Freedom in the Library

Yesterday, I spent the entire day in a library, basically in one spot, working on a number of projects. When you spend 9.5 hours in a library, you begin to notice the quirks and differences between it and others – and this one had some standouts (when it comes to libraries).

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Around about 9:30 or so, as students trickled in, the noise level began to rise. Aren’t libraries normally quiet? Well, yes. But not this one. The director of the library believes that an emphasis on silence actually hampers group studying and so hasn’t imposed the normally mandatory hush across the building.

Then, around 10:00 I looked over to my left and saw a student eating a salad with impunity! A quick check of the library’s policies indicated that covered drinks and snacks are allowed.

In other words, this is a library filled with freedom. The students can act (within reason) in ways that others may only dream of. Yet in my sitting in my self-assigned seat, I noticed an extreme reluctance to enter this freedom. I felt hesitant to answer my phone and I only surreptitiously snuck a few pretzels out of my bag.

I wonder if this is not how many of us are when it comes to entering God’s grace. He grants us Spirit-freedom and welcomes us to explore, but we are so used to our self-imposed rules that we continue to live our confined, restricted lives.

Like me in the library, we may every now and then try to get a taste of this Spirit-freedom, only to shy away in fear that we may actually be breaking some unknown code. We’ve been taught to fear the “fine print” and often our relationship with God reflects it. We act as if our relationship with him is a contractual obligation and he’s just waiting to point to how we violated paragraph four, section A.

But that’s not how things are. God has not gone to the effort of inviting, facilitating and wooing us onto the path of redemption in order to continue our lives as if nothing has changed. The Spirit grants us freedom. Our lives ought to look different not because we are now lawless individuals whom nothing can contain, but because we have discovered our true selves in God’s grace.

We’re invited into a new land (or library, if you will). Walking in that land requires practice, but Spirit-freedom is worth it. In this Lenten season, as we practice giving up some of that freedom, may we be reminded of its preciousness anew.

The Sinner’s Prayer

Evangelicalism has been powerfully marked throughout its history by an emphasis on conversion. This has often manifested in an attempt to clearly delineate that moment of conversion which has, in turn, led to the prominence of the Sinner’s Prayer.

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The Sinner’s Prayer is the prayer that is supposed to indicate that a person has come to saving faith in Jesus. The typical formula involves confession (“I am a sinner”), repentance (“I choose to turn away from my sinful ways”), a statement of belief (“I believe in Jesus and that he is the Son of God who died for my sins”), and a plea for forgiveness.

It’s neat and clean. Probably a little too neat and clean which is why it’s received plenty of criticism. Fair enough. Conversion is not a one-time experience; conversion is a process.

But that’s not to say that the Sinner’s Prayer gets everything wrong. In fact, it gets two things quite right: the importance of surrender and the importance of the moment.

Whether explicitly or implicitly, surrender is an integral part of the Sinner’s Prayer because it is a confession of our inability to navigate life on our own. We can criticize it for miscommunicating the nature of conversion, but surely we ought not criticize it for reminding us of this core truth: following Jesus requires surrender.

Being overly critical of the Sinner’s Prayer can quickly backfire. That criticism can provide a smokescreen behind which we continue to hold onto the things we ought to give up. We forget the radical call of Jesus and commit to a gradualistic view of conversion and sanctification. Gradualism of this sort all too easily hides our unwillingness to give ourselves over completely to Jesus.

Pushing back on such a gradual understanding is the truth that Christianity is a faith of key moments. Jesus died in a moment. Jesus rose in a moment. These are definitive events that punctured history. We are invited to participate in those realities not merely in a gradual way, but also in a punctiliar one.

Regardless of how much we might critique the Sinner’s Prayer, it has carefully maintained this Christian commitment to the life-changing moment. Yes, we are misguided if we think they are moments in which everything gets solved, but moments of drastic change do happen. They happened to Paul on the road to Damascus. They happened to Jesus’s disciples as one by one they left what they were doing to follow Jesus.

Let’s not forget that conversion is a process. But let’s also not forget that the Lord works in powerful moments. The Sinner’s Prayer reminds us that lives are changed in moments, as the Spirit takes hold and draws us to surrender ourselves.

Don’t Do What Jesus Did

WWJD bracelets may not be all the rage anymore, but that doesn’t mean that the principle has not lived on. “What Would Jesus Do” remains a reflex for many evangelicals facing everything from daily decisions to ethical dilemmas.

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The question assumes one key thing: that whatever it is Jesus would do in our situation is what we ought to do as well. But is this actually true?

Probably not, because we aren’t, in fact, Jesus. To simply try to imitate Jesus’s actions doesn’t work that well.

Many (most) of us are not called to martyrdom. Many (most) of us are not called to wander a land on foot, proclaiming the kingdom to our band of followers. Even Jesus himself told his disciples that when they appeared before authorities, the Holy Spirit would give them the words to say (Luke 12:11-12), when he himself said little to nothing before his own tribunal.

Put simply, we are called to different things and different lives than Jesus was. We cannot, then, live our lives fully by simply using Jesus’s life as a blueprint. Yet, when we ask what Jesus would do, we sometimes smuggle in this idea – that all we have to do is work out exactly what he would do and the situation will resolve.

We need to shift the question. The question is not “what would Jesus do” but “how can I be Christ-like in this situation?” Those are two different questions. The former assumes a copycat Christianity, one that takes its founder and assumes that the only way to live out the Christian life is to duplicate his life as closely as possible.

The second question recognizes that we live in a different time and a different context. Our lives are different from Jesus’s (by God’s design). As such, we must do the hard work of contemplating and reflecting upon Jesus in order to understand how we can image him to the world around us.

In this way, the imitation of Christ finds its fullness. Imitating Christ is not about establishing straightforward one-to-one correlations between his life and ours. Rather, it’s a process of understanding his place and our own in salvation history, recognizing what Jesus’s life shows and teaches us. Sometimes that will manifest in very similar actions to Jesus. Often, however, putting on Christ’s character may well look quite different from Jesus’s life because of our unique and different vocation.

The way we think about these things matters. We want to imitate Christ’s character, not his actions. As such, we need to move away from a simplistic “what would Jesus do” to recognizing who God calls us to be in light of his Spirit’s work of making us more like Jesus.

Christian Magnetism

I have been reading quite a bit of Thomas Aquinas lately, particularly as it pertains to what our final experience of God will be like, when we’re in his presence. As I was reading, I stumbled across this interesting passage:

“The nearer a thing is to its end, the greater the desire with which it tends to that end…And however much we know that God is…we still go on desiring, and seek to know him in his essence.” – Summa Contra Gentiles, Book IIIA, Ch.50.

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To parse it out: the closer something gets to where it’s supposed to be, the more it wants to be there. For Christians (and humans, per Aquinas), our end is God himself and knowing him as well as we can. The idea that stuck out to me though is that the desire increases as one draws closer.

Aquinas isn’t alone in expressing this idea. Half a millennium earlier, Gregory of Nyssa had also emphasized this. He explained that even as we are united with God, our desire is equally satisfied and then increased – the more we have of God, the more of him we want.

It is like we are magnetically drawn to God. Held across the room from each other, the pull of two magnets is so faint as to be nonexistent. Put them closer and closer together, however, and they are drawn to each other such that eventually you can’t hold them apart.

It’s a nice image but what does it actually suggest about how we live the Christian life?

We often struggle to live lives that reflect the fact that the closer we are to God, the greater our desire for him.

Maybe we go through a spiritually dry period and rather than faithfully turning towards God, we grow discouraged and fall into complacency. We tend to believe that if we don’t have the desire for God now, then we won’t have it later. For many of us, living a life of prayer (praying without ceasing) sounds incredibly dull, rather than something our hearts yearn for. So we don’t practice those practices that draw us towards God in the desert times and our desire for God goes nowhere.

Or maybe we experience the other end of the spectrum. In a time of worship or prayer or reading the Bible, we experience a desire for God that is so potent we cannot believe that we could surpass that desire. Our lives are then spent in constant pursuit of that one moment where we were enraptured rather than the pursuit of God which engenders that desire.

In both cases, there is a subtle idolatry at work – we pursue the power of desire rather than God himself. Yet if Thomas and Gregory are right, desire is actually created (and increased!) as we faithfully pursue God.

The voices of these saints call to us from deep in our Christian history, reminding us that desire is not dependent on our fostering certain emotional states. It is dependent on our intimacy with our true end, God himself.

It’s All About Jesus

Except when it’s not.

Do a Google search of “It’s all about Jesus.” Go ahead, I’ll wait. In fact, here’s a link that will bring up the first page of results for you. What do you see? Sermon series, song lyrics, statements of beliefs, book titles. That’s just the first page of results.

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“It’s all about Jesus” is a phrase that is obviously in vogue. It has a powerful rhetorical ring to it. One easily imagines (or remembers) a fiery preacher whipping up a crowd by reminding everyone that life is simple: “It’s all about Jesus.”

Except it’s not.

Caveat time. Certainly everything was made through Christ and for him (Colossians 1:16). So it’s all for Jesus. But that’s a different thing entirely. And yes, in an ultimate sense, our lives are about bringing glory to God (including Jesus). But I rarely hear the phrase used purely in such ultimate and cosmological terms.

Rather, when the phrase is used, I think it generally means something like this: “Life seems complex and there’s so many questions we have but all that really matters is Jesus.”

There’s a kernel of truth here. The truth is that Jesus does matter more than anything else. What’s not true is that he’s all that matters. 

After all, it’s this same Jesus who tells us to love our neighbor, and not just our neighbor, but our enemy. If it’s all about Jesus, then why does he direct our eyes elsewhere?

If, even in the tiniest of details of our lives, it’s all about Jesus, then why do we bother going to work and having vocations and doing things that don’t necessarily directly relate to him?

 Maybe it’s not all about Jesus. And maybe that’s okay.

Jesus didn’t come so he could be the perfect answer to every question or scenario. He came to show us and empower us to live fully human lives. A fully human life does not necessarily require every moment of every day revolving around Jesus. It should be for Jesus, but it need not be about Jesus.

So why bring this up at all? Two reasons. First, the integrity of our lives as gift is at stake here. God, in his grace, gives us lives with a myriad of possibilities and a million questions and nudges us out in the world, saying “Go, be like me.” He doesn’t give us details and he doesn’t tell us what every moment should look like. We have the gift of freedom, of exploration. Saying that “it’s all about Jesus” is often an attempt to simplify the complexity of the world that is part of the very freedom God has given us.

Second, these four words can wound as much as they can encourage. “It’s all about Jesus” isn’t comforting to the depressive who is struggling with the loss of a parent, or spouse, or child. “It’s all about Jesus” isn’t helpful to the person who feels like their prayers are hitting the ceiling. Life’s complexity demands complex answers and “it’s all about Jesus” can easily feel insufficient, leaving us more disoriented than we were before. 

Yes, this is a language issue, but it’s an important one. It’s all for Jesus, we live to glorify him, but it’s not all about Jesus. I think he’d tell us that himself. 

Learning the Steps

Recently, I’ve written about grace and God’s powerful desire to break into our lives despite the darkness within and without. He dances into the midst of our sin and invites us to leave our chair on the side of the dance floor and join his dance. There’s just one problem. We don’t always know the steps.

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Meet Adriaan de Groot, a Dutch psychologist who spent time studying chess grandmasters in the 1940s. He sought to understand what set grandmasters apart from novices. Was it intelligence? Superior analytical abilities? What he found surprised him. Joshua Foer, in his book Moonwalking with Einstein, explains that when faced with a chessboard, it was neither intellect nor analysis that stood out.

“For the most part, the chess experts didn’t look more moves ahead [than a novice], at least not at first. They didn’t even consider more possible moves…They tended to see the right moves, and they tended to see them almost right away.” (P.64)

The reason for this intuition, Foer goes on, is pattern-recognition:

“At the root of the chess master’s skill is that he or she simply has a richer vocabulary of chunks [arrangement of pieces on the board] to recognize.” (Pp.65-66)

Chess grandmasters study past games and play their own for years, building this vocabulary so that in the moment the right move is (seemingly) obvious.

What do chess grandmasters and our experience of grace have in common? Neither are merely matters of natural ability. Experiencing grace, perhaps surprisingly, takes work. On most days, we don’t wake up, get out of bed and feel overwhelmed by grace. On most days, a person doesn’t wake up and become a grandmaster either.

Entering God’s dance of grace is not the most natural thing because we have to learn the steps.

We ought to take a page out of the grandmasters’ book. The rhythms of grace are not some secret kept hidden away for the elite Christian. They are spelled out in the lives of the saints and the pages of Scripture. The Bible and the testimony of others serve as our chessboard. We allow the stories of God’s gentleness with Israel, his faithfulness to David, Christ’s gracious reinstatement of Peter to seep into our heart-memories.

Grace is a theme of the Christian life because it is repeated, a rhythm beating throughout time. As we study stories of grace, we begin to recognize the beats in our own life. A missed opportunity. Losing our temper. Indulging our worst desires. When we remember the pattern, we begin to see the opportunity: grace, over and over, rising to meet us.

But we can’t recognize the pattern if we’ve never seen it before. We have to learn it. Receive grace, but perhaps even more importantly, look to how God  has given it over and over to others so that you can receive it as often as it’s offered and enter his dance.

Rhythms of Grace

“I am always going into the far country,
And always returning home as a prodigal,
Always saying, Father, forgive me,
And thou art always bringing forth the best robe.”
-From “Continual Repentance” in The Valley of Vision

There is something about sin that is cyclical in nature. Repetitive. Many of us have “pet” sins with which we struggle. Over and over and over again. The Bible exposes this characteristic of sin. Sin has generational impact. The history of Israel shows repeated cycles of unfaithfulness.  We know and believe that sin, like history, repeats itself.

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What about grace? Do we believe that grace repeats itself? Consider the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. We trumpet this story as a demonstration of the Father’s incredible grace: a son takes his entire inheritance, goes and squanders it, only to return home to a loving Father. Lots of grace.

Imagine, though, if the story didn’t end there. Imagine if that son lit out on his own again, after all of that. Most of us would see this hypothetical version not ending well for the son. He had his second chance, squandered it and surely, he is now surely permanently estranged from his father.

Of course, that’s not how grace works. In the midst of our habitual sin, repeatedly turning our back on the Father, God counters with his own rhythm—a rhythm of grace. He waits for us to turn back to him so he can lavish the riches of his grace on us (Ephesians 1:8). For every sin, God counters with an invitation to receive grace.

Last week I touched on the idea of God, the Light, dancing in the midst of the darkness. If God is dancing, then surely grace is his music. It is the melody that underlies his movement towards us and we are invited, in the midst of our struggles, to leave our discordant lives and join his song.

It is a sad, regrettable and ugly thing that sin continues to rear its head in our lives. We ought to continually strive, with the Spirit’s help, to stamp it out. As sin does crop up again and again, though, we are faced with the stark reality of what we believe about grace. Is it a one, two, three-time thing? Or does it continually overflow, as long as we are willing to accept it?

It’s easy to believe the former. The idea of limited grace is much easier to wrap our minds around and quantify. But the Spirit whispers something different. Over and over, God calls to us, saying, as he said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” It’s sufficient the first time, the second, the millionth, the trillionth, and on and on, until we are overwhelmed by it when we stand in the presence of God himself. Easy to believe? No. But it’s what we’re invited to. The challenge is to accept that invitation.