Back to Basics

Happy New Year!  As we head into 2022, I imagine we are more aware than ever that we don’t know what these next months might bring.  We may face worldwide challenges and global concerns.  We may face changes closer to home that we did not anticipate.  We may thrive, or we may struggle.  How should we head into the unknown?  It is always a good idea to check our foundations and get back to basics.

In 1173, they laid the foundations for the bell tower of Pisa Cathedral, Italy.  This freestanding structure took quite a while to complete.  Within five years, the building was up to the second level, and it was already leaning.  The foundation was the problem. Construction was delayed for most of the next century, but by the 1270s, the builders were up to the higher levels and were trying to fix the noticeable tilt by building one side higher than the other.  The tower was finally completed in 1372.  It has survived four earthquakes, and scientists believe it may stand for another two centuries.  But the issue remains – the building is tilted, and the foundation is the problem.

The same is true for us in our Christian life.  We tend to make tweaks at higher levels of our spiritual life.  Perhaps a sophisticated theological nuance, or maybe a clever new personal discipline will fix the issue?  The reality is that whether we have been a Christian for decades or for only a short time, the foundation is the place to make adjustments.  Whether our struggle is overtly spiritual or seems to be disconnected from our personal spirituality – I am thinking about marital issues, relational struggles, emotional stress, etc. – whatever the problem, we always do well to take a look at our foundations.

So what are the foundations of our faith?  We need to evaluate how we answer four basic, foundational questions:

1. Who is God?  The God revealed in the Bible, the Trinity, is different to and better than any other god that humanity has ever imagined.  And yet, how easily our view of God shifts from the biblical revelation of the unique glory-giving, relational, Triune God to a more generic power-God or a more mystical experiential-God.  Too often, we fall into inadequate views of God that diminish the impact of knowing Him in our daily lives.

Thankfully, we can remember that if we want to know what God is like, we need only to look at Jesus.  Jesus came to reveal God to sinners and to rescue sinners for God.  Our struggles in life should push us back to the fundamental reality of spending time growing deeper in our relationship with Jesus.  Making tweaks at level 7 or 8 of our life will not help us anywhere near as much as time spent with Jesus as he reveals God’s heart to us.

2. What is a human?  The Bible reveals to us the wondrous complexity of humanity.  From the beginning, it points to our image-bearing relationality, creativity, and diverse abilities.  It goes on to emphasize our inherent value and worth.  It also underlines our fallenness, as we will see in the next question.  One of our significant problems is that the cultural “water” we swim in every day seeks to blind us to the relational dynamic hard-wired into our very core.

Our world bombards us with the message that our value and worth come from accumulating wealth, knowledge, achievements, capacity, or influence.  So we play the game by the world’s rules and wonder why we struggle and burn out.  Yet deep down we resonate with the idea that our greatest joys and our greatest struggles all happen in the context of our relationships.  Don’t pursue a sophisticated solution to life’s struggles when getting back to basics often helps so much: invest in your walk with the Lord, love your spouse, play with your children, laugh and pray with your friends.

3. What is our problem?  We live after Genesis 3.  The world as we know it is a fallen world.  There is no single moment of our day that is not pulled down by the gravity of fallenness.  And yet, so often, we live and think as if the Fall didn’t make that much difference.  We spot sin in others but believe ourselves to be untouched by so much of it.  Sometimes we become experts at acting like the older brother in Luke 15, condemning the sins of our younger brother while not recognizing how deeply infected we are, too.

How easily we blame circumstances for our struggles.  If only my spouse would change, or the government, or the media, or my church.  If only, if only . . . and yes, there certainly are problems in all of these people and institutions.  But are we dreaming of changes at a higher level of the tower while missing the most profound issue of all?  Sin is the problem, and I am not immune to it!  When we stop to remember how desperate our need is, it drives us back to the foot of the cross, broken and needy.  That is actually a great place to be.

4. What is the solution?  If the ultimate issue in this world is sin, and it is far worse than we have ever grasped, then that means the solution must be far better than we tend to think.  Our problem is not only our guilt and shame but also a hard, stony heart that rebels against God, and the total absence of the life of God through the Holy Spirit.  In the Gospel, we have a complete solution!  By God’s grace and through the death of God’s Son on the cross, we have sins forgiven, a new heart bursting with love for Him, and the Spirit of God pouring out God’s love into our hearts.

May we never think ourselves too sophisticated to celebrate the good news of God’s love for us in Christ.  May we never lose the wonder of the cross.  And as we live the Christian life, may we continue to live it by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.  So make sure that you allow the Bible to be a relational nudge that leads you towards a deeper relationship with God.  Make sure that you allow church fellowship to be that relational nudge, too.

Whether we have been following Jesus for eight weeks or eighty years, it does us good to get back to the basics.  Instead of adjusting the building project at level 7 or 8, let’s get down to the foundations and make sure our view of God, ourselves, sin, and living in response to God’s grace is all as biblical as it can be.  We naturally drift away in all of these areas, so let’s be sure to invest in the foundations of our faith for greater spiritual health and ministry fruitfulness this year.

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Christian Living Reoriented

There is a well-worn path in evangelical Christianity.  It begins with the presentation of wonderful news – that God has done everything necessary, in Christ’s death on the cross, to make it possible for us to receive salvation.  All we have to do is trust in Christ and we are saved.  To put it another way, we don’t have to do anything, because Christ has done it for us. 

The path then makes a surprising turn.  Having trusted in Christ for salvation, we soon find the path turning steeply uphill as we discover that living the Christian life is another matter entirely.  Living as a Christian is presented as a list of disciplines, activities, new habits to start and old habits to kick.  The sunny days of gospel invitation give way to storm clouds of pressure and obligation.

A superficial reading of the Bible only seems to reinforce this idea.  After all, there is plenty of instruction and lots of commands directed at believers. 

But a more careful reading of our Bibles will yield a more helpful set of directions.

The gospel is by faith from first to last (Romans 1:17).  That faith is both pioneered and perfected by Jesus (Hebrews 12:2).  And as Paul puts it in Galatians 2:20, “the life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

The Christian life begins by faith, and is to continue by faith.  The way we “get on” is the same as the way we “got in” – by faith in Jesus.  (See Galatians 3:1-3 for Paul’s critical evaluation of the idea that we are to grow to maturity by our own flesh effort instead of by faith!)

I would like to illustrate what this means and then suggest three areas where we may need a reorientation of our perspective.

Illustration – An actively engaged faith. Imagine a couple dancing at their wedding.  We are the bride of Christ, he has won our hearts and we are his.  And now we are invited to live by faith, with our gaze fixed on him and our every move lived in response to his loving leadership.  Just as in a dance, there are three options and two of them are bad.  We can imagine that living by faith means being uninvolved – hanging like a dead weight as he leads the dance.  That will never be a pretty sight.  Or we might assume that we must play our part and fight to express our own leadership on perhaps 50% of the steps.  Again, not pretty.  The beautiful way to engage the dance is 100% active, but 100% responsive.  We fix the gaze of our hearts on him and follow his every lead.  Fully involved, but completely responsive.  That makes for a beautiful married dance.

With that image in mind, let me suggest three wonderful gifts that God has given us for living the Christian life.  These are three gifts that perhaps we need in order to reorient our perspectives and enjoy them to the maximum:

Gift 1 – The Bible.  The Bible is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  But we tend to view the Bible as a book about us.  We read it looking for the instruction or the encouragement that we need to live our lives.  We settle for the idea that it is an instruction manual for life and then read through it looking for something that will help us.  Our unspoken feeling is often that it is not a very well-organized manual for twenty-first century living.  Our disappointment can lead to us neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Bible is so much more than a manual for life.  It is primarily and ultimately a revelation of the heart of God, culminating in the mission of Christ. (See John 5:39, for example, where Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders for daily Bible time spent pursuing life for themselves, but neglecting the revelation of God’s Son.)  When we sit down with a cup of coffee to read the Bible, or listen to it on the way to work, or take a few minutes at lunch time to ponder a few verses, we should come to it with a simple prayer, “Lord, please show me your heart as I read this now. I need to know you. Please show me you.”  Coming to the Bible looking for God’s heart and character, looking for God’s plan that leads to Christ, looking for Christ himself – this is the best way to engage with this relational prompt given to us by God.  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Bible is a fantastic gift from God to help me do exactly that.

Gift 2 – The Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is a relational prompt, given to us by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the Holy Spirit as being there for us.  We might focus on the Spirit as a means to experience excitement and miracles for our own sake, or we might reduce the Spirit to a mere source of power as we strive to live as we are supposed to live.  Again, our disappointment with either the miraculous or the empowering work of the Spirit may remain unspoken, but may also lead us to neglecting this wonderful gift from God.

In reality, the Holy Spirit is able to work miracles when he chooses, and he is gloriously empowering.  But the primary passion of the Spirit is to point our hearts to Christ (see John 14:26, John 15:26, John 16:14, Romans 5:5.)  When we wake up in the morning, why not begin the day by greeting the God who has not slept, but has been keeping watch over us, “Good morning, Father – thank you for your good heart and your love for me.  Good morning, Lord Jesus – thank you again for all you did for me on the cross, that you are alive today interceding for me.  And Holy Spirit, make me sensitive to all the ways you point me to trust in God’s good heart today, help me to keep my eyes on Jesus today.”  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The Holy Spirit is a glorious gift from God to help me continue to do exactly that.

Gift 3 – The Body of Christ.  The Church is a relational prompt, given by God, to continually point our hearts toward Christ.  We tend to view the church as being there for us.  What can I get out of it?  Is it serving my needs?  How easily we become consumers of services offered by the church, reducing our participation to that of a critic posting our negative reviews for others to browse.  Our disappointment with the church is often not kept hidden, and too easily we can neglect this gift from God.

In reality, the local church is a God-given gift, a community where believers can love and be loved in a way that is different from the world around us (see John 13:34-35).  Instead of looking to church as a consumer, ready to evaluate and offer a negative review, let’s see church for what it is.  Who can I love, encourage, and pray for today?  Who can I serve in practical ways?  What responsibility can I take on that will give me the opportunity to point people to Jesus?  When I preach, how can I point listeners to the goodness of God in Christ (instead of pointing them to their own failure and their need to try harder)?  When I teach the children’s class, how can I point them to Jesus so that they might find life to the full?  Who can I send an encouraging text message to today?  Who can I love, and serve, and encourage?  As a believer, I need to look to Jesus today.  The local church is a community of faith strugglers like me, encouraging each other to look to Jesus day by day. “The life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Journey in the Dark

darkness2God delights to transform lives.  There are many ways to depict this journey of transformation, but let’s focus on one example from the Old Testament.  In Psalms 130 and 131 we have a three-picture portrayal of a life transformed by God’s goodness.  In this progression of pictures we can find a helpful perspective as we care for the souls of others, and as we take stock of our own spiritual state too.

These Psalms come in the collection known as the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). These were probably a collection of songs used by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem three times each year for the pilgrim feasts.  When we think of pilgrimage we tend to think of a difficult journey with a spiritual goal – typically the idea that there is some merit in taking the journey and therefore some benefit. However, the Jewish feasts were actually celebrations of a salvation to which they had contributed nothing.  It was not about earning anything, but about celebrating God’s goodness.

When we focus in on Psalms 130 and 131 we can notice a repeated phrase introducing the conclusion in each Psalm, “O Israel, hope in the LORD!”  Intriguingly this phrase is only found here in the whole book of Psalms.  This at least opens up the possibility that these two Psalms work together in some way.  Then recognition of the progression of imagery underlines the idea that thesecan be read together.  So let’s look at these three images and what they show us:

1. Our desperation for the forgiveness God gives.  In Psalm 130 the writer begins with the terrifying image of being swallowed up by the sea.  He describes the cry of desperation from someone as they sink below the waves of the sea into the darkness of the depths below.  This isn’t a literal situation (unless you are Jonah, of course), but it is a description of what it feels like to realize your guilt before God.  It is a cry for mercy that reaches upwards.

Most people don’t live constantly aware of the gravity of their situation.  Nonetheless, without God’s mercy, all are sinners living in anticipation of horrifying judgment.  Sometimes a glimpse will peak through and the fear will grip them before they distract themselves again.  Without God’s mercy things may not feel bad, but the reality is there nevertheless.  If God were to watch out for our sins in order to keep track of them, if He marked iniquities, then nobody could stand before Him.  But there is great news for the sinner – God forgives.

God forgives sinners, the first step in bringing great peace to the guilty.  He forgives fully, finally, freely and forever.  And when the wonder of God’s forgiveness grips us, we live wide-eyed in awe of God’s remarkable kindness toward the undeserving.  Fully forgiven, forever, really?

2. Our hope is in God himself.  The second half of Psalm 130, from verse 5 onwards paints a second picture.  No longer is it the overwhelming darkness and terror of judgment, but it is the darkness of night that is portrayed.  Having been gripped by God’s forgiveness, the next stage in the transformation of the believer is to discover that we are given so much more than an offer of forgiveness (amazing as that would be).  God gives us His Word (v5), He is a God who makes promises and keeps them.  God gives us Himself (v6).  And with God comes not only forgiveness (v4), but also steadfast love (v7) – the committed self-giving love of God that is ever and always loyal to the undeserving.  He loves us for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, etc.  And with God comes plentiful redemption (v7).  This is forgiveness-plus!

As we grow in relationship with God we discover that He forgives, and He gives so much more – ultimately He gives us Himself.  So we still live in a dark world, but we are like watchmen who have learned over the years to watch for the light of dawn.  Morning always comes.  We live in darkness, but we live with hope.  And our hope is God Himself.

3. Our growth to find peace in the presence of God now.  As the believer matures in the transformation that God’s love brings, we come to the final picture in Psalm 131.  The mature believer is not caught up in their own significance, or in their own ability to make sense of everything.  Almost strangely the image pictures the believer as a child.  How can this be the picture of greatest maturity?

Well this is a weaned child (v2).  That is, a child that no longer screams and grabs for the sustenance they need.  Rather, it is a child that is at peace in the arms of their mother.  We’ve all seen a child who leaves the pile of toys to go and peak in the other room to make sure mother is still there.  We’ve seen a child who wants a story read not so much for the thrill of the tale, but for the security of the embrace.  A weaned child can be in the dark, but all is well, because the mother is there holding them.

A mature believer grows to not only hope for deliverance in the future, but also to enjoy the peace that is found in God’s presence now.  Not self-focused and grasping for things, but content to know that they are safe in God’s embrace.

From the terrifying darkness of despair, to the hope-filled darkness of anticipation, to the contented peace in the midst of darkness – this is the progress of God’s transformation work in our hearts.  God gives great peace to the guilty, because God gives Himself to us!