the grace of God that wounds

I was a good kid. I made high A’s all through school and the extent of my rebellion to my parents was how low I would grow my sideburns. I led worship at my church throughout high school, and then again with our student ministry in college, and I would often speak/preach when given an opportunity. I learned how to be socially adept and maintain friendships with many people, so that my friends would jokingly use terms like “social butterfly” and “friend whore” to describe me. And I had a relationship with Jesus that seemed earnest, and I knew that I needed Jesus.

But I didn’t really need Jesus.

I knew that God sent Jesus to save sinners like me, and I knew I was a sinner, but I really didn’t think I was that much of a sinner. I didn’t do that many sinful things. I knew about the grace of God, but grace seemed more to me like good things I deserved because I was good. I was a good kid! Why wouldn’t Jesus save me? Grace was just for those few times I slipped up and looked at pornography or lied to my parents about being in my dorm when I was really at my friends’ place.

I knew that the gospel was good news, but honestly, the bad news didn’t seem that bad, at least for me. School was going great, my parents bragged about me, my church family loved me, my friendships were great, and I did all the things a good Christian leader was supposed to do.

But then I felt God calling me to vocational ministry, and I switched my life about. And in fear of the consequences, I wasn’t so forthright about it. My parents and extended family eventually found out and didn’t take this so well, because it had seemed clear that God was actually calling me to be a doctor or some other prestigious vocation.

There were many tears shed and hurtful words shared. We went from talking almost daily to me talking to my mom maybe once a week. I hardly talked to my dad at all. My grandparents didn’t know what to say to me except to look at me in sadness and my church family just didn’t talk about it. School seemed to take a turn for the worse. I ended up hurting close friends, and I was hurt by close friends. I was in a relationship that ended suddenly, and for the first time, it wasn’t amicable. I was hurting and cowering in the darkest shadows of my life, and I didn’t know who to reach out to. I tried to portray cool confidence and trust in God, but I was floundering. I was confused and depressed and heartbroken and angry and anxious. There were even several times where I thought that the best way to deal with it all was by ending everything. And several times where I almost did.

And all this brought me to a place of deep introspection and crying out to the God I claimed to love and serve.

Slowly, layer by layer, relationship by relationship, God began showing me things I had never seen before. I realized that I was selfish and hurtful and greedy and arrogant and sexually immoral and wicked — all without having to do any specific actions. That was just how my mind and heart was bent! God showed me how silly it was that I prided myself in my “humility” and self-deference. He humbled me by unveiling the fact that I was capable of causing so much destructive damage in my relationships with people. He exposed a heart that sought comfort in temporal things rather than on eternal things. He revealed that self-approval was the idol I worshiped at, and my identity wasn’t really found in Christ, but ultimately in how people perceived me.

It felt like life was beating me up, but when I thought upon the sovereignty of God, it dawned on me that my world wasn’t rocked upside-down by chance, but by the grace of God. He had brought me to this place! And it was one of the greatest displays of love I had encountered personally. It was a gift of the grace of God. 

In love, he had brought me to that point to show me my brokenness. I had always been broken, I just refused to see it. In love, he had wounded me so that he could reveal his goodness. So that he could reveal his love in binding me up. He had knocked my legs out from under me, so that I could be on my knees before him. He bruised me to show me why the Son of God was bruised. To show me why the gospel was such good news.

The depravity of man (the fallen nature we’ve all inherited ever since our ancestor Adam felt like rejecting God was a good idea) began to be a real thing I knew not only in theory, but in experience. Sin wasn’t just things I did, but the posture of my heart. As I began to see myself for who I am, I began to see why I so desperately needed Jesus! I was a mess, and no amount of self-help would ultimately fix my heart. I turned to the only One I knew to turn to.

I was spiritually dead, and Christ came into my dead-ness and caused me to be un-dead, to have life, and new life in him! He had saved me from sin, from death, from myself. And by the grace of God, he has healed my brokenness — and my relationships.

I am thankful for the grace of God displayed in the perfect life, sin-absorbing death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that this same Jesus is coming again! It is the gospel that changes everything!

But I’m also thankful for the gift of the grace of God that sometimes, He wounds us in love.

“Let me hear gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice.” – Psalm 51:8
“Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down , and he will bind us up.” – Hosea 6:1
Image Credit: Courtney Celley 

the story of advent

Nativity scenes. Carolers. Presents. Egg-nog. Home Alone 2.

That’s often what comes to mind when I think of Christmas. For others, it’s Santas and lights and uncomfortable family reunions. Others still, it’s church services and a star in the sky.

For good reason, many Christians strive to ensure “the reason for the season” by keeping “Christ in Christmas.” So we read passages from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, or maybe one of the prophecies in Isaiah or Micah. Because that’s where we think the story of the Christ begins. But it really begins way before that.

I’ve recently began observing Advent. The Advent season begins the fourth Sunday before Christmas and involves anticipating Jesus’ second coming and remembering the anticipation of his first coming. If we don’t understand why the first coming was so important, we’ll miss the Christmas story, and why we look forward to his return.

Advent means waiting. We often read the Christmas story as Jesus showing up in between the Old and New Testaments. But the Christmas story doesn’t begin in the New Testament with the Gospels, or even with the prophets who spoke of a coming Savior.

The Christmas story begins in Genesis.

Back in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve had rebelled and sinned against God through the deception of the serpent. They didn’t believe they could really trust the goodness of God, so they disobeyed. Instead of smiting them dead on the spot, God curses the serpent, and invokes this promise to the enemy:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring;
He will crush your head,
    and you will strike His heel.” 

– Genesis 3:15, NIV

The promise was that the woman would have an offspring that would be bruised by the serpent, but that this child would crush the enemy’s head.

So Adam and Eve knew this Child was coming, someone to crush the enemy and restore what had been lost in the Garden. Where Adam had failed his bride at the tree, they looked forward to One who would save his bride at the tree. Where Adam had disobeyed, they looked for the One who would obey perfectly.

And so they waited, and looked forward to this Child who would come.

Abraham was promised something by God when God called him out from his father’s house:

“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and IN YOU all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

– Genesis 12:2-3, ESV (emphasis added)

The problem was that Abraham was old. Old. And yet, God gave him a son in his impossibly old age as a sign that our circumstances are never greater than our God. The promise was that IN Abraham, not BY Abraham, would all the families of the earth be blessed. It was that offspring promised to our first parents.

And then God did something that seems like too much: He asks Abraham to offer his one true son, Isaac. Abraham gets his sacrificing gear together and treks with his son to the mountain. When Isaac observes that everything is there except the animal to be sacrificed, Abraham displays his trust in the promise and faithfulness of God:

“Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ So they went both of them together. ”

– Genesis 22:8, ESV

God did provide a ram to take the place of Isaac on the altar. But no lamb was provided as an offering, the ultimate show of faithfulness. Where Abraham’s son was not sacrificed, a Son would be sacrificed as a display of the Father’s love.

And so they waited, and looked forward to this Lamb who would come.

Moses lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, and they wandered the wilderness on their way to the promised land. But even though God had showed himself in great power and mighty acts and faithful displays of love, they still ran after other gods. Their hearts weren’t changed. Moses was a great leader, but he couldn’t change hearts because Israel was still under bondage of sin and shame and death. But there was a promise:

“The Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.”

– Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV

So they waited for the ancient, promised Deliverer, the one who would deliver His people from the oppressive enemy and the shackles of sin and death. The one who would circumcise their hearts so that they could truly love the Lord and obey him. Where Moses delivered them from physical slavery, One was coming who would deliver them from spiritual slavery. Where Moses wasn’t able to fully lead his people into the promised land because of disobedience, there was One coming who through obedience would be able to bring his people into the great promise. Where Moses introduced the Law, a Prophet would come who would show that salvation came not through the works of the Law, but by the rich Grace of God.

And so they waited, and looked forward to this Savior who would come.

David was the shepherd boy turned warrior who famously felled the giant Goliath with a sling and stone. He was described as “a man after God’s own heart” and he seemed like a great deliverer and God anointed him king over Israel. But as great of a king as he was, he had the infamous incident with Bathsheba and Uriah, and his household was wrought with brokenness. He wasn’t the promised One, but there was a promise made:

“When your (David) days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish His kingdom.  He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of His kingdom forever.”

– 2 Samuel 7:12-13, ESV

So David and Israel knew that the age-old offspring was coming, a King who would have an everlasting kingdom. It wasn’t just one of David’s physical descendants, for the prophet Isaiah would prophecy:

“Of the greatness of His government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.”

– Isaiah 9:7, ESV

Where David was unfaithful to his bride, One was coming who would be perfectly faithful and protect his bride. Where David would die and his kingdom become divided, One was coming who would be raised from the dead and have a kingdom that would never end.

And so they waited, and looked forward to this King who would come.

There are so many more examples that could be mined from the pages of the Old Testament, but this is what the world was waiting for. A Child, a Lamb, a Savior, a King. This is the promised Messiah we longed to see.

And then between the last pages of the Old Testament and the first page of our New Testament, there was silence from God for 400 years. It seemed as if maybe God had abandoned them. Maybe He had given up on His rebellious people.

Into this silence broke a baby’s cry one Bethlehem night. Into this longing, a longing that began back in Genesis, God himself stepped into creation as the promised Messiah, the promised Immanuel: God with us.

Advent means waiting. In light of his first coming, we eagerly wait for and anticipate his second coming, when he will restore all things.

when grace meets mercy

Grace. Mercy.

Those two words have become so common in Christian-speak. We talk and sing and teach about the grace of God and the mercy of God, and we use them rather interchangeably. But what do they even really mean?

Simply put, grace is when you get what you don’t deserve. Mercy is when you don’t get what you do deserve. *

Confused?

We must start off by understanding humanity and God. At the heart of it, humans screw up on a daily basis and God is perfect. We have this incredible knack of sinning, and God is holy. We’re broken people breaking the world even more. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23)

The justice of God is to exact punishment for crimes and sins. After all, that is what we expect our own law systems to do: to catch and punish criminals. If God did not do so,  He would not be a just and fair God. How just would our justice system be if we let violators of the law go free? The wages of sin is death, and that’s what every person rightly deserves, because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Justice is when you get what you deserve.

The mercy of God is that He does not always mete out the punishment right then and there. You and I, we deserve punishment and death on a nearly daily basis. How many times have you screwed up this year? This week? Today? Do you ever marvel that God hasn’t struck you down by lightning yet? I do. But it is the mercy of God that He has hasn’t struck us down, not giving us what we duly deserve. Mercy is when you’ve been speeding and the cop pulls you over, but doesn’t give you a ticket. It is the mercy of God that “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:10)

The grace of God is that He gives us salvation and communion with Him. The grace of God is that He gives us Himself in Jesus, even though we don’t deserve it. It is that in spite of who we are and what we do, Christ loves us and died for us to reconcile us to the Father. We don’t deserve to be saved into a relationship with God! We’re getting what we most certainly do not deserve. Grace is when the cop who pulled you over takes you to lunch and offers you an escort to where you’re going so you don’t get pulled over again. “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and it is not because of yourself; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8)

Grace and mercy are similar, yes. But also beautifully different. If not for mercy, we would have perished a long time ago. If not for grace, we would be a hopeless lot. Mercy saves us from condemnation. Grace grants us eternal life.

Lucky for us, God is merciful and gracious.

“The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 145:8

And in Jesus, we see where the grace of God meets the mercy of God.

*These definitions aren’t absolute throughout the Scriptures, and sometimes the writers (and biblical translators) used the words for different purposes. For example, in the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10, “mercy” is used to mean compassionately caring for someone’s needs. The definitions I have provided are more to be understood in Paul’s writing, and what we mean when we talk about the terms in our understanding of what Christ has done for us in his death and resurrection; they have judicial implications.

words of life

Today marks 5 years since cancer took my friend Esther. Last week, I learned of another college friend who walked from earth into eternity. The list of people I know who have passed away grows at a rate that I’ll never be comfortable with. And I hate it.

We always want to say things, anything, that might offer comfort in times of loss, but the reality is that it’s often little solace. Pithy statements like, “he’s in a better place!” and “she’s with Jesus” do not take away the sting of death. They are well-meaning and true words, but they do little to change the situation. I am reminded of the limitations of my words every time I try to console a grieving friend. Every time a friend tries to offer me words of encouragement. Our best words cannot undo sin and its end product: death.

There is one place that I’ve found comfort and hope, especially when dealing with death, and that’s in the words of Jesus. You can chalk it up to religious sentimentality or fanciful feelings, but there is a very real peace in the red letters. Almost as if they have power.

After all, when Jesus spoke, people were healed and demons went scrambling. When Jesus spoke, the winds and the sea obeyed him. When Jesus spoke, a dead man walked out of his grave. John 1 tells us that Jesus was the very Word by which all things were created out of nothing back in Genesis. Jesus has power. And the power was displayed when he was resurrected from the dead, the firstfruit, proving our spiritual resurrection and future bodily resurrection.

We also know that the Bible is God’s revelation to us, so that that when it speaks, God speaks. Thus, it makes sense that reading Scripture would bring peace, because it is the power of God working in you, not just your brain processing the words on paper.

The words that I have been resting on today are some of the last words in the Bible. They describe a vision of what is to come, a reality that draws nearer with every passing day.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, Behold, I am making all things new.  – Revelation 21:1-5

This is what we look forward to. Not for a future of floating around playing harps, but a future where heaven is on earth, where death and crying and pain will be a thing of the past. It is a place where the dead in Christ will live with God in newly restored, resurrected bodies. Esther. Patrick. Ronnie. Ommar. Christ the Redeemer will return to finish what he began and redeem everything fully. The earth. Our bodies. Our lives. He is working all things toward this redemption.

Jesus said it, and they are true because the One who spoke it is Truth. He is God.

Behold! Jesus is making all things new!

your hand in mine

It wasn’t my first time through a haunted house.

It was Halloween weekend and some friends and I had decided to visit a local scare house, one that promised to scare our socks off, if we followed the course, of course. We walked past caged monsters and shrieking zombies, mummies with searching arms and mazes determined to separate our pack. It was enough for a few yelps, jumps, and spooks, but nothing that truly frightened us; it was more the stuff of “Goosebumps” and less the stuff of nightmares. But the exhibits did succeed in dividing our group of friends so that after a while, I found myself with one other person, unsure of where everyone else was.

Then we saw it: the door that led out into the crisp October night sky. We hurriedly walked toward the door, certain that we were in the clear, when we both suddenly jumped in surprise. A deranged, bloody farmer wielding a chainsaw walked menacingly toward us, chainsaw loudly buzzing. And as soon as our feet landed back on the ground, her hand reached out and found mine.

And the world fell away and the scene popped into focus with electric clarity.

It was the most natural thing, to reach out and find a hand of safety in a moment of fear, but in that moment, it was as if a jolt ran through me. It was as if there were explosions in the sky. I hardly noticed anything else; the only thing I cared about was saving my friend from the maniac farmer. I shielded her from his threatening advances (and may have back-handed him with my left fist) and we rushed into the safety of the open night. As we rejoined our friends, I let go of her hand, but still clutched onto the memory. I’ve never been able to let it go.

It’s a memory that has resurfaced from time to time simply because of how vivid it was. Her hand in mine. My hand in hers. Instinct displayed in the most innocent form. You don’t want to face fear alone.

I’ve been re-reading some Sherlock Holmes and found in a brilliant piece of prose that Watson experienced something similar:

“Miss Morstan and I stood together, and her hand was in mine. A wondrous subtle thing is love, for here were we two, who had never seen each other before that day, between whom no word or even look of affection had ever passed, and yet now in an hour of trouble our hands instinctively sought for each other. I have marvelled at it since, but at the time it seemed the most natural thing that I should go out to her so, and, as she has often told me, there was in her also the instinct to turn to me for comfort and protection. So we stood hand in hand like two children, and there was peace in our hearts for all the dark things that surrounded us.”

— John Watson, “The Sign of the Four” (written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

There is something so basic about looking to someone else in a moment of crisis, in a time of trepidation. We instinctively know there is strength in numbers, and two is better than one, but more than that, there is the silent acknowledgement, “I’m with you on this. We’re facing this together.” There is solace knowing that someone else is there.

I was able to protect my friend from a masked actor in a haunted house, and in a display of chivalry, could probably protect her from a host of other physical things that threatened her. Watson was able to offer comfort and protection to Mary Morstan in light of her father’s death and the strange mysteries behind it. And when I get married, I hope to guard my wife’s heart and keep her safe and comforted to the best of my ability. But if I’m honest, there are many terrors where my cold and clammy hands would provide little help because “the dark things that surround” are often more than just physical fears. Sin, death, depression, anxiety, a broken past, guilt, all these and more are shadows that stand menacingly over us, things which we often have no power over. My comfort and my protection have their limits, and as much as I try, I make a shoddy savior. So where do we turn in our fear?

In the midst of the dark things that surround, what do we grasp?

God the Father, who promised from the beginning that he would never leave us or forsake us, sent his Son Jesus to the earth so that the dark things could be overcome and shown to have no power. Jesus overcame temptation in the midst of his weakness, cast out demons from the afflicted, and even conquered Death by being raised back to life. This Jesus, who promised to be with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20), is our source of comfort and hope, our God victorious. He who faced suffering and death for our sake promises that he is trustworthy and in control. We can rest in his shadow because he makes the shadows of darkness disappear. We have the promise that we can turn to him and not be disappointed, and so when fears assail and tragedy strikes, we can slip our hand in his.
We don’t have to face fear alone.

We never face anything alone.