The Gracious One

Indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. (1 Peter 2:3, NKJV).

Some of the most endearing titles for Jesus found in the New Testament are recorded in Peter’s two short epistles. His intimacy with Christ becomes evident by his descriptions of Him. In today’s text, Peter appeals to those who have tasted that the Lord is gracious.

The Greek word rendered gracious is also translated, “beneficent,” “good,” or “kind.” It describes one who is unselfish, thoughtful, and kind in his or her treatment of others. These are attributes that characterized Christ’s public and private life on earth. Like His heavenly Father, Jesus is inherently gracious (see Exodus 34:6). His remarkable dealings with people of all walks of life are proof positive that Jesus is the gracious One. This was especially so in His treatment of the down trodden, the disabled, the aged, the outcast, the despised, the publicans and sinners, and of course, the little children. All loved Him and sought His company because He was gracious and kind. Christ was gracious even to His detractors.

One of the masterpieces of the plan of salvation is that in the ages to come, Christ’s supreme kindness and mercy will be on exhibition for all eternity in the persons of the redeemed (see Ephesians 2:7). That’s why we, who are the recipients of this kindness, should practice the words of the apostle, “Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephesians 4:32, NIV). Ellen White adds, “Jesus has given us an example that we should follow in His steps, and manifest compassion and love and goodwill toward all. Let us cultivate a kind spirit, a spirit of forbearance, and tender, pitying love.”–Sons and Daughters of God, p. 144.

My Prayer Today: Lord, help me to be gracious and kind as You have taught me to be. Amen.

Life in Christ

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What Will People Think

Reading: Numbers 14:10-24

Reflection: Today’s reading is a strange one to fit into the way we see the world. Here we find Moses persuading God not to destroy the people of Israel after they failed to believe the report of Joshua and Caleb that they were able to conquer the Promised Land. In their fear, they had considered stoning the two spies who gave a favorable report (while the other ten echoed their fear), and God was angry about their faithlessness and disobedience.

The strange thing about this is that Moses’ argument essentially boils down to “what will people think if you do this?” Remember that the worldview of the time was based in the idea of competing gods, with the most victorious god shown to be the greatest. So, Moses appeals to a perceived need for God to prove God’s greatness to the world in order to show that God truly is the almighty God over all.

In the light of this, Jesus’ willingness to embrace the cross as a way to reveal God’s glory and greatness is a startling and powerful shift in understanding. What does stand out in this whole story, though, is the way it was the fear of the people that kept them from receiving what had been promised. The journey from Egypt to Canaan should have taken about ten days, but because of their fear, it took forty years! In contrast, Jesus’ willingness to die reveals what can happen when we defy our fear and embrace the power of love – resurrection!

In what ways is fear robbing you of life and love today?

Practice for Today: If love is what conquers our fear – and the Bible teaches that it is – the best way to overcome those things that frighten us is to connect more deeply with God through practices that strengthen our relationship with God. One of those is the particular form of praise known as adoration. This is when we express our love for, and commitment to, God, and open ourselves to God’s love for us. Try to allow adoration to overcome your fear today.

Prayer for Today: As I lose myself in love for you, O God, my fear is stilled.

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Morning Prayer

In the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘children of the living God.’ Romans 9:26, NIV

Lord our God, we thank you that you have called us your children, a people who may serve you even in suffering and temptation. Grant that the grace of Jesus Christ may be in us so that we can be victorious over everything that life puts in our way and can withstand the distress that surrounds so many people. O Lord our God, our only refuge, to you alone can we appeal for evil to end and for the victory of Jesus Christ to break through. In that hour we shall rejoice and be glad as your people. Amen.

The Most Overlooked Mission Field in America

I felt like a sellout. It was time to leave seminary and begin pastoral ministry, and I was taking the easy road by moving back to my hometown in Northern Florida. My seminary neighbor, I thought, was the true missionary, heading to plant churches in Northern California. I had “missional insecurity,” the way Christians feel when they plan a spring break trip to some resort before learning their friends are going on mission trip. All of this good education and knowledge about the urgency of the gospel . . . and I was going to be a pastor in the Bible Belt?

I tried to make myself feel better by letting my neighbor know how much I admired his boldness. I threw in some self-deprecating jokes about sweet tea, but he quickly interrupted my pity party. “Where I am going,” he said, “people know they’re not Christians. The starting point is clear, whether unbelief, secularism, or some sort of humanistic spirituality. But where you’re going, everyone thinks they’re a Christian. It’s like you have to get people lost so they can see they need to be saved.”

That was all I needed to hear, and he was right.

Nominal Christian Mission Field

My neighbor described the largest mission field where I live. It’s called cultural or nominal Christianity. This mission field is primarily made up of people who’d quickly answer “yes” if asked whether they are Christians. But ask any questions about their faith, and you’ll soon realize you’re hearing something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ. In fact, if you asked a nominal Christian why he is a Christian, Jesus Christ himself would likely have little bearing on the answer. For many people, good standing with God is related to heritage, rites of passage, or general morality. Jesus just happens to be a nice mascot.

This disparity requires our attention, because it isn’t unique to the American South. Across the nation, the most dominant religion doesn’t show up on a census, poll, or survey—it’s impossible to detect by those methods. The most common practiced religion in America today is a generic theism that mingles biblical concepts with a hope that one is a good person—all while maintaining autonomy over personal decisions and lifestyle. In this religion, good people go to a “better place” when they die. Going to this better place doesn’t depend on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, yet somehow these beliefs still get classified as “Christian.”

The most common practiced religion in America today is a generic theism that mingles biblical concepts with a hope that one is a good person—all while maintaining autonomy over personal decisions and lifestyle.

In this way, thousands of people are overlooked in outreach efforts because they may already be sitting in pews. Yet their lives show no evidence of saving faith. Whether the disconnect is the result of poor gospel communication by churches, fear of telling the truth, or a general misunderstanding of what the Bible says, the need is there, and it’s urgent. It can be easy to conclude that cultural Christians just need to get more serious about their faith, and so problems with cultural Christianity are declared discipleship issues.

I don’t believe this to be the case.

Evangelism before Discipleship

I believe cultural Christians need evangelism before they need discipleship, since they may be unsaved altogether. In my new book, The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel, I aim to equip churches to identify and minister to nominal Christians, since I believe they are many and have often been misidentified as wandering or immature believers. But while there are myriad ways to get it wrong, Jesus draws a line in the sand and declares himself the only way to God. If one’s answer to “Why are you a Christian?” rests in something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, chances are that person doesn’t know Jesus Christ. Religious accomplishments and church affiliation don’t save.

In Matthew 7:21–23, Jesus addressed the first-century version of cultural Christians:

Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name, drive out demons in your name, and do many miracles in your name?” Then I will announce to them, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you lawbreakers!”

These people didn’t need to grow in their faith; they needed to be saved by faith in Jesus Christ.

All around your community today, people are anchoring their assurance in religious heritage, good morals, or denominational rites of passage (such as asking Jesus into their hearts as kindergarteners or going through confirmation). These people may be well-acquainted with church, well-versed in biblical jargon, and well-intentioned when it comes to their personal faith in God. But I fear that if they stood before Jesus today, he would declare, “I never knew you. Depart from me.”

If we’re to bring the gospel to the nations, we must first bring it to those in our pews. Unsaved “Christians” need Christ. We must understand what they believe and know the areas of life and culture where the practice of nominal religion plays out. We must also be aware of the barriers to reaching those who need the gospel just as badly as the atheist, agnostic, or secularist does.

Only Remedy

This mission field has become my passion, because I was saved out of cultural Christianity. Before I heard the gospel, I prayed before every meal, went to my mainline denomination every Sunday, and could’ve told you Jesus was born in Bethlehem. I knew lots of Bible stories, but I’d never had someone tell me I was a sinner who needed the forgiveness and reconciliation only Christ can provide. When I finally did hear the gospel, I couldn’t fathom how I had been in church my entire life and had never heard this truth. I was an Unsaved “Christian” and didn’t even know it.

Taking the good news to Unsaved “Christians” in our communities will require understanding the urgency involved, the disparity between their beliefs and biblical truth, and an awareness of how to engage. I wrote this book as a missionary tool for the church, since I hope to see people like myself move from being a Christian by culture to a Christian by conviction. In every circumstance, the gospel is the remedy. So here, too, let’s dig in and bring it to those who think they’re fine without it.

Christ in Our Culture

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Forgiveness in the Age of Outrage

Dear Winn,

I don’t know whether it’s that I’m simply getting older or the world is really an angrier place. When I use that phrase—“the world”—I’m thinking primarily of the online space in which many of us sort of live and kind of move and have at least a portion of our being. Sure, there are links and blog posts and poems and stories to be found where the syncopation of grief and gladness are a truly magnificent thing. But on the whole, the social media score is one of outrage, an out-of-control violence via words. And again, it may be that I’m simply getting older, but who in his right mind wants to listen to that? I remember several years ago a phrase that was making the rounds: “compassion fatigue.” It was during that time when everybody and his grandma were advocating for a cause, all legitimately good. But the pleas were so numerous and, honestly, at times overwhelming that it wore folks out. Normally good-hearted, uber-compassionate people sighed and said, “Too much. I need a break.” People backed off, and a number of organizations floundered for a while. In a not-exactly-but-somewhat-similar way, that’s what I currently feel in my aging bones. I’ve got outrage fatigue. I need a break. Truth be told, I think we all do.

Dear John,

Last week, a friend and I had a long conversation, traversing difficult and important questions. We don’t see eye to eye, and the meat of our conversation has real consequences (theological, cultural, relational)—the sort of topics that often get the blood boiling. However, in that space, we met as friends, not combatants. I know she cares for me and has no desire to trap or maul me with an ideological hammer. I trust her. And I do believe we both left our conversation more human, more humble, with an open door for many more conversations to follow.

I would even say the conversation energized me—something that, given the gravity of what we were discussing, comes as a small miracle. In other words, this interaction between friends was the exact opposite of the “outrage fatigue” you feel—the same fatigue I feel in my (almost as aging) bones, too. You know what we shared that’s missing in so many of our social media interactions? Kindness, this most basic human (and Christian) posture. We were committed to protect the other’s dignity, to treat one another with the relentless tenderness befitting each of God’s image bearers.

Can you imagine what our political discourse and theological spats would be like if we were the sort of people who felt free to offer our unedited self, knowing that our friends were planning to discover the best in us and receive what was worth keeping? If this were our experience, I bet you our weariness would melt like ice on a summer day.

Dear Winn,

I agree with you: Kindness like that is core to the Christian life, a part of the fruit of the Spirit. But it seems in such short supply these days. I think you’re familiar with the poet Naomi Shihab Nye— at least her name if not her work. She has a poem titled “Kindness.” You’ve got to look this one up, pal. The first stanza begins:

Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things

And the last stanza starts with these two lines:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer by any stretch, but my gut tells me that the poet has her finger on the pulse of truth here. That there’s something to having lived a long time, at least long enough to have accumulated some sorrow. I know it sounds judgy of me, but while our culture is definitely one of loss, I’m not sure we’ve found the sorrow to accompany that. Does that make even a lick of sense?

Dear John,

It does make sense to me. My hunch is that we feel little genuine sorrow, partly because we haven’t allowed ourselves to truly grapple with the pain of our own brokenness, misguided motives, muddled conclusions, fear and insecurity, and (if left to ourselves) utter helplessness. If I haven’t been forced to make peace with my befuddlement over my own life, how can I treat you with gentleness as you seek to make peace with yours? Isn’t this where your friend Brennan Manning would, with that glimmer in his eye, lean forward and say, “Now, what you’re missing here is grace”? When I allow myself to wallow in God’s reckless kindness toward me, I’m certain to insist that others jump in and join the fun. If I’ve learned, by lavish encounters with God’s generosity and mirth, to be gentle with my own failures, then I will be gentle with others’ shortcomings, too. How do our outrage and churlish temper tantrums fit into this picture?

I believe that part of our dilemma strikes a place tender to the touch. Much of the reason we heap outrage on others is because we feel this immense outrage against ourselves. I believe that often we’re venting our own shame. This shame, with its debilitating stranglehold on our heart, tells us in a thousand ways that we are screw-ups, that we must prove our worth, that we must make the right judgments and show everyone how we have made the right judgments. We rage against others in desperate attempts to fend off the rage we assume will rush toward us if folks ever saw the truth. Our outrage reveals a deep sadness and fear among so many of us.

Dear Winn,

Yes, Brennan “the Ragamuffin” Manning would insist that self-hatred is still the monkey on our collective back, that it is the fuel for most—if not all—of our words and actions in this mad, mad world. And oddly enough, I believe a kind of sorrow is the antidote to that condition and the on-ramp to kindness. But we’ve got to be careful here and strain for precise language, as poet Elizabeth Alexander urges, or we’ll simply keep chasing our tails. I’m afraid people hear the word “sorrow” and automatically think sad, mopey Eeyore shuffling around the Hundred Acre Wood. It’s not surprising we want to avoid that.

It seems there is some assistance for us, though, from the apostle Paul. He mentions a godly sorrow—one that leads to repentance, that causes us to turn, turn, turn and live differently, like being kind instead of unkind. (See 2 Cor. 7:8-11.) I’m willing to bet my boots that when you and your friend sat down to talk the other day, there was some sorrow coursing through both of you, and that helped keep the conversation kind. But I doubt either one of you would have used the phrase “godly sorrow” to describe what was behind the scene. I doubt I would have, either; we simply don’t talk that way.

Dear John,

It’s interesting. The moment I read your description of the kind of sorrow you’re not talking about (the Eeyore stuff), my mind immediately went to Paul and the godly sorrow that leads us to life. Maybe we’re onto something. I remember a parishioner who, feeling a mass of unnerving anxiety about a hot-button social issue, asked what I thought we should say to our friends who disagreed with our understanding of the question. I told him that in this instance, I didn’t think we should say anything at all to our friends unless we were able to shed tears with our friends. Until we could feel another’s pain and truly “bear one another’s burdens,” (i.e., be like Jesus), then we might do better to keep our mouth shut.

So often, these moments of outrage—these places where we stoke our ire and launch into our verbal conquests—suffer from abstraction. We don’t consider the actual people who will receive the force of our words. And yet all of us, no matter who we are or what we believe, face similar conundrums. At one point or another, we are all brokenhearted, we are all fearful, we have all experienced the sting of rejection. Most of us know what it’s like to be simply trying to make sense of the chaos around us. We know what it is to feel lost. We are all human, all of us imperfect and (at least most of us) doing the best we know to do.

Until we can grapple honestly with the deep fissures in our world and how so many things in us and around us have gone so terribly wrong, then I don’t know that we are in a good place to be outraged about much of anything. John’s gospel recounts how, after encountering the sorrow of those around Him—the heaviness and pain of death and ruin—Jesus wept. If our outrage is true (and surely at times some kind of outrage is appropriate), there must be tears as well.

Dear Winn,

In my moments of outrage fatigue, I do find myself praying, or at least trying to pray. I really don’t know where else to turn; it seems as if the only option is reaching out for the What-a-Friend-we-have who can bear all our griefs. And if this is true (and I believe it is), then the Man of Sorrows can bear all that outrage plus any fatigue I might have that accompanies it. M. Scott Peck once wrote, “The healing of evil … can be accomplished only by the love of individuals. A willing sacrifice is required … He or she must sacrificially absorb the evil … Whenever this happens, there is a slight shift in the balance of power in the world.” That’s what Jesus did, and as fatiguing as it is, I believe I’m called to do likewise: to “take it.” That may be the most potent kindness we can offer these days—a hushed tone of forgiveness, for we know not what we do. And that “we” includes, first and foremost, well, “me.”

Dear John,

Well, I guess we’ve come full circle, haven’t we? We’re back to kindness, enacted prayerfully, as the antidote to dehumanizing outrage. Paul puts these things together as well, so I guess we’re in good company. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander,” Paul says. But you can’t just expel rage and anger (a good way to describe the kind of outrage we’re talking about). No, you’ve got to replace them with something truer, something more beautiful. So he adds, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:31-32 NIV). And that, it seems to me, is Paul’s prayer for us as well.

Dear Winn,

That’s a good word; I like that very much. Yes, I have to admit there are legitimate reasons for outrage and anger, in my own life and the lives of others. And furthermore, it’s legit to “get rid” of that stuff, get it out, not to stuff it down or diminish it. However, for the believer, that exhale must be followed by the inhalation of the life-giving oxygen of whatever is lovely (Phil. 4:8). The Christian life really is learning how to breathe, isn’t it? Some days, breathing fire from our nostrils. Other times, breathing the air of hushed tones. All days, staying mindful that we even breathe at all due to the One who is most infinitely kin

Life in the Body of Christ

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Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!  (2 Corinthians 9:15, NIV).

What a title for our wonderful Redeemer! Indeed, He is a gift beyond words!

It is always delightful to receive gifts and special tokens from loved ones. But no gift can be compared with God’s gift of His beloved Son. No pen or tongue or artist’s brush can ever fully describe the dimension of God’s amazing gift to us in Jesus. He is that gift that outstrips all estimates and defies artistic description. Poets cannot express Him; theologians cannot explain Him; orators cannot portray Him. The gift is too marvelous to be adequately described and too priceless to be assessed.

The gospel is God’s indescribable gift to humanity. “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). And Jesus so loved that he “gave himself” for us (Galatians 2:20, NIV). With this indescribable gift, comes the salvation package of amazing grace, genuine forgiveness, transforming power, and eternal life.

This indescribable gift cannot be obtained by human performance or effort. It cannot be secured by monetary payments. Christ is a gift to be received and appropriated (see Colossians 2:6). In practical terms, a gift is not efficacious until it is accepted. God’s indescribable gift is available to all who will receive Him. “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12, NKJV).

Think of this: “It is through the gift of Christ that we receive every blessing. Through that gift there comes to us day by day the unfailing flow of Jehovah’s goodness… Everything is supplied to man through the one unspeakable Gift, the only begotten Son of God.”–God’s Amazing Grace, p. 178.

My Prayer Today: Lord, with Paul I pray today, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” Amen.

Life in Christ

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Not the God You Expected

Reading: Exodus 33:1-6

Reflection: After yesterday’s meditation on the relentless, sacrificial love of Jesus, the God that is described in today’s reading sounds rather angry and unloving. This is another one of those situations where we need to remember that the writers did not have the benefit of God’s Self-Revelation in Jesus, and so their understanding of God was still rather limited. 

Nevertheless, the God that is shown here was very different from the gods of the nations surrounding Israel. The idea that God would choose to stay at a distance from a disobedient people – this passage comes just after the golden calf incident – in order to avoid destroying them was probably amazing for the people of the time. Other gods, in their view, would simply have wiped the people out.

Following this passage, Moses’ intimate relationship with God is described – revealing that God was still available to God’s people, in spite of their rebellion. One thing that stands out here, though, is the call for the people to respond with signs of humility and repentance. Their mourning, and their decision not to wear jewelry or fine clothes, were meant to show a change of heart, a humbling of themselves, and a renewed commitment to be devoted to God and not their own pride and desires.

Sometimes, when we face tough times, especially when we have brought them on ourselves, we may start to think that God has abandoned us and is no longer available to us. Yet, from the earliest times of faith, God revealed that nothing could separate us from God’s love. Acts and attitudes of humility are not for God’s sake. They open us to the unfailing love and mercy of God. Are there any ways in which you need to humble yourself and open to God’s love today?

Practice for Today: It is easy to allow other things to become more important to us than following God’s way of love and justice. This idolatry ultimately robs us of life and freedom, which is why God confronts and challenges us. Thankfully, confession and repentance are effective disciplines which lead us to healing and restoration. Why not give them a try today?

Prayer for Today: Whenever I allow other things to take your place in my life, O God, forgive and heal me.

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