Posts tagged ‘Grace’

A Hug of Forgiveness

It was the hug felt round the world.

When Brandt Jean, the 18-year-old brother of Botham Jean, who was murdered by Amber Guyger, asked if he could hug his brother’s killer, the courtroom flooded with tears.  Mr. Jean’s hug capped an extraordinary – and, honestly, supernatural – expression of love, compassion, and forgiveness toward Ms. Guyger.  When Mr. Jean first took the stand last Wednesday, he was supposed to, following Ms. Guyger’s conviction, offer a victim impact statement – something common in cases like these.  But Mr. Jean’s impact statement was unlike any other and is worth recounting in full:

If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you. And I know if you go to God and ask Him, He will forgive you.

And I don’t think anyone can say it – again I’m speaking for myself and not on behalf of my family – but I love you just like anyone else.

And I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did, but I personally want the best for you. And I wasn’t going to ever say this in front of my family or anyone, but I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you, because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do.

And the best would be: give your life to Christ.

I’m not going to say anything else. I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want you to do.

Again, I love you as a person. And I don’t wish anything bad on you.

I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug, please? Please?

I’m not sure how he did it, but Mr. Jean managed to honor his brother’s memory, extend forgiveness to his brother’s killer, and invite her to trust in Christ, all in a matter of moments.

This was a complicated case.  Ms. Guyger claimed she shot Botham Jean because she believed she was entering her apartment while accidentally entering his.  When she saw him, she thought he was an intruder and was afraid, so she shot him.  At the same time, there was plenty of evidence introduced at the trial to call into question her character.  She, herself a police officer, was having an affair with another married officer, to whom she also sent several racially tinged text messages.  Then, she shot an unarmed black man.  There were plenty of reasons Mr. Jean could have been suspicious of her and angry at her.  Instead, he decided to extend forgiveness to her.

As conversations about Mr. Jean’s offer of forgiveness have ricocheted across cable news networks, I heard one commentator worry that Mr. Jean had extended to Ms. Guyger “cheap grace.”  I would respectfully disagree.  There’s nothing cheap about the grace Mr. Jean extended to Ms. Guyger.  The grace Mr. Jean extended came at the cost of his brother.  And there’s nothing more valuable than a life.

But, I suppose, this is the way grace always works.  For the grace that God extends to us comes at the cost of God’s Son.  And there’s nothing more valuable than His life.

There’s a lot of pain – especially along racial lines – that has bubbled to the surface because of this murder.  Ms. Guyger’s ten-year sentence feels to many like justice denied.  And make no mistake about it: justice is important.  Crime and time go together appropriately and importantly.  But it also must be understood that what Mr. Jean offered in that courtroom was not injustice.  It was something totally outside of justice.  It was Jesus.

To Mr. Jean, I offer my condolences.  What happened to your brother is not only tragic, but sinful.  But to Mr. Jean, I also offer my thanks.  For what you did in offering forgiveness was not only inspirational, it was incarnational.  You brought Jesus into that courtroom with you.  And a whole nation noticed.

October 7, 2019 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Lamentation and Restoration

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Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled. Our carefully curated posts on social media often show only the best moments of our lives, any pain being artfully disguised behind filtered photos of smiling faces in exotic places. At funerals, we often hear about how a deceased loved one would not want those left behind to cry. Instead, they would only want a celebration! And, of course, there is the ubiquitous answer to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?” Any answer other than “fine” may draw some disinterested eye rolls. After all, the question is not really a request for information, but the product of polite social expectation. Lament is not something at which we, as a culture, are particularly skilled.

And yet, in the Bible, there is a whole book called “Lamentations.” It describes the despair and despondency of the Israelites after their nation falls into the hands of the Babylonians and they are carried off from their homes into exile. The book opens with a haunting picture:

How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. (Lamentations 1:1)

The capital city of Israel, Jerusalem, once the center of Israel’s life, now lies abandoned. So Israel laments.

But Israel does not just lament over an empty city. Israel also laments over her own sin, for she knows that her exile is a divine punishment for her rebellion:

Jerusalem has sinned greatly and so has become unclean. All who honored her despise her, for they have all seen her naked; she herself groans and turns away. Her filthiness clung to her skirts; she did not consider her future. Her fall was astounding; there was none to comfort her. (Lamentations 1:8-9) 

In very picturesque language, Israel describes the blight of her sin and the resulting plight of her people. It is brutal.

So, what is Israel’s way forward? Is this the end of her story? We know the answer is “no.” She, however, is not so sure. Lamentations ends like this:

Restore us to Yourself, LORD, that we may return; renew our days as of old unless You have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure. (Lamentations 5:21-22)

Israel is hoping for God’s grace, but she is not sure of God’s grace. She wonders if God has not rejected her forever.

Ancient Israel is not the only one who sometimes doubts God’s grace. We do, too. I have talked to many people over my years in ministry who struggle to believe that God’s grace could be for them. Their guilt feels too heavy. Their sin seems too deep. They truly wonder if God would ever, or even could ever, help people like them.

When Jesus is speaking with His disciples, He says to them, “The Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected” (Mark 9:12). And Jesus is rejected – on a cross. He is rejected by men and, ultimately, by God as He takes on Himself the sins of the world – all of the things that God rejects. But because God rejected Jesus then, we have the promise that He will not reject us now. He will always restore us, even when we fall into sin. He will always invite us to return, no matter how far we stray. We have no reason to wonder about God’s grace. It is for us.

Lamentations ends with a doubt about whether or not a nation’s sin can be forgiven. We, however, have received a confident answer to that doubt in Christ. There is no sin too great for grace.

September 23, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Grace in the Wilderness

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Credit: Angelique Downing from Burst

There are some incredible words the Lord speaks through the prophet Jeremiah:

The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness. (Jeremiah 31:2)

These words are written for Israel while Israel is in crisis – when she is being defeated and decimated by the Babylonians who will carry her people into exile.  While Israel is at her worst, then, God says to her, “In a place you might least expect it – the wilderness that is your exile – you will find My grace.”

God’s people have a history of finding grace in wilderness. When the Lord led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, He led them into the wilderness, where they received grace upon grace. A miracle at the Red Sea. Manna and quail from the heavens. Water to drink from a rock. There was grace there in that wilderness.

When God decided it was time to send a Savior, His coming was announced in where else, but the wilderness:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:1-3)

The grace of God’s kingdom was being announced in the wilderness.

And when the Savior did arrive, where did He go to begin His public ministry? Into the wilderness, of course:

Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

While Jesus may have been tempted by the devil, He did not succumb to the devil. He defeated the devil and his temptations so that there may be grace for everyone who does not fare so well under temptation.

I think sometimes we might prefer to find grace in places other than the wilderness. In the lushness of an awesome spiritual experience, perhaps, where we feel the warmth of God’s love surrounding us. Or in the comforts of an abundance of material possessions, perhaps, where we can breezily and easily praise God for the amazing things He has given to us.

God can show us grace through these things, but this does not mean He only shows us grace through these things.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness. Like when we feel spiritually cold inside and all we can do is cling to God’s Word. Or when our pocketbooks feel strapped and our savings accounts are depleted all we have is God’s promise of daily bread.

Sometimes, grace comes to us in the wilderness.

This should not surprise us. For God’s grace was most fully expressed on some rough-hewn timbers, cut down from the wilderness of ancient Israel. Grace did not feel good to Jesus. But the grace of the cross is the greatest grace there is.

So, don’t let a time in the wilderness crush you. There is grace there because Jesus is there. If there’s one place He knows, it’s there. And if there’s one person He wants, it’s you.

September 2, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Who Is God’s Enemy?

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There is a fascinating exchange between Joshua and an unnamed man right before he fights the battle at Jericho.  As Joshua is nearing the city and mustering his troops, he looks up and sees a man with a sword drawn in his hand.  He asks him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?”  The man replies, “Neither, but as a commander of the army of the LORD I have now come” (Joshua 5:13-14).

This exchange, though somewhat cryptic, is extremely revelatory.  In this exchange, this man reveals who He is.  He is part neither of Israel’s army nor of the army of Israel’s enemy.  Instead, He commands the forces of God Almighty.  In other words, He is not just a man.  He is divine.  This is why this commander echoes the words that God speaks to Joshua’s predecessor, Moses, from a burning bush.  “Take of your sandals,” this commander says to Joshua, “for the place where you are standing is holy” (Joshua 5:15).  This commander speaks the same words God once spoke to Moses because He Himself is God, who is now speaking to Joshua.

But the revelation that is given to Joshua in this man does not end here.  For this man reveals not only who God is, but who God cares about.  Before one of the biggest battles in Israel’s history, this commander comes to Joshua and tells him that He is not somehow blindly for Israel and against Jericho.  But neither is he for Jericho and against Israel.  Instead, He is for God who, ultimately, is for all.  It is indeed true that God does rain down His wrath on Jericho’s sin in this story.  But this does not mean that He does not love Jericho’s people.  God is much more interested in saving people than in siding against them.

In our current milieu, I think it can be all too easy to forget that God cares about not only us, but those who we call “enemies.”  But if we took the time to actually ask Him, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” God’s answer might just surprise us.  It might just be, “Neither.”  God is much more interested in loving the world than He is in making enemies.

The next time you are tempted to hate your enemy, remember this commander’s interaction with Joshua.  And remember the admonition of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  And, most importantly, remember the action of Jesus: “While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10).  Paul says that God’s enemy, before the cross, was you.  So, ask yourself, “How did God treat me when I was His enemy?”

Go and do likewise with your enemy.

October 8, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Character and Civics

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Credit: Wikipedia

The economy is booming.  There is hearty hope for a diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and North Korea.  Pressure is mounting on Iran to come clean about its nuclear ambitions.  And the President of the United States is embroiled in a controversy over whether or not campaign finance laws were violated when his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid an adult film actress, Stormy Daniels, $130,000 during the closing days of the 2016 election to, ostensibly, keep her quiet about an affair she now claims to have had with Mr. Trump in 2006.

If the accusations against President Trump are true, this episode is morally disquieting – and not just because campaign finance laws were potentially broken.  Not only that, the responses to this episode are themselves morally disquieting.  Many who are opposed to the president see this episode as a convenient way to defeat a political enemy.  The moral turpitude of what has allegedly happened is merely a pretext for a political power grab.  Others, who are aligned with the president, are quick to cast the allegations against him as nothing more than a witch hunt.  Even if they suspect the charges might be true, they calculate that sexual immorality is a small – and, I would add, historical – price to pay for the power of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Whatever your political proclivities, these accusations present Christians with much to ponder.  On the one hand, it is important for us to remember that character still matters in our leaders.  All the way back in the sixteenth century, Niccolo Machiavelli famously argued that political leaders do not need actual virtue.  They simply need to project the appearance of virtue:

It’s seeming to be virtuous that helps; as, for example, seeming to be compassionate, loyal, human, honest, and religious.[1]

This is nonsense.  Appearing to be virtuous while not actually being virtuous is, plainly and simply, hypocrisy – a sin that Jesus fiercely and consistently condemns.  Hypocrisy in virtue is not only immoral; it also is dangerous.  If a person cannot lead himself by cultivating in himself basic virtues, he will struggle to lead others as well as he could.  Self-leadership is a necessary prerequisite for other-leadership.

This is certainly not to say that our leaders need to be perfect – no leader is, has been, or ever will be.  But it is certainly preferable that our leaders be self-aware.  Self-awareness cultivates both humility and curiosity – humility over how one has fallen short and curiosity about how one can grow in competence and character.

At the same time it is necessary to encourage character in our leaders, it is also important demand character in ourselves.  A critical part of personal character development, according to Jesus, is to carefully consider our own shortcomings before we address the iniquity of others.  Jesus explains it like this:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.  (Matthew 7:3-5)

Notice that Jesus does not prohibit holding others accountable for their specks of sin, but He first wants us to hold ourselves accountable for our own planks of peccancy.  Understanding and addressing our own struggles with sin gives us both wisdom and empathy to help others in their tussles with transgression.

Over the years, as I have watched the dialogue that unfolds during scandals involving the character of our public officials, I have come to suspect that at least a segment of our population doesn’t care too much about helping the people involved.  Instead, it only cares about maximizing the power it has.  Depending on one’s political preferences, maintaining or overturning the power of this or that politician becomes the driving and deciding factor in how some people respond to any given moral crisis.  When this happens, we’re not really defending our politicians, even if we like them, or honoring them, as the Bible instructs.  We’re simply using them.  And that’s a character crisis in us that, though it may not make the headlines, should certainly serve as food for thought in our hearts.

______________________________

[1] Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, Tim Parks, trans. (New York:  Penguin Books, 2009).

May 7, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Mr. Zuckerberg Goes To Washington

Mark Zuckerberg

Credit: NBC News

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg found himself in the hot seat as he faced Congress, who, as The New York Times reports, turned their interview with him into:

…something of a pointed gripe session, with both Democratic and Republican senators attacking Facebook for failing to protect users’ data and stop Russian election interference, and raising questions about whether Facebook should be more heavily regulated.

Along with broad calls for heavier regulations for the sake of people’s privacy came concerns that Facebook might also regulate people’s posts, especially in light of the many contested “fake news” posts that circulated during the 2016 presidential election on social media.  Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska highlighted this concern, telling Mr. Zuckerberg:

Facebook may decide it needs to police a whole bunch of speech that I think America may be better off not having policed by one company that has a really big and powerful platform … Adults need to engage in vigorous debates.

At issue for Senator Sasse is whether or not a corporation like Facebook will be able to responsibly regulate all kinds of posts that, regardless of their intellectual and logical quality, are politically, though not necessarily corporately, protected under the First Amendment.  Senator Sasse is concerned that Facebook may simply begin regulating speech with which Facebook management does not agree.  The senator offered the example the abortion debate as a potential flashpoint if social media speech regulations were to be instituted:

There are some really passionately held views about the abortion issue on this panel today. Can you imagine a world where you might decide that pro-lifers are prohibited from speaking about their abortion view on your platform?

Mr. Zuckerberg responded that he “certainly would not want that to be the case.”

Corporate regulation of speech is indeed a concern, for even the best regulatory intentions often come with unintended – and sometimes awful – consequences.  At the same time, for Christians, a devotion to free speech must never become an excuse for reckless speech, for reckless speech can be dangerously damaging.  As Jesus’ brother, James, reminds us:

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  (James 3:5-6)

Thus, with this in mind, it is worth it to reflect for a moment on how we exercise our tongues – on social media, and in all circumstances.  In our speech – and in our posts – Scripture calls us to two things.

First, we must love the truth. 

When the apostle Paul writes to a pastor named Timothy, he exhorts him:

What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus.  Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you – guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.  (2 Timothy 1:13-14)

The Greek verb that Paul uses for “guard” is philasso, from which we get the English word “philosophy.”  “Philosophy” is a word that, etymologically, translates as “love of truth.”  As Christians, we are called to love the truth.  We do this by expecting the truth from ourselves, by defending the truth when we see lies, and by seeking the truth so we are not duped by deceit.  In the sometimes wild world of social media, do we tell the truth about ourselves, or do we paint an intentionally deceptive portrait of ourselves with carefully curated posts?  Do we defend the truth when we see others being defamed, or do we pile on because we find certain insults humorous?  Do we seek the truth before we post, or do we pass on what we read indiscriminately because it fits our preconceived biases?  As people who follow the One who calls Himself “the truth,” we must love the truth.

Second, we must speak with grace.

Not only is what we say important, how we say it is important as well.  The apostle Paul explains it like this: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6).  There are times when communicating the truth can be difficult.  But even in these times, we must be careful to apply the truth as a scalpel and not swing it as a club.  The truth is best used when it cuts for the sake of healing instead of when it bludgeons for the thrill of winning.  This is what it means to speak the truth with grace.  Paul is clear that he wants the truth proclaimed “clearly” (Colossians 4:4), but part of being clear is being careful.  When anger, hyperbole, and self-righteousness become hallmarks of “telling it like it is,” we can be sure that we are no longer actually “telling it like it is.”  Instead, we are obfuscating the truth under a layer of vitriol and rash rants.

Facebook has a lot to answer for as investigations into its handling of people’s privacy continue.  It appears as though the company may not have been completely forthcoming in how it operates.  And their deceit in this regard is getting them into trouble.  Let’s make sure we don’t fall into the same trap.  Let’s be people of the truth – on social media and everywhere.

April 16, 2018 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Sharia Law and Biblical Grace

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  This is the apostle Paul’s sobering summary of the human condition.  And he’s right.  Not only is there is not a person alive who lives up to God’s standards of righteousness, there is also not a person alive who lives up to the standards of righteousness he sets for himself, as any person who has ever attempted – and failed at – a New Year’s resolution can tell you.  Sin is universal.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, two Christians were publicly whipped, according to the dictates of Sharia law, “for playing a game at a children’s entertainment complex in a way authorities say amounted to gambling.”  Aceh’s population is 98 percent Muslim, and people can face floggings for acts including “drinking alcohol, adultery, gay sex, gambling or having romantic relationships before marriage.”  Indeed, the province’s courts are imposing hundreds of whippings a year for acts like these.  Last January, a Christian was sentenced to 36 lashes for selling alcohol.

I do not believe that drinking or selling alcohol, in and of itself, is sinful, though I do believe that drunkenness is.  Likewise, I don’t believe that a good-natured raffle for a few laughs is inherently wicked, though I am also well aware and wary of the dangerous greed that gambling can stoke and how the gambling industry, especially in the form of state lotteries, cynically preys on the economically disadvantaged.  I do believe in a traditional sexual ethic. So, I would say, as do the courts in Aceh, that any sexual activity outside of the confines of marriage strays from what is appropriate.  In short, though I would qualify certain things, I find myself in broad agreement with Aceh’s moral concerns.  But I also find myself fundamentally at odds with Aceh’s response to these concerns.

The radicalized form of Islamic law that Aceh’s theocratically-minded courts seem to be bent on propagating addresses sin through judgment.  Each sin, in these courts’ minds, deserves a flogging.  Christianity, however, addresses sin in a whole different way.  Christianity acknowledges the reality and ubiquity of human sinfulness – “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) – but addresses such sinfulness not with judgment, but by grace: “All are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

In John 8, Jesus is famously confronted by some religious leaders who bring to Him a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery.  In a breathtaking display of theocratic virtue signaling, they crow: “In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do You say” (John 8:5)? In their recounting of Mosaic law, the religious leaders conveniently overlook the fact that it was both the adulteress and the adulterer who were to be punished by death, as, in this case, they bring to Jesus only the adulteress. They also needlessly restrict the method of execution to that of stoning, even though Moses makes no such specification.  Nevertheless, they are broadly correct that adultery was, according to Mosaic law, punishable by death.  Jesus, however, instead of debating the finer points of where the adulterer is and what method of execution should be used, simply responds:

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:7, 9-11)

Here, Jesus brilliantly puts His finger on the problem with responding to sin with judgment instead of with grace.  If one responds to sin with only judgment, there will finally be no one left to mete out any judgment, because no one is without sin.  Everyone will have been stoned.  Only grace can address sin in a way that leaves anyone standing.

Christianity certainly understands and accepts the role governing authorities play to discourage wickedness by means of penalties.  But Christianity also knows that people need more than a penalty in the face of sin.  They need a Savior who does not condemn them, but forgives them.  And this is what a theocracy like Aceh’s, which plays the roles of both political and religious authorities, cannot provide.

Interestingly, the Bible does accept lashings as appropriate remuneration for sin.  But the lashes do not fall on us. They fall on God’s Son:

He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on Him, and by His wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

The courts of Aceh, it turns out, are lashing out far too late for it to do any good.  The lashing that was really needed already happened 2,000 years ago.

It’s time to put the whips down.

March 5, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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