Encouragement After Falling Into Sin

Though a righteous person falls seven times, he will get up, but the wicked will stumble into ruin. (Proverbs 24:16)

For the Christian who longs to please God (and thus demonstrates that God has indwelt their conscience), it is discouraging and heartbreaking to fall into sin.

Satan throws gasoline onto the flame of our frustration, saying that not only have we disappointed our God, but we will never do any better. He tempts us, gets us to cooperate with his agenda by committing sin, then turns around and shames us for it. A vicious one-two punch. Indeed, the Hebrew word “Satan” carries the meaning “accuser”.

Fortunately, we belong to God, not him.

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Making Holiness Thrilling: What the Angels Longed to Look Into

peekOur youth group is currently in the midst of our annual “purity series”.

Our youth group sees fit to devote several weeks every February to the subject of purity with its many angles, and I can’t disagree with their choice. Given the escalating danger that sexual promiscuity poses to our young people in today’s bankrupt society, an emphatic approach seems right.

Last night’s message featured possibly the best possible angle on purity, the best reason to pursue purity.

It came, rather unexpectedly (for me), out of 1 Peter 1 – a passage that gives holiness the backdrop of a cosmic secret, withheld even from the angels.

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Unbreak that New Year’s Resolution

runnerIt’s 22 days into 2018 and broken resolutions litter the ground like tree branches after a windstorm.

I’m here to cheer for you to take them back up.

for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes. (Proverbs 24:16 NLT)

Not that you’re wicked if you don’t stay on the treadmill or something. And not that we have permission to sin or good reason to dump a healthy resolution.

But I have to say, as a professional faller myself, it’s mighty comforting to read this verse.

New Year’s resolutions are funny in that we often see them, sometimes without realizing it, as all-or-nothing. We think we have to clean up completely, hit perfection after January 1, to deliver on the resolution.

The commentaries on Prov. 24:16 say that the fall referenced here could be from either sin or from hardship and affliction, and they imply that only the righteous man has the ability to bounce back – that God keeps his hand around the righteous and pulls them back to their feet.

But many years ago, during a momentary retreat in my battle for righteousness in a certain area, a friend of mine gave me some advice: “When you slip up, don’t reset your streak to 0. That’s the biggest downer ever. Just get back up and start fighting again.”

I think he had a point. Cognitively speaking, it’s massively depressing and discouraging, on top of failure, to flip your internal calendar back over to “0 days since the last mistake” once you fall. Adding insult to injury. You look back at how hard you had to fight for that streak, and you can’t imagine repeating it. It’s an added burden.

In addition to the practical downside, there could also be a spiritual downside: faulty expectations.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. (Philippians 3:12)

This is only one of many New Testament verses that make provision for the fact that Christians will still sin. It’s expected. It’s not good, but it’s expected. Our sanctification will be life-long.

But what a comfort to find God offering strength to retake our feet: the righteous rise again.

John Piper offered this:

We balk at claiming to be among the righteous because it implies to us perfection, never sinning, and we know that is not true of ourselves. But to be a righteous man in Old Testament language does not mean to be perfect. God required that the saints be righteous in order to be saved (Psalm 1:6); he never made perfection a prerequisite of salvation. The whole sacrificial system was designed to impart forgiveness to sinners so God could save them.

The easiest way to see that being righteous did not mean being perfect in the psalms and to see what it did mean is to look at Psalm 32 . Note especially: 1) David sins and is forgiven; 2) he says there is a group called “godly” (v. 6); 3) the wicked are contrasted with those who trust in the Lord (v. 10); 4) these trusting, forgiven ones are called the righteous and the upright in heart (v. 11). So whenever you read about the righteous, think: those who trust in the Lord for their joy and repent of their sins in earnestness.

Now, there’s a galactic difference between accepting this reality and letting it make us complacent. I’ve known my sinful heart to twist this grace: “You’ll never be perfect, so go ahead and sin.” Paul hammers that sophistry in Romans 6. He’s still pressing on towards the goal. The holier your goal, the better your results will be. Compromise your goal and you compromise your results. Our goal should still be perfection.

But when we fall short and ache in our souls, God’s Word reorient our expectations – and encourages us to retake our feet. We repent and we end the retreat. We rise again.

Don’t toss your resolutions (spiritual or common) out the window because you failed today. Take them back up. God doesn’t care whether the first day of your permanent victory over (insert struggle here) is January 1 or not. He just wants to see you victorious, made so through his strength.

God Gives Generously to All – Without Finding Fault???

handsSo I’m sitting in youth group yesterday, listening to someone recite James 1 from memory. It’s a well-done affair, with only an occasional reversion to cue cards. But one verse leaps out and trips me up, and it occurs to me that it’s always done so.

“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5)

Wait, whaaaat?

It makes you blink, jump back, and scan it again to make sure you read it right. As if you were reading this sentence and suddenly octopus.

God gives generously to all…without finding fault?

It’s the Bible, so it can’t be a typo (despite what the skeptics say). It must be the truth. But it reveals a deep heart belief of mine, like the beam of a flashlight piercing deep into a long-forgotten basement.

I thought all God ever does is find fault.

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Thinking It’s Up to You: Another Wave We Mustn’t Look At

christ_walking_on_the_waters2c_julius_sergius_von_kleverThe lesson of Matthew 14:22-33 should be rote for us by now. Peter sees Jesus walking on the water, gets out of the boat, and walks out to meet him – until he starts paying more attention to the waves instead of Jesus. That’s when he starts to sink.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, the lesson teaches us (echoed by Hebrews 12:1), and not on the wind and waves of your circumstances.

Great lesson.

Unfortunately, we’re all still rather bad at it.

Sometimes I wonder if that’s because we don’t realize all the many forms that “looking at the waves” can take.

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Getting Safe with God

father-and-child-walking-at-sunsetI hate the title of this post. It feels like the weakest, least eye-catching title for one of the most important things I could possibly learn about God.

This week, our church hosted a seminar by a social worker discussing how to reach “difficult kids”. Youth leaders were amongst those encouraged to attend, so I went. The speaker had a winning, wonderfully self-deprecating way of presenting these oh-but-of-course truths about why kids pull away, why they shut down, why they act out against even the people who love them the most and are trying to help them. Her insights were sobering. Oh, the damage that abuse and neglect can wreak upon the human body and soul. I never experienced either, but by the end of the seminar, I still felt like needed a therapist.

One of the recurring motifs of the evening was safety. This you probably all know: that in order to reach a child, they need to be placed in a physically and emotionally safe environment where trust can be built, and that can take years. Only then, once they’re convinced that they’re safe, will you finally meet the young person deep inside.

Common enough advice.

But it wasn’t until my prayer time that night that I realized something truly devastating.

I don’t feel safe around God.

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We Might Have Missed Something in “Faith Like a Child”

father-and-child-walking-at-sunsetFor as long as I remember, I’ve heard that my faith should be like a child’s. That 1) it should be “trusting” and “unpretentious” (pulling from my study Bible here), not tarnished by life’s disappointments, and that 2) it’s a good verse to apply to the life challenges we bring to God’s feet.

But imagine my surprise when I looked up “faith like a child” in Scripture recently and couldn’t find it. That phrase doesn’t exist in the Bible, at least not in that form.

And when I examined the passages from whence it supposedly springs, I found a different lesson – different enough, at least, that I’d never heard it.

Jesus called a little child to stand among them. “Truly I tell you,” He said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4)

I’m betting that if a million bucks were on the line and we were asked exactly where we derive “faith like a child” from, this is one passage that would spring to mind.

But faith isn’t mentioned there.

Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:4)

It’s humility that Jesus is putting at the forefront here.

At first I thought, well, there’s plenty of interweave between faith and humility. “Trusting” and “unpretentious” require humility. But step back three verses and it gets deeper:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1)

Realizing that the backdrop of this passage is one of the disciples’ infamous superiority squabbles (Luke indicates there were at least two) changes the game for me. It really does seem to be about humility now, specifically.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but when I think of children, I think of a lot of things, but humble isn’t one of them. Here’s one Bible blurb offering the typical lesson on the supposed meekness of children: “A young child is destitute of ambition, pride, and haughtiness and is therefore a good example for us.” And I’m like, since when???! Has this guy been in a classroom? “Children are characteristically humble and teachable. They aren’t prone to pride or hypocrisy.” Oh, come on. Some kids are bullies. Raucous, boastful, stubborn, volatile. And notorious for having their own double standards go shooting as far over their heads as the International Space Station.

But some children can be absolute angels. The one Jesus was showing off obviously must have fallen into that meeker category.

(Meeker, meeker, meeker. That’s fun to say. And now it’s in your head.)

I was also reminded of something in another passage from which people might get “faith like a child”:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:13-15)

Here, the disciples rebuked parents who brought their children to Jesus.

Where else did people set themselves up as Jesus’ gatekeepers, start screening his visitors? Earlier in this very chapter, the crowds tried to keep blind, begging Bartimaeus from getting time with Jesus; same with the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15, an outsider to Israel. Both were considered undesirables. The Pharisees, of course, thought a prophet was above eating with sinners (and therefore labeled Jesus, who did so, a fraud).

So why did the disciples treat the parents of the children the same way?

One possibility is something I did find (here’s one example) in my research: that children were not quite admired in ancient Israel as they are here and now. Outside their own families, Jewish children were seen as something closer to burdens, and not particularly virtuous (e.g. Prov. 22:15, 29:15), without the veneer of rosy innocence our modern society gives them. The Romans even had a practice of leaving sickly children on the roadside to die! While the Jews weren’t that bad, those disciples probably saw children in the same light as they did the blind men – beneath Jesus’ attention. A conquering king, in their minds, did not stop to kiss babies.

Jesus obviously doesn’t share their view; he shares his kingdom. He welcomes those who humbly confess their lower station. Jesus is telling his disciples that if they want the kingdom, they must become like those they look down upon.

That, after all, is his refrain every other time the disciples start jockeying for position in his kingdom:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” (Luke 9:48-49)

It’s not that “faith like a child” for our everyday lives is a falsehood. It’s just that we have to go to other verses for that (Luke 12 is great). Context matters, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard Matthew 18:2-4 taught with the humility element. It’s a great treasure to uncover, because it teaches those who are children in their own eyes are heirs to a kingdom. “Do not hinder them!” Jesus fiercely orders to anyone who would bar the humble from coming close.

Unhindered.

For this child, it just became Christmas.

 

 

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