Grace Emerges

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Letter to the Unaccepted

Dear Unaccepted Person,

In the past I have failed you and wronged you.  I don’t need to go into the reasons why I have done this, because they will merely sound like excuses, but now I realize that kind of treatment is not right, it is not what God would ever want, and it is not how I would ever want to treat another one of God’s children.
You see, we are all the same!  We were created by God out of his love and creativity, and so we are his children.  He is everything that is right and true, loving and compassionate, and He is the one who has created every good thing and good gift.  You are one of those good things!  We share a common bond because we are God’s children.  Because of this, I welcome you and invite you to join me by offering you my friendship. 
I expect that you will be different than me, and that is a good thing!  I no longer look through a narrow lens of my own ideals to evaluate people and enforce the notion that everyone should be like me.  In fact, I like you just as you are.  People have often used the Bible to argue over many things, and have used it as a judgment or test to evaluate people, as if they can know someone’s heart by external indications.  In fact, people have mainly used this kind of judgmental behavior to simply group themselves with people they are comfortable with, and to exclude those with differences.  Due to this tendency YOU may have been excluded or left out.  That is not okay with me any longer!  I have no right to judge your heart or anyone else’s.  Maybe you are my potential best friend, and the person that is exactly like me in outward appearance is not!  Maybe you are the one that will offer me kindness in the future, and that other person will not.  I have jumped to conclusions and accepted prejudices in the past, but never again.
In summary, I now accept you, the way that God does.  He doesn’t expect people to be perfect when he accepts them.   How could they ever do that, especially before they even know him?  He invites a person to come to him and to get to know him, exactly as he or she is.  That starts a journey that will lead to great joy, and unleash all the good and kind things in that person.  I simply invite you to join me.  Let’s seek God and his goodness together.
The Christian

Jesus' Parable on the "Least of These", some sheep and some goats

Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, in Matthew 25:31-46, is often quoted and discussed when talking about the meaning of salvation, good works and hell.  As such I have a lot to say about this parable!  You might want to take a look at the parable before reading my comments....

In this parable, Jesus spoke to upset the conventional wisdom of the day perpetuated by the teachers of the law, and to assert his own authority to judge the nations as only God would have.  This assertion was the key offense that was soon to lead to his crucifixion.

What was the conventional wisdom of the day?  The teachers of the law taught that by following “enough” of the laws of Moses and additional requirements and rituals of the Pharisees, people could earn God’s approval.  Since the teachers were the educated ones who knew this law, they held the keys for the common people to receive God’s acceptance, and this provided them with a great deal of social power.

In this parable, Jesus taught that true righteousness had nothing to do with rituals.  It had to do with true kindness and a pure heart.  In the parable Jesus indicated this type of true righteousness using examples of acts of kindness to the needy.  In doing that he upset the entire system of righteous elitism.

Secondly, Jesus taught that He would be the only one to judge people’s hearts and acceptability to enter heaven.  This was revolutionary talk that revealed Jesus as being truly God, and as creating a new order of God’s covenant with mankind.  Based on the language, imagery and examples that Jesus uses in this parable, it never indicates that Jesus would judge based on a new system of righteousness where the “sheep” would in some way earn his favor, whether by their faith, ideals or behavior.  Instead the imagery suggests that this old type of system of being good enough to achieve God’s acceptance was to be destroyed and replaced only with only one criterion: the authority of Jesus to offer salvation however he sees fit. 

To further illustrate this point I would ask a question.  When Jesus talks about the needy, the “least of these”, or the “least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” in this parable, does Jesus imply that he accepted these needy people or rejected them?  They are not classified as either the sheep or the goats, so they don’t fall into either category.  Does the language imply that these needy folks are rejected or accepted? 

It implies that these needy people are the ones that Jesus came to save.  He accepts them -- He simply cares about them and also wants them to receive compassion from his followers.  But does he then turn around and reject them and send them to hell with the goats?  The parable doesn’t say, but it does strongly imply that the poor, weak and needy were recipients of his salvation, without any particular requirements on their own faith or works.  He came to free them.  This echoes Jesus declaration at the beginning of his ministry in Luke 4:16-21, that he came to bring salvation to the poor.  Again, does Jesus say he’s creating a new system of laws where man can earn God’s favor?  No, he’s destroying the old system and creating something completely new.  Salvation becomes an act of liberation by a Savior, rather than a standard of behavior, faith or ideals.

This is where we stumble.  We are looking for black and white resolution of God’s standards of acceptance, but we are left in humility with the fact that only Jesus can judge.  Our job is to offer love and acceptance to others, to offer kindness to the “least of these.”  If we make assumptions about who is good enough based on their profession of faith or the evidence of their lifesytle, then we will be like the goats in this parable: we will deny food, clothing, shelter, love and acceptance to people based on their external appearance, when Jesus sees them as his brothers and sisters! 

By being overly judgmental we become the goats ourselves!

Finding God in ‘The Matrix’

I love the ‘Matrix’ movies, and the idea that we humans live in an imagined world, a deception, while the real world is something very different. 

I think the atheist’s view of God is like this – they probably think that believers in God are living in an imagined world, while the real world has no God.  Truth is the tangible world with no God.  Christmas, Easter, funerals -- these are the deception!

I think Christians often view something similar – we belong to a spiritual kingdom, and that is the reality.  The physical transient world we live in is deceptive and sinful.  The people in it are walking blindly and blissfully toward their eventual doom.  Truth is God and a kingdom in heaven some day.

What if they’re both wrong?  What if the ‘Matrix’ is when we tell ourselves we are always right -- we have a unique hold on the truth including who is good and who is bad?  What if the 'Matrix' is our own kingdom instead of God's, where we rule and judge and perpetuate our own interests, but do so in the name of God?  

What if the truth is God's kingdom, not ours.  A place of peace and life, where his people join forces with the people of the world to fight the true enemies like injustice, pain, irresponsibility and the harm we cause each other (also known as sin).  As in the Lord’s prayer, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in heaven. ”

In ‘The Matrix’ the war ends and peace comes, when the two sides realize they need each other and can peacefully co-exist, fighting common enemies.  Can the Earth and God co-exist peacefully in the end?  Can the church of collective God-believers be a breath of fresh air in the world that brings light and good things, making the world a better place as desired by God?

The Good News of Freedom

Where is the Joy?

Where is the joy?  Though I have been a believer in God and Jesus my whole life, I never really understood the concept of joy.  It was elusive.  As I sought to grow deeper in my faith, the path did not lead to joy, but to something else.  Something like frustration, worry, maybe fear?  Eventually I came to a realization that something was broken in my faith that prevented joy.  What could it be? 

Certainly nothing was broken in the message of the Bible I believed in so strongly.  Nothing was broken in God or his character, since he is unchangeable and perfect.  I never felt a lack of belief in God, Jesus or the Bible. 

On the contrary I felt more and more like God was calling me, in and through all the many areas of life, through painful times and through joyful things.  I found that God's calling was not a call to action or better behavior.  It was not a call to improve myself through continual effort.  It was not a call to my knees or a call to go.  Instead everything pointed to Himself and to a relationship with him.  One that is simpler and less based on effort or achievement, less striving to perfection.

What I heard was a call to freedom.  Freedom from what?  Freedom to do what?  Why is God so concerned with freedom?  Am I not free already?  I wasn’t sure but the call was somehow connected to salvation, to the offer of eternal life, to the message of Jesus, and to his work on the cross.  The call was going to lead to true joy!  Somehow the message of salvation was going to be my path to joy. 

Through study of the Bible and through some active listening, I started to understand that "salvation" means freedom by its very definition, and as described by the prophecies and teachings in the Bible that talk about the work of Christ.  And freedom in the Bible led to joy in those that were liberated.  Somehow, God was very passionate about freedom, and had a deep intent to liberate his children.  This intent was carried out in the salvation that God provided.

So, What was Broken?

Something is wrong with the traditional salvation message.

I am a member of the conservative, American, evangelical, Christian culture.  My experience has been through various types of denominational and non-denominational churches that all believe the Bible, and base their church on the Bible.  I would say I have an average set of beliefs in that culture, but with a tendency to question and also to believe in thinking for myself. 

As a layer on top of my culture is my experience.  Though it is not taught explicitly, the experience I have had of my Christian culture is that it does not bring joy. 

The message it brings to the world and to my heart is filled with good and joyful things, but there is something wrong with it.  There is something missing, and something toxic, in the message, in the living of it, in living for it.  I found myself many times trying to find the purpose in my faith, the purpose in the church, the purpose in my life. 

I found myself wondering what I could ever do that would make a difference in the world.  I found myself wondering what more I could do, or do better or differently, to care more, to be more effective, to grow in my faith, to live a life I could be proud of some day.  That "some day" is the Day of Judgment -- when I will be measured up against all others and Jesus will decide how I did in this life, and then I will spend the rest of eternity reaping the reward for the life I lived.

What I found was amazing to me: I found that living for eternal judgment is an unhealthy way to live.  It can't bring joy.  Furthermore, eternal judgment for all isn't a very positive message to share with the world, and yet it is the staple message of the evangelicals.

When I realized that there was in inconsistency between the God I believe in and the traditional salvation message, I searched and found the reason.  Although we teach the concept of "grace" to understand God and the Bible, we don't embrace it fully.  Instead we live with paradox. 

Laws and Systems

Here is the problem.  Here is what's wrong with the traditional salvation message: unfortunately it is still based on laws and systems of behavior.  There remains the notion that we must live in such a way that we will please God. 

We must live with purpose, where purpose leads to effectiveness and efficiency of our limited time on Earth.  We must understand authority, and live to please authority, including God, our church leaders, our parents (until we are independent), our bosses and governments.  We must adhere to systems of politeness so that others will know that we are good people with a certain station in society. 

As Christians, we must commit ourselves to good disciplines, like reading the Bible, praying daily, going to church, ever trying to grow in our relationship with God.  We must be a disciple! 

We must also be an evangelist.  We have to speak at every opportunity to share the message and win new believers.  We must support missionaries to propagate the message to the entire world.  We must worship God, by doing things that please him like singing songs that declare his greatness, praise his good works, and show our devotion to him.

Some churches believe we should lift our hands or kneel on our knees or dance before God or say "Amen" to show we are worshipping more fully.  At other churches we are encouraged to engage emotionally and get really excited or cry or clap to show that we are sincere in our faith.  My observation is that being a traditional Christian is filled with expectations.  It feels like pressure.  It creates stress.  It creates a crisis where we wonder if we are good enough and doing enough. 

Many of the things I am complaining about are actually good things. However this is the problem: nothing is wrong with good behavior but it has nothing to do with salvation.  Nothing!  When it comes to good standing with God, none of the stuff I listed in the last paragraph will help in any way to differentiate you from anyone else or give you good standing with God.  God will not judge you on any of these things.  The image of Jesus judging people and separating the good and bad people to let the good people into heaven has frequently been misunderstood!  

How do I know?  Because Jesus and the Bible clearly state that salvation is simply a gift to be opened.  Jesus, the king and ruler of heaven, is truly the supreme authority over it.  And in his authority he has made a way for us to have a relationship with him in this life and for all eternity.  Now that he’s done that, our salvation is simply a choice made from belief.  In other words, salvation is simply a choice, and is not any system of behavior.  It’s God’s choice to provide salvation, and it’s our choice to accept it.  The entire Christian life is salvation -- not salvation PLUS a bunch of laws or expectations.  That would be a paradox, an inconsistency in how we live, like having two masters.  Do we accept God’s offer of grace, or do we try to earn it in spite of grace?  What do we choose, Grace or Works?

Pleasing God

That means, that we should NOT continue to live to please God.  What?  Surely that is wrong - doesn't God want us to please him?  I mean, doesn't he state all over the Bible all kinds of things we should do to please him, like the 10 commandments, or Jesus’ "Greatest Commandments", or the sermon on the mount?  Doesn't Jesus just teach us a better way to please God, that is better than the old laws? 

Can't we just believe and follow the Bible and then we will good Christians?  The answer is NO we cannot.  In fact, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament never say that we can please God by following instructions.  When they do give instructions or specific directions, they make sense in the context of who they were writing to or talking to, but in fact do not make sense if interpreted as timeless commandments. 

As Christians we still find ourselves gleaning timeless commandments out of context and way beyond the intent of the author.  We seem eager to create lists and steps and procedures to succeed in pleasing God.

Furthermore, our culture and strong belief of the necessity of pleasing God pervades our relationships with others.  We feel that we must be authoritative parents that teach our children to please people, otherwise we are doing them a disservice by raising them to be rebellious and not inherently understand authority. 

We also have a strong tendency to enforce norms on those in our culture -- it's also called judging one another.  We feel free to let others know when we feel that God requires something that they are not doing, and we put pressure on them to do it!  We withhold our acceptance of others if they don't conform.  Even if we're nice about it, we use expectations and acceptance to enforce good behavior among our children, friends, neighbors, and fellow church-goers. 

If you don't believe me, ask yourself some hard questions about how you accept people that are different than you are.  Does their behavior make them unacceptable to God?  We still strongly enforce norms of good behavior and right ideals, and we judge a person’s behavior and system of ideals as indicating good standing with God.  We apply this to the obvious areas where we see sinful behavior, and we apply this to subtle areas like beliefs.

The system of behavior required in the traditional salvation message is no better than any other system of behavior.  Like the Pharisees that Jesus fought so earnestly, or like the secular world we are striving so hard to separate ourselves from, we have fallen into the trap of behavior and expectations.

We fail to embrace grace, and instead continue to live by a system of behavior that we describe as pleasing God or doing his will. 

When we put those words to it pleasing God, or God's will, then we justify any and all actions necessary.  Modern civilization is built on much uncivilized behavior, and plenty of it is justified by belief in God and the Bible. 

Unfortunately, we interpret the Bible to support OUR needs for laws and to build systems of society to justify our own evil behavior.  We interpret the Bible to allow us to judge one another and differentiate the good guys from the bad guys

Is God Impressed?

So, what is wrong with the traditional salvation message?  Why is it broken?  Why can't it bring joy?  To summarize, the traditional gospel is still a system of behavior, and we still use it for OUR OWN benefit.  Somehow we use faith in God and the fear of eternal judgment to forget about God and instead believe in our own actions. 

We are inconsistent.  It can't bring joy because God doesn't like our systems and is not impressed. 

Since God is the true source of joy and peace, we are lacking it.  We are missing something, and so we mistakenly work harder to please God more and to find true joy and peace.  But he remains unimpressed and our pursuits are in vain.  Ouch! 

So, there must be a better way.  I'll give away the simple truth: only one thing pleases God, and that is intimate relationship with us.  Maybe we follow our vain pursuits out of a sincere fear of intimacy.  We don't really want to relate to God, so we do a bunch of stuff to avoid it. 

We lavish songs of praise on God, but we don't listen to him, we don't open up to him with our true feelings.  But why do we avoid such joy, such peace, such freedom? 

Relationship with God does not come with any conditions, any strings attached, any expectations of behavior, any requirements, any eternal judgment.  The price for our salvation does not have to be paid with good behavior. 

So, just relate.  Just be!  All God wants, is US as friends (and not as slaves)!  If he has that, together with him we can enjoy that relationship for all eternity. 


God wants to offer us freedom from fear and judgment, so that we can relate to him in an intimate relationship of love.  God also wants us to offer that same freedom to others, and love them with compassion and acceptance.  Only then can we agree with Christ’s higher standard, which can be summarized simply as “Love God.  Love One Another.”

What a powerful message of Grace and Freedom the Bible carries!  And what a powerful message we can share as the Church of those that have been Accepted.  Why haven’t we seen it before?  If our eyes are now open, let us shine our light of this Good News for the entire world.