I got off track. Okay, that’s a colloquialism, but it’s true. I am a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus, but I got away from my calling to preach Good News. Why? Reasons that I can think of: 1) Disappointment 2) Rejection from people I cared about, 3) Desire for things outside the will of God, 4) Disbelief that God wants to bless me.
Let’s begin with the last first. I’ve tried many things to get God to bless me. Early in my Christian life I made promises that I couldn’t keep. I’ve fasted, both food and other things. I’ve prayed, complained, journaled, read more and more of the Bible, served, given money, offered personal sacrifices. Nothing changes me, and that’s the real issue. I must change, but “a leopard cannot change its spots” and I cannot change my nature.
I’ve come to the realization that what I do and who I am doesn’t matter. It’s who God is that can change, well, everything– even me. That’s the nature of the Gospel. God is good and God loves me (and you) and God has done everything that needs to be done for me (and you) to be blessed and changed. We cannot change our natures, but God will… once we trust his love and goodness enough to permit Him to begin (and continue) that process of transformation.
I was saved many years ago at the age of 16. I made a deal with God that involved nothing more than taking him at his word. I was a lustful, sin sick teenager who heard the message that God loves me and accepts me “just as I am.” I tried to clean up my act, but was not able to measure up. I couldn’t eradicate the lust of my heart. When I heard the Good News that Jesus died for me just as I am to make of me what he wills, then I accepted the offer of life in place of my living death. So, the deal went like this: Lord, I cannot do this on my own; I cannot stop this lust in my heart. If you accept me as I am and you will help me, then you can have my life.
It’s interesting that even many years later I still default to trying to please God by trying to stop lust and sin as a precondition of his blessing. That’s not the deal I made with God, though; or, I should say, that’s not the deal He made with me (and offers everyone in the Gospel). God is good, apart from Him, I am not.
Don’t try to compare yourself to me, though. You might be tempted to say: “Well, I’m better than you. I’m not doing anything that bad.” You might be surprised to find that that isn’t true. Even if it is, Jesus is the example of what a human being is supposed to be, and I assure you, you’re not that good and moral. Or, you might say: “I’m much worse than you. I’ve done horrible things.” You might be surprised to know that God judges the heart above the action, and even when I’ve done nothing externally wrong, my heart is wicked and yearns for things that, even if the world accepts, God hates. So, I may have imagined it but never done it, and you have done it. The difference is whom you’ve hurt in addition to God and yourself, but we’ve both sinned.
The point is: God is good no matter what we’ve done, and he offers to make us right. First, he sees us as good and right, even though we aren’t, because Jesus became our sin and died in our place, debt paid, penalty served. Theologians call this justification or imputed righteousness. What it means is, because of Jesus God sees us as righteous, even while we are still struggling with sin. There are many places where this is taught in the New Testament. For example:
“since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,” (Romans 3:23–24, NRSV)
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, NRSV)
This is the basis of the Good News, the Gospel. Yet, although I’ve preached it every week, I still fell short of consistently living like I believed it. Why? Well, I said I had an issue believing that God wants to bless me. That resulted from a guilty conscience as I wrestled with lust and anger and other sin. Formulated into a statement, it would be: How can God love someone who desires this, or who has done that?
It goes deeper, though…
Are you ready for the real confession? I’ve always had a suspicion that God doesn’t really love me. Yes, “God so loved the world,” and I’m part of the world of people he loves. But that seems so general and impersonal. God loves everybody. I’m not disparaging that; I appreciate it. However, it didn’t translate into me feeling God cares about me personally. So, yes, I’ll get into heaven because of Jesus, for God loves the mass of humanity so much that he came and died. But what about “he died for me”? I believe God loves people; I just don’t think he really likes me all that much. Sometimes it feels like he doesn’t want to be around me. So, I feel neglected, sometimes abandoned, even though I’m saved.
I default to that because when we consider God in the natural, we are inclined to understand him to be like our human fathers. My biological father was absent; my step-father was distant. I wanted my step-dad to adopt me, but he wasn’t willing to ask me to take his name. I experienced rejection from both men. Additionally, I could never measure up to my step-father. He was a big man, bigger than life sometimes. I was a scared boy. He tried to help me. We studied karate’ together. He certainly didn’t need this; he did it for me. So, don’t think he was a bad guy; he wasn’t. I’m not disrespecting the man. However, I could never call him “Dad”. I always called him by his first name instead. I could call him my dad to other people, but never to his face. Why? He didn’t ever give me permission to. Almost no one knows this, but when I was baptized as a teenager, I used my step-dad’s last name. I was looking for a Dad when I came to Jesus. And I found one in God the Father, but I have had a hard time sensing or receiving his love and acceptance.
In the natural I feel rejected, neglected, abandoned, unworthy of affection and incapable of measuring up, even at my age… That is how I’m inclined to feel about God the Father. As a result, even though my thinking and theology teaches otherwise, I have a proclivity to act like I’m on my own living for God doing ministry for Him. Yes, I’m saved, and yes I’ve got some gifts the Lord has given, but I often feel I have to do it all myself. This is the reason I’ve become so angry when things don’t work, or situations don’t work out, or when people have abandoned or opposed me. I just feel like there is no one in my corner to to help me up or fight for me when I’m down. This has created a negative environment at times. And it does not indicate that I have the right quality of faith in the God of Jesus Christ.
However, that has not consistently been the case, and it has begun again to change. God is a good, loving and engaged Heavenly Father and the One whom Jesus gives me the right to call “Daddy.” I’ve begun to sense that once again as I’ve simply chosen to believe it in spite of my own sin.
Last year I began with a fast of several things; in fact, I encouraged our church to do the same. I continued saying “no” to one of these things for many weeks. This didn’t stop my lust, anger and other assorted attitudinal sins, though: only faith has helped.
“These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” (Colossians 2:23, NRSV)
The year was not one of growth, at least not on the surface. However, what I began to realize and internalize more deeply than ever is this: God loves me anyway. I’m not saying I believe he loves me and doesn’t care if I become angry or lustful. I’m saying, he loves me in spite of my sin and loves me enough to stay with me and work with me and help me overcome. That is a very big deal.
I’ve known and taught, nearly my whole ministry, that our lives must be God-centered rather than self-centered. Early on, I was profoundly affected by the book Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. I came to the conclusion that our greatest problem is self-centeredness, and that our greatest pursuit must be God himself, living a God-Centered life.
However, in reading this confession you can detect a lot of self orientation. That’s because knowing something, even teaching it, is not the same as realizing and living by it. That is what has begun to change over the last 6-12 months. Through the typical disappointments and failures, my faith has– are you ready for this?– grown stronger. This has not been the result of me overcoming my weaknesses, but of realizing God’s acceptance of me in the Beloved (in Jesus) IN SPITE OF MY FOOLISHNESS AND SIN.
The covenant I entered with God is the New Covenant, and it is not offered to those who are deserving, good and moral, but to those who recognize they are weak and in trouble. This Agreement with God was inked in blood, but not mine. Jesus signed it when he was crucified. I cannot fail because the New Covenant is in Jesus’ blood. He is the Guarantor. Not me. My part is to agree, to commit my weak self to Him, to open up and let His Spirit enter and do the lifelong work of transformation. I just need to trust Him, instead of myself. “Trust in the Lord wit all of your heart and do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). I need to love Him, above myself. “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
I fail my Father daily in big and small ways, but Jesus never falls short. His covenant of grace will always remain in place. He will never deny or forsake me. That is the Gospel, and it is very Good News.
What will be the result of this renewed realization? I am okay. I am secure. I am not easily angered or shaken. I will persevere in believing that God will bless and anoint and cause me to succeed in His work. I will not fail. Discouragement, disappointment, anger and doubt are all dissipating, evaporating like the dew when the sun grows warm. Hallelujah!
I am positive of this. It is not self-assurance or delusion, but faith.
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
I am convinced. Faith is inherently positive, so I am positive. This will be a challenge in a darkening world filled with bad news, increasingly opposed to Christian faith. However, I am not afraid. I will not shrink back to destruction, but I will persevere in faith to the preserving of my soul in paradise and life eternal (Hebrews 10:39).
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37–39, NRSV)