grace without guilt … when you’re weak

At the heart of the gospel is the proclamation that ‘Jesus is Lord’. Because he is Lord, the Christian allows Jesus to be the very focus of life. We will learn to value and serve people as he does, but at the same time will be kept from expecting these people to meet all of our needs. What needs they do meet in our lives we will value and thank God for, and in so doing will be reminded that they are gifts to us from our Lord. When others, even those closest and dearest to us, are viewed like this, we are free to minister to them without expecting them to meet our needs. (Peter Brain, Going The Distance page 72)

I wanted to pump my fist in triumph when I stumbled across this sentiment. But it didn’t take long for reality to kick in — since my everyday experience only intermittently lives up to what’s described here.

I regularly fail to value and serve people as Jesus does — preferring to withdraw and let things play out their course, or else to push hard to get my own way.

And I often expect others to meet my needs (whether for security, significance or transcendence) in ways only Jesus can.

Either way, I’m left feeling weak and inadequate.

Day to day, I’m often far from being the ‘perfectly free lord of all, subject to none’ and ‘perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all’ that Martin Luther tells me I should be.

Which is why I so desperately need to hear Paul’s parting words about being empowered by God —  readied for spiritual battle (Ephesians 6.10-20).

The famous image of a fully kitted-out Roman soldier isn’t a checklist of weaponry and tactics available only to elite spiritual troops. Paul’s evocative language is far too hard to pin down for that.

Rather, it’s a portrait of someone who simply embraces the gospel.

Believing it. Enacting it. Working it deep into their heart and life.

I’m more and more convinced that it’s the profoundly unsexy spiritual disciplines that are the key to this.

For it’s things like regular Bible reading, prayer and financial generosity that keep us exposing ourselves to the message of grace and actively entrusting ourselves to the Lord who meets us there clothed in his promises.

There are no short-cuts to spiritual empowerment in the face of weakness and inadequacy.

I assume you have a reason for that

I’ve been pondering how to give feedback, especially when I disagree with the point or approach.

This has cropped up because I’m involved in a preaching group — workshopping a different person’s sermon each week — as well our fourth year Issues in Theology class — which consists almost entirely in listening and responding to presentations by class members often dealing with topics of particular pastoral interest (e.g., sin in the life of a believer, the problem of evil, the environment).

My tendency when confronted with disagreement is to say nothing for as long as I can. With the result that minor annoyances quickly become major frustrations — even more so because no-one else picks them up! Needless to say, this Dam It Up Until I Can’t Hold It Back approach is hardly constructive. Nor has it won the love and admiration of my peers.

I really want to improve at this. So I plan to follow the advice of a very wise colleague: assume the person I’m giving feedback to has a reason for what they said.

This puts flesh on the bones of the principle, ‘Don’t get frustrated, get fascinated’. Better, it allows for a thoroughly Christian approach to giving feedback. It lets you explicitly and directly challenge the point you disagree with — and be completely honest about disagreeing. Yet it keeps you humble enough to be taught. Rather than initiating a cycle of attack and counter-attack, it functions as an invitation to enter a conversation.

Can you imagine how differently things might unfold if I gave feedback like this?

I was interested to see that you said this/took this approach, where others may have made another point or approached it a different way; I’d love to hear about why you headed down the path you took…

Fremantle, WA (April 2009)

Fremantle, WA (April 2009)

conversational v confessional growth

I’ve just started reading Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most by three members of the Harvard Negotiation Project. And it feels promising. Partly because, like narrative therapy, it adopts a solution-oriented approach to delivering bad news, confronting hurtful behaviour, asking for a pay-rise, etc. Rather than dwelling on past failures, guilt or recriminations, it’s oriented towards growth and positive change. It’s forward looking. It’s about conversation — understanding rather than judging (or manipulating).

When it comes to Christian growth, a forward looking stance seems right. We’re interested in the work of God’s Spirit. And He’s the one who moves us towards maturity. Producing the fruit of Christ-like character.

We see it all the time in the Gospels. Jesus consistently welcomes people as they are — lost and messy and weighed down with baggage. He doesn’t hand out a list of criteria to fulfil before He lavishes grace on them. But nor does He leave them to wallow. His call is: ‘Go. And sin no more’.

The grace God shows teaches us to say No to ungodliness and Yes to holiness. So it seems to have lots in common with a conversational approach to growth.

Until I read things like this (Difficult Conversations, pp 11-12):

[T]alking about fault is similar to talking about truth — it produces disagreement, denial, and little learning. It evokes fears of punishment and insists on an either/or answer. Nobody wants to be blamed, especially unfairly, so our energy goes into defending ourselves […] But in situations that give rise to difficult conversations, it is almost always true that what happened is the result of what both people did — or failed to do. And punishment is rarely relevant or appropriate. When competent, sensible people do something stupid, the smartest move is to try to figure out, first, what kept them from seeing it coming and, second, how to prevent the problem happening again.

At one level, this is brilliant — and directly applicable to the situation of Christian growth. For instance, if you’re taking on some habitual sin or character flaw, dealing with it has got to involve diagnosing what led to it taking root and thus what kind of spiritual weed killer is needed.

At another level, though, it makes me nervous about the role of confession. Where does admitting our fault come in? What about being sorry? Apologising? Taking responsibility?

Rather than throwing the baby out with the bath-water, though, I want to know if conversational growth can accommodate confession and repentance. Accepting blame when we deserve it — not trying to dodge it. But doing so with an essentially forward looking stance. Sorrow that goes nowhere is worthless. But when it leads to repentance it’s exactly right (cf. 2 Cor 7.8-11).

The grace of God in Jesus elicits my willingness to give up pretending about my sin and guilt. But it doesn’t stop there. It enrols me in a ‘conversation’ about how to go and sin no more…

anxiety: the devil’s in the detail

This past weekend I preached on the conclusion of Peter’s first epistle (1 Peter 5.6 -14). It can feel a little grab bag-ish — as if there are a bunch of things Peter wants to say by way of encouragement that he just throws in there as he’s wrapping up.

But I actually think the things he says here do all fit together and make sense. When Peter urges us, ‘Humble yourselves … Cast all your anxieties on him …  Discipline yourselves … Keep alert … Resist the devil’, he’s taking us on a guided tour of how to stand fast in God’s grace (v. 12).

If this is the case, then the question of how to relate these various words of encouragement to each other crops up. In particular, how are we to relate resisting the devil to the call to humble ourselves and cast our anxieties on God? What’s the connection between our worries and anxieties and the fact that the devil prowls around like a roaring lion?

For Peter’s original readers, this question had a lot to do with the hostility and persecution they were suffering. Although it seems to consist largely of verbal — rather than physical — battering (cf. 2.12, 3.9-17 — with Christian slaves as a possible exception in 2.18-21), he does label their situation a ‘fiery ordeal’ (4.12). And that sounds pretty drastic.

So, by linking the pressure they were experiencing for sticking to their guns with the activity of their adversary the devil, Peter transposes their plight into a whole other key. Their day to day struggles are played out against a cosmic backdrop. The ordinary Christian life within a hostile (or perhaps just indifferent) world is the fulfilment of all the kind of talk we get in Old Testament books like Daniel about apocalyptic battles between good and evil. The devil is in the detail.


But what about us? Do you spend much time thinking about this cosmic and apocalyptic struggle going on behind the scenes of your day to day experiences of hostility, contempt, indifference, ostracism, bad-mouthing and whatever else causes you anxiety as you seek to stand firm in the grace of God in a world in which it makes very little sense? What difference would it make if you did?

ADDENDUM: Before you sound the alarm, I’m not recommending that we start blaming the devil for every little thing that goes wrong — as if the string of red lights that made you late to the job interview was part of some grand conspiracy! If the devil is in the details of everyday life, he’s to be resisted not obsessed over. Nor am I suggesting that those who persecute us are to be resisted as if they themselves are the devil. We’re to resist him, not those who persecute us for doing right (cf. 3.9-17).

Significantly, the connection between the devil and our anxieties runs the other way too. The way we’re to resist the devil under pressure is to cast our anxieties on God, humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand by turning to him in prayer. Spiritual warfare is not about knowing the right rituals or the right names. It’s about that basic act of Christian faith, crying out to God in expression of our dependence on him.

Remember Job? The devil opposed him, testing his faith. And Job, who never even had an inkling that there’s a cosmic conflict behind his troubles, resisted him simply by turning to God. He didn’t blame God. He humbled himself under God’s mighty hand. Even the boldest expression of pain and frustration to pass Job’s lips doesn’t fail to be an expression of faith. Pain, anxiety, doubt and even indignation laid before God is an expression of faith not unbelief. And it’s the key to resisting the devil!

what makes this hard to believe?

There’s a really interesting article by David Powlinson in Power Religion: The Selling Out of the Evangelical Church exploring the relationship between psychology and gospel ministry.

Some of it feels a little dated (I mean, how often do you hear sermons about self-esteem from evangelical pulpits these days?), but he makes some very significant points as he probes why psychology rose to such prominence in American evangelical circles in the late 80s. One of which is:

Evangelical churches and theologians have typically not grappled with the problems in living that Christian people have. The church has either misconstrued, oversimplified, or avoided facing the existential and situational realities of human experiences in the trenches of life.

The comment is made often enough that our preaching tends to be weak on application. We do our exegesis. We pour ourselves into biblical theology. We long to show people how to read the Bible. But we don’t do so well when it comes to convincing people that it’s worth reading. That biblical theology makes a difference. That the text we’re exegeting matters.

Someone might suggest that perhaps we don’t really believe that the Bible is worth listening to. Or that we’ve lost faith in the biblical gospel. But I’m not sure that’s it…

Maybe the problem is that we need to pay more attention to pyschology. Or at least the realities that its advocates are responding to. That is, those experiences and situations that make it hard for our congregations to believe what the Spirit is saying in whatever passage we’re preaching from.

I wonder what difference it would make to my preaching if I addressed myself as seriously to the question What makes this hard to believe? as I try to do to the question What is the main point of this passage?

demonising and contemporary psychology

A psychologist friend of mine has pointed me in the direction something called narrative therapy. I’m fascinated by the vistas it opens up, and not just for psychological practice.


It’s spurred me to address one of the gaps in my theology (which John has laid his finger on over at Skunk Egg Brick Walnut) — spiritual warfare, demons, demon-possession, that sort of thing.

Crucial to this is the emphasis on ‘extenalising the problem’ in narrative therapy, which is (once again) about how you tell the story…

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