There is, of course, a cold, dead orthodoxy among us that we have called “Christian.” Paul warned Timothy to be careful about those “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:5).
We can get so interested in right doctrine, right living and right worship that we lose the power of Christ and become a cold, formal, proper, pure mausoleum. Jesus made a very important statement about those kinds of churches: “No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved” (Matthew 9:16-17).
Jesus hates dull, proper gatherings about as much as you do. In fact, he spoke rather strongly about the matter: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matthew 23:27).
Do you know why Jesus hates cold, formal, proper, pure mausoleums? Because they become masks behind which we can hide our own insecurities and failures.
You Need to be Free
Get free. Freedom isn’t something you can share if you aren’t free yourself. Until you see it, you can’t show it. That sounds like a truism, but it really isn’t. Violin players who think they can play the violin and can’t, sound like dying cats. Swimmers who think they can swim and can’t, drown. Christians too often use words without understanding their meaning just because the words are “Christian” and Christians are supposed to use Christian words. Freedom is an important Christian word, so we must be careful not to use it in our conversations unless we have it. There is nothing more dangerous to the cause of Christian freedom than for someone who knows nothing about freedom to talk about it to others.
If you’re ever afraid to go against the crowd, to say something that doesn’t sound Christian, to offend people, to bask in the glorious acceptance of Christ, then for his sake don’t talk about freedom. If you are bound by rules and regulations and if you never ask questions or express doubts, please don’t tell anyone about freedom. If you aren’t free, don’t proclaim freedom.
Pagans will get the idea that you illustrate the message and go back to their own cells—which aren’t a whole lot worse than yours.
Remember when Jesus read the Scriptures in the synagogue? He said he had been sent to “proclaim liberty to the captives…to set at liberty those who are oppressed” (Luke 4:18). He then demonstrated the freedom he proclaimed.
He broke the religious rules, touched the untouchable, loved the wrong people and offended the right ones. He didn’t say what everyone expected and he refused to capitulate to the forms that would enslave him. Above all, he kept on loving, even on a cross.
Ask Jesus to make you free. It is his gift of love to you. And after he gives it to you, then you can give it to someone else. How can you give it away? How do we give each other permission to be free?
Be Responsible for Yourself—Not Everyone Else
I don’t have to be God to anyone else. Remember what happened in Lystra with Paul and Barnabas? God had used Paul and Barnabas in a wonderful way, and the people of Lystra (including the priest of the temple of Zeus) thought they were gods. When Paul and Barnabas realized what was happening, “they tore their garments and rushed out into the crowd, crying out, ‘Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you’” (Acts 14:14-15).
I understand how Paul and Barnabas felt, and I’ll bet you do too. People love to have others make decisions for them. It is human nature to find someone you love and respect and to ask them to guide and help you.
I’m not anybody’s mother. I’m also not God. And if I’m not God, I’m not responsible for doing things for people that only God should do. What a great emotional relief. And perhaps more important, people begin to face the responsibilities of being free Christians and to accept the implications of their own decisions.
We give others permission to be free when we refuse to shoulder other people’s responsibilities. Taking responsibility for others is a form of ego-centered control that imprisons both them and us.
I refuse to be dishonest with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul gave this advice to the Ephesians: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” (Ephesians 4:25).
I am committed to honesty in two ways. First, I am honest about who I am. That doesn’t mean I feel called to confess all my sins in detail before every Christian I meet. But it does mean that I must not pretend to be more spiritual and righteous than I am—that I must not put on a mask of godliness for the benefit of my spiritual family. I am committed to telling you the truth about me, thereby giving you the freedom to tell me the truth about you.
But there’s another side to this honesty business. Honesty requires me to be honest with you about what God says about you and you be honest with me about what God says about me. One of the problems with relational theology is that it often degenerates into excuses for disobedience: If I’m bad and you’re bad, then it must not be so bad to be bad. May God have mercy on us. We owe one another the truth. Truth demands that I never hedge when speaking to members of my spiritual family.
Allow Others to Bear Their Own Guilt
I refuse to bear the guilt for someone else’s sin. We each must do our own business with God. Listen to the words from Ezekiel 18:20: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
Manipulators have an unbelievable ability to bring others into their guilt. And quite often they are looking for someone else to blame. Parents, your kids are not computers you have programmed. You are not responsible every time there is a glitch. Don’t let your adult kids get away with making you responsible for their actions (“Look at what you have caused in my life”). Pastors, don’t bear the guilt of the people to whom God has sent you. Only Christ can share their guilt. If you try to do what only Christ can do, you will spend all your time feeling guilty. Christians, love does not dictate that you feel guilty every time locusts attack the crop in a Third World country or (closer to home) a Christian friend doesn’t live up to your expectations. Tell those who try to make you walk down that road, “I refuse to be guilty for your actions. I will love you, but I won’t bear your sins. You have to do that by yourself or, as a pleasant alternative, allow Christ to bear them for you.”
When we refuse to bear another’s guilt, we give them permission to be free. We have made a statement about their personal responsibility. Their unhealthy dependence on others to affirm and share in their guilt is a horrible form of slavery.
Allow People to be in Process
I have learned to think of people as living in process. Jesus said to his disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (John 16:12).
So often, we are not willing to allow people to be where they are in their own process. We want them to be where we are and we are quick to do everything in our power to get them there. By recognizing that everyone is in a process and that God is in charge of the process, and by refusing to get in the way of the process, we give people permission to be free.
Don’t be Shocked
I refuse to believe that there are any super-saints for whom Christ did not have to die. The Bible says that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If that is true, and I haven’t found any exceptions yet, then I will not be shocked by the discovery that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Let me tell you something that may shock you. There is no sin of which I am not capable. In other words, I can do anything that anybody else has done, both good and bad. I love the little boy who prayed, “Dear Jesus, forgive all the bad things I did today, and forgive all the bad things I thought about but didn’t get around to doing.” Unless I am capable of committing the sin you are committing, I am not capable of being anything but your judge. You don’t need a judge—you need a friend.
Let People be Human
I have learned to recognize what it means to be human. I’m so tired of hearing about the victorious Christian life that I think I will die. Do you know what the victorious Christian life is? It is keeping your nose above water. It is keeping on trucking for another day. It is being faithful—just barely. It is keeping from messing it up too terribly. We have this idea of what a real Christian ought to be, say, and think, and then we try to live up to that idea and force everyone else to live up to it too.
We have been given a set of standards that as Christians we feel we must maintain. One of those standards, for example, is that Christians should praise God all the time and never deal with tragedy honestly lest they hurt their witness. Another example is that Christians should be perfect. Allow people to be human.
Grace is Enough
Finally, we give people permission to be free by understanding that if grace is good enough for God, it ought to be good enough for us. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Grace is not just something God has shown us, it is something that we must show others.
Remember the first miracle Jesus ever performed? You’ll find the story in John 2. It was a party and the host ran out of wine. Jesus turned the water into wine and thereby saved the day. If you’re a Christian, Jesus has given you the wonderful, heady, exciting wine of freedom.
Be sure you do not turn it back into water.
Adapted from Steve’s book, When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough.