I had this brought home to me quite profoundly the second Sunday I attended an Orthodox church. My priest, Father Gregory Horton, had invited my wife and I to dinner at his home. As our wives worked together in the kitchen preparing the meal, he and I discussed theology. At one point, he posed the question to me, “Matthew, what is grace?” I must confess that I was a little put off by that. For a second, I felt, “Does Father really think me so spiritually immature that I do not know what grace is?” So I responded very quickly, and anyone who is listening to this who has had experience with Western Christian theology knows exactly how I answered it. I proudly asserted, and we all know this, right? “Grace is God’s unmerited favor.” Father smile at me, chuckled a little and said, “Why is it that everything is a thing for you Westerners?” I had no idea what he meant, so to end my confusion, I demanded, “Well then, you tell me, what is it?” “Grace, dear Matthew,” he replied, still smiling, “is the Holy Spirit.”
It was a revolutionizing moment in my Christian experience. As time passed, I began not just to comprehend, but also to experience what Father Gregory was telling me. The Orthodox Christian life quickly teaches us that God does not deal in things. Grace, for instance, is not some commodity that God produces. It is not something He wraps up in a spiritual package and sends to us so that we can open it up and apply it to our lives. The same must also be said for faith, or mercy, or wisdom. None of these are things. They are activities of God within the soul of a human being. Grace is God at work transforming me. Faith is the Christ who dwells within me, reaching out to the same Christ who sits on His throne in heaven. Mercy is God expressing His goodness in and through me. Wisdom is God thinking His thoughts in me. Again, this is so crucial, but it runs against the grain of this objectifying mindset that has determined, for Christians and non-Christians alike, how the Western world understand the Christian experience, and so I pray that those of you listening will really let this settle in.
Perhaps it will become clearer as we apply all this to the question of imputed righteousness. Just as with grace, or faith, or mercy, or wisdom, the Western mindset is at work here. It takes God’s activity of imputing righteousness and turns it into a thing called imputed righteousness. But just like grace, faith, mercy or wisdom, righteousness is not a thing. You cannot buy a can of it, nor is righteousness some sort of spiritual currency that God can apply to our account in heaven in order to erase the debt we owe Him for sinning against Him.
What is righteousness? It is not a thing, it is a state of being. Specifically, it is God’s state of being. It is not some thing that God produces. It is who He is. Righteousness is not even some quality or characteristic within God that He can somehow pull out chunks of and give to us to help us pay our debt to him, or use in some other way. No, righteousness is God’s perfectly humble, perfectly self-sacrificing, perfectly good, perfectly loving way of existing.
Posted by LT in on December 28, 2012
One of the most misunderstood concepts in the church is grace. I’ve seen many flowery and convoluted definitions of this word which betray its simple and profound meaning.
Grace is favour!
It means more simply “an approving attitude; good will.”
Grace is not merited!
Merit means a “claim to respect and praise; excellence; worth.“
When it is explained that God has restored our relationship with by grace, it means that God decided that he approves of us and takes pleasure in us. There is nothing we have done to earn it or deserve it.
From our vantage point it seems as though there is an ebb and flow to our relationship with God. It feels like we lose his favour when we indulge in pride, selfishness or envy. If we stray too far we lose our usefulness to God and his agenda and we become worthless and if we become too worthless, then God must, in his holiness take harsh measures to give us the punishment we deserve. In some twisted way we believe God’s favour is unearned, by his disfavour is completely earned.
Many assume that we can become like God by knowing God’s character and expectations and striving to live up to them. Some are more nuanced in that they see God’s grace as his spiritual power strengthening us to live better in order to please him.
I think there is a better path, one that is less traveled. One that involves a lot less striving and lot more transformation. It comes from knowing God’s love and importantly our own sense of worth to God. This is the one great lesson I’ve learned in my years. Once I came to know the great value God places on my life it began to infect the way I saw myself and everyone else. All of the sudden I came to appreciate God so much more and I came to appreciate what he appreciated. With all that acceptance and love I came to know love for others in deep and profound ways. While I can’t proclaim that I like everyone, knowing God’s love for very unlikable people has given me incredible patience and mercy for people.
Knowing God’s love and the inherent worthiness of everyone around me regardless of the choices they make has changed my perception and values. I don’t steal from people because I care about them, not because I’m striving to live up to some standard. It isn’t even a decision I have to make, I just care. People matter to me even when they treat me like garbage.
In this path the great obstacle is shame. No amount of sin can separate me from the love of God, but my personal response to my sin can lead me to retreat from the light in to blindness and darkness. God is always there but I grow callous and insensitive. Shame is a personal sense of unworthiness. If I feel unworthy then I hide and the more I invest my personal resources in hiding how truly unworthy I become the more I begin to fear the light. Instead of embracing the God of light I hide from him and then begin to strive to make myself worthy which inevitably ends in failure and more shame. The cycle continues. This is the life most Christians live, and the concept of salvation is just a free ticket in to heaven instead of something much more transformative.
I have stopped trying to be a good Christian and I simply believe that God has deemed me and everyone else worthy of His love. As that truth penetrates my heart and mind I end up doing and saying things that I never would have if I was striving to live up to a standard.
Posted by LT in on December 27, 2012
1. God is love and holy and these two attributes complement each other and should not be understood to be in tension with each other.
2. Righteousness is purity in values, conduct and love. It isn’t austere perfectionism.
3. The distance we feel from God is rooted in our own shame and sense of unworthiness. God does not withdraw because of our lack of perfection.
4. The path to righteousness is found in knowing God’s love for yourself and others. When you know such love you begin to exude it and living with that love inspires and motivates wonderful care, compassion and selflessness.
5. God is always with us, but we become blinded to his presence when live in shame.
6. God’s divine judgement will be severe for some, but it will be fair. I expect to find out that God’s kindness and compassion will be much stronger than many religious people believe.
7. The biggest problem in the church isn’t how it organizes itself; it is the use of fear, coercion, and shame to manipulate people in to behaving better.
8. Those Christians that continually offer sweeping condemnations of the church generate much more heat than light and often betray their own theology of God’s grace.
9. Everyone is worthy because the biggest player in the marketplace values us this way.
10. The purpose of the church is to express the fellowship of the Trinity in our relationships
11. The key to faithfulness in church life is sharing truly “good news” and expressing the love and truth of our saviour.
12. The path of deeper faith is to stop using human tools to motivate and manipulate people. When you see people engage in acts of unselfish love free from outsider pressure it can restore your faith in church.
Posted by LT in on December 23, 2012
Posted by LT in on July 26, 2012
We had a rainy day up at the cabin and ended up watching the latest popular “Christian” movie Courageous. The movie came highly recommended by some of my friends. I have to admit I would have approached the whole experience with a critical eye. I like good movies. My wife and I like to get out of the house go for a nice supper and catch a good flick. We heavily rely on Rotten Tomatoes to filter out the brutal movies and rarely indulge in anything that isn’t “certified fresh.” We don’t always see things the same way as the critics in both directions. It has on more than one occasion led to us a fine evening of lesser known indie films at the Roxy Theatre.
You can tell Courageous has the same kind production values as the decent indie films which is kind of nice. One of the big action scenes was actually kind of engaging. The acting was uneven but at least it was acceptable in parts. The preachy dialog made me wince a few times.
In the movie several characters make a public resolution
to be better men, husbands and fathers.
My first thought is: isn’t the commitment to be Christ’s disciple enough? If it isn’t then why not? It reminds me of the commitments I would make in my younger days. Commitments and resolutions to quit certain bad habits, listening to the wrong kind of music and indulging in the wrong kind of entertainment. These commitments were usually made in spiritual afterglow of some kind of youth conference with a dynamic challenging speaker. After enduring a few years of this it became thoroughly tiresome. The commitment would last a few weeks, a few months, or maybe even a year. Then I would fail. I didn’t have the willpower left. Despite all my efforts to do it “in God’s strength” it was clear that it wasn’t happening. It seems as though “in God’s strength” meant doing all kinds of spiritual activities in my strength or order to “ability activate” God’s strength in order to attain a new level of victory! In the end it looked a lot like my strength all over again.
As I think about it even deeper I’m not sure the language of commitment is always helpful. It so easily falls in to the trap of willing oneself to a pattern of good conduct without actually becoming anything different. I can make a commitment to be like Christ without knowing Christ.
While Christian art is rarely subtle there are subtle undertones in the teaching of this movie. The unspoken message is this “you are not enough.” You are not enough of a man, you are not enough of a father, and you are not enough of a husband. Christ died to accept your punishment for not being enough, now you must now curry his favour and blessing by becoming enough.
Don’t think so? Watch this.
And we are inviting any man whose heart is willing and courageous to join us in this resolution.
In my home, the decision has already been made. You don’t have to ask who will guide my family because by God’s grace, I will. You don’t have to ask who will teach my son (and daughter) to follow Christ because I will. Who will accept the responsibility of providing for and protecting my family? I will. Who will ask God to break the chain of destructive patterns in my family’s history? I will. Who will pray for and bless my children to boldly pursue whatever God calls them to do? I am their father…I will. I accept this responsibility, and it is my privilege to embrace it.
I want the favor of God and His blessing on my home. Any good man does. So where are you men of courage? Where are you, fathers who fear the Lord? It’s time to rise up and answer the call God has given you, and to say, I will! I will! I will!
Grace as described in the New Testament is charis and it means unmerited favour. In this movie grace is understood as something we invoke to enable us to live a holy life. This is where the great disconnect happens. God’s grace does transform us but it has always been unmerited and unearned. There is a vast chasm of difference between receiving God’s grace and trying to activate it. One involves human effort and striving. The other involves surrender, transparency and accepting oneself in their own brokenness. One leads to shame instead of wholeness, self-denial instead of true maturity, and ultimately fruitlessness instead of abundant life.
How does one tell the difference between striving and surrendering? Someone who is striving is trying to live up to a standard and needs God’s help to do it. Someone who has surrendered knows they will never live up to the standard and is actually strengthened by knowing they are loved anyway. The true essence of holiness is love. One doesn’t love until they know love. Knowing how much God loves you also changes how you view others. Everyone becomes worthy, everyone. The love of God lives inside you and now the “righteous requirement of the law” is fulfilled because you don’t need rules to guide your conduct, your love guides you.
The message of this movie is you should be ashamed for not being better. God will judge you therefore be courageous enough to make this commitment. Man Up and activate the favour and blessing of God in order to become better. It doesn’t work and it can’t work. It does nothing more than pile on more shame which makes you believe you are unworthy, unloved and distant from God. It undercuts the work of grace and leaving you fruitless. The message of Christ is that even while you were dead in your sins you were always worth something to God and never ever beyond his love. While God was once separate from you by the blood of Christ he has brought you near, he has always been with you and always will be with you because he decided you were worth being with. If you could just accept his love by faith, it would restore your relationship with him and you no longer have to be afraid.
Posted by LT in on July 22, 2012
Gun control! My few thoughts on what we should be thinking about in the aftermath of the shootings. Knee jerk reactions blaming our favourite targets (lack of gun control, poor parenting, lack of mental health services etc…) are easy but we really should find out all the facts in this case. The alleged shooter was using a semi-automatic rifle which apparently jammed forcing him to switch guns. In Canada one can legally acquire semi-automatic rifles. I don’t know that a similar shooter couldn’t have accomplished the same thing in Canada. Did we forget about the shooting in Toronto just a little while ago?
The big question we should ask is why so many Americans shoot each other relative to the rest of the world? In Canada we have lots of guns too, we just don’t use them on each other with anywhere near the same frequency. Sometimes the appeal for new restrictive laws is just a distraction from the real problem. I don’t honestly know why Americans shoot each other so much.
A friend of mine told me that even the American military doesn’t have their assault rifles set to full automatic. (I haven’t confirmed this elsewhere). The popular theory is that our friends to the south are so trigger happy they waste too much ammunition on full auto. Is gun culture the issue rather than lack of gun control?
Like the vast majority of people on this planet I don’t believe the American constitution is a moral authority on firearms. I know American’s get all choked up about it but most of it is a few hundred years old. The original notion was that the people could resist oppression by their government. Now I don’t know what good even an assault rifle would be against the American military. In an even more absurd twist more American’s believe they have a right to have a gun than actually bother to vote. The best way to resist a drift towards an oppressive government would be become an active and politically engaged electorate. I think it is backwards to watch their government implement more and more restrictive controls and monitoring, some of which have been constitutionally suspect, while caring so much about owning guns. That is unless people love guns for some other reason. Which I think is the case.
Why do American’s love guns? I think one explanation is that Americans are more polarized than other mature democracies. They trust their government less and have less confidence in law enforcement. They feel they need to defend themselves more than a Canadian, Brit or Australian.
In the wake the tragedy many gun advocates proclaimed that the situation in that theater would have resolved itself quicker if someone else had a gun. A somewhat fanciful notion. What if 4 other people had guns and they started shooting each other in the confusion? Would law enforcement know who to shoot?
I don’t know the way forward, but I am worried about this. The societal and political discourse in America continues to grow less rational and more polarized. This could lead to more defensiveness, fear and gun conflict.
Posted by LT in on July 10, 2012
I’m intrigued by Kickstarter. It is a “crowd source” approach to raising funds for purely creative projects. People put come up with a creative project. It could be a video game, novel or movie or whatever. They put up a profile on the website. People pledge money to the project. The project owners get the money pledged to them if they reach their funding goals.
What if the church could fund authors, theologians and missionaries the same way? Instead of using traditional publishing we could directly fund an author who could open source their work or give electronic versions away to people in the developing world? This way we could fund quality work that can be shared without all the hang ups of publishers and intellectual property?