When Sin Is Ugly, Grace Is Beautiful

Last week, my parents closed on a house that needs quite a bit of renovation.  They saw the potential in the property and have begun the process of making the possibilities a reality.  Over the weekend, David and I got to see the house for the first time and spent a few hours helping complete some of the pressing projects.

I was tasked with cleaning the windows – inside and outside.  This may not seem like a big deal, but the large windows had been plastered with tape and stickers making them an eyesore rather than a focal point.  As I scraped and scrubbed, I noticed myself obsessing over tiny pieces of residue that would’ve gone unnoticed before the initial splash of Windex.  The cleaner the windows got, the more aware I was of each remaining speck of dirt.

Our Christian lives are a lot like those windows.  Apart from Christ, we are a disaster.  We are dirty, yet incapable of cleaning ourselves.  When God saves us, though, He forgives and cleanses us (1 John 1:9).  He begins the process of making us like Jesus – a process that will be complete in Heaven.

Initially, the changes may seem pretty drastic, like wiping a Windex-soaked rag over a dirt-laden window.  Over time, however, we tend to become increasingly aware of the ways in which we still fall short, and it sometimes feels like we’re getting worse.  In reality, though, our sin is contrasting with the cleansing work of God in our lives, becoming more and more out of place, thus more conspicuous.

Part of Christian maturity means that the more God works in our lives, the more aware we will be of the sin that lingers.  Rather than causing despair, the presence of sin should point us to our Savior.  Like Paul wrote near the end of his life, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).  As Paul grew in his relationship with God, he became more aware of his sin which caused an increased realization of his need for grace.

When I cleaned the windows on Friday, I had to alternate sides frequently because the greater cleanliness of one side exposed the remaining dirt on the other, and vice versa.  I would have been foolish to think that the windows weren’t getting any cleaner just because the process was time consuming.  In the same way, sanctification – the lifelong process of God, through His Word and His Spirit, making His people more like Jesus – is lengthy and grueling.

Even though we are dangerously prone to be more aware of what’s left to do than what God’s already done, we can be convinced that He is indeed at work.  In those moments when our sin feels all too apparent, grace becomes more than a theological truism; it is our functional hope.  When we’re at our ugliest, grace is at its most beautiful.

The greatness of salvation is appreciated deepest by those who are most aware of the gravity of their sin.  In the famous words of John Newton, author of the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace”, “My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.”

Obstacle or Opportunity?

7724109468_8e597e71ea_zAs a former competitive runner, I’ve been to my fair share of track meets.  I’ve seen every event imaginable and have participated in several of them.  One event, though, I was never brave enough to try: the hurdles.  Even as I think about it now, I’m amazed at the athleticism of those who not only clear the hurdles, but do so at impressive speeds.

Imagine sitting at a track meet waiting for the hurdlers to race.  You watched the runners line up, held your breath as the starting gun was fired, and cheered as the race began.  With the scene set in your mind, picture one of the runners approaching the first hurdle, slowing down, and then falling to the ground before even attempting the jump.  You’re close enough to hear the runner complain like a toddler, “This thing is in my way.”  Continuing to pout, he doesn’t move from the track as he whines, “Who put these here?  I was trying to win a race.”

It sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it?  Everyone knows that hurdles don’t prevent the race; they’re part of the race.  Yet so often we are like the runner who is shocked by the obvious.  Life is full of challenges, everything doesn’t go our way, and difficult circumstances are inevitable.  We are tempted to view these difficulties as preventing us from knowing, loving, and following God rather than as part of what it means to know, love, and follow God.

As Sara Hagerty tweeted, “If knowing Him more intimately is my end goal, there’s not one single thing I will face today that can’t serve to draw me into this.”  In reality, the obstacles of life are opportunities to cultivate the one relationship that matters most of all (Philippians 3:8).  A runner with an accurate perspective sees hurdles as checkpoints – each one an indicator of his growing nearness to the finish line.  Likewise, a Christian with an accurate perspective sees hardships in the same way.  They are a normal part of the race, and each one draws him a little closer to the Prize.

We serve a God who is both willing and able to take the terrible circumstances of life and use them for our good and His glory (Genesis 50:20).  When we view life through this lens, what once looked like an obstacle starts to look like an opportunity.

Image Rights: Steve Fair via Wikipedia Commons.

Disappointed with God

UntitledIf you’ve been alive for any length of time, you’ve likely felt disappointment.  It’s one of the common experiences all people share.  We all know what it feels like to be let down or to have unmet expectations.  Often the cause of our disappointment is other people, and at other times we disappoint ourselves.  If we’re willing to be honest, I bet many of us would admit that we’ve also felt disappointed by God.

The rendering of Isaiah 49:23 varies between translations, but the New International Version reads, “Then you will know that I am the Lord; those who hope in me will not be disappointed.”  Other translations use the phrase “not be put to shame” in place of the word “disappointed.”  Either way, the concept is fairly straightforward: those who hope in (or “wait for”) God won’t be let down.  In the end, they won’t look foolish for having hoped in Him, because He will eventually come through.

Since Isaiah 49:23 seems to contradict our experience, we might be tempted to dismiss it as an error at best, or reject it as a lie at worst.  This is not an option, however, for those who believe the Bible to be inerrant.  When the Bible’s teachings are at odds with our experience, it is our experience – not Scripture – that needs reevaluation.

If it’s true that those who hope in God will not be disappointed, and if it’s true that I have been disappointed with God, then I need to ask myself if my hope was actually in God after all.  Contrary to popular opinion, the word “hope”, at least in the biblical sense, does not mean “wish” or “really want.”  The biblical concept of hope was best captured by one of my college professors when she defined it as “the constant expectation that God will be who He claims to be and do what He promises to do.

In other words, when the Bible says that those who hope in God won’t be disappointed, it’s saying that those who expect God to be who He is and do what He promises won’t be let down.  I may really want God to do something specific in my life, but if I’m “hoping” in Him to do something He never promised, I’m only setting myself up for disappointment.

Biblical hope takes our eyes off of ourselves, our circumstances, and our desires, and instead places them on God, His character, and His promises.  Biblical hope moves us from the shaky to the stable, from the ever-changing to the always-constant.

There’s plenty of disappointment to be had in our broken world and much of it is inevitable.  There’s one form of disappointment, though, that we need not experience.  Look to the Bible for descriptions of the character of God and explanations of the promises of God – and believe them!  Live your life assuming that God is actually who He claims to be and anticipating Him to be faithful to His promises.  If you try it, I’m confident you won’t be disappointed.

Stuffed, But Not Satisfied

Have you ever been incredibly hungry but unable to identify your particular craving?  I’ve often felt famished and have gone on a quest through the kitchen to satisfy my stomach’s growls.  I’ll try a few crackers and realize I’m not craving them.  Next I might eat some fruit, but I still feel discontent.  Before I know it, I’ve sampled a slew of items without successfully satiating my unidentified craving.  I end up stuffed, but not satisfied.

This cycle is not limited to my physical hunger; I often live my life this way.  Perhaps you do too.  In one way or another, our hearts signal that they’re hungry.  Deep down, there is a longing that needs to be fulfilled.  But instead of looking to Christ to satisfy our hearts’ cravings, we run elsewhere.

Maybe our hearts are hungry for affection, and so we run to a particular individual looking for the kind of perfect love that is found only in a relationship with Jesus.

Maybe our hearts are hungry for security, and so we run to the familiarity of our comfort zone looking for the kind of assurance that is found only in trusting God’s resolve to let nothing come between us and His love.

Maybe our hearts are hungry for significance, and so we run to our achievements looking for the kind of approbation that is found only in knowing God as a loving Father who graciously, wholeheartedly welcomed us into His family.

At the end of the day, we are stuffed, but not satisfied.  We’ve sampled several options, but we never found what we wanted.  This process so dulls our appetites that we settle for a frozen dinner when our hearts are craving filet mignon.

Breaking this unhealthy cycle starts by accurately identifying our cravings.  We need to be aware of what we’re hungry for so that we can fill up on the right thing.  And most often, the “right thing” is Jesus because eternity has been set in our hearts, and our cravings extend beyond what any one broken person or experience can satisfy.

If you feel hungry for affection, security, significance, or something else, realize that you’re ultimately hungering for what Jesus offers.  And instead of ransacking the world for a quick fix to your hunger pangs, run to Him – the Bread of Life – and find lasting fulfillment rather than perpetual emptiness.

A Wonderful Weekend

IMG_1637A handful of friends from South Carolina made the trip to Bluefield this past weekend to spend quality time enjoying each other’s company and studying Romans 8.  We had a blast catching up, sharing stories, and just being together.  We learned from each other and encouraged one another.

It’s hard to capture the significance of the weekend in a single blog post, but below are a few important takeaways.

We need each other.  When I am with others who know and love God, I’m encouraged to know Him better and love Him more myself.  When I see my friends’ faith and how God is working in their lives, my own faith is strengthened and my trust in God deepens.  I’m thankful for a weekend set aside to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith” (Romans 1:12).

We need assurance.  Our hearts ache for permanence and security, but we’re prone to look elsewhere for that which is found in Christ alone.  Though all of our questions won’t be answered this side of heaven, Romans 8 reminds us of how much God wants us to know for sure.  Romans 8 provides more than sufficient answers to some of our deepest concerns.

We need Christ.  Romans 8 begins and ends with statements about those who are “in Christ.”  And the rest of the chapter fits nicely between those two bookends – what life is like for those who belong to Christ.  Christ is our only hope.  All of our security, confidence, and assurance are found in Him.

As I process such a wonderful weekend, my primary response is gratitude.  I am extremely grateful to have friends who love and follow God.  I am thankful for the assurance God provides through His Word that enables me to live with settled confidence regardless of my circumstances.  And most of all, I am and will eternally be grateful for Christ – my life and my firm foundation.  All other ground is sinking sand.