Discernment is a good & biblical word, but it’s taken on a very not-good connotation. How do we reset after publicly doing it wrong for years? It starts by remembering the purpose of discernment.
Here we are, once again preparing for the calendar to roll over to a new year. As I shared recently, this past year was good in many ways, but it was also extremely difficult, an experience I know is not unique.
Every year, even our best years, have a mix of joy and sadness.
Some years, the sadness wins more than joy.
Others, joy comes out on top.
And as we look ahead to the next year, some of us can only pray, “Lord, let this year be a little better than the last.”
I’m tempted to pray that way sometimes. I have prayed that way, in fact. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that might not be the best attitude.
At least, not for me.
So instead, here’s what I’m praying for as we begin the new year: that God would help me to see that his grace is sufficient for me.
Because it is. It always has been. And it always will be.
When I am weak, when I am frail and feeble, when I am at my worst, all I have is grace. When I am strong, when I am confident and resilient, when I am at my best, all I have is grace.
His grace is sufficient for me.
Every so often, I go through the archives of the blog and see what I’ve written. Often I find something that I’m shocked anyone actually took the time to read and share because it’s not that great (I think). But every once in a while I find something that I actually liked, despite some typos and maybe questionable wisdom in when I chose to write on a particular subject.
Last night, I found one of these; a series, in fact. “Three Lies We Tell Ourselves About Marriage,” looking at three common lies I struggled over the first few years of my marriage with Emily. Things I knew intellectually, but still found they were creeping up in my attitude:
While I don’t know that I would write these exactly the same way were I to do it again, I enjoyed going back and revisiting these, in part to see how the Lord has grown both Emily and I in the years since. Thankfully he has been extremely gracious, and given me a very patient wife who has helped me grow out of some of the silly attitudes and behaviors I allowed to creep in. And how he continues to be gracious as Emily patiently helps me grow out of my current silliness.
But I was pleasantly surprised to see that there was actually something valuable in them, maybe even something that would be helpful to one of you reading today. So, I hope you’ll check out the three posts in this five-year-old series.
When I was younger, I had times when I was tempted to skip over parts of Paul’s letters. Not the meaty parts in the middle, mind you. The “real” content of course. Just the introductions. You know, “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus, grace and peace to you…” and all that.
I don’t find myself tempted to do that anymore, which is probably a good thing. When you sit with them, there’s sometimes a lot more there than you realize. Yes, they’re introductions. Yes, they are greetings. But they’re also good news, especially as Paul would offer “grace and peace” as he did in Galatians 1:3, “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In this line alone, there an incredibly powerful truth being told: that Jesus himself is God. I love how Martin Luther teased this out in his commentary on Galatians:
Christ does not give grace and peace, as the apostle gave it to people, by preaching the Gospel. He gives it as the author and Creator. The Father creates and gives life, grace, peace, and all other good things. The very same things also the Son creates and gives. To give grace, peace, and everlasting life, to forgive sins, to make righteous, to give life, to deliver from death and the devil—these are not the works of any creature, but of God alone. The angels can neither create nor give these things; therefore, those works belong only to the glory of the sovereign Majesty, the Maker of all things. Since Paul attributes the very same power of creating and giving all these things to Christ equally with the Father, it must follow that Christ is truly God.
This was exactly what I needed to read on a Saturday night when we’re settling in from a couple days on the road and the cares of the world continue to attempt to rob us of our joy. The grace and peace that come from Christ are his; he is their Author, and no one and nothing can snatch those away from us.
One of the hardest parables of Jesus’, one of the most frightening for me, is the parable of the unmerciful servant. In it, Jesus tells the tale of a servant who is forgiven an overwhelming debt—something like 200,000 years’ wages— but refuses to forgive a comparable pittance owed to him by another. Instead, he threw the debtor in jail. But when the master heard about it, he said, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” Then he “handed him over to the jailers to be tortured until he could pay everything that was owed” (Matthew 18:32–34, CSB).
After this, Jesus said these terrifying words, “So also my heavenly Father will do to you unless every one of you forgives his brother or sister from your heart” (35).
This is one of those notoriously difficult to interpret passages (sort of). Regardless of whether we think it is easy to explain, we need to realize that this is some serious business. Jesus really, truly, cares about the state of our hearts—and especially our willingness to forgive. People who have been forgiven much should be forgiving. They must be forgiving. We must be forgiving.
On this point, Polycarp offered a sobering word for all of us. He wrote, “If we ask the Lord to forgive us we are obligated to forgive also, for we are before the eyes of the Lord and God, and we must all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, and each must give an account of oneself.”
There are people I’ve had a hard time forgiving. There are some even to this day. But I want to do it. I need to do it. But I cannot do it on my own. I need help. And that’s one aspect of why the gospel is such good news for us. If we have been forgiven, we must forgive, this is true. This is what the Lord wants of me, and of you, and of all of us. But if we have been forgiven, we will be able to forgive… even if it takes time.
I’ve been listening to an audio edition of Church History in Plain Language on my commute for the last couple of weeks (it’s a long book). A few days back, I was listening to the events of the Catholic Reformation,[1. The response to the Protestant Reformation.] and specifically the founding of the Jesuits, the society of monks formed by Ignatius of Loyola. Ignatius caught my attention, in part because of his evangelistic zeal and devout spiritualism. He cared about communion with God, about the pursuit of holiness, and the spreading the Roman Catholic faith.
But for all his zeal, he struck me as hopeless, largely because his vision of the Christian life is empty. “Pray as though everything depended on God alone” he advised. “But act as though it depended on you alone whether you will be saved.”
We’ve heard different versions of this co-opted with an evangelical spin, but the point remains the same: despite the call to prayer, it’s all up to you. Sola bootstrappa, y’all.
But the Scriptures call us to something better. To pray and to act as though everything depends on God. Because it does. When God called the Israelites to take the Promised Land, it was he that would fight for them (see Deuteronomy 31:8). Before David struck down Goliath, he declared that “The Lord will hand you over to me” (1 Samuel 17:46). When Paul called the Philippians to obey and work out their own salvation, it was with the knowledge that God was at work within them “both to will and to work according to his good purpose” (Philippians 2:13). I could list more examples, like 2 Chronicles 20:17, Deuteronomy 20:4, and Isaiah 41:10, but I think you get the idea.
The Lord is not absent in our working. We don’t get prayed up and then go do everything out of our own effort. We work, yes. We struggle, yes. We strive, yes, especially in the context of growing in our faith. Becoming more like Jesus, growing in holiness, takes work. But in all our work, God is before us, in us, and working through us. That’s the point of what Kevin DeYoung once described as “grace-driven, Spirit-empowered, faith-fueled work.”
So maybe a better piece of advice would be to pray as though everything depended on God alone, and act as though it depended on God, too. Because it does. And work like that will be completed. You can count on it.
We Christians talk about people being blessed (as do many who are not). Usually when we use the word, it seems to be describing someone who is lucky, or maybe happy. But there’s so much more to it than that.
Just look at how Jesus used this word in Matthew 5, and you can quickly see that it does beyond any notion of luck. It’s something much deeper. Something that is such good news for us.
Here’s what Jesus said:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the humble,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matthew 5:3-10, CSB)
We often come to the Beatitudes and see a list of “to-dos”. Be poorer in spirit and humbler. Be purer and mercifulerer. That kind of thing. Or we look at them as different categories of people. That there are some who are humble, some who are merciful and peacemakers, and so on. But that’s not what Jesus said. It’s not what the Scriptures say anywhere. Instead of commands, Jesus gave descriptions of the shared characteristics of those who belong in and to his kingdom.
So who is the person Jesus calls blessed? The person who reaches the end of him or herself. The person who knows they have nothing they can offer him. People who are painfully aware of their own spiritual bankruptcy. Their sinful nature that causes them to rebel against the Lord, and says along with David, “The sacrifice pleasing to God is a broken spirit. You will not despise a broken and humbled heart, God” (Psalm 51:17, CSB).
That is who Jesus called blessed. They are people who know they need grace. And, thankfully, it is grace that Jesus freely offers.
Today is my daughter Hannah’s birthday. She is a super-sweet, silly, and amazing kid. We were in the car on Saturday and I let her choose what we’d listen to as we drove. Her answer? Bon Jovi. Why? Because “I imagine a sheep singing them about a girl who broke its heart when I listen.”
Hannah is fascinated by the world. She stops and smells the roses (literally). She finds grass fascinating. She experiences events in a way that is unique among all my kids. I never want her to lose these qualities. She brings much joy to our family, but there’s something else she is for me personally: a constant reminder of grace.
That’s why we named her Hannah Grace, in fact. About a year before Hannah was born, Emily had a miscarriage that very nearly resulted in her death. (This is not an exaggeration.) We were excited about this little person who we were going to meet. But we didn’t get the opportunity (although we hope to someday in the new creation). We grieved and slowly recovered. And around the time that we would have been meeting that child, we learned we were expecting Hannah.
A wonderful gift.
When we’re dealing with a difficult situation, she reminds me of my need for grace, even as I try to discipline in a way that reflects that. When she’s running out of her room at 6:30 am to give me a hug before I go to work, she reminds me of grace, encouraging me to follow her example in running toward our Father in heaven. She isn’t always an easy child to parent, but she is a wonderful gift. And I am grateful for her, this constant reminder of grace.
I’ve said many times that I am not a terribly patient man, particularly when I think about my own maturity in the faith. At least I don’t think I am. Maybe I’m getting better in this area. I know that when I was much younger in my faith (back in the far off days of 2005), I had ideas about what a mature believer should be like that were less than realistic. Over time, I’d like to think I’ve become more realistic and gracious, but I’m not always sure. I see progress, but I’m not where I’d like to be.
Which, really, is the story of all our lives. No matter how far we progress, we’re still not there. There is still work to be done. While we still have breath, sanctification is not complete.
One of the men who helped me really come to grips with this is J.C. Ryle, a 19th-century Anglican bishop. In his book, Holiness, he wrote the following:
Sanctification is always a progressive work. Some men’s graces are in the blade, some in the ear, and some are like full corn in the ear. All must have a beginning. We must never despise “the day of small things.” And sanctification in the very best is an imperfect work. The history of the brightest saints that ever lived will contain many a “but,” and “howbeit,” and “notwithstanding,” before you reach the end. The gold will never be without some dross—the light will never shine without some clouds, until we reach the heavenly Jerusalem. The sun himself has spots on his face. The holiest men have many a blemish and defect when weighted in the balance of the sanctuary. Their life is a continual warfare with sin, the world, and the devil; and sometimes you will see them not overcoming, but overcome. The flesh is ever lusting against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh, and “in many things they offend all” (Gal. 5:17; James 3:2).
This is good news to me, in so many ways. But chief among them is that it reminds me that it’s normal for me to feel incomplete. Like I’ve not arrived, and probably never will. But it also encourages me to keep pressing forward. To desire to grow and change. To strive to be what I am not yet, and by God’s grace, occasionally get to see glimpses of occasionally.
Growth in the faith always takes time. It’s never complete. But as long as I have breath, I want to keep going. Lord, give me strength.
John Newton’s most famous hymn, Amazing Grace, was first written as an illustration for his 1773 New Years Day sermon. I sometimes wonder how Newton would have felt if he’d known it would still be sung around the world 240 years later.
The mention of the title alone brings its first verse to mind:
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound, / That saved a wretch like me! / I once was lost but now am found / Was blind, but now I see.”
There is such good news in these words for those who have experienced this amazing grace. The ones whom Jesus calls his brothers and sisters. But what I love about it isn’t just how good this grace was for us then, on the hour we first believed. This grace is still good news for us now and into the future.
And this is what we need to remember going into this new year, one that, perhaps, finds you filled with angst or fear. We truly don’t know what this coming year is going to bring, any more than we knew what 2016 was going to have in store for us. For many of us, it was a mix of joy and sorrow. Celebration and mourning. Constantly. Think through whatever you personally experienced in the last year. Without minimizing your feelings, I hope you can look back and see that through all the “many dangers, toils, and snares,” you were carried through by the grace of God.
His grace brought you to where you are now.
And that is the one thing we can be certain of in 2017. Regardless of what happens on the world stage, or in our personal lives, the grace that has brought us to this point will continue to move us forward. And that same unshakeable grace will carry us through until we are finally lead home.