God Designed Us to Need Each Other (1/25/15)

The Gist

  1. God Created You to Need Other People
  2. We All Need a Suitable Helper
  3. Marriage Is a Great Community—But Not the Only One!
  4. You Need Community and Community Needs You!

Introduction

We’ve been trying to understand just what God says about us—who we are, why we’re here—and distance ourselves from what the world says about us. So far we know that we’re made in God’s image, unique in all of creation. But the creation story didn’t end in Genesis 1. There’s another story within that story that needs to be told. And it begins in Genesis 2:18.

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:18-25)

It Is NOT Good

This story focuses on a single tension, a single problem. If you remember from Genesis 1, you know that God says “it was good,” “it was good,” “good,” “good,” “good,” “good,” and now finally something is—not good. Something is wrong with creation.

What’s the problem? “It is not good for man to be alone.”

Now is this Adam’s fault? Is Adam the problem? Did God make an “oops”? No. This was part of God’s plan. God intended Adam to be incomplete. God designed Adam to need someone else. And this is before the Fall! You know what that tells us? God designed you to need other people.

Now think about this for a moment: Adam already had God. We know God is sufficient for all of our needs. Yet God created Adam to need more than God. In other words, “you plus God” is not enough!

And that might sound scary at first, but think about it: even as we believe God is “enough” for us, we know that He provides for us through other things. He created us with a need for food, for air, for water. Nobody says “all I need is God” then stops eating. It’s no sin to recognize that we need more than God—the sin would be to think He had nothing to do with providing for those needs.

What Did Adam Need?

So what exactly did Adam need? What’s the problem again?

It’s not that he’s single—although that would be a problem if Grandpa never got married. That would make for a really short story. We know from Paul’s teachings on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:25–40 that being single can be very good, maybe even preferable to marriage. So even though it’s not good for the father of the human race to be single, the problem is bigger than that. The problem is he’s alone.

Now the solution tells us a little more about the problem. What solution does God have in mind? “A suitable helper.” Sometimes we get the idea that a helper is the subordinate—like you have the administrator and the administrative assistant. But that’s not the case here. The word for “helper” is used in other places to describe God. Just because someone brings you help doesn’t mean they are lower than you.

And this idea of “suitable” has to do with complementing. Not like “Wow, Chad, looking sharp in that suit today!” It’s the idea that one makes up what the other lacks. Adam is just one guy, and even before the Fall he had his unique set of strengths and weaknesses. On top of that he has a whole lot of responsibilities. He needs someone who can provide what he lacks, someone who can help shoulder the burden.

One last clue about the problem and solution is where God has Adam begin his search: the animals. Surely some animals can be useful for tending to the garden. They offer some help, but nowhere near what Adam needs. And if Adam were looking for a mate, he would never have looked here. Even though God is going to provide a wife, I think this search shows us that a suitable helper could be someone else. Just because a suitable helper could be a spouse and was one here doesn’t mean it has to be.

Marriage as an Example of Community

Now we’ve been dancing around the subject, but we might as well come out and say it: this whole passage is about marriage. It’s obvious! God gave Adam a wife, and Eve is the suitable helper God graciously provided for him. They begin as “one flesh” since Eve was made from Adam, and they define for us what marriage is: one man and one woman committed to each other for life. This is the example Jesus points to and the example we should tend to.

This passage is about marriage—but it’s not JUST about marriage.

Because we know God designed us to need other people, and because we know there’s nothing wrong with being single, we know that man’s real need is for community. And as this passage defines marriage for us it gives us an example of community. In fact, I think we could say that a healthy marriage is the purest example of community we can see. (For the purest example we can’t see, think about the Trinity—one essence, yet three persons in perfect harmony.)

But in our lives today, we are surrounded by community. We’re part of families, businesses, neighborhoods, teams, clubs, churches, and more. Thankfully we almost never have to worry about being alone. If we have any problem today it’s probably that our relationships don’t go deep enough. Our communities lack the quality they should have—the quality that we need.

So how do we work on this? What is the goal? I think we can learn a lot about what our communities should look like by looking at a healthy marriage. In a healthy marriage, there is sameness and difference, commonness and complement. There’s good communication—and sometimes tough communication. There’s acceptance, affirmation, encouragement, praise. Servant-heartedness. Self-sacrifice. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.

Now please understand: I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about your marriage! Nobody is perfect. Every marriage has its struggles. The point isn’t to see how well or poorly your marriage measures up, but to see what we can learn from marriage itself about how to live together in other communities.

You Need Community—and Community Needs You!

Not only do we need to pursue quality in the communities we’re in, we need a special kind of community. We don’t just need a bunch of relationships, we need those few relationships that matter most—our suitable helpers. And we need to be suitable helpers as well.

So where is that community for you? Where do you belong? Where are your strengths and weaknesses complemented? Where are you known and accepted and affirmed? You’ll probably never find that kind of community at work, maybe not even in your neighborhood. You should find it in your marriage, if you are married. But if all else fails you should at least be able to find it in the Body of Christ, your local church.

And often times we need more than one person. Even if you have the best marriage in the world, you’re still two fallen people in a fallen world. Your spouse can’t be everything you need—and you can’t be everything your spouse needs either.

Sometimes we isolate ourselves, whether by accident or on purpose, and we rob ourselves of something God created us to need. The fact that we need others is a good thing! It’s part of our design! Don’t fight that. You need community.

But the flipside is even better: your community needs you! Instead of looking for people to serve us or complete us or make us feel better, we should be looking for people we can serve, people we can encourage and listen to. You can be that suitable helper, that complementary equal that rescues another from being alone.

Self-centeredness destroys community. But in a world that praises the self-made man, we serve a God that praises the self-giving man. And that should come as no surprise; after all, that’s the example God has set for us time and again. God is always giving of Himself, graciously, and not for His own gain. He gave us His Son who gave Himself up on the cross for us when we were His enemies.

So finally—and this is my plea—look around you. This Sunday School class is your community. Your community needs you. And you need good community. We’re not the only community you have, maybe not even the most important community in your life. But as brothers and sisters in Christ, members of this class together, we can be there for each other. We can make this a good community, a place where no one has to be alone, a place where we pool our strengths to cover our weaknesses. And it won’t be easy, but I promise you if we’re all on board, it will be worth it.

Random Bonus Notes

The Creation of Woman & Institution of Marriage

  • Women, be proud: God spent a lot more time telling us about Eve’s creation than Adam’s. And believe it or not, the Bible is the only Ancient Near Eastern text that says anything about the creation of woman!
  • Just think: God didn’t make Eve from the dirt like He did Adam. They aren’t two separate creations, two separate races. They are intimately related, physically connected as members of the same race. It’s like the mystery of having a child, where this person is a part of you but completely separate and unique.
  • Adam was not involved in Eve’s creation. She was a gracious gift from God.
  • Something for the softies: Matthew Henry wrote “. . . the woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.” (Cited in Constable’s Notes on Genesis.)

Community and Alonenes

  • For more on this idea that you + God is not enough, Moses and Elijah are good examples. For Moses, see Exodus 18 and Numbers 11; for Elijah, check out 1 Kings 18 & 19.)
  • One powerful passage about the importance of community can be found in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12.
  • Not to beat a dead horse, but Adam looking among the animals for a suitable helper and not finding one hammers home the truth that we are not one of them!
  • For more on the church as community, check out Acts 2:41-47 and Philippians 2:1-8.
  • It’s hard to have deep community in a big group. We as a Sunday School meet in order to be a better community within West Cannon. But if you want to go deeper still, you need to get into a small group. That’s the only place you will find the personal accountability and encouragement that you need!
  • The world says we are independent, self-sufficient, and self-made. But God made us interdependent, insufficient, and self-giving.

Made in the Image of God…Really! (1/18/15)

Outline

  • Introduction: The Challenge from Evolution
    • Can we be made in God’s image if science says we evolved?
    • Are we misreading the Bible?
  • Not the Whole Debate, Just the Bible
    • The Bible is our authority as the very words of God.
    • We submit to it whether we understand it or not.
    • The first place we go to understand a passage of Scripture is the rest of Scripture. Scripture interprets Scripture!
    • The clash isn’t science vs. Scripture but one interpretation vs. another.
  • What Does the Bible Say about Adam?
    • Three genealogies portray him as the first father, the end of a real lineage.
    • In two long passages, Paul ties Jesus’ work to Adam’s sin, so our understanding of one is tied to the other. A real Jesus saved us from the real problem of sin and death that came to all men through one man.
    • Paul explains that his church order is based on the creation order and the consequences of the Fall.
    • Hebrews says we accept God created everything by His word, and it treats Abel as a real live example of faith.
  • Conclusion: Faith in Jesus First
    • Our faith and trust is in a person that we personally know!
    • If someone ever shakes our faith in creation or in Scripture, it doesn’t have to shake our faith in Christ.

Introduction: The Challenge from Evolution

Last week we discussed how mankind is made in the image of God, how men and women are together unique in all of creation. And we noted that this is not what we hear in the broader culture. We’re often characterized as highly evolved animals and biochemical machines.

And if this were just another religion talking, it would be easy enough to shrug it off. We might not even notice. But because we often hear this from scientists, it’s more unsettling.

As Christians we believe that God is the God of all truth, and that the way God has revealed Himself in the natural world works together with the way He has revealed Himself in Scripture. And so when people who don’t have religious motives look carefully at the natural world and come to different conclusions, that bugs us.

And it should.

So today we’re going to talk about that elephant in the room: how can we be sure we’re created in God’s image if science tells us we’re just highly-developed animals? What does it look like for us to take Scripture seriously—to take Genesis seriously?

Not the Whole Debate, Just the Bible

Now, even though it’s tempting to try to tackle the whole creation-evolution debate in one sitting, it’s just not possible. We can get into the science another time, we can get into the philosophy of science another time, we can get into the interpretive theory another time. But today I want to ask and answer one simple question: what does the rest of the Bible say about Genesis?

We as a church very proudly stand in the tradition of Sola scriptura, or “Bible alone.” Sometimes we mistake this for the idea that the Bible is the only source of truth or the only source of revelation. But what it really means is that the Bible is the sole authority. No other book, no group, no person, no angel, no one can contradict what it says.

Why? Because we believe these are the very words of God. And because God has highest authority, His words carry that authority. When God speaks, all other mouths are silenced.

Now, can things outside the Bible help us understand what’s in the Bible? Absolutely! God spoke in our language at a certain time and place, and so we certainly rely on translators, archaeologists, philosophers, scientists, etc. to help clarify Scripture. But before we go to them, we affirm that whatever the Bible says—whether we understand it or not—it has authority over us.

One thing that’s helpful to keep in mind is that when we discuss the conflict we often confuse terms. We think of it as being an issue of science vs. Scripture, but that’s not quite right. It’s the interpretation of the facts of nature by the scientific community on one side vs. the interpretation of Scripture by Christian readers on the other. We believe that the conflict isn’t between the facts of nature and the text of Scripture but between interpretations of both.

Science and Scripture

So then, we’re not out to interpret the facts of nature today or evaluate the interpretations of the scientific community. We’re only looking at Scripture, and specifically the clues the REST of the Bible gives us for understanding this part of the Bible.

What Does the Bible Say about Adam?

Since we’re specifically interested in what it means to be human, we can narrow things down a bit more. What does the rest of the Bible say about Adam? Was there a real first person? Was he more than just another animal?

Exhibit A: Genealogies

Adam is mentioned in three different genealogies in the Bible: Genesis 5, 1 Chronicles 1, and Luke 3. In each case he’s part of a long line of fathers and sons. The plain reading is that he’s a real father who had real sons.

Exhibit B: Hosea’s Transgressor

In Hosea 6:7, the prophet declares that Israel has broken God’s covenant just like Adam did. Now this phrasing doesn’t require a literal Adam. I could say Samson was strong just like Superman and it would be true because Superman represents this idea that we can actually apply to Samson. So not much help for this study. (Although I should note that the NET Bible translates this passage differently, in ways that make Adam a much stronger figure here.)

Exhibit C: As Adam, So Christ

Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 are the strongest evidence that the Bible truly treats Adam as a real person. Jesus is the second Adam, the one who came to undo the work of the first Adam. This is worth quoting at length:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.
And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Rom 5:12-19 ESV)

Wow!

Beautiful stuff. But if you start messing with Adam and the problem he created, you end up messing with Jesus and the salvation He brings.

Here’s more:

If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1Co 15:19-22 ESV)

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1Co 15:45-49 ESV)

Sin and death came through Adam to all mankind. I know there are Christians out there who think Adam is just a myth, but reading these passages, I just can’t see how! How do you have a real effect from an imaginary cause? Either there was a single, real set of first parents who fell and spread the effects to all their children, or Paul is in trouble. And so is our concept of what Jesus did for us.

Exhibit D: Family Order

I don’t want to linger here because I don’t want to start any fights about women in church and get us side-tracked. Bottom line: in 1 Timothy 2, Paul argues for a certain arrangement of men and women in church based on two facts: Adam was made before Eve, and Eve was deceived, not Adam. The only point I want to make is Paul is basing rules of conduct on historical events. If these things didn’t happen, why would Paul appeal to them in this way?

Exhibit E: By Faith We Understand

The famous Hebrews “Hall of Faith” has a few relevant references. First off, we have this:

By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Heb 11:1 ESV)

Seems pretty straightforward, affirms what we see in Genesis. Then there’s a reference to Abel’s faith as an example for us all. Now, in a list of people who are examples of how to live, a list where most of the people are most assuredly historical, what should we make of the inclusion of Abel? Only that he was real. The real son of the real Adam.

Conclusion: Faith in Jesus First

I’ve adopted kind of a defensive tone today, but not because I think our class is full of people who deny Adam’s existence. It’s because we live not only in a culture but in a church context that is more and more hostile to these ideas. Formerly conservative seminaries and Bible colleges are ready to concede that evolution is true, and so the challenge isn’t just from outside but from within.

My goal today has not been to demonize scientists. I’m not a scientist and I don’t think it’s my place to judge how scientists do their work. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But it’s important to recognize that science isn’t the only voice in this conversation—not even the most important.

My heart is for people who struggle with doubt, and this is one of those areas where believers sometimes get shaken in their faith. If that’s you, I want you to know that I’m here for you and I’m not out to pick fights. I want to listen and help you find your way back to confidence in Christ.

But if you don’t struggle with this, I hope talking about it now helps strengthen you against future troubles. Most importantly, I want you to see that we don’t believe in Jesus because we believe in creation. We believe in creation because we believe in Jesus. The Bible may have introduced me to Jesus, but my faith is in Him first, my personal relationship is with Jesus Christ, and it’s because of that bond that I trust the Bible.

Do you see the difference? A time may come when someone shakes your confidence in the Bible or in creation. If so, just remember it doesn’t have to shake your faith. The foundation is the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And because I know Him, I can trust Him, and because I trust Him, I can trust Scripture.

Made in the Image of God (1/11/15)

Note: This is the first entry in a new series of synopsis and notes from our Sunday School classes.

Introduction

For the next few weeks, we’re going to be dealing with a question that our culture is deeply interested in and deeply confused about. It’s a question we bump into in the news, in school, in politics, in the media, at work, and really there are very few parts of our lives that aren’t touched by this question. We have armies of people working on the answer to this question and its implications: scientists, psychologists, sociologists, historians, even artists. And they’re all dying to know the answer to this question: what are we, and who am I? What are we as the human race, and who am I as an individual part of it? And how we answer that question has profound implications for how we order our world and how we live together.

Some of us are naturally more interested in this subject than others. I’m one of those people who often comes back to this question to get my bearings as I look at what I’m called to do and where I allocate my time and energy. But some of you are probably more like Jenny, who spends a lot more time actually doing what she wants than thinking about why. And I think there’s a lot of wisdom there, too. But that doesn’t mean the question is irrelevant for her; in fact, it shows just how powerful it is because once she answered it, that answer became embedded in her life.

And the reason this question is so powerful is because of a simple principle we all understand: what you are determines what you can and can’t do. And even more than that, what you are shows you what you should do.

Illustration

We all understand this principle because it’s part of our everyday lives. We’re surrounded by man-made things that serve different purposes. The bench I’m sitting on as I write this was made to be sat on; as a bench it has this for its purpose. Now, it can be used for other purposes because it has attributes in common with other things, but its primary purpose is for sitting. It’s designed to be stable, not too high, not too low, and sturdy. It’s aesthetically designed to match the table and chairs. So knowing it’s a bench tells us what it can and can’t do. But not all benches are good benches. Some benches fulfill their purpose better than others. Knowing what it is and what it is supposed to do, we can judge for ourselves whether or not it effectively does that.

People are no different. Knowing what we are—whatever that is—shows us what we can and can’t do, and it gives us insight into what we should do.

What is Mankind?

In this day and age, we hear lots of different accounts of who we are. Some of them fit pretty well together, others are radically different. What are some of the things people say that we are?

  • Animal
  • Machine
  • Parasite
  • Star-stuff
  • Blank Slate
  • Caged soul
  • A god

You can see immediately that these aren’t neutral descriptions, each one is loaded with implications for our purpose and value. If I’m a biochemical machine, doing only what I’m programmed to do, then how can I be responsible for my actions? If I’m an animal why shouldn’t I give into my instincts and appetites? If I’m a parasite on our planet, why should I make more parasite babies? You get the picture.

Confusion in Ancient Israel

We aren’t the only ones who have struggled with this. The Israelites were also surrounded by competing claims of what it means to be human. In the ancient Near East, all religions were based around the care and feeding of the gods. We have accounts that describe the gods groaning from their work and agreeing to make mankind to do the work for them. Men on this picture are no more than slaves or oxen. They exist to work hard to keep the place running to appease the gods.

And this makes a bit of sense. After all, work is hard! They would spend the vast majority of their lives working just to survive, so it makes sense that this would be the reason for their existence. And shifting the labor to others is what we do with animals and what drives so many of our innovations in technology and industry.

But God didn’t leave them in their confusion. He inspired the account of Genesis 1, which begins with the correct origin story, with what we really are and what we’re here to do.

(Note: for the first 25 verses, there’s nothing about us. It’s about God. Creation was happening and it was good…without us. Just a thought to keep us humble.)

Who Do YOU Say That I Am?

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen 1:26-28 NAU)

A few quick side-notes about the text:

  1. Genesis doesn’t say anything about the Trinity, but we know from later revelation that God is Trinity, so we know at the very least the persons of the Godhead are talking with each other when God says “us” and “our.”
  2. “Image” and “likeness” are probably the same thing. The text isn’t clear. The words just aren’t different enough to draw out major distinctions.

So there you have it: God says we are not animals, robots, parasites, blank slates, or gods. He says we are image-bearers. We are creatures made in the image of God. This is equally true for men and women.

The Bible doesn’t spell out exactly what that means, but it’s safe to say that this Image is found in a number of things that we possess uniquely among creation. We are rational, moral, creative, emotional, communicative, authoritative, and more. You can’t help whether or not you “image” God—but you can do your best to let that image shine and draw it out in others.

Application

For most Christians, this isn’t news. We’ve all heard that we’re made in the image of God, even if we sometimes disagree about what that means. But even if we know the truth, there are times in our lives where the lie sounds appealing. There are times in our weeks when we’re tempted to see ourselves or others as less than (or more than!) human. And with all their conflicting accounts, the world encourages this!

This week, stop and think: 1) when are you most likely to buy the lie that we’re not made in the image of God? When are you most likely to act like something else or treat others like they’re something else? And 2) who in your life most needs to know this truth? Who do you know that’s really bought into one of these other mentalities? Because these lies have consequences, and even if they don’t feel the strain now, someday they will. They will either question whether that explanation fits with their experience, or they’ll question whether the life they are living is really worth it.

Parting Thoughts

One aspect of the Gospel is that Jesus is the perfect image of God, He is more like God than even Adam was because even though He was fully human like Adam, He was fully God as well. So part of His ministry to us was to model the purpose for which we were made, to show us how to live. We look forward in hope to a time when the dead will be raised to life and we will be given bodies free from sin so that we too may live the way we were meant to, bearing the pure image of God as Jesus did and does.

Bonus: Church History

The doctrine of the Image of God was first fleshed out by Irenaeus of Lyons. Tertullian later expanded on the doctrine with his treatment of Original Sin. Their formulations were given a radical reworking by Origen, who allegorized the creation account and harmonized it with Greco-Roman philosophy. Human nature more generally didn’t become a big interest until the 4th and 5th centuries with the debates between Pelagius and Augustine.

Manage Your Poop

A couple months ago I saw a blog post going around titled “I Don’t Have My S*** Together.” It’s by a self-professed Christian author who is seriously troubled by the thought of pretending to be good. My response was—and is—visceral, but I was hoping some distance would give me clarity.

I’ve seen this line of thought before. I’ve even wandered a little ways down that path myself. It usually comes of rethinking a legalistic background. You work so hard to be good, to appear perfect, and everyone else around you pretends to be perfect when you know they’re not.

Then you discover grace. Or maybe you discover it anew. And you realize Jesus didn’t die for perfect people, and that church isn’t a place for perfect people, and that it’s ok not to be perfect. Then you realize just how screwed up the game you were playing really was.

Then you enter the fog.

Christians are supposed to be good, but technically you don’t have to be good. That’s supposed to be the good news: that you’re saved by grace. But sometimes in the fog you start to wonder if being good even matters. And that good news stirs a delusional monster that thinks it’s invincible, that it can enjoy sin without consequence.

But no! You know you shouldn’t. You need to fight this! But then you find yourself losing and you feel like instead of fooling others you’re just fooling yourself. And then you remember someone once told you to “let go and let God.” So you throw up your hands and cry for help.

The writer of that post seems to be in some version of this fog. He’s done with the facade, and that’s fantastic. But I think he goes too far because instead of owning up to his state in humility and striving for something better, he seems to be committed to authenticity and waiting for a miracle. Instead of just losing the facade, it seems he’s lost the image of what could be. He’s just clinging to his brokenness because it’s real.

And I say, “No, you definitely do not have your poop together.” But 1) who does? and 2) is this worth boasting about?

There are good people in the world. Some of them are even Christians. I’m bewildered at how Athenagoras of Athens boasts about the holiness of the early church. He said Christians were above reproach, the best people in the land.

It seems downright cruel to suggest it’s possible.

Because that’s not the church I see. And that’s definitely not me. But what really, really ticks me off is the suggestion that it’s not worth the struggle. A wise man once told me the struggle IS the gift. (He’d stolen it from another wise man.)

The struggle is the gift! I believe that with all my heart. You’re not a slave to sin anymore if you are in Christ, but you will still screw up. And you have the potential to screw up BIG. The point is to do everything you can not to go down that path, and know that you’re not alone in the fight. You have the Holy Spirit and the Church. The fight may be long and hard. Maybe you won’t even win before you breathe your last. But that doesn’t mean you give up, that doesn’t mean sin wins.

Let’s take the major example the writer mentioned. Swearing. He’s tried not to swear, but he still swears, and he’s tired of pretending he doesn’t swear, so he’s being authentic and swearing.

Let’s ignore for a moment that people disagree over how bad swearing really is. The author obviously feels convicted that this is wrong, and you shouldn’t violate your own conscience. He’s tried not to swear. Good! He still swears. Not good. He’s tired of pretending he doesn’t swear. Good! He gives in and embraces swearing because it’s who he really is for now.

NOT GOOD.

This is the mistake: wrapping your identity around the sin. If swearing is a problem for you, yes, that is part of who you are, part of your story, but it’s not the whole story. So is the fight. So is the remorse. So is your attempt to make things right after the fact. When you as a Christian say “I’m a sinner” as if that’s all there is to it, you’re dead wrong. Wrong! Add “saved by grace” and you’re getting warmer. Some would say you’re a “saint who sometimes sins,” and that’s better still.

So, Christian dude who can’t help swearing, you’re not being authentic when you just embrace the swearing like you have no control. Because you can fight it. Maybe you’re tempted to swear 100 times in a day and by exercising minimal self-control, you work it down to 80. The temptation isn’t the sin. Giving in is the sin.

You aren’t defined by your temptations. The “real” you isn’t the you that just happens, it’s the version of yourself you choose to be. Some things you can’t change. You can’t change your past, your natural aptitudes and disabilities, your physiological framework. Maybe you can’t even control what tempts you. But you can work to strengthen the good and minimize the bad. You have a limited range of people you can be. You’ll always be you, but you have freedom to move around the range and be the BEST you possible.

Let me say it again: the real you isn’t what surfaces when you give up. The real you is who you choose to be each day. Pretending you’re something you’re not is wrong. (I say this to myself, too…I want people to think I’m better than I really am.) But giving into the version of you that “just happens” is foolish.

And I get worked up over this 1) because I’ve wrestled with sin and grace and sanctification, I spent a long time in that horrid fog, 2) because I’ve traveled in legalistic circles and seen the damage fake perfect people can cause, and 3) because I see people who should know better falling into this trap and taking others down with them.

So I’m saying to you, no matter where you are: do not be fooled. You struggle with sin? GOOD! Be glad. Some people don’t have that luxury. The struggle is the gift. You won’t be perfect, and you should never claim to be, but giving up is worse. Don’t be discouraged. Don’t lose heart.

You’re not alone.

Test-Driving an Advent

It’s too early to be blogging about Advent.

I know what you’re thinking. Well, ok, I know what you might be thinking. Either a: “what is Advent?” or b: “too early? It’s half over already!”

This is my first time giving Advent a try, so I’m kind of fumbling my way through here. I had no plans to observe it coming into the season, but some friends from church invited me to join them for a study and I said yes.

I think most of us in the group have never done this before; it’s not a very Baptist thing to do. Advent is the time Christians long ago set aside to prepare for Christmas. It’s a time for pondering the mystery of God becoming one of us.

Full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of the Incarnation, but not so big on finding more things to celebrate. I have a hard enough time infusing one day with meaning—Advent just feels like a whole month of days to fail at being holy. Plus I have a slightly radical streak that rebels against the whole idea of being compelled to celebrate something at an artificial and arbitrary time. Why can’t we be thankful all year? Why can’t we celebrate God with us every day? Why can’t we revel in the resurrection continuously?

By now you can probably tell the problem isn’t Advent. The problem is me.

The problem isn’t the suggestion that we spend a month preparing to celebrate a day that changed every other day since. The problem is the temptation to be a perfectionist, making up laws and judging myself righteous by them. Maybe some people feel compelled to do this, but that’s not Advent’s fault. At least not if you’re a Baptist.

In my context Advent is something that’s not from the Bible, but is a good, biblical suggestion from the broader church across generations and denominations. It’s an opportunity to take or leave. Have a hard time making much of Christ on Christmas? Here are some ideas to get you in the spirit.

Of course, leave it to me to take a time set aside for pondering Christ and instead pondering my own heart and habits.

On the bright side, I’m making some encouraging discoveries:

First, I’m discovering that celebrating and meditating on the Incarnation is something I do all the time. I owe that to my theology professors at Dallas Seminary. They taught me that God becoming one of us is central to everything we do. We know the Father through the Son. We are sent into the world just as the Son was sent to us. We become all things to all people so that we might save some in the same way Jesus became man without giving up His divinity. God’s revelation is always contextualized, and that’s a gracious gift. To Drs. Burns, Horrell, Kreider, and Svigel, THANK YOU! What a gift!

Second, (and hopefully this doesn’t get me into too much trouble), there’s a sense in which we celebrate Advent without knowing it. We put up the lights after Thanksgiving, we play Christmas music all month, we send out cards (sometimes) and bake goodies and watch Christmas movies. You can do all of these without savoring the birth of Jesus, but each one is an invitation to ponder, to meditate, to prepare your heart for the big day. It’s not much like the way the church has celebrated in the past, but it’s an opportunity to accomplish the same goals.

I don’t know if I’ll follow an Advent curriculum next year. We’ll see how the rest of this year pans out. But I’m all for taking advantage of the traditions we already have and share, for redeeming the culturally neutral activities.

And if you’re not already doing something for Advent, I invite you all to do the same. Let the things you’re already doing for the season invite you to ponder what Jesus did and prepare your heart for Christmas Day. While you hang your lights, ponder what it means that Jesus was the light that came into the darkness (John 1:4, 5). While you listen to Christmas music, ponder the image of God in man that longs for the love and peace and joy that Jesus offers us. While you bake goodies to share with family and friends, consider the joy the Father had in sending His Son to us—even the joy the Son had in giving Himself to us.

May your days be merry and bright!

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