Ladder Christianity

While the cross may be the symbol we treasure in Christianity, the way most of us Christians live is as if the symbol of our faith is a ladder rather than cross.

We like our Christianity to be muscular, triumphant. We’ve come to believe that the Christian life is a progression from weakness to strength—“Started from the bottom, now we’re here” (Drake) seems to be the victory chant of modern Christianity. We are all by nature, in the terminology of Martin Luther, theologians of glory—not God’s glory, but our own.

But the hope of the Christian faith is dependent on God’s display of strength, not ours. God is in the business of destroying our idol of self-sufficiency in order to reveal himself as our sole sufficiency. This is God’s way—he kills in order to make alive; he strips us in order to give us new clothes. He lays us flat on our back so that we’re forced to look up. God’s office of grace is located at the end of our rope. The thing we least want to admit is the one thing that can set us free: the fact that we’re weak. The message of the Gospel will only make sense to those who have run out of options and have come to the relieving realization that they’re not strong. Counter-intuitively, admission of weakness is our greatest strength.

So, the Christian life is a progression. But it’s not an upward progression from weakness to strength—it’s a downward progression from strength to weakness. And this is good news because ladder-Christianity is exhausting and enslaving. The strength of God alone can liberate us from the burden of needing to be strong—the sufficiency of God alone can relieve us of the weight we feel to be sufficient. As I’ve said before, Christian growth is not, “I’m getting stronger and stronger, more and more competent every day.” Rather, it’s “I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how weak and incompetent I am and how strong and competent Jesus was, and continues to be, for me.”

Because Jesus paid it all, we are set free from the pressure of having to do it all. We are weak. He is strong.

That confession is the beginning of freedom.

Just Go Play

It was in the context of my begging my kids, probably for the fifteenth time in ten minutes, to say “thank you,” that I thought of Jesus’ warning that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:17). Jesus is telling us to be like children? Really? Doesn’t he know what children are like? Especially my children?

I think, however, that it just may be (in a certain sense) our kids’ obliviousness to say “thank you” that Jesus is suggesting we emulate.

Saying “thank-you” is a particularly adult practice. And, interestingly, the quality of our “thank you” varies depending on the quality of the thing we’ve been given. It’s as if we want our thank you to repay the original kindness. Big kindnesses get big “thank-yous.” This is why we get uncomfortable when we get really good gifts. We know that simple “thank-yous” won’t cover the debt we owe. If someone gives us a truly wonderful gift, or helps us in a really selfless way, we’ll do anything we can to balance the scales again. Being in someone’s debt rankles.

Kids have no such problem. When someone gives them a gift, they unwrap it and begin to play immediately. It’s us parents who chase after them pleading, “Say thank you!” We might as well be saying what our subconscious is screaming: “You’re going to anger the gift-giver!”

Jesus wants us to receive the gift of his love like a child would: running off immediately to enjoy it. After all, doesn’t the gift-giver want to see his gift played with? Wasn’t that the whole point of giving it? The most glorious irony is this: our unfettered and without-thought play turns out to be more law-abiding than our starched-shirt and pleated-pant “thank-yous” ever could be. Our joy in a wonderful present engenders the kind of thanks (that which is from the heart) that the gift-giver was interested in.

Let’s receive God’s gift of Jesus like children. Your enjoyment of the gift of God’s one-way love is a precious kind of “thank you” to him.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming devotional It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News)

True Love Is Given, Not Earned

The parable of the 11th hour workers is well-known (Matthew 20:11-14). The master of the house hires laborers in the morning to work his vineyard at an agreed-upon wage. At different points throughout the day, he hires more workers, including some that are hired at “the eleventh hour,” that is, an hour before the end of the workday. At the end of the day, he paid the workers who had worked the least first, and decided to pay them the wage that he had promised the laborers who worked all day. Understandably, the all-day laborers were excited to see this, thinking that they would receive some exponentially larger figure, since they had worked exponentially longer hours.

They were, of course, distressed to receive the same pay that they had agreed upon at the beginning of the day, the same wage as the 11th hour workers. When we read this story, it’s easy enough to understand why they feel cheated. Wouldn’t you? Of course you would.

But we forget that in the economy of the gospel, we are the 11th hour workers. Some people are pretty good at keeping it together, and so it’s easy to convince ourselves that we deserve some greater reward. But the truth is we’re far worse off than we think. Are you ever not “all you can be?” Do you have regrets from a damaged relationship? Do you have a dark secret that you can’t share with anyone? Jesus says, “You. You there that no one else thinks deserves much of anything. I’m here for you. Not because you worked hard, but because I am generous. I give you the same free gift, bought and paid for with my own life, that I give to those who you think are better than you.”

Jesus’ point is that what we need most–true love–is given, not earned. It is a free gift from God, earned for us by the work of His Son. It’s a love for which you never have to work.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming devotional It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News)

Grace > Performance

We Christians may talk about God being loving and forgiving, but what we often mean is that God loves and forgives those who are good and clean—who meet His conditions, in other words.

Or maybe it is more subtle than that. Maybe you are a Christian, and you rightly believe that God forgave your past indiscretions—that was what drew you to Him in the first place. But once you made that initial Christian commitment, it was time to get your act together and be serious. We conclude that it was God’s blood, sweat, and tears that got us in, but that it’s our blood, sweat, and tears that keep us in. We view God as a glorified bookkeeper, tallying our failures and successes on His cosmic ledger. We conclude that in order for God to love us, we have to change, grow, and be good.

Author Jerry Bridges puts it perfectly when he writes:

My observation of Christendom is that most of us tend to base our relationship with God on our performance instead of on His grace. If we’ve performed well—whatever “well” is in our opinion—then we expect God to bless us. If we haven’t done so well, our expectations are reduced accordingly. In this sense, we live by works, rather than by grace. We are saved by grace, but we are living by the “sweat” of our own performance. Moreover, we are always challenging ourselves and one another to “try harder.” We seem to believe success in the Christian life (however we define success) is basically up to us: our commitment, our discipline, and our zeal, with some help from God along the way. We give lip service to the attitude of the Apostle Paul, “But by the grace of God I am what I am (1 Cor. 15:10), but our unspoken motto is, “God helps those who help themselves.”

The liberating truth of the Christian gospel is that God’s love for us and approval of us has nothing to do with us. The Christian life commences with grace, continues with grace, and concludes with grace. Jesus met all of God’s holy conditions so that your relationship to God could be wholly unconditional.

Thanks to Jesus, I am clothed in an irremovable suit of love and forgiveness.

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