What to Learn About Your Heavenly Father from Your Earthly Mother

Slide1As the youngest of four children, I’ve always received a certain amount of grief from my siblings for being spoiled. So the tale goes – the upbringing I received from my mother was egregiously pampered compared to the rigors of their childhoods. Now in my 30s, older, and having more carefully thought through their complaints, I’ve confirmed in my mind that, they were wrong and I’ve been right all along – I was never spoiled.

Nonetheless, I won’t for a second deny the love that my mother has for me. If you happen to be friends with her on Facebook, you know full well that she’s one of my biggest supporters. Virtually everything I say is gospel and virtually everything I do is golden, in a good way. I’m pretty sure that’s how mothers are supposed to be.

A mother’s love is about as unconditional as any you’ll find on the planet. I believe this is because mothers have expressed so much painful, sacrificial love for their children for such a long time that the constant, willful expression of love translates, over time, into the affection of love.

On a much, much smaller scale, it’s sort of like my affection for my dog. My dog does almost nothing for me. She costs me money. She requires my time and energy. She’s ruined my furniture and clothes. Despite this, I literally follow her around outside and pick up her excrement with a tiny baggy multiple times a day. This week alone I’ve nearly passed out several times from holding my breath while cleaning up after her. And yet, the more I do all this, the more I seem to love her. Why is this? Expressions of love lead to the affection of love. Romanticized Americans, by the way, often get this backwards. We tend to think the affection of love will bring about the expressions of love. Consequently millions of people are in “loveless” marriages and feel no affection. Why? Often because they haven’t shown love to their other spouse in ages. In other words, they haven’t expressed any love, and consequently, they feel no affection.

But back to mothers. For all of the bad press mothers get for being hypercritical and controlling, almost every mother I know has borderline unconditional affection for her children. Again, why? Because she has expressed such love throughout the child’s life.

A mother carries a child for nine months, tending to his/her needs ahead of her own. And then, through unthinkable pain and the shedding of blood (which I was entirely unprepared to witness for the first time as a 10th grade biology student), the mother brings life into the world. And the care and concern has just begun. Day after day (and night after interrupted night), the mother feeds, and cleans, and warms the child. Eventually she sends the child off to school, which breaks her heart despite the fact that it now, relatively speaking, frees her from some responsibility. Why? Because five years of constantly expressing love has created the overwhelming affection of love. More time passes and the child goes away to college, which brings about many tears. Yes, the same teenager who was a constant headache, at best ungrateful and at worst constantly complaining, will somehow be sorely missed. Why? Because the expression of love has created the affection of love. And then, one day, if the child becomes a pastor who writes a two bit blog, the mother reposts that blog on Facebook every week, thinking each entry worthy of a Pulitzer. I’m pretty sure that’s how mothers are supposed to be.

Fascinatingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, did you know that the Bible sometimes compares God to a mother? The prophet Isaiah, in particular, seems to favor this imagery (Isa. 42:14; 46:3-4; 66:12-13). Don’t misunderstand, Isaiah isn’t calling God female. He’s merely using admirable characteristics in which females tend to excel as descriptors of God. Perhaps most famously, he says, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15) God, through Isaiah, is suggesting something that we would deem nearly impossible. Can you imagine a mother forgetting that she was a mother WHILE she was breastfeeding her child?! Technically, I suppose it’s possible. Tremendously unlikely, yes. But it’s possible. And yet God says that as improbable as that sounds, the thought of him ceasing to love us is infinitely less likely. Why? Because his cosmic expression of love has created an endless affection of love.

As much as I screw up, it might be tempting to think that God would give up on loving me. But if that’s not the case with flawed earthly parents, how much less would that be the case with a perfectly loving God.

Just like our physical births, spiritually, you and I were birthed through great labor pains and the shedding of much blood. The labor was a crucifixion. The blood was our Savior’s. And now when God the Father looks at us through the lens of Jesus, he sees sheer perfection. He loves us unconditionally. We can do no wrong in his sight, for Jesus paid for all our wrong.

God is your biggest fan, your loyalist supporter, and cares for you like a mother. You can thank Jesus for that.

“Being Christian” and Rethinking Righteousness

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(The following is a revised portion of my sermon from Sunday – if you’d like to listen to the sermon in its entirety, you can find it here.)

According to Forbes.com, Louis C.K. is one of the top 5 grossing comedians on the planet. Knowing this, but being unfamiliar with and curious about his work, I caught several minutes of his cable show the other night as I was flipping through the channels. Low and behold, as is often the case with comedians, I found some interesting cultural insights on American spirituality.

From what I gathered, in this episode, C.K. had gone over to Afghanistan with other performers to entertain American troops stationed overseas. In the part I caught, the comic was having a conversation with a young, (presumably) Christian woman after his set. And the young woman (19 or 20 years old) was lamenting the fact that Louis C.K.’s jokes were so incredibly vulgar. She said, “I just don’t understand why you can’t be funny and be more CHRISTIAN?” The comic responded with a confused look. They discussed this for a little longer and eventually Louis, whose daughter had secretly deposited her pet duckling in his luggage to help keep him company on his trip, took the baby duck out of his backpack and began to play with it. Finding his behavior silly and endearing, the young woman began to laugh. She asserted, “Now you’ve got it! Now you’re being funny AND you’re being Christian.” 

The average person’s perception of Christianity (or at least this 19-year-old cheerleader’s) is that to “be Christian” means to “be moral.” Now, so far as I know, Louis C.K. is a self-professed agnostic. As writer and producer of the show, he created this scene and apparently this has been his net takeaway from Christianity. And to be honest, if Christianity were indeed just systematized morality, I’m not convinced that agnosticism is not the route I’d go either.

This is unfortunately the common American perception. The average person has come to define “righteousness” as “moral purity/performance” and righteousness is understandably so closely associated with Christianity, that Christian faith and the Christian church is simply understood to be a collection of fairly morally pure (albeit somewhat hypocritical) people who believe in certain traditional moral tenets.

I’m not exactly sure why that is the societal perception of Christianity, but if I had to guess, I think it may be because many Christians themselves have come to define righteousness (and thus Christianity) this way.

However, in the Bible, righteousness is a relational word. In essence, it means “to be right with” someone. It means to find favor, acceptance, and welcome from someone. Consequently, the opposite of righteousness is NOT immorality. The opposite of righteousness is rejection.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this concept throughout the New Testament. For instance, in Philippians 3:8, Paul, after stating his resume for why he’d reasonably be considered the paragon of virtue amongst Jews, says that he now (post conversion) considers all of these credentials to be “garbage” (NIV11), “rubbish” (NIV84), “dung” (KJV), “I can’t believe I stepped in that with my new shoes.” (J.M.Hein13)

According to the Jewish way of thinking, Paul’s pedigree was excellent, his moral record was virtually impeccable, his church attendance was spotless. But it wasn’t until Jesus blinded him that his spiritual eyes were opened to the fact that he couldn’t make himself right with God. Only then did he realize that  It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (Rom. 9:16), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). He agreed with James that “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10)

As a result, the Apostle Paul knew that he would need a righteousness (again, understand as “acceptance”) apart from the law. He said that he used to consider himself to be a “good guy” based on his moral performance (especially in comparison to others). But then he realized how self-centered, condescending, and violently unloving he’d been. He now knew the only shot he had at being “right with God” was through grace, “I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.” (Phil. 3:8-9) Paul knew that’s exactly why Jesus came (1 Tim. 1:15). To save Paul. To save us. To be the embodiment of God’s grace to us. To be our righteousness.

Moral purity will undoubtedly be a desire of the regenerate heart of a Christian. But to suggest that Christianity is about our moral performance is like suggesting that Moby Dick is a how-to guide on catching whales. Yeah, that concept is in there, but it’s not the main emphasis. In fact, the emphasis of the Bible, in some respects, is nearly the opposite. The Bible obviously doesn’t encourage immorality, but, in no uncertain terms, it teaches the inability of mankind to make ourselves right with God. Despite this, the overwhelming love of God comes to rescue those who have rebelled against him. Jesus was the only one who was truly pure, and yet, on the cross, he gave that up and became sin (2 Cor. 5:21), so that we, covered with his innocence, could legally be declared as God’s righteous children.

My moral purity has its high and low points. But my salvation is not compromised by this. Jesus has already grabbed hold of that for me. My life quest then is not to “be righteous” or “find righteousness” but to “know Christ” (Phil. 3:10), who is my real righteousness.

Success – An Enticing Road to Self-Destruction

Missouri v Texas A&MIf you don’t follow college football, it’s possible that you’ve still heard of Johnny Manziel, aka “Johnny Football.”

Manziel’s remarkable and historic season last year, quarterbacking the Texas A&M Aggies, won him a Heisman trophy. He set numerous NCAA Division I records. His name is in the history books for numerous records. It was one of the greatest college seasons of all time. And it was followed by one of the most tumultuous off-seasons in college sports.

More than any collegiate athlete since Tim Tebow, the media has loved Manziel. Like Tebow, Manziel’s fame comes as much for his behavior off the field as it does for his undeniable performance on the field. This year, Manziel’s eligibility has been put in question due to reports that the collegiate quarterback accepted money for signing memorabilia. This has come on the heels of him openly and defiantly tweeting pictures of himself gambling and partying at frat houses and stating how much he couldn’t wait to leave his current college, all in addition to allegations of drug use, mistreatment of team personnel, underage drinking, bar fights, being asked to leave the Mannings quarterback camp due to repeated tardiness, and even an article in ESPN The Magazine where his parents expressed their concerns about Manziel’s stardom going to his head.

This past Saturday, Manziel once again evidenced that he hasn’t matured, grown, or changed in any noticeable way. Despite sitting the first half of his team’s game against Rice University for suspension, Manziel played pretty well in the second half. And he let everyone know how he felt about it. He lashed back at the Rice students for taunting him, was penalized by officials and yanked from the game by his head coach.

It doesn’t matter what religious beliefs you do or don’t hold, what views you have on morality or not, by virtually everyone’s estimation, Johnny Manziel carries himself like kind of a jerk.blog - Johnny Football 3

I honestly know very little about Johnny Football’s past and how he became like this. I don’t know what, if any, faith convictions he holds. I know his parents are a wealthy Texas oil family and that he’s been recognized as something of a folk hero in Texas long before his Texas A&M days. But the pattern of how someone becomes an absolute monster with seemingly zero respect for peers,  institutions, or even law enforcement/authority…..this is fairly familiar.

When you have great success, as Manziel has, to the degree that people hold you up on a pedestal, you start to look down on others. In a sense, it’s natural, and horrible. You begin to identify yourself with what it is that everyone else values you for (Manziel’s nickname is literally “Johnny Football” – how much more transparent can his identity get?!). And when you see evidence that you’re superior to others in that way, you believe you’re superior to others in every way.

Have you ever noticed how humans, when they are treated like gods, begin to live as though God’s laws no longer apply to them?

If not, let me give you another example of a young man who let success go to his head. King David was a shepherd boy who desired God’s heart. David was “blessed” with a tremendous amount of success. Israel’s empire expanded greatly under David’s leadership. But it didn’t take very long for David to begin buying his own hype and for his heart to start running on the fuel of human praises. At that point, sitting in the seat of honor which should only be reserved for God himself, David began to live as though God’s laws no longer applied to him.

If you read through 2 Samuel 11 carefully, you’ll notice that virtually every moral command of God is brushed aside by David. He’s a lazy, irresponsible leader (“In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out….But David remained in Jerusalem.” vs. 1). He invaded a woman’s privacy by spying on her while she was bathing, lusted after her, coveted this woman who belonged to another man, sent for her to come visit him, and had sex with her (“From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her.” vss. 2-4). He sent for Bathsheba’s husband who’d been faithfully serving his country, got him drunk and tried to deceive him into thinking Bathsheba’s pregnancy was his doing (“Send me Uriah the Hittite…..David made him drunk. vss. 7,13). And finally, when realizing his plan of deception wouldn’t work as hoped, David had Uriah killed (“Put Uriah out in front where the fighting is fiercest…..so he will be struck down and die.” vs. 15).

I don’t know about you, but by my count, understanding the broader spirit and principle of each of the commandments, that is literally every one of The Ten broken. King David, like Johnny Football, had so identified with his highly valued position, that he started to consider himself god. And at that moment, commands from the God of the Bible don’t matter to you.

NCAA Football: Rice at Texas A&MYou can call it entitlement or narcissism or a _________ complex or whatever you want. But the Apostle Paul wrote to the Romans and told them that sinful humans have a tendency to “exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being….(and) exchange the truth about God for a lie, and worship and serve created things rather than the Creator.” (Rom 1:23, 25) Now, if you happen to find yourself on the receiving end of the position of someone who is “worshipped,” which in our world today is most often those who find the greatest success, it can destroy you in an instant. If you think that you’re the primary cause of your good fortune, it will spiritually kill you. Pride is the single most destructive spiritual force.

Do you want to know what the Bible’s opinion of your success is? “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” (James 1:17) It’s all a gift. “But,” you say, “it was MY million dollar idea.” Well, who do you think gave you specifically the brain that came up with that idea and led you through all the life circumstances that planted and incubated that great thought in your head? “But,” you say, “I’m the one who put in all the hard work.” Yes, but who do you think gave you the health, and the opportunity, and the drive, and the skill set to do the hard work. According to the Bible, EVERY GOOD GIFT comes from God. The only reason you have any good in your life is God. Believing that does two things to you: 1) it keeps you humble, and 2) it helps you see the goodness of God, both of which keep you more grounded in reality AND make you an instrument that helps humanity instead of a monster who touchdown dances on humanity.

Christians know that, in the narrow sense, the only way I experience ultimate, everlasting salvation is by God’s grace through my Savior Jesus dying for my sins on the cross. Entirely a gift. Fewer Christians though, believe that in the broad sense, the only way I experience any salvation (i.e. any good) is also due to the grace of God poured out upon me. Entirely a gift.

Thank God for your successes, because he’s the only reason you experience any. Thank God also for your lack of success. You don’t know what kind of monster he’s preventing you from becoming.

CLOSING PRAYER: Heavenly Father, every good thing I have, every good thing I’ve done, any good that’s ever existed in me is a gift from you. Day after day, help me die to myself and rise with Jesus. Give me humility that comes in knowing what you needed to do to save me and confidence in knowing your willingness to do anything, even die yourself, for my good. Use my life to declare your praises.