy. And wisdom.

We will never be as wise as we sometimes think we are, and that’s okay. There is hope for all of us in the encompassing and inescapable love of God and His gentle guidance. He knows our failings, loves us anyway, and leads us by still waters so as not to throw us off (see Psalm 23). As we go about each day, making foolish decisions and forgetting wiser options, His grace never changes or runs out and He never changes His mind about us. We are wiser in this path of grace than on any road of common sense.

Father, be merciful to all of us sinners. All of us fools.

What Are You Seeking?

Five hundred years ago today was October 31, 1517. Michelangelo had finished painting the Sistine Chapel five years earlier, and practically everyone would still believe that the earth was the center of our solar system for another twenty-six years (and most people would still think so even after that). Christopher Columbus had discovered the Americas twenty-five years earlier, and the first pilgrims wouldn’t land at Plymouth Harbor for another 103 years. It was a time of religious wars and Black Plague.

October 31, 1517, was a day the world began to change.

The Reformation

After the days of the early church, as recorded in Acts, Christianity continued to grow. By the 1500s, the European church was headquartered in Rome, Italy, under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but what likely began with pious intentions had spiraled out of control and even common sense.

The Church taught that its own leaders held even higher authority than the Word of God, and the pope was believed to have the power to forgive sins. Common people were denied access to biblical knowledge and even the Bible itself, with all church services performed in scholarly Latin instead of the common language and rare copies of the Bible (also in Latin) kept away from the people—sometimes even chained to tables in monasteries. Church leaders often lived in great wealth, benefitting off of the poor of the land and through tricks such as “indulgences” marketed as spiritual but really invented in order to bring in more money.

The church needed a reformation.

On October 31, 1517, an exasperated monk walked up to the church in Wittenburg, Germany, pulled out a list of 95 complaints against the church, and nailed it to the door. And Martin Luther ignited the Reformation.

Forever Changed

Through the coming years and even decades, the Church underwent a sharp and drastic change, creating a permanent split between what is still known as the Catholic Church and the newer preaching of old doctrines known as Protestantism. Luther and others began preaching from the Bible to the people, sharing with them biblical truths that had long been hidden from them. Central doctrines were rediscovered as reformers taught that only God can forgive sins, that Jesus is our only Mediator, and that money can never buy salvation.

Like the Pharisees before them, the Roman Catholic leaders of the day fought back, charging reformers with heresy and condemning those they could to death. But God was stirring up this rediscovery of His grace, and the Gospel spread.

The Reformation is often summarized by the Five Solas: Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Sola Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria. In other words, Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Christ Alone, and To God Alone Be Glory.

It was the “Alone” that mattered. Before 1517, the Church believed in Scripture, grace, faith, Christ, and the glory of God, but it also taught that man’s works must be added to the mix in order to ensure eternal life and acceptance by God. This lie was blown to pieces by the writing and preaching and testimonies of the reformers.

More than Doctrine

But the Reformation was about more than being right theologically. It wasn’t just about changing outward appearances of religion or exchanging one dead system of works for another.

“So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell,” Martin Luther wrote, “tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

It was about seeking God Himself.

If it was only about preaching correctly the minute parts of doctrines and the Scriptures as an end in itself, the Reformation would have succeeded in truth but failed in changing hearts. As Jesus told the Pharisees fifteen centuries earlier:

“‘You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life’” (John 5:39-40).

Through the Reformation, we came to understand again that Christianity is not about obeying a set of rules and earning our own salvation. What a sad and joyless way to live. No—in Christianity, we are invited to follow the Creator God who refuses to be boxed into any system, to know the Savior who gave Himself for our debt when we could never ever have paid it, and to enjoy true life forever.

The doctrines are important. The Scriptures are vital. But they point to God, not to themselves, and call every person to seek God while he can.

Before We Seek Him, He Seeks Us

God could have hidden Himself from us. He could have stayed out of our reach, as the Pharisees and medieval church leaders and so many others have tried to tell us.

But He came.

God Himself came to us, flipping our expectations and turning all our assumptions on their heads—and seeking us. He didn’t wait for us to find some secret key or follow the hidden clues. He didn’t speak in unintelligible code through a shrouded group of prideful elites and bar the rest of humanity from attaining His presence.

He invited all of us to seek Him, and promises He will be found when we do. Not because we check everything off of someone else’s list, but because He loves us and came for us–and died for us.

Five hundred years ago today, one lowly monk in a German village nailed a list of 95 complaints against the medieval church on a church door. Through his efforts, a Reformation was ignited that has revolutionized Christianity since, and the question still stands for each of us:

What—or Who—are you seeking?

“The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard”

It’s a question that has shipwrecked many on their way to faith. If God is good, it always starts, why is there suffering? Why do people hurt? Why do babies die and families fall apart and senseless things happen? Why is there so much sadness?

The question begs for an answer, but needs something deeper than a logical response. It needs hope. From someone who has weathered pain and hard and suffering, but still has hope.

Unexpected

Kara Tippetts’ story in The Hardest Peace: Expecting Grace in the Midst of Life’s Hard opens with a less-than-perfect childhood, with parents who loved her but didn’t always act with love. Jesus found her in high school, and forgiving her parents was an early step in her new life. Fumbling through her young Christianity, she met and married Jason, and they had plans for the future—their future—but it never went the way they expected. In her 30s, Kara was diagnosed with cancer. Their dreams of church-planting and ministry and doing life together changed with doctor visits and chemo and pain and weakness.

Kara Tippetts died of cancer on March 22, 2015. Her words are still here, though she isn’t, and her story of suffering and seeking God in the midst of it spurs us on to find Him in our own hard things—in our own whys.

We Don’t Write Our Stories

No one ever has time for cancer. Just when things seem to finally be falling into place or life has found that elusive equilibrium, the disease announces its presence and all those other things stop in their tracks. Jason and Kara had just moved with their four children to Colorado Springs to plant a church, and they were full of big dreams and plans—good dreams and plans—to drive a stake in the ground of their corner of the world and claim it for Jesus. They were going to do good things, big things.

“Before cancer, I would have said I was on the journey of seeking grace, but in truth I was manufacturing my own faith. If I found a need, I did my best to meet it. My going, doing, loving was my faith, not my nearness to Jesus. In my mind I knew my efforts weren’t the substance of my faith, but my practice betrayed me. Stripped of my ability, I saw Jesus in a new and profound way.” – Kara Tippetts

Jason and Kara would still do good things. Even some big things. Things like write a blog that eventually had 10,000-20,000 daily visits. Write books. Care for their children. Share their story—even when it wasn’t what they had planned. And it was through never-expected, never-chosen cancer that they stood toe-to-toe with the fact that they were not writing their story. The good things God had for them were not what they had picked, but they were still good.

“I come to you in these pages as a broken woman, realizing that my brokenness may be my greatest strength—that it may be the greatest strength of us all…My season of weakness has taught me the joy of receiving, the strength of brokenness, and the importance of looking for God in each moment.” – Kara Tippetts

Life. Is. Hard.

Some may blame Disney, and others Tootsie Pop Lollipops, but the desire to seek and find satisfying conclusions and happy endings is wired deeper in our humanity than inventions of the last few generations. We want things to turn out right. We want God’s presence to mean the hard things go away, like a child who knows their nighttime fear will evaporate if they could only be with Mommy or Daddy.

That’s what so many of us look for, even though that usually isn’t what happens.

And it’s there in that disappointment that we usually slip up, choose a Christianese answer, and flippantly explain away heartwrenching tragedy. We say “God has a plan” or “everything happens for a reason,” and go back to normal life if we can. We’re not wrong. But we’re far from completely right.

Life is hard, sometimes breathtakingly so. To baptize it with one-liners without feeling the depths of that pain is not only naïve, it’s—wrong.

“What if there is never an end? What if the story never improves and the tests continue to break our hearts? Is God still good? How does our story of love change when we look head-on at my absence from this life? How do you live realistically when you feel like your moments are fading, fleeting, too momentary? How do you fight for normal in the midst of the crushing daily news of more hard? How do you seek hope without forgetting reality?” – Kara Tippetts

We don’t have to deny that life hurts in order to have hope. Our hope in Jesus is firm because even when life hurts, Jesus is still there, still in control, and still good.

As Christians, we know that even if we still face our scariest scary—God is good.

“My hope is not in the absence of suffering and comfort returned. My hope is in the presence of the One who promises never to leave or forsake, the One who declares nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:39). Nothing.” – Kara Tippetts

No Easy Answers

In this world we will have trouble. All of us. Just like everyone else who has ever lived. The whys are hard, and there is no easy answer. No complete understanding.

But we do know what God has faithfully shown us before: He is good—now and through eternity, in each and every story He has written. We can bank our hope on this, that Jesus who suffered horrific pain on that cross all those years ago will never give us a trite answer or leave us in the midst of our pain.

What we see as brokenness or tragedy will one day be reintroduced to us as His glorious redemption of our pain. Kara Tippets lives that reality in its fullest glory now, and one day we will, too. Until then, we remember how she shared her life and story with the world, inviting us to follow Jesus through all the whys and pain and hard questions to a marvelous eternity we can’t begin to imagine.

“Grace; it’s all grace. Jesus will be there; He will be wooing, loving, meeting my love, my babies, my community, my family, and you long past the day my words run out that beg you to look for grace—that long for you to know Jesus. Really know His love. It’s His story, not mine. It’s His grace extended, not mine. I have only been a steward of that grace, a simple namer of His unbelievably reckless love that shows up for one broken woman every single day.” – Kara Tippetts

Why Are We So Afraid?

“Hey, Erica! I was hoping to see you today.”

Erica turned to see Chloe coming up behind her in the church foyer. “Oh, hi, Chloe.”

“I wanted to show you something,” Chloe handed Erica a piece of paper.

Erica looked it over. “A piano contest?”

“It’s more than a recital; it’s a songwriting contest. You come up with a song and some lyrics and then play it and sing it at the contest. I showed it to Ashley and she thought you’d be perfect for it!”

“So there’d be people judging me?”

“I know it can be a little nerve-racking at first, but you’ll do great. I can help you practice, if you want.”

“I don’t know, Chloe. That sounds…” Erica hesitated.

Chloe smiled. “Think about it. You can let me know next Sunday if you want. I really think you’d be great at it, Erica!”

Erica re-read the paper as Chloe walked away. Singing one of my songs. In front of judges. And an audience.

She folded the paper and stuck it in her pocket. Not likely.

Good Enough?

We live in constant fear that others will see us for the frauds we feel we are. We’re afraid they’ll think we don’t measure up. That we’re not good enough.

News flash, friends. We don’t measure up. And we’ll never be good enough.

All the self-help books and feel-good motivational posters we can read will never bury this inescapable truth: You and I are not good enough. Whether the people around us tell us so or not, it’s true. We fail, make mistakes, and look ridiculous. Sometimes all in the same day. Even in our best moments we’re mired down by memories of past mistakes and fear of future ones.

It’s time to face the music. We’re scared of being found out.

But what if we already have been?

The Bible Says…

We spend so much time worrying about the thoughts going through other people’s minds. Other people. People just like us. What about the thoughts and plans of the God who made us?

Our mind-reading attempts on other people rarely land us anywhere productive (or even accurate), and it is even more ridiculous to think we could ever guess the thoughts of God. In an extraordinary gesture of kindness, God wrote His thoughts down, and gave them to us.

We don’t have to wonder.

God knows us and everything we try to hide.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5).

“And he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts’” (Luke 16:15).

“Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:7-10).

“For he knows the secrets of the heart” (Psalm 44:21).

We have nothing good in us.

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

“For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4).

“And you were dead in the trespasses and sins  in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Ephesians 2:1-3).

Can’t Get the Medicine Without the Diagnosis

The Bible seems to agree with our self-assessment on our bad days. We have so much we want to hide, but we can’t—God sees it all. Ironically, though, it is only through acknowledging these hard truths about ourselves that we begin to find a way out.

The secret to our fears of insufficiency is knowing they are true: We are messed up.

BUT.

It is one of the most hope-filled words in the Bible. But. Here those three letters remind us that our future isn’t determined by our past or even our present, but by the all-powerful God who is writing our stories.

“…[W]ash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7).

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

“But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:8-9).

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:4-8).

Like a doctor who knows his patient’s only hope is through radical medical intervention, God tells us the truth about our hearts. And then He provides the antidote. Because of the free gift of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can be whole and clean and perfect and complete.

God has seen our deepest, darkest secrets – even things no one else knows about – and knows just how dark and twisted and bad we are.

But He didn’t leave.

All of these fears we have that people will decide we aren’t worth their time and walk away?

We are not worth God’s time. But He isn’t leaving.

He paid the debt for our darkness by giving His own Son, and freely offers to accept us as His own. His adopted children.

All of those fears and insecurities have no basis anymore. We have been made alive! We have been given the perfect righteousness of Christ! We are loved by God!

And when God is for us, “who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

The thoughts and opinions of man hold no weight when we have been uber-generously given the acceptance of God. We have every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 13-4). We are children of God (1 John 3:1).

We are free. Free from trying to measure up or resting on our own abilities to be enough. Free from bondage to others’ expectations or our own goals. Free to live for the God who rescued us—and for Him alone.

“So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).