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Category: Grace

Claiming “Christ Alone” from the bottom of the stupid ditch

There’s a funny video going around social media showing a boy pulling a sheep out of a tight ditch. When the boy finally frees the sheep, the sheep excitedly bounds away and, possessing the average intelligence of a sheep, leaps into the same ditch. Often the caption is attached: “Some days when Jesus shepherds me.”

I am having one of those moments.

The last couple of weeks have not been my most stellar. I have not felt on my “A” game. In fact, I have felt I urge to be relegated back to the Peewee League of life.

Many nights, I have laid in bed this week, staring up at the ceiling and thinking, “I am a grown man. How did I miss this?”

I couldn’t even ask what I was thinking because clearly I wasn’t thinking.

What has been the most frustrating part was that I did nothing rebellious or intentional, just—well—stupid.

I have felt like the more I try to focus, the more thoughtless I have become. The more fires I try to put out, the more fires are started by my own hand.

If I was in the Bible, I would have been Uzzah walking alongside the ark of the covenant on its return to Jerusalem. I see it tip, reach out my hand to steady it, then–zap–I am remembered for my thoughtless blunder for all eternity.

That’s the kind week its been.

We all have times like this. Some of us have no trouble making amends, rectifying the mistake(s), and moving on.

Unfortunately, even after successfully doing the first two steps, I often have trouble with the last part–“moving on.” My tendency is instead to make sure I take ample opportunity to beat the crap out of myself for committing such a faux pax in the first place.

How could I let [insert latest faux pax here] happen? I question my abilities and even doubt my calling. I demand to know how I could be so stupid, or how I neglected to catch something so obvious.

Then I spiral.

Into full-blown depression.

It’s kind of the way I am wired.

This morning, I shuffled into church when I clearly would have rather crawled under a rock. A cloud of self-condemnation hung  over my head. Up to the point of actually entering the church, I entertained the thought of not even going this morning and just taking a drive to anywhere but here.

I crept in after the service started and found the furthest corner to sulk in.

I was pretty sure this would be a waste of time. I avoided eye contact as best I could. I didn’t want to worship today. I didn’t want to hear from God. I just wanted to beat myself up.

My attitude was sour. My filters were down.

Then Jesus pushed himself in.

It came through the second worship song:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name[1]

These words derailed my self-loathing. For the last several days, my entire focus has been on me: my stupid mistakes, my shortcomings, my self-pity. In other words,  the more I condemned myself for my stupid mistakes, the more I removed my focus from the Shepherd.

Of course I am going to be depressed.

The first line of this song, however, tore my focus from self and back onto Jesus.

Jesus alone has to be our source of hope. I have to place my hope in him and not in my performance and accomplishments.

Christ alone, Cornerstone
Weak made strong in the Saviour’s love
Through the storm, He is Lord
Lord of all.

Christ alone.

It’s an easy claim to make when life is rosy and lush.

However, it is another thing when you’re uttering those words ensconced head-first in the bottom of a ditch.

Through the storm. Lord of all.

I think when we beat ourselves up over our mistakes, bad decisions, and just plain carelessness, we are implying that life is not about Jesus but about ourselves. The world is all about me — my successes, my failures, my achievements, and my mistakes. Truthfully, though, the one who benefits the most from this kind of self-condemnation is the enemy.

Instead, Jesus sticks his head into the ditch next to my stuck body, says, “I got ya,” before pulling me out by the leg.

The truth is, I am likely going to wind up in that ditch again. I wish I could say otherwise. But that’s what it means to be human.

However, real discipleship occurs not by boasting how we can avoid the ditch but by how we can utter the words “Christ alone” while head-first within it.

Whether it’s the first time we’re there or when we stupidly find ourselves there again.

[1] “Cornerstone,” Hillsong Worship

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Betraying Jesus

An excerpt from the chapter “The Betrayer” from my book Losers Like Us

Was Judas Iscariot predetermined to betray Jesus? Was he placed on this earth solely for the purpose of selling Jesus out? After all, as the syllogism goes: Jesus is God; God is omniscient; therefore Jesus is omniscient. At some point, Jesus had to know that Judas would betray him, so it appears safe to assume that Judas lived only to betray the Messiah and, if so, that he also stood beyond redemption.

But that doesn’t ring true either. It seems to fly in the face of God’s character and of Jesus’s mission. Although I have no qualifications to judge such things, this smacks of injustice to me.

Another difficult question is, why did Judas do what he did? Was it his inescapable fate? Scripture says he did it because “Satan entered into him” (John 13:27). Similarly, Jesus at one point said directly to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). If both Judas and Peter experienced being taken over by Satan, then why did Peter go on to become a powerful follower of Christ, while Judas went on (as is traditionally assumed) to eternal damnation?

Why did Judas betray Jesus? Was it jealousy? Judas was not part of Jesus’s inner circle, made up of Peter, James, and John. Perhaps he thought he should be.

Did he just not connect with the others? Judas was from Kerioth in Judah; he was the only disciple who was not a Galilean. Perhaps he felt subtly excluded or persecuted. Perhaps three years of feeling like an outsider was enough to provoke him.

Did he betray Jesus because of his own guilt? Scripture says that Judas, as treasurer, was stealing from the ministry (John 12:4–6). Guilty people often act defensively and heap blame on innocent bystanders to deflect attention away from their own wrongdoing.

Or maybe, like the other disciples, he truly believed Jesus was the Messiah and just couldn’t understand why Jesus wasn’t setting up his earthly kingdom. Maybe he called in the authorities to force Jesus to “make his move,” either in the garden (perhaps with some supernatural display of power) or in open court.

Scripture says:

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.”

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. (Matt. 27:3–5)

The strong implication is that Judas was truly shocked by Jesus’s sentencing. I think Judas expected that Jesus would somehow rise up and vanquish his accusers, rather than receive a death sentence that, for reasons unknown, he chose not to fight.

This possibility is not so far-fetched. Simon the Zealot probably had similar hopes of revolution in following Jesus, and even Peter used swordplay to fight Jesus’s enemies (John 18:10). Maybe, like virtually all Jews at that time, Judas fully expected that the Messiah would lead a revolution and was just trying to help it along.

Judas’s true motivation for betraying Jesus is a mystery known only to Judas and to God. At any rate, when Jesus is condemned, Judas is “seized with remorse” and kills himself. And with remorse like that, surely there is hope for repentance.

Isn’t there?

For some, it’s a very tricky issue.

Maybe this is why we prefer the simplistic, one-dimensional interpretation of Judas: it’s just easier. Digging deeper opens a tangle of theological questions that can polarize the body of Christ. And while this chapter might seem to be doing just that, it is not my intention. Instead, my purpose is to reflect on the life of Judas Iscariot, chosen personally by Jesus to be his disciple.

It is strange to think of Judas as a disciple when he is seen solely as Jesus’s betrayer. The gospel writers seldom mention Judas outside of his betrayal and never mention anything positive that Judas might have done.

In a way, this makes sense: the gospel story centers on Jesus. The gospel writers couldn’t possibly include everything that happened in those three years, so they focused on what mattered concerning Jesus. And what mattered concerning him with Judas was that Judas betrayed him.

But what else do we know of their relationship during the rest of Jesus’s ministry on earth? Was it a purely professional relationship, with Jesus needing Judas strictly for his leadership abilities and accounting skills as treasurer for the disciples, or for some other assets not named in Scripture?

I don’t think so. I can’t imagine Jesus limiting his interaction with Judas to financial reports given during occasional business meetings.

Remember that Judas—and I can’t repeat this enough—received a personal call from Jesus to join the disciples. When Judas first answered that call, he was not a traitor. He traveled with Jesus and observed Jesus’s ministry. He watched Jesus heal cripples, cure lepers, subdue demons, and even overcome death. He saw Jesus calm a violent storm. He saw thousands flock to Jesus, and he helped distribute a miraculous meal to them from one small boy’s lunch. He walked with Jesus for three years, talked and laughed with him, prayed with him, and listened to him teach. Even after Judas conspired with the religious leaders to betray Jesus, he sat with the disciples at the Last Supper as Jesus washed their feet in a silent act of service. He was just as much a recipient of grace as Peter, James, and the rest.

And I believe he was just as much a friend to Jesus as they. I believe that Judas and Jesus loved each other. After all, the Gospels say that Judas betrayed Christ—not sabotaged or tricked him, but betrayed him. Betrayal is unexpected treachery from a trusted friend. That is what makes it so painful: it is committed by someone close to you, someone into whom you have poured your heart, your life, your love.

In the movie Braveheart, the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, Wallace finds his army being slaughtered by the English. Frantically, he signals his reinforcements to come help him, but instead they desert the battlefield before his eyes. In desperation, he breaks away, commandeers a horse, and gives chase to the king of England.

But a knight cuts him off.

Wallace, knife in hand, overpowers the knight and rips off his helmet.

It is Robert the Bruce, Wallace’s close associate and fellow freedom fighter. He has turned against Wallace to support the English.

At the moment Wallace realizes that he has been betrayed, the light drains from his eyes.

He rolls back on his haunches and lies down as if to die.

The king’s guards quickly surround and arrest Wallace, who offers no resistance. The fight, the passion is gone.

This is betrayal. This is what Jesus experienced. Unlike Wallace, he never gave up, because he knew how the story would end; but even knowing that could not lessen the pain of betrayal.

Did Jesus know in advance that Judas would betray him? He certainly knew at the Last Supper because in Scripture, when the disciples ask who will betray him, Jesus says it is the one to whom he gives the bread and then gives it to Judas (John 13:21–26).

Yet at the same time, several factors here indicate that Jesus is reaching out, encouraging Judas to turn from his treacherous plan and be restored.

First, tradition says that during the Last Supper, Jesus, acting as host, seated Judas at his right—a place reserved for the guest of honor. It may be only tradition, but tradition often is based on ancient knowledge that has since been lost to us.

Second, during the Last Supper, Jesus performs an extremely intimate act of love and service by washing the feet of his disciples (vv. 3–5). Scripture says that all of the disciples were together at this time, so Jesus must have washed Judas’s feet too.

Third, though Jesus announces openly to all the disciples that he will be betrayed, the subsequent dialogue between Peter, John, and Jesus appears to be more private:

After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”

His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”

Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”

Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.

So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. (vv. 21–30)

Scripture does not reveal whether the other disciples heard Jesus say that he would give the bread to his betrayer. However, I believe they did not. The reason I believe this is that John, reclining against Jesus, asked his question in an intimate way, and I believe Jesus answered it intimately as well. It is possible that only the disciples nearest Jesus, such as Peter and John, heard Jesus’s remark. I believe Jesus kept this conversation semiprivate, so as not to alienate Judas from the group. Remember, Peter betrayed Jesus not once, but three times—yet he was restored. If Judas were to turn back to Jesus later, as Peter did, then Judas would need the other disciples for healing, forgiveness, and accountability.

Fourth, in the midst of Judas’s betrayal in the garden, right after the fatal kiss that told the Romans whom to arrest, Jesus says to Judas, “Do what you came for, friend” (Matt. 26:50). Jesus calls Judas “friend.” I am certain this was not a sarcastic dig to exacerbate Judas’s guilt, but rather a tiny glimpse into Jesus’s immense love and grace for Judas, even in mid-betrayal.

Thus, in these examples—inviting Judas to the place of honor at the table, washing Judas’s feet, keeping the revelation of Judas’s betrayal semiprivate, and addressing Judas as “friend”—Jesus is showing grace to the one who has already sold him out.

I wonder what kind of eye contact might have occurred between Jesus and Judas that night, as Jesus washed Judas’s feet, handed him the Passover bread, and received his treacherous kiss. Did Jesus extend a look of grace, communicating that the Son of Man had come to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10)? Did Judas look away in shame?

I hope so. He handed over my Savior to be tortured and killed, so I hope he suffered crushing regret. And according to Scripture, he did. That’s why he went out to an empty field and committed suicide.

Sometimes I feel a macabre pleasure in imagining Judas’s worthless carcass rotting in a lonely place. But then I think, how many times have I, like Judas, greeted Jesus with a symbolic kiss of betrayal? How many times have I betrayed my Savior?

Well, that’s just silly: of course I’ve never betrayed Jesus.

Then again, I’ve never been in a position where I was tempted to do so. I think once in grade school I got cold feet and denied being a Christian. Except for that, I have lived pretty openly about my relationship with Jesus. Acknowledging Christ in public has never been a matter that could possibly end my life, as it was for the disciples that night.

And yet …

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds his listeners that the law of Moses says don’t murder. Now most people, throughout history, have had little trouble obeying that law. I can honestly proclaim (rather proudly, too) that I have never killed anyone. Ever.

But then Jesus closes the trap: If anyone is angry with another in his heart, he is guilty of murder. And if anyone thinks lustful thoughts, he is guilty of adultery (Matt. 5:22, 28).

This teaching blurs the line between murder and not-murder, or adultery and not-adultery.

Or betrayal and not-betrayal.

So, if you do x in your heart, you have betrayed Christ. But what is x?

It might be different things to different people. Though I am totally open about my Christian faith, I realize that there are times when I still betray Jesus.

If I keep others from seeing Jesus in me by not being Jesus to them, isn’t that a form of betrayal? Yes. I betray Jesus when I refuse to show him to others, when I avoid loving the “least of these” (Matt. 25:44–45), when I fail to pick up my cross and follow him (Luke 14:27). Therefore I am just as treacherous as Judas Iscariot.

I think we all are.

Judas did not commit the unpardonable sin, and he was not the only betrayer. Peter openly denied Christ three times, and the remaining disciples—all but John—abandoned Christ during his trial and hid while the brutal sentence was carried out. They all deserted him when he needed them most.

This too is betrayal.

So why single Judas out as the villain? Is it because his actions, unlike theirs, led to Jesus’s death? Or is it because Judas killed himself before the resurrection—before Jesus could physically say, “I forgive you” and restore him to fellowship?

Does Judas’s suicide disqualify him from redemption?

Does this mean there are limits to God’s grace?

Asking such questions, instead of merely accepting the one-dimensional view of Judas, may stir up controversies, disrupt doctrines, and tear dogma to shreds.

It’s easier to accept the “passion play” Judas and make Judas the unequivocal bad guy. Problem solved.

But the standard passion play scenarios, in replacing Jesus’s true archenemy (Satan) with a human substitute, inadvertently create an impassible chasm between the sin of betrayal, which we all commit to some degree, and the saving grace of Jesus. And if Scripture truly shows Judas as an irredeemable villain, lost beyond hope, then I am beyond hope as well. I desperately need to know that God’s grace is greater than all my sin—even if I, like Judas, die at the wrong time, before God has a chance to extend it properly.

I guess I am tipping my hand here by giving Judas the benefit of the doubt. I would like to think that I will see him in heaven, restored by Jesus and reconciled to the other disciples.

Perhaps this is wishful thinking on my part, and I can already hear the theological debaters spooling up to launch their standard arguments.

However, such debate misses my point.

The ugliness and severity of Judas’s act only forces us to ask: Do we truly believe that God’s grace is deeper even than this? Do we truly believe that forgiveness is available to all sinners who earnestly desire it? Do we truly believe the gospel?

The other disciples, betrayers all, apparently regretted their sins, found forgiveness, and were restored.

Judging from his suicide, Judas apparently regretted his sin as well. Was he forgiven and restored also?

We don’t know that he was.

But we don’t know that he wasn’t, either.

I can’t reflect on Judas without also reflecting on the power of grace. Grace and Judas are inseparably intertwined in my mind.

Strange as it sounds, only after writing about Judas did I realize just how much I needed him.

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When Another Receives the Blessing, I Need the Grace

On a recent frigid afternoon, I had completed my weekly grocery run and headed for the parking lot exit. It was a cold, snowy Saturday in November, and I felt chilly on the outside and pretty frosty on the inside too.

I was irritable because I was downright exhausted.

The preceding week had been one of those “perfect storms.” It was just a long week. Every night was a late night. There was no time to turn off my introverted brain before it was time to wake up from a restless night to start the whole thing over again.

By my Saturday morning grocery run, I was what doctors might call “brain dead.” It was solely by the grace of God that the mass between my ears could generate enough willpower to put one foot in front of the other.

And I had yet another commitment later that evening.

My filters were down, and it wouldn’t take much to set me off.

As I navigated my car toward the exit, I fell in behind a white SUV. When it came to the intersection, its windows came down so the passenger could hand some cash to a homeless person standing there with a sign. The sign promised divine blessing.

The homeless person trudged through the snow to collect the money from the vehicle, which sported a fish symbol and a sticker of two nails, intersecting to form a cross.

I was impatient to get home, but as a fellow Christ-follower, I felt I could cut the SUV’s occupants some slack because they were giving to “the least of these.”

We started moving again, but eventually came to a stop at a traffic light. Once again the SUV’s window went down and the passenger held out money for another individual holding another sign, again promising divine blessing.

And the light was green!

A green light is the perfect way to avoid both guilt and eye contact by looking left — you know, “to check for traffic.” Easy-peasy.

Whatever was left of my filters crumbled. The absolute audacity of these people to hold me up for a homeless person. Didn’t those do-gooders in the SUV realize that I had someplace to be?! Even though it was just to be home resting my exhausted brain?!

After making the right turn—carefully “checking for traffic” on my left—I fell in behind the SUV with a hearty scowl and a heart of venom, only then to spot the wide smile on the SUV passenger’s face.

The wind came out of my self-righteous sail.

She gave to “the least of these” in the name of Jesus—twice! She saw a need and responded the way Jesus would have. As a result, she experienced great blessing.

I, on the other hand, did not.

I was turned inward, withdrawn, and focused only on my own stresses. I thought only of my own needs and comforts.

I had a chance to do something for two individuals in need, and I did not. Instead, I complained inside about those who did. I felt horrible. I heard the condemnation of a thousand voices, taunting me in my failure—Satan’s default response when a Christ-follower blows it.

This did not help my day get any better.

Yet, through the cacophony of condemnation, one voice broke through. It was a soft, single voice—a whisper no less—uttering, “I love you.”

I love you.

I — who did nothing to help the least of these, and who clearly sinned by putting my own needs above others’ — had been reminded in that moment that I am loved.

Those in the SUV got a wonderful blessing, but I was the one who needed a reminder of grace.

At that specific moment, God knew I needed grace more than I needed blessing.

John 21 tells the story of the resurrected Jesus appearing to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee. Once Peter recognizes Jesus, he impulsively jumps from his boat and swims to shore.

Three times, Jesus asks Peter: “Do you love me?” Three times Peter answers, with growing frustration, “You know I love you.”

Then Jesus commands, “Go feed my sheep.”

Some days before this dialogue, on the night before Jesus was crucified, Peter had commited one of the most horrible acts of betrayal: three times, he had denied he even knew Jesus.

Peter basically commits the same atrocity as Judas, times three. Though the outcomes were different, Peter had to have felt the same sting of guilt as Judas.

Yet on that beach, Jesus faces Peter, suffering from the worst kind of guilt, and pours grace upon him, restoring him completely.

Jesus finds Peter and forgives him because at that moment, Peter needs grace more than he needs blessing.

Alone in my car that frigid Saturday afternoon, I experienced grace from a loving Savior who saw me in my self-centeredness and forgave me anyway.

Divine blessings are great, don’t get me wrong — but sometimes, being human, we just need a touch of grace.

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Shoehorning Jesus into the great mask debate

These days, across the nation and throughout Christendom, there’s a white-hot theological debate on a topic that I’m sure has been debated for centuries: Would Jesus wear a mask?

This issue is due to the novel coronavirus—a troublesome virus that proves, once and for all, Tommy Lee Jones’s statement from the movie “Men in Black”: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”

But I digress.

The great controversy of Coronapocalypse is: Are you pro-mask or anti-mask? Which do you value more—personal liberty, or corporate safety? Do masks really help even if people use them improperly (which, it seems, almost everyone does), or are they just a symbolic tool to make us feel proactive and safe?

And this is a flaming hot issue. Both sides claim to have definitive data on their side. Some people defiantly go out with no masks, causing scenes or attacking store employees who ask them to put one on. Others follow the offenders and post videos of their egregious sin while trying to shame them into compliance.

Pro-mask or anti-mask: which one are you? (I will pause here so you can choose a team.)

And now, not to feel left behind, the body of Christ has entered the fray, leading us back to that burning question which has troubled philosophers since I believe the Council of Nicea…

Would Jesus wear a mask?

Anti-maskers might say: “Of course he wouldn’t. He’s, like, God. Why would he? COVID can’t kill him. And it can’t kill me, either, unless God allows it. So I’m just going to live my life, and follow Christ’s example of trusting God.”

And that actually makes sense.

But pro-maskers might say: “Of course he would. It’s the compassionate thing to do. Even if it doesn’t slow the virus, at least it shows others that we are not selfish; we do care about their safety.”

And that actually makes sense too.

Me? I don’t wear a mask. But it’s not because I’m an anti-masker. It’s because covering my face gives me great anxiety, sometimes almost to the point of panic attacks. I just can’t cover my face, not even to keep it warm in subzero weather.

I’m not proud of this weakness, especially in this era of COVID-19. But I just can’t tolerate face coverings. And it’s not something I can turn on and off. Anxiety doesn’t work like that.

Before anyone says I should do it anyway, let me ask you this: What is the situation that creates the most anxiety for YOU? Is it heights, caves, family? Think of a time when you were in that situation, or imagine that you are in it at this moment. Now do you see how crazy it sounds to just get over it?

This week I had to visit my doctor’s office, which I knew would require me to wear a mask. The mere thought was so stressful for me that I slept only three hours the night before and only after taking some Benadryl. All night long I thought about that visit. I feared I might panic and hyperventilate right there in the office, which would cause a spectacle and embarrass me half to death.

Fortunately, at the office I was given a cloth mask and, when I told them about my panic attacks, the doctor and nurse allowed to use it my own clumsy way: instead of strapping it behind my ears, I held its top edge against the bridge of my nose and let the rest of it hang down in front of my mouth. The doctor and nurse were perfect examples of how to be adaptive and gracious—much more so than most other examples I’ve seen.

And this is what troubles me about shoehorning Jesus into the great mask debate. Jesus is more than a rhetorical point to support either side of any issue. Those who label any given action as “not like Jesus” or “unChristian” are generally missing the complexity of his nature—how gracious he is, how understanding. They are shrinking Jesus into a flimsy, feeble figurine that might be rubbed for good luck.

So what WOULD Jesus say in this debate over masks? First of all, if you think what he would say is directed at the other side, you’re not hearing him.

I believe he would meet each of us exactly where we are.

To the militant anti-masker who sees this as a fight for liberty and personal choice, he might say: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Luke 25:40).

To the aggressive pro-masker who appears to focus more on the act than on the heart, he might say: “You tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders” (Matthew 23:4).

To the one with anxiety issues who wants to wear a mask but is overwhelmed by panic, he might say: “Then neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11).

Jesus is bigger than any issue you can name.

In the great mask debate, as in all of life, what would he say not to others but to you?

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In a world of vitriol, a breath of fresh air

We live in a world of ugly vitriol. We spew hatred online toward each other, and we seem hell-bent trying to top ourselves every day. Social media websites, who claim the purpose of their companies is to bring individuals and communities together, are the primary tool we use for tearing each other apart. Facebook and Twitter have become poison. Although we tend to personally deny that we are a part of the problem, a quick search through our own social media accounts probably would reveal otherwise. Sadly, we all contribute to the fast-moving poison.

So what brings out this poison, this vitriol and hatred? Simple. We have different opinions.

Apparently, having a different opinion is justification enough to warrant personal attacks, prejudiced generalizations, character assassinations, and wishes for harm to befall our opponents in order to teach them a lesson.

All because they have a different opinion than ours.

But in this climate of corporate and individual thought control and character assassination, I saw a brief, fresh moment of humanity recently.

Allie Stuckey is a political blogger. She is young and conservative—the nickname for her website is “The Conservative Millennial.” She is very active on social media and frequently appears on national cable networks. Her website states that she hopes to educate and inspire other conservative millennials.

So, doing what political bloggers and commentators do across the nation, she tweeted her opinion about something. In the context of the sexual assault epidemic that has darkened the United States in the last several months, Stuckey recently threw her two cents into the ring, tweeting: “The #metoo movement is a symptom of a broken world.”

As a fellow Christ-follower (she openly is), I don’t disagree with Stuckey’s statement. It is true: everything wrong in this broken world is ultimately because of sin. If there was no sin, there would be no World Vision, Eyes That See, or International Justice Mission. If there was no sin, there would be no #metoo movement. There was no sexual violence or lust in the Garden of Eden. Sin is what causes us to hate. Sin is what cause some men to objectify and treat women as sex objects.

Stuckey in no way meant to minimize the problem of sexual harassment, but rather to magnify the real evil that it is. I am a Christian, and I agree that this broken, sinful world needs Jesus.

And it needs Jesus badly.

That said, whether you agree or disagree with me—or particularly Allie Stuckey—is beside the point. Consider it right or wrong, it is nevertheless Allie’s opinion, her contribution to the discussion.

Then an individual responded to Stuckey’s tweet, an individual sitting on the board of the Master of Science in Foreign Service (MSFS) program at Georgetown University. This individual specifically addresses Stuckey, stating: “Wishing you a #metoo moment. Maybe then you won’t be so insensitive.”

In other words, I hope you get sexually assaulted or raped so you’ll learn your lesson.

An odd thing to wish upon a woman in the name of supporting sexually-harassed women.

Stuckey called this man out: “Hi @Georgetown — someone on your MSFS board just told me he hopes I get sexually harassed or assaulted. Is this the kind of standard your university holds for your advisors?”

Many in the Twitter universe also responded to this man for his unthinking remark. Afterward, the individual doubled down on his initial statement, earning further rebuke.

Then the exchange went viral.

Until the individual attacking Stuckey suddenly deactivated all his social media accounts. Something was clearly happening behind the scenes. Shortly thereafter, a Georgetown University dean issued a statement that said the department had asked for and accepted this advisor’s resignation from the board. Though Stuckey’s attacker had eventually apologized to her, the statement said it could not tolerate one of its board members wishing harm upon another person.

Shortly after this bit of news, reports began to surface that the man got fired from his regular job for these comments. His career is destroyed. His personal empire crumbled to the ground.

Good, my flesh cheered. Some elitist who could be that stupid to tweet such obnoxious garbage had it coming. Oh, such poetic justice!

Then this young millennial taught me, a Christian for longer than she’s been alive, a lesson I should have long since gotten.

Stuckey posted a blog on her website entitled, “I won, but I don’t feel triumphant,” where she shares her perspective of the exchange.

In her blog, she doesn’t gloat or take a victory lap. Instead, she looks within and checks her own motives. She wonders if she did the right thing. She writes, “I don’t know if I handled it the right way. When he initially made the comment and then subsequently defended himself, insisting that I deserved it, I felt no remorse. But to watch him crumble from the backlash and then see the real-life consequences unfold, I feel guilty.”

Even though her attacker arguably deserved what he got, he is still one for whom Jesus died. Rather than maintaining defiantly that she had every right to bring this man down, she seems to be seeking Jesus first. She acknowledges the struggle between justice and mercy raging inside of her: “I’m battling now what I’m sure many Christians have battled before. On the one hand, calling out people for clearly inappropriate harassment is good and necessary: it prevents them from targeting someone else. On the other, where does grace come in?”

No time for a smug victory dance. Instead, she falls on her face wondering if she did the right thing. To Stuckey, what matters most is not political victory, but where she stands in her relationship with Jesus. This kind of humility is what all Christians—conservative or progressive—should take with us into the world of political discourse.

No political cause is worth the destruction of another person.

The goal in today’s vitriolic climate is to have a hand in destroying the lives of political opponents. This is the badge of honor for political trolls. After all, the ill-conceived reasoning goes, if any opinion disagrees with mine it will surely hurt someone, so it must be silenced.

In this game of Twitter cat-and-mouse, Stuckey scored the cheese. She won the battle. The big ugly ogre got his comeuppance. In social media, it is so easy to spike the ball in the end zone and celebrate. It’s easy to smack-talk and jeer the loser of the political joust.

But Stuckey took the high road. While she acknowledged this guy probably got what he deserved (this wasn’t the only time he had tweeted things against conservative women), she didn’t gloat.

She didn’t celebrate his downfall.

She thought about the bigger picture–the one with Jesus as king.

And for me, in such a poisonous climate, that honesty—that humility and inner struggle—is a most welcome breath of fresh air.

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The joy of being found

I have been owned by dachshunds long enough to know three things. First, they do not ask for attention; they demand it. Second, the intensity of their midnight “potty urgency” corresponds directly to the depth of my sleep. And third, they have ADD.

Of my three wiener dogs, the one who most embodies these tendencies is Missy. One recent night she jumped off the bed – which means, “I gotta go now!” My wife heard her before I did, and went downstairs to let her out.

Soon after, my wife started calling, “Mis-sy!” (which sounds really loud at 3:00 in the morning). She then called to me that she couldn’t find Missy and needed help looking.

So I checked around to make sure Missy hadn’t slipped back upstairs (she hadn’t), and then went down to search for her.

As I walked down our long driveway, flashing my flashlight back and forth, I caught a small movement. It was Missy, wandering down the street.

I called her. Her head snapped in my direction, and she bolted to me.

I scooped her up and held her tight.

When we returned to bed she burrowed under the covers and pressed her body against me, shivering. All night long she clung to me, as if terrified of losing me again.

I surmised that while doing her business she got distracted by something, ran out to the street to check it out, and lost her bearings in the darkness. When I first saw her she seemed to be exploring different driveways, looking for the right one. When I called her she rushed to me, flooded with joy and relief.

It made me think: Do I remember what it was like to be lost? Or, even more important: Do I remember what it was like to be found?

I had just been reading one of  Jesus’s parables about “lost” things – the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32).

In this story, a young man goes to his father and demands his inheritance – a very crude thing to do to someone who is still living. Basically, he is saying to his father’s face: “You mean nothing to me. I wish you were dead.”

But surprisingly, the father grants the son’s wish and gives him his inheritance. So the son takes it, travels to distant lands, and squanders it faster than a Powerball winner. He falls so low that he takes a job feeding pigs (unclean animals, to a Jew) and becomes so hungry that he craves the pods they are eating – yet “no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:16, NIV).

It dawns on him that although he has abused his father and destroyed his position of sonship, perhaps he could return to his father as one of the servants, who have food and shelter.

So he returns.

The most amazing moment in this parable is what happens when this young man’s scraggly carcass appears just over the horizon:  “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20, NIV).

Two observations catch my attention here. First, the father spotted him from a distance. This means the father had been watching for him, anxiously awaiting his return all this time. And second, the father is so thrilled at the sight that he runs to him. If the father’s character is that of God, then Jesus has just described the only time in the Bible when God ran.* 

This is an intense image. It shows how desperately God wants to blast through the obstacles between him and us.

The cross does that.

In Luke 16, the prodigal son has reached the end of the line, the bottom of the barrel. It seems he has broken his father’s heart beyond repair. So he is hoping for a chance to return home in some low position; he isn’t expecting much.

Think of his fear as he realizes just how lost and alone he really is. When he had money, I’m sure he had all the rich food, fancy possessions, and good-time friends he could want. But now, it’s all gone. He’s broke and hungry, with no money to provide even minimal safety on the long journey back home. At any point he could have fallen victim to an accident, assault, or even murder, never to be found again.

Being “out there” is scary when you finally realize how alone you are, how badly you need to be found, and how unlikely it is that the one you’ve hurt should ever take you back.

So imagine the son’s initial bewilderment, turning to incredulous joy as his father runs to him and calls for a giant “welcome home” celebration.

This story is perfect for Lent, during these weeks leading up to the cross. It reminds me of Missy bounding to me, overjoyed to be found by someone who loves her.

Do I remember the feeling of being found by the One who loves me?

Do I remember the joy of being plucked out of the dark – lifted from isolation into security? Do I cling to my Savior in relief that I am safe in his grasp? Do I remember the happiness that I am no longer lost, but am now found?

Or am I beyond that now because I am too educated, too mature, too independent to need him?

No. The cross daily reminds me that I am still a broken man who will never be beyond needing Jesus. I am still as capable as ever of getting lost in the cold darkness – and I still need to listen for his voice, calling me to him. I still will run to him, rejoicing greatly that I am found.

The cross is a reminder that there will never come a time when I do not need Jesus.


* See for Benny Hester’s 1985 song with this title.


Giving the devil his due: the art of the lie

As I stood at the top of the staircase in the academic building at my august British university, the voices began: “Failure. Flunkie. Flop.”

I had just experienced what was, and remains, the most awkward, humiliating moment of my life. In the final hour of my seven years of effort, my two oral examiners had just rejected my PhD work. After hearing the news, I had to stand up in front of them, cram my useless 400-page paper into my briefcase, and exit the room in heavy silence. One of them had simply stared at me without expression; the other never made eye contact.

Classes were letting out, and the atrium below bustled with throngs of students, chattering and laughing. Their journey of chasing their dreams was just coming to birth, whereas mine had just died.

Carefully I descended the stairs—ashen, weak, almost too stunned to breathe—out of the building, down the path, and through the front gate, never to set foot on that campus again.

And the voices followed me: “Screwup. Moron. Misfit.”

I flew home to my dream job as a Christian high school teacher and soon learned that, for reasons I still do not know, my contract would not be renewed. So – on the last day of school there – I exited in shame from that campus too, never to return again.

And the voices continued: “Worthless. Washout. Idiot.”

Those voices would continue in my head for many years after that disastrous winter of 2008. I heard them in the quiet of solitude, whenever I was alone. I heard them in the dark while falling asleep, and again upon waking in the night. I heard them in the shower and while walking the dogs. And I heard them in waiting areas before job interviews. (Interviewer: “What would you bring to this organization?” Me: “I don’t know…a pulse?”)

I was so devastated by my losses that I figured there must be some truth to these voices. They became extremely hard to ignore.

Further, I truly believed (and still believe) that God had led me to that PhD program and that dream job, both of which began well but ended in disaster. And for a long time afterward, this belief led to even more accusations: “God tricked you; he led you into a trap. You have a right to be bitter toward the university, your advisors, your examiners, your boss, and even your God. Go ahead, curse them.” In an odd way, I am grateful that I was too numb, too paralyzed to act on those voices. But I still had to hear them.

Since that painful year, and the death of my life dreams, I continue to get questions from caring people who can’t understand why it all happened, but they try. The most frequent theory is that Satan caused me to fail because he was threatened by what I might have accomplished If I had succeeded.devil's horn

Yet to me this explanation doesn’t wash, because it makes God and Satan sound almost like equals. You know, thrust and parry: God tries to advance his plans, and Satan counters to thwart them. Superhero vs. arch-villain. But this view gives too much credit to Satan, and far too little to God.

True, Scripture teaches that Satan is very real and powerful, and that he “prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (I Peter 5:8, NIV). But it also teaches that God alone is almighty, and Satan is simply one of God’s created beings. He can only do what God allows; he is not capable of creating obstacles or countermeasures which can successfully thwart God’s will.

In fact, Satan is not nearly powerful enough to do most of what we attribute to him. Even the trials of Job are credited not to Satan but to human attackers (vv. 14-15, 17) and freakish acts of nature (vv. 16, 18-19) – except for the trial of painful sores, with which Job is “afflicted” by Satan (Job 2:7, NIV). Still, Scripture consistently teaches that Satan’s power is limited, both in scope and in nature, and that even the limited power he does have is further limited by what God allows.

apple-and-snake_1280x1024_2988But Satan does not need to have power over circumstances to stop us. Instead, his weapon is words. Everyone takes a beanball to the head now and then, and Satan doesn’t necessarily throw the ball; he just messes with our minds after it happens. In fact, the primary power attributed to him in the Bible is the power to deceive. Jesus calls him “the father of lies” (John 8:44, NIV). His first words in Genesis are a lie: “You will not certainly die…” (Genesis 3:4, NIV).

And when he goes out roaming around, “looking for someone to devour,” his roar is dressed as a whisper.

He whispers to a lonely spouse, “Have an affair – what’s the harm?” He whispers to a depressed elder, “Go ahead, swallow the pills; everyone will be better off.” He whispers to a bullied teen, “Kill them all – they deserve it!”

He coaxes unsuspecting people to do his dirty work for him, causing waste and destruction in our own lives and in the lives of others.

And he whispers to all of us:



“Waste of oxygen.”

Which brings me back to the words in my own head: “Stupid. Nobody. LOSER.” When I was smashed into the canvas by a series of deadly blows to the head, Satan did not deliver the blows. No, instead he was the one kneeling over me, sneering, “Stay down, you piece of trash.”

His attacks were—are—just words. Powerful, persuasive words.

For me, sometimes those words were almost persuasive enough to make me slam my car into a retaining wall on some desolate highway.

But lies are just that: lies. They are not truth. And truth is the greatest defense against them.

So if Satan’s weapon is lying, and he’s very skilled at it, how do we win against it?

As with everything else, Jesus shows us how.

temptAfter Jesus fasts and prays for forty days in the wilderness, Satan comes to him (Matthew 4:1-11) – but again, not as a peer, like a strong villain overcoming Superman with kryptonite. No, Jesus is God, and Satan can’t match him head-to-head. So, true to form, Satan fights him with lies alone.

And Jesus responds not with lightning bolts or heavenly armies, but simply with truth. Of course, it helps that Jesus is truth (John 14:6). But that same Jesus – the Word of truth – lives in us as we are guided, counseled, and comforted by the Holy Spirit. So we have direct access to God’s pure truth.

The key is listening through the din of lies to find that truth, which is often much quieter – like the still, small voice heard by Elijah (I Kings 19:11). And learning to hear it usually happens over time.

When I was nearly overcome by Satan’s deceptions, even in my numbness I had the presence of mind to surround myself with truth. While I did almost everything I could to withdraw from the world, I also joined a home community – a small group of believers who shared their own brokenness and stepped into mine. I went to church. I read scripture. And I started to write. As I typed Satan’s lies and saw them onscreen, their falseness was exposed in the light of truth.

The truth of redemption is woven throughout the entire Bible story, which shows ordinary, broken, sinful people being loved, rescued, and used by God. As I studied how gently and persistently he worked with them, I began to trust that he is constantly doing the same with me.

So, over time, I am being rescued from lies by Christ Jesus, who himself is the truth (John 14:6), the Word of God (John 1:1). This Word created me, loves me, and came not to condemn me but to save me (John 3:17).

Gradually, over a period of years, he is giving me new words. Words of truth.

I hear the words: “Failure. Flunkie. Flop.” But God’s Word says: “Failure isn’t the end; I have a future for you” (Jeremiah 29:11).

I hear the words: “Screwup. Moron. Misfit” and “Worthless. Washout. Idiot.” But God’s Word says: “My grace covers every misstep, every sin” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

I hear the words: “Guilty. Garbage. Waste of oxygen.” But God’s Word says: “I love you, and I died to forgive you and bring your life meaning” (Romans 5:8).

And finally, I hear the words: “Stupid. Nobody. LOSER.” But God’s Word says: “Precious. Beloved. Child of God!”

This truth is life-changing. And we are not meant to experience it in parsimonious sips, like wine-tasters. We’re meant to dive into it, bathe in it, gorge on it—fully baptised in it, heart and soul.

Satan’s power is the power of lies. And our weapon against him is truth.

In truth, one heals.

In truth, lies are silenced.

In truth, Satan is defeated.­

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Breaking a hard heart

Recently my church offered a time of prayer for healing. As I waited for my wife, who was praying for someone, an elder approached me and asked if I myself needed prayer.

I thought I didn’t, but my heart knew. Immediately I said yes, and when I was asked what to pray for, the words rushed out: “My hardened heart.”

05-19-2011I realized just how badly my hard heart did need healing prayer. After a wonderful advent season, as 2016 began I had started to feel deluged by political speeches, social media debates, and “awareness” campaigns over injustices about which I can do little, except worry over how little I can do. At such times, my old patterns of cynicism, sarcasm, and apathy tend to start sneaking back into my heart. After all, my flawed logic assumes, if I act superior or uncaring, then all of the bad things can’t bother me.

But this assumption is not true; those things still do bother me. And so my heart unconsciously hardens. I build a wall against the world—a defense against watching humanity make one bad choice after another, with evil flooding in wherever goodness seems weak or absent. At times I‘ve tried to deflect my feelings with humor, but sometimes that can offend people too. So withdrawal and apathy seem to provide better protection from the overwhelming feeling that the world is spinning out of control.

I begin to see myself as a detached, objective observer, sitting above other humans and mocking them as idiotic Neanderthals. However, my passion and emotion always seem to slip out as sarcasm, passive-aggressive put-downs, and biting comments. Though I try to stuff it inside, I seethe until I reach a boiling point. Then, I launch.

Unfortunately, the sinful choice to withdraw and harden my heart has serious side effects. The heart, as strong as we think it is, cannot completely close itself off from others. It cannot create an unbreachable wall. We angrily try to make sure no more pain gets in, but we cannot prevent our own corrosive bitterness and aggression from leaking out.

I’m guessing this is not God’s intended modus operandi for Christ-followers.

After all, when Jesus approached Jerusalem for the final time, scripture says that he “wept over it and said, ‘If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41-42, NIV).

What brought on Jesus’s deep, unexpected emotion?

Simply put, his heart broke for the people.

In Jerusalem at that time, the Jews were hard-pressed on every side – taxed, abused, and marginalized in their own land by Roman occupiers. Seeking freedom from Rome, some Jews—one could even call them terrorists—issued stealth attacks against both the Roman oppressors and their Jewish collaborators. The city was in great turmoil and unrest.

But that wasn’t all. In addition to external oppression from Rome, the Jews also faced internal oppression from their own spiritual leaders, who had created a huge body of religious regulations governing every detail of life. Breaking just one small rule, intentionally or not, could lead to serious consequences and penalties – so everyone lived in constant worry and fear, trying to follow all of the rules. In about forty years, Jerusalem would be razed and its temple destroyed. And within a week, Jesus’s own fellow Jews, who would at first praise him as their king, would turn on him and kill him.

Yet his heart broke for them.

Me? Most of the time, I just want to shake my head in disgust and brush the dust from my shoes as I desperately seek a saner, less stressful life. “The world is going to hell in a hand basket,” I say to myself from my lofty perch. “Screw it. Let them. World, meet sin. Good luck. I will have no part of it.”

pulling stone heartBut I’m pretty sure my response is not the right one. I don’t need a tough, hard heart. I need a broken one—one that weeps for my city, my country, my world. A hardened heart wants to fight; a broken heart wants to heal. A hardened heart is selfish and stands apart to judge; a broken heart is selfless and jumps in to help.

So how can a hard heart be softened – or, better yet, broken?

Once I understood the process my heart took to become rock-hard, I realized that I cannot soften it through will-power. That’s what prayer is for. Only prayer and repentance can undo the damage.

In the last year, some political and spiritual leaders – even some Christian ones – have implied that praying is basically doing nothing. But these skeptics are blinded to the supernatural power found in prayer.

Prayer acknowledges our helplessness. It is a concession that despite all of our supposed knowledge, we cannot fix our problems but can only present them to a good and holy God and ask for his help.

Prayer includes our confession. It is an admission that we are—I am—responsible for breaking this world, which God created as good, and it forces us to see things through God’s eyes instead of our own.

Prayer restores our unity. It is an affirmation that I am not apart from the world God created; instead I am involved in it, both as part of the problem and as a living reflection of grace. And I definitely can’t reflect grace if my heart is hard.

Every heart must be broken. God can get us there in infinite ways—some very forceful and painful. However, having experienced some of those other ways, I do not recommend them. I think prayer is God’s preferred method.

Because becoming like Jesus requires that our hearts break over the world, seeing it the way he saw Jerusalem.

This is the world he died for.

This is the world he loves.

This is the world he invites me to love as he loves.

And that invitation to love starts with prayer.

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Can we be sinners but not losers?

Since the release of my book, Losers Like Us, I have argued that the Bible does nothing to hide the sins, flaws, and blemishes of the people within. They are too clueless, too full of themselves, and too ordinary to be considered spiritual giants. So I have used the term “losers” to describe them—and also to describe all the rest of us who, each in our own stumbling way, try to follow the Lord just as they tried.

But many people have objected to the “loser” label by saying: “Yes, I am a sinner—but not a loser!”

Loser-Sinner1This response shows just how much people hate being labeled as “losers.” I think they mean that in Christ, we are winners, and I agree with that. Yet I see the sinner/loser distinction differently.

I began studying the Bible characters when I went through a time of darkness and failure in my own life, because I was desperate to see how God could or would use a failure like me for his kingdom. As I studied them, they became more to me than the flat, one-dimensional flannel-graph characters I remembered from Sunday School; they became real, fallible people – just like me. So I began to use the term “losers” to describe them, because their failures and ordinariness gave me hope. I figured that if God could use them in his kingdom, maybe he could use a loser like me too.

I know the word “loser” can sound like an insult, but it is not; it is simply an observation.

Allow me to explain.

 To me, except in the case of Jesus, “loser” and “sinner” are synonymous.

The word “sinner” and the word “loser” have similar definitions. Both mean someone who comes up short, misses the mark, fails to fulfill the standard of perfection. In this sense, only Jesus was not a loser. He alone lived a perfect, sinless life, and compared to him, everyone else is indeed a loser (Isaiah 53:6, Heb. 4:15). After all, there can be only one “winner.” In the real world, not everybody gets a trophy.

This truth is affirmed throughout the Bible. Quoting the Old Testament (Ps. 14:1-3, Ps. 53:1-3, Ecclesiastes 7:20), Paul writes in the New:

“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one….

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

(Romans 3:10-12, 23)

So according to scripture, every person except Jesus is a sinner—and therefore, to me, a loser too.

 If “loser” and “sinner” are not synonyms, I’d rather be the first one.

Saying “I’m a sinner, but not a loser!” implies that being a loser is worse. 

But I see things the other way around. I think being a sinner is worse, because “loser” is just a human value judgment. “Sinner,” on the other hand, is a heart issue that keeps us from the presence of God.

However, neither sinners nor losers are beyond God’s grace; both are fully redeemable by him. 

And on the subject of grace…

The wonderful mystery of grace makes each of us a sinner and a saint at the same time.  We Christ-followers often misinterpret grace in binary terms, with sinners on one side, Christ’s grace in the middle, and saints (saved people) on the other side. We believe that once we move from sin through grace to salvation, we are no longer sinners.

But in truth, even after we are saved by grace, we still sin sometimes. For example, even David—“a man after God’s own heart” (I Sam. 13:14)—is shown to be a deceiver (I Sam. 21:13); polygamist (I Sam. 25:42-44, 2 Sam. 3:2); adulterer (2 Sam. 11:2-4); and cold-blooded killer (2 Sam. 12:9)—and all of these sins were committed after David’s life was dedicated to God. In fact, even in the New Testament, after receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter sinned by fearing the opinion of men more than the opinion of God—and Paul had to call him out (Gal. 2:11-21).

So even though we are forgiven and redeemed, sin is still with us.

Salvation is an ongoing process. Jesus works every day to chisel away our faults and sins as we submit to him, because following Christ is not about achieving perfection; it is about admitting our brokenness, and then being as obedient as we can so that God can build his kingdom through us anyway.

That’s why I argue that we are all sinners, and by default, losers. I can see why some might say that in Christ we are “winners”—but I say that Christ is the only winner. Compared to him, everyone else comes in dead last.

What is so amazing is that Jesus invites us into the winner’s circle to celebrate, party, and identity with him. 



Embracing surrender

surrenderDo you know that old song, “I Surrender All”?

All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give.
I will ever love and trust Him,
In His presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my precious Savior,
I surrender all.

As Lent comes to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “surrender,” and what it means to truly surrender my life to Jesus.

More accurately, I have been trying hard not to think about it.

But the harder I try to ignore it, the louder it repeats in my head: surrender.

What does it mean to surrender? The dictionary says “surrender” means “give up.” But give up what?

I think surrender means giving up three things: pride, freedom, and control—even control over one’s own life.

In military terms, surrender can be an act of cowardice. For dedicated soldiers on mission, surrender is not an option—because it means the loss of those three things, and also possible death to the physical body.

jesus holding up a manIn spiritual terms, however, surrender can be an act of trust. For dedicated Christians on mission, surrender is the only option—precisely because it does mean the loss of those three things, and also certain death—in this case, to the sin nature.

I’ll be perfectly honest: I am great at the act of surrender. I surrender to worry. I surrender to anxiety. I surrender to my flesh, my ego, and my emotions.

In fact, I can surrender to almost anything except God.

But look at Jesus. According to Scripture, on the last night before his death he does nothing but surrender.

First, on his last night with the disciples, he kneels to wash their stinky feet (John 13). It’s mind-blowing—the Creator of the universe, disrobing and performing the lowliest, filthiest act of service.

110631988Next, he surrenders his freedom. Facing arrest, torture, and execution, he prays in agony for another solution, even sweating drops of blood through his skin (Luke 22:44). Yet he ends with: “…not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39, 42). As I’ve tried to make that my daily prayer, I’ve found that almost immediately I start adding qualifiers: “Your will be done, Lord – but I would really appreciate it if you would…” Giving up one’s freedom to the will of God can be much, much harder than it looks.

Finally, Jesus surrenders control. Without resisting, he allows himself to be taken captive and subjected to a series of impromptu trials, a brutal flogging, and death on a cross.

That ugly, blood-stained, wooden behemoth of a cross.

In Philippians 2:6-8, Paul quotes a first-century hymn describing this voluntary transition from glory to servanthood:

[Jesus], being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Jesus’ surrender to crucifixion forces me to rethink my own issues with surrender. He gave up everything to win the battle against sin and death. Sometimes I can barely win the battle against a Snickers bar. Oddly, I’m willing to surrender to Jesus for salvation, but not for the daily details of my life. For that, I surrender only part.

Jesus alone surrendered all.

So what can we do to move toward surrender? Here is what I think, and try to do – better on some days than others.


  • Understand the reasons behind the resistance. Instead of just confessing areas of known resistance, go deeper and examine what drives them. For instance, since publishing my first book I worry about whether people will like it or buy it, and whether I have any more good ideas in me. These are areas over which I have little control—yet I still worry. So I have to ask, what exactly do I fear? I admit I fear failure—but exactly what kind? Or maybe I’m afraid God will leave me stranded—but in what specific ways? Am I afraid I might end up alone and in poverty, or what? I think we should examine and question each worry and fear to find its driving motivation, because I believe those underlying motivations are where Jesus wants to set us free.
  • Focus on the cross. Our struggle to surrender to Jesus is one of the very reasons he was nailed to that cross. It always happens: five minutes after I say, “Yes, Lord, I surrender,” something comes along that causes worry. And then I surrender to that, instead of to God. I give in to my anxiety. But the cross is for everything—our yielded parts, and our unyielded parts too. If we don’t get that, we will beat ourselves up every single time we fail to surrender. Without the cross, we might as well quit before we blow it again.
  • Remember that the initial surrender to Christ is a good enough start. If you are a Christian, you have said “yes” to Jesus Christ. That is a huge start, and it is a big deal—even if you, like me, tend to keep worrying and trying to control the uncontrollable. Once we’ve said “yes” to the cross, Jesus graciously keeps working with us in each problem area of surrender, no matter how much we resist.

Victory - Surrendering to the cross of JesusThe thought of deeper surrender to Jesus has really been a battle within me during this season of Lent. But I think the fact that I can’t get it out of my mind is proof that it’s an area Jesus wants to enter.

In fact, the above passage from Philippians ends with this promise that he himself will help me to obey:

“Therefore, my dear friends…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

So once again, I look to the cross this Holy Week and nail my struggle onto its blood-stained wood. Today, I am surrendering everything I can. Tomorrow, he’ll invite me to go deeper and then, as scripture promises, help me to follow.

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