I often clash with the gatekeepers of Christian orthodoxy. I’m sure that I get under their skin too. To me, they look like the Pharisees Jesus talks about in Matthew 23:13: “Woe to you [who]… shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying.” I wonder what Bible verse they would apply to the caricature of me that they see on their laptop screen. In any case, I thought I would try to express where I’m coming from, to the degree that I’m coming from somewhere and not just being a sinfully impulsive loose cannon. Everything that I’m trying to do (as opposed to the things I do impulsively) is shaped by my understanding of Christian evangelism as Paul lays it out in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Continue reading
If you want to know who God is really angry at, maybe you should read what Jesus has to say about it: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. You yourselves do not enter, and you stop others who are trying. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make him twice the son of hell that you are.” [Matthew 23:13-15] Maybe you’re the Pharisee Jesus is talking about.
A few months ago, a friend wrote a blog asking whether the teachings of Henri Nouwen are “incompatible” with Methodist theology. The way that Nouwen presents the gospel is to say that it’s about hearing God’s voice of love, learning to love ourselves, and leaving behind the sins that are ultimately an expression of self-hatred. When I encountered this teaching in the first Methodist church I went to, it was so refreshingly different from the ruthless perfectionist I thought God was that I became a Methodist. I’ve found that all the Methodist churches I’ve encountered share this Nouwenian ethos. But this seems different than the 18th century Methodism in which the requirement for admission to a Methodist society was “an earnest desire to flee the wrath to come.” So what happened? Have we gone astray? Is Nouwen a false prophet? Continue reading
In contemporary Christian worship, a distinction is often made between worship that is “really worship” versus “just a performance.” For example, does the music invite authentic congregational participation or is it filled with guitar solos, pyrotechnics, and fog machines that make the service a concert that gives people goose bumps for cheap manufactured reasons? I want to look at a different contrast between worship and performance that I see at the heart of the gospel. I believe we were created to worship every moment of every day. The purpose of gathering to sing and pray and learn each weekend is merely to retune ourselves for a week of worship. The problem is that we misunderstand what worship means: we think it’s performing for God, putting on a show to prove to Him that we really believe in Him so that He won’t throw us in hell. But performance is actually the greatest obstacle to true worship, the definition of which is summarized in a single verse — Psalm 37:4: “Delight in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” It’s not hard to learn how to worship; my three year old son knows perfectly how. The impossible challenge that Jesus died on the cross to make possible is unlearning performance. Continue reading
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This is one of the most radical statements that Jesus ever made. Within it is the revelation of not only Christian but also Jewish morality. I read something similar from Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, who said Torah was always meant to be a gift for the sake of humanity’s flourishing rather than a burden for the sake of entertaining God’s capricious fancy. But in evangelical Christian culture today, it’s as if Jesus never said these words. Because we measure our spiritual credibility according to how toughly we talk about sin, we are invested in making morality burdensome. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were the same way in their zeal for the self-justification they gained through the burden of the homage they paid God. What made Jesus’ Sabbath healing so offensive to the Pharisees was not merely His violation of Jewish law but the way that He called out their morality based on conspicuous gestures of “honoring” God by exuding a morality that really did honor God through its compassion for human need. Continue reading
“Go and find out what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:13). There is not an exhortation in the whole of scripture that needs more desperately to be pondered by Christians today than this sentence that Jesus says to the Pharisees after they criticize him for associating with sinners. Jesus is quoting Hosea 6:6, which he does again in Matthew 12:7 when the Pharisees criticize him for letting his disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath. No other Old Testament verse is quoted twice in the same gospel in conversation with the same people. Jesus is making a critical distinction between His way (mercy) and the Pharisees’ way (sacrifice). The reason Christians need to let this verse smack us in the face is that we have become the Pharisees Jesus came to Earth to stop us from being. Continue reading
Over the last two days, a video by spoken word artist Jeff Bethke called “Why I hate religion but love Jesus” has gone viral on youtube.
Mark Driscoll created another controversy recently in a sermon when he told his listeners that God hates some of them.
Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is “meritous.”. He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you. Continue reading
Deadly Sin Sermon Series, 4 out of 9 — 11/6/2010
Texts: Genesis 3:1-13; Luke 18:9-14
It’s hard to understand what’s wrong with pride. Aren’t we supposed to take pride in our work? To be proud we’re Americans or proud of our children? The world teaches us to be proud of our accomplishments in our applications to colleges and jobs. Proud people work hard; they take care of themselves and don’t ask for help; they know what’s right and they’re not afraid to call out wrong when they see it. These may seem like good values, but they can make us feel like we don’t need God, and they undermine our sympathy for other people.
The early Christian Saint Augustine wrote that “pride is the beginning of all sin because [pride] was what overthrew the devil, from whom arose the origin of sin.” Some of you know the story of how the devil got thrown out of heaven. The devil’s original name was Lucifer, which means “light-bearer.” He was the brightest of all the angels, second only to God, but he couldn’t stand not being God. So he led a revolt against God. When the revolt was defeated, Lucifer was expelled from heaven and sought his revenge against God by corrupting God’s greatest creation – the human race. All of this happened because of Lucifer’s pride.
So along came Adam and Eve. God told them they could eat from any tree in Eden except for the tree of knowledge, which would cause them to die. They obeyed God and remained innocent until the devil came along. Read with me from Genesis 3:1-13. So the devil says that what’s really going on is that God doesn’t want Adam and Eve to have their eyes opened and know good and evil like God. Adam and Eve believed the serpent and they broke their trust with God. Eating a fruit might not seem like a terribly prideful thing to do, but it was the first instance of human beings declaring their independence from their Creator.
Adam and Eve’s declaration of independence was the birth of their self-awareness. Whether they really wanted to be like God or just let curiosity get the better of them, the consequence was that “their eyes were opened and they realized that they were naked.” So they sewed some leaves together to cover themselves. Then, when God confronted them about what they had done, they tried to cover up the nakedness of their sin with a story about how it was all somebody else’s fault.
Adam and Eve’s story captures something essential about humanity that makes us different than every other animal God created. The other animals are content to play their part in God’s natural order. They don’t know that they’re naked and they don’t care. If animals make mistakes, they don’t feel guilty; they just learn by trial and error. The difference with humans is that we are self-aware. Not only do we cover our physical nakedness with clothing, but we also try to hide our mistakes, with outright lies or a list of accomplishments that make up for our shortcomings.
Pride is a name for the wall that we put up to cover our spiritual nakedness. We clothe ourselves in the reassuring story that we are blameless people who don’t make mistakes and have always been successful. And as we tell this story to ourselves over and over, then every service hour, every AP class, every master’s degree, every person we’ve ever helped become like bricks in the wall of pride that we hide behind when confronted by our mistakes. We become slaves to our walls and spend our lives gathering achievements to put on our resumes.
In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray. Let’s take a look at how it goes for them. The Pharisee’s prayer is a wall of pride. He says, God, I thank you that I’m not like other people, and he lists all the ways in which he’s better than others. It’s not a prayer so much as the Pharisee’s explanation of why he doesn’t need God’s help. We don’t know what the Pharisee was hiding behind his list of reasons he’s a good person. But by putting himself in the best light, even in a prayer, he missed out on the one thing that prayer is supposed to do – bring you closer to God. Prayer is supposed to be the one place where the walls come down and you’re real with God. How lonely when your prayer itself is a wall of pride?
And that wasn’t the only wall that the Pharisee’s pride built. He saw this tax collector beating his breast and crying out to God. Being a religious leader in his community, the Pharisee could have gone and comforted the tax collector; he could have prayed with him. Instead, the only use the Pharisee had for the tax collector was to make him a prop in his song of self-worship: thank you, God, that I’m not like that tax collector. As long as the wall of pride stays up, other people can never be more than props in the one-act plays of our lives. Regardless of how many conversations we have, regardless of how kind a face we put on, if our pride is what motivates us, we will never have any true friendships. And in some deep place beneath all the masks and beneath all the walls, we will always be lonely. When we hide behind the wall of our pride, we’re no different than Adam and Eve hiding from God because they were naked. And if we never tear that wall down, then it can keep us out of the joy of eternal communion with God.
Now what about the tax collector? He prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” We don’t know his specific sins. What we do know is that his wall of pride came down. He probably had done some good things in life that he could have listed out before God to hide the burden that was in his heart. But he didn’t want to keep playing the game. He didn’t want to keep building the wall. So he decided to come out of hiding and put the nakedness of his sin right out in front of God. And Jesus says that the tax collector was the one who got what he needed from his prayer.
Now I don’t want to suggest that we’re going to have a mind-blowing, mountaintop experience every time we pour our hearts out before God. I’ve shared before that I went through a time when I was severely depressed and God felt really far away. I had started going to my first Methodist church in Toledo, Ohio, and the pastor there had taught me about this thing called centering prayer. So each night I would light a candle in my room and I’d stare at the candle and whisper over and over: “God, please make a space for yourself in my heart.” I didn’t feel much of anything, but I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t until years later that I realized God had answered my prayer.
So you might not feel anything right away, but I will promise you one thing. When the walls of pride come down, then God’s mercy can flow. And mercy is not just forgiveness, because it doesn’t stop with the person who receives it; it transforms us into merciful people and it keeps on flowing as we show mercy to other people. You don’t even need to do anything terrible to receive God’s mercy. All you’ve got to do is stop waving around whatever you’ve done well and let the wall of pride come down. And when you stop trying to build your achievements into a wall, you discover that your ability to do good at all is itself an act of God’s mercy.
Regardless of whatever myth our culture has taught us, nobody in the history of humanity has ever pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Whether we’ve realized it or not, we have always relied on the mercy of God flowing through the parents who raised us, the teachers who taught us, and the mentors who showed us the way. Our success is a product of all the ways that God has touched our lives through all the people who gave us a chance, so whatever good we do is really God doing good through us. God doesn’t need credit for all the good He does; He just knows that if we try to take credit for it, we’re going to build a wall of pride that will make us lonely and uncompassionate towards other people.
God can handle the glory so let’s give it to him and stop building it into walls for us to hide behind. God works best not through people who think they’re right about everything, but through people who have let their walls of pride come down so that mercy could flow through them – people who are grateful for God’s mercy and grateful for the privilege of sharing that mercy with others.