Sunday, January 11, 2009

God's Merciful Use Of His Mercy - Or, how a seven-year-old can slam-dunk.

A man once approached me at a conference in Indiana and asked if I was Isaiah. When I told him that he’d found the right man, he held up a copy of Stark Raving Obedience and began to thumb through many highlighted pages. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about something,” he said. “You talk a lot about both ‘Faith’ and ‘Belief’.” He read from a passage that talks about a person’s lack of faith versus unbelief. Then he asked, “I still don’t understand the difference between ‘Belief’ and ‘Faith’. You use the words interchangeably throughout the rest of the book. Could you explain this for me?” The best answer I could give him at the time was that he had a copy of the first edition, a three-year-old version full of hilarious typos and half-explanations. Which was more of a commercial for the second edition than an answer.

To be honest, it took a full two weeks before I could confidently define my use of the two words. Belief is when a person mentally ascribes themselves to a system of thought. Faith is when the person begins to apply that system of thought to their lives through action.

Many Christians have historically used the words “Grace” and “Mercy” interchangeably as well. I want to make sure you know what I mean when I say these words. As I understand it, grace is a gift freely given to one who did not earn or deserve the gift. A good example of this is how Boaz treated Ruth in the book of Ruth. She was a foreigner, a widow, and a woman. In that culture, she had no rights, and yet Boaz showed her favor without asking for anything in return. That’s grace.

I’ve heard a few people teach on God’s messy covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. I first heard it from Ray Vanderlaan, so my credit goes to him here. God promises Abraham that he and his descendants will possess the Promised Land. Abraham asks God, “How am I supposed to know you’re telling me the truth?” So God has Abraham split a cow, a goat, and a ram into halves, placing the halves opposite of each other. This would allow for the animals’ blood to run together and form a sort of path.

Vanderlaan taught that this was a common Bedouin custom for making a covenant. One man would walk through to say, “If I don’t keep my end of the deal, you can split me in two and walk in my blood.” The other man would do the same. An admittedly severe agreement, but this is what God asked of Abraham. Instead of allowing Abraham to walk through the bloody path, God caused Abraham to sleep and spoke His promise. When Abraham awoke, he saw a smoking pot, and then a flaming torch, pass through the halved animals. By doing this, God passed through the path Himself both times as if to say, “If I don’t keep my end of the agreement and uphold my promises, you can kill me and walk in my blood. And if you don’t keep your end of our agreement to follow me as your only God, you can kill me and walk in my blood.”

Of course, Abraham would be the one to break the covenant, but God’s promise was to take the punishment for our failure Himself. This promise was fulfilled with Jesus’s death on the cross. This is the free gift of grace, and it’s ours to accept or deny.

When we do accept Jesus and His forgiveness of our sin, Colossians 3:3 says, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Many sections of the New Testament teach that our righteousness, justification, and holiness are found in Jesus. This works because we’re hidden in Him. When God looks at us, He doesn’t see our mistakes, our trauma, our sickness, our wounds, or any of that stuff. He sees Jesus. The Old Testament prophets, when telling of the coming Messiah, said He would suffer, be broken, bruised, striped, crushed, and slaughtered for our iniquity, sin, transgression, illness, and infirmity. God doesn’t want to punish us because He already punished Jesus. When we place ourselves under the covering of Jesus’s blood, we’re, well, covered. In 2 Timothy 2:11-13, Paul wrote, “It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

Of course, just because all of our sins are forgiven doesn’t mean we use grace as an excuse to live an intentional lifestyle of sin. Paul explains this gorgeously in Romans 6. To be sure of God’s grace is to be sure of our salvation in Jesus and this understanding is foundational to the life of every believer.

Mercy is more of a head-scratcher for people, I think. I see mercy as God’s affectionate attitude toward us, His goodwill, and the help He wants to offer. When explaining my idea of mercy to a close friend, I compared it to the brief period of my life when I wanted to play basketball. I was, I don’t know, seven or so, and I wanted to try dunking the ball. I don’t even know if I was four feet tall at the time, but I kept trying to dunk. And I mean repeatedly. I probably stuck my tongue out a few times thinking that was Michael Jordan's secret. My dad laughed as he watched, and I kept saying, “I’ll get it, I’ll get it!” But, come on, there was no way I would dunk that ball. So my dad stepped in and said, “Let me help you.” He lifted me up as I jumped and I was finally able to dunk the ball.

Now, I could have refused his help and insisted that I was going to dunk on my own. But it would have been pathetic of me to really commit to that kind of denial. And it would have been cruel of my dad, or at least way less cool of him, to watch me struggle in futility and demand that I do the impossible without his help. When I let him help me, though, I wanted him to help me over and over again. It was more fun for both of us.

Some people think that God is like the dad who forces the kid to dunk the ball on his own. They feel like failures when they can’t do everything right, or they imagine that God views them as failures, too. But Jesus didn’t come to make us feel like failures. The angels in Luke 2 proclaimed God’s pleasure for us when Jesus was born. God is pleased with us because we’re hidden in Jesus, His beloved son, with whom He is very pleased.

There are parts of scripture that tell us believers should spread the gospel, baptize people, make disciples, heal the sick, and yeah, sometimes, raise the dead. Many Christians don’t see that happening around them. It’s possible that when we try to do these things, we’re under four feet tall and trying to dunk, assuming we’re trying at all. We have to accept the truth that we can’t do it on our own.

But God is there, waiting for us to let Him help. As I read through the book of Isaiah last month, many passages reassured me of God’s mercy. In Isaiah 41:13 says, “For I am the LORD your God, who upholds your right hand, who says to you, Do not fear, I will help you.” Later in Isaiah 46:3-4, God tells His people, “Listen to Me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, you who have been borne by Me from birth and have been carried from the womb; even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; and I will bear you and I will deliver you.” And still later in Isaiah 49:15-16 when Israel says God has forsaken them in a time of need, the Lord replies, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.”

God wants to help us, to carry us. And He won’t forget us. It’s not possible for Him to forget. Whatever situation you may struggle with, the problem is not on His end. I learned this recently while listening to a recording of John Wimbur. He’s the guy that started the Vineyard Fellowship. He spent a year in agony from the time he began to pray for healing to finally seeing someone healed.

“I mean, God was at every meeting,” he says toward the end of the message. “A wonderful presence. We would worship in total abandonment and weep. People would be converted. It was wonderful. The air would thicken up with His presence. God was with us! We knew it! But we would pray these pitiful prayers. ‘Oh God, if you’re up there, anywhere... If you’ve ever done anything at any time...Here is a worthy subject...’ Have you ever prayed prayers like that? You have too. You’ve prayed prayers just like that. You’re just like me.”

Finally, God miraculously and hilariously healed someone that he prayed for one morning. That day, he said, “I had a vision, a really graphic one. The first I’d ever had before. I was in my car driving. It was a beautiful morning, of course it would be. And all of a sudden, superimposed over the landscape, as far as I could see, is what looked like a cloud bank. It went all the way across the sky. As I looked at it, I realized it wasn’t a cloud bank, it was a honeycomb. It was dripping. And below the honeycomb are people. They were in all kinds of different postures. Some were reverent. They’re weeping. They’ve got their hands out catching this honey. Some are sharing with their friends while others come by and dipping their fingers other peoples’ honey. And still other people are really irritated. They’re trying to get out of this honey because they don’t like it. I pulled over to the side of the road to sit and look at it and said, ‘God, what is this?’ He said, ‘John, that’s my mercy. For some people, it’s a blessing. And for some people, it’s not. John, don’t ever beg me for healing again. Look at it. There’s plenty for everyone. The problem isn’t on my end. The problem is down there where you are.’ Our God sent mercy in His son. He sent His Word to heal them. The problem we have is receiving it.”

Our Father, God, is favorably disposed to us. He wants to help us live and thrive and walk with Him. Sometimes we don’t accept His help because we want to do it on our own. Sometimes He’s waiting for us to drop that victimized, weak sort of prayer that Wimbur described and come to Him confidently as His children, knowing that dad wants to help. Other times, He’s asking us to learn how to remain in Him through the Holy Spirit as Jesus taught in John 16 because that’s where our joy is made complete. But whatever your circumstances are, His grace is available to you through Jesus and His mercy is so abundant it drips down from heaven. It delights Him to lift you high in the air and let you hang on the rim.

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