Monday, February 20, 2012

Redemption at its Best

A week or two ago I passed the 17 year mark. 17 years of redemption. 17 years of following Christ. I thought a lot about those moments leading me up to salvation. I remember sitting on the 2nd pew of the middle section at church. I even remember what I was wearing-- a really fantastic pink and black sweater with teddy bears on it and some even more fantastic black Chic jeans (please tell me you remember these too?!) It was a Sunday night, our pastor wasn’t there that night and one of the men in our congregation was leading service in his place. I know it had been building for several weeks because I remember the previous weeks, the tug at my heart while I sat in the sanctuary. The nervousness I felt at the benediction because I didn’t want to go forward. I even remember my own reasoning against it, trying to harden my heart even as an 8 year old. Outstanding how even at that young of an age I didn’t want to admit that I was a sinner. But that night, I felt that familiar tug. That night Christ called me, and because He loved me first, I responded. I sat in the pew crying during the prayer, acknowledging my need for Christ, and immediately made myself stop crying when we stood up to sing. I didn’t want to anyone to see me crying. It’s the first time I can remember feeling shame about my spiritual condition- shame because I knew what I was. I knew what Christ had done. And I was embarrassed, embarrassed for other people to know I was a sinner (as if they didn’t know that already ha!) So when service was over, I ran to the water fountain and acted like I’d gotten water in my eye just in case anyone asked why my eyes were watering, in case they noticed I’d been crying.(Obviously, my skills at deception have never been particularly fabulous.) I remember thinking in my mind that I’d tell them I was thinking about my grandfather who’d died years before in case they pressed me on it. Funny how we go to such extremes to hide who we are when we are confronted with it, even as a child. I remember talking with my parents that night in my bedroom. I was even nervous to tell them because they’d know that I had been lost (which is even funnier to me now. Seriously, they KNEW I was lost. As if there was any doubt after my first tantrum as an infant.)

These years of faith have brought me through life’s journey with clearer perspective and with countless lessons. I guess I thought there’d be fewer things for me to learn as I aged. It’s been just the opposite. One of the biggest struggles for me throughout my faith has been for me to understand grace- it’s been easy for me to apply it to my own life but not to others’. I’ve written about that before. But God has been diligent in ushering me to the things of Him in spite of my arrogance and ignorance. I’m not sure if I struggled with this because of my age when I gave my life to Him, that outwardly I hadn’t committed all these “stereotypical sins” that would leave me hollow, or if it’s just because I particularly have an inclination towards pride. I tend to side with the latter. It’s taken me a long time to understand the cost of redemption, and I’m still not there, so to speak. It’s taken me a long time to realize that the sins of the heart and of the mind had left me just as hollow as any outward misgivings.

It usually takes me several days to write a blog in its entirety. One, because I have a one year old who keeps me busy. Two, because I write then rewrite and take forever to compose my thoughts. I’ve come back and forth to this particular post for 2 weeks. Occasionally, I start from the end of a blog and work backwards. At least that’s how this one has panned out. Timing is funny sometimes, because last Sunday, our pastor preached on part of this next section-- the section that I’d written weeks ago. It affirmed in my heart that the Lord has indeed been working on me in this area. That said, here’s the struggle I find within our culture and within myself--

We forget about God’s wrath towards sin and want to dwell only on the love and the forgiveness. I see it all the time in our culture, even renowned pastors preach that “feel good” theology. Christians who claim grace on their lives, claim to love Jesus, but refuse to call sin “sin.” But if we skip God’s wrath, we skip the grace. We miss what a great gift it is, the sacrifice that was involved, and the heart of the Father. Ever offered grace to someone who has repeatedly sinned against, offended you, and will continue to do so even after they apologize and say they love you? Ever given up your priceless child for those who would water down the message in His arrival? This is the picture of God’s mercy and grace towards us. His wrath is righteous, and we deserve it. Romans 5:10 says we were His enemies-- Not sweet, lovable creatures that He just couldn’t live without. It’s really easy to have this lofty view of ourselves, that we’re a lovable people. But that is simply falsehood in the sight of a holy God.  We earned His wrath, yet He offered something else. He offered mercy. And He didn’t just stop there-- He adopted us, He rescued us, He made us His own and brought us into His family, pouring out the riches reserved for His perfect Son onto us.  If we skip that or gloss over how justified God was in offering us nothing but destitution, then we can’t fully understand the magnificence of His grace and the extravagance of His love.

And if we understand the picture of His sacrifice, of the wrath and then the grace, then we are a changed people.  Our lives cannot be the same, and they won’t look like the world’s. It will alter the decisions we make, the way we think, and the company we keep. I can speak whatever I want, but unless my words are backed up with actions and life-change, it looks like foolishness to the world, hypocrisy at its best. A real encounter with Grace demands change, not just words. Simply dwelling on God’s mercy, letting it make us feel good, just isn’t enough.  

I think this is where it’s an easy spot to get hung up. It’s easy to look upon the baby in the manger. It is warm and tender, innocent and full of life. Jesus the baby is proof of God’s love, the evidence of the pursuit of His Creation. But Jesus, the man, on the cross-- that is something else to behold. It is proof of our sin and proof of God’s justice. It acts like a mirror when you look upon it, and what it reflects is truth-- the reality of who we are and what we are apart from Christ. It is offensive, and I suppose it should be-- the gospel offends. I think that’s why the world struggles to accept this image, of Jesus’ ministry and sacrifice. It demands a second look at ourselves, introspection that reveals our depravity. We are exposed as less than adequate at the foot of the cross, and this goes against our inward love of self. It is why people are angered when you mention the name of Christ. It is why Christians don’t like calling sin by its name, instead we call that ‘judgment of others’ to make it feel and look a bit easier because otherwise, we might end up identifying the sin in our own lives. The cross of Christ is where horror and love collide, where grace intertwines with righteousness, where the realities of sin meet the riches of mercy. And it is hard to embrace because it pictures death-- an agonizing, selfless death. But right alongside that picture, there is life. And if we don’t look at the cross, if we turn our eyes away because it’s too much to look upon, then we also miss the life-- life that erupts as a result of the death of the Perfect One. The blood that runs down the cross isn’t just evidence of the death of Christ, it is evidence of our life in Him. It is punishment intermingled with freedom. I read once that when Jesus cried out from the cross, that the Greek term suggests that it wasn’t a quiet whisper or a whimper of emotion-- it was a scream. A guttural death cry, echoed for all to hear. How could it be anything else? Jesus’ sacrifice was extreme, and His life far from mediocrity. Why should the final cry to His Father be any different? Why should my life reflect anything different?

I’ve never seen anyone justify their own mediocrity, their own wrong actions like a believer, myself included. We have a way of picking out what we like in scripture and saying that we fully accept this idea, but we don’t really embrace another idea. That’s not what scripture “really means.” The reality is-- who am I to choose? I don’t get to choose what is valid and what isn’t in the living words of a holy God. I have a call to obedience-- I am the creation not the Creator. Either we believe in the sufficiency of the gospel or we don’t. We either believe it’s inerrant or we don’t. It isn’t a gray area to be washed down with our own pretty theology or science or morals. Oh we cling to salvation, to the blessings promised, but when that same Scripture requires a sacrifice on our part and demands that we live differently than we want or what is acceptable or comfortable, we push the opt-out button.  I know because I am far too familiar with that button.

See, I am so many of these things mentioned above. I’ve dwelt in so many of them- - easily slipping into complacency, easily glossing over the realities for a more acceptable picture of forgiveness, easily speaking of His grace in my life but struggling when it’s time to apply it to my actions. It has taken me 17 years to get a true glimpse of what grace actually means, of the price that it cost; and somehow, I know I still don’t get it all. I know the coming years will bring it to light and life more fully. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not encouraging judgment of others, but that is different from calling sin what it is. I don’t have an image of an angry God lacking in love, handing out punishments with pleasure.  Quite the contrary, in fact. But I believe in the holiness of God, and I believe it’s more than I can comprehend. In fact, this holiness that makes it “right” or “ fair” (for lack of better words) for Him to pour out His wrath, it is what makes His love so significant to me. How easy is it to love the lovable?! The kind hearted. The thoughtful. The compassionate and sympathetic. People who place you first always and themselves last. It is SO easy to love them. It takes almost no effort whatsoever. But to love your enemy, to bring them into your own family, to ransom them when they will continue to do wrong by you but shout your praises while they offend-- to love THAT person…. That is real love. It is sacrificial and has depths that are unreachable. That is the love that Christ has for me, for us. It is Redemption at its best. So I’m not going to water down His righteousness and His perfect justice and His call for obedience, because I would simply be watering down His love along with it.  

I still struggle with obedience, with letting go. There’s a line in one of my new favorite songs (courtesy of my sister) that says “Father, use my ransomed life in any way you choose.” I often stop at that line and don’t sing it out loud because truthfully, I’m afraid of it. I don’t want to simply say the words and sing it without meaning- that’s empty worship. But meaning it in my heart means embracing anything--things that might be hard, sorrowful; and they might bring great change. And I tremble at the thought sometimes. This is where the heart of the Father is precious to me-- He is patient in growing me, in stretching me. And even though I should I have no trouble releasing my life to the One who gave it to me, there is grace as I strive towards knowing Him more, in losing parts of myself as I press on into Him. 

Sovereign Grace said it better than I did, and more fluidly:
“But as I ran my hell-bound race 
Indifferent to the cost 
You looked upon my helpless state 
And led me to the cross 
And I beheld God’s love displayed 
You suffered in my place 
You bore the wrath reserved for me 
Now all I know is grace."

Thank you, Jesus.

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