Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Worthiness and Reward - Avoiding younger-brother-syndrome.

My friend Ken asked an old girlfriend and I the question, “Do you think you’re a good person?” I said, “Yes.” She hesitated before replying, “Well, it all depends.”

Ken asked me to explain my answer. I shrugged my shoulders and said matter-of-factly, “The Bible says I have died and risen in Christ, that I am hidden in Him. So God sees me as perfect and blameless. I’m good because Jesus is good.” Ken and his wife smiled and showed my girlfriend and I how the Bible explains Christ’s righteousness is given to us when we accept Him. My girlfriend got upset at this and went into a fury about how she knew her own sin and she didn’t think of herself as very good “on those days.” Then she turned to me, “I think you know it, too. You always have the right answer that’ll make everyone happy. You’re just a people pleaser.” We didn’t last much longer as a couple. Even so, she was partially correct at the time.

During that conversation with Ken, I truly believed what I said. I still do. I am not good on my own. But Jesus is good and I am in Jesus. He calls me good, so I am good. However, my attitude sometimes drifts from Christ’s righteousness to self-righteousness. Many of you have heard stories of God leading me to do strange acts of obedience that later become testimony of His goodness. After a certain time of service, I wonder when God will give me the big rewards. You know, a wife and family, a reliable car, or a best-selling book. That sort of thing. “If I do a good job for the Lord,” I’ll think, “then I should get the blessings I want.” It’s like I’m trying to do and say the right things to make God happy with me forgetting He is already pleased with me because of Jesus.

In Luke 15:11-31, Jesus tells a story. “A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.’”

The first son, like my ex-girlfriend, knew how wretched he had been. He didn’t feel worthy to have the title of “Son” again. Whether she meant it this way or not, my Ex had essentially said the same thing. “I’m not good enough for Jesus to give me Grace, so I’m going to base my goodness on my merit and only accept His forgiveness.” She saw herself as a sinner-turned-servant instead of God’s princess.

On the other hand, there are times I pout because I don’t immediately experience all of the blessings I expect God to give His hard-working son. I’ll compare my experiences of blessings with others and begin to think somehow I’ve been snubbed. I’m not always in that state of mind, I’m just saying it happens.

People have a tendency to pick on the older son. What a crybaby, right? Can’t he be happy for other people? And we’re right to give this brother a hard time. However, we overlook the fact that the younger brother also had an incorrect view of his relationship with the father. He wanted to work for dad as a servant but didn’t get that far in his rehearsed apology. He said, “I’m not worthy to be called your son.” Then the father interrupted with gifts and joy.

The older son had a twisted sense of entitlement as if his work and obedience warranted blessings as wages. But the father told him, “No, everything of mine was always yours. What’s more, you were never apart from your father.”

Both sons needed the father to tell them, “You’re not my servant, you’re my son. You don’t have to earn my favor because you’re my son.” Does that mean the younger son wouldn’t maybe help dad clean up after the feast? Of course he would, sons do that to honor their fathers. Did the older son never see blessings and gifts from dad? He probably understood that he could ask for those blessings instead of passively waiting for them. Dad obviously liked blessing his kids.

I felt compelled to tell you this so that you might avoid two traps of the enemy. First, for the older-brother-club, be careful that you don’t worship and obey God for what He might give you. Worship and obey God because of who He is. The single greatest blessing He gave was the opportunity of a personal, intimate relationship with Him through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Scripture says in Galatians 3:26, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” As sons, we enjoy all of the Father’s benefits. A servant may have to earn favor, but sons have it as members of the family. “You are with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

For people suffering from younger-brother-syndrome, what would you have thought if the prodigal son insisted on taking the role of a servant and turned down all of the gifts the father gave? You’d call him an idiot. I think the father would have felt grievously wounded. Such a scenario wouldn’t have been an example of righteousness, but pride and stubbornness. When the younger son asked for his inheritance, this communicated that he wished his dad would just die and give him the money. This was intentional estrangement. If the son came back as a servant, he may have admitted his sin, but there would be no healing of the father/son relationship and the distance between them would still exist. This wouldn’t be a story of a homecoming but a boy continuing to demonstrate foolishness.

My second point is this. Younger-brother-syndrome can make a person accept a false attitude of unworthiness that despises the blessings of the God. James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father,” and the rest of the Bible says you can’t earn any of them. But because of Jesus taking the penalty for the sin in your life, you are free to receive every one of those gifts.

So let God bless you. Don’t feel bad about it. And don’t, under any circumstances, sulk at your own party.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Pride and Humility - Understanding how strength can become a destructive weakness

Many people in our church have committed to reading the book of Proverbs three times this summer. When I made this commitment, I also decided to change my actions and thinking when the Holy Spirit highlighted certain passages. The book promises wisdom to young men and I wanted my heart open to receive whatever instruction it offered.

Having read the book several times (dad would make me read through the whole thing as punishment whenever he heard me use foul language, which means I have some catching up to do), I expected to have one or two minor confrontations in what I would read this time. Certain passages about work and savings challenged the way I approached finances. Verses regarding family especially shifted my thinking from “something in the future” to “something I need to prepare for today”. Already, I see the benefit of living according to scripture.

A certain verse stood out during my prayer time one morning. Proverbs 16:18, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before stumbling.” Being a man who frequently suffers from seasons of arrogance, many people around me had quoted “Pride comes before the fall”. It’s not as if I had never noticed the verse before, so I put it out of my mind as a simple moment of recognition, like when I come across old Sunday School memory verses.

Some time later, a friend of mine told me about how he had to discipline his daughter. “She’s a really great kid,” he said. “I don’t want her to feel punished because she’s bad. I want to encourage her with correction.” He asked her to read The Screwtape Letters so she might see some of the ways the enemy uses deception. We talked about Lewis’s point in Mere Christianity where Satan creates nothing and only perverts everything God already created. God creates strength, Satan turns it into brutality. God creates alcohol (believe it, people), Satan pushes for drunkenness. God creates sex, Satan develops porn. This reminded me of a Graham Cooke teaching where he talks about praying in “the opposite spirit”. The idea is that truth is stronger than lies, purity is stronger than impurity, and so on. So when a person is struggling with sin, pray for God to reveal who they are in Jesus and encourage them to live they way He intended. During this teaching, Cooke jokes, “Nobody ever thinks to themselves, ‘I want to be the worst Christian in history!’”

Then I remembered Proverbs 16:18. God has given us all certain gifts and talents. He gave Samson strength, but he became proud and used his strength for selfish purposes. The Bible specifically talks about David’s good looks in 1 Samuel 16. He was attractive, and he eventually gave into sexual sin in 2 Samuel 11. His son Absalom possessed great leadership qualities, but Absolom used his power over the people to incite rebellion in 2 Samuel 15.

Dad used to tell me that my greatest strength is also my greatest weakness. During that period of my life, I could easily detect this in others. A guy I knew in Michigan had incredible relational skills and powers of persuasion. At one time, he told me, it was his life’s mission to get as many people as possible on drugs. Particularly acid. Then Jesus got a hold of him and he became a pastor, using those same gifts for the Kingdom of God. A girl at my old church was an actress and model. She was beautiful and had the ability to capture people’s attention. For about a month, she managed to date two guys at the same time. The dudes were friends and eventually found out about the two-timing. Both confronted her separately and she convinced them that she had broken up with the other. I knew she could use her talent as a way to speak truth onstage, but it turned ugly when she used that talent for people-pleasing offstage.

In my younger days, I used to feel so justified by all these stories. I may have problems, I thought, but at least I’m not like them. The truth was, however, that I was a massive liar. I mean world-class. Half the fun of summer camp was seeing what preposterous story people would believe. At the age of 13, I told people I used much heavier drugs than the ones I actually tried. Supposedly, I’d been in several fights where I came out victorious when in fact I lost almost every one of those humiliating and lackluster scuffles. When I was 14, I told people about how I could have signed a record contract but turned it down. Once, I even convinced a small audience of people that my dad was black.

My strength and weakness were the same. I realized that I had the ability to tell a good story, a believable story. The enemy had used me as an effective tool to spread lies. I was so duped that I even believed some of these stories and many years after my reform had to remind myself, “Oh wait, I made that all up when I was a teenager.” There was a two-year period of time when I dabbled in something called “automatic writing”. I used to blank out my thoughts and write whatever came to mind. At first, the writing was interesting. Over time, though, I wouldn’t even think about what my hand wrote and the material became increasingly dark. It never occurred to me what evil voices I had allowed to speak freely in my mind. Toward the end of this experiment, I even saw some of the stuff I was writing, not necessarily understanding that I was writing the vision. The whole experience freaked me out so much that I stopped writing outside of school papers for a few years. In a perverse sort of way, I was even proud of my ability to keep from sinning by not writing.

God gave me these gifts to glorify Him but then I became proud when I realized the power of what I possessed. The enemy had me using my storytelling for sinful purposes. Automatic writing twisted a God-given gift and proved a counterfeit of my ability to hear His voice. When I first decided to repent of these things, I feared what would happen if I continued to use my gifts and stopped altogether. At first, I was in bondage to sin, and then I was in bondage to the fear of sin. Both prevented me from using the gifts God had given for His glory, and so both forms of bondage proved unrighteous. Pride in my abilities truly had brought destruction.

A similar verse in Proverbs 29 says, “A man's pride will bring him low, but a humble spirit will obtain honor.” This goes back to Xerox Copies. God is ultimate and so deserves all glory, honor, and praise. The gifts and talents we have make us proud when we think they originated within ourselves, but they can become powerful, kingdom-building tools when we recognize their purpose and source in God. If a Christian recognizes the truth of Galatians 2:20, having their identity in Jesus, then a humble attitude of his strength will bring honor to the One who truly deserves it.

In terms of sin, it can also bring freedom. Think about your struggles. To my friend who used to be the Apostle of Acid, God humbled him and put him in public ministry. That part of his life found redemption. After my life as a career liar and automatic writer, God told my dad to help him write his book. Now, years later, I find myself writing to God’s glory and telling stories to build people’s faith. Where I once feared I would sin using these gifts, I rejoice in the redemption I have experienced.