What grace looks like

I keep coming across thought-provoking pieces about grace that connect with our series at Trinity CRC. My colleague Jacob Boer’s reflections are especially helpful and inspiring. I’m posting them here with his kind permission.

Grace graphic found via Google

When I read through Scripture, grace shows up as the big theme in God’s relationship with us: forgiveness that we don’t deserve and cannot earn along with adoption into a world- and life-changing family. Yet as I read through Facebook, Christian magazines, and Christian blogs, I wonder why grace is so often missing in our relationships with the world around us and with each other in the Christian family. What worries me the most is how ungracious behaviour within the church is justified: “We’re in a culture war,” “We need to stand up for what is right and denounce evil,” “We need to protect the Christian faith which is under attack from government, society,” or whatever opponent you might choose to fit in here.

Strong language that separates people into “us” and “them” is used so often, especially in the debates concerning sexuality issues. The debate about gay and lesbian Christians in the church has seldom been grace-filled with a concern for those who are trying to figure out how to be gay and Christian. We’re slow to walk together in love. Then there is the area of politics where faith and politics get mixed together in strange and unhealthy and graceless ways where doubt is cast on an opponent’s faith simply because of the way they see how society might be better than it is now. Too often we create gods and demons rather than see people trying to figure out faith, God, church, and life. Where has the grace gone that invites people into a closer relationship with God, that models the love of neighbour and God?

I’m not saying we cannot believe in right and wrong: There are right and wrong ways of living according to the Bible; there are right and wrongs ways of relating to God. But I am saying we need to be much more humble and aware of our own brokenness and sin first and perhaps we will be more quick to offer grace as a starting point in a relationship rather than fear or anger. If our starting points are our differences, how can we get to the place where we recognize each other as image bearers of God, sons and daughters of the king, and the bride of the bridegroom?

Our example of how to speak and relate to each other, no matter our differences, is Jesus. His harshest words were for the “most righteous” because of their lack of grace. Jesus lived out grace by being among the disgraced and sinners, inviting them to follow him.

The story of the woman caught in adultery has asterisks around it because it’s not in the earliest manuscripts, but I believe the story made it into the Bible because it shows grace and how to address sin with grace. Jesus protects the woman from the most righteous of the righteous, picks her up from the ground, tells her he does not condemn her, and then says, “Now go and sin no more.” This is grace. May we learn to be more grace-filled followers of Jesus.

Undeserved and unreserved

Pastor Bobby and I are working through a series at Trinity CRC focusing on grace. This past week in his daily e-devotions, Dale Vander Veen wrote on the subject and captured what Bobby and I are trying to convey in our messages – especially his Quote for the Day. I’m posting it here with Dale’s kind permission.

Grace graphic found via Google

For forty-three years (1971-2014) McDonald’s periodically told the world, “You deserve a break today.” Those words were rated the top advertising jingle of the twentieth century. Last year McDonald’s dropped their exclusive rights to the iconic slogan. What McDonald’s really wanted was for me to give them a break by buying their merchandise. In fact, several times when their sales dropped, they brushed off the slogan and used it again.

I choked a bit on the deserve part of the message. I couldn’t escape the word, because I couldn’t escape the feeling. And I couldn’t escape the feeling, because I couldn’t escape the truth. I do not deserve a break. I am undeserving. That doesn’t make me unique. I’m not trying to impress anyone with my humility. No one is deserving. Feel free to say to yourself, “I’m undeserving, too.” Much better than “You deserve a break today” would be the prayer, “Lord, give me a break today.” And the emphasis is on give, for I could never earn a break from God.

Some Jewish elders told Jesus that a Gentile centurion “deserves to have you do this” (heal his servant). Why? “Because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” The centurion, however, had his theology and hence his self-understanding right. He sent word to Jesus, “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”

I, too, love God’s kingdom and I, too, occasionally help build his church, but that doesn’t make me deserving. I have found, however, that when I feel the most undeserving, I am probably the closest to grace, for what is grace but “God’s undeserved favor?”

Lord, thank you for giving me a break today – and every day.

Verse for the day:
He does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities. (Psalm 103:10)

Phrase for the day:
Grace – undeserved, yet unreserved

Quote for the day:
”Grace is dispensed sovereignly and freely by God. It is truly grace, with no mixture of human merit of any kind. This is the manifest work of the tender mercy of God, who stoops to rescue his children from sin and death and who, as he did in the initial work of creation, takes pieces of clay that are spiritually lifeless and breathes into them the breath that quickens them.”
R.C. Sproul, Grace Unknown

…With the prayer that today you will feel the quickening breath of God’s tender mercy and undeserved favor.

Contact Dale Vander Veen to receive his free, biblical, inspiring
daily devotional emails:
dalevanderveen@sbcglobal.net.

Participating, not initiating

Graphic of two people in conversation found via GoogleWhen it comes to sharing the Good News, I’m tempted to think that I’m the one who’s supposed to make people interested in Jesus and matters of faith. Believing that, however, betrays how I think I’m more important than I really am! Yes, God uses me and you to do important work in his Kingdom, but he’s always a step ahead of us – getting us ready and preparing situations for our arrival on the scene. That is, we’re not supposed to initiate getting someone interested in Jesus; we’re called to participate in how God is already at work in that person’s life.

The apostle Paul opens his letter to the Philippians with thanksgiving to God for the church of Philippi and then says this: “[I am] confident of this, that he [that is, God] who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion.” It wasn’t Paul who began the process of the Philippians becoming partners with him in sharing the Gospel; it was God who got the ball rolling. The same remains true for us in our encounters with people who are not yet Christians: The Holy Spirit who guides our words and actions is also nudging and warming the heart of the individual who doesn’t know Jesus yet and is waiting for us to introduce him.

Knowing this is very liberating. Instead of worrying about how to convincingly show and tell someone about Jesus, we can first listen to what’s going on in his or her life. Something they figure is a coincidence or has no meaning might actually be God at work – it’s just that they need us to gently help them recognize it! Or maybe the answer to something that is perplexing them can be found in the Bible – it’s just that they need us to winsomely point it out! What’s more, something as simple as our interest in them might be what the Holy Spirit uses to help them see that God is interested in them, too.

Talking about faith with people who do not walk with Jesus is daunting. But I find courage in knowing that in those special moments where God is leading me to give witness to him, God is going before me, preparing both me and the other person.

I wrote this a few weeks ago for “Grace Encounters,”
the newsletter of
Trinity CRC’s Outreach Team.

Joseph 7: “A Gracious Transformation”

“God’s purposes are not always clear, but Joseph knows that God seeks to save.  The twists and turns of his life have given Joseph the perspective to know that what God does is enough to satisfy the heart.”
– Julius T. Medenblik, president, Calvin Theological Seminary

As his story wraps up, I’m inspired by Joseph’s ability to see God’s hand at work even in the worst parts of his life. Instead of hating his brothers, he forgives them and encourages them to see what God is doing through and around them. Actually, Joseph has forgiven hisForgiveness graphic found via Google brothers long ago, but they have a hard time believing it.

This part of Joseph’s story leaves me pondering my attitude toward forgiving others: If someone has wronged me, and I’m waiting for the apology, and I can hardly wait for them to beg and grovel in front of me so I can perhaps attach a list of conditions before I hear them, I’d better rethink how forgiveness works! As I asked in yesterday’s message, can I have a forgiving heart even before someone asks for forgiveness? If I am called to be like Jesus and if I am filled with the Holy Spirit of Jesus, then it’s indeed possible and I’ve got to pray for a heart like that! That kind of heart beats with the same rhythm as God’s heart if you consider how He arranged for my forgiveness long before I ever asked Him. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” the apostle Paul teaches. Having been graced by my forgiving God, I pray for the same grace-filled attitude when before someone approaches me with an apology.

::– –::– –::

Here’s the complete Joseph-Lent-Easter series that Pastor Bobby and I led at Trinity CRC:
:: Joseph 1: “Only in Your Dreams”
:: Joseph 2: “Run, Joseph, Run”
:: Joseph 3: “In the Meantime”
:: Joseph 4: “Haunted”
:: Joseph 5: “The Substitute” (Good Friday)
:: Joseph 6: “My Son Was Dead and Is Alive Again!” (Easter)
:: Joseph 7: “A Gracious Transformation” (above)

Joseph 6: “My Son Was Dead and Is Alive Again!”

Fun!

I don’t know what other word to use to describe discovering so many connections between the Joseph of the Old Testament and Jesus’ resurrection! At the climax of the story of Joseph as well as on Easter Sunday, we witness God transform death into life.

Father Jacob was convinced his son had been dead for years, probably decades. But it turns out Joseph is actually alive and has risen to power in Egypt! I am reminded of the father of the lost sons in Jesus’ parable inviting the older son to come into the house to feast and celebrate when the younger son returns from the far country, saying, “We [have] to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again.” I can hear Jacob saying, This son of mine was dead as far as I knew, but now he’s alive again! Joseph is alive, and Jacob at long last is at peace.

Empty grave graphic found via GoogleOn Easter we celebrate that God’s Son is alive. Unlike Joseph, who was only presumed dead, Jesus truly was dead. He died on the cross and was buried in a tomb. But, as we sing, “death cannot keep its prey,” and “up from the grave He arose!” And unlike Joseph, who was ruler only in one particular country, Jesus rules over the entire world. Jesus is alive and He reigns, so I can be at peace.

Finally there is joy in the story of Joseph. Yet it really only foreshadows the even deeper joy I have in the risen Christ. You’re welcome to read more about that in my Easter message based on Genesis 45-46. And consider giving thought to this question: What difference is Jesus’ resurrection making in my life?

Joseph 5: “The Substitute”

I know our series at Trinity CRC is supposed to be about Joseph, but on Good Friday we spent a good chunk of time considering his half-brother Judah. He makes a speech biblical scholar Terence Fretheim in his commentary on Genesis calls “a literary masterpiece” in which he pleads to the Egyptian governor (who, unbeknownst to the brothers, is Joseph) on behalf of his younger brother, Benjamin.

Benjamin has been framed for stealing Joseph’s silver cup. All the brothers appear before Joseph and are given the opportunity to walk away from their trouble simply if they leave Benjamin behind in Egypt to live the rest of his life as the governor’s slave. Essentially, they have the opportunity to do to Benjamin the exact same thing they did to Joseph years before: Betray and ditch their little brother and be on their merry way.

I am happily astonished at how much Judah and his brothers have changed (something I started exploring in my last blog entry). Instead of abandoning Benjamin, Judah begs the governor, “Please let your servant [i.e. me] remain here as my lord’s [i.e. your] slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return [home] with his brothers.” In his commentary, Bruce Waltke observes that this is the very “first instance of human substitution in Scripture” – where one person willingly gives up him- or herself in place of another. And Judah’s the same one who years ago said, “Come, let’s sell [our brother] to the Ishmaelites!” It’s hard to believe we’re talking about the same person! That Judah, by the grace of God, has changed is undeniable.

God, in His grace, invites me to change, too. He loves to see me grow in Christ. Sometimes in some areas, the growth will be as dramatic as Judah’s. At other times in other areas and perhaps more often, Growth graphic found via Googleit will be more subtle. But, as the Holy Spirit directs, grow I will. In fact, as I’ve said before, it’s impossible for followers of Jesus not to grow. Anything that’s alive will grow! Without growth, our spiritual muscles will atrophy, our convictions will become fuzzy, our obedience to Jesus increasingly sporadic.

It makes me want to look back over the past week, month, and year to see where God has been making a difference in my life and helping me grow more and more “in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (to quote Peter). Maybe you’d like to consider that, too.

::– –::– –::

You can read my Good Friday message here. It touches on growth, but focuses more on how Judah’s willingness to take his brother’s place anticipates the perfect “substitutionary atonement” of Jesus through His death on the cross.

Joseph 4: “Haunted”

“Guilt is like the red warning light on the dashboard of the car.
You can either stop and deal with the trouble,
or break out the light.”
– Source unknown

One of the things that makes the story of Joseph so appealing and memorable is how the people in it change. In my message yesterday, we saw how Joseph’s brothers are confronted with the opportunity to do the same thing to Benjamin as they did to Joseph. Years before, Joseph’s brothers abandoned him when they sold him as a slave and now they have the opportunity to also ditch Benjamin in Egypt. This option is presented to them by the Egyptian governor as a quick and easy way to solve their problems and head back home to Canaan.

However, the guilt that has haunted the brothers has had at least one positive effect: The brothers have changed for the better. Guilt graphic found via GoogleInstead of hightailing it back to Canaan, they choose to meet with the governor and plead for Benjamin’s life.

But they aren’t the only ones who have changed: Joseph has changed, too. When we first meet him, Joseph comes off as a brat as he struts about in his ornate robe, tattles on his brothers, and indiscriminately describes his dreams of ascending to prominence. There’s no excuse for the brothers’ cruelty towards him, but he certainly knew how to make life miserable for them, too. Perhaps he’s haunted with his own sense of guilt.

Like his brothers, Joseph has also changed. As Pharaoh observed, Joseph has become “discerning and wise.” Joseph has been growing in ways that are enabling him to create reconciliation within his family, something that wasn’t even on his radar in his younger years.

The story of Joseph and his brothers inspires me to own up to my guilt, to recognize and confess the stupid things I’ve done that have hurt God, others, and myself. I see guilt as simultaneously a warning and a blessing, a call to stop doing something wrong and an invitation to experience grace. For when guilt prompts me to seek and receive forgiveness, there is healing and liberation. Do you want to join me in thinking about and responding to guilt this way? It’s not an easy process, but it’s one the Holy Spirit uses to slowly but surely make you and me more like Jesus.