Colorful or Colorless Christians?
Read Matthew 23:15-28
A few years ago, our church gave away our pews to a Russian congregation. They rented a flatbed truck and came to pick them up — and we have a lot of pews, so loading and transporting them was a two-day job. I really loved listening to these guys speak in their super-thick accents and (for some reason) ultra-loud voices, so I hung around and kept talking to them, eventually daring to ask them to read things I wrote down, like, “We must get that moose, Natasha!” and “Captain Kirk, it was Khan!” which they did with great volume and gusto. Amusing to me, although I’m pretty sure they had no idea what they were talking about.
Then toward the end of the day, I asked them, “Where are you staying tonight?” And these guys answered (and you have to imagine this in their accent): “Ve are sleeping here in church!” Immediately I thought, “I see that every weekend!” But out loud I said, “Do you need sleeping bags? I can go get some…”
And they said, “NO! We are putting pews together in shape of — what is word? — casket? Da! CASKET! And ve are sleeping in CASKET made of PEWS!”
I said, “But what if you guys get cold? Want some blankets?” And they answered, “NO! When ve are getting cold ve are getting up in night and WORKING HARDER!” And the other guys chimed in: “DA!When getting cold, WORKING MORE!”
And as I walked away that night it occurred to me: What a great metaphor for what church can become. It turns from something with life into something dead. Pews into caskets. Then when we feel our souls get cold our solution is: WORK MORE! WORK HARDER! That’s where I was coming from for many years. And that’s what I see in so many Christians around me.
In today’s verses, Jesus continues expressing frustration about the Pharisees who, with their complex system of religion, turn pews into caskets.
In fact, religious legalism is the cultural evil Jesus criticizes more than any other. That’s because He sees a faith that should be setting people free, putting them in spiritual chains instead. No wonder Christ’s grace-filled message was such a relief.
I think The Message’s paraphrase of Jesus’ words we saw yesterday in Matthew 11:28–30 captures the way Jesus must have sounded to people in His culture longing for some solution to their cold, worn out feeling (other than “work harder”): Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. Matthew 11:28–30 [the message]
“Freely and lightly.” Does that describe your Christian walk? I like what Eugene Peterson says in his book Traveling Light: "The word Christian means different things to different people. To one person it means a stiff, uptight, inflexible way of life, colorless and unbending. To another it means a risky, surprised-filled venture, lived on tiptoe at the edge of expectation. Either of these pictures can be supported with evidence. There are numberless illustrations for either position in congregations all over the world. But if we restrict ourselves to biblical evidence, only the second image can be supported. If we get our information from the biblical material, there is no doubt — I repeat — there is no doubt that the Christian life is a dancing, leaping, daring life!
"How then does this other picture get painted in so many imaginations? How does anyone get the life of faith associated with dullness, with inhibition, with stodginess? We might reasonably expect that a group of people who… have been told stories of Jesus setting people free… would be sensitive to any encroachment… but in fact the community of faith, the very place where we are most likely to experience the free life, is also the place where we are in most danger of losing it.” (Quoted in Swindoll, p. 82–83)
Sadly, the movement Jesus founded itself became rapidly infected by the same legalism He criticized. After the ascension of Jesus some of the first churches began to resemble the Pharisees more than Christ.
And no one was more qualified to see this than a former Pharisee.
Tomorrow you’ll see the surprising developments that led a world champion legalist to become the Apostle of Grace!
How would you answer Eugene Peterson’s questions — how does the “colorless” picture of Christianity get painted on so many imaginations?
Do an honest self-appraisal: Do you reflect grace or legalism to others?
Today tell God where you feel weary and burdened. Tell Him that you take His yoke upon you, the yoke that is easy and light.
Religious Grace Robbers
Read Matthew 23:1-13
Famous author Ernest Hemingway prided himself on living life with no moral code. But few people know he was raised in a conservative Christian family. His grandfather? A friend of the legendary evangelist Dwight L. Moody. His parents? They went to conservative Wheaton College.
Yet when Ernest was just a little boy sitting on his father’s lap, his dad would criticize him for saying things “in a wrong way” and immediately spank him and then order him to get on his knees and beg God for forgiveness.
Young Ernest tried so hard to be good. One writer says, “Trouble was, Ernest could never be sure he had been good. He might have done something bad and not known it was bad. It was so hard to obey every rule, so hard to please his mother, his father, his teachers, his minister…”
He sure tried, though. One time Ernest read every word of the King James Bible to win a prize. As a young man he was his church youth group’s Program Chairman and then its Treasurer. Worked so hard. Tried so diligently.
Then his father committed suicide. Ernest began writing to ease the pain, but his mother said she was very disappointed in him for “not serving the Lord.” One year on his birthday, she sent him as a gift the gun his father had used to kill himself. In the card she wrote again about how disappointed she was in her son.
Is it any wonder Hemingway eventually rebelled, rewriting the Lord’s Prayer as “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name”? Is it any wonder he said, “My soul feels as empty as a vacuum tube”? Any wonder that he became known for his womanizing, drinking ways, trying to find freedom from a stifling upbringing by going as far as he could in the other direction? Is it any wonder he found no freedom there either and ended his life in the same way his father had?
Bad religion can kill people.
How do you think Jesus feels about the kind of religion Hemingway was exposed to? In today’s passage, Jesus skewers the religious leaders of His day for a performance-oriented religion that He says can actually shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces.
Maybe you also experienced what author David Seamands calls “dysgrace” from parents or religious authorities. That’s his term for any system or relationship that essentially teaches the opposite of grace. It’s so difficult to unlearn these patterns. But it is possible!
In my observation, churches today don’t usually express “dysgrace” in classic legalism (as in, you have to keep the Hebrew law), but in a form of legalism you could call moralism. Moralistic leaders provide a cut-and-dried list of what is right and what is wrong, and then define the goal of Christianity as keeping those rules.
Because these leaders see themselves as helping people live up to certain standards, their job becomes mainly about explaining the rules, training people how to keep rules, teaching people how to interpret Scripture to find rules, and finding out whether or not people are keeping the rules. Consequently they are able to produce only two things: rule-keepers or rule-breakers. Either way, their followers’ souls are empty as vacuum tubes.
Jesus talked a lot about the danger of such law-oriented leadership.
He pointed out how in such systems that even Bible study, instead of being a way to get to know God better, becomes an end in itself — or a search for more rules: “You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” -John 5:39–40
Instead of helping people begin a relationship with God, He said these leaders were oppressing people with pressure to perform. “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)
That’s why Christ’s offer of grace was so appealing: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” -Matthew 11:28–30
If easy, light, and rest are not words you associate with your faith, then you may be under the heavy yoke of religion instead of the yoke of Christ.
In Mark 10:42, Luke 22:25, and 1 Peter 5:1–3 church leaders are told not to “lord it over” people under their care. What does it mean for a Christian leader to “lord it over” someone? How does this relate to grace?
How can a faith meant to set people free become a means of oppression?
Is your faith making you feel weary and burdened, or is it light and easy?
Pray that you will be an example of someone leading by grace, not law. Pray for the leaders in your church — that they will grow in their skill at leading people into a relationship with God and true holiness through grace.
Stressed, or at Rest?
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” -Luke 10:41-42
Read Luke 10:38-42
I used to dislike today’s Bible reading! It confused me. It even made me mad at Jesus. Seems like Mary’s a slacker and Martha’s… well, Martha’s like me! So naturally I just kind of sidestepped this story and put it in the category of weird things Jesus said that no one can possibly understand.
It was only after I understood the doctrine of grace better that I saw in this episode a lesson for life. The lesson? As author Steve McVey says, “Being preoccupied with serving Christ more than with Jesus Himself is a subtle threat to every Christian.”
Before you put this in the “I’ll think about it later” category, let’s do some detective work. When Jesus came to visit Mary and Martha in their home at Bethany, Mary sat down at the feet of Jesus and listened intently to everything He said and watched everything He did. She was focused on Jesus. “But,” Luke says, “Martha was distracted with much serving.” What? Hit pause for a minute. Luke reports Martha was “distracted.” Distracted from what? From Jesus! What was it that made her distracted? Serving Jesus! See how this story can mess with the head of someone as performance driven as I can be?
So she complains to Jesus about her sister not doing enough work. And does He say, “Martha, Martha, what you are doing is very good, and what Mary is doing is good too. My followers should be a healthy combination of the both of you”? Uh, no, that is not what He says. What He actually says is, “Martha, Martha you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed.”How many things? One.
Now before you jump to the conclusion that Jesus doesn’t want people to cook and clean, let me ask you this: If He had asked Mary for a drink, do you think she would have sprung to her feet and helped Him out? Of course! But she started with — and stayed with — a restful focus on Christ. It’s when we leap into action for Christ without focusing on Jesus and remembering His love for us — without asking Him if He even needs or wants our busyness — that we drift into Martha-ism. Remember that movie Fatal Attraction? You could call this syndrome “Fatal Distraction” — distraction from our first love.
To say I can relate to Martha is the understatement of the century.
After the intellectual and emotional breakthrough I already described, it still took a while for the idea of grace to influence my life at a practical level, especially (and ironically) my life as a pastor.
One evening after yet another day at church “being distracted by many things” I came home, fell onto the couch, and thought I was having a stroke. My wife rushed me to the hospital where we discovered that I was having an anxiety attack — the first of several.
The doctor (who, I found out later, attended our church) asked me if I was resting.
He asked if I was getting sleep, exercise, eating a healthy diet, spending time in meditation.
I said I was just too busy.
He prescribed medication and a thorough reorientation of my thought process. I began to read Bible verses every day that reminded me of God’s sufficiency.
I’m still in the process of renewing my mind, but I learned on that day that if I do not focus on that one thing, Jesus Himself, I am very vulnerable to burnout and bitterness. I am much happier, even while busy, if I am focused on Jesus and His grace to me.
In what way do you relate to Martha?
In your own words, describe the “one thing” that Jesus says is needed.
Spend some time in prayer today at the feet of Jesus, just gazing at Him, in a spiritual sense. If you’re not sure how to do this, start by imagining Him present with you (He really is present, you know!) and then just say thanks. See what happens next.
Babies Don't Try to be Born
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again" -John 3:3
Read John 3:1-17
Although the word “grace” isn’t used very often in the Gospels, the concept is everywhere. Jesus teaches grace constantly. The author of the Gospel of John explains Christ’s ministry with the phrase, “the law came through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Most famously, Jesus teaches grace to Nicodemus in John 3.
The top religious scholar in the land, Nicodemus was impressed enough by Jesus to ask for a secret night meeting so he could get to know this new and exciting young teacher. Jesus gets straight to the point: “You must be born again.” (v. 7)
I want you to realize to whom Jesus was talking.
The Bible says Nicodemus was a Pharisee. They were the religious elite. There were never more than 6,000 of them at a time in Israel. Each of them had taken a solemn vow before God and three witnesses to devote their entire life, every moment of every day, to keeping the commandments. They wrote down extra regulations in their rule book, which came to be called the Mishnah, to make sure each commandment was kept, and kept perfectly — for example, just one of the commandments, the one about keeping the Sabbath holy, eventually had 24 chapters devoted to it in the Mishnah. If there were gold medals in willpower and in religious knowledge, these guys would win every time.
Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin. This was a select group of 70 religious men who ran all the religious affairs of Israel and had moral authority over every Jewish person in the world.
Not only that, but Jesus refers to him in John 3:10 as the Teacher of Israel. So Nicodemus apparently had a unique authority in the eyes of the people.
And yet Jesus tells this socially elite, morally upright, super-smart man that even he must be born again.
“Born again.” It’s one of those overly familiar phrases. But what’s it mean?
Well, when you were born did you develop yourself through conscious effort? Did you make your own little feet? “I need ten toes now! Urrrrgh!!” Pop, pop, pop, out came the toes. No. You just grew. I think it’s Max Lucado who asks: “How active were you in your birth? Did you shove yourself out? Were you in radio communication with your doctor: ‘Roger, Doc, we are good to GO!’”
No. Someone else did the work. Someone else felt the pain. Someone else made the effort.
Same when you’re born spiritually. It’s not about your effort. It’s about you resting in God’s effort on your behalf, knowing “whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter Bernice is a pastor, and she puts it this way: "It makes no difference how much education, money, prestige, power, or pleasure you acquire; if the time and invitation are right, you will indulge your nature. That’s why you have to be born again; because only when you are born again do you have the new nature of God planted in your heart."
I had to admit that, like Nicodemus, I’d been setting up rules and boundaries to try to earn my salvation. And despite my initial joy, the practice of resting in grace still took a long time for me to really understand, as you’ll see tomorrow.
Summarize what Jesus meant by “born again” (try to use as little religious language as possible):
What does being “born again” have to do with grace?
If you want to do further study, look up these verses that also talk about being born again: John 1:12–13; James 1:17–18; 1 Peter 1:3; 1 Peter 1:23. What can you learn about the new birth from these verses?
Ask God how you can apply this story to your life. Have you been born again?
It's Just Impossible
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” -Matthew 19:26
Read Matthew 19:16-26
Yesterday I described myself as a recovering spiritual perfectionist. At the time I thought I was alone, but, like any recovering addict, I soon started meeting a lot of people just like me, people who were performance-oriented, guilt-haunted, and driven by a need to be sure they were pleasing God — yet also exhausted by their efforts.
In fact, I met some in the pages of the Bible, especially in the Gospels as they encountered Christ. Here’s the story of one of them.
One day a very rich young man comes up to Jesus — and his question and his attitude remind me so much of my old performance-oriented self. He essentially asks, “What do I need to do to get an A-plus from God, to win a golden ticket to heaven?”
I think Jesus is testing him when He says, “Well, keep every single commandment.” The man betrays his to-do list mentality as he responds, “Which ones?” Jesus names six commandments — and the man says, “Done!” I honestly do not know how Jesus doesn’t burst out laughing here. But He sees into the man’s proud soul and says, “Then sell all you own and follow me.”
Now the man is going through a major conflict. Think about it: He probably has all his stuff precisely because he’s so driven. He wants to earn more stuff, more rewards, not give away stuff. Even his spirituality seems to be part of his pursuit of trophies. Jesus’ words do not compute, so the man walks away.
Then Jesus says something a lot of people miss. The stunned disciples question him, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus then says, “With man this is…” What? “…Impossible.”
As Max Lucado points out in his book The Applause of Heaven:
He doesn’t say unlikely. He doesn’t even say it will be tough. He says it is impossible. No chance. No way. Impossible. It’s impossible to swim the Pacific. It’s impossible to go to the moon on the tail of a kite. And unless somebody does something, you don’t stand a chance of going to heaven. All your life you’ve been rewarded according to your performance. That’s why the rich young ruler thought heaven was only a payment away. Then Jesus says you don’t need a system, but a Savior. You don’t need a résumé; you need a Redeemer.
Don’t miss it. You cannot save yourself. Not through the right rules. Not through the right ritual. Not through the right religion. It is impossible for human beings to save themselves.
But… with God, all things are possible! With God, the prodigal, the prostitute and the priest are all brought into the fold because of His love — not because of what they have earned. That’s grace!
How do you relate to the rich young man’s driven personality?
How can this become an obstacle to understanding grace?
Why do people want to cling to their performance-driven motivations? What do you think they are afraid might happen if they let go and simply receive God’s grace?
Ask God to help you stop being a performance-driven person when it comes to your faith. Ask Him to help you relax in His grace.
Galatians 5:1: "So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law."
Read Galatians 5:1-6
From the time I was a teenager until I was a pastor in South Lake Tahoe, California, I struggled with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). That’s what Jack Nicholson has in the movie As Good As It Gets, or what the character Monk had in the TV show of the same name.
It’s funny on-screen. But in real life it’s maddening: You might be absolutely driven to switch the car radio on and off exactly 50 times, or to touch the right and left sides of your face a certain number of times to “even yourself out.” Something tells you that if you fail, bad things will happen. Psychologists call it “ritualistic” behavior.
Finally I was able to break the grip of the OCD — but in many ways it just transferred to my spiritual life. I look back now and call it spiritual OCD: my idea that I had to be perfect to please God.
And how did I define perfection? I would decide I had to pray a certain number of minutes every day, and I would — to the minute. Or I had to read a certain number of verses, and I would — precisely.
In fact precision became an obsession: I would even pray over my clothes each morning to seek God’s guidance on the precise things I was to wear. That’s how I attempted to find the perfection I believed God wanted me to achieve — after all, doesn’t the Bible say to “be holy as God is holy”? It all led to a severe case of the “older brother syndrome” I talked about yesterday.
Some of you are thinking Ohhh-Kayyyy… that’s weird. But some of you relate. Your own perfectionistic spirituality has drained you instead of refreshed you. Like other perfectionists, you don’t see any numbers between one and ten; you’re either giving it all you’ve got, or you’re giving up. You’re either working hard at being a great Christian, or you’ve stopped trying at all, and maybe you even resent the Christian life. The term “ritualistic behavior” describes your Christian life a lot better than “relationship.”
I’ve been there! One writer calls it the Christian “manic-depressive” cycle: laboring feverishly for God or, alternately, discouraged you’re such a failure; or experiencing both at the same time!
Of course all of this got exhausting. I was totally dry spiritually, and yet I was a pastor, which just made me feel all the more guilty!
Then one day my whole life changed. I was teaching a Bible study in the book of Galatians. And I read today’s verses. And they went off like dynamite in my head. It was like someone suddenly set me free from heavy chains and let me soar. I finally, finally got it — that the Christian life is all about grace!
Grace is used in the Bible to describe God’s amazing generosity to the undeserving. Suddenly I saw this thread everywhere. I was particularly intrigued with the grace theme throughout the Gospels. Jesus is described as being so “full of grace” (John 1:14) that “from the fullness of His grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16). John summarizes Jesus’ ministry this way: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17) Grace was all over the place, the major theme of Christ’s ministry, the subject of so many parables — like this one:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness, Jesus told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evil-doers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” -Luke 18:10–14a
His point? Be like the second guy. The first one, the Pharisee, tried to justify himself with his spiritual résumé. But Jesus says the only one who went home justified was the one who knew he had nothing to offer. God doesn’t want me to pretend to be perfect like the Pharisee; He wants me to realize my need for His grace, like the second man.
Seeing grace like this totally rocked my world, zoomed me into a new place. I told my wife, “It’s like I’ve been seeing the world in black-and-white and now it’s in color; like I’m born again… again!” I’d been a sad perfectionist but now was on my way to becoming a joy-filled believer. But my biggest surprises were yet to come.
How have you ever lapsed into perfectionism, or legalism — attempting to be perfect and perform religious duties to please God? What happened?
How easy or difficult is it for you to accept that the Christian life is lived entirely by God’s grace?
Pray the prayer of the second guy. Ask God to set you free from performance-oriented religion in the next 50 days! Thank Him for His amazing grace!
Really Amazing Grace
Read: Luke 15:11-31
Trivia question: Of all the songs ever written in any language, which has been recorded most often, by the most artists? The answer: “Amazing Grace.” But do you know the dramatic story behind the song?
In the 1700s John Newton was a captain in the British slave fleet. It was a bloody trade. Twenty percent or more of the captives died on every trip from Africa to the slave markets of Jamaica. And by all accounts, Newton was one of the worst sailors in this horrifying profession. He was so immoral that one former captain refused to ever sail with him on the crew, calling him “a Jonah sure to bring God’s curses upon any vessel.” And Newton was a staunch opponent of Christianity in any form, denouncing God as a myth.
Then one day his ship was caught in the worst storm of Newton’s career. Fearing for his life, he cried out to God. And inexplicably, he became a believer.
His skeptical crew thought it just another phony near-death conversion, but his faith stuck. In fact, he eventually left shipping entirely to become a pastor in Olney, England. It was there, in January 1773, that Newton wrote song lyrics to accompany a sermon he was preaching. He meant to demonstrate to his church how he personally felt as he thanked God for His mercies. He called the song Faith’s Review and Expectation but it became better known by the first two words of the lyric:
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me,
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
That first verse uses words from the story of the Prodigal Son, when the father says, “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” The father lavishes gifts on a son who had done nothing but bring shame to his family. That’s what grace is — God’s unearned, lavish gift of salvation for us sinners (For a fuller definition of grace, turn to the first small group lesson).
Newton never could have imagined that words he intended as autobiographical would find resonance in so many millions of hearts. In recent years I’ve shed tears of gratitude myself singing that song, thinking of my own lostness and God’s grace to me.
But only recently.
Because here’s the forgotten side of the Prodigal Son story: the older brother; the Practical Son. His words to the father are telling: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you…”
Sadly, many joyless Christians see themselves exactly the same way: slaving like a servant instead of celebrating like a son. So they work harder and harder trying to be good, desperate to earn the father’s attention and approval, all the while blind to the fact that they already have what they strive so earnestly to gain.
I can tell you that while I relate to the younger brother at times, I spent most of my Christian life thinking like the older brother. I tried so hard not to disappoint my Heavenly Father. Yet I still lived with an unshakable feeling that I just wasn’t doing enough. So I tried to pray longer, I tried praying on my knees, I read through the whole Bible several times — all the while looking over my shoulder, in a spiritual sense, wondering if my Father was watching and approving.
It all came to a head when I was a pastor, burned out and bitter, yelling in prayer something very much like “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders — yet I never get to party!!” How did my story end? I’ll tell you more tomorrow.
In the parable, the father tries to correct this older son’s thinking: “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” But Jesus leaves us hanging, the story unfinished; we never discover the older brother’s response. That’s because Christ was telling this story to dry, legalistic religious people — to an audience of older brothers (See Luke 15:1–2). He is leaving the story unfinished because we finish it with our response.
I pray that, if you’re one of those veteran Christians for whom “amazing grace has become boring grace,” as J.I. Packer puts it, you’ll have your eyes opened during the Grace Immersion to your Father’s love and the riches He lavishes on you!
Why do you think the song “Amazing Grace” resonates with so many people? Does it resonate with you?
To whom do you relate in the parable of the Prodigal Son?
Imagine God saying to you the words in the father’s response (v. 31). How would you feel?
Today tell God honestly how you feel about your relationship with Him: Distant, exhausted, confused, happy, sad, or anything else. Ask God to use this study of grace to bring about a “grace revolution” in your heart and mind.