Sunday, June 26, 2011

Don't Let Your Heart Condemn You

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything. 1 John 3:18:20

Over the last several years I have begun to notice something that disturbs me. I watch friends (myself included) that genuinely love God, spend so much time listening to and agreeing with the evil assaults thrown their way. These assaults are meant to demean the quality of their love for others so that they pull away from relationships and live in discouragement.
In his epistle John is affirming several very strong Biblical themes. The first theme is that we ought to stop pretending that we don’t sin. He very strongly suggests that if we can’t confess the reality of our sinfulness we are calling God a liar. In our vernacular he says, “You are not that good. Everyone sins so stop pretending that you don’t. In fact, when you sin confess it so that you can receive the Lord’s forgiveness.” (1 John 1:8-10). Remember as you read 1 John that he is calling our sin out into the open.
Another truth John affirms is ‘gradual sanctification.’ Because he is calling sin out into the open he is giving his readers a ‘tool’ to deal with the on going recognition of sin. In essence he says, “As you are more honest about your sin realize evil will use it to beat you up. He will want you to think that all you do is sin. So, you must remember that what the Lord asks of you is not sinlessness but gradual growth in the quality of your love for others.” (1 John 2:3-8)
Most people I know tend not to see the subtle ways they are changing in how they love others. It might be because they still struggle with outward habits that are a reflection of unbelief (those things we get addicted to – anger, gossip, pornography, food, working out, etc.). Evil loves to hold this up as evidence that we are not in Christ or not growing in Him. I regularly watch many trusted friends become more loving and free as they gradually, (often very gradually) get better at fighting the habits that wear them down. We also fail to see the quality of our love for others because we are not hearing the Lord or others point this out in us. (This is why we must continue to help those we love recognize their changes and humbly accept compliments when they are cast our way. I can’t emphasize this enough – we must kindly and consistently remind those in our world of where they are growing and latch onto these words when we hear them.)
To walk more freely in the Lord we must view holiness as relational. Are we letting the Lord love us more and as a result are we loving others more? (I suggest you read through John’s 3 epistles thinking about holiness along these lines – it runs throughout his writing) Our unbelief can be manifested in the habits we struggle with but the clearest and most important marker of our growth in Christ is the way in which we love others and we need help seeing where we are changing in our love for God and others.
So, up to this point I have reviewed three themes. (1) We sin and can’t pretend about it. (2) We grow gradually toward holiness. (3) Holiness is relational and it is evidenced by how much we are letting the Lord love us and in response loving others better.
This brings me to the verse at the top of this post I wanted to write about. John says, “We demonstrate the truth by our actions and even if we feel guilty our actions may be demonstrating our love in such a way that God is affirming us.” This brings me to what has been bothering me. I am always talking with people about their relationships and often people are coming to me to help them love those in their world. Thus, I am paying attention to what they say and watching to see if their attitudes, desires and actions change in relation to those in their world. So often they are and the people I am meeting with don’t see this change. Their change is obscured by their guilt, by the condemnation evil continues to hurl at them about how they are failing those in their world.
Take for instance, Stan, whose boss legitimately demeans and controls him and sabotages some of his success because his boss is jealous. It is easy to see that Stan is gifted and also kind. He is not afraid to talk about his failures and the way he talks about himself you can easily see he has a tendency to beat himself up while struggling hard to love others. His education and achievements up to this point clearly indicate Stan is gifted and on his way to success. It is not that hard to put what Stan is saying in context and recognize that much of what he says about his boss is true.
So Stan comes in one day and tells a story about how his boss unjustly took over one of Stan’s clients. It was a client Stan worked to build a relationship with and stood to make a good profit if the client joined with Stan’s company. Stan’s boss covered over the injustice of taking this client by saying Stan didn’t have the ability to handle such a large client. There is not much Stan can’t do or learn to do well and it is easy to recognize the selfish ambition and jealousy that guided Stan’s boss.
As a result, Stan finally decides to stand up to his boss firmly but kindly. As Stan re-tells the story you hear both his frustration with his boss and his love for his boss. You are also glad Stan stood up because you saw how much the boss was taking advantage of Stan’s gifts and kindness. However, when Stan finishes telling the story he concludes by saying, “I was such a jerk to my boss I need to apologize.” Stan has the kind of meek, self-control that you have a hard time picturing him being a jerk to anyone. You realize what Stan is ‘feeling’ (hearing/processing) are lies. You have a good sense Stan demonstrated love to his boss by being stronger but evil is trying to rob, kill and destroy and keep Stan from growing more strength. Stan’s actions (kind strength with his boss) demonstrated that he belonged to the truth even though he felt guilty. God is greater than Stan’s feelings and you want Stan to see that he demonstrated love even though he feels guilt. You say, “Stan I know you and I have watched you struggle well to love your boss. I have also heard how consistently he has taken advantage of you. Your strength in this last conversation demonstrated your love for you boss more than any action to date. In fact, he continues to bully people because others protect themselves from offering him strength. This may make him angrier but for now I want to stand for you against the guilt that is condemning you. It is not from God.”
Our actions will show that we belong to the truth, so we will be confident when we stand before God. Even if we feel guilty, God is greater than our feelings, and he knows everything. We demonstrate the truth by our actions and even if we feel guilty our actions may be demonstrating our love for others in such a way that God is affirming us.
I have found that working in a culture where people are more honest about sin means we have almost turned the words from Mathew (5:21-30) on their head. Unlike Mathew’s audience we are not afraid to look inside. I fear we make the opposite mistake and have let what is going inside take us away from the truth not toward it. When Matthew wrote that anger is murder and that lust is adultery he was writing to a people that for ages had made their faith mostly outward. Everything was black and white. Mathew was writing to Jewish people with a strong history and affection for the law. Most of what they focused on was outward. This was before Jesus. Jesus’ sacrifice changed everything. Mathew is introducing them to this change by saying you are going to have to go deeper now. Outward compliance is not enough. Holiness in the innermost parts is now the norm. Centuries later, in a culture obsessed with the inside, I want to say something different. Sometimes your actions (what you do) demonstrate you love for Christ but you condemn yourself because of your inner life. You need help discerning what you feel because it is untrue and its keeping you from seeing what you are doing and what you are doing demonstrates a gradual growth in the Gospel that we need to celebrate.
So I am troubled. Troubled that we let evil condemn us while we gradually demonstrate love to those in our world. May you see more clearly where you are demonstrating your love for Christ!