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How Precious Does That Grace Appear!

Friday, August 28, 2020

The second verse of John Newton’s justly renowned “Amazing Grace” reads,

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

That certainly was true in my experience, and I suspect in the experience of most Christians.  When I was baptized, it was a big deal!  However, I have found that since that day 30 years ago, grace has grown more, not less, precious.

This is not because year by year, I have grown more like John Newton the unbelieving slave trader.  Indeed, I think the opposite has occurred.  Though the heart is deceptively deceitful, my self-impression is that I sin less than I did 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.  I am wiser, less contentious, less easily led astray.  For this, I can take no credit.  Instead, the glory goes to the Lord, who has begun a good work in every Christian and labors to perfect it.

However, with increased wisdom comes increased self-awareness and increased understanding of the Scriptures.  In quantitative terms, I may sin less, but I am more conscious of sin and more sorrowful over it.  Every year, I behold the awesome perfection of the Son of Man with greater clarity, and I am forced to acknowledge how short I fall of His image.  The more I grow, the more discontented I become with where I am, and the more I see how far I have yet to grow.

Along with this, though, I have grown in my appreciation for God’s grace, the only thing that can perfect me.  The unbeliever concludes that goodness is not difficult, the new Christian thinks they can get most of it done without help, but the one who has walked with Christ for decades learns to despair of their own righteousness.

All that remains is grace—grace, purchased at such hideous cost by the dying anguish of the Lamb of God.  Grace, offered in prodigal splendor by a God who must be great to show such mercy.  Grace, which transforms and enlightens the hearts of those who taste it.  Grace, which will be glorified eternally by the presence in God’s presence of all who have been redeemed by it.

What is like the grace of God?  What is as beautiful to the eyes of the believer?  What else can offer such comfort and peace and joy?  Without it, the struggles of life are hopeless. With it, victory is assured.

Grace was precious in the hour I first believed, but it is far more precious now, and with each passing day, it grows more precious still.  Every day, I see God’s goodness in His creation, and I am thankful.  Most of all, though, I am thankful for His grace.

Elections and the Sovereignty of God

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Now that the 2020 presidential election is coming to dominate the news cycle more and more, I find my thoughts turning to what the Bible teaches us about who is in control of such things.  Romans 13:1-2 tells us that God appoints all human authorities.  Daniel 2:20-21 reveals that He removes and sets up kings.  According to Proverbs 20:5, the heart of the king is a stream of water in the hands of the Lord.  In short, it clearly is God who decides who will lead any nation.

This does not mean that God will only send wise and benevolent rulers.  Exodus 9:16 reports that God raised up Pharaoh, even though he was arrogant and foolish, in order that God’s power might be displayed through his downfall.  This is true even for God’s own people.  In Jeremiah 13:13, God warns that He will fill the kings of Judah with drunkenness as part of His judgment of their nation.  Similarly, Isaiah 3:4 promises that God will send capricious children to be the rulers of His wicked people.  Though He leaves us our free will, it is nonetheless His will that is done.

We still should remember this, even though we live in a nation with a system of government that allows us the illusion of control.  “Your vote counts!” says every high-school civics class.  Well, yes, it is true that we can go to the polls and cast our ballots, but we should not imagine that we or any other human beings are dictating the outcome. 

God has not ceased to be the King of kings, nor the Lord of lords.  Our leaders, just as the leaders of every other nation, will be the leaders He chooses.  Perhaps He will be merciful and send us rulers who will help us on to prosperity and peace.  Perhaps He will be just and send us those who will bring us to ruin as part of His judgment on our national sins.  In either case, our votes cannot and will not override His purpose.  Prayer might.  Voting won’t.

Though my children are past it now, I still remember that parents whose kids are in car seats can buy steering wheels for those car seats.  Often, little Johnny is enthusiastic about his steering wheel.  He’ll spin that thing wildly, honk the horn, and be utterly convinced that he is the one who is driving the car.  However, it’s really Dad in the driver’s seat who is determining where the vehicle is headed.

We ought to remember that the same thing is true of our political participation.  If you want to study the issues, pick a candidate, and even advocate for that candidate, great!  There’s no sin in that, though there is sin in acrimonious political debate on Facebook. 

However, we must not forget whose steering wheel is connected and whose isn’t.

Rejoicing in an Evil Report

Friday, August 21, 2020

The other day, a Facebook friend of mine posted the following quotation from C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, something she apparently does annually.

"Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, `Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible?

“If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything - God and our friends and ourselves included - as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred."

In a time when people across the political spectrum seem more interested in believing evil about their enemies than discovering what is true, this certainly has a great deal of resonance!  So far as it goes (and it may go further in the book, which I neither own nor have read), I think Lewis’s analysis is astute.  Indeed, Christians must beware of the corrupting power of hatred!

However, we also ought to press the inquiry forward another step.  It is not enough to identify hatred and contempt for our enemies as seductive.  We must ask why it should be so.

The answer, I think, is one of comparison.  The more vile our enemies are (or we make them out to be), the more brightly we and our friends shine.  Next to the manure pile, even the soiled garment appears clean.  The lesser of two evils often comes to resemble a positive good.

The benefits of adopting such a stance are manifold.  We no longer have to subject those who are on “our side” to searching moral inquiry because, well, look at the other guy! 

Most especially, we no longer have to subject ourselves to searching moral inquiry.  Our enemies, rather than the word of God, have become our standard for self-evaluation.  In comparison to the picture we paint of them, we have no flaws worth mentioning.  There is nothing we need to change; instead, we can bask in our own self-righteousness.

Of course, when the hearts of God’s people are given over to hatred and self-righteousness, the devil has won completely.  We have no justification for maximizing the difference between ourselves and our enemies.  We too once were deceived, enslaved, hateful and hating one another.  Rather than contempt, we must respond with recognition, sympathy, and pity. 

The difference between us and anybody else is not our inherent goodness.  It is that we have known the light of the grace of God, which cleanses and instructs us.  If God could love and be merciful to me when I was His enemy, I must love and be merciful to my own enemies. 

Admittedly, humility and self-sacrifice are not as enjoyable as contempt and self-righteousness.  However, we have no hope for true righteousness apart from them.

Let No One Leave Hungry

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Even though Facebook does its best these days to compete with television for the title of “vast wasteland”, one occasionally encounters a gem on it that—hopefully—justifies reading through all the rest.  For example, the other day, a friend of mine posted this description of his grandmother:

What my grandmother lacked in money she made up for in love.

She was proud to say that no one came to her home hungry and left the same way. Her first words were always, “Want something to eat?”, and her last, “Want something to take with you to eat on?”

Many of us have been blessed by knowing godly women of a similar temperament.  My own mother was that way.  My sister still likes to tell the story of how she and her husband were leaving my parents’ house, and my mother kept trying to give her something.

“Would you like this?”

“No, Mom, we don’t need that.”

“How about this?”

“No, thank you.  Don’t need that either.”

And so forth.  Finally, in desperation, my mother picked up one of her potted plants off the front porch, held it out to my sister, and asked, “Well, would you like a pansy?”

Some find joy in accumulating.  Others find it in giving.  It’s no secret, I don’t think, which of these attitudes is godlier.

Indeed, the spirit of giving is the spirit of Christ.  As Paul observes in 2 Corinthians 8:9, He gave everything He had so that we might become rich.  He sacrificed Himself so that He could fill our deepest needs.

As disciples, we could do far worse than taking the words of my friend’s grandmother for our own.  We ought to go through our lives doing our best to make sure that no one leaves us hungry.  Sometimes, this occurs without metaphor, through a literal filling of bellies.  I know I appreciate it when brethren share their food with me!

However, it ought to be much broader than that.  Thankfully, we live in a country where physical hunger is rare.  However, the hunger pangs of the American soul seem more piercing today than ever before.  So many feel lonely, isolated, depressed, overlooked, and worthless.  Doctors prescribe antidepressants by the bushel, yet the epidemic of misery continues.

Perhaps the problem is that we have become so affluent that we have forgotten the value of the things that money can’t buy.  I recall reading some years ago that the average American only invites someone else into their home once a year.  It is far worse to live in a mansion that is empty of human contact than to live in a cottage that is filled with love and laughter and friends.

None of us can change our society singlehandedly, but we can change the lives of the people around us.  We can make sure that they don’t leave us hungry.  We can show them that they matter by the way we speak and the way we listen.  We can expand an everyday contact into a meaningful one.  We can leave a life a little brighter than it was five minutes ago, not through any special skill or talent, but simply through love. 

This manner of living doesn’t lead to any earthly recognition, though a surprisingly large number of people may show up for your funeral.  It will not attract the attention of the miserably self-centered world, though it will attract the Lord’s attention.  Nonetheless, not letting anyone leave hungry is one of the few things that we can do with our lives that will make an eternal difference in the lives of others.

Do not despise the day of small things.  In the end, the small things are the ones that matter. 

Lord Willing

Friday, August 14, 2020

Living in Tennessee is a very different cultural experience from living in Illinois.  One of the contrasts I have noticed is the frequent appearance of “Lord willing” in conversation.  When you’re talking with some folks, every expression of intent or hope for the future is punctuated with “Lord willing”.

This comes from James 4:15, where James urges us to frame our plans with the statement, “if the Lord wills”.  However, the context is not about saying magic words to make sure bad things don’t happen to us.  It’s about having the right spirit.  In fact, people who use “Lord willing” can become entrapped in many of the same pitfalls that await people who say, “O my God!” 

Of course, there is nothing wrong with uttering those three words.  They appear in the Psalms and in many hymns that we sing.  However, problems arise when we say, “O my God!” flippantly or thoughtlessly.  I am not among those who believe that saying it constitutes taking the Lord’s name in vain as per Exodus 20:7 (which I believe is about swearing false oaths), but that doesn’t make it acceptable. 

Invoking the name of the Holy One of Israel is a solemn thing.  One of the greatest privileges we have, one purchased with the blood of Christ, is the right to call upon the name of the LORD.  When we do so carelessly, we display irreverence toward the One whom we are commanded to revere.  It is dangerous to treat the Almighty in such a cavalier fashion!

So too, we must make sure that we speak reverently of the purposes of God.  In James 4:13-16, James condemns the arrogance of those who make confident plans about the future. He points out that none of us can guarantee that we will survive even tomorrow.  Before the awesome, unchanging God, all of us are nothing more than a passing vapor. 

“Lord willing,” then, is supposed to be more than a verbal good-luck charm.  Instead, James is urging us, every time we talk about the future, to think long and hard about how uncertain our place in that future is. 

We don’t like doing that.  We want to believe that we are the ones in control, that everything will shape up according to our desires.  If nothing else, 2020 should have highlighted the foolishness of that conviction.  When we believe we’re in the driver’s seat of our own lives and speak accordingly, we’re boasting, whether the phrase “Lord willing” passes our lips or not.

Instead, we should use “Lord willing” as an opportunity to humble ourselves before our Maker.  We should remind ourselves of how foolish and feeble we are, especially when compared to the wisdom and power of God.  We also should view it as an acknowledgment of our subjection before His will.  Someone who says “Lord willing” and then goes out and sins clearly does not mean it!

We must mean it, whether we say it or not.  “Lord willing” ought to call us to fix our minds upon the sovereignty of God, each day and each hour.  May we live accordingly! 

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