Tag Archives: sin

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What are ya thinkin ?

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Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Romans 6:8-11

What our minds focus on matters in our faith journey. When God drew us to Jesus, our minds were not healthy places. Like all people who have been affected by the Fall, we all accumulated a pack of lies that we called ‘truth.’ Some of these lies came from our futile beliefs that we could reign over our own lives better than the Father who created us. Some of them came from the enemy, who continually misrepresents God to us. Our whole belief system had to be shattered by God—just to bring us to faith.

Yet lies die a long death. All of us still harbor thoughts that need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And one of those lies is about our freedom from sin. Satan would have us continue to believe we are merely forgiven—which is good news in itself—but still doomed to live out a miserable life, sinning as regularly as those who do not believe. I have met believers who obsess over this. They are overwhelmed with this lie. They talk desperately about wanting to stop sinning, about how much they are either disappointing God or how expectant of His judgment they are.

But there is no disappointment. There is no judgment. Paul earlier in Romans tells us that because we are in Christ, we have not only died with Christ, we get to live with him as well. He not only lives in us—we also get to live his life. —The life of the person who was tempted in every way we are, yet never gave in to sin (Hebrews 4:15). —Our example, in whose steps we should follow (1 Peter 2:21).

Going forward, we need to ‘reckon’ ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. I grew up with the word ‘reckon,’ which in this version is translated ‘consider.’ But the older word, used in earlier translations, makes a better point. ‘Reckon’ was used in the financial world, where you reckoned up the books. In other words, you gave an account of what you had received. So when Paul says ‘reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” he speaks of what is real, true. You have received this from God by faith. You can count on it to be true for you, no matter how convincing the lie of the enemy seems.

Paul builds on this truth. In verse 12, he urges us to refuse to let sin control our choices. You might be wondering how this works. This is possible because the Spirit is leading us. He empowers our minds to realize that we do not need to sin.

Instead, we are to ‘offer’, which is another word for surrender, every part of ourselves to God. I know this sounds to some as a simplistic solution for resisting sin, but I find that it is the only thing that works for me. I tried resisting sin and it beat me every time. I would find myself crushed by my lack of control and embarrassed that others would find out. But then I finally humbled myself and started surrendering whenever temptation was putting pressure on me. I would say “God, I can’t beat this. Help! Take charge!” I have to admit some of my prayers were very weak. But I leaned into Him and God rescued me every time.

This is what reckoning yourself dead to sin is all about. You have received grace from God into your account’s plus column. Sin has been removed as your master. It no longer has power over you. If you believe it still does, you are believing a lie. Begin to think this way and you will live out the freedom you already have. Don’t make it complex. It’s all a matter of trust which focuses on God and not on yourself.


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Of All the Stupid Choices, Why Sin?

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Restoration in a Transformational Community 10: Of All the Stupid Choices, Why Sin?

In “You’ve Got Mail,” Tom Hanks’ character plays the ‘worst version of himself’ at one point in building a relationship with his future love. He is shot through with remorse almost immediately for what he said and did, but it flowed out of him so naturally you can imagine him treating others in his world the same way. Hanks’ acting captures on film the reality of many people who are surprised at their dark side—they didn’t know they had it in themselves to be so bad.

If only this were fiction. Or just stuff that happens to people who are still lost. The Bible is full of saints who blew it, who with their eyes wide open denied God’s right to reign over them, who preferred sin over righteousness. Not that we should be shocked. Intellectually we would all agree that sin is bad in a destructive kind of way. Practically, we find ourselves doing and saying things that are shockingly sinful—or not doing and speaking out for righteousness, which is also sin. And many times, unlike Hanks’ character, believers do not necessarily feel immediate remorse. Their choices lead them step by small step deeper in until they find themselves caught.

Why do believers get caught in sin? The seductively simple answer is that we are sinners. But that answer really doesn’t explain what would motivate a believer, who has been given the indwelling Spirit, to embrace sin over wholeness. What brings us back to being caught in sin again after experiencing the grace and mercy of God?

If you are serious about learning the practice of restoring believers caught in sin, you have to know the answer to these questions. Not just that they sinned. But why they would take such a path. Because if you do not know, you will not guide them back to spiritual bedrock. Oh, they may be sorry for the moment that they are confronted and pledge radical change. But when the pressure of life returns, they will turn again to the same sin as sure as the sun comes up in the east.

So what is it that leads any of us to be caught in sin? Like a coin, the answer has two sides. Heads is they have neglected pursuing intimacy with God. He has become a distant Father to them and His power in them a rumor instead of a reality. Tails is they have believed the pretty lies of the enemy that sin comforts the hurt they still carry in their heart. Since they have allowed their hearts to wander from intimacy with God, they have come to the ‘only’ source they think is left to them to deal with what is painful within.

Understand that they did not get here in a day. They took steps—often tiny ones—that led them to the pit they are in. It may have been 10 or 100 or 1000, but they chose to take every one of those steps. All because God had become less real and the lies of the enemy had become golden. If you understand this, you will understand your own impulses to sin. And if you understand your own impulses, you will better understand your brother or sister who is now caught in sin.

Steve Smith

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Learning from Jesus How to Be a Safe Person

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Restoration in a Transformational Community 8Learning from Jesus How to Be a Safe Person 

Another truth that Apostle John’s story shows us about being safe is that you cannot be put off by the nature of the sin the person committed. Shocking though it may seem to you, believers are more than capable of doing every destructive act in the book. The young disciple John chased (told about in a previous blog, Learning How to Be a Safe Person from John) had not merely given himself over to stealing from people. To be a robber in that day meant you killed people for their goods. You left no witnesses. This is why John kissed his right hand, a hand that had been bloodied by the deaths of his victims. If John was certain of anything, it was that Jesus would forgive even this sin.

Just as you have to challenge your hierarchy for valuing people in the church, you also have to face off any tendency to make a hierarchy of sin. All sin that has people caught in its clutches is forgivable if repentance happens. They can be restored. Engaged in homosexuality? A three-some? Murdered a child? Violence against a spouse? Incest? Robbed the elderly of their life savings and left them destitute, perhaps dying impoverished? Think of any shocking sin that you can add to this list and ask yourself, “Is anything too hard for God?”

I know. Some of you already are asking whether or not this person we are talking about is even a Christian. I’ve heard that many times before. And the answer is: “I don’t know.” BUT I do know that you have to chase that person, if for no other reason than to proclaim the gospel into his or her life. If for no other reason than to love them and fulfill the law of Christ. Even if that person walks away instead of being restored, you have acted out righteousness.

Maybe from this distance Peter’s denial of Jesus doesn’t shock you enough for you to put his sin into this category. But Jesus had taught his disciples that if they denied him before men, he would deny them in turn before the Father. For this reason, Peter’s three-time denial of Jesus at Pilate’s courtyard was a jumping-into-the-pit of the highest order. So ask yourself, what was Jesus’ first priority after his resurrection? That’s right—Peter’s restoration. And you also know who was present when Jesus was finishing Peter’s restoration—John (John 21:20-23). Can you wonder at why an aging John was not willing to let the young disciple go? John learned from the master. And if you are a disciple, you do as the master does. That is what makes you safe.

Steve Smith

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You’re the Guy!

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Restoration in a Transformational Community 5: You’re the Guy!

In many cases, restoration has to start with a “Nathan moment.”

I have worked with numerous people in restoration who assumed that the people caught in sin referred to in Galatians 6 had repented—that he or she had shown fruits of great sorrow and is in anguish over what had happened—was ready to repudiate the sin—was in a position of non-defensiveness. While I have actually worked with some who fit this description, I have been involved in an equal number of restoration processes that started with us tracking down the offender and essentially delivering a blow to his or her spiritual solar plexus. Echoing Nathan’s powerful indictment to David in 2 Samuel 12:1-13, we began with a ‘You are the guy’ confrontation—prayerfully and pointedly. Sometimes it is the only thing you can do to stand between someone who needs your tough agape and his or her spiritual ruin.

I finally awoke to the need to do hands-on restoration with someone caught in sin by being tossed into the deep end ten years into ministry. God brought to me a personal friend who crossed all kinds of boundaries and had kept most of it hidden for a long time. I entered into a steep learning curve on restoration, learning much on the fly. The team we surrounded him with had a number of Nathan moments in that process, but seeing my friend alive in his walk with God again was worth every minute I and others gave to him. Yet I confess that we stumbled in the dark learning how to restore someone caught in sin without any of us having a clue how it was supposed to be done.

The first thing I learned during this restoration experience is that you have to be a safe person. Being safe means not only that you care, but that there is no judgmental attitude in you because the truth of your own wandering heart and the grace of God that has saved you from wandering.

I contested with a fellow leader who once told me there was no point in trying to restore people who were not repentant. We were talking about a person who we both cared about, but who was defiantly running in the wrong direction. I pointed out that Galatians 6:1 does not say restore the repentant. It says restore someone caught in sin. He totally disagreed. His stance on this messed up someone told me that he was not a safe person—not a Nathan. Because I was safe, I pursued the person until he was restored.

Steve Smith

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What is Restoration?

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Restoration in a Transformational Community 3: What is Restoration?

My first exposure to restoration of sinful people took place at the church I attended during my college years. I was dumbfounded first when a lovable church member got mixed up with ‘the other woman’ and left his family and the church. Then a grandmotherly woman who had personally invested in me raged publicly at the pastor and left the congregation with her husband trailing after. “What’s happening here?” we who were left behind wondered. I also remember the day when the man, back in church months later, stood unexpectedly and confessed his sin to the whole church as his wife sobbed by his side. Two years after college, I was back for a visit. I found that the spiritual leader of the men’s ministry was now that man and the spiritual leader of the women’s ministry was now that grandmotherly woman.

What took place over that period of time was biblical restoration. But what exactly is it? Before I give my definition, here are a couple of things it isn’t. Restoration is not to be equated with forgiveness. A lot of people in the church get these two confused. In the new covenant, people are forgiven the moment they turn from sin and repent. But this does not mean they are safe from the schemes of Satan, who desires to pull them back into destruction. Nor are they safe for the body. This leads to another thing that restoration is not—it is not about positional restoration. It is not primarily about returning people to involvement in ministry or even leadership. That is a secondary issue to be taken up when a believer is safe in their walk with Jesus again. I have seen the folly of the church so-called restoration process that hurriedly returned people caught in sin back to a position they held before. Talk about mega-disasters for all concerned.

So what is it? Restoration is restoring people in their walk with God, into a healthy relationship with the people they wounded and back into community with the body of Christ. It involves getting under their outer life facade to help them discover the causes of the spiritually unhealthy choices that led them to jump into the pit. The goal is to lead them to surrender these choices to God, not for forgiveness, but for eradication by His grace. Further, it is to guide those caught in sin to restore what they took from others in their selfish pursuit of self-centered choices.

Restoration is not merely a ‘make it all nice again’ endeavor. It is allowing people caught in sin time to discover alongside safe people why they chose that path of destruction. This is neither easy work nor is it tinged with the cheap mercy of tossing a blanket over their sin and ignoring it.

Steve Smith

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Spiritual Transformation Part 6 – Stuck by the pool of Bethesda

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I started writing this series because some people I love and work with had spiritually crashed and burned. And as bad as things seem for them, there is much hope in the fact that they no longer are able to hide their choices to use deadly sin as a means to comfort their wounds. It is out there for all to see. More importantly, some of them are in a restoration process with mature believers helping them, although some are not. It is those that are not that concern me. As bad as their lives have become, they are headed for worse the longer they try. to tough it out with lateral moves or by playing the blame game.

A few weeks ago I counseled with someone who is separated from her husband. What I noticed is that our conversation paralleled one we had many months before – the same accusations, the same anger, the same tears. She is stuck in the saddest possible way. I have watched redeemed people slipping into dark places with their eyes opened, nailing their flag to the proposition that they have tried everything they can to heal from their wounds, to act better, to be more spiritual, to forgive, but without success. One recounted all the spiritual exercises he had practiced in the hope of being granted freedom by God, but still found himself captured by his inner disquiet and was bitter because God was not holding up His end. The bitterness was affecting all areas of his life.

In John 5, Jesus spies a man by the pool of Bethesda who was 38-years stuck because he had no one to help him into the pool for healing purposes. Jesus’ question was, ‘Do you want to get well?’ Is wellness really your goal and desire, or after 38 years, are you so attached to your identity as ‘the old guy at the pool who’s been here since Herod the Great’ that you are settled on finishing out the rest of your life being sick? His response is interesting. Winnowed down to its essence, he said that he had tried over and over again to get well – get into the pool when the angel stirred it – but failed. It’s just the reality he lived with – year in and year out – as long as he could remember.

His response is the refrain we all sing at some time when confronted with this most significant question that Jesus asks. Do you want to get well? Well, do you? “Yes, but….” And we fill in the rest of that sentence with our failed solutions – spiritual retreats, continual confession, repression of desires, accountability to others, weeping and crying before the Lord. What’s wrong? We were so sure that this time, we would get well. What is so different in this hinted-at offer in Jesus’ question that we have not tried already – and received nothing for our pain? Especially since we now know we are further down the spiritual road towards inward despair and outward disaster. Do I want to get well – what kind of question is that?

It is a question of risk. For the man at the pool, it was about leaving the security of a way of life, of people feeding, clothing, and carrying him daily to his appointed place by the pool. But the risk was more than that. Jesus invited him to risk all to take up his mat and go home. On a Sabbath day. On the day when work was forbidden and carrying a mat in a public place courted stoning by the populous. It was about trusting that Jesus really knew what the man needed to do. And instead of negotiating, he just did it.

Are you willing to risk that you may be wrong about your preferred approach to spiritual health, that it may be part of your problem? That instead of being ruthless, you are choosing a risk-free bridge to nowhere? And as a result, your anger at God has grown? Perhaps you feel hopeless. Certainly you are stuck. What would it take for you to come to the place where you could really experience the healing grace of God?

Let me present two ideas for you to consider. First, if we choose ask Jesus to do two things in us – deliver us from the sin of our heart and heal us from the hurts of our heart – then we must start by coming to end of ourselves. We have messed up. Ourselves, not the people who hurt us, but we personally have made the choices that have bound up our lives spiritually. We must own our sinful choices to comfort our pain. We must admit to the Father we have no wisdom deep enough, no spiritual strategies sweeping enough, no personal resources thorough enough to free us from the lies of the enemy. The first Beatitude is our benchmark – we are poor in spirit because we have nothing in our arsenal that works. Our best strategies and deepest thought have not led us to the life Jesus is giving us. We are stuck because we have thought otherwise. To give up any pretense of knowing how to fix ourselves, even by using the stratagems that we have dressed up in spiritual finery, is freedom, not failure. To say to God, “I have failed in all I tried,” is the kind of humility that God responds to – “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5) It’s the stuff that spiritual rest is made of for the believer.

The second point builds on the first. We need to be aware that the final line of attack by Satan to keep us from getting well is to focus our attention on fighting to get well. As we see what the problem is, his lie is to encourage us to go after it in a misguided belief that resisting the sin of our heart or even healing the hurts of our heart is something in which we must participate. This is misdirection on a scale greater than that of the magician David Copperfield. We cannot fight our way to spiritual health – never could, never will. Paul points to his realizing his own weakness in being unable to change himself as the point when God’s promised grace became effective in him (2 Corinthians 12:9).This is why he boasted in his weaknesses, so that he could see God do in him what he could not do for himself. Actually, when we focus on the problem, we find that we have no attention left for the One who delivers and heals. Healing is only found in intimacy with God.

This is not Devotions 101. It is not a call to more Bible study and prayer. If you are teetering on the brink of spiritual meltdown, you certainly would not find that counsel helpful or hopeful. Why? Because it is about doing more stuff for God and you are already tired out from trying anyway. What I am counseling is spiritual rest in its place. It is about being with God in the way Adam and Eve strolled with Him every evening in the Garden. It is about receiving love and power from Him instead of begging for Him to give you stuff that you have already been granted by belonging. I will pick up on this issue next post.

In the meantime, think about the end of the man at the pool’s story. After the healing, Jesus finds him in the temple, probably giving a thanks-for-the-healing sacrifice required by the Law, and tells him, “Stop sinning! Or something worse will happen to you.” Strong words. What Jesus is saying is that just because you thought you were doing all you could to be healed does not mean you addressed the real issues in your life. So it is for all of us. We may minimize our choice of the sin of our heart to comfort our hurts and even rationalize our choices. Or celebrate freedom in one area so as to ignore the real lies we have hooked our wagon to. Stop rationalizing, for the life that we have been given in Jesus is far more fulfilling than any identity that we have built by comforting ourselves with the sin of our heart.


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Spiritual Transformation Part 5 – Why We Comfort Ourselves with Sin of the Heart

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A friend of mine reached out to help a believer caught in a staggering situation. Her businessman husband in jail, all personal assets seized, with no money or job skills to live on while raising small children, she faced both the public embarrassment and a lonely future with no one to help her. These were all major wounds.My friend hired her into his company and personally taught her all she needed to know to earn the kind of income she needed. Except, to the horrified astonishment of all who watched, she began to pursue a sexual relationship with his married business partner. My friend took her aside and counseled her time after time about the damage she was doing to herself and her children and how she was betraying Jesus. Nothing he said was heard. She mistressed his partner until he finally divorced his wife. She divorced her jailed husband and they married. The rest of the story was full of sadness also.

Why did she do this? Nothing in her background even hinted that she would live out a sordid story like this. She had been raised in a devoted Christian home, never stepped outside the boundaries of decency, had been a loving daughter, wife and mother. She never stopped going to church, even during her pursuit of this businessman. How did this happen? The answer is in how she chose to comfort her pain.

If you sense, in reading this story, that we are backtracking, we are. The kinds of stories I enter into are full of people like this one . And I often get in at the worst moment, when the person’s choice has already started its death spiral, when the destruction is out where everyone can see it. Christian leaders, pastors and their wives, like everyone else, have the same ability to hide inside issues and compartmentalize sinful behavior out of the sight of those who would spiritually intervene. But at some point, it all comes splattering out into public. And often, at that point, the person no longer cares.

So let’s talk about the deadly sins that are in our heart. The main issue that we have to face is that comforting ourselves by sin is a personal choice. It may be consciously or unconsciously made, but it is our decision. The person who wounded us did not force us on that path.  No outside being put a gun to our head to make us go in this direction. The devil didn’t make us do it. Deciding to comfort our wounds by sin is not even an age or maturity issue. At its root, it involves three forces at work influencing us that we may not even perceive at the time.

1) our depth, or lack of depth, of intimacy with God. All of us know that God has the right to reign over our lives. Doctrinally, we can recite the right beliefs and quote the right passages. But the flaw revealed in us through the Fall is our desire to blame God for our mess. This desire often gets in the way of our intimacy with Him. We withdraw even while we are busy serving Him and the church, and then feel empty and wonder why He demands – or why His people demand – so much of us. Then new wounds come up or old ones come out.  We become angry at Him for not appreciating our obedience, our sacrifice, and yet we deny that anger. After all, how can we hold God accountable? So we reroute the anger and find ourselves in a place where the sin of our heart feels a whole lot better than listening for His voice. It is hard to ask God to heal us when we, at some level, are blaming Him as Adam did.

2) The rolemodeling that has taken place in our personal world. When the people of our world, who can also be the source of our wounds, model certain kinds of sinful choices in their own lives, we secretly resonate with them, even when rationally we are repelled. For example, people who have had a bad home life grow up say that they will never be like their parents. Except they often find that they really are when they have children. The DNA for that metamorphosis was implanted through the rolemodeling they endured. Sin begets sin. We know this action was wrong when ‘so and so’ did it, but it makes so much more sense to us now it is we who are choosing the action.

3) How open we are becoming to the lies of Satan. When we find ourselves out of intimacy with God, the truths we hold have a way of becoming twisted and sounding hollow. Satan shows up with his pretty lies. He speaks to our bruised egos. He sympathizes over our wounds. He suggests a way of hopeful recovery. Satan lies to us every day, until his lies begin to take on the veneer of reality and we try his suggestion ‘just this once.’

Except it never is just this once. All sin is addictive. READ THAT AGAIN! Do you understand what this means? It means that in a very short time that sin you choose will take charge of your will and you will no longer be able to choose not to do it. Your damaged emotions will press you to do it again and again until you give in. You will feel emotional pressure or release based on your response to the power of the addiction. You will not be able to stop yourself. And, in time, you will rationalize it. In case you missed it, the disgraced S.C. governor, Mark Sanford, asked his wife for permission to go see his mistress after he confessed the affair! You know the rest, as it has been thoroughly discussed by the media. That kind of addiction will happen to anyone who buys into Satan’s lies. It is just a matter of choice.

What is more, the addictive behavior has now become a source for further wounding. This is the irony of choosing sin for comfort. I was wounded and chose to comfort myself with one of the deadly sins in my heart. Now I am wounding myself from the result of that choice and am in a worse place than before. Hmmm – what sin will I choose to comfort me now?

Now we know why people caught in the tangle of the sin of their heart do not listen to wise spiritual counsel. The emotional blare of our sin addiction is louder than the truth of God – and the love of God. But this tale does not have to end in despair. We can choose even now to surrender to Jesus, who alone is able to do two things in us.

1) Deliver me from the sin of my heart. This is obvious. That is why God sent Jesus into the world in the first place. Sin produces brokenness in us, breaking not only our relationship with Him, but causing the damage that only He can repair. While I do include our sinful actions as needing Jesus’ deliverance, our real need is not for a particular addictive sin to come under His rule, but for the root cause of our actions to be removed. Not just gambling – but greed. Not just pornography – but lust. Not just selfish ambition – but pride. We need Jesus’ reign over the deadly sins that are the root of our destructive behavior. Then the visible sinful actions that mark our lives will lose their grip on us.

2) Heal the hurts of my heart. Yielding to Jesus’ reign over the sin in our heart is not enough, however. To break from the power of sin, we also need Jesus to heal the hurts of our heart. This is the desire of our souls. If we do not allow Jesus to touch the wounds, close ourselves off to His examination and healing power we are doomed to repeat the cycle of hurt, comfort and addiction for as long as we resist. We need to surrender to Jesus both of these things at the same time. This is the core of the good news of Jesus Christ. If we surrender, He is faithful in His promises to us. I encourage you again to meditate on the offer of finding mercy and obtaining grace in God’s presence, about which the author of Hebrews 4:16 spoke. I will pick this up here next post.

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Spiritual Transformation Part 3 – Why the Obedience Model Doesn’t Work

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So back to the question: Why do we choose pathways that lead us to being much less than we could be, pathways that lead us to destruction?

There is not one among us who does not, on our best days, want our lives to line up with the life God has promised us in Jesus. But we find that we are trapped in the same vicious cycle that Paul speaks about in Romans 7. We discover that we cannot do the things we want to do and do what we hate with an astonishing regularity that is wrenching. Sin permeates us and seems to resist our commitment to change and thwart our best efforts to be obedient. This is never clearer in us than when we seek to address unfinished business, which always has deep connection to this sin out of which we are being rescued.

There is a difference between change and transformation. Most people are told they need to change from the time they are old enough to take responsibility for their actions. And so most of us try to change when we are unhappy with some aspect of ourselves. This can be an effective strategy if the change sought is within our reach. For example, we can change our negative attitude towards something, like school or work or a person, by practicing positive thinking techniques. We can learn to like what we did not like. We can eat that broccoli. We can discipline ourselves from bad habits if we decide fitting in with the rest of the world outweighs being excluded. These changes are not necessarily easy, but can be achieved. We call this kind of change ‘reformation.’ We become re-formed characters. The root of reformation is truth – that the change will bring us to a better life if we will exercise our personal willpower. The emphasis is on the ‘if’ because many people live life like the pledge of the Men’s Club on the Red Green show: “I am a man and I can change…if I have to…I guess.”

This is the part of the obedience model we all understand. And when we are not speaking of unfinished business, we are pretty much on our game in the obedience realm. We can change and adopt good habits. Performing a number of the religious requirements can be within our reach. We can be ‘obedient’ in dealing with stuff that does not have its hooks in our soul and helps us fit into our community. For example, I have never used alcohol. So obeying the biblical directive not to become a drunkard – I can handle that hands down. In addition, I have never killed anyone and am not currently planning to, even though there are people in my world that really tick me off. So it appears that I have won the obedience game once more.

But here I run into the truth about the limits of obedience. Jesus put his finger on this in Matthew 5:21-23. He ups the obedience bar. He reveals that the commandment, ‘Do not murder’ includes the probability that you are murdering people by your anger. Count me among those deserving death row. I was an angry man for many years and figuratively left dead bodies in my wake all the time. And if that wasn’t enough failure, Jesus ends his insightful look at the Law with, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48) How will you and I ever achieve that by the obedience model?

The answer is in the promise of deep inner transformation by God. Transformation is different in that its power source comes from outside us. It addresses the parts of us that are unchangeable by the exercise of our personal willpower. For example, when I was an angry man, I could, by working at it, control my yelling at my wife. I could go for a walk. I could do something physical like chopping wood to drain off the anger. I could use anger management methods and reroute the anger. But I found that I could not stop being angry. It was beyond my ability to change. I needed power from outside of myself to become a peace-filled man. This is what transformation is about. It is also rooted in truth – that God has called us into a relationship with Him that will bring us to a better kind of life. But in this case, the power source is the empowered presence of God in my life. A shorthand for the difference between these two is:

Reformation = Truth plus trusting in your own strength.
Transformation = Truth plus trusting in God’s strength.

But how do we get there? One of the dividing issues for those who follow Jesus well comes down to how we understand grace and mercy. I find that even many teachers I respect have difficulty making the distinction clear between the two. Because we use these words almost synonymously, one can get the impression mercy and grace are the same. “Have some grace on that person” we say when we mean ‘mercy.’ Yet in Hebrews 4:16, the writer clearly sees the two as different gifts from God. We ‘receive mercy and obtain grace’ for our time of need. This difference is our lifeline to the life Jesus promised.
Mercy happens when God withholds judgment that we deserve. And do we ever deserve justice. Everyday. Often. Without end. But for those who belong to Jesus, there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). This is where God meets us in our wretchedness and makes it possible for us to come back. We prodigals would never be able to return to our Father if He did not open His arms to us.

Grace is different from mercy. Grace is about God’s empowering presence in us in the person of the Holy Spirit to transform us from what we were, to conform us to the image of Jesus. Grace is how God does in me what I cannot do in myself no matter how hard I try. You can see this in the latter half of 1 John 1:9. As we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins (mercy) and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (grace). The forgiving and the cleansing are diverse works of God in our lives, both absolutely necessary and yet different. Grace is not dependent on our obedience, but enables our obedience as we trust Him.

Chew on these questions for a while. Do I feel safe enough to ask God to do a ruthless search in my life? (Psalm 139:23) Am I at a place where I trust Him enough to allow His mercy and grace to address my unfinished business?


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