Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Joy of Being Forgiven

When was the last time you rejoiced in forgiveness? The message of the gospel is beautiful in that God fully understood our sinfulness and chose to reconciled us to Himself at the cross. Does that make you happy? I suspect if you’re anything like me, you get more caught up with taking stock of all the ways you fall short. I know I’m forgiven, but I rarely meditate on what that means.

Forgiveness is difficult to understand. It’s one of the ways that God operates differently from our natural paradigm. People don’t forgive like God does. When we hurt others, we often have to earn their forgiveness. Even when it’s freely offered, we’re still somewhat indebted to the forgiver until we can find a way to even the slate.

Our innate paradigm of forgiveness makes God infinitely scary. We don’t have the means to even our slate with Him: He doesn’t sin against us and we cannot offer Him anything He doesn’t already have. The more we come to terms with God’s attributes, we are rightly afflicted with a sense of insufficiency. I’ve heard it said that to grow in spiritual maturity is to be increasingly aware of our sin. As much as I talk about the joy and peace I receive through the gospel, sometimes being a Christian is overwhelming. There’s only so much I can handle falling short of the standard. This is especially true for me as I’m about to embark on a career as a minister of the gospel. The pressure to be good enough is overwhelming.

That’s why I need to reflect on the totality of God’s forgiveness…

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit”  – Psalm 32:1,2

My pastor preached on this psalm on Sunday and it was wonderful. I’d like to share some of his thoughts and my reflections. I’m not fully sure where my ideas begin and his end, and I would encourage you to listen to the sermon if you have some time.

He started with some definitions, and that’s where I’ll start as well. The word blessed is one that pops up in scripture a lot, and it simply means “happy”. There is a happiness that should result from being forgiven. If it doesn’t bring us a deep sense of joy, then perhaps were not fully understanding what it means when God call us forgiven.

Let’s look at some more definitions:

  • Transgression: a legal term referring to an offence against God’s law
  • Sin: a broader term indicating to an offence against God Himself.
  • Iniquity: likely referring to defilement of the soul, an internal guilt
  • Deceit: a lack of honesty with self and God, likely arising from insufficiently dealing with sin

Putting it all together, we see God dealing with the legal and broader, including relational, consequences of our sin. He forgives- or carries- our trespasses so we stand before Him righteous and able to enter His presence freely without being destroyed (Ephesians 3:12, Hebrews 4:16, 10:19). He covers our sin, restoring relationship with Himself so we can know Him and experience His love (John 1:12, Ephesians 3:14-19). He removes the weight of our iniquity so our consciences are free to worship and enjoy Him (Matthew 11:28-30, Hebrews 9:14). He guarantees the completeness of our purification so that we stand before Him completely clean, with nothing to hide before Him and the world (Romans 8:33-34, Hebrews 7:25).

Does this bring joy yet? It gets better when contrasted with the alternate ways of dealing with our sins.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin    – Psalm 32:3-5

We as humans know that we need to deal with our sin somehow; imperfection is common to us all and we all want to remove it far from ourselves. A large part of the human experience is bound up in wrestling with our penchant for missing the mark. At various points in my life, I’ve tried to hide some or all of my sin. This continues even till today sometimes. If I can keep my weakness from the eyes of people or even God, then maybe I can make it go away. Maybe if I confess most of my sin, just enough not to look too bad, then I can deal with the rest myself and earn a measure of righteousness. And sometimes after I do something wrong, I draw back from God long enough to do some good deeds to show Him how sorry I am.

King David knew all too well the folly of this. Covering up his sin drained him. It left him feeling weak and overwhelmed. He wasn’t strong enough to bear his sin and it gnawed at his insides. They say confession is good for the soul, and this psalm bears witness to that.

The recipient of confession matters as well as the act of confession. God forgives more graciously and more completely than any person can. In fact, He is the only one who can really forgive us of our sin because sin is primarily an offence against His holiness. I cannot forgive you for offences against my sister, not matter how close we are; It’s simply not mine to give. This is why people were so amazed by Jesus’ statement, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20-25). They recognized that no man had the right to make such a statement.

Hebrews teaches that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 9:22). He doesn’t simply offer us words of solace, or tell us to do better next time; He removes the stain of our sin. We may still bear the natural consequences of our actions for disciplinary purposes to build our character, but the guilt of our sin is removed. We are not longer known as liars, schemers, fornicators, murderers, blasphemers, haters of God, etc; we are saints in Christ. He changes our identity.

It’s not fair, and it’s not easy to understand. I still want to take stock of all I’ve done wrong. I still want to grieve for those I’ve hurt, or whose trust I’ve broken or the circumstances I’ve set in motion. But godly sorrow leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). And in repentance, we are made pure again.

Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous!
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Wisdom and the Pursuit of Knowledge

It’s so easy to gather information these days; it’s called the information age for a reason. In seconds (minutes on my laptop), you can pull up information on anything you would ever want to know. Youtube has how-to videos on almost any topic imaginable, from chemistry to makeup to music. I frequent one website that has over 44,000 sermons archived.

With such an abundance of knowledge, it’s tempting to focus our Christianity on the constant pursuit of knowledge about God. There are many really good blogs (and more bad ones) that discuss Christian living. There are days when I have spent hours surfing through two or three of my favorite Christian sites, jumping from article to article and taking in every bit of insight I could find. I enjoy those days, but I wonder if they are truly helpful in building my faith.

In my personal study, I decided to take a short break from going through the book of Hebrews to fly though Ecclesiastes for a few days. It contains the reflections of the “Preacher”, thought by many evangelicals to be King Solomon. It’s not the easiest book to understand and it took a couple of read-throughs to feel like I was beginning to grasp the message. The ending, however, is simple and profound and I’d like to reflect on it this week.

“The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.  My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” – Ecclesiastes 12:11-13

I’m not sure what the social climate was like when this text was written. I picture a class of young elites who spent a lot of time in the marketplace listening to the teachings of the wise men. I would imagine that they took a lot of pride in being able to quote a number of their favorite teachers, bringing an informed and educated opinion to the hot topics of conversation. They would be smart enough to justify any impulse or course of action they were passionate about, which would make them incredibly difficult to rebuke or correct. Ideas would have been the currency among these youths. Likely, they were being prepared to be the future leaders of the nation and they knew it. In the future, they were going to change their world.

In many ways, I’m not thinking only of upper class students in ancient Jerusalem, but of my friends and me. We are in the prime of our lives with the future spread open before us. We crave knowledge and believe that the right information will change the world. And I can’t speak for others, but I think I sometimes lose wisdom in the quest for knowledge.

The preacher, in the passage above, cautions young men (and women) to pursue wisdom. Wisdom can be recognized because it makes a mark. Like a goad forces an animal to move, wisdom inspires change. It tugs on our hearts and conscience. Knowledge simply allows us to know; wisdom makes us grow.

Wisdom is from God: He is the one Shepherd who inspires all truth. It’s more than the opinions of the smart and it’s not a matter of quantity. There will always be more books than we can read and more ideas than we can fully process. I was talking with one of my closest friends last year about the list of books we wanted to read. We lamented at the number of books that looked good, but we wouldn’t have the time to read. It seems like every couple of weeks, someone recommends a book that sounds REALLY good and it’s hard to know what to get through first.

But in the pursuit for wisdom, we’re invited to pursue God. Proverbs 2 teaches that anyone who truly searches for wisdom will find the fear of the Lord. “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding; He stores up sound wisdom for the upright.” (Proverbs 2:6-7a). To know God more deeply is to be wise.

Knowing God is more than an abstract spirituality. The life of faith is deeply grounded in the daily life of the believer. Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, teaches that God’s Word is useful for equipping the believer for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16). Fearing God has implications for every aspect of life; nothing is outside the realm of faith. So to know God and His Word is to know how to live.

Knowledge isn’t going to change the world; people are. To be a part of changing the world, we are more dependent on obedience than knowledge. In establishing His church in the New Testament, God used Paul’s advanced education and Peter’s uneducated simplicity. Obedience, which comes with wisdom, is the characteristic that unites everyone that God has used to do great works for His kingdom.

But I don’t think the answer is to stop learning. The North American church tried to vilify knowledge in favour of a more “spiritual” faith for many years. That wasn’t the answer. Knowledge and wisdom are not adversaries. As someone who is passionate for knowledge, how can I ensure I am not wearied by much study?

First, I think it begins with the Word. We need to read it. I love reading other books, but every book about the bible is a secondhand text. Its value in wisdom is limited unless it brings us back to the Word. We need to wrestle with God’s Word and let it speak for itself. Practically, this will likely mean choosing to read scripture instead of books and blogs when time is limited.

Second, wisdom is found in community. Theology is best experienced with others. Do you have a community that can be honest with you? Are there people who can tell you (in love) when you’re wrong? In my experience, my heart is most proud and unreceptive to wisdom when I have been isolated for any length of time. When knowledge is pursued alone, it’s unprofitable for wisdom. Learn with people and let people teach you.

Trusting God with the Future

A few weeks back, I got to catch up with an old friend. We got to talking about our hopes for the future and I was pretty impressed with what God has been doing in his life and what the creative ways he’s looking to use his skills and life story to reach out to people. As we talked some more, he shared that he has some fears about truly trusting God with his future: what if God called him to an existence that was completely different from what he wanted to do?

In a sense, I find it difficult to relate with this particular fear. Before I committed my life to Jesus, I had no plans for my life. I came to Christ to find freedom from aimlessness; I was excited to partner in His mission and to live for something greater than myself. Until the summer after my second year I had no plans for after university. Within six months of deciding to pursue a career in experimental science, I felt God calling me to serve Him in ministry. Giving up my plan wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t too difficult either. For most of my life, the only alternative to total obedience to God for my future has been uncertainty and apathy.

Talking with my friend, I was struck that we all have doubts about trusting God with our future, myself included. We are captivated by stories of people who made great sacrifices to live out their faith, but at least a little scared of being put in their shoes. What sort of return does God promise if we invest our lives in Him?

I know for sure what He doesn’t promise. It’s not going to be easy, and there’s no guarantee that it won’t cost us everything we hold dear. If these were God’s will for every believer then Jesus, Peter, and Paul would have lived much different lives. God tells us what His agenda is in scripture: His glory (Deuteronomy 32:6-7, Isaiah 48:9-11, Ezekiel 20:6), His Kingdom (Matthew 6:9-10, Mark 1:14, Luke 19:10) and our sanctification (Romans 8:29, Ephesians 1:4, 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 2 Timothy 1:9, James 1:2-4).

The life of the Apostle Paul is an amazing case study of a life devoted to God. Before he met Jesus, Paul had things going well for him: A sweet lineage in a time when that mattered (Philippians 3:5) good education (Acts 5:34, Acts 22:3), a successful career (Galatians 1:14). When he met Jesus, God made it pretty clear what following Jesus would mean for Paul.

“Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” –Acts 9:15-16

Paul’s life is one we look at and get scared about what following God could mean for us. Shortly after his conversion, he had people trying to kill him and his mentor had to take him away from Jerusalem and hide him in Antioch for a bit. But after learning for a while under Barnabas, he continued his ministry which involved being mobbed, flogged, beat, shipwrecked, and imprisoned. The last we hear of Paul, he’s writing to Timothy from prison, expecting to die soon with no hope of being released. Not exactly the North American dream.

Looking in on Paul’s life, one could conclude that listening to Ananias in Damascus was the worst decision he ever made. The contrast between his life before and after knowing Jesus is pretty stark. Yet reading Paul’s letters gives us a different picture.

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” – Philippians 3:8

This and other passages give a picture of the joy Paul found in knowing God. I recently listened to a sermon by Mark Driscoll on Ephesians 1:3-14 in which he points out an amazing feature of the letter. Paul, writing a letter from prison, opens up with an excited exposition of the blessings we have in Christ. He is in prison because evil men were riled up against the gospel he was called to preach, but invites people to honour God for His blessings. Paul’s perspective on life was very different from what ours tends to be.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, he discusses the topic of marriage. He gives some principles for marriage and then offers this word of advice: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am” (1 Corinthians 7:7-8). To Paul, no part of his life was unsatisfying, not even his singleness. Instead, he is so excited for the mission God calls him to, that he encourages those who can handle it to remain single so as to have more time to serve God outside of the home (verses 32-35).

Why was Paul so content with the life God called him to, with all the hardships that came with it? I believe it’s because God’s mission for Paul fulfilled- not subverted- his passions. Paul was a thinker, a teacher, and a revolutionary before meeting Jesus. What God called him to do, was not to put those aside to serve him, but to use his gifts and passions.

Who is that gives us our natural gifts and abilities? Is it not God? “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7; see also John 3:27, James 1:17). He calls us to serve Him using the things He has already placed in us (Romans 12:6, 1 Peter 4:10). The good works He calls us to are the things He created us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Sure it may not look like what we want it to look like, and it very might cost more than we want to give, but our creator knows us best, loves us deeply and is working all things out for our ultimate good. Life in God is the fulfillment of our purpose. The Westminster Catechism states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” God’s call is not to restrain our innate skills and passions, but to use them for His glory, His Kingdom and our sanctification.