Tuesday, November 26, 2013

One Reason Why I’m Not Thankful

It’s not a pleasant discovery to make when you’re late for work. My heart experienced that sick, sinking feeling as I realized that our car was stuck in the garage with no way to get it out.

For some inexplicable reason, I had left the keys in the ignition the night before. Not content with that level of carelessness, my psyche had also decided to leave the keys turned so the battery was engaged—all night long. Our car’s precious energy slowly drained out while Shannon and I slept blissfully unaware.

To make matters worse, I had driven forward into the garage the night before, making it impossible for another car to reach our engine with standard length jumper cables. (In my defense, it takes me 20 minutes to safely back the car into the garage without busting through a wall, so I was just saving time and repair costs.)

Throughout the day, I was painfully aware of the inconvenience of not having a car. It was, I think, a good illustration of the old adage, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

In fact, I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why I’m not as thankful as I should be. There is so much amazing grace in my life that I count a lot of it as “normal.” So many of my blessings exist day after day after day. Their constancy makes me take them for granted. In planning my schedule, I consider it a given to have, say, a working car.

I don’t think I’m alone here. We might label many of God’s gracious blessings as undeserved gifts, but we’re tempted to balk when those gifts don’t work properly, or when they’re taken away altogether. It’s as if we think God owes us the grace we have received. But earned grace is an oxymoron, and only an ox or a moron would claim God owed him grace.

To help us avoid being oxen or morons, I wanted to meditate briefly on the amazing goodness of God in one particular area. There are a lot of blessings to choose from, not the least of which is my new daughter, but I wanted to look at something we tend to overlook: those astounding technological advancements we know as our cars.

Isn’t “astounding” an exaggeration? Not in my opinion. Think about it: If we need to travel out of state and back, it’s possible nowadays to do so in a matter of hours. We can drive hundreds of miles within a day’s time—comfortably. On horseback, the same trip could easily have taken weeks, if not months. With the time it would take for me to visit one of my company’s jobsites on a horse, I could hit up a dozen grocery stores, four restaurants, and have a lengthy stay reading a book and sipping a Frappuccino at Starbucks. And unlike in Oregon Trail times, I’m not in constant danger of getting dysentery. Cramped legs maybe, but not life-threatening infections.

Not only do we have the ability to travel great distances in short time periods, but we also do so in style. Even basic cars come with climate control features. Consider the amazing luxury we take for granted. On cold winter days, it’s possible to ride with warm air blowing into your face—or feet, or both (you get to decide!)—while you’re protected inside a cabin that shields you from the frozen air. On hot summer days, you simply turn a dial (or push a button) and out of those same vents flow refreshing cool air.

GPS features make navigation astronomically easier. All you need is an address, and you can choose a route based on its length, travel time, road conditions, and other factors. If you happen to miss a turn or an exit, no problem! Your car can compensate by recalculating the route. It’s like a souped up, genetically enhanced Lewis and Clark with you at all times. The world is your navigational oyster.

Those are just three aspects to modern-day automobile travel. We haven’t even mentioned cruise control, rearview cameras, adaptive headlights, seat warmers, night vision, tire pressure monitoring, blind spot detection, and radar-based automatic braking. At the rate technology is advancing, Superman himself will eventually travel by car just to save on time and effort.

Yes, God’s blessings are everywhere. They surround us every day. That may make them easy to overlook, just as a fish might not be aware of water. But that leaves us with no excuse for unthankful hearts—much less for any sense of entitlement. God’s goodness endures through the ages, not so we can take them for granted, but so we can have an endless reason to give thanks.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Confessions of a New Father: I Wasn’t Prepared for This

Looking back, I realize I should have been more aware of what was coming. I had definitely seen enough signs. And yet the true nature of the approaching changes never really struck me—not until reality itself pulled me into its clutches after my daughter’s birth. I guess it’s like they say: there are certain things you just can’t know or understand until you experience them.

You see, I was expecting to enjoy my newborn daughter. What I didn’t expect, and what I wasn’t fully prepared for, was being drastically bulldozed over by an overwhelming array of euphoric emotions and paternal affections.

Yes, I expected my daughter to be like a heartwarming drink from a fresh fountain of God’s goodness. But I have discovered that fountain to be more like a perpetual geyser. I am soaked to the bone, and being this drenched has never felt so amazingly good.

I should have known what was coming when Chloe, my niece, was born and subsequently stole my heart. Being involved in her early life—babysitting, reading books with her, watching her laugh at movies—was the closest thing I had yet experienced to being a parent, and it was a sweet privilege.

I should have known what was coming when my wife and I felt our daughter move in the womb for the first time. It was just a small bump against Shannon’s belly, but it was the first signal we could actually feel from Elanor moving. I erupted in a laughing fit that was an overflow of pure joy.

I should have known what was coming, having read in Scripture that children are a gift and a reward from God Himself (Psalm 127:3). In fact, an abundance of children are as beneficial to a father as a quiver full of arrows is to a warrior in combat (vv. 4-5). There is no substitute for the joys of parenthood.

Now, has it all been smiles, giggles, and prancing through toy stores in slow motion? Of course not. In the few shorts weeks we’ve had Elanor, there have been times of frustration and anger, loss of sleep, and even hopeless bewilderment.

In fact, I’d rather be in bed right now, but I’m up with my daughter, who’s in between crying fits. Her laments are a mix between the sounds of a strangled duck and the staccato hoots of Count von Count from Sesame Street. (Our cat’s not too fond of the noise. Right now, she’s actually streaking from room to room in frustration.) Life with my precious daughter is sometimes challenging.

But that’s how all of life works. Nothing truly worth holding onto is easy. In our saner moments, who wants to settle for “easy?” Lust may be easier than love, but fleeting pleasures can’t hold a candle to marital bliss. A free ride through life may be easier than hard work, but the meaninglessness of endless vacation can’t compare with the satisfaction of vocation. Being the master of your time and money might sound appealing, but the “burden” of family provides a wealth of relationships that cannot be equaled.

As blogger Matt Walsh has pointed out, the good things of parenting are difficult to illustrate “because they’re so deep and transcendent and immeasurable.” Those words accurately describe my experience of fatherhood thus far. Parenting my precious child alongside my wonderful wife has provided countless deep, transcendent, and immeasurable joys.

So yeah, I wasn’t adequately prepared for being a father. But that’s far from a bad thing. It’s just another glorious example of 1 Corinthians 2:9: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Finding an Attraction to True Beauty

The Expulsive Power paraphrase
Part 5

The previous words have, I hope, served in some degree to provide practical help to those who are desperate “not [to] love the world,” but who feel that their fleshly desires and tendencies are too strong.

There is no other way to keep the love of the world out of our hearts than to “keep [ourselves] in the love of God” (Jude 21). And there is no way to keep ourselves in the love of God other than by “building [ourselves] up on [our] most holy faith” (Jude 20). The denial of the world is impossible to those who reject the gospel. But not loving the world is possible, even as all things are possible, to the one who believes the gospel.

In closing, let us consider one more illustration. Picture a man who could stand on the edge of the world and observe its abundance: rich produce and culinary delights, luxurious homes, the joys of human companionship, and all the other blessings the earth can offer.

If he turned around after taking in this attractive scene, he would be confronted with the dark expanse of space. Do you think he would willingly say goodbye to the earth and wander through endless emptiness? Would he even be tempted to reject the cheerful attraction of the earth and leave it behind?

Certainly not! Rather, he would cling to the world and shrink away from the desolation of space. His satisfaction would be found in keeping his feet firmly planted on the earth.

However, what if he turned from the world to look into outer space and found himself peering into heaven itself? His senses would be overwhelmed with superior glories, sweeter sounds, and greater beauties. He would see a heartfelt joy spread among all its inhabitants. He would discern peace, piety, and love to a degree higher than he had ever known. Every heart would be filled with gladness and every person would be united in goodwill toward each other and toward their generous God. He would look in vain to see even a hint of pain, decay, or death, and he would soon realize that no other place in the universe was as inviting and welcoming as this place was.

In this situation, wouldn’t his perspective change? Would not the expanse of space (once a wilderness) become a land of enchantment, and the world (once a land of enchantment) become a wilderness? Where empty space could not lure him, a land with beautiful scenes and society most definitely could.

That is how it is for all of us. The best way—indeed, the only way—to cast out an impure affection is to accept a pure one in its place.

And so, let us not try to change the existing tendencies of the human heart. We may very well be tempted to attach ourselves to the things of this world, as if this world is what matters most. But let us comprehend the superior attraction of that world which is to come. Only then will we avoid doing violence to our human nature. And only then will we be able to die to this present world and live to the more lovely world offered to us through the gospel of the kingdom of God.

photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

How to Avoid the World’s Seduction

Part 4

To do your best at any particular job, you want to use the most effective tools. Trying to deny worldliness without faith is the same as trying to work without the right set of tools. As we have begun to see, the most effective tool—indeed, the only effective tool—for turning us from lovers of the world into lovers of God is the gospel.

It is only in the gospel that God stands revealed as an object of confidence to sinners. It is only in the gospel where our desire for Him is not chilled by the barrier of guilt that hinders every approach not made through Christ, our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5). The gospel brings us hope, with which we draw near to God. To live without hope is to live without God, and if the heart is without God, the world will then have control over it.

The world’s control over the heart is destroyed only when a person sees and embraces God as revealed through Christ. Then we no longer look on God with terror as an offended lawgiver. Instead, we are enabled by faith (which is God’s own gift) to see His glory in the face of Jesus Christ. In the gospel, we hear Him proclaim goodwill, full pardon, and complete acceptance to those who turn to Him in repentance.

Only when a heart has been regenerated can it experience a love that overshadows, and ultimately drives out, its love of the world. When we are released from the spirit of bondage and received by the Spirit of adoption, we are brought under a new and better master—One who delivers us from the enslavement of our heart’s former desires. In this way, saving faith brings life to a heart that is otherwise dead to the influence of any other offer of salvation.

The gospel is designed to both pacify the sinner’s conscience and purify his heart. It does not do just one or the other. Take away the pacifying, and the purifying is taken away as well. On the flip side, the more a conscience is pacified, the more it is purified. In other words, the more a conscience is soothed by the gospel, the more it is sanctified by the gospel.

This is one of the great secrets of the Christian life: the more you view God as a giver of free, unmerited, unending grace, the more enabled you are to live in obedience to Him. The more attractive God appears to you, the less attractive the world will appear. Your love for God will spring out of your awareness of God’s love for you. In effect, you will experience and demonstrate the truth that the gospel creates what the law commands.

The person who views God as saying, “Obey me or else” will be filled with a constant fear of punishment, and this fear will eat away at his confidence to interact with God. If, in awareness of his sin and shame, he persists in “making it up” to God, he is actually pursuing his own selfish pride and not God’s glory. By trying to prove himself through obedience, he reveals a heart of disobedience; he is approaching God strictly on his own terms.

In the gospel, God’s acceptance is given freely, without money and without cost (Isaiah 55:1), so that a person’s security in God is placed beyond the reach of any disturbance. The Christian can rest in God’s presence just as one might relax with a friend. Through the gospel, an understanding is established between God and man: God delights to show goodness to His children, and His children find the truest possible sense of gladness in the beauty of this goodness. Salvation by free grace, salvation based not on works but on the mercy of God—salvation such as this is just as effective in delivering our wayward hearts from worldliness as it is in delivering our corrupt souls from condemnation.

The freeness of grace, which so many are tempted to think provides an excuse to sin, is actually what enables the heart to fight against sin. Far from being a seed that sprouts into worldly living, free grace is the seed of an inclination against worldly living. To the degree that you compromise the freeness of this grace, to that degree you will take away one’s ability to love God and reject worldliness. The most powerful transformation that can occur within a sinner is when, under the belief that he is saved by free grace, he is taught by that same grace to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts” (Titus 2:11-12).

Because of the gospel, the Christian need not lose heart. Even if he cannot effectively discern the corruption of the world, he can still aid himself in destroying the world’s influence in his life. All he needs to do is continually remind himself of the gospel.

If you are unable to understand the true nature of the present world, you can still study what has been revealed from the world to come. If you are unable to observe and dissect sinful desires, you can still wield the only weapon that destroys those desires: the gospel. You may not be able to bring into light the hidden recesses of human nature, with all the weaknesses and lurking appetites that belong to it. Nevertheless, you do have a truth in your possession that, like a black hole, will swallow up all such lurking appetites.

Therefore, never stop using this powerful instrument in putting an end to your love of the world. Use every legitimate method of instilling in your heart a love of Him who is greater than the world. If at all possible, clear away the shroud of unbelief that hides and darkens God’s lovely face. Never cease to affirm that in the gospel, which reconciles sinful people to their Maker, the God of love presents you with a kaleidoscope of His endearing qualities.

photo credit: reinvented via photopin cc