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)

 

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.

A Great and Terrifying Wilderness

There are seasons where God feels closer than your breath, and seasons where He seems further away than the darkest reaches of the universe, obscured by the night sky as you gaze up, wondering to yourself, “Where are You?”

We’re experience-people. We live on touch, sight, smell, hearing, emotions. We often seek confirmation about the world and the reality we perceive by using one of these senses. “How do you know Everest exists?”, you might say. “Of course it does,” I’d respond. “You can go to Nepal and see it for yourself, climb its ridges, touch it.” You can confirm your suspicion by travelling there, or you can rely on the testimony of others.

A more difficult question might be, “How do you know she loves you?” Now, that’s harder. Yet, in many ways, the question of someone’s love is still confirmed by our experience and feeling of love. The way she treats you, the sacrifices she makes for you, your joint experiences – these would go toward confirming her love for you. Our perception of love is tied up, not exclusively but extensively, in our emotions and feelings.

Our experience of God, however, is often not like this. Sometimes our experience of Him is as tangible as Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai; we hear the sound of His voice, we smell His fire or His fragrance, we perceive, somehow, His glory about us. Yet, more often (for me at least) its more like the believers that Peter’s Epistle is addressed to:

Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory. 1 Peter 1:8, ESV

“You have not seen Him,” says the writer of that letter. “Yet you love Him, you believe in Him, you rejoice.” How can that be? When our perception of love is so tied in to our nature as physical beings, based on touch and sight and feeling, how can we who do not see Him love Him and rejoice in Him?

It totally reevaluates our perception of faith. So often I have fallen into the trap of thinking of the outcome of faith as a succession of mountain-top experiences, tangible meetings and encounters. If only I pray right, I’ll have these transcendent feelings of awe and devotion. If only I sing this song, or go to that place, then I’ll meet God, I’ll experience His presence. My idea of faith-experienced is tied up with nice feelings and giddy emotions.

Which is why time and time again I’ve been discouraged and hopeless when it isn’t like that. As if there’s something wrong with my process and method. Like a true relationship with God is like a constant “feeling-stream,” where I receive all these spiritually-charged emotions and experiences. And, when I don’t get that, I doubt, I wonder, I lose heart, because my faith is based on a series of transient experiences rather than a constant bedrock of truth, a truth that surpasses my fleeting human perceptions.

In short, we import society’s longing for instant gratification into our spiritual life, that a relationship with God is about constantly “feeling something,” pious emotions and ecstatic thoughts.

Let’s go back to Moses on his mountain. In Deuteronomy, the story of Moses recounting to the Israelites how God led them through the Sinai wilderness, he says of God, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites…the great and terrifying wilderness you saw” (Deuteronomy 1:6,7,19, ESV).

The authentic expression of faith is not just the amazing, extra-ordinary encounter with God on the mountain top. No. Its the lived obedience and trust in God when He doesn’t feel so present, the mornings you get up and are in terror at the “great and terrifying wilderness” you are about to enter. Its about what happens in the periods of boredom and anxiety in the wilderness. In short, faith is more than feelings. 

And there’s something beautiful about that. Because, our God is not transient and fleeting like our human experience. He is trustworthy, He is faithful, He is steadfast in His boundless love to us from age to age, a constant cornerstone and bedrock. He is the God with whom our feet shall not be moved, in whom we shall not be shaken, and whose Kingdom has no end.

And this is truth that doesn’t change based on our experiences. Truth is constant, when our feelings are not. Take heart, friend. He is with you, holding, leading, loving, even when we don’t feel it.

(v) Immeasurably More

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20,21, ESV

I’m now home after our week in Romania, and I’ve had some time to process all that God has done during our time in that incredible country.

Over our five days working in Tarlungeni and Sacele, four construction teams and two children’s work teams made up of our seventeen-strong group worked alongside FAST’s amazing staff, pouring themselves out in serving wholeheartedly, loving sacrificially, and seeking the Kingdom of God in one of Brasov’s most impoverished communities .

We finished laying the bricks for a house in Tarlungeni, and built a total of 14 A-frames to roof not only that building, but also another house in the village that was awaiting a roof. We plastered the ceiling of one family’s house, and installed boilers and radiators in two workshops so that FAST’s vital construction projects can continue through the freezing winter months.

God did abundantly more in five days than I could fathom. From a personal perspective, He opened up my eyes to the things that break His heart, confronting me with poverty and rejection that I’d heard about but never experienced in such a way before, so manifestly real. It was heartbreaking to see such pain, such injustice, to walk with people who had known only rejection and squalor all their lives. It left me emotionally and physically exhausted.

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Yet, in the midst of that, God reminded me that He is sovereign, He is faithful,  and He is victorious. In a community that, from the outside, seems to be in a hopeless situation, the Father is on the move, restoring, rebuilding, healing, renewing. Through the work of FAST, run by people like Daniel and Ema who heard God’s cry for His hurting people and obediently followed the call to go out to a community that no-one else would, God is moving in hope, flooding the very streets of Tarlungeni with his mercy and love.

From the outside, building a house or running a holiday club may seem like merely sticking a plaster on a fatal wound: a house will last a few years, a holiday club provides only brief respite. But, it was never about us, what we built or achieved. No. Our purpose was simply to offer what little we could, humbly, obediently trusting the God “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20,21, ESV) would take that offering and work His power. By ourselves, we are nothing. Aside from God hopeless places remain hopeless, barren wastelands remain barren, ruins remain ruined.

But we don’t follow a God who is removed from pain. Our Father, whose Kingdom is love and justice and mercy and kindness poured out abundantly, enters into the darkest places to transform them, bringing life, rebuilding the ruins, raining down hope. What is impossible for us becomes possible in God, who works together all things for good. It’s happening in Romania, as it is across the world. Heaven is touching earth. Darkness is pierced by the light, and hopelessness is exchanged for hope.

God gives His people, His church, the blessing of participating in that work. And what a blessing it was to offer ourselves, in a small way, to the work that He is already doing in Sacele and Tarlungeni. The Kingdom is there, and we were given a small share in it. Through the work of FAST, the Father is working powerfully, transforming a community with His love.

For now I bid Romania la revedere. But God is still there, always faithful, steadfast in love. And His Kingdom is on the move.

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(iv) “It is all Jesus”

Days three and four

Today we sit around George’s table, sipping coffee together as we take a break from making A-frames; this is welcome respite from the baking afternoon sun. 

There is a moment of silence in our conversation. George looks proudly at his wife Simona, at his beautiful little girls Anicia and Natalia. Then, gesturing around him, at the house he built from scratch, at his handmade workshops, at his family, he says:

“Look, I have it all…[without Jesus], there is no house, I have no wife, no children…It is not mine. It is all from Jesus…It is all Jesus.”

George is glowing as he recounts passages from the Bible reminding us that although we may have material wealth in abundance, we have nothing at all if we don’t have Jesus. 

This is a moment I won’t forget. This man, who comes from a culture where poverty is widespread and hope seems thin on the ground for so many, has been utterly transformed by the love and hope that is in Christ. 

This is what makes what we’re doing in Romania worth it. Moments like this are such beautiful, such tangible expressions of the Kingdom of God on the move in this country. Person by person, family by family, God is exchanging hopelessness for hope, poverty for abundance, rejection for love. 

What greater cause is there to live for?