How much is enough?

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul gave Timothy a warning about the church,

“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers”

You don’t have to look very far to see that happening these days.  Everywhere you look there is another book, another sermon, another song or message or article.  We have become a people who are addicted to encouragement.  In our fast paced society of the immediate, we become quickly bored with the familiar and are in constant search for something new and different.  It’s like we are constantly hitting “check mail” on our spiritual inbox, hoping for the next big thing to hit and excite us.

A recent study by the World Health Organization revealed that those from the richer countries were more likely to suffer depression.  Maybe our wealth and comfort have made us depressed, so we go searching for the next bit of good news, hoping it will lift our spirits.

The promise of “more” – more stuff, more money and more comfort – has left us with less.

We have less time, less connection, less happiness than ever.  One of the things that hits me hardest when I visit developing nations is their joy.  In spite of extreme poverty, they overflow with joy and love and generosity.  I believe this is because they know what is important.

In our pursuit of more we have forsaken our time with God.  We don’t pray that much and don’t study His word that much.  We have lost communication with Him and with one another.  And instead of getting our priorities straight  and reordering our lives, we have simply let others do the work.  We let the pastor study God’s word and bring the message on Sunday.  “Just give me my 3 points to a better life.”  We are just like the Israelites who saw the mountain burning and felt the earth tremble at the voice of Yahweh.  “Moses, you go hear from God and come back and tell us what He says,” was their response.

Look, I’m not bashing anyone.  I know life is hard and we all need help.  And I’m not saying we don’t need pastors and encouragement.  But the answers are not just around the corner in some new teaching.  The answers to life’s problems are where they have always been found.  They are in a deeper connection with Jesus and with each other.

You want 3 points?  Here they are:

1.  Spend whatever time with God you must.  Reorder your life.  Give some things up.  Your idols have promised you happiness and left you empty.  Only He can satisfy.  So take the time to drink deeply of His water and let it quench your thirst.  Other things will grow strangely dissatisfying when you taste of His goodness.  Like the late missionary Jim Elliot said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

2.  Live in community with others.  Our modern church culture has made it possible for us to show up on Sunday morning, do our duty, and never have to make ourselves vulnerable to others.  Find a small community of believers and live life together.  Depression can be the only alternative when we are cut off from others and left to fend for ourselves.  You must be joined with others who know you, love you, challenge you, and accept you unconditionally.  It’s out there. Don’t give up until you find it.

3.  Stop searching for more.  I think this is a big reason Christians in poverty seem to have so much joy in spite of their situation.  They don’t expect more all the time.  They have learned to be content, even in extreme poverty.  They are thankful for what they have instead of always reaching for the “elusive next.”  Be content.  Be thankful.  Rejoice in what God has already done in your life, and submit the rest to Him.  He knows what is best, and your steps are ordered by Him.

These are just 3 points.  They are not the only 3 points.  They do not replace hearing directly from God about your life and your direction.  I’m not bringing the stone tablets down from the mountain here.  That’s your job.  That’s the whole point.  God wants to deal directly with you.  You don’t have to go through a preacher, an author or any other middleman.

Are you willing to listen?

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Planks and splinters

I got a question from someone who read one of my recent posts called “I’m going AWOL.” I thought his question was a good one, it made me think a little and pray a lot about my answer. And I think it’s an important enough issue to answer his question publicly and give all the readers of this blog a chance to be in on the conversation. (By the way, he actually agrees with me, so I’m not “calling him out” publicly or anything.)

Here’s his question:

In the epistle to the Ephesians is written: “and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of the darkness, but rather reprove them.” (Ephesians 5:11 KJV) That “reprove them” could mean that we as God’s children are entitled and exhorted to confront the ungodly in his/her unrighteousness? 

I gave him my short answer on the blog post, but here is the more complete answer. As always, I’d love to hear from anyone on your thoughts as well.

It’s the sin, not the sinner

The first thing that strikes me about this scripture in Ephesians is that it refers to the “unfruitful works of darkness,” not the “unfruitful workers of darkness.” The focus is on the sinful acts, not those who commit them. It seems to me, our focus these days is more on the sinners around us than the grace of God that has freed us from the bondage to sin.  This idea of “taking a stand for God” has consumed us, and has only served to erect a wall between God and those who need Him most.

It’s me that has to change

The next thing about this scripture is that word “fellowship.” My study shows it would probably be better translated as “participate in.”  This is an encouragement to believers not to participate in the works of darkness that are practiced by those in the world around them. “Don’t live like them, don’t behave like them. You have been redeemed by Christ, everything should have changed. Desires, focus, passions should be directed toward Christ and not pleasing yourself.”

This is not a fight

Then there’s that word “reprove.” Again, I think a better translation would be “expose.” I don’t think this is an invitation to do what we’ve done many times. It’s not permission for us to fight and picket and protest those with whom we disagree. It’s not an encouragement for us to point our bony fingers of judgment at others. Rather, I think it is a challenge for us to live our lives in such a way that, by contrast, the works of darkness around us will be exposed for the evil they are.  By doing so, we earn the right to speak into the lives of others.  When we live lives ruled by love, not judgment, those around us become much more receptive to what we have to say.

The bottom line

Look, I know we are called to “come out from among them and do not touch the unclean thing.”  But that command has nothing to do with “them”, it has everything to do with me.  I do not have to shake my fist at the world.  I just stop acting like them.  I don’t have to point out the sin in those around me, that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.

The weapons of our warfare are not of this earth.  Our enemy is not of this earth.  Our battle is not with the sinners, the gays, the atheists or anyone else.  We belong to the Kingdom of Heaven.  That’s a Kingdom that has no end.  And it’s a Kingdom that aims to change me first.  It’s a Kingdom that requires me to lay down my life, my dreams, and my hopes before its King.  It requires me to start with my own planks, not their splinters.

The path of love is a slower, more deliberate pace.  It’s a journey, not a sprint.  It’s a lifestyle, not a marketing ploy.  It takes commitment, patience, and…well…love.

If it is a battle, and we’re going to fight against the sin around us, I think love and mercy are much more effective weapons anyway.

Maybe that’s why Jesus used them.

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Death to Jesus

Jesus met a man on the Sabbath who needed healing.  The Pharisees gathered around Him to see if He would dare violate their rules in order to have mercy on a poor, suffering soul.  He looked with sadness at the hardness of their hearts, then healed the man.  He dared.

“Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.” Mark 3:6

There are two institutions that are directly opposed to the work of Jesus and His kingdom: Religion and government.  The kingdom of God is the most subversive movement in the history of mankind, because it stands as a threat to both.  

Most of us know the Pharisees, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.  These leaders were so immersed in their own religion, so intoxicated by their own power over others, that Jesus’ work was viewed by them as a direct threat.  Why?  Because He operated outside of the neat little box in which they had placed God.  THEY were the experts in who God was and how He worked.  THEY were the voice of right and wrong, based on their own interpretation of the rules.  Jesus didn’t operate with deference to their authority.  He healed on the Sabbath, spoke words of mercy to the sinners, and had the audacity to forgive sins.

Many of us may not know the Herodians.  Little is know of this group, other than the fact that they were a religious sect and political party.  It is thought that they used support of Herod as a means to usher in theocracy.  Some scholars think they even presented Herod as the Messiah in order to establish his political power.  Jesus’ pure teaching about the Kingdom of God would have stood in direct opposition to their political aspirations.

The Kingdom, it turns out, is a threat to just about everyone.

Those who operate in the Kingdom seek humility and not power.  Those who live in the kingdom serve the poor instead of sucking up to the rich.  Those who live in the Kingdom experience the freedom of the Spirit instead of the rules of religion.  Those whose hearts are consumed by Jesus seek His glory and not their own.  The Sermon on the Mount is the most religiously and politically revolutionary teaching in history because it places the Kingdom of God directly in my heart, and outside the influence of religion or political authority.

Both religion and politics are threatened by Christ’s teaching.  But there is nothing more dangerous to the Kingdom than when the two combine together.  There can only be one end to the mixing of politics and religion, and that is death to Jesus.  Entanglement with religion, politics, or both simply chokes out the true work of Christ.  And just like the Pharisees and Herodians, those who choose His Kingdom choose to operate outside the scope of either, and dissidents must be eliminated. In the early days of the church, these two groups joined forces to kill the followers of Jesus, just like they did Him.  Jesus’ warning, “They hated Me and they will hate you too” turned out to be deadly accurate.

And so it is today.  

Those who choose not to submit to religion are deemed troublemakers.  Those who choose to ignore the political climate of the day are labeled as liberals.  Those who seek the Kingdom instead of earthly power or wealth are viewed as irresponsible.

The problem with the world today will not be fixed by more religion or more law.  It won’t be fixed by a political or Herodian messiah. And it certainly won’t be fixed by a mixture of the two.  The problems that surround us will only be repaired when those who follow Christ understand that the Kingdom He established transcends religion, government, and any other contrivance of man.  His Kingdom on earth is not established at His return.  It was established at His resurrection, then turned over to His body the church to fill the whole earth. 

How could a Kingdom whose sole commandment was to love on another become so filled with condemnation and judgment? How could a Kingdom whose sole duty is care for the poor so abdicate our calling?  It is because we have forsaken that Kingdom for our own.

Until His people abandon the ways of religion and government in favor of the personal, simple, revolutionary life of the Kingdom, we’ll just see more of the same.  And the church of Jesus Christ will continue its slide into irrelevance and contempt in the world around us.


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The road more traveled

In the Mosaic law there are 613 laws.  613 things commanded by God, given to Moses, delivered to the people.  Do the things those 613 laws say to do, or don’t do what they forbid, and you’re in good shape with God.  Violate one of them, and you are in trouble.

I think sometimes we are under the impression Christianity operates in much the same way.  Do what God tells you to do, stay away from what He forbids and He’s happy with you.

I sometimes think we want it that way.  

That’s why we’ve created a religion called Christianity.  We’ve set up some rules, things to do and not do.  We’ve set up a set of requirements for how Christians act and talk and think.  Stay within the lines and you’re in good shape.  Stray from the way and you’re in trouble.  It’s cut and dried. It’s easy.

The only problem is that it’s not what the Bible teaches.  

In fact, it couldn’t be more opposite from what the Bible teaches. “Just tell me what to do. 1, 2, 3.  Give me the list.”  What makes us think God will fit in our little box?  What makes us think we can get away with that?

Romans 7 is Paul’s lament at his inability to live that way.  I think most of us see our ourselves in his struggle: doing the things we don’t want to do, not doing the things we should.  We find ourselves trapped by the requirements of religion and living in the guilt of our inability to measure up.  It turns out our “easy way” of rules and regulations is actually much harder than we think.  Religion is a harsh taskmaster.

But then there’s Romans 8.

Paul realizes that life of do’s and don’ts – the law of sin and death – in Romans 7 is a man trying to live by the old standard of the law, and is not the essence of the gospel.  In Romans 8 Paul comes to terms with what the gospel really brings to our lives.  It’s the good news that we are no longer judged by the old standard: those 613 things we should or should not do.  We are instead judged by the redemptive work of Christ.  We are now under the law of liberty in Christ.

Living in liberty is a little scary.  There is no roadmap.  There is no set of regulations meant to keep me between the lines and guide my decisions.   Living like a free man means having to seek the Holy Spirit and having to search the scriptures for myself.  There are no stone tablets being brought from the mountain.  I don’t have the comfort zone of my list of  rules to make me feel good about myself.

Living in the freedom of grace means I have to accept a God who works in ways I don’t always perceive, understand or (at times) agree with.  It means the standard by which I’ve always judged myself and others no longer applies.  But if I’m going to follow Christ, I have to do it His way.  Not my way.  Not the way of a religious system set up to alleviate me of my guilt.

We can’t have it both ways.  Do you have the courage to live in liberty?

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Counterfeit Conquering

I have a theory as to why video games like “Call of Duty” are so popular these days.  I believe all of us, especially men, are created with a desire to conquer.  It is an innate desire to overcome evil, to defeat enemies, to be the hero.

Video games offer a chance to get the satisfaction of conquering, the feeling of accomplishment, without any real risk.  I can defeat the enemy without having to really fear for my life.  I can become the hero without having to chance anything real.  The greatest real danger I face in a video game is carpal tunnel syndrome.

I think the same can be said for social media.  We were created with a need for community.  In the Garden of Eden God said of man, “It is not good for him to be alone.”  We are wired for connection, for fellowship, for intimacy.  Social media provides the chance for me to find community, again without any real risk.  I don’t have to make myself vulnerable on Facebook.  I don’t have to uncover anything about myself I wish to keep hidden.  I don’t have to look someone in the face and reveal who I really am.  I can have lots of friends, yet lack a single friendship.

Entertainment, pornography, shopping: all are counterfeits meant to give us a certain feeling without responsibility.  I get a temporary emotional high, yet I haven’t had to open myself to inspection by another human being, or by God.

I think our modern model of “church” has created this same isolation and lack of vulnerability.

We go to a building with several hundred (or thousand) other lonely souls, sit in a pew, listen to a sermon.  The whole time, no one has to know I’m suffering.  No one has to know that I’m depressed, or that my marriage is falling apart.  We get the spiritual satisfaction without the real vulnerability to which Christ has called us.  We can hide in a big church, we can’t hide in a small group of real community.

There is a real world out there, with real problems.  It is in need of real people with real solutions. The world doesn’t need counterfeit conquerers, it needs real warriors.  The poor don’t need fake help, they need real people who are willing to lay down their lives on their behalf.  The broken and wounded all around us don’t need institutional church, they need real people, serving a real God with real answers.

When we truly experience the gospel in our lives, it frees us from the need for the counterfeit.  

God intimately knows everything about me, and has redeemed me anyway.  He is my Father, He is my protector, He is my power.  I no longer need to fear enemies.  I no longer need to hide behind a false face.  I can be real, because I serve a real God who is on my side no matter what.

Let’s put down the fake.  We’ve settled for second best for far too long.  Let’s quit seeking those false emotional highs.  Let’s allow God to ground our feet in reality, becoming His ambassadors to the world around us.

Let’s start building a real kingdom.

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I’m going AWOL

In case you hadn’t heard, there is a culture war raging around us these days.  Orthodox vs. Secular.  Conservative vs. Progressive.  Call it what you will, we see two distinct world views battling it out in the court of public opinion.  And this culture war has tainted almost every area of our society: our news media, politics and, yes, Christianity.

There are certainly elements of the Christian world who feel it is their God-ordained duty to fight the culture war.  They see America abandoning the “Christian values” they believe have guided our nation since its inception, and are committed to fighting to preserve those values.  They organize and protest, criticize and argue with those whom they feel are leading the nation astray.  I say these words with great care, because for most of my life I have belonged to this group.

On the other side of the table are Christians who equally love God, yet equally fight the culture war in a different way.  They too have a list of morals and ideals they see as eroding, and they blame the “religious right” for leading America down a path of destruction.  Again, I say this with caution and respect, because I have good friends who fall into this group.

Sure, my descriptions are over-simplified and excessively broad.  But they are sufficient for me to make my point.  Actually, it’s more of a question (or series of questions.)

When did God ever call us to fight a culture war?

When did He ever ask us to defend Him to the world around us?  When did God tell us to argue and protest and defend our position?  When did He tell us to marginalize and demonize those with whom we disagree?

Even if we think they are ruining our culture and even if we are convinced the other side is destroying America, where did we ever get the idea that we were to engage in a culture war to defend our beliefs, morals, and traditions?  Have we become so engulfed in politics that we cannot separate them from our faith in Christ?

And since when was Christianity ever intended to become a culture in the first place?  It seems to me it happened about the same time the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as its official religion.  Since that day Christianity has enjoyed a place of cultural and political power that has been relatively unchallenged. And even when questioned, it wielded enough influence to quickly eliminate its detractors.  This marriage of politics and religion has been a long time in the making.

So here we are.  The gospel of our Lord Jesus has been reduced to a series of rules and regulations.  The good news of God’s grace on sinful man has been tarnished by our lack of grace for one another.  The One who spent His whole life on earth criticizing religion has become the foundation of yet another religion.  We fight and argue, criticize and divide.  And we do it all in the name of the One who said, “they will know you are my disciples by your love.”

If there is any culture at all to Christianity, it is love.

If there is any moral ethic which we should strive to uphold, it is love.  Mercy, grace, forgiveness…all can be summed up in that one word, love.  Yet our culture war is the antithesis of love. It’s hard to love someone when you are telling them they are ruining the world.  It’s hard to love someone when you constantly criticize their deeply held values.  It’s hard for them to feel loved when they are always wrong and you are always right.

What have we gained?  Have we really changed anything?  It seems to me all we have accomplished is driving a wedge between God and those we think need Him most.  Most people probably wouldn’t have a problem with Jesus if they didn’t feel so beaten down by His followers.

So I quit. I’m going AWOL.  I’m resigning my post in the culture war.  I will no longer fight against flesh and blood, doing battle with those who are not my enemies.  If there is warfare to be waged, I will fight it in prayer.  And I will love those with whom I disagree. I will be merciful to those who I think have gone astray.  I will leave the culture up to the one who transcends nationality, creed, culture and tradition.

He is big enough to defend Himself anyway.

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What is true humility?

Most of what I have always considered to be humility is really pride, masquerading as self-hatred.

I look at my life, see my sin and my failure, and I hate myself for it. I stand before God and run myself down, telling Him how worthless I truly am, thinking I am being humble before God. True humility, however, is not self-hatred. Humility is not a self-deprecating criticism of ourselves. That is really pride, the opposite of humility.

We must look to Jesus if we are to see true humility, since He is our ultimate example.

He was God, yet He became man. He was authorita- tive, yet a servant. He was powerful, yet gentle and kind. He was glorious, yet He made Himself unassuming. His example, then, shows us that true humility is in laying aside what our position or stature deserves.

To be humble means to follow the example of Christ, laid out for us in Philippians 2, to take ourselves off the throne and serve rather than be served. Humility is laying down our rights and what is coming to us. Humility is not hating who we are; it is knowing who we are. It is choosing to serve: to serve God’s ways rather than ours, and to serve man rather than our own selfishness. To be humble means we use our authority as a means to serve. To be humble means we use our power to protect and defend. To be humble means we use our resources to provide for others instead of gratifying ourselves. In humility we see our lives as existing to serve God and others instead of ourselves.

Surely I look at my own failures and sin, and I am sorrowful over my rebellion. However it must be the Godly sorrow that leads to life instead of the earthly sorrow that leads to death.  The prophet Micah worded it beautifully, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before the High God?…Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Godly sorrow will not lead me to hate myself, for that only leads to depression and death.

That self-hatred only keeps me on the throne and at the center of my consciousness. Self-hatred and pride are twins, for they both keep “me” in the front and center. Micah continues with the answer to his question,

“He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

This is humility in its purest form: not some great penance to absolve me of my mountainous iniquity, not living in self-hatred, not flogging myself either physically or spiritually. True humility takes “me” off the throne and out of the equation altogether. I no longer focus on my sin, my failure or weakness, for I am no longer the issue. I live to serve, not to be served. I live to forgive, not to be forgiven. I live to show mercy, not to be shown mercy. I live to love, not to be loved. I live to comfort, not to be comforted. I live to give, not to be given to.

Then and only then do I cease from the selfishness of self-hatred and begin to live in the Christ- like way of true humility. Ultimately, humility results in my death, in laying down my life for others just like Jesus did for me.

This post is an excerpt from my book “The Church Must Die”, available on Amazon.com.

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What’s that on your shoulder?

What does “carrying your cross” mean?

I have always thought Jesus’ command to “take up our cross” is about me.  I have thought it is about me bearing my burdens, my sins, my difficulties.  I’ve been more than willing to carry around the guilt and shame of all I have done in the past.  But Jesus already bore those. I need not bear them any longer.

Some would say carrying my cross is a reference to dying to myself, and that is partially true.

Think about what it meant for Jesus to “carry the cross”.  When that cross was laid upon His shoulders, all of my guilt and shame was laid upon Him.  In that moment He took upon himself the sin and punishment of the whole world. He bore the cross so others wouldn’t have to.  He carried His cross because we were unable to carry our own.

So perhaps carrying the cross is not really about me.  Yes, it is about dying to self, but Jesus takes it one step further.  It is about dying to myself so, like Jesus, I can bear the burdens of this around me.  It is about dying to myself so I can bring redemption and reconciliation to those who are estranged from the Father.  It is about giving my life to do for others what they cannot do for themselves.

As always, Jesus teaching doesn’t end with me, it always spills out into how I treat and serve others.

Ephesians 2:8-9 tells us we have been saved by grace, and not by any work of our own.  That grace is God’s free gift, purchased for me when Jesus bore His cross.  But don’t forget verse 10.  It takes that grace one step further,

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

Jesus bore His cross for me because He had plans for me.  In that moment when He died for me, I was then destined to die for others.  It’s the way the gospel works.  We cannot separate what Christ did for us from what He has now called us to do for others.  A lifestyle of caring for the poor, standing up for the oppressed, and strengthening the weak are all part of my new destiny in Christ.

And Jesus made it very clear that this new way of living for others is not optional.  He said if I don’t pick up the cross, I’m not worthy of Him.  I cannot accept His grace without showing it to others.

It’s just the way it works.

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The art of redirection

In Matthew 7, Jesus leads off with a fairly straightforward command, “Judge not, that you be not judged.”  

Those words are deceptively simple, because they cut to the heart of what the gospel accomplishes in our lives.

Jesus continues, “for with the judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”  Those are heavy words of warning for those of us who have recognized our own inability to make ourselves righteous.  Jesus is telling us that, if we condemn others, then the gospel that grants us forgiveness becomes pointless. We cannot accept God’s grace in our own lives while denying that same grace to others.

Yet why do we seem so eager to judge?

Why do we feel it necessary to point out all the faults of the world around us?  Why do we work so hard to make sure others know their faults, their failings, and their sins?  I believe it is a fundamental flaw in the way we see and understand the gospel.

Jesus, in this passage, has a word for those who pick out flaws in their neighbor while living in denial about their own flaws:  hypocrite.  That word, in the day when Jesus very carefully chose it, meant “an actor operating under an assumed character.”  I believe this word is at the heart of why we are so quick to judge. We do not fully understand God’s grace.

In spite of our outward acquiescence to the Gospel, inwardly it is still too good to be true for most of us.

We really don’t believe we are off the hook.  It’s hard to believe that God no longer holds us responsible for our sins.  We see our own failure and believe we deserve to be punished.  So we assume the character of one who has been forgiven and play the part of one who has been saved by grace, yet we have never let His grace change how we truly view ourselves.

In our own guilt and self-hatred we lash out at others.  In our inability to change ourselves, we have made it our life’s work to change others.  In pointing out their flaws, it makes us feel better about our own.  The plank in our own eye becomes more comfortable and bearable when we see an even bigger one in someone else.  Our own problem with lust becomes smaller when we compare it to what we consider to be the greater sin of homosexuality.  We feel better about our own pride or selfishness when we see it more evident in those around us.

Children do this all the time, don’t they?  I broke the lamp, so in my panic I point out something worse that my brother did, hoping to redirect mom’s wrath to him and make it easier on myself.

The cure is to understand the gospel.

God’s grace changes the playing field.  In His eyes we are all in the same place: hopelessly lost.  When I understand that, I can let down the facade and admit who I am.  And when I admit my own depravity, I suddenly lose the need to point it out in others.  Those who acknowledge their own utter failure become humble and gracious.  They become acutely aware of the plank in their own eye, and stop trying to cover it up by pointing out those of others.  When I realize I’m not going to be punished for breaking the lamp, I no longer feel the need to redirect and throw my brother under the bus.

Remember, it’s only the gospel that gives any of us hope.  And the same grace God has extended to me is extended to all those people out there that I find disagreeable and disgusting.  What a freedom can be found in letting go of my righteous act!  What liberty to step down from the judge’s bench and leave grace up to the One who offers it freely!  What peace can be found when I stop holding myself and those around me to a standard none of us can achieve.

That’s the freedom I find when I stop merely agreeing with the gospel, and instead allow it to change my heart and mind.

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It all begins with poverty

In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, notice where Jesus leads off:

“ Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

He started the Beatitudes – in fact He started the whole sermon – with those words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  Jesus knew that everything else He would teach us begins there, with spiritual poverty.  That word “poverty” in the Greek means “beggarly.”

Jesus told us that the beginning of what it means to follow Him and to live in the Kingdom starts with spiritual poverty, to be an open-handed beggar before God.

None of what is to follow in the Beatitudes is possible without first becoming a spiritual beggar.  “Blessed are the merciful” is only possible for those who are poor.  When we recognize our own need for mercy, we are then able to show mercy to others.  Beggars have no right to judge and condemn others.  “Blessed are the meek” only happens in the context of spiritual poverty.  Beggars don’t think of themselves more highly than they ought.  Meekness and humility is a natural outcome of poverty.  Overcoming sin, finding peace, rest in Christ…it all begins with poverty.  I can’t experience any of those things until I realize how powerless I am to make them happen.

I think it is interesting that Jesus ends the Beatitudes with “blessed are you when men persecute you.”  When we become committed to living a life of spiritual poverty, we become a threat to the religious system that has become so confident in their own works. When we divest ourselves of the things that so corrupt our relationship with God and return to the simplicity of a beggar kneeling before Christ, that threatens the status quo.  Modern Christianity is not set up that way.

Jesus said the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the spiritually poor.  What does that mean to people like me who have spent way too much time trying to be rich?

Luke’s gospel leaves out the “in spirit” part, it just says, “Blessed are the poor.”  What if God actually was calling me, not only to spiritual poverty, but physical poverty as well?  What if Jesus knew something I don’t seem to get: that material wealth is actually the enemy of truly knowing Him.  That all my stuff doesn’t make me closer to God, it actually pulls me away from Him.

What might happen if I had the courage to let go of everything I have built, treasured, stored, and grasped, and became that open-handed beggar before my God?  Maybe I would lose everything.  Then again, according to Jesus, it’s really the only way to gain everything.

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