Marriage, Lust, and Difficult Beauty

The beauty of godliness is that it stands under pressure. Godly men and women don’t shrink back in the face of adversity; they rise up. They trust God and love others even when it is hard. They rejoice, endure, and hope in suffering as God strengthens them by his love (Rom 5:3-5).  God is glorified when his people stand under pressure, and he is at work fashioning us into men and women with that kind of character.

The ugliness of sin is that it can only do what is easy. It offers cheap joy, but makes us into people who crumble at the slightest pressure. It gleams like a valuable jewel at first, but slowly poisons our character. Sin destroys our ability to do anything worthwhile by destroying our ability to do anything that is hard. It erodes our courage to love and saps our strength to sacrifice. It makes us pathetic, weak, and boring. The more we understand the diverging destinations of these two paths, the more we will prefer the hard road of holiness over the easy road of sin.

In this article, I want to apply this idea to our battle against lust. In particular, I want to contrast the difficult beauty of God’s design for sex within marriage with the empty promises of lust. My hope is that as we see the wisdom and goodness of God’s way, we will learn to not just fight lust, but to truly prefer purity in our hearts.

Wedding

The  Difficult Beauty of Marital Intimacy – 

In his excellent book, The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller shares a quote from author W.H. Auden:

“Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate”

What does Auden mean? He means that while romance may feel invincible in its early stages, it is still shallow and fragile. When you’re swept up in powerful emotions, it’s easy to serve your significant other and look past his or her faults. It’s easy to make sacrifices and big promises. But you still have an idealized picture of the other person. You’re still carried along by the rush that the one you love loves you in return.

Marriage takes that initial love and tests it with time, circumstances, and each spouse’s personal failures. As time goes on, feelings fade and faults emerge. Hardships strain the relationship. At times, affection for the other spouse might seem to vanish all together. But the difficulty of marriage, Keller and Auden argue, produces an “infinitely more interesting” — an infinitely more worthwhile, beautiful, and desirable — kind of love. Why? Because marital love is forged through blood, sweat, and tears. It grows through self-denying commitment and sacrificial love. It is carefully cultivated with patience, perseverance, and prayer. And because of that, marital love is far deeper and more mature than that of any passionate affair.

Keller, reflecting on how his relationship with his wife has grown over time, writes this:

When Kathy first held my hand, it was an almost electric thrill. Thirty-seven years later, you don’t get the same buzz out of holding your wife’s hands that you did the first time…[but] there is no comparison between that and what it means to hold Kathy’s hand now, after all we’ve been through. We know each other thoroughly now; we have shared innumerable burdens, we have repented, forgiven, and been reconciled to each other over and over again…When over the years someone has seen you at your worst, and knows you will all your strength and flaws, yet commits him- or herself to you wholly, it is a consummate experience…To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial.To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is…what we need more than anything.

Something resonates in me when I hear Keller describe his relationship with his wife. There is something so right about this kind of love — a love forged in difficulty that strengthens us for any difficulty. Somewhere deep inside I know I am made to love and be loved in this way. And, at root, I recognize that this is because marital love in its purest form is a “lot like being loved by God”

The Difficult Beauty of Physical Intimacy

It is important to understand marriage because God designed sex to mirror both the difficulty and beauty of the marriage relationship. If we are to experience the joys of being united in sex, God tells us we must also embrace the hard work of marriage. We must relinquish our freedom and be “willing to unite with [a] person emotionally, personally, socially, economically, and legally” through the marriage vow. Once we are married, we must put in the hard work that makes true intimacy possible — the sacrifice, the selflessness, the repentance and reconciliation.

But within this context of committed love, sex becomes something beautiful and meaningful. Keller continues:

…Indeed, sex is perhaps the most powerful God-created way to help you give your entire self to another human being. Sex is God’s appointed way for two people to reciprocally say to one another, “I belong completely, permanently, and exclusively to you.” You must not use sex to say anything less

Physical intimacy reflects the deep intimacy of the marriage relationship. Just as the couple has joined themselves in every area of life and become one, in sex they experience deep joy in joining physically and becoming one flesh. Just as each spouse places the others interest above his or her own, in sex each selflessly seeks to bring enjoyment to the other (1 Cor 7:3-5). Just as in marriage there is joy in being fully known and truly loved, in sex husband and wife experience joy in being naked and unashamed (Gen 2).

God’s, in his design for marriage and sex, takes our fragile love and makes it strong. We enter marriage as selfish people who struggle to love when our feelings falter, or when trials come, or when our spouse lets us down. But through the crucible of marriage, God makes us into people who can love and stay committed through every obstacle. Marriage creates beautiful character in us. In Keller’s words, it “liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us

Now, compare all of this with the cheap pleasure of lust. Lust promises an easy and endless supply of instant gratification. It is divorced from relationship so it requires none of the sacrifices or hard work of commitment. It allows us to be selfish and isolated while still enjoying the pleasures of sex. It offers an escape from the difficulties and pressures of life. But it comes at the cost of our character. Lust destroys our ability to commit to a real life person who is imperfect and inconvenient. It destroys our ability to see those of the opposite gender as image bearers of God, not objects for our selfish desires.

The Difficult Beauty of Purity

If you’re like me, you might be thinking to yourself, “Well, that’s all well and good for married people but what about those of us who are single?” It’s easy for us as single people to envy our married friends. After all, while married couples must fight for purity, they can fight together with the one they love. They are able to enjoy the hard-fought benefits of physical and relational intimacy. But single people must fight for purity alone without a guarantee of ever being married.

But that question misses the point. Marriage and singleness are different. Marriage has its own unique difficulties (think about that married guy who doesn’t play basketball with you anymore) and singleness has its own unique benefits (go read 1 Corinthians 7). Regardless of whether we follow God’s design through marriage or chastity, obedience to God is better and more beautiful than lust.

Like marriage, fighting for purity as a single person is difficult. The tempter often comes when we feel most overwhelmed and lonely. In our weakness, he offers us an escape from the painful realities of life in a moment of pleasure. He offers control and power for our feelings of frustration, inadequacy, and insecurity. God’s way is so restrictive, he whispers, who would blame you for giving in? Life is so hard. You deserve it. Just this one time. No one will ever know.

And yet, as I understand the meaning of marriage, I realize that purity, even as a single person, is so much more beautiful than the enemy’s lies. Marriage and chastity produce the same godly character in us as we trust God. Both produce courage and sacrificial love. Both teach us to die to ourselves and consider others more important. Both build our ability to hold on to convictions and commitments even when circumstances are hard. And because of that, both marriage and chastity are equally beautiful in God’s sight, and should be in ours too.

Slowly, I am learning it is much better to turn to God and wait on him when I feel faint. It is much better to trust him to either provide a spouse or sustain me in my singleness. It is much better to treat my sisters with dignity and respect, especially when no one is watching.

Someday, Lord willing, I hope to be husband. If and when that day comes, I must be a man of character. I don’t become that kind of person over night or simply by getting married. I am forming my character right now . Nor am I waiting until marriage to exercise committed sacrificial love. God calls me to practice and grow in that kind of love now, in actively serving others and fighting temptation.

Difficult Beauty and the Good TensionThe more I understand the beauty of holiness, the more I want to pursue purity and leave behind sin. However, at the same time, I am painfully aware of how helpless I am to follow God’s design. I want to be steadfast in trials, but I am swept to and fro by the tides of circumstance. I want to be selfless, but constantly find that I am selfish. I want to learn to commit unconditionally, but instead see my tendency to draw back when others have nothing to offer me.

I find myself in the tension between loving what is right but finding myself unable to carry it out. And yet, I think it is good to live in this tension. Why?

First, this tension reminds me constantly that God is good and I am not. In his good design for marriage, I see that he is the Good Designer who perfectly demonstrates sacrificial and committed love at the cross in the face of the greatest adversity. As I labor weakly to imitate this difficult love, I gain a fresh appreciation of how hard it must be to love me. And as I fail over and over again, I experience from God the very thing I am unable to do — as I fail to show committed and sacrificial love, he shows me committed and sacrificial love.

Second, this tension reminds me that I must depend completely on him for strength. If godliness was easy, I could do it by myself. If godliness wasn’t beautiful, I could pursue another way. But godliness is impossibly difficult, yet irresistibly beautiful, so it draws me to God, the only one who can give me the strength to do what he commands. And because he gives the strength, he gets the glory in leading me to what is good.

By living in this tension and letting it direct us to God for forgiveness and strength, God can begin slowly reforming our hearts. Lust often feels like an insurmountable obstacle. Like no matter how far we run, it will eventually drag us back into its pit. However, as we trust in God, he can change us to love what he loves, and hate what he hates. He can give us the power to put lust to death.

Difficult Beauty in the Big Picture –  Finally, I’ve found it helpful to take this pattern of difficult beauty which we see in marriage and apply it beyond our battle against lust. We’ve seen that the root cause of lust is a failure to trust God in hardship to provide for our needs and be our joy. That is what breaks marriages apart. That is why we give in to lust. When the going gets tough, we doubt God and resort to our selfish, self-protective ways.

Lust is one symptom of this deeper problem, but this root manifests itself in many different ways besides lust. Two months ago, I wrote about how I resort to cynicism to protect myself from getting hurt. Last month, I wrote about how I resort to procrastination when I feel overwhelmed and fearful. And beyond that, I can think of countless other escapes I turn to in order to deal with adversity.

All of these sins follow the same pattern of lust. They promise an easier way: a way to protect myself, a way to shy away from hardship. But they are always hollow. They fail to produce joy or character in us. Whereas God takes us straight into the heart of the storm, but his way ultimately produces lasting joy and character.

It’s helpful for me to see lust in the big picture. For me, it’s easy to make lust the central issue of sanctification. So that if I’m doing well with purity, I feel close to God but if I’m doing poorly, I’m despondent. But understanding the deeper root of lust shows me that I’m not necessarily doing well just because I haven’t fallen into temptation. I must look where I’m turning to when I’m under pressure. I must see if I’m exercising courage and love in other areas of life.

And when I fail in purity, understanding the root problem helps me to have a deeper repentance instead of just a hazy cloud of guilt and shame. It helps me to examine why I gave in to lust and how that reveals areas in my life where I am failing to trust God. At the same time, seeing the root cause helps me to have a deeper repentance for sins I might otherwise be apathetic about. More “respectable” sins like fear, anxiety, or cynicism which are less obvious, but just as damaging to my relationship with God.

Not only that, I can take the lessons learned from this post and apply it other areas of my life. When I am lazy, for example, I can learn to see the beauty of faithful hard work and the emptiness of sin. I can grow in my appreciation of God who is perfect in all his attributes. I can lean on his strength to help me in my weakness and for forgiveness when I fail. And, through his grace, he can help me to change.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Foot Forward: Productivity in our Weakness

Recently, I came across this quote in an article:

Overall, the vast majority of your life’s results comes…from small behaviors, repeated thousands of times over the decades.

I thought the quote encapsulated something I had been thinking about for a while, namely, the importance of our habits. Most important goals in life cannot be reached quickly or all at once. They require time and good habits, wherein we work steadily towards an end, accomplishing a little each day. We chop bit by bit at the metaphorical tree until it comes crashing down. Time by itself, without good habits, will accomplish nothing for us. You will not get your degree, or get married, or get the job you want, simply by waiting and letting time pass by. Unless you find a way to move forward, you will stay exactly where you are.

I’m not surprised that in the past few years, I’ve seen a surge of interest in the idea of productivity among Christians and non-Christians alike. We might loosely define productivity as optimizing your habits so we can move more efficiently towards where we want to go. If we will not get anywhere without good habits, it makes sense that we should focus our energy and efforts on improving those habits to be more productive.

I see talk of productivity all over the place. There  are viral videos, youtube channels, websites, books, each telling me the latest life hack, or how to optimize my morning routine, or how to study more efficiently, and so on. Telling me how to streamline my habits to fell the massive trees in my life. On the one hand, I’m extremely grateful for these resources and how they’ve helped me to work more efficiently. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that I can often have an unbalanced perspective on productivity which can be dangerous.

big tree.jpg

What do I mean? As the pressures to be responsible mount in post-grad life, it’s been tempting for me to look toward productivity, not God, as my savior. It’s been easy for me to see productivity as truly practical and faith as idealistic and not really useful. After all, I see Christians who know God’s word, who have sincere faith, and who have godly character, yet are caught in cycles of unproductive habits. Despite their faith, they struggle mightily. Conversely, I see Christians and non-Christians with effective habits. They are the ones with organized lives and good reputations. They are the ones who seem happiest. And so, I think to myself: “Faith is good, but productivity, that is what really has power. That is what takes you to where you want to go. If I could just maximize my habits I could have a picture perfect life too.”

But this is deadly mindset. The danger for some is that they succeed in being productive. The temptation for them is to trust in themselves that, even in Christian things, what really makes them successful is their own ability to manage their lives. The danger for people like me who aren’t so good at being productive is that we are crushed by our failures. Productivity can be a cruel master. If you reach the end of your day with a crossed out to-do list, you feel accomplished and hopeful. But on the many days where you don’t, you feel crushed. You feel like a failure. Like everyone is passing you by. The massive tree stands before you, reminding you that you have so far left to go and today you didn’t even make a dent.

How can we find a balanced view of productivity? We cannot cast productivity and our habits aside and focus solely on theology. Productivity is the way we get things done. Nor can we focus solely on productivity. We need an understanding of God which informs and enables our productivity. An understanding that strengthens people like me to be more productive, but also not to trust in productivity to bring ultimate joy. 

One Foot Forward

We often imagine productivity as something neutral and non-spiritual. You just do things. You wake up early so you have time before work to do personal projects. You get off of facebook and study. You plan out your schedule. In one sense, that’s true. You don’t have to be a Christian to do any of those things and there are tons of hyper-effective non-Christians. That’s part of what is so attractive about productivity. There’s no mystery. The steps to a better life and a better you are right in front of you. You just need to do them.

Yet, as anyone who struggles with productivity will attest, there are deep-rooted spiritual issues we must confront if we are to change our habits. At the forefront is fear. When we look at the long journey ahead, and the mountains we must climb and the valleys we must cross, it is easy to lose heart. We are further discouraged when we see how much further our peers are along the path, or when we contemplate how much time we have wasted and how many bad decisions we have made.

Why do we keep procrastinating? Why can’t I stop scrolling through social media and focus for a half-hour? Why does my heart react so violently when I try to do what I need to do? Taking one step forward – that is, changing an ingrained bad habit for even one day – may seem small and trivial, but it often takes all our resolve. Why? Because taking one step reminds us of the whole journey ahead and everything it will take. It’s much easier to procrastinate; to distract ourselves so we don’t have to face how far we have left to go and how much we have failed.

(Paul Maxwell wrote an article called “The Complicated Life of Lazy Boys” for Desiring God that I thought was so insightful. In it, he talks about the 5 cycles of unproductivity that we can become trapped in, and the spiritual reasons underlying them. If you have time, I highly recommend you taking a look at it, as well as the follow up article on rest.) 

How does Gospel address the fear behind our bad habits? It tells us that because of Christ, the all-powerful God stands behind us. And though the journey ahead may seem impossible, our God is strong and he is able to do the impossible. And even though there seem to be so many dangers and snares along the way, our God is sovereign and will guide us through. Be strong and courageous, the Gospel tells us, do not be in fear or in dread because the Lord your God goes with you.

Those are massive truths, but, if I’m honest, they often feel small in the moment, crowded out by the shadows of the mountains looming ahead. For those with weak faith like me, my encouragement is this: just put one foot forward. It’s okay if you feel weak. It’s okay if you feel you don’t have enough strength to survive the journey. It’s okay because you don’t!

Let me refer back to beautiful quote from a previous post. It’s written in the context of marriage and singleness, but I think it fits well with this idea of taking one step forward:

If the thought of enduring your marriage or lack of marriage for the rest of your life is daunting, it is because God doesn’t hand out grace in a lifetime supply. He provides it one day at a time. If you feel like God has not given you the capacity to love your spouse for a lifetime, that’s because he hasn’t. But he has given you exactly what you need to be loving today. Furthermore, God has not given celibates the grace to bear a lifetime of solitude. But he will give you what you need to make it through this day.

…God will give us what we need, but he will not give it to us until we need it. He didn’t give the Israelites enough food to last through forty years in the wilderness; he gave them manna one day at a time. None of us has a lifelong stockpile of grace, but we can look forward to God’s faithfulness over a lifetime, offered to us one day at a time.

What does it mean to have courage? What does it mean to have steadfastness in faith? Courage is not always slaying the dragon. It is not always big and heroic. Steadfastness is not a constant spiritual high. Rather, we could say that courage and steadfastness come from learning to pray “give us this day our daily bread” in good times and bad, when our faith feels strong or when it sinks out of our sight. It is taking the manna that God gives and taking one step forward – changing that bad habit just once – and then by God’s grace, taking another step. And doing that over and over again for a lifetime.

We could amend our initial quote about productivity to look like this: overall, the vast majority of your life’s results comes…from small behaviors, each one enabled by God strength and sustained by God’s grace, repeated thousands of times over the decades.  I think that’s a profound and beautiful picture of productivity in weakness.

One Solid Hope

Even as we seek to move forward one step at a time by God’s grace, there will be many days when we will not be productive. Many times when we will look back over our day, and see that we have accomplished nothing of real value, because we were lazy or because we were overwhelmed by worries. Times when all will see are the replays of our sin – our outbreaks of anger or our failures in purity or the callousness of our hearts towards God and others.

What do you do when you reach the end of the day and you realize it was utterly unproductive? What do you do when as you sit on your bed feeling overwhelmed and wondering where the strength will come from to face tomorrow? In times like those, rest in your one solid hope. Remember that your hope is not in your goals – the future career, or relationship, or ministry position you are working towards. None of those things can bring you ultimate and lasting joy. Your hope is not in your efforts to reach those goals. It is not in your productivity. You are not loved and accepted or worthwhile on the basis of what you have done or failed to do today. Your hope is in Jesus. The one who embraced the cross, despising the shame, so that we might know and love him, even as we are known and loved by him. He is the goal and we have all we need in him.

…for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:7 ESV)

 

The Hope for Our Helplessness

This is the last post in a series about cynicism and the Christian life. In part 1, we saw how we adopt cynicism to protect ourselves from the helplessness we feel. In part 2 we saw why this strategy fails miserably. In this post, I want to look at how Jesus holds out a better hope to the hurting cynic.

Hyouka

Hyouka is insightful in identifying and expressing the pain of helplessness. But the show offers little in the way of a solution. For the most part, it is content that we understand that Hyouka exists and that it is all around us. It is enough that the quiet cries of the hurting, so long unheard, can be discovered for a moment by the four friends and us, the audience.

To its credit, Hyouka does give us a helpful insight that we can apply to the Christian life. It commends a caring curiosity to us. Oreki begins the show as a mystery solving machine, who takes in details and spits out solutions. But, through the influence of Chitanda, he begins solving mysteries to learn more about the stories of others. Oreki’s growth calls us to likewise examine the small details, not for the glory of being clever, but to see and sympathize with the pain that lies below the surface for so many.

But while that is an admirable reminder, it still cannot fill the gaping holes of helplessness all around us. The show’s best case scenario is that observant and caring individuals seek out the hurting. But, if we’re honest, how many people can do this in real life? How many are observant enough to notice the small clues of the pain we hide? And of those people, how many are caring  to dig the full story out of us? My guess is you won’t find many of these compassionate geniuses. And if you’re waiting for one to come seek you out, you’re probably in for a disappointment.

Even if you do have such friends, it’s still not enough. Friends can be there for you for a span of time, but what happens in the hours, days, and years afterwards when the quiet pain is there and they have long since moved on? Or what happens when they fail you because they are wrestling with the same helplessness themselves?

The truth is that unless we have a Sherlock-esque eye and a large amount of time, we’ll miss most of the helplessness around us. And we should not be surprised when our friends and family fail to see ours in the busyness of their work, family, and personal issues.

What then is the Christian hope for helplessness? How does Jesus give us strength to reclaim our longing and fight back against cynicism? Here are three (of many) ways that Jesus offers us hope:

I. Jesus knows and loves us 

In the first post we noted that Hyouka results from a desire to conceal and reveal. We are ashamed by our weakness; that we still struggle for such small reasons. And we are ashamed of our sin; that we are not always sympathetic victims, but often selfish and cruel. Yet, at the same time, we are miserable and desperately long for someone to share in our pain without laughing at or leaving us.

Jesus knows us. Oreki and his friends would have to sift through the tiniest of clues to fully understand the what and why of our turmoil. But Jesus sees straight into our hearts (Jn 2:24-25).  He knows everything about us, down to the tiniest detail (Mt 10:30) . He knows what we long for and what we need, even before we ask (Mt 6:8). He knows our frame that we are but dust (Ps 103:14). He understands us even when we can’t find the words to cry out for help (Rom 8:26). And he will always be there because he  has promised to never leave nor forsake us (Deut 31:6).

Jesus fulfills our longing to be known and loved like no one else can. In the words of Tim Keller, Jesus alone can “know us to the bottom and love us to the sky”. Our limitations and sin make us feel afraid to be known and unworthy to be loved. But Jesus has borne the cross for our sins and covered us with his righteousness, so that God invites us in as his beloved children. And Jesus will not cast us away for any fault in our appearance or defect in our personality. Our Savior is also our Creator. He formed us in the womb and in his eyes we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps 139).

And finally, Jesus is the true and proper object of our longing. He is better than cynicism’s stability, or Oreki’s genius, or Mayaka’s affection. He has fullness of joy. He is our source of life. He is the one whom we were made to walk with in relationship, and if we have him, we have all we need. The love of Jesus helps us finally put to death Satoshi’s self-hatred and resignation. Jesus knows us. He gives us the love we need. And he is the one we are made to love.

II. All thing come from the Father’s loving hand- 

Cynicism rests on the assumption that we are alone in a cruel universe in which things just naturally go wrong. But the Bible tells us that our lives are in the hands of a loving Father who works all things – joy and pain – for our good. In a cruel universe, it is wise not to put too much hope in your longing. But in the Christian worldview, we can place our longing in God’s hands and pursue courageously after him.

He may prosper us in our careers. He may guide us to marriage and family. He may give us fruitful ministry and friendships. Or he might withhold all of the things we want most. He might make us wait for months, years, or forever. He may give us what we want and make it different than we thought it would be. He may give us what we want and then take it away.

Yet in everything, God is generous and wise. God always gives good gifts to his children. He will do things we don’t understand, but in our confusion he will teach us to trust him more. He will take us along paths we would have never taken to lead us to places where we need to go. It is scary to be vulnerable and entrust our longings to God. It is even scarier for those who have been hurt by others in the past. But God will never disappoint us. He will show forth his wisdom and care for us even in our disappointments.The sovereign goodness of God allows weak and insecure people like me to be brave.

III.  God gives us a new community – 

Lastly, God gives us a new community where we can know and love one another. A new community built not on hobbies or circumstances but on the blood of Christ. As Christians, we have been made part of God’s family – a family different than every other. Before, we were afraid to share our sin because it was too shameful and our helplessness because it was too small. But God’s family is full of people who are sinful and hurting just like us, but who have been known and loved by Jesus. And God is at work in his family, transforming our hearts and teaching us to love as we have been loved.

This creates the possibility for a powerful new kind of friendship. It will take hard work, patience, and time. We will be hurt and discouraged in the process. But if we are willing, we can build relationships where we are fully honest with one another. Relationships where we can share both monumental tragedies and the quiet and constant aches of daily life. Where we can share both our most shameful sins and our most persistent fears. Where we are not afraid to share the same struggle week after week, but where we can also receive gentle encouragement in the truth.

Through the Gospel, we can build relationships where we no longer need to conceal because we are all loved by the King. And relationships where we no longer need to compare because we have all been gifted to serve his people and a world in need.

Conclusion:

In the end, the solution to our helplessness is not complicated. We need faith. We can live as cynics, maintain a stable sort of joy, and project a respectable Christian persona. But that would be a tragedy. Cynicism doesn’t work. It’s faithless.

But even as I write this, it’s still so hard for me to let down my guard and stand exposed before God and others. I feel so foolish and naive. I feel like I’m doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expecting a different result, when in reality I will only be punched in the gut again by a cruel and uncaring world.

And yet, I remember God has given us his Son. I remember his promise to never leave nor forsake us. I remember his past faithfulness. In light of his love and the strength of his promise, let us dare to live defiantly in the face of every obstacle and doubt and lie from the enemy that God is not good. Let us dare to be vulnerable to God and to our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us dare to place our longings in His hands for him to bring to fruition or to frustrate in his sovereign wisdom.

Let us have faith to do these things, through every trial and disappointment, again and again, day after day, year after year, for a lifetime. And when our courage fails us and we fall short, let us dare to come with confidence again and again to the throne room of grace, where we will find help in our time of need.

 

 

The Allure and Insufficiency of Cynicism

This is part two of a series about cynicism and the Christian life. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the idea of ‘Hyouka’ – the silent cry for help. I focused in on one particular character named Satoshi and how he uses his cheerful cynicism to cope with his insecurities. In this post, I hope to draw some parallels between myself and Satoshi, and talk about why cynicism, while alluring, is ultimately insufficient.

Satoshi and Me

I see a lot of myself in Satoshi. Both of us have many reasons to be thankful, but we allow our insecurities to overshadow our blessings. Satoshi sees Oreki ability to benefit others with his natural genius, and despairs that he can offer so little. I see others’ ability to be fun and build relationships, or to administrate and counsel, or to push forward with resilience and ambition, and feel very small in comparison. What can I offer to others with my meager abilities? And who will find me worthy of love, respect, and friendship, or even a place in their lives? Irrational as it might be, these comparisons erode my confidence that I can find success or belonging when I engage the world.

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But while Satoshi’s cynicism stops at his relationships with others, mine extends to my relationship with God. I battle with nagging doubts that the universe is more like a cruel practical joke than a well planned story. That life is dictated more by absurdity and chaos than by the providence of a caring God. Things just go wrong.  The promises of God, if they are true, are only true for others. The loving, faithful, and active God is their God. My God is distant, only waking when he wants to take something away.

These doubts about God and others create a painful anxiety and cynicism begins looking like an attractive strategy. Cynicism guards me from the sting of disappointment by detaching my affections. Not caring gives a steadiness and stability, as well as a reprieve from constant feelings of inadequacy.

Not only that, if I’m a cheerful cynic – if I am nice, self-deprecating, and considerate – I get the added bonus of looking humble. The proud man boast in his achievements; the self-pitying man wallows in his sorrows, but the humble man and the cynic pay little attention to themselves. The difference is that the humble man truly forgets himself in his love for God and others, while the cynic expects the worst from the start and is thus prepared for any result. To the outside world, the two look the same. I can gain a reputation for humility when in reality I’ve just given up hope.

The Insufficiency of Cynicism

Cynicism promises a more secure joy and an easier way of life. But upon closer examination, cynicism destroys our joy, our courage, and our thanksgiving.

I. Cynicism destroys joy and thanksgiving

Fundamentally, cynicism fails because we’re built to care. God has created us as longing creatures and we cannot kill those longings  no matter how hard we try. We’re not strong enough. We might be able to convince ourselves we don’t care. We might even project an image of stoic confidence. But deep down, we always know that it is a lie. That our cynicism is our Hyouka – the way we’re trying miserably to cope with our frustrated desires and personal failings.

Because of this, cynicism cannot give us real joy. Satoshi tells Oreki that since he became ‘obsessed with not be obsessed with anything…every day’s been a happy day’. In one sense, Satoshi is right. Avoiding competition allows him to live in an uninterrupted stream of trivial and lighthearted victories. But Satoshi is not truly happy and he knows it. The joys he experiences are frauds – mere imitations of the real thing. Real joys don’t come easily. They require hardwork and perseverance. They involve the real risk of heartbreak, and despair. Real joys, in other words, are born from the very things Satoshi tries so desperately to avoid. Satoshi, in trying to preserve joy, unwittingly creates a false reality where no real joy can exist.

https://i2.wp.com/i.imgur.com/4xiMsCY.jpg

What’s more, cynics like Satoshi cannot even enjoy the good things they do have. The cynic recognizes that he has blessings from God – be it in the form of talents, relationships, or good circumstances. But he views them with a suspicious eye. He denigrates his talents as worthless and insignificant. He sees insincerity, pity, and transience in his relationships. He sees fortunate circumstances as anomalies that might shift for the worst at any moment. The cynic cannot stop and be thankful for his blessings, because he must always protect them. Since he has no hope or courage for the future, all he can do is to desperately hold on to the good things he already has.

II. Cynicism destroys faith and courage

Not only does cynicism destroy our joy, it destroys our courage by severing the root of faith. By faith, we trust in God’s character – his goodness, his wisdom, and his sovereignty. We feel safe to place our hopes and dreams into his hands, and trust him to guide us in the best direction. This is scary because God may withhold our desires and that will hurt. But faith strengthens us to live with courage, because we believe that whatever happens will be for his glory and our good.

Cynicism instead suffocates our desire in order to spare ourselves the hurt of unmet longing.  We don’t give God the chance to let us down, and we also don’t give him the chance to show us his faithfulness. This, however, kills our courage. The more and more we do this, the harder it is to step out and trust God. We may see God’s providence in the lives of others but it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that God will work in our lives. God’s acting  will seems more like wishful thinking and less like reality.

Cynicism leads to a weak and cowardly life. The cynic has neither the self-assured confidence of the proud man or the quiet strength of the humble man. Rather he is paralyzed by his insecurity and weakness. He has no power to take a risk and step out into the unknown, because he believes all he will find is disappointment.

III. Cynicism destroys our love

Finally, cynicism hurts others and ultimately destroys our capacity to love others.  Initially, we think our cheerful aloofness is harmless. We think we can still love others as we did before. But that’s not true. Relationships are built on vulnerability and full engagement, but the cynic cuts himself off prematurely. He can function in surface level relationships, but he must disengage if they become too personal.

In the penultimate episode, Satoshi steps out of Oreki’s shadow and becomes the main focus of the story. Sadly, this episode doesn’t show his growth as a character but rather, as Nick notes, the ‘ugliest secret of the classics club – Satoshi’s self-hatred, and the way that hatred ends up expressing itself as a callousness towards the people who care about him.’

This plays out in Satoshi’s relationship with his longtime friend Mayaka. Mayaka cares deeply for Satoshi. She probably knows him better than he knows himself. And yet, she is still willing to commit herself to him. But Satoshi cannot return her affection because it would threaten the whole system he has created – his world of stable half-joys – and return him to the world of risk. It scares Satoshi to be near someone like Mayaka, who constantly lays her heart on line to be trampled on. Nearness to her exposes his disengagement for what it truly is – cowardice. And so, Satoshi clings to his cynicism and wounds Mayaka with his coldness.

Likewise, our cynicism is not harmless. We harm others by our omission – by failing to help others because we’re afraid we’ll be inadequate. We harm others by our commission – our pessimism and resignation wound those who depend on us. We distance ourselves from the messiness of relationships and accountability and run instead toward isolation, thinking we’ll be safe there. But isolation enables the worst parts of nature. At first, we may isolate ourselves because we’re afraid of being hurt. But eventually we will isolate ourselves because we’re selfish and we no longer care about others. C.S. Lewis, in his famous quote, exposes the deadly result of the cynic’s isolation:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Conclusion

This is humbling for me to write. Even now, when I look at my Christian life these past years, I wonder: have I really grown in maturity or have I just grown in cheerful cynicism? Is my joy more stable because I love Jesus and trust him more, or because I’ve learned to expect less of God and others? How much have I maintained an appearance of godliness while severing the roots of joy, courage, and faith in my life?

Cynicism is a sham. It promises protection and joy, but delivers a pathetic way of life. Yet, if not cynicism, then what? We do not adopt cynicism because we want to. We do it because the helplessness we feel is so present and real that we must find a way to cope with it. We will not put aside our cynicism unless we find something or someone to address the pain we feel. In the final post, I’ll talk about Gospel hope for those  who feel helpless. But until then, farewell!

 

 

 

Hyouka and the Cheerful Cynic

I’ve been meaning to write a post about cynicism and the Christian life for a while, but couldn’t find the right way to approach it. I finally found some inspiration from an unlikely source: an anime called Hyouka and a great series of write ups on the show from a blog called Wrong Every Time. These ignited some amateur English-major analysis of my own (which could be totally wrong), and launched some fruitful reflection on cynicism. No need to have watched the show to understand this post but beware, there will be some spoilers. Otherwise, enjoy!

Hyouka and Helplessness

Hyouka tells the story of four friends who solve mysteries together as part of the Classics Club. Oreki (third to the right) is a lazy energy-conserving genius and the main protagonist. Chitanda (far left) is his joyful and endlessly curious foil. Satoshi (far right) and Mayaka (second to the left) are Oreki’s childhood friends.

At its heart, Hyouka is a show about helplessness. ‘Hyouka’ is the title of an old club anthology and the key to the show’s first mystery. At first, it appears harmless and nondescript – the word ‘Hyouka’ simply translates to ‘Ice Cream’. But, after learning the details of how it came to be, Oreki and his friends realize Hyouka is actually a silent cry for help: ‘I Scream’.

This bit of wordplay colors and characterizes the rest of the show. Hyouka becomes a symbol for something that appears trivial, but actually reveals a person’s inward pain. Many of the subsequent mysteries follow the same pattern as the first. They begin with ordinary details, but eventually reveal someone who feels hurt or marginalized. An unfinished script, for instance, reveals a quiet author who has been pushed aside by her more outspoken classmates. A series of petty thefts reveal a web of hurt feelings, unmet wishes, and personal insecurities.

This idea of Hyouka – the silent cry for help – has stuck with me, even after I finished watching the show. Here are two observations about the idea that make it interesting and helpful to my thinking:

I. Hyouka captures the ache of ordinary helplessnessMost mysteries use dramatic crimes and character motives to captivate their audience’s attention (think CSI or Sherlock Holmes). Hyouka’s mysteries, however, are more subdued.  Characters don’t murder or kidnap others; they act out in insignificant and barely noticeable ways. They aren’t motivated by rage or pathology, but by ordinary struggles we can all relate to. Hyouka doesn’t make a big show of a mystery’s “reveal”. In fact, it hardly lingers on its characters at all. We see a brief glimpse of someone’s inner pain and then the show moves on —  to another character, another day, another mystery.

This subtlety, rather than minimizing idea of the Hyouka, more perceptively captures it. Hyouka captures ordinary helplessness – the kind we feel most often, but which can be the most difficult to explain. Ordinary helplessness, Hyouka argues, can be just as devastating as the pain of obvious tragedy. The difference is that this pain breaks you not all at once, but as a slow and constant ache. It is pain too trivial to share without feeling overdramatic, yet not drastic enough that we can’t go on. So we let it exist in the background and only hint at it to others.

II. Hyouka captures our conflicted response to helplessness The wordplay of Hyouka both conceals and reveals. It does not declare what the author really feels, nor does it hide it altogether. It’s a clue for the attentive eye. A piece of evidence that reveals the truth.

This provides an astute observation about the ways in which we respond to helplessness. When we feel helpless, we feel  a strong desire to conceal. After all, everyone else seems to have their life together and the reasons why we hurt are so mundane. Who would understand or take us seriously? Wouldn’t people think less of us for being overly sensitive?  We feel shame in showing who we truly are.

At the same time, we feel an equally strong desire to reveal. We want someone to see our pain and to understand it. Even if we don’t, at some point we have to find an outlet to let out our pent-up frustration – just as someone holding their breath must eventually exhale.

What results from these two competing desires to conceal and reveal? Hyouka – silent cries of helplessness – in all their various incarnations. In the world of Hyouka, mysteries do not come from criminal masterminds, but from the inner conflict of ordinary hurting people. Shouts for help  in small details and cryptic actions, passed over by the masses but discovered by the observant eyes of these four friends.

Satoshi the Smiling Cynic

Hyouka

As the show progresses, we see ‘Hyouka’ extend beyond the club’s mysteries into the lives of the main characters. Satoshi is Oreki’s childhood friend and one of the four members of the club. At first, he seems happy. He’s always wearing a smile, is well liked, and actively participates in school activities. As time passes, however, we learn to trust his cheerfulness less and less. Visually, he is often shown smiling while shrouded in shadows. And despite his cheerfulness, he always seems strangely detached.

In a later episode, Satoshi goes from solving mysteries to being the subject of one. From investigator to the investigated. When Oreki corners him, he finally explains the reasoning behind his false cheerfulness. Nick, at Wrong Every Time, summarizes it in this way:

Then Satoshi spills it all. “I won’t ever be the best at anything,” he says, dwarfed by snowflakes falling like bright stars. “Or rather, I’ve stopped trying to be.” Reflecting back on his middle school self, he reflects that “winning was boring. So I got tired of it. I became obsessed with not being obsessed with anything. Since then, every day’s been a happy day!…” These words ring completely hollow to our understanding of Satoshi…

Satoshi wants to be a person who can truly engage with the world, but his fear is much stronger than his hope, and so this is how he rationalizes his refusal to engage. He says that winning is “boring,” and tells himself he’s not actually in engaged in anything – but all this really means is that he’s still committed to the adolescent mindset of either being a winner or a loser. Satoshi can’t see value just in the attempt – like Kouchi from the manga club, he doesn’t even want to try if he knows someone will be better than him…

Satoshi has many things going for him. He is gifted with a computer-like memory. He has friends who love and care deeply about him. But none of those things provide any comfort because he is constantly measuring himself against Oreki. Time after time, he puts forth his best effort to equal or surpass his friend, placing his self-worth on the line to be validated by a win or crushed by a loss. And each time, lazy Oreki, with a yawn of bored indifference, outperforms him. Satoshi is brilliant, but Oreki is blessed with extraordinary unreachable genius.

Every failure reminds Satoshi of his mediocrity. It reminds him that no matter how hard he tries, his best efforts will never match Oreki’s and he is helpless to do anything about it. This is a crushing realization and Satoshi applies it not only to his relationship with Oreki, but to all of his life. He loses confidence in his ability to engage the world. He no longer trusts that there is a relationship between hard work and worthwhile results.

So what does he do instead? He becomes a cynic – though he won’t admit it to himself or to Oreki. He stops competing. He avoids any risk that reminds him of his limitations. He distances himself from everything he cares about. And he does it, not with a scowling face like we might expect, but with a smile.

His cheerful persona acts as a defense against feelings of failure. It allows him to avoid the ups and downs of competition and the sting of losing, and instead to create a stable kind of joy. He can still enjoy the good things – friendships, lighthearted contests – while ignoring everything else.

We’ll return to the merits and demerits of Satoshi’s chosen strategy in the next post. But for now, I want to end this post by noting the close connection between helplessness and cynicism for Satoshi. When we look closely, we see that Satoshi’s smile and the cynical philosophy behind it are his ‘Hyouka’. They are the way he tries to conceal pain – from other and even from himself. But they are also the way he reveals his pain. Through his smile, Oreki and we the viewers gain a truer insight and understanding into his character.

Can you relate at all to the idea of Hyouka? Can you sympathize with how Satoshi feels? I sure can.  All of this might still seem odd and irrelevant, especially for those of you haven’t watched the show. In tomorrow’s post I’ll use some of these concepts and ideas to talk about cynicism in my own life. But until then, farewell!

 

 

My Sin and the Depth of David’s Repentance

psalm 51

This past Friday, I had the privilege of teaching from Psalm 51 – David’s famous psalm of repentance after committing adultery and murder.

When I first started studying the passage, David’s repentance felt remote to me. It made sense that he felt such deep contrition since he was repenting for two of the worst sins imaginable. But how did that relate to the ‘small’ and ‘ordinary’ sin I fight in day to day life?  Was I supposed to feel the same brokenness over my sin as David did?

As I dug deeper into the passage, however, I was struck by the depth of David’s understanding of sin. I saw that his words were not just for the adulterers and murderers,  but also for me. Psalm 51 shows my sin and my need for repentance. Here are two lessons in particular that stood out to me:

#1: Sin is First and Foremost Against God:

In verse 4, David declares “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” I had to think a lot about those words. What did he mean that he only sinned against God? Had he not also sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah and everyone who had counted on his leadership?

We find some helpful clues in the narrative account. Listen to how God describes of David’s sin through the Prophet Nathan :

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you out of the hand of Saul. And I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites…

…David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:7-9, 13 ESV)

We see similarities in this passage with verse 4 of Psalm 51. Both passages talk about doing evil in God’s sight and both end with David repenting of his sin to God.We also learn more about the nature of David’s sin. The primary sin in this passage is sin against God – David despised the word of the Lord.

That sin is heightened further by two factors. First, it is magnified by God’s past grace and generosity towards David. In verses 7-8, God reminds David of all that He had done in David’s life: he chose David even though he was not outwardly impressive, he protected and sustained David from Saul’s persecution, and he handed over all of Saul’s kingdom into his hands. And God was glad and willing to bless David more, if he came to him in humility and faith. Yet, despite God’s faithfulness, David scorned God’s word and rebelled against it.

Second, it is magnified by the extent to which David despised God’s Word. How did David despise God’s word? By sinning greatly against Uriah and Bathsheba. God includes David’s horizontal sin in David’s vertical sin against him. David’s transgression of the first commandment was worsened and heightened by his grave transgression of the second commandment.

Out of curiosity, I searched the terms ‘sinned against’ and ‘sins against’ on the ESV Bible website and was surprised to find the Bible nearly unanimously references sin as against God. It seems that while it is legitimate to talk about sinning against one another (Jesus does, for example in Matthew 18) sin is primarily against God – so much so, that it is right for David to say ‘against you, you only, have I sinned.’ God is the one most offended by our sin, the ultimate judge of sin, and the one to whom we must give account

How does this deepen my understanding of sin?  While Psalm 51 presents sin as being primarily against God, I often think of it as primarily against others. Because of that I reason that if my sin doesn’t harm others like David’s did, it really isn’t that serious and I don’t need to repent.

It’s true that sin against others is serious, but the Bible takes our understanding of sin a step further. All sin is serious because all sin despises God’s word. Our sin is heightened the more generous God has been to us, or the more our sin overflows and hurts others. But even if David lusted privately after Bathsheba or harbored bitterness in his heart instead of killing Uriah, he would be guilty of great sin because he would be breaking the greatest commandment – to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

#2: We have Sinful Hearts and God Examines the Heart

In verses 5-6, David writes: ‘Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me. Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being. You teach me wisdom in the secret heart.’

David first laments that he was born a sinner. Many today use inborn sin as an excuse why they’re not sinful: ‘I was born this way. I can’t help it. Therefore, I’m not a sinner.’ But David reaches the exact opposite conclusion: ‘I was born this way. I can’t help it. Therefore, I’m a great sinner.’ David knows he is not a good person who happened to made bad choices, but a sinner with a sinful heart. Sin was knit deep into his nature from birth.

After confessing his sinful heart, David then declares that God examines the heart. He delights in truth in the inward being, he says, and teaches wisdom in the secret heart. He desires not just outward actions and religiosity, but genuine righteousness and faith that flows from the inside out.

David grasped this truths perhaps more than anyone else in Scripture. He was the man after God’s own heart in no small part because he realized that God valued his heart. That truth truth had been seared into his mind from the moment he learned why God had chosen him:

But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

And yet, despite everything David knew, his heart still strayed. It had grown dull, apathetic, and passionless. It had wandered so far that he committed adultery and murder. If David’s heart went astray, how much more will our hearts?

I tend to think of sin as primarily outward. Easily observable sinful actions like murder or adultery are clearly sin, but I often view heart sins as small or not sin at all. The Bible, however, takes heart sin far more seriously because it is the source from which all outward sin flows. Jesus, in Matthew 15:18-20, tells us:

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:18-20)

In Psalm 51, David asks forgiveness for the symptoms of his sin – the adultery and murder – but he also repents of his heart from which the adultery and murder flowed. Not only that, but David cries for God to strengthen his heart:

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit (Psalm 51:10-12)

This is humbling for me. I can manage my outward actions to a certain extent, but I cannot manage my own heart – my anxiety, jealousy, anger, pride, and much more. Like David, I must repent for the bad heart which constantly leads me back toward sin. And like David, I must constantly be asking God to renew and uphold my spirit so that I might obey him willingly and joyfully.

David’s sin and repentance are not remote from me. I began my study seeing myself as above David, only for God to point to me and say ‘You are the man!’. My symptoms might manifest themselves differently from David’s but they come from the same bad root – a bad heart that despises and drifts from God’s Word. This is no small thing. If I’m not careful, then someday – soon or years down the road – my sin will overflow in catastrophic ways.  I am in need God always: to forgive me for my sin and to uphold and strengthen my heart. Praise him for his grace in the Gospel!

For more on sin, check out the other posts in the Forgiven Much series:

Forgiven Much: An Introduction

Forgiven Much: For a Bucket of Rainwater

Forgiven Much: Nowhere to Hide

Forgiven Much: The Greatest Commandment

The Wide Road and the Sovereign God

This is Part 2 of a series on the justice and goodness of God in hell and judgment. You can read part 1 here. I had a hard time writing this one so I hope it make sense. I’m definitely still learning and thinking about this topic and would love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, and feedback.


This past summer I spoke to the collegians at my church on the topic of ‘Joy in Evangelism’. Personally, it was one of the hardest messages I’ve ever had to prepare. It wasn’t that my text was particularly hard to understand; I struggled with the topic because in truth, I often viewed evangelism with discouragement and guilt, rather than joy. Evangelism called to mind the overwhelming number of people still without Christ.

If these countless men and women did not hear the Gospel and turn to Jesus in repentance, they would face an eternity under the judgement of God. I couldn’t shake the thought: there will be so many people who go to hell. How can this be, God? I agonized emotionally and intellectually about how that truth should affect my understanding of the power, justice, and goodness of God.

In this post and in posts to follow, I want to wrestle out loud with some of my own questions about the fact that so many will take the wide road to destruction. How can we have any peace as Christians while knowing this harsh reality? How can we continue to evangelize with courage and conviction? How can we uphold the goodness and justice of God?

These are tough questions that have no easy answers. But the answer I find myself returning to, both emotionally and intellectually, is the sovereignty of God. A Sovereign God is big enough to hold both salvation and judgment in his hands. A Sovereign God is just and good and in control even when many choose to turn away from him and perish. A Sovereign God strengthens us to go boldly and joyfully into a lost world.

Originally, I hoped to answer three or four questions in this post. But, after attempting to answer the first, I decided this post was lengthy enough already. Hopefully, I can return to those questions in future posts.

Courtroom

Question #1: Do nonbelievers know enough about God to be justly condemned to hell?

Hell is easier for our finite minds to accept when we imagine a hardened sinner raising his fist to the heavens and shouting, “I choose my sin instead of Christ!” But what about those who have never heard about Christ? What about those who have limited Gospel exposure?

Because of the sheer number of  people in the world, there will inevitably be many non-Christians who have limited contact with the Gospel and faithful believers. This is true of unreached people groups and places where Christianity has a small influence, but it’s also true closer to home. In college, I would sometimes do cold-contact evangelism with students on campus. For many of those whom we met, that was their first time hearing the Gospel. I remember looking out at the crowds of students on campus and feeling hopelessly outnumbered. 

How in the world were we supposed to bring the Gospel to all of these students? And if they never heard the Gospel, what did that mean for their rejection of God? How could they rebel against a God they knew nothing about? What knowledge of God could they knowingly rebel against?

It seemed to me that God would only be just to condemn those who meaningfully and knowingly rejected him. Yet, with so many non-Christians in the world, there were bound to be many without exposure to the Gospel, whether they were an uneducated villager in a remote region of the world or a nice polite collegian I met on campus. How could God justly punish those who had heard nothing or very little of him?

My Response for myself: I can rest in the sovereign witness of God which allows him to justly judge every man.

It’s easy for me to begin to think of salvation as merely sociological. That is, people become Christians by human means and methods – because they were placed in the right environment, exposed to the right information, and had the right temperament. If you were smart enough, you could measure and understand all of this logically – in the same way, for instance, you might measure why people become Democrats instead of Republicans.

If this were the case, then in order for salvation and judgment to be fair, everyone would need the same information. A disparity in information would be akin to wealth inequality. After all, belief or nonbelief isn’t spiritual; it has nothing to do with sin or rebellion against God. It has to do only with environment and exposure to the right information. For God to punish someone who didn’t have the same opportunity to hear the Gospel would be unjust.

But the sovereignty of God changes the way we see both salvation and judgment, faith and unbelief. It shows us that salvation is not merely sociological; it is a supernatural work of God. . I’m reminded of this every time I go to a baptism service. I love baptisms because they shatter my preconceptions and remind me of God’s sovereign witness in salvation. Before someone shares, I’ll often assume I know what they’ll say: “Here comes another kid who had his life changed at camp” or “here’s a lady who grew up in the church”

Yet, more often than not, I come away surprised by God’s pursuing grace. Instead of cookie cutter stories, each story is wonderfully unique. I’ll hear about how God worked through suffering and heartache; how he used chance encounters, an ordinary sermon, or a passing word from a friend. How he worked over many years, through the ups and downs of immature faith and outright rebellion,  slowly exposing sin and patiently winning the affections. There is no formula that pinpoints how people become Christians. Faith cannot be explained away by human logic; rather it shows a good God who powerfully and personally pursues sinners.

The sovereignty also changes the way we understand unbelief. Without the sovereignty of God, the unbeliever’s knowledge of God would depend on human methods and power. It would depend on our ability to tell as many people about the Gospel as possible. Inevitably, we would fail and many perish not knowing about God. But, because God is sovereign, the unbeliever’s knowledge of the Divine depends on his methods and his power.

How does God bring a nonbeliever to know of him? For me, seeing God’s pursuing grace in salvation gives me a window into understanding his witness to unbelievers. That is, when we look back at our testimonies, we see the unmistakable hand of God drawing us to him through our experiences. It is not merely that we grew up in the right environment or heard the right information. It is not that we found God, but that God came and found us. In the same way, nonbelievers won’t be able to plead ignorance or injustice that they did not know God. I suspect when they look back through their lifetime, they will see the same unmistakable hand of God, drawing and pursuing them.

They will remember the moments of despair when they limped forward in their own strength, instead of looking beyond themselves for help. They will remember the moments of clarity when they  saw beyond their culture and ‘rationality’ to Someone greater. They will remember the moments of sin in which they knew they needed forgiveness from a Savior.  They will remember the moments where they saw the majesty of nature and felt their insignificance (Romans 1). They will remember those scattered moments when they met Christians and heard about Jesus, but ignored them as annoyances.

The unbeliever will look back at all of these moments and see that, while each moment seemed small at the time, over a life time they add up to a real and meaningful knowledge of God. He will not be able to claim innocence in his ignorance, but will see that he really did know God and that he really is guilty for his suppression of the truth in unrighteousness.

I, in my finite mind, look at the masses of unbelievers and assume that logically, someone will fall through God’s hands. Someone won’t have a fair shot and will be condemned unjustly. But God is sovereign and powerful enough to sufficiently witness to  every man – whether it is through direct Gospel preaching, the testimony of a Christian friend, the ups and downs of life, the stirrings of the conscience, or the beauty of nature. And because He was there witnessing and pursuing, he is fit to judge. He is able to judge fairly according to what each man has done, not punishing anyone above what he deserves.

I don’t know exactly how he will do this. But I trust his sovereignty to pursue even the most remote and hardened sinner and because of that, I can trust his justice when they stand before him.

If you’re interested in reading more on this difficult question, I recommend reading Faith Comes from Hearing: A Response to Inclusivism. Let me end with a quote from that book, which I think poignantly captures God’s witness and pursuit to those who have never heard.

We can say that natural man is ever busy repressing or exchanging. But does he always succeed to the same degree? That depends on the strength with which God approaches him. God can at times, as it were, stop the noiseless engines of repression and exchange and overwhelm man to such an extent that he is powerless for a moment. There is, also, the silent activity of the Holy Spirit inside man, even if he resists him constantly…. When a missionary or some other person comes into contact with a non-Christian and speaks to him about the gospel, he can be sure that God has concerned himself with this person long before. That person had dealings more than once with God before God touched him, and he experienced the two fatal reactions-suppression and substitution. Now he hears the gospel for the first time. As I have said elsewhere, “we do not open the discussion, but we need only to make it clear that the God who has revealed his eternal power and Godhead to them, now addressed them in a new way, through our words. The encounter between God and that man enters a new period. It becomes more dangerous but also more hopeful. Christ now appears in a new form to him. He was, of course, already present in this man’s seeking; and, because he did not leave himself without a witness, Christ was wrestling to gain him, although he did not know it…. In the preaching of the gospel, Christ once again appears to man, but much more concretely and in audible form. He awakes man from his long disastrous dream. At last suppression and substitution cease-but this is possible only in faithful surrender. (121)

 

Seeing the Story of the King

With Easter approaching, many of us will spend time in the Gospels reading about the events leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection. In this post, I wanted to share two ‘principles’ that been helpful in my own personal reading. I hope they can serve you well as you prepare for Easter.

  1. Seeing the Story – Read to Understand Structure

The best stories have compelling plots. They sweep us up into the world of the story. They introduce conflict and build tension as they inch toward the dramatic climax. Those are the books and movies that we rave about to our friends. “You have to read this book!” “That movie blew my mind!”

Recently I reread the Harry Potter series and found that I was often more excited to return to J.K. Rowling’s world of magic than to spend time in devotions. Why was it that I had an easier time absorbing myself in a secular fiction than in the story of the King?

One reason is that I struggle to see structure in the Gospels in the same way I do in modern storytelling. In a story like Harry Potter the way various events combine to form a coherent plot that builds toward a climax is pretty clear. In the Gospels, I’ve found I need to do more work if I want to understand how everything fits together.

On a surface reading, the Gospels might seem like a series of meandering and disconnected events: Jesus goes here and heals this person. Then, he goes somewhere else and performs a miracle. Then, he argues with some Pharisees and teaches about random topics, etc.

But we must make sense of the beginning and middle of a Gospel – exposition, rising action, conflict –  because they play a pivotal role in setting up the eventual climax. Without them, the climax will seem forced and implausible. When I fail to make sense how the Gospel unfolds, it undercuts my appreciation of the ending.

I’m much more excited about Scripture when I can see the structure of the book. Structure helps me to experience a coherent and compelling plot line. I can pinpoint exactly where Jesus is in his ministry. I can observe how Jesus’ relationships are evolving with different groups of people. Structure helps me to make connections between different events and see the bigger picture of what the author is trying to convey.

If you’re interested in reading for structure, I’d recommend opening up a good study Bible and finding the outline for the book you’re reading (I use the ESV online website). Or, if you feel comfortable, you can create an outline from scratch from your own study. You could also adopt a hybrid approach: start with a study Bible outline and compare it with your own outline, or vice versa.

If you haven’t heard of it, I’d also recommend you check out the Bible Project.They create animated visuals which show the structure of different books with easy-to-understand explanations. Here’s an example from the book of Matthew:

  1. Seeing the Story of the King – Read to Understand Jesus’ Character

Recently, I read an interesting article about emotional manipulation and storytelling. The author writes:

Emotional manipulation basically comes about when a show shortcuts to a sense of drama, sadness, or basically any other emotion that it hasn’t earned through the narrative itself. Normally, empathizing with a character requires first understanding that character as a valid human being – when you employ emotional manipulation, you use other dramatic tricks to avoid the need to fully characterize people and explain the stakes of their feelings. This generally involves something like introducing a simple character and then immediately providing them with a tragic backstory, in an attempt to get the audience to care purely out of human empathy and projection without doing the work to make the audience believe in that character on their own merits

We’ve all seen stories where an author tries to evoke emotion without doing proper character work and it falls flat. There might be spectacular action,tragedy, or even death in the story, but we’re not moved because there’s no reason to care about any of the characters.

If we’re not careful, I think something similar can happen when we read the Gospels. In an effort to make the cross central, we can divorce Jesus’ climactic sacrifice from his character. The cross becomes less about a real person, and more a series of propositions. But just as stories don’t affect us when we don’t care about the characters, the cross becomes less moving when we lose sight of who it is about.

J.I. Packer writes this about holding the person and the work of Christ together:

“It is not biblical thus to isolate the work from the Worker…What the New Testament calls for is faith in or into or upon Christ himself–the placing of our trust in the living Savior, who died for sins. The object of saving faith is thus not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, who made atonement. We must not, in presenting the gospel, isolate the cross and its benefits from the Christ whose cross it was”

I feel most dull to the sacrifice of Christ when I lose sight of his character. When I feel distant from him, the Gospel story feels no different from any of the countless deaths in others stories in novels or on screen. Reminders about the cross begin to feel almost like that author who shortcuts his way to my emotions. I know this should be emotionally moving, yet what makes this man so special?

On the other hand, Jesus’ sacrifice feels fresh and exciting when I understand his character; when I feel I know him as a person. When I see his personality as he interacts with others; how he responds when he is sinned against or encounters difficulty. All those things help deepen my appreciation for the Gospel. Then, when I see Jesus nailed to the cross, it moves me. Here is the greatest, the kindest, the most selfless and strong man I have ever met. The perfect Son of God who humbled himself and became a servant. Why is he on that tree? How could this happen? Who put him there? What grace that he should die for all of my sins!

What are some practical ways to see the character of Christ? I find that seeing structure helps me. When I see the Gospel as disconnected stories, it’s hard to form a coherent picture of who Jesus is. But when we understand the unfolding plot, we can begins to see patterns in the way Jesus acts.

Something that has been helpful for me is to know the different groups that show up frequently in the various stories: the disciples, the hostile religious leaders, the crowds, and the many individuals responding in faith. What are each of these groups like? How do they act?

Once I’ve answered that, I ask myself how am I like these characters? Over the years, I’ve seen my slowness and pride in the disciples and my hypocrisy in the Pharisees. I’ve seen my shallow faith in the crowds and my neediness in those who came to Jesus in faith. Then, when I see how Jesus responds to each of these groups, I feel I know him in a very personal way. I can see how he responds in particular situations and apply that to my relationship in Him.

When I do this, I remember that there really is no one like Jesus. I see that the cross is no piece of emotional manipulation, but the highest expression of the love that Jesus had showed throughout the Gospels.

I’ve always feared Easter a little. I know it is a special day, but when I don’t prepare well Easter Sunday feels like coming in two-thirds of the way through a movie and seeing the climax without the set up. It’s hard to be properly affected even if I want to be. I pray that in the weeks leading up to Easter, we would ready our hearts and minds to approach the cross, and then – praise God! – the empty grave.

 

To Whom Shall I Go? – A Reflection on John 6

Jesus was at the height of his popularity. Multitudes of men, women, and children were flocking to see him. Many were even clamoring to make him king. After feeding them with miraculous bread, Jesus turned to address the massive crowds. What would he say to those who had come to see him?

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (6:53)

The crowds listened dumbstruck. What was Jesus talking about? Did he want them to literally eat and drink his body and blood? Was he speaking figuratively and if so, what did he mean and why did he have to use such disturbing imagery? Was he asking them to depend on him completely for life and sustenance? Jesus’ words were bewildering. Unable to understand or accept his words, many of the enthusiastic supporters began to leave, muttering to themselves: “This is a hard saying who can listen to it?

Turning to his disciples, Jesus asked them: “Do you want to go away as well?” And Peter, always first to speak, answered:

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God”

Over the years, Peter’s words have become some of my favorite in all the Bible. I’ve meditated on them and repeated them to myself many times, especially during times of doubt. Below are some of my reflections on Peter’s response. I hope these verses can be as helpful for you as they have been for me!

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Lord, to whom shall we go? – It’s scary to admit but sometimes I feel like leaving Jesus as the crowds did. Sometimes I feel tired of trying to understand and accept the hard teachings of Scripture. Or I feel naive and ignorant for holding on to promises that seem too good to be true. In those moments, I think about a life without Jesus. If I weren’t a Christian,, I wouldn’t have to daily wrestle to live by faith. I wouldn’t have to surrender my thoughts, feelings, and life to God’s Word – a daily submission which all too often feels like dying. Maybe, apart from Christ, I find myself thinking, I might have more peace.

My instinctive reaction to those thoughts is to immediately suppress them and pretend they don’t exist, instead assuring myself of my allegiance to Christ. But that knee-jerk response ignores the problem and is driven by fear, not biblical faith. How can I preach to myself when there are real feelings of wanting to depart?

I’ve found that a good way to begin is to start with Peter’s words: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter doesn’t answer Jesus with a bold declaration of his allegiance. He does not even deny that he wants to leave. All he can manage to say is: Lord, I have nowhere else to go. There is wavering and confusion and uncertainty in his voice. But there is also faith.

Likewise, when I feel like leaving, I’ve found the best way to begin preaching to myself is to remember: I have nowhere to go outside of Christ. I may wrestle with the justice and goodness of God, but leaving won’t help me find a higher standard of moral beauty. Everything I’ve ever learned about humility, self-sacrifice, and genuine love has come at the foot of the cross. If I left, I would return to a life of self-absorption and self-centeredness and empty righteousness. I might struggle to believe God’s story and promises, but leaving would not bring me greater meaning. Instead, I’d go back to a life of triviality and of pragmatic nihilism, in which I try to get the most for myself in a world that amounts to nothing.

It’s easy to take Christ for granted. We forget who he is and how much we need him. We lose sight the grace he has shown us. Sometimes it takes bluntly facing a reality without him, to remind us just how precious he really is; to jolt awake our dead affections to see him again with wonder and awe.

You have the words of eternal life – Notice, Peter does not say he understands Jesus’ words, nor does he say that Jesus’ teachings are easy to accept. He says Jesus has the words of eternal life. He’s saying, in effect, “I may not understand you now, but I’ve been around you long enough to know that no one speaks with the authority, wisdom, and beauty you do, so I will trust you.”

Doubt gives us tunnel vision. It makes us think “Unless I resolve this question or circumstance or feeling, I cannot believe”. But Peter’s words help me to step back and remember the ultimate foundation for my faith. I don’t believe because I’m able to answer every single question. I believe because I’ve become convinced that the Jesus revealed in the Scriptures holds the words of eternal life.

Who could have imagined a Gospel in which God himself lays down his life to save sinners and satisfy justice? Who could have conceived of a story so perfectly unified from start to finish? Who could of known the complexity and beauty of the triune God? No one but the Perfect Author Himself.

I believe because I have felt my heart burn within me at the unfolding of Christ in the Scriptures (Lk 24:32). Because I have heard the shepherd’s call and recognized his voice (Jn 10:3-4). Because I have seen light shining out of darkness in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:6).

Remembering the foundation of our faith allows us to cling through difficulty and confusion. We know Christ has the words of life so we can trust his heart even when we cannot understand. Though the wind and the storms rage around us, we stand knowing our lives are laid on the strong foundation (Mt. 7)

And we have believed, and  have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God –

Just one year before, Peter made the choice to believe in Jesus. By faith, he left everything to follow him, not knowing what would happen. And in that short time,  Peter came to know Jesus. As we have seen, Peter came to know the power of Jesus’ words, both to impart wisdom and perform miracles. But more than that, he came to know his character: his integrity publicly and privately. His compassion. His life of prayer. He came to know his faithfulness. Jesus had confused Peter with hard words before, but he had never once let Peter down. Everything Peter knew about Jesus pointed to an inescapable conclusion: that Jesus was the Holy One of God – the long awaited Messiah. The Savior of the world.

The crowds decided Jesus was not worth following because of one difficult message. Peter, on the other hand, based his allegiance on his history with Jesus and on Jesus’ proven track record of faithfulness. Because of that, Peter is not quick to leave at the first signs of hardship.

In the same way, the Scriptures have revealed more than wisdom and life lessons to me; they have revealed a person – the person of Jesus Christ. When I became a Christian, I believed in him. I made a commitment to follow and trust him, even when things got tough. And, over the years, I have come to know him. I have found him to be faithful. I have learned to trust him even when I cannot see, because he has taken painful circumstances and turned them for good time and time again.

Yet, there are times when I feel no affection at all for the Savior. No matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to remember what the big deal is about Jesus. He seems like a Sunday School cliche, distant from the realities of daily life. He feels easy to ignore and leave behind. What do I do in those moments?

Peter has taught me not to wallow in present feelings, as if they have the final say, but to remember his past faithfulness:  Remember, O my soul, who you have believed in and come to know. Remember everything you’ve learned about the character of your Savior. Remember your history together: all the times he’s come through in your life. Could it all have been fake? Could it all have been a lie? Or are you the one not seeing clearly? Trust that he is faithful and good.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God. Those words don’t magically fix everything, but I’ve found they strengthen me to cling to Christ when I feel like letting go; to hold on with sincerity and faith when I feel nothing. To pray and ask for help for another day.

Did I not choose you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil -For a long time, I focused on Peter’s words and skipped over Jesus’ response to the disciples. Jesus’ words seemed harsh. I wasn’t sure how to read his tone or what he meant. Was he dismissing Peter’s plea? Was he rebuking the disciples? I’m still not sure I understand completely, but I think there are comforting words here for doubting disciples.

I’m sure Peter felt the frailty of his words as he said them – what if his belief failed him? What if he strayed past the point of return? We know later in the Gospels that Peter, and all the disciples with him, would stray that far. Peter would go on to deny his Lord three times and flee from him in shame.

But the Lord answered wavering Peter with these comforting words : did I not choose you? Those words didn’t come out of nowhere. Jesus had touched on the idea of being chosen throughout chapter 6 as he addressed the crowds:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day…No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— (John 6:35-40, 44-45 ESV)
Jesus tells the crowds the real reason why they will leave behind the Bread of Life. It is the reason why Judas will reveal himself a devil: they have not been chosen by the Father. The Father has not drawn them. But Jesus also tells the disciples the real reason why they will persevere. God chose them. God drew them to come. And it is Father’s will that Jesus lose nothing of what the Father gave him.
But how can I know if I’m chosen? What if I’m like the unbelieving crowds? What if I’m like Judas, who ate, drank, and lived with the Savior, but walked away unchanged? In a great and wonderful mystery, Jesus extended an invitation and promise to chosen and unchosen alike.
Whoever comes to me I will never cast out. And whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. It does no good to worry and waver about whether you are chosen. If you are afraid of losing the Savior, come to the Savior. Listen to the voice within that tells you to hold on to Him no matter what, even when your feelings and your intellect and your righteousness fail you. He will hold you and not let you go.

 

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. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you. (Psalm 139:7-12 ESV)

Wee Little Zaccheus and Me

Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see.

Maybe it’s the children’s song, but I’ve always pictured Zaccheus as a laughable cartoon character. Luke tells us that he was so “small in stature” he had to scurry up a tree just to see Jesus. When I imagine the scene in my head, it seems comical and a bit ridiculous.

I can’t help but wonder if deep-down Zaccheus thought of himself as a joke too. I imagine him as someone who longed to be noticed, but whom no one really took seriously. Maybe that’s what drove him up the ranks to become the powerful but hated chief tax collector. Perhaps he said to himself: “Yes, there may be stigma and ridicule, but at least there is power and wealth. And maybe, at last, I’ll be able to find that sense of significance I’ve longed for.”

zach-1

Yet, in Luke 19, something drove him to climb that tree to see the Savior passing through. Perhaps he had reached a dead-end in his search for significance. His job had given him power and wealth. But it also led him into a lifestyle of sin. Further, it had not given him the significance he desired, but drove him further into isolation.

Rich Tax Collector Zaccheus was as pathetic as ever. He was still “wee litle” Zaccheus – someone who was, in every sense of the word, small.

What do you do when you feel small?

I see a lot of myself in Zaccheus. I feel small most of the time too. Like Zaccheus, I find myself flailing to ‘stand tall’ among my peers or hiding away when I feel like I’m still the same “wee little” Chris I’ve always been.

How much of our lives are spent trying to make something out of ourselves? “At all costs, I will not be pathetic!” we say, with shaky and unsure voices. We try to build ourselves up so we’ll be successful in our careers, worthy of romantic love, and worthy of admiration from those we love.

However, any search for significance apart from God is sin and leads only to more sin. Our sin may not be as blatant or stigmatized as Zaccheus’ tax-collecting, but we are building our own nicely decorated towers of Babel. Ultimately, these searches are idolatrous and disastrous. There is no significance to be found outside of Jesus. And so, like Zaccheus, we find ourselves just as lonely,  insecure, and empty as we were before.

Weakness is the Way to Jesus

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What if, instead of trying constantly to make something of ourselves, we let our smallness drive us up the tree to catch a glimpse of the Savior?

The wonderful truth of the Gospel is that Jesus welcomes the pathetic, helpless, and small. “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” Jesus says.

Zaccheus had just wanted to see Jesus. Yet, here was Jesus treating him like someone who mattered- like someone significant. Him! The man who everyone looked away from in disgust when they passed him on the street; the liar, the thief, the pathetic joke of a life. Out of everyone, Jesus wanted to stay at his house.

The truth that Jesus came not for the well, but the sick – not for the righteous, but for tax collectors like him – moved Zaccheus so deeply that  he declared, suddenly and joyfully: ‘I will give everything back!’ In a moment, he left behind his old life and everything it represented.

“Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham,” said the Savior, “for the Son ofMan came to seek and save the lost”

Compare Zaccheus to the rich young ruler who had come to Jesus just one chapter earlier. If Zaccheus was the kid in high school who ate alone at lunch, the rich young ruler was that rare guy with the distinction of being genuinely nice and a handsome rich stud at the same time.

While the rich young ruler came to Jesus sincerely, he also came confidently. He was not in the tree like Zaccheus. He was not ignored and ostracized by the crowds. Everyone viewed him as an asset. A successful and godly man whom Jesus would be lucky to have as a follower. Subtly, maybe even subconsciously, the rich young ruler believed that about himself too.

And so, when Jesus told him to keep the commandments, he instinctively answered: “All these I have kept from my youth”, not realizing what a bold and proud statement that really was. He had none of Zaccheus’ brokenness. He did not know what it felt like to be unclean, ignored, lonely, and utterly pathetic.

Jesus, to the everyone’s surprise, does not invite him to dinner. He responds with a backbreaking request for radical generosity and turns the rich young ruler away.

Weakness is just weakness

I need to be careful when I talk, think, and write about Jesus and weakness.

My sinful hearts wants to use Christianity as revenge for the losers. Christianity flips the script! Now weak and insignificant people like me and Zaccheus matter, and the people I always envied (like the rich young ruler) are on the bottom. I co-opt my weakness and turn it into a badge of righteousness to search for significance in the same old ways.

Look at me! Look how weak I am, but how I still depend on Jesus. I’m honest and real, yet I’m not trying to present myself as strong. Aren’t I wise? Humble? Worthy of admiration and respect?”

But weakness is just weakness. There is nothing special about weakness. Weakness feels pathetic because it is pathetic. And weakness only matters if it leads to repentance and joy in Jesus.

Zaccheus’ weakness made him realize he was the worst of sinners. It  taught him the spirit of the tax collector, who stood far off with lowered eyes, beating his breast and saying , “God be merciful to me a sinner!” Weakness taught Zaccheus that he belonged in the tree, not at the front of the crowds. He knew Jesus had every reason to pass him by. Jesus should have passed him by.

That’s why Jesus’ grace affected him so deeply. When Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell all his possessions, it seemed ridiculous him. But Zaccheus does just that in his joy, without even having been commanded by Jesus. It was the fruit of repentance. He couldn’t believe that Jesus would call someone so weak, so insignificant, and so sinful down from the tree.

Would we embrace weakness instead of trying so hard to show that we’re not weak. Would we let our smallness lead us up the tree to see Jesus. And we will find joy, when he invites us down to follow him.