Steve’s Letter – October 2014
SEPTEMBER 29, 2014
I once spoke for a theological conference at a seminary. The first speaker opened with, “Seeing as how the board has not seen fit to renew my contract, I have some things that I’ve been meaning to say.” He then got a howitzer (metaphorically speaking, of course) and blasted away.
I don’t remember what he said, but evidently he had been irritated for a long time and I’m sure that he felt better after saying something. I’ve been irritated for a long time too and I trust that after I write this letter to you, I’ll feel better.
Do you know what irritates me? I’m irritated when people who should know better give grace with one hand and then take it away with the other. “Of course God loves you,” they say, and just when I’m ready to break out in song, they add, “but don’t let it go to your head.” Or they say, “Jesus paid for your sins,” and when I’m just about ready to rejoice, they add, “and if you were really grateful, you would stop sinning.” Here’s another: “God’s grace is amazing,” and just when I’m ready to sing “Amazing Grace,” they add, “but don’t take advantage of it.” These are the same people who talk about “easy believism” and “cheap grace.” After presenting the Gospel, they admonish those who have received it to go out and change themselves, the world or at least everybody they know. “Jesus died for you,” they say in very serious and spiritual tones, “now what are you willing to do for him?”
Then they take up an offering.
Frankly, I’m having trouble changing myself, so if this thing requires a lot of heavy lifting I’m in trouble. Not only that, if it’s not free, I can’t afford it. That’s how needy and sinful I am. When the Gospel is qualified, it not only irritates me, it makes me want to run away.
There is no place where this “qualifier” phenomenon is more apparent than in the biblical teaching on God’s discipline of his own. These people rejoice in Hebrews 12:3-13 which is a gift to the Pharisees, manipulators and moralists if they can manage to ignore what the text is really teaching. It is used as a bludgeon on anybody who is even thinking about getting out of line.
“God loves you.” Yea! Then the kicker, “but he also disciplines those he loves.” In other words, “If you screw up, God will break your legs, cause your business to fail, take your children and/or give you jungle rot.”
I simply cannot tell you how often I’ve been with Christians going through hard times in their lives—maybe it’s a cancer diagnosis; the loss of children; a divorce; being fired, shamed, rejected or abused—who then ask the inevitable question, “What did I do wrong?” In other words, they think God is a child abuser breaking the legs of anybody who gets out of line.
It irritates me when that text is misused. It was given to God’s people to encourage them, not to beat them up. Toward the end of that text, the writer says, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees…” In other words, what I just told you should give you a reason to rejoice. And what was that? God loves you, he is sovereign, and you’re going to get better (i.e. holy). And not only that, as it happens, you will be surprised and pleased.
Let me give you six facts about God’s discipline that we all ought to remember:
1. There is no direct correlation between your sin and God’s discipline. If there were a direct correlation, we would all be dead. When you try to make the correlation, it will make you weird and neurotic.
2. The Greek word for discipline means “instruction and restraint.” That means God is sovereign and you’re not. It also means that doing it his way is a whole lot better than doing it your way. When you try to do it your way, it will also make you weird and neurotic.
3. God’s discipline never violates God’s love and gentleness to his own. Spurgeon said, “God is too wise to be wrong and too good to be cruel.” He is and you can trust him.
4. God’s discipline is always defined. God is not like the father who beats his kid every evening for no other reason than he is sure that his child did something wrong during the day.
5. God’s discipline is short-lived (Psalm 103)…just long enough to get your attention.
6. Don’t forget the hug. God’s discipline is always followed by a hug. God is not defined by his discipline, but by his love.
Not only does it irritate me when the text is misused, it irritates me when the text is used to make God into a policeman. There are unbelievers (believers too, I suppose) who scare their kids into submission by telling them that policemen will punish bad boys and girls. (Some parents also use Santa Claus with the “coals in the stocking” thing. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m not very big on Santa.) Christians, for the most part, substitute God for the policeman. Unbelievers’ children learn to fear and detest police officers. Christians’ children learn to fear and detest God.
“I can never please him,” a young man told me in tears as he talked about his father. “Every time I do something right, he tells me how I could have done it better. Whenever I do things that would make most fathers proud, he shrugs. He has never told me that he loved me…not even once.” If that’s your suspicion about God, somebody lied to you and that irritates me to no end.
It irritates me when a text is misused and when God is shown wearing a badge, but it also irritates me when texts (like this text in Hebrews) are used to qualify the Gospel. I love the story in Luke 7 about the prostitute who crashes the Pharisee’s dinner party. You’ll remember that she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and with an expensive ointment, and then dried his feet with her hair. To the shock of the very religious people at the party, Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little. And he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’” No kicker. No qualifier. No ifs, ands or buts.
You’re forgiven. Accept it.
I think I told you about a friend of mine who wanted to do something about the Protestant/Catholic hatred in Northern Ireland. So he took out billboards all over the country that read, “I love you. Is that okay? –Jesus.”
Oh, there is one other thing that irritates me. (Might as well get it all out while I’m at it.) It irritates me when leaders use biblical teaching as the acceptable method to control, manipulate, garner power, protect religious institutions or affirm their own self-righteousness. That really, really irritates me.
Uh…Jesus just asked me how I felt after writing those last two sentences. Frankly, I felt quite self-righteous. He suggested that I not go there until I dealt with my own self-righteousness. So I’m going to bring this letter to a close because…
He might discipline me for it.
Then maybe not.
But if he does, I’ll write another letter telling you about the joy, freedom and release I felt when I stopped being so self-righteous. And we’ll have a party.
Does God discipline? Of course he does. He’s your Father and he loves you so much that there can’t be a party unless you’re there. It’s the reason he disciplines.
It’s the party, dummy!
He asked me to remind you.