Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Meaning of Life, part 4

(Be sure to read part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

Responding to God’s Kindness

Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ 
for the forgiveness of your sins."
- Peter, Acts 2:38

As we’ve seen, without God, we’re lost. In the face of our sin and imminent death, God’s love and kindness are indescribable. Sacrificial. Protective. Unfailing. Perfect. Our sin is so bad Jesus had to die for us. But Jesus loves us so much, he willingly did die for us. No matter who we are or where we've been, he offers something no mere man or woman could ever offer us. And he invites us to himself in many ways - by what we read, by what we hear, or by some other realization that he loves us and is involved in our life.

With that foundation laid, the burning question is this: How are we to respond to such kindness? What's the response that pleases the One who shows us that kindness?

The short answer: We give God glory in every way we know how - faith, love, confession, repentance, declaring what he has done, and doing all kinds of good works that please him. Bringing glory to God is a fundamental reason he created and re-created us. I hope to write about all of these good works soon, so let's start here:

Faith and Repentance
God’s kindness leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4); he wants everyone to repent rather than die. When we realize who God is and what he's done for us, God calls us to turn away from sin and turn to him. At a base level, that's what repentance means - “to turn” or “to return" - and another rendering of the word, “thinking differently afterward,” reveals even more. As we flesh out the idea of repentance, we’ll see that repentance is a process that requires all of who we are - our mind, heart, body, and spirit. 

One essential part of repentance is faith. In fact, the two are inseparable. Just like many people believed the message of Jesus when they heard it and searched the Scriptures, we also start our life with God by believing his message. God asks us to trust that everything he says about our sin, about us, and about himself is true. (These topics are covered in previous posts.) Therefore, our faith is simply agreeing with God.

As I mentioned, faith in God is more than just mental agreement, though. True faith causes a life-changing response in us. One of many examples of this is found in Acts. Ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit was poured out dramatically on Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem. When onlookers in the streets wondered what was going on, Peter stood up and told them the good news of Jesus’ salvation. He invited them to know Jesus. In response to what they heard, three thousand of them repented and were baptized. They heard, they believed, they repented, and they were saved! 

This is a high-level view of repentance, but this doesn't happen without a few important responses churning inside the human heart when God calls. These are very important and they're worth exploring.

Godly Sorrow
When the onlookers first heard Peter's message, they were "cut to the heart" with anguish. It’s fitting to ask: Why would anyone experience a painful emotion in the face of good news? We can’t understand the good news of Jesus unless we first understand the bad. And when we do come to understand the bad news of our sin – and then come to understand the good news of God’s love for us – namely, his perfect intention for us and incredible kindness despite our sin – how could we not grieve the tragic and shameful ways we’ve treated him and others, trampling God's perfect intention? Grief is the healthy emotional response to any tragedy and loss. In the same way, shame is the healthy response to sin. These reactions acknowledge what’s true.

Pain isn’t always bad. Surgery is painful, for example, but that pain ultimately leads to better health. Grieving the death of a loved one is also painful, but the grief shows that the person we lost was valuable to us; that pain says good things about that which was lost. In the same way, feeling grief and shame in their proper season shows that we’re sensitive to the whole story of Jesus when we hear it; it shows that we understand sin, sacrifice, justice and innocence lost. It reminds us of our immense value in the image of God - an image that has been stained by the sins that we grieve. It means that we truly understand and value God's perfect intention. The crowd that heard Peter in Jerusalem was heartbroken because Peter told them that they’d just killed their king. Even Peter himself, the “star” disciple, wept after he disowned Jesus three times, when earlier he’d told Jesus that he’d die with him.

What does this have to do with us? We’d be wrong to think we have any less reason to mourn than they did. We all opposed God as enemies before we trusted in Jesus. As a result of the faithless and sinful intentions of our hearts, we too, disowned and killed the our Creator and Savior, the Author of Life. Our pride, our fears, our greed, our lust, our pursuit of counterfeit affection, our guilty pleasures, and our lack of self-control tore Jesus’ flesh with a whip, spit in his face, shoved thorns into his scalp, and nailed the Holy One of Heaven to a tree to bleed and suffocate to death. Furthermore, I don’t think Jesus is the only one that suffered. I believe the Father felt as if a part of himself died as his Son breathed his last.

As if that weren’t tragic enough, sin damages and robs us and those we've sinned against in this world, too. The kind of punishment that Jesus took is the ultimate consequence of sin, but in our lives, these same sins cause deep physical and emotional pain, they rob trust and intimacy from the people closest to us, and they make us calloused and cynical towards goodness, truth, and pure love. By sinning in even the smallest way, we have despised the value, dignity, innocence and purity for which God designed us.

If we understand all these things as God does, our hearts can’t help but weep as Peter did with feelings that express, I hate what I’ve done. I’m sorry. I wish I’d never done that and I don’t want to do it again!” This is different than grieving the ways that others have hurt us, even though Jesus wants to heal those wounds, too. This specific godly sorrow comes from the Holy Spirit of God himself; he shows us that we have a sin problem. And like surgery, this kind of pain brings healing.

Godly sorrow leads us to turn away from the sins that defined our lives, it leads us to receive forgiveness from God, and it keeps us from becoming arrogant or naïve regarding sin in our Christian life (including others' sins against us). It reminds us that Jesus' sacrifice is not something to take for granted and his grace is never something to be demanded or expected. His grace - any grace - should always amaze us because we don't deserve it.

Confession is a powerful part of repentance that accompanies these internal realities. It's the way we express our faith, grief, and joy to others, but it's far more than just a statement of fact. In the same way we might induce vomiting if we found out that we just drank poison, confession is the overflow of our desire to expose anything inside of us that's not of God. It's a bit graphic, but that's the vigor with which knowledge of the truth should affect us.

We see this dramatically in Acts. One of the first things the Ephesian crowd did when they witnessed Jesus’ power was to confess their sins. But more than that, it's evident that when they realized what they'd been doing, they hated their sin so much that they literally burned everything associated with it. This is how it should be for us.

When we repent, God asks us to take full personal responsibility for what we've done. Like the Ephesians, we may have been victims of our culture and been ignorant to sin; we may not have been taught any differently. God sympathizes with this; that's why he pursues us, but he still says we're personally accountable for the choices we've made. Therefore, when we understand the truth, repentance requires that we confess our sins openly to God, to the person we sinned against, and to other trusted believers. And just as the crowd in Ephesus burned their sorcery scrolls, we should hate our sin with such passion that we'd rid ourselves of any external remnants of it along with anything that would easily tempt others. And from this same desire to be clean – and as a meaningful public sign of it – God calls us to be baptized in water, just as Peter instructed the crowd in Jerusalem.

It’s true, remembering our sins and telling them to others can be humbling, but that’s the point - God gives grace to the humble. Why? The humble are the only ones who aren’t trying to justify themselves anymore, but allow Jesus to justify them. When Jesus was asked why he ate with sinners, he answered, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.” His point is that we can’t be healed unless we first acknowledge that we’re sinners. Luke 18:9-14 and 15:11-24 (esp. verse 21) are powerful examples of what humble and totally vulnerable repentance looks like before God, and I highly recommend reading them.

Godly Comfort
As these parables show in powerful way, it’s not only right to grieve with godly sorrow; it’s essential that we also agree with God when he says that he forgives us. This keeps us from ungodly sorrow, which leads to nothing good.

Yes, it's true that God hates our sin and there’s a time for godly sorrow, but that sorrow has to be replaced by joy – just as the pains of childbirth are replaced by the joy of a newborn. And it’s true that our sin did kill Jesus, but he let it happen so he could heal us and remove our sorrows; he knew how weak, ignorant and wounded we are, and he knew that we wouldn’t be able to save ourselves. He took all our abuse yet he still loves us; he still forgives us. He took it all to buy us peace with God.

It's even true that we'll have to deal with some consequences of sin - knowledge, feelings, and physical realities - for the rest of our lives in this fallen world. It's right to acknowledge that. But if we don’t accept God’s forgiveness, comfort, and joy in the midst of it, then we're saying his sacrifice meant nothing.

A good parent wants their child to be humble and sorry when they do something wrong; it shows that the child knows what’s right. But if a good parent is confident their child knows what’s right, the parent quickly accepts a child’s apology and comforts them so they won’t feel overwhelmed or rejected. In the same way, our heavenly Father receives a humble person no matter what we’ve done. He's ready to accept us exactly as we are at any given moment. Like the father in the parable, he runs to us, welcomes us back with open arms and a kiss, and he removes our shame. That’s why Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” and “Those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Our Father won't take advantage of us in our weakness; he honors us and lifts up our heads.

Jesus loves us with a love that won’t fail when we fail, described beautifully in passages like Romans 8 and 1 Corinthians 13. In his love, he takes our burdens and gives our souls rest. Not only does Jesus comfort us in our grief, but he sent the Holy Spirit – the exact same one who convicts us of sin – to comfort us as well.

Our God wants us to be by his side, delivered from the rubble below, seeing all parts of it more and more clearly with his wisdom as he lifts our spirits above it. He wants us to approach him with confidence, knowing that he's not angry at us, knowing that he wants to hear what we have to say, and knowing that he only has the best in mind for us. If we trust in Jesus, this freedom is ours! Yes, God is still displeased when we sin, but God is not pointing an accusing finger at us that will condemn us to hell. Quite the contrary, he’s on our side; he fiercely defends us against any force that would try to hold us down. And if the God of the universe is for us, who can be against us?

Therefore, we can’t just remember Jesus' death; we have to remember his resurrection. We can’t just acknowledge sin; we have to accept forgiveness. We can’t just feel shame; we have to feel his joy! Feeling God’s joy in its proper season shows that we accept God’s love, forgiveness, cleansing and restoration. The joy in our lives shows we understand that mercy triumphs over judgment!

So as Paul writes, "Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say it: Rejoice!"

The Tension
As we’ve seen, there's a tension in our response to God. His goal for us is joy, but to get there, we need to face some appropriate pain. God's conviction of sin and God's kindness in the face of that sin work together to lead us to repentance and life.

Because our whole life is one of repentance, this tension remains a part of our Christian walk; we still sin sometimes in weakness, yet we live in God's grace. And ignoring one of these or the other is not only unbalanced, but can actually be dangerous. So how do we navigate that balance?

There will be different seasons of life, so a lot could be said here. But in the end, I'm convinced that if we seek to walk in the principle of confident humility, we'll be able to navigate any season with God's perspective. The Bible teaches this:

Always be confident because of God’s grace; always be humble because of our need for it.

I had intended part 4 to finish up this series, but as I got to studying, praying, and writing about repentance, I realized I couldn’t do justice to all the topics I’d like to cover in one post, so it became two. In part 5, I'd like to dig deeper into how our life changes after we’ve received God’s grace and repented.

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