Faith Is Not Always Pretty

I once had a lady in my church tell me that she had never experienced a moment of anger since she had been truly filled with the Spirit. Given the fact that she was still a living, breathing, fully functional human being, I chose not to believe her. It’s not that I think she was deliberately lying – I’m sure she believed it, or at least really wanted to believe it. My guess is that every time she felt a twinge of anger, she suppressed it, denied it, or simply called it by another name. Anger did not fit her picture of the Spirit-filled life, so denial became necessary for maintaining the ideal image she had created.

We all draw a picture of what we want to be or think we should be, and something within us wants everyone else to see us that way. In defending the ideal image we have created, we become deniers of all that does not seem to fit. For those of us in the church, that impulse often becomes entwined with the life of faith. We create the persona of the “ideal” Christian, the one who is always strong in the faith, has all the answers, and is somehow above and beyond any struggle. It’s what we want others to see and believe about us. So, when we do wrestle with doubt, questions, weakness, temptations, or difficulties, our response is to deny and bury the reality in order to protect the image.

Denial, however, does not move us forward in the life of faith; safeguarding an image that is not genuine will never advance us in the journey toward Christlikeness. In fact, it does the very opposite: it keeps us in bondage, unable to move beyond the hidden but unresolved. The unwillingness to be honest with God, ourselves, and others on the journey with us, prevents us from experiencing the mercy, grace, and freedom that is ours in Christ.

Scripture is nothing if not honest in recounting the lives of God’s people. Its stories reveal heroes of the faith who are far from the ideal pictures we often create. They were people of faith who struggled, battled their weaknesses, questioned why, wrestled with doubt, didn’t always understand, and sometimes even debated with God. Far from being glossed over and hidden from us, transparency is part of their story. What really matters is that in those honest and open struggles, they remained faithful to God, trusting that He would remain faithful to them. And He was faithful to them. God’s steadfast love and mercy always met them there, right in the middle of their confusion, arguments, and messes.

The life of faith is much bigger than mere mental assent to a set of beliefs. We are called to a life of personal trust, one of relationship that is lived out in the real world, a broken place filled with broken people. And like all those who have walked this road before us, we will struggle at times. We will face battles of doubt and confusion, moments when we don’t understand and don’t have the answers. We will confront weaknesses and temptations. We might even have some debates with God. This is the life of faith, and it’s not always easy or pretty.

We can deny the reality of our struggles, insisting on protecting that perfect image we want others to see. Understand, though, that hiding behind an image will never change the reality. The other option is to get honest with God, ourselves, and one another. When we do, we find that God’s grace meets us there, doing a work within us that moves us forward, shaping us more into the image of Christ. Authentic faith is just that – it’s authentic.

And by the way – that perfect image you’re so determined to defend? No one’s buying it anyway.

A Comparison I’d Rather Not Make

I can admit to seeing myself in Jesus’ disciples – at least most of them.

I know there have been times when, like Peter, fear and self-preservation kept me from speaking up when I should. And like Peter, there were times when I did speak and it would have been better to keep my mouth shut. A little bit of James and John has been known to come out of me, calling down fire and judgment on those who reject or hurt me. I’ll even confess to some very Thomas-like moments, when I’ve wrestled with a stubborn and defensive streak of doubt.

But don’t compare me to Judas. Not to the guy whose name is synonymous with betrayal. Let’s be honest – no one wants to look in that particular mirror and see themselves.

Judas walked up to Jesus in the garden, and with a duplicity that is both stunning and infuriating, greets him as “Rabbi” and gives him a kiss. An outward demonstration of loyalty, devotion, and respect that meant nothing in light of his true motives. Judas presents himself as a submissive follower, when in reality, he is operating by his own self-serving agenda.

Wait a minute. Expressing devotion outwardly while fulfilling his own agenda rather than the will of the One he claimed to follow. That sounds familiar.

Like all the times I have claimed outwardly that Jesus is Lord of my life, only to turn around and allow my own wishes to be the driving force of my choices, priorities, and direction.

Like praying “your kingdom come, your will be done,” only to spend the rest of my day building my own kingdom without regard for what Jesus wants me to give attention to.

Like saying that the church belongs to God and it’s all about His mission, only to demand that the church meet my needs and fit my personal vision of what it should be.

In claiming to be a follower of Jesus, in every outward expression of devotion and loyalty I offer to Him, I am saying that His agenda is my agenda. And when my true motivation contradicts my proclamation of love, I paint a picture that is uncomfortably similar to Judas’ empty kiss. No one wants to be compared to Judas, but sometimes honest confession painfully, and necessarily, reveals the resemblance.

It’s good for me, at times, to think about those I don’t want to look like or be compared to. It reminds me that each day – each moment, really – I am completely dependent on the grace of God to be what I can and should be. Only by the transforming work of that grace can I love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. Only by the residing power of the Spirit can my will and desires be shaped and formed to the agenda of His kingdom. It is only in my moment by moment surrender to Him that I find the grace to look more like Jesus and not like that other guy kissing Him.



Seeing What I Need to See

“Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”

That was Philip’s request of Jesus. In the hours before the crucifixion, the disciples wrestled with confusion and bewilderment as Jesus told them He would only be with them a little longer, that He was going somewhere they couldn’t follow now but would follow later, and that he would be betrayed. Troubling stuff for a group of guys that didn’t see the story of the Messiah unfolding that way. So, Philip asks for some sign, some expression of certainty to assure them that their trust has been well-placed and it’s all going to be okay. Show us the Father, give us a vision of God, some tangible evidence we can cling to – that will be enough to calm the anxiety and uncertainty we feel.

I understand the request. Sometimes it’s mine as well. There are periods in life when the story just doesn’t seem to be going the way I had expected or wanted. Things can be uncertain, scary, confusing, or just downright painful. In those moments, like Philip, something in me wants a clear sign that the story will get back on track. I look for a burning bush, a heavenly vision, or a voice from the skies. A visit from an angelic messenger might be nice. It’s happened for others, after all. Just show me something I can hold on to that tells me I’m not misguided and my world is really not going to collapse into meaningless chaos.

In response to Philip’s request, though, Jesus does not give him a new vision. There is no parting of the heavens or thundering voice from the clouds this time. In actuality, Philip had already seen all that he needed to see. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father, Jesus tells him. No other vision was necessary; for now, all that he needed to know was already in front of him.

I confess that there have been times when circumstances get the better of me. Fear, confusion, or disappointment leave me grasping for some new or grand revelation that will bring assurance, blinding me to the fact that I have already seen everything that is essential. Like Philip, I have to be reminded that all I really need to know and see is Jesus, the one who has been revealed to us as the image of the invisible God.

And what do I see in Him?

I see a God who refused to give up on broken and sinful people like us, but came in amazing love and mercy to rescue from our own mess.

I see a God who did not cause the pain and evil of this present world, but took it upon Himself, paying the price to overthrow the powers of sin and death and set things right.

I see a God who is sovereign and grace-filled, powerful enough to redeem something as ugly as the cross and bring life from it.

I see a God who was willing to give everything for me, and would not withhold any good thing from me.

I see a God who is present with us and faithful to us, working in redemptive love and grace to restore all things in creation – even the broken things of my life.

As I step back and reflect on this picture, I come to realize that I have seen everything I need to see. In Jesus, I see a God who is with me, who loves me, who gave everything for me, and is more than able to redeem anything that stands before me. Is there anything else I really need to know? I have already seen enough to know that I can trust Him, even when the story doesn’t go the way that I expected.

When Good Things Go Bad

If you’ve ever cleaned out a refrigerator that was long-overdue, you are surely aware of this simple fact:  sometimes good things go bad. That strangely-colored, unrecognizable clump of something in plastic wrap hidden there in the back used to be good. At one time, it had value and purpose. Now? Not so much. And food isn’t the only thing that can spoil.

After his celebrated entry into Jerusalem, Jesus went to the temple courts and found that something that was supposed to be really good had gone really bad. What was meant to be a reminder of God’s presence among His people, what should have been a place of worship and spiritual nurture, what was intended to be a light to the world and a call to God’s mission, had somehow become an unrecognizable mess.

Jesus saw a place where self-interest mattered more than purpose. That which was meant to lead people into worship was hijacked, turned into a system of monetary exchange and sacrifice sales driven by profit. Rather than helping others connect with God, those running the show became a hindrance, fleecing the ones who came to worship for the sake of personal gain.

On that day, Jesus witnessed what happens when a sense of entitlement rules over acceptance. There were different areas, or courts, in the temple, and the furthest one out was the court of the Gentiles. Gentiles were not permitted beyond that court; it was the only area they could express their worship. It should come as no surprise, I guess, that it was their court that was overrun by this religious version of Wall Street. After all, the foreigners were deemed unclean and unworthy anyway, so it really didn’t matter. Forget that “house for all nations” stuff.

There in the temple courts, Jesus saw the consequences of control and power taking precedence over faithfulness. Despite the call to exalt God’s presence and honor His ownership of all, some twisted the work of the temple into a system of power and control over others. Instead of being faithful stewards of the ministry entrusted to them, they held tightly to the reins, protecting their position of authority above all else. The very thought of not being in control filled them with fear.

A good thing went bad. Just like some churches.

We become the temple Jesus saw that day every time we allow the church’s agenda to be driven by the self-interest of church members rather than the mission God has given us. We are that place whenever we shut out those we deem unworthy, unimportant, or just not like us. When those leading the church become more concerned about keeping their position of control than they are about being faithful to the ministry entrusted to us, something meant to be good and right has gone terribly wrong.

Jesus, in a clear pronouncement of his judgment, overturned their tables. It was a proclamation that he was, in fact, the new temple, and the temple of self-interest can never serve the interests of his kingdom. We too, at times, have allowed good things to turn bad. Rather than reflecting the heart of Jesus and embracing his mission, we settle for building temples after our own image, shaped and guided by self-interest and the illusion of control. And when it happens, just like those in the temples courts, we need our tables overturned.