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

 

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.

Chasing Home

Reflecting on the past four months, I’ve realised that I’ve slept in 12 different beds, in nine different cities and towns, across three countries and two continents. Whether that’s been just for a night or for a few months at a time, I’ve called quite a few places “home” this summer, whether temporarily or more permanently. At this point in time, I’m settling into new student housing in Nottingham.

All this isn’t to boast about having a pretty adventure-packed Summer (although it has been great). Rather, it’s to illustrate a point.

You see, my nearly constant movement over the past few months has meant I’ve had to embrace the temporality of it all. Wherever I’ve had the privilege of visiting, whoever I’ve had the blessing of meeting, it’s been in the knowledge that for each circumstance and in every situation, it was for a short time only.

Sometimes I’ve made a place my home for a season – for example, my time at university is a season of life where I’m pretty much based in one place for an extended period. At other times, it’s more temporary than that – like on a short-terms mission trip.

The Bible says that the whole of life is a bit like this. Whether we know it or not, everything – every experience, season, relationship – is temporary, is passing away.

Qoholet, the wisdom-writer of the book we call Ecclesiastes, says that everything is like vapour, a wind. The Hebrew word often translated meaningless in the English translation of in Ecclesiastes 1 also carries the senses breath, vanity, and delusion. Everything is temporal, fleeting, gone in a moment, he says. Later he notes the seasonal nature of human existence (the famous sequence starting “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” in Ecclesiastes 3), and mourns that no matter what legacy he leaves, after death it will amount to nothing more than a “striving after wind” (Ecc. 2:17, ESV). He doesn’t even have power over what his successors do with what he leaves behind – they may go and squander his riches and everything he has toiled for during his life (ibid. v. 18, 19).

The Psalmist paints a similar picture of human existence:

Lord, what are human beings that you care for them,
mere mortals that you think of them?
They are like a breath;
their days are like a fleeting shadow. (Psalm 144:3, 4, NIV)

That’s right: our existence is like a shadow, flickering and changing as the sun passes and gone as swiftly as the coming of the day’s end.

Every place we call “home,” whether in the knowledge it is for a short time or as a more permanent dwelling, will pass away. Every empire we build, every business and entrepreneurial pursuit  we pour energy into, every dream, every victory and defeat, everything that seems so final, so momentous, everything that we seek security and permanence in, these things are passing away. Every relationship, every family, everyone we love and hate, every person we promise to spend the rest of our days with – they, too, are going like a wind, mortal human beings that they are. Human existence is a fleeting shadow. Our degrees, our careers, our legacies, all is but a vapour, swallowed up in the passage of time that washes over our existence like an ocean that we are but a drop in.

All this might sound bleak to you. It might be something you choose to ignore. Our own mortality is a hard truth to swallow.

But the Bible offers some eternal perspective on our own fragile existence, a reason to rejoice – a reason for hope. Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, gives us the following insight, as he reflects on our eternal hope of glory:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 5:1-5, NIV)

This world is not our home, Paul says, at least, not like it is. The life we live now – our life in this world – is like a tent, a temporary residence. It is but a temporary dwelling, a passing place as we await the permanent, unshakeable, eternal dwelling place promised us, assured by our salvation in Christ.

Now we are wanderers, then shall we have rest. Now are we exiles, then shall we have a home. Now we hunger and thirst, then shall He satisfy our every need. Now we long for security, then we will dwell in an unshakeable Kingdom.

Paul uses the image of being “clothed…with our heavenly dwelling” as He pictures eternal life. The portrait here isn’t of some dualistic, abstract vision of heaven, some “place in the clouds” that our disembodied souls will float off into, with no likeness or resemblance to our world. No, not at all. Rather, it is that this world is groaning, longing for the time when heaven touches earth, transforming it into all God intended for Creation. It is material, concrete, real – where everything lacking is made whole.

This is an image of a world – even this world – transformed; a world where brokenness is transposed into wholeness, where sickness is done away with, where everything is made new, nakedness and depravity are clothed with bright raiment, where dark places are pierced with unfathomable light, where everything hurting and dislocated in this world is renewed, restored, redeemed.

It is life as it was meant to be – the bare bones of our mortality clothed with eternity, depravity clothed with abundance. It’s as the writer of John’s Apocalypse says: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4, ESV).

What does it mean for us now? We can either mourn the temporality of it all, or we can embrace it. Embrace every opportunity, every meeting, every encounter, every season of life as a gift. It is all from God, and it is all going back to Him. And every worry and heartache, everything “insurmountable” obstacle that seems so significant at the time, every burden- these things, too, are passing away. There will come a time when we will be clothed fully, when we come home, when we enter into the eternal feast when the Kingdom is established in fullness. For now, we wait.

It gives us unshakeable hope for the future, and perspective for today. And even now, the Kingdom is breaking in, making all things new. We are living in the aftermath of Christ’s shattering victory over the clutch of death and evil and darkness on the Cross.

And because of that, we have utter freedom. Freedom from having to clutch and strive for the things of this earth as if they’re all we have – freedom from the anxiety arising from our own mortality. He has given us utter freedom, even as we experience eternal life here and now.