HO! HO! HO! I started with that because it’s the Christmas season, and Santa is one of the few clauses not in this column. Yes, it’s the last month of the year, and time for another session On The Edge. I sure do love the challenge of choosing and assembling the small clusters of letters we know as “words” into an order that makes a positive difference in your life. What a fascinating medium of communication God chose to convey His heart to us humans.
Speaking of words, my SAT prep business, which I started teaching on my year off from traveling and teaching in 2001, is booming—don’t worry, I’m not about to quit my day job with the ministry—and one of the sections on the test is Critical Reading, where the student is asked questions about an essay (comprised of insanely compound sentences [like this one] that make George Washington’s look curt) that is so boring and irrelevant that no kid could focus on it for more than a nanosecond. Our unique strategy for this part of the test is to offer factory-outlet lobotomies. My circuitously-arrived-at point is that I clearly see the effects of Satan’s efforts to “dumb down” mankind, especially in verbal skills. The Enemy knows that words are the primary connectors between God and man, and among people.
When my now-33-year-old daughter went off to first grade, I told her, “Christine, they’re going to teach you math—learn to make change. But when it comes to spelling, reading, and writing, be a fanatic!” She replied, “Huh?” One of the underpinnings of the postmodern fallacy that there is no such thing as absolute truth is that the meaning of words is not fixed, but subject to anyone’s own interpretation, so that each person can construct his own meanings for them.
In the opening verse of his brief epistle to Titus, Paul describes himself as “…for the faith of God’s elect and the knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness.” The words that comprise the rest of the epistle elaborate upon and define that faith and knowledge so that the reader can put them into practice and thus live a godly life, that is, one in accordance with the Word of God, the truth that sets one free. Note the connection between truth and godliness—words and works, if you will. One’s belief is what shows up in one’s behavior. The same connection is illustrated in the following verses:
1 Timothy 1:3–5
(3) As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer
(4) nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith.
(5) The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
Whether what a person believes is true or false makes a difference in the quality of his life. According to the above verses, what is at stake? “Love that comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Can we really get there with false doctrine? No, and we might even arrive at the opposite: un-love from an impure heart and a seared conscience and a misguided faith. How will that work in terms of one’s relationships? Not well. And life is all about relationships. The quality of my life is determined by the quality of my relationship with God, the Lord Jesus, and the concentric circles of people in my world.
Two phrases were on my mind as I sat down to write this column: “naked and unashamed” and “…full of grace and truth.” If you recognize them, it’s no doubt because each is in the Bible. The first is from Genesis 2:25, describing Adam and his wife (later known as “Eve”) in their original state; the second is from John 1:14, describing Jesus Christ (the Last Adam) as he walked among men.
Prior to their disobedience and fall into being dominated by a sin nature, Adam and Eve were “naked and unashamed,” both physically and emotionally. That is, they had nothing they thought they needed to hide from one another for some perceived benefit such as self-protection. That is how I want to live my life, but to do so I must overcome the relentless and deceitful objections of the sin nature they passed on to me. Only I can prevent forest fires, and only I can crush the internal whinings that, if given in to, lead me to do just what Adam did in Genesis 3 when God brought to light his sin: hide, rationalize, and blame someone else. Collectively, this is known as “shuck and jive.”
NEWS FLASH: I will always have “the sin that dwells within me.” Ditto for you. If I do not come (and stay) face to face with it, it will always have me! Ditto for you. The key to victory in this daily battle is to grasp the truth of Romans 7:14 – 25, which can be summed up as follows: “Hel-lo-o, you’re a mess, and you’ll be a mess until Jesus appears and cleans you up once and for all. Hello again, you’re also a new creation in Christ, filled with the potential to be like him.” Having heard that, how should I look at myself, and others? I think Philippians 2:3 is pertinent: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourself.”
Lest you start looking for an “I AM AN EARTHWORM” T-shirt, what I think this verse is saying is that I should give other people the benefit of the doubt, cut them some slack (without compromising the Word or my own healthy boundaries), but not give myself that luxury. Why not? Because the false “I” trying to dominate my life is “never wrong, never to blame, always the victim, always deserving of more recognition, and must be defended at all costs.” It is most challenging to find the balance between realizing that I’m probably not doing as well as I think I am (because my heart is “deceitful”—Jeremiah 17:9), and at the same time reveling in the knowledge of who I am in Christ and acting upon it.
One key to victory in this daily battle is having no secrets. I’ve heard it said that we’re only as vulnerable as our secrets. Let us be clear that secrecy is different than privacy, because the distinction is critical. Privacy is a healthy choice, based upon healthy boundaries. Secrecy is a shame-filled way of hiding, and sin is often what we hide. Although sin may be secret, it is never private, because of our spiritual interdependence in the Body of Christ.
Having no secrets does not mean taking out a full-page ad in your local newspaper to enumerate all your sins (because one page would be insufficient, and the cost is prohibitive). I think it means that at least one true friend (or a good counselor) knows your deepest fears and darkest thoughts. I assert that there is no true intimacy between people unless each is willing to show his “bad parts.” Once we bring something into the light, the Enemy is less able to use it against us. I hope that a bunch of Bible verses are coming to your mind, like about light and darkness. OK, how about these for starters:
(8) For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light
(9) (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth)
(10) and find out what pleases the Lord.
(11) Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.
(12) For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.
(13) But everything exposed by the light becomes visible,
(14) for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
2 Corinthians 4:2
Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the Word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.
“Plainly” is sort of like “naked,” isn’t it? I am to set myself authentically before another person—”just as I am,” as the song goes. Now how scary is that? We’re talking about needing enough aluminum-loaded anti-perspirant to delete all your memory. So what will give me the courage to be so transparent and so vulnerable? I’ll have to know that I have a powerful advocate who is for me, someone who sees me just as I am and lovingly calls me forward to fulfill the potential he sees within me. Who might that someone be? “And the Answer is…” JESUS!
Hey, remember the second phrase I had on my mind? What does it mean that Jesus is “…full of grace and truth”? I think it means that he perfectly extends to each of us the combination of a truthful evaluation of our lives tempered with his abounding grace. We’ll develop that further, but first let’s discuss two phrases regarding Jesus in Hebrews 12:2: “…the author and perfecter of our faith…” and “…endured the cross, scorning its shame….” It was Jesus’ unwavering trust (faith) in his Father that enabled him to “scorn” the Cross’ temptation to shame him. The Greek word for “scorning” means to “think down upon; to think slightly of.”
By his own choice of thoughts, Jesus refused to embrace the shame and instead elevated in his mind who he was and what God had promised him. We can do likewise, and for us it entails that again and again we die to the lie. What lie? Take your pick from among the persistent plethora of prevarication that your sin nature (and mine) serves up moment by moment. For example, “I must defend myself;” “I can’t admit I have a problem/need;” “I must keep this secret about myself or I’ll be rejected;” “No one will love me if they really know me;” “I’ll never conquer this fear,” etc., etc., etc.
Have you noticed that Jesus never wasted any energy on self-defense? Maybe that’s why he now has plenty to defend us! He knew that via his resurrection he would be proven to be who he said he was, and that was up to God. Jesus’ job was to get to, and through, the Cross. He emptied himself of any need for self-affirmation or self-recognition, and trusted God to provide that for him. At his baptism, God said to him, “You da man!” and later reaffirmed this at the Mount of Transfiguration. The Father’s ultimate affirmation was when He raised His Son from the dead and highly exalted him at His right hand.
And it is the Lord Jesus who is now our Brother, our Advocate, our Defender, our Protector. That is why I can come to him “just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.” He is also the one who “stands in the gap” for us. What gap? The gap between the reality of how our sin nature adversely affects us and the ideal of how we can be with the Lord’s help. It is the gap between where we are—in thought, word, and deed—and where we want to be.
Bridging that gap requires that I get in touch with reality. Recognizing and acknowledging my need/weakness/sinful behavior is the first step toward God’s provision for me. I must recognize and acknowledge where I am in a particular aspect of my life that is not as right(eous) as it could be, and then take the responsibility to close that gap. I must “hunger and thirst” after righteousness to the end that I do whatever it takes to grow to maturity. Recently, I heard “maturity” defined as “being able to meet the requirements of reality.” Immaturity is expecting reality to conform to our demands. Been there, done that.
As the Lord stands in that gap for us, so he helps us do the same for others, being there for them with his grace and truth. How? First, on the grace side, by loving them with the love of Christ, understanding their human frailties, showing up for them consistently, taking responsibility for our own failures in relationship with them, and appreciating and affirming them. Then, on the truth side, by being honest with them about what is true for us in our experience of them, that is, having the courage to risk speaking about how their words or deeds offend us, with the goals of helping them become more like Christ and enjoying genuine unity with them.
In The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, M. Scott Peck speaks most significantly regarding how to adopt what I would call a spiritually realistic perspective of ourselves (which puts us in the best place to help others):
While growing out of narcissism—our self-centeredness and often excessive sense of importance—is more than anything else what life is about, it is equally vital that we also simultaneously learn to come to terms with just how important and valuable we are.
Humility means having true knowledge of oneself as one is. In my opinion, it is critical for us to be realistic about ourselves as we are, and be able to recognize both the good and bad parts of ourselves. But that does not mean—as many falsely conclude—that we should give more emphasis to the negative parts of who we are and downplay or altogether dismiss the good parts as secondary. Yet many do so, trying to display a pseudo-humility that may extend to an inability to receive compliments or assert oneself when appropriate to do so…
Further, there is a distinction to be made between self-love (which I propose is always a good thing) and self-esteem (which I propose can be questionable)…For example, there are times when we act in ways that are unbecoming. If we deny that our behavior is “bad” and fail to seek ways to correct it or redeem ourselves by learning from what we have done wrong, then we are primarily concerned with self-esteem. On the other hand, if we are operating from a sense of self-love, the healthier thing to do would be to acknowledge our mistakes and chastise ourselves if we must—as well as have the ability to discern that our failure at any given moment does not define our worth or who we are as a person. We need moments when we realize that we do not have it all together and that we are not perfect. Such moments are crucial to our growth because loving ourselves requires the capacity to recognize that there is something about us we need to work on.
So there is a difference between insisting that we always feel good about ourselves (which is narcissistic and synonymous with constantly preserving our self-esteem) and insisting that we regard ourselves as important or valuable (which is healthy self-love). Understanding and making this distinction is a prerequisite for mature mental health. In order to be good, healthy people, we have to pay the price of setting aside our self-esteem once in a while and not always feeling good about ourselves. But we should always be able to love and value ourselves, even if we shouldn’t always esteem ourselves.
On the related subject of beneficial or harmful guilt, Philip Yancey wrote an editorial in the November 18, 2002 issue of Christianity Today, titled “Guilt Good or Bad,” in which he stated:
“Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” proclaimed a sappy romance novel from the 1970s. I have come to believe the opposite, that love means precisely having to say you’re sorry. A sense of guilt, vastly underappreciated, deserves our gratitude, for only such a powerful force can nudge us toward repentance and reconciliation with those we have harmed…
Yet guilt represents danger as well…I have known Christians who go through life with hyperattention to defects. Some raised in oppressive environments go through life afraid, heads down, fleeing anything that might be perceived as pleasure, and terrified that they are somehow offending one of God’s laws…
A mature Christian learns to discriminate between false guilt inherited from parents, church, or society, and true guilt as a response to breaking God’s laws clearly revealed in the Bible…
True saints do not get discouraged about their faults, for they recognize that a person who feels no guilt can never find healing. Paradoxically, neither can a person who wallows in guilt. The sense of guilt serves its designed purpose only if it presses us toward the God who promises forgiveness and restoration.
I once thought Christians went through life burdened by guilt, in contrast to carefree unbelievers. I now realize that Christians are the only persons who do not have to go through life feeling guilty. Guilt is only a symptom; we listen to it because it drives us toward the cure.”
For those of us who may be plagued by what Yancey calls “hyperattention to defects,” there is hope. We can learn to fail well. Huh? What I mean is being aware that our sin nature will at times get the better of us, and not allowing those failures to wipe us out mentally and emotionally. This is actually part of growing up and learning to make, and take responsibility for, autonomous decisions, many of which will be less than the best. Certainly we do not want to be flippant about our failures, but I love the attitude expressed by what a dear friend of mine often says: “Another chance to be wrong and I took it.” In light of the grace and mercy of God, we can rest in the truth that each decision is also a chance to be right, and, as one of my favorite sayings goes: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Amen.
In regard to Yancey’s assertion that healthy guilt driving us toward the help we need, think about the first recorded words of Jesus (Matthew 5:3ff), known as “the Beatitudes” (hey, I want them to be my attitudes). “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…, the meek…, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness….” It sounds like Jesus is saying, “No pain, no gain.” That is, unless we see what we lack and feel badly enough about that “gap” to take the necessary measures to “grow for it,” we’ll stay where we are and get the same results in life.
In his book, Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer, writing about his battle with depression, says that he had always imagined God to be in the same direction as everything else he valued: up. But his depression forced him down to what his therapist called “the ground on which it is safe to stand.” Palmer wrote: “The way to God is not up but down…The path to humility, for some of us, at least, goes through humiliation, where we are brought low, rendered powerless, stripped of pretenses and defenses, and left feeling fraudulent, empty, and useless—a humiliation that allows us to regrow our lives from the ground up, from the humus of common ground.”
Isn’t that like the Apostle Paul’s path of growth to maturity? Think about it. Chronologically, during a span of about 12 years, he wrote: “For I am the least of the apostles…” (1 Corinthians 15:9); “…I am less than the least of all God’s people…” (Ephesians 3:8); I am the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). I think that Paul progressively got in touch with the reality of the sin nature within him, and that drove him closer and closer to the Lord Jesus so that he became more and more like him. As Larry Crabb writes in Inside Out:”The sole value of an inside look is measured by its helpfulness in moving us toward greater love, for God and others.”
Maybe what we’re talking about is finding the balance between not taking ourselves too seriously (in light of our inherent tendency to be knuckleheads at the drop of a hat), and taking ourselves very seriously (in light of the Christ within us). I don’t know about you—well, actually, I do, because the Bible tells me—but I cannot do this alone. Do I do anything alone? Yes, I seek the Lord in prayer so that his spirit within me can reveal myself to me, and I go to God’s Word looking for similar guidance.
But in conjunction with those personal disciplines, I must be functioning amidst a community committed to living the truth. Regarding such community as it pertains to small groups, here again is Crabb (Inside Out): “…not settling for what sometimes passes for discipleship where people learn about truth but never deal directly with what’s going on in their relationships.”
Why can’t we have both? Why can’t we learn the truth and enjoy healthy relationships? In God’s economy, the two are inextricably linked. Truth is designed to be lived—in relationships. I want to be an interdependent part of such a community, one wherein people are both “naked and unashamed” and “…full of grace and truth.” It is that kind of community in which the genuine love of God flourishes to the end of individual maturity and collective growth. It is that kind of community to which the Lord “adds daily.” People see and feel the love of God we have for one another, and they are drawn to that.
How do we make it happen? By getting out of our respective comfort zones—spiritually, emotionally, circumstantially, financially, relationally—to look both inward and outward, doing whatever it takes to become more like our dear Lord Jesus. Yes, it means you might need to go on the edge of faith.