Finding Who We Are

I blogged about The Good and Beautiful God a few weeks ago but it’s been on my heart to delve a little more deeply into one particular chapter that kind of knocked my socks off. In chapter 8, the author proposes that “I am a sinner” is a false narrative that must be corrected. How do you feel about what you just read. Did it stop you in your tracks like it did me? Did the word “heresy” form in your mind? Are you even thinking right now that perhaps you shouldn’t read on, as I did? Well, I hope you read on.

Smith does not deny that sin is present in our lives, but he argues that “the prevalence, and seeming dominance, of sin in our lives makes it easy to conclude . . . that our fundamental identity is “sinner.” Nothing could be farther from the truth, he says. The New Testament narrative he longs for us to learn is that we are saints. “Saint” is not something achieved by righteous acts over a lifetime but rather an identity bestowed upon us by a God who loves us, not on the basis of what we do but through the life, death and resurrection of his Son! Over 164 times, Paul in his epistles reminds us that we are “in Christ” or “in the Lord”. (Go count the number of times the word “sinner” appears in the New Testament!) I love how Smith puts it: “Christians are not merely forgiven sinners but a new species: persons indwelt by Jesus, possessing the same eternal life that he has.”

I think the fundamental point to consider is “how does God see us?” What exactly does it mean to have this new nature? What would it look like to see ourselves as being “in Christ,” as God does, and live into that narrative?

If you’re a parent, imagine if you viewed your child only through the lens of his wrongdoings. Or as a teacher, you label one particular student as a troublemaker. What kind of behavior might you expect? It’s a safe bet he or she will act just as you view him. Why? People tend to live up to their basic identities. Now take that same student and put him  with a teacher who loves him and sees great potential in him. Chances are that student might do an about face – but only to the extent that he assumes the identity that is offered to him.

When the prodigal son returned home, he was quite willing to live as one of his father’s servants, but his father welcomed him home as a son. While we don’t know the rest of the story, one thing is certain: how the son viewed himself would determine his relationship with the father. If he could never see himself as anything more than a lowly servant, that is all he would ever be. It was up to him whether or not he would accept and live into the identity offered him by his gracious father.

God rescues us, forgives all of our sins – past, present and future, and reconciles us to himself. But if we never fully assume the new identity we’ve been given, we will continue to live untransformed lives. The key, Smith notes, is to abide in Christ, “who is not outside of us, judging us, but is inside of us, empowering us. The more deeply we’re aware of our identity in Christ and his presence and power with us, the more naturally we’ll do this. We must get our narrative right and practice spiritual exercises to deepen our awareness of truth.” We must stop viewing ourselves on the basis of what we do – right or wrong, good or bad, and start to see ourselves as God sees us – in Christ.

As I read this chapter, I couldn’t help think what a gift we offer one another when we see and treat  fellow believers as precious saints of God, as recipients of that same life-changing grace that we’ve received. As we reflect God’s love to one another, we invite others to live more deeply into the transforming truth of life in Christ.

I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the good stuff in this chapter, let alone the entire book. If there’s one book I’m recommending this year, this is it. I hope you’ll give it a try!

In You we’re living
In You we’re moving
In You we’re finding who we are (from Finding Who We Are by Kutless)

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Good Doggie!

Somehow we’ve managed to train our dog to stay in the yard, without a fence or leash. We usually go out with him, but it sure is nice on chilly mornings to take advantage of his homebody nature. He’s as curious as the next dog but something in him likes to stay close to home. He roams freely in our large backyard, exploring the perimeter daily as if expecting to find something new. And yet when he comes around front, he never goes past the front walkway but heads right up to the porch. I can be out back doing something and he will be waiting on the front porch forever for me.

It occurred to me recently that I’ve lived my life, for the most part, somewhat like my dog, close to home and never venturing beyond the yard. I’m not a risk taker, and the only changes in my life have been ones that demanded a response from me, rarely ones I’ve initiated. For several years now, I’ve been wanting to move in a different direction, but fear of the unknown, of what lay at the edge of the yard, kept me tethered to the safety and security of the predictable. Until about a year ago when it finally hit me, I needed to leave the yard. I realized there was no way to achieve the life I was envisioning without taking a risk.

One of the beautiful paradoxes of life in Christ is that we must remain close to home, while being willing to venture where God leads. On the one hand, God invites us to know him deeply. He then calls us to an intimate knowing of ourselves through this intimate knowing of him. I like to think of this as “staying home,” able to be our true selves with God, one another and ourselves.

Yet God is always inviting us to move beyond ourselves, beyond what we think is possible. He invites us to take risks, to step out in faith and push into the unknown. It is from this anchoring of our being in Christ that we are able to grow and move beyond the safety of life as we know it. It’s not that we live unsatisfied lives, always sniffing at the edge and wanting to be where we’re not. But when we sense God beckoning to us, moving us in a new direction or into a place of deeper commitment, we can (as I’m learning) respond, trusting God’s faithful presence on the journey.

I’m glad my dog sticks close to home, where it’s safe. But then I’m glad I’m not a dog! I want to stay, not where I am safe, but where I am known, and from that place I long to be willing to venture out into the wide open spaces of God’s grace!

The Look of Love

In our Bible study, we’ve been talking about how Jesus might have looked at others. In Mark 10, it says that Jesus looked at the rich young ruler and loved him. What might that have been like to have the eyes of Jesus look deep into your soul? And yet of course, he does. Lately I’ve just been spending some time in stillness, imagining the eyes of Jesus upon me. It melts me, it really does. I see all kinds of things there – from joy to tears. That look, as I experience it through Scripture and prayer, keeps drawing me back to a safe place where more and more, I want God to strip away all the pretense that stands between me and him.

While I believe that Jesus actually sees me, I also realize that many people have never experienced that loving gaze. They may be too caught up in just surviving from day to day to stop and consider how Jesus might love them. They may sit in church pews every Sunday and still not realize that Jesus cares for them personally. I think that’s part of what we offer others. When we take time to just look at others and see them for what they really are, when we can see past the junk, knowing that God looks past our junk, what a gift we can offer them.

And yet, I’ve been spending time each morning lately reading Psalm 131. I’m not sure if David was really certain that his heart was not proud nor his eyes haughty or if that was just a hopeful prayer. I know more often than I like to admit, my eyes are haughty. They’re engaged in presenting a front to others, one that protects the real me while projecting who I’d like to be. I don’t think Jesus can love others through those eyes. So that is my prayer of late: Change my view, O Lord. Eyes fixed wholly on you. Free and clear to see and reflect your love to others.

Later on in Psalm 131, David likens himself to a weaned child, contented. The eyes of a contented child are anything but haughty. I think how my eyes see others will change as my view of God continues to change, as my heart becomes more and more contented with him and him alone.

My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.

But I have calmed myself and quieted my ambitions.
I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.

Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore. Psalm 131

Repost: Molded or Morphed

(I’ve decided to repost some past blogs during the remainder of August. The following was originally posted on August 18, 2004 at my old blog location. )

I’ve been thinking about Romans 12:1-2 lately, where Paul instructs the Christians in Rome to be transformed, rather than being conformed to this world. The difference between those two words, conformed and transformed, is striking. Without bothering to check out Webster’s, I offer the following definitions:

Conformed – molded to or around, made like
Transformed – changed from one thing to another, made new

Conforming is something I can do on my own. I can conform to the expectations others have for me or to the expectations I have for myself. I can adopt the standards and convictions of those around me, so that their lifestyles and attitudes become my own. This verse is probably single-handedly responsible for many of the standards and rules I, along with many other people, were forced to abide by for so many years. I was taught that these rules were in place to keep us from looking like, and conforming to, the world. The only problem was, the very exhortation of “be not conformed to this world,” in its execution, resulted in conformation to another system. In refusing to be molded to the image of this world, I wrapped myself around and became comfortable in something equally distant from God’s heart; the approval of man.

Transformation implies something happening to me from the inside out. How am I transformed? By the renewing, on an ongoing basis, of my mind. And how is my mind made new? By the of the word of God and the continual working of his Holy Spirit. The more I am being transformed in this way, the less I will be molded to the world. But this transformation is nothing I can bring about in my own power. I haven’t the slightest clue how it all works, this miraculous and continual transformation of my life. As I see it, my part is simply to be yielded to the Holy Spirit and immersed in His word.

The results of this transformation are humbling. No one tells me to change the radio station or not rent that movie. No one approves my reading list anymore. I don’t have to go through dress checks or turn in Christian activity reports. But my desires are changing day by day. I’m no where near the ultimate goal, that of being like Christ. But like nothing else, I crave His working in my life. I long for my desires to be His desires.

To be molded is easy. It’s visible and measurable and brings a feeling of satisfaction. I’d rather be morphed . . . changed . . . transformed. I’m constantly dissatisfied with myself. But that’s okay. Ultimately, God wants to be the only source of satisfaction for the desires He puts in my heart. Thankfully, God reminds me that He promises to bring to completion His work in my life. All I need to do is get out of the way.

Play It Again, Sam

Is that from Casablanca? I forget, really, not exactly being an old movie buff. But lately I find myself thinking that much in my life bears repeating, like an old familiar song.

I always pictured the Christian life as being a journey from here to there, the goal being ascension towards Christ. If I drew it out, being a visual person, it might look something like stair steps. I’d place myself as a little stick figure somewhere along the continuum, hopefully moving upwards but in reality all too often moving backwards.

I think the image has morphed though, into more of a spiral. Instead of viewing the times I seem to struggle with the “same old thing” as backward mobility, I now see this as a natural part of life in Christ. I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t a few core sins all of us face along our journey, but each time we come around to them again, we’re at a different place. If we truly are being transformed into the image of Christ, then we’re not the same person we were last year, last month or even yesterday. Not that sin becomes less of a struggle, but as we live more deeply into grace, transformation becomes more of a reality and we face our struggles as different people.

Not only that, but a spiral represents an inward journey as well. It seems to be a dual reality, that the more we’re willing to face ourselves and know ourselves in the light of God’s grace, the more we know him. And the more we come to know Christ, the more we realize who we are in Christ. That’s why I think knowing ourselves – being at home with ourselves before God – is so important.

Think about it – a good parent will reserve the most serious discipline and training for inside the home. Why? At home, there are less distractions. At home, we’re not soccer players or cheerleaders or students; we’re just our parents’ children. At home, we come face to face with ourselves before our parents. The more we come to be at home with ourselves – accepting ourselves as beloved children of God – in spite of our brokenness – the more open we become to God’s transforming work. And from that place of security, he is growing us up to do his will.

Anyways – back to the spiral thing. I’m starting to realize there are some things I will encounter over and over again. Do I really need to hear another message on the spiritual disciplines? Do I need to read another book on grace? Another song on faith, hope or love? Must I be reminded again that God loves the world? That he is at work, right here and now? Yes, yes and yes!  It’s like a ride on a roller coaster – I know what’s coming the third time around but by then I know how to position myself for that loop or dip. And I’m ready to say, “play it again, God!”

The Elder Son

Today we wrapped up a six part message series based on the parable of the Lost Son in Luke 15. Before worship, I headed to Starbucks and reread the passage from Luke.  I struggled to concentrate amidst the noisy conversation of four gentlemen solving the problems of the world over their morning coffee. I found myself skimming distractedly through the passage, having read the familiar story more than six times over the past weeks.

And then I noticed something I’d just glanced over previously. When the father goes out and pleads with the older brother to come in and join the celebration, the son replies, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you . . . ” (Other versions say “serving you.”) The irony hit me. One son trudges home in rags, hoping to find a place in his father’s household among the servants. And the father hightails it out to greet him and welcomes him home as a son. Meanwhile the other brother, the faithful son who remained at home, sees himself as merely a servant, yet his service is what he believes warrants his father’s attention and celebration.

Prior to this series of messages, I dismissed the elder son as haughty, a guy with a bad attitude, but certainly not the focus of the story. Over the last few weeks, I’ve come to understand that the elder son was also far from home.

Do we view ourselves first and foremost as beloved sons and daughters of our heavenly Father? Is our life in God about what we do for him or is it rooted in what he has done for us? How often do we pause in our day in simple awareness of what it means to be a child of God? Do we understand that we can’t do a single thing to earn our way into the family of God, yet slip into an assumption that our “perfect obedience” to him keeps us in his good graces?

Jesus left his most famous story unfinished. I like to think he wanted his hearers, primarily religious people, to look inside their hearts and find the ending to the story there, an ending that could be a beginning if they could only find their way home to the heart of God.

Choosing Joy

A confession: I don’t always choose joy. Oh sure, I’m subject to bursts of happiness and I certainly have experienced much joy in my life.  I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a pessimist. I think it’s just that I’m of a more serious nature and my first response to most things is to think them through – rather than just recognize and receive joy spontaneously.

Over the past 9 months our Bible study trekked through the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). For our wrap-up, we were asked to consider how God had challenged us. As I looked back through the notes I’d jotted down in my Bible, one word leaped out at me: joy. It was one of those “no, you’re not really saying that, God” moments. But listening over the next few days it was pretty clear God was revealing something to me.

Fast forward a few weeks and I just finished reading The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry Nouwen. A truly wonderful book that describes his journey of reflection after encountering the famous painting by Rembrandt. I resolved to finish it this afternoon before my nap. Why was I surprised that the next to last chapter focused on the celebration of the Father and the invitation to joy? God has perfect timing, don’t you think! Some great quotes:

  • The reward of choosing joy is joy itself.
  • People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness.
  • Increasingly I discover that every choice for joy in turn reveals more joy and offers more reason to make life a true celebration in the house of the Father.
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

As a little reminder of my decision to choose joy, I’ve started carrying around a small stone with me . . . a smooth white stone of the sort my gram and I used to seek out and collect when I was a child. I’m calling it my joy rock. So far it hasn’t ended up in the laundry and that’s a good thing! The connection with my gram and the stone, as well as the painting, (she was a painter and a student of the work of masters such as Rembrandt) reminds me that in every situation, I want to choose joy. I want to recognize and receive it when it comes my way, and I want my life to be infused with it so it overflows to others.