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?