Freedom and Forgetfulness

So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. (Galatians 5:1, NLT)

God’s purpose for our lives is freedom. 

Freedom from the tyranny of the expectations of others. Freedom from our fear of condemnation. Freedom from the fetters of addictions and sin and guilt.

He calls us to true, tangible freedom; not abstract, theoretical freedom. This is a deeply experienced freedom; freedom that radically and utterly redefines our relation to others and to God. This is no mere religious pep-talk or emotive sermonising but a life-altering, paradigm-shifting reality of living in the Spirit of God.

Freedom is God’s calling, His heart’s desire, for each and every one of us. Not just the saintly few, but every one of us who calls on the name of Jesus as Lord. Freedom is the song of the Father’s heart into which He draws each of us, the dance of liberty for which He created us from eternity’s beginning.

But many of us – myself included – have heard only whispers and tasted no more than a tantalising bite of this freedom.

We are plagued by the question, Can I truly experience such freedom? Is God that good?

With our heads we honour God as a good and loving Father, but that truth has not yet taken root in our hearts. There is an insurmountable distance between the life that we know we have been called to and the reality we presently live in.

In our sinfulness and our thwarted attempts at holiness, many of us feel disqualified from living in this freedom. We ask “How can God love me like I am? How can I escape this state I’m in?” Our backs are broken by the weight of guilt that dangles precariously between our knowledge of our own sin and our apprehension of God’s holiness.

Having been saved by grace, we have now taken sanctification into our own hands. We are left demoralised and depressed that what we know should be our experience of the Christian life is not the one we actually do experience. Having started out in grace, we become tied up in a law of our own making, as if the road to perfection is one we must now walk alone.

These feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and spiritual stagnancy are born out of lies we have believed about the character of God. I have believed that God’s love for me is no more than theoretical, abstract, distant. I have believed that yes, God loves me in some detached, forensic sense, but that doesn’t mean He actually likes me. I have believed the lie that His love is a reluctant love, not a reckless Gospel-love that leaves the ninety-nine to run after the one.

True freedom comes from the rectified understanding of God’s character and of ourselves that comes when the truth of the Gospel takes root in our hearts.

When we take the truth of God’s love, grace and goodness seriously, we are forced to stop taking ourselves so seriously. When we comprehend deeply the truth that we are loved unconditionally – yes, without any qualification – we are freed from our addiction to condemning self-inspection and self-analysis.

When we realise that we have no foundation to stand on but the Gospel, that we have no right to stand before God apart from the grace He has freely lavished on us, we can do nothing but laugh on our own pitiful attempts at righteousness.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Corinthians 3:17, NIV)

How can I still take myself seriously when I realise that all my best efforts fade like vapour before the Righteous One, the Holy of Holies, the God of the Universe? How can my heart do anything but skip with joy and mirth when I comprehend the price of righteousness paid on my behalf by the precious blood of Jesus?

How can I hold up my own righteous deeds with any air of importance before the One who sent His Son to die that I might live?

Every pretence, every show of makeshift morality fades away in the light of His goodness, evaporating before the heat of His furious, reckless love. I have nothing to stand on but the foundation of the Gospel. When I look on Him, how can I think so much on myself?

True freedom, then, is the freedom of self-forgetfulness of the Gospel. When I see my Great High Priest interceding on my behalf, I cannot obsess over my own life or worry about my own ability to be righteous any longer. When I look upon His perfect righteousness, I stop caring about my own pitiful attempts at goodness.

True freedom comes not from running away in fear from our sin and shame, but running to the One who alone can break their shackles. The life of the Spirit leads us not to morbid navel-gazing but to the self-forgetfulness that comes from knowing that we are radically beloved by God, and nothing can change that: not death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell (Romans 8:38).

To claim this life of freedom for ourselves, we don’t need to do more righteous deeds or strive to be more holy by our own strength. Instead, we must stop looking to ourselves altogether, and look upon the character and goodness of our Father in Heaven who loves us indescribably, with feet grounded on the Gospel of Grace. Freedom comes with the realisation that Jesus – and only Jesus – can stand in the gap between where we are and where we long to be.

Freedom comes when the deep rooted lies we have believed about God and about ourselves have been supplanted and we lay down our constant self-analysis and condemning consciences. It is all a matter of where we fix our eyes: looking upward rather than inward; into the loving eyes of the Father rather than upon ourselves.

Freedom, simply, is living in the self-forgetfulness of the Gospel. 

We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honour beside God’s throne. (Hebrews 12:2, NLT)

 

The Productivity God

Peering back into my childhood with rose-tinted spectacles, everything seemed so much simpler than it does now.

Back then time was always at a premium. Summer days were filled with time to draw and play with my favourite toys and go cycling with dad and sit nonchalantly in boredom. “Leisure time” was frequent and regular, not the rare commodity that it is now.

These days, on the other hand, I find that I’m rarely bored, because I don’t have time to be bored. Days are for work and to-do lists, for deadlines and emails, for social engagements and time spent with others. From the moment the alarm goes off in the morning to laying down at night, every action is coordinated, where possible, into a pattern of productivity and efficiency: spontaneity happens in the brief commas between diary appointments.

In this busy blur, life swings between shades of anxiety and excitement, of good times and difficult times, times of great breakthrough and times of draining disappointment. Caffeine is fuel for the fire of this constant busyness. Moments alone in silence are few and far between in the loudness of this 21st century living.

This none-stop busyness, masked as “productivity,” is a secret sickness with a myriad of symptoms: constantly checking your phone and emails in the worry of missing something important. Incessantly fretting about how much you have to do and how little time you have to do it. A calendar blocked out with no time for solitude at either end of the day. Burning the candle at both ends; early mornings and late nights to try and fit everything in. Befriended by lethargy and apathy as you are absorbed in your own world of demands and personal commitments. Not being “fully present,” either with others or before God. Crushing anxiety and fear that time is slipping from your hands.

I say all this as a sort of self-diagnosis. This busy season of life has, in many ways, been a wake-up call about the silent menace of endless activity. The way we spend our time is the most telling measuring-line of the things we value most in this world; the minutes we spend in busyness are offerings to our self-made gods.

So often, we sacrifice those things most important to us in the name of the god of productivity.

For me, that sacrifice has so often been my prayer-life. Yes, I sacrifice prayer – that most important, necessary, life-giving communion between creature and Creator, between son and Father – the well of strength for the weak man able only to depend on God.

And yet, this is what I offer up to the god of productivity. In the brief moments snatched in prayer on my busy days, there is a mental block between God and I because my mind is filled with so many other pressing matters and anxieties. But what is more pressing than the urgency of prayer? Even more telling is that, at other times, I forego praying altogether – all in the name of being more productive.

I might be the only one who struggles in this area. But I’m afraid I’m not.

The way we spend our time is the most telling measuring-line of the things we value most in this world.

The god of productivity is a lie, a scheme to rob you of that which is most important in this world. We need to take back what he has stolen. Enjoyment of time spent in communion with the Father is the most important pursuit of the Christian who, having been clothed in Christ, now calls upon Him as “Abba,” as a child, as one beloved.

This post isn’t a treatment, but a diagnosis. It isn’t a judgement, but a self-reflection. Nor is it morbid introspection, but a confession that I hope some will resonate with. Most of all, it is a hope for what could be and a stand against what is.

All it takes is a change of perspective. The psalmist says,

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Ps. 127:1, 2, ESV).

The way we spend our time indicates what we worship. The reason we fall before the lure of productivity is because this world measures success in results, activity, products and outcomes. The economy of heaven, on the other hand, offers a radically different account of success.

In this economy, it is not what you have done that is important, but who you become. The enslaved soul becoming a son. The beggar finding a place at the king’s table. The sinner redeemed, the thief forgiven, the broken made whole, the homeless homed, and the poor man given hope.

And this gives us a totally new perspective on how we use our time. No longer are we a slave to results, but a soul postured before the Saviour, growing in Him, receiving grace after grace that overcomes all striving and incessant working. It takes surrender, but who is more worthy of surrendering all – our time included – than Him?

As Jesus famously said to Martha, “You are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary” (Luke 10:41,42).

And what is that “one thing”?

Simply to dwell with Him

 

To Live Like it’s Your Birthday

Your birthday is perhaps the only day in your life when people celebrate you for your sheer existence.

You did nothing to bring yourself into the world; just about all the effort on that front was on the part of your mother. You had pretty much no part to play in your own birth. Your birthday, therefore, is a time of celebration and rejoicing simply because you are here; simply because you exist. 

It’s no accident, then that the language of God’s grace in the Bible is the language of birth, of new life, of new existence in the world. The apostle Paul puts the grace-wrought life of the believer like this: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18a, ESV)

Our reception of God’s grace, then, might be likened to the celebration of our birthday. Just as, on our birthday, we are made the recipient of rejoicing and celebration and gifts not because of any effort of our own, but simply because we exist, so it is with God’s grace. The Father has lavished His grace upon us, has given us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, has predestined to adopt us as His sons and daughters (Ephesians 1:3-14), not because of any merit or effort of our own, but simply because He loved us even in spite of anything we have or haven’t done. Even before we were born, He knew us, He called us and set us apart by this grace (Galatians 1:15).

This Gospel of Grace changes everything. We are truly accepted and celebrated just as we. Our Father in Heaven rejoices over us, His new creations, not because we have done anything to deserve it, but because He delighted to bestow His grace upon us and adopt us as His own.

We didn’t bring ourselves into this new life, nor did we cause ourselves to be born into His grace. But, like an eternally recurring birthday, we are constantly the recipients of spiritual blessing upon spiritual blessing, grace upon grace, life in abundance, simply because the Father’s nature is to give.

We are grace-born children. We could never earn the Father’s blessing, yet He simply pours His love upon us without measure. Our identity is secure. He delights in you simply because you are you, and you are His. 

Abundant life begins with this scandalous truth. Our identity is secured by the work of Another, and His work cannot be undone. To be great by this world’s standard is to be constantly striving, constantly seeking approval from others, constantly working and toiling for a sense of value before the watching world. It is a wearying work, and it will never satisfy, for, in the world’s economy, you can always be better, stronger, richer, more popular, more successful, more beautiful, have more friends, have a bigger house, and so on.

In the economy of heaven, however, our identity is secure in the Father’s love, by His grace that demands no merit or achievement on our part.  Like a new-born baby, we are celebrated and loved simply because the Father is Love, without qualification. And this makes us truly free, because, when we know our identity to be eternally secure, we can forget ourselves altogether.

So much worry and anxiety and trouble comes from building our identity upon the approval of another. True freedom comes from the self-forgetfulness of grace, because our identity is rooted in the Father’s grace bestowed upon us like a birthday present we didn’t do anything to earn.

It was for this life of freedom that the Father set us free. Receive the gift.

 

Move On

I have a confession to make. I’m rather good at feeling sorry for myself.

The sort of self-pitying behaviour I’m talking about swings two ways. On the one hand, when I mess up or make a mistake, I tend to wallow in self-condemnation and guilt. I’m an introspective type; sometimes a little too introspective, I’ve concluded. It means that when I do wrong, I beat myself up to no end.

On the other hand, when I feel low, I find it easy to fall into self-justification. You too might be accustomed to the type of fatalistic, self-justifying behaviour in the following scenario: you’ve had a bad day, so you think to yourself, “It doesn’t matter what I do now. Nothing I can do can make things any better or any worse.” The mind says to the will, “You’re already feeling down. The day is already a defeat. It doesn’t matter if you eat another donut, watch another episode of Suits, drink another beer, insert-unhealthy-behaviour-here to make you feel more comfortable about yourself.” Numb yourself from reality, and justify it to yourself. You deserve it. Not.

Both types of self-pity – whether it’s self-condemnation or self-justification – are destructive, numbing, and paralysing. Neither of them are God’s purpose for us. They leave us stagnant,  wallowing in a pit of self-despair. Like Elijah on the mountain, we find ourselves in a pitiful state of defeat, obsessing about our own woeful lot, without the perspective either to accept the past for what it is or press forwards into the future.

I think God sometimes says to us something to this effect: Get up. Gird yourself and move on. Get a grip and press forward. Ouch.

Of course, that sense of guilt is not, in itself, a bad thing, so long as it leads us to repentance. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, talks about this healthy guilt as “godly grief that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10). On the other hand, the type of self-aggrandising, self-pitying, despairing guilt, the guilt which holds on to past sins and does not let them go, is a “worldly grief [which] produces death.”

Guilt that leads to repentance is an essential part of sanctification. Repentance means that we accept our own mistakes, but then we are enabled to leave those mistakes at the foot of the Cross, knowing that “as far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12, ESV). We can press on, knowing that by God’s grace coupled with our partnership and obedience to His will, we are being perfected by Him, being “renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16, ESV).

Guilt that leads to self-pitying condemnation, on the other hand, leads to death. It involves, in a way, a rejection of God’s grace; we think that our sin is too powerful for His love to overcome. This type of guilt is a burden too great for the human soul to bear. Acceptance of God’s abundant grace, on the other hand, results in a type of self-forgetfulness, allowing us to forget what is behind and press on to what is ahead, “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14. ESV).

God calls us out from the cave of crippling despair, from our state of wallowing in defeat and condemnation. When the Israelites complained to Moses during the Exodus from Egypt, thinking themselves defeated what does God say to them? “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on” (Ex. 14:15).

Move on. 

Today, God may be telling you to move on. The story of Easter is that death has been defeated once-for-all-time. Our sin and rejection has been left at the foot of the Cross, nailed to the tree; our condemnation is met with His acceptance. Our old self – self-pitying, self-condemning, self-justifying – has been crucified with Him on Good Friday; we are raised to a new life of freedom by His resurrection on Easter Sunday. Freedom to move on.

When Jesus raised Lazarus to life, He said, “Lazarus, come out!” To each one of us, too, He calls, “Get up, come out, leave behind your grave-clothes, and move on.

The Wanderer

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.

I’ve been running for a while now, but my commitment to training has never been exemplary. Over the years, my dedication has come in fits and bursts, as temperamental and varied as the English weather.

The times when I’ve been most dedicated are when I’ve had a race to fix my mind on and work towards. Anyone who does sports will know the motivating power that an upcoming competition exerts over your training. You subordinate your diet, your health and your routine according to the hope of the prize at the end – the taste of victory, the sense of achievement, the medal at the finish line.

When I don’t have a race or event to work toward, I find my motivation to train slips away all too quickly. I care less about my diet. I do less exercise. My running becomes the thing I cut out of my busy weeks for the sake of more urgent tasks.

And the fruit of losing that motivation is evident: I feel lethargic, unfit, unhealthy, and lacking in discipline.

This, too, has been the story of my walk with God during this season of life.

A few weeks ago I began to feel incredibly burnt out. I’d been doing lots of stuff – good stuff as well – and yet I’d lost sight of the reason I was doing it. I’d stopped setting my mind on the goodness of the gospel, the reason for our hope and the saving power of God – and had gone on in my own strength. It was like I was doing lots of things for God – church events, CU events, the like – but I’d stopped doing them with God.

My burning-out brought with it feelings I’ve constantly struggled with in the past. A sense of alienation from God. Lack of clarity about why I was doing what I was doing. Feeling a loss of God’s presence. A lack of joy in my devotion to God. The sense of being a servant rather than a son.

I, so prone to wander, had lost sight of the grace that saved me at first, the grace that leads me on. Like the “foolish Galatians” against whom Paul has much to say, it was as if what had begun in me by a work of the Spirit, I was trying to continue by an effort of the flesh (Galatians 3:1-3).

“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home,” pens John Newton in his famous hymn. The grace in which we started out is the same grace that leads us home, the same grace that sustains us day by day, the same grace that brings us before God. Having lost sight of that grace, I’d wandered away from the fold of grace, just like the unmotivated runner who loses sight of the prize and sabotages his training.

When we lose our wonder and cease to fix our eyes on the incomprehensible, saving work of the Cross, we wander into all kinds of dry and dark places.  Like crazed wanderers in the desert, we stray from the life-giving springs and deep wells of grace to go after the false hope of a mirage. Our hearts are so prone to grow lethargic at the indescribable goodness of the gospel that saved us – at such great cost.

Like a river of living water that never runs dry, it is God’s grace – freely given, poured into our hearts through faith – that gives life, life in abundance. Fixing our eyes on Jesus changes everything. It produces in us hope, endurance, joy, assurance, security, and breathes new perspective into every circumstance. It is the power of salvation to those who believe.

Fixing our eyes on this great gospel, let us “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 ESV). The hope of that prize changes everything.

Gratitude

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James 1:17, ESV

A central component of expressing gratitude is what we do with the gift.

Why do I say this?

Recently I was making the half-hour walk to university, mulling over my various commitments, impending deadlines, upcoming assessments, mounting workload, and the like. I found myself grumbling to God about how pressured I felt right now with all the work I had to do, how burdened and weary and burnt-out I was getting with it all.  This complaint is, perhaps, familiar to you.

As I continued to grumble and moan, I was struck with a conviction that stopped me in my tracks.

In my attitude to my degree,  I’d effectively spat on a gift from God. 

This sounds dramatic and demands some qualifying. You see, what had been absent from my heart was thanksgiving – thanksgiving  for the massive gift of being a student on a degree programme in a top-class university. It’s an opportunity many people in this world would give anything for. In my grumbling, I’d totally trampled on this gift of grace from the Father – the immense privilege of spending three years of my life studying theology under leading scholars in the academy.

I don’t say any of this to brag – what grounds do I have for boasting when I stand here by the Father’s goodness and grace alone? – but to highlight a sobering realisation: the disdainful and careless manner in which I’d received a gift of God.

To reject a gift of God, to trample on a blessing, is like throwing a precious necklace to the bottom of a dusty jewellery cabinet where it’ll never be used, but doing so in the sight of the giver. When we even begin to grapple with just what a cost with which we were bought, how unfathomably, impossibly blessed we are in the Father as he lavishes his abundant grace on us, how can we not turn from selfish complaint into joyful, constant gratitude?

Clearly, I have a lot to learn in the area of thanksgiving. It calls for a total paradigm-shift: seeing through the superficial, surface-level concerns that obscure the reality of our abundant blessed-ness in God. The reality  that every day is a gift, wrapped and prepared by our good, good Father in Heaven. A gift to embrace and worship in gladness knowing that from him we have everything and to him must everything return as we honour and steward the gift with thankful, joyful hearts. It’s for this reason that the Psalmist can say,

This is the day that the Lord has made;

    let us rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)

It means our employment is a gift. Our families. Our friends. Our degrees and our opportunities to learn. Our places of dwelling. This goes beyond mere comparison – because comparison leads us to say either, “What I have is far better than what she has!” on the one hand, and on the other, “Why don’t I have what he does?” Comparison leads us to pride or envy. Thankfulness for gifts leads us to humility, humility as of children who rely on the Father for every good gift from above.

With gratitude comes freedom – because we’re no longer slaves to fear of loss, knowing that every good thing comes from the Father, that we’re children both dependent on him and assured a place at his table where we can be abundantly filled (Psalm 23:5, 6). It means even on the darkest of days, we know ourselves to be children in whom the Father delights, manifest in even the smallest yet most profound gift of breath in our lungs and a beating heart.

By grace alone we stand, apprehending our giving Father as awe-filled children. How can we not but bow with grateful hearts in joy-filled worship to him?

Kept

Doubt can hit us in many forms.

It can creep in subtly, nagging us with undermining, subversive questions. Intellectual objections and personal experiences erode our sure foundation, undercutting the rock we stand on, until we suddenly find ourselves falling as the ground beneath our feet caves in. Such doubts conspire to throw us into a violent sea where we suddenly find ourselves cut from anchor, tossed and turned every which way in the anxiety of losing sight of God.

Sometimes doubt attacks us more suddenly, triggered by an experience that makes us ask, “God, are you there? God, are you really good?” The loss of a family member. Personal sickness and pain. The turning of circumstances for the worst. The times where you look up to the heavens and wonder who, if anyone, is looking back down on you.

Experiencing Doubt

Doubt is an incredibly isolating experience. Especially if you’re in a community of faithful people, you can feel cut off because you find yourself questioning the beliefs that you, and those closest to you, held for granted. You think, “I’m alone in this. Other people won’t understand what I’m going through.”

Then there’s the feeling of isolation from God. You feel disqualified and distant from God, because you feel that doubt is not the mark of a true Christian. “If I was truly faithful,” you might think, “I wouldn’t doubt. I would stand firm in faith even though everything conspired to make me doubt.” Yet, that hasn’t been your experience. And, in the midst of that, you wander why God would continue to love you.

Doubt is a harrowing experience.

Kept by God

I’ve always seen doubt as the loosening of my grip on God, like a climber losing grip on a rock face. In other words, I’ve tended to picture the surety of my faith in terms of how well I can hold on to God. And, when I’ve no longer been able to do that, I’ve felt like a failure, like I haven’t been a good enough Christian.

Throughout the Bible, faith is talked about in much different terms from my vision of the self-dependent climber trying to grasp on to God by his own intellectual or spiritual exertions. Rather, the Bible pictures the believer as “kept safe for Jesus Christ” (Jude 2, NRSV). It is God “who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing” (Jude 24). Here the emphasis is not on the effort of the believer to hold on, but by the faithful, steady love of God, holding on to us.

At the end of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he prays that the believers there may be “kept sound and blameless (5:23), but that because the one who calls us is faithful, he will accomplish this (5:24).

You see, faith is not the act of grasping on to God by our own strength, lest we fall. Rather, our faithful God holds us, keeps us, protects us and clings to us as his own children.

The Faithfulness of the Father

Think about a baby held in the arms of their mother. They try to cling to her for safety and comfort and security, but by their own little strength, they cannot hold themselves up. Rather, their mother lifts them up, draws them close, quiets them, holds them close to her. They are secure in their mother’s arms – not because they are holding on to her, but because she is holding on to them.

It’s like that with us and God.

Time and time again I’ve felt distant and disqualified in seasons of doubt, thinking of my doubts as undermining the authenticity of my faith. Recently I’ve come to the conclusion that actually, doubt can, and indeed must, lead us to greater dependence on God. When we shift our mindset from “I’m lost because I can no longer hold on to God” to “I can’t hold on to you, God, but I need you to hold on to me,” doubt can become the means by which we’re led to greater dependence, trust, and obedience.

Doubt, then, is a humbling experience. But, I need humbling, that I might be flung back into the arms of my Saviour, away from the path of self-dependence into utter surrender in the arms of the Father.

Let’s say, with Spurgeon, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.”