When people ask me, 'do you believe in real change in the human heart, real change in character and life, not just the restraining of sin' my constant response is--- 'Believe in it? I've seen it! It happens. God is great, God is good, and God is gracious. Enjoy---- BW3
Yesterday I described the problem of the human race as involving a deep inward curvature in each one of us…a curvature we have created because we have turned away and unplugged from the life-giving God. Somehow we are all predisposed to bending everything around us into serving us, into supplying us with life, into propping up and securing our very existence.
I suggested that all Christian theologies (whether Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, Calvinist, Wesleyan, Baptist, or Pentecostal, or Orthodox) have agreed that, however marvelous was the new birth, however wonderful the joy of sins forgiven, however powerful can be the presence of the Spirit….that we must admit in all honesty to this sad reality among ourselves: that even though we have tasted the goodness of the Lord in forgiveness and new life, grace has not yet reversed this self-centered distortion. When push comes to shove, we tend to respond, sadly, in typically human ways. We must not dismiss these sad episodes as innocent lapses, or as minor chinks in our armor; but should be seen for what they really are: windows into the foundational parts of our souls
I suggested that there are three different expectations about this within Christian thought:
Option A: This is the fixed and inescapable reality of the Christian life, and it will continue to be reality until the moment we die. Hoping for anything more than the forgiveness of sin is tantamount to religious fanaticism, and will guarantee spiritual disappointment..
Option B offers a measured and modest hope. It proposes that our behavior, with God’s help, can be modified to some degree, but we never will we shake the self-centeredness that rules the deep recesses of the soul.
But Option C envisions a real breakthrough at the core of our being: a reversal of polarities such that the inward-pointing vectors are, by God’s transforming work, turned outward so that we can in fact give ourselves freely in loving others, and loving God with our whole hearts. Instead of existing as gravitational fields drawing everything and everybody in around us to serve out needs, we can be converted into outward-flowing fountains free to lavish love on others, including those prickly people, those grudge-bearing people, those narrow-visioned people, those ungrateful-for-all-that-I’ve-done-for-them people, those on-the-other-side-of-the-fence-from-me people, those who-don’t-see-it-my-way people. In other words, Option C envisions a salvation so big and grand, a salvation so expansive and rich, that it keeps rolling through the forgiveness of our sin, and pushes right on toward the transformation of character and disposition.
I’ve come to believe that the hope for exactly this kind of inner transformation runs throughout human culture. Yesterday I introduced you to Christopher Booker’s analysis of storytelling through the ages, and how our stories seem to fall into seven types of plots which are populated by an assortment of stock characters. He concludes that these patterns are engrained in the human psyche, and have been reinforced by their endless repetition at hearth fires over thousands of years.
Yesterday we looked at the character of the Monster. Today we examine Booker’s description of the Hero.
Near the beginning of most stories we will meet the hero. But Mr. Booker suggests, that if we look carefully at the Hero, we will notice that the Hero is somehow partial and deficient. He or she actually bears some of the egocentric characteristics of the Monster about whom we spoke yesterday. But as the story moves forward, the hero is called upon to embrace some dangerous venture, or to embark upon some frightful quest, during which…and here is the interesting part…the Hero will undergo a deep and decisive change: the Hero will be transformed into the kind of person who is the exact opposite of the Monster: whereas the Monster is fundamentally self-centered, the Hero becomes, in the process of the passing through the ordeals of the story, a person for others, a whole person, a person whose egotism has in fact been transcended, not merely modified or adjusted.
Here is my guess (but I have not yet checked it with Mr. Booker). I’m guessing that the Holy Spirit who lives and moves throughout all human society, has somehow been inciting us all along to be inventing and telling stories with this lofty vision of moral transformation. It is amazing to me, that even apart from a particular knowledge of Scripture or the Gospel, human beings have been dreaming and fantacizing about being remade, about being reborn, about being inwardly changed from self-centered consumers of others to other-centered givers. May I ask this question? Is the Gospel we preach big enough and grand enough to match this extravagant human hope? Does the Salvation we offer include provision for change at the core, or… does it settle…basically…for offering forgiveness with modest behavior modification?
The Bible is filled with language and images of robust hope for real change at the core of who we are.
• The Bible invites us to picture “rivers of living water flowing out from” our hearts.
• The Bible invites us to dream of a “circumcised heart,” with all of its impurities stripped away.
• The Bible invites us to imagine the rare and beautiful transparency of what it might be like actually to love our enemies.
• The Bible invites us to contemplate a life of loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength; and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
• The Bible invites us to savor the thought of one day looking in God’s spiritual mirror to discover that somehow, by grace, we have in fact put off the old person and its deceitful lusts, and have in fact been renewed in the spirit of our minds, and have in fact put on the new person, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
• The Bible invites us to ponder the awesome possibility that God actually wants to so renew and restore us so that we not only do the things that Jesus did, but we in fact have the mind of Christ, the attitude of Christ: that bearing of character soaked in self-giving, self-surrendering love, that internal disposition that gave rise to his selfless actions as a man for others.
But through the centuries, we have found ways of blunting the force of these calls and promises. Sometimes we appeal to Realism: “Look around,” we might say. “Do you see anybody really living like this? And by the way, is this really possible? We then warn ourselves, Don’t be swept into a naïve optimism and the inevitable disappointment it will deliver.” And so, wisely (we think) and with an ultimate concern for our emotional stability, we effectively drain these passages of their power, and settle for something less.
Or we think Reductionistically. We say, “My Bible says that I am ‘In Christ,’ that the old has passed away; all things have become new.’ So I am telling you that because I know I’m a Christian and I know my sins are forgiven, I can deduce from this fact that all things have in fact become new. I am a completely renewed person in God’s eyes, even if I don’t look new, feel new, think new, smell new, talk new, or behave new.” But by this kind of reckoning, the whole business of moral transformation has been detached from life as we live it right now, and the power of God has been cordoned off into a kind of abstract, heavenly accounting system. A partial truth has been turned into the enemy of the whole truth, and the whole will of God.
Another way of dismissing the golden hope offered in Scripture and dreamt by humanity is to become Mesmerized by the good, but lesser gifts of God. It has been a perennial temptation for the church across the centuries to believe that demonstrations of power and miracles constitute the highest form of spirituality. We tend to imagine that we must be right in the middle of absolutely maximum Christianity if we see cancer being destroyed, or limbs straightened. We tend to imagine that we are encountering Christianity “on steroids” if we see debt being erased, or sight being regained. We believe we are standing on the pinnacle of it all, if a deeply harbored secret is miraculously divulged. But time and time again in Scripture we will find that these sweet blessings, as remarkable and wonderful as they are, always point beyond themselves to something even more majestic.
For example, in the 6th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples were sent out by Jesus to cast out demons and heal the sick. They were so successful in their “power tour” that even King Herod took note, and began trying to figure out who in the world this Jesus fellow was. But the Gospel story moves on into chapters 8-11 where we find these same disciples being exposed as not yet having come to grips with deeper matters of the heart. There they are, fresh from their display of healing power, but now they are busy comparing themselves with each other, busy figuring out a pecking order among themselves, busy planning for career and promotion. They were happy to identify with Jesus in his power, but were hesitant to walk much further with him on the road to
Consider also the invitation Paul offered to the Corinthians. Without doubt they were riding high on a wave of spiritual enthusiasm and displays of power. Certainly it was spectacular! God was at work! Supernatural things were happening! Surely they were maxing out all the categories of spirituality, soaring in the highest orbits attainable. Or were they? You know how it goes there in I Corinthians 12 through 14. After Paul had clarified in chapter 12 some of their confusion about these powerful gifts, the Apostle went on to pen one of the loftiest poems in all of Scripture, I Cor. 13. May I radically paraphrase it this way? “My dear brethren, you’ve set you sights too low! Yes these miraculous manifestations are splendid, and certainly they are God’s good gifts to you. But don’t let these good gifts blind you to the best. Lift your eyes towards the highest goal of all…towards something that radiates the very heart of the Father in His most resplendent beauty. It is LOVE! Self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-forgetful love…life poured out for others.”
Let me put it this way. Show me a person in whom love has come to reign, show me a congregation that has been baptized in the self-giving love of Jesus, show me a people who have entered into this vision of the outward-turned life and I’ll show you what the world has been fantacizing and dreaming about for millennia…but could only speak of in the form of fiction! Show me a human heart, that has been turned from itself, turned outward for others, that has undergone the Great Reversal, and I’ll show you a miracle that defies all realistic expectation, a miracle that no sorcerer can duplicate, and no magician can approximate. Why? Because a people who are entering into this kind of love, are entering into that rare song of love echoing back and forth between the Father and the Son and the Spirit in the eternal fire of free self-giving and receiving. To sing this song is to be sharing in the very life of God.
Well it’s probably right now every practically-minded, level-headed person here this morning is asking that bottom-line question: “HOW?” How can this happen? How can we live into this hope of renewal in love at our very core?
I have three suggestions to offer.
First, Wait expectantly within the Means of Grace.
Years ago I read an account of how Henry Ford, the great industrialist, hired managers to run his factories. He would take them out to dinner, and then for dessert order a piece of apple pie. When the pie came, Ford would watch how the prospective employee would eat it. If he began eating it at the point, Ford would not hire him. But if he began eating at the crust, Ford would hire him. Ford’s reasoning was this: a good manager will always tackle the toughest problems first, and the easier problems later…just like eating your pie starting with the tough crust. Well, you can be sure that many good managerial prospects were passed over, and had not the foggiest idea why.
Some folks live in spiritual fog, hoping to receive grace from God, but fairly puzzled about how that might happen. Their spiritual life turns into a swirling experiment, the taking up and the laying aside of…now this spiritual discipline, now that; now this religious exercise, now that; the traveling now to this conference, now to that… Somewhere we have heard that it might have something to do with how we eat pie, so we’ve ordered a hundred pieces, and we’re trying to eat them from every imaginable angle…and comparing notes with each other to see if anything works.
I want to tell you that God is not like Mr. Ford. When our pie is delivered, the Father is leaning over and whispering into our ears…”I want to hire you…let me tell you what to do….Start at the crust!”
These whisperings, my friends, are the means of grace. They are the pathways the Father himself has given us as the assured and regular channels of his work in our lives. Yes, God can work through a puppy dog, or a piece of glass, or a budding flower, or half-eaten toasted cheese sandwich…because God can do whatever God wants. But God has laid out us for the ways in which He wants to approach us, and the channels through which transforming grace is promised to flow.
You were probably wondering why we read from Malachi 3 earlier this morning. Would this be a sermon on tithing? Or what? Here’s the connection. It was on Malachi 3 that John Wesley based his sermon on the means of grace, sermon #16 according to my edition of his standard sermons. I don’t have the time to plunge into my own autobiography here, but this passage, and Wesley’s sermon on it, in a way, saved my life. There in Malachi 3, God called out to His People, “Return to me, and I will return to you.” And the people asked, “But how shall we return you?” (Note: It’s the “how” question.) The Lord replied (unlike Mr. Ford), “l’ll tell you how…” and then the Lord proceeds to tell them to “bring the tithes into the storehouse, and I will pour out a blessing upon you beyond your imagination.” Now Wesley rightly sensed that something is going on here more than tithing. For what we see is the Father identifying a pathway of approach, and then promising to pour out his blessing along that very pathway. We too can walk along the pathways God has laid out, with the full confidence that God will meet us there.
So in seeking God’s grace for inner transformation, let us lift up our hearts in full trust, and be traveling down these well-worn pathways of the means of grace:
Let’s lift up our hearts to the Lord in prayer, asking and seeking and knocking, persisting in calling upon the Father for our hearts to be made like His…
Let’s feast upon Scripture, fueling our hope for transformation by allowing the Bible’s grand vision of love fill our imagination…
Let’s feast frequently at the Lord’s Table, where Jesus promises to be wonderfully present through our taking the bread and wine. And when He is near, everything is possible.
Let’s meet together in intimate groups for hearing the voice of God through one another, and for seeking God, hand in hand. Here we will bear one another’s burdens, and give each other permission to ask all the probing questions. Here we will hold each other accountable in love, and help each other speak the truth about ourselves.
These means of grace have no power in themselves. We cannot use them to leverage God forward. We cannot make them effective by ginning up our intensity of our faith and really, really, really, really meaning it. No, Grace will flow because the Father has given us these means, invites us into them, and promises to meet us there.
My Second suggestion for HOW…is this: Embrace Suffering and Service.
Most of our prayers, I fear, are devoted to avoiding suffering. And yet few precious gifts of God have come apart from it. All the blessings of the atonement pass to us through a cross, and Jesus asks us to take up our crosses to follow him. Suffering never comes at the right time. It never approaches over the right issues. It is never delivered through the right people. It usually strips away our choices, and then, worst of all, can draw down over us a cloud of doubt and fear.
Do not run from this. Accept the pain that will be part of the strange providence of God.
Yes, embrace suffering, and embrace service. Help the weak. Hug the sick. Hang out with the lost and hopeless. God seems often to be hanging out very near them. Let’s de-romanticize love by giving ourselves to those who will not thank us, or cannot repay us. It does not matter how we feel about this. We are not doing this to get that warm fuzzy feeling so often promised. By embracing suffering and service, we are walking into the fires of transformation.
My Third suggestion for HOW…is this: Ask the Father for a Full Assurance of His Love for you.
This takes us back to the beginning of everything we have been saying, yesterday and today. We are all inwardly curved, rigidly set in both defensive and aggressive postures toward others, fearful of being forgotten, overlooked, ignored, dismissed, bypassed, or lost. We are scrambling to secure our life and significance, scrambling to be known.
But this reveals that we have not yet broken through to the full assurance of God’s rich love for us. Though “believing in Jesus” for forgiveness, we may still harbor deep inward hesitations about God’s character and God’s real attitude toward me”
We may say:
•I am not quite sure he really knows me, right now, every part of me in my hopes and dreams, in my fears and confusion;
•I am not really sure he loves me. Yes, I sort of believe he has forgiven me, somewhat equipped and gifted me, maybe even given me a call and a vision for ministry, but does he take delight in me? Does he rejoice in me?
•I am not fully convinced God is good, all the way down. Surely he is just and righteous and powerful and holy, but do his plan include abandoning me just when I need him? Or ignoring my pain? Or hurting me right where I’m vulnerable?
Here’s the issue in a nutshell: we cannot release ourselves from the heavy responsibility of self-defense until we catch a full vision of the God who actually loves us all the way, and who is for us all the way. And who is good, all the way to the bottom. We can “surrender” all we want, but I suspect that it is psychologically and spiritually impossible to surrender fully to someone we are afraid of.
But it is the God who gave himself for us, and knows us, and craves our safety and wholeness, who says to me and to you…”Lay down your little tin sheriff’s badge: let Me be your life, let me be your defense, let me be your hope, let me be your all.” Only when we are so assured can we “afford” to give away our own “life supply” to others, and indeed back to God in whole-hearted loving.
I don’t know a better way to say yes to God in these ways than to come to his table this morning. As you receive the bread and wine, you can be saying YES to staying in the fire of the means of grace; you can be saying YES to suffering and service, as the bread and wine so beautifully represent; and you can be saying YES to a prayer of crying out to the Father to be that liberating supply of life….
•You may ask me, “How long will it take?” It may take weeks, or months, or years. Let God worry about that part of it.
•You may ask me, “Will I know when it’s happened?” Maybe…but I’m guessing other people will notice it first!