Impressive or Known

You can either be impressive or you can be known. You have to pick one.

I’ve heard variations of this quote over the years. They’ve bounced around my head, and I’ve now seen a couple of sources pointing to Ray Ortlund for its origin. I think this is a central truth of vibrant Christian community.

The more we try to impress others, the less we will be known. Conversely, the more we allow ourselves to be known by others, the less impressive we will be. Like a playground see-saw, these realities move in opposition to one another.

Wanting to be Loved

We all have a fundamental desire to be loved by those who matter most to us. This impulse is not identical for everyone, but some expression of this desire seems so widespread as to be programmed into us.

And while we may put on a mask to be tolerated or liked by some, in order to be loved, we need to be known. We want those we care about to stay committed to us even when they know the darkest shadows of our hearts.

This, after all, is what we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his love God has pursued and changed us; we must never think God’s love is the result of our faith or some sliver of obedience. While we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8)!

Jesus was not persuaded to save us by our kindness or humor. He didn’t observe our gentleness or intelligence and then sign up for the incarnation and the cross. We did not impress God into forgiveness.

No. God knew us and loved us.

So, what we seek from other people is a human version of what we already have from God. Stated from the other angle, what we welcome people into with our Christian love is a faint shadow of what they can enjoy from God himself.

There’s no way around it—being known by others is risky. It is literally an act of faith. There are those who might use our mistakes and faults for harm against us. I am not advising everyone to spill all of their guts to everyone. We still need wisdom and discretion.

But in a Christian community where everyone is growing in love, the exposure scenario is less likely. As each person sees their own sin more clearly, weaponizing the sins of others becomes unthinkable.

In the end, however, we leave all outcomes to the Lord. If he knows the worst things about us and loves us still, and if our future and our lives are in his hands, then we will be able to withstand the consequences of transparency in our communities. A life of hyper-vigilant self-protection turns out to be a lonely life.

Trying to Impress

We try to impress others in dozens of ways, many of them specific to us and our relationships.

We may try to emphasize (or exaggerate) our intelligence or our adherence to an unspoken but approved list of spiritual disciplines. We think carefully and creatively. We worship God the same way you do.

Others may highlight their qualifications for the desired “in group.” We have heard of the right people, read the right books, attended the right schools. We hold the right beliefs.

Still others may try to be really, really nice. We’re sweet and kind and inoffensive. We will always affirm you and never make you uncomfortable.

Regardless of how we try to be impressive—and the above is just a small sample—we dangle a curated, false self in front of others. They might respect or admire the character we’re projecting, but we haven’t grown any closer.

How to be Known

If wanting to be impressive and wanting to be known are inherently in opposition, how can we help others know the real us?

This starts with learning more about our own unimpressiveness. In other words, we’re better able to share our real selves with others as we know our real selves. This is a process that can take time and maturity. I’ve found these below-the-surface questions helpful to ponder.

  • What makes me afraid? Why?
  • What makes me angry? Why?
  • What makes me excited? Why?
  • Where is my heart cold/warm toward the things of God? How have my affections been changing?

Once we admit that we’re wholly unimpressive and we embrace the safety God’s love provides in the gospel, we can start to let others know us. We can have honest conversations with friends where we ask and answer hard questions with transparency.

Pointing to Jesus

For those with eyes to see, this honesty is attractive. (Paradoxically, this desire to be known instead of impressive can be … impressive.) There’s no need to pretend we’re perfect or that we have it all together. There’s no need to wear the mask of competence and independence and unwavering success.

Jesus is the one who is truly impressive, and he has followed all the rules and done everything right in our place. He is the one who is always good and pure and generous, who never shades the truth. All of his goodness and uprightness has been credited to those who believe. And all of our sin has been dealt with; though we might remember and discuss our past sins, we need to fear the related guilt no more.

A community made up of honest people can’t help but point outsiders to Jesus. Only the safety and acceptance we find in the gospel can free us from the need to seek applause from others.

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Finding Hope in Slow Sanctification

Have you ever felt like sanctification is too slow? I have. This is a common (and healthy) tension. For on the one hand, yes, God hates sin and we are called to live holy lives. On the other hand, no Christians on earth are completely free from the old self.

But there are some pitfalls here—some unhealthy places this tension can take us. Despair, frustration, and giving up are temptations we all feel from time to time. How can we avoid these traps? The best way is to focus on God’s role in sanctification.

The Temptation to Despair

God is not trying to lead us to despair. Sanctification is often a painfully slow process. I have grown impatient as I appear to be “left in my sin” with little to no evidence of growing holiness in my life. “I thought God hated sin,” I might say, “so why doesn’t he get rid of it?” I am aware of my blindness, but I don’t see any evidence of spiritual growth. But I’m superimposing my plan over and against God’s plan, as if to say “it would obviously be better if…” and failing to take the time to be still and know that he is God (Psalm 46:10). 

This despair can undermine our assurance of salvation. “Am I truly saved at all?” My only recourse is to trust, despite not seeing, that Christ is at work (Philippians 1:6) and, for some reason, taking his own sweet time. We were never saved because we were good. Remember, sanctification is founded in Christ and his obedience, not us and our weakness.

The Temptation to Frustration

God’s slowness can also become frustration, which is a pride issue. Often this is less about how slowly God works in us and more about how slowly God seemingly works in others. “Our country is going down the tubes. If only Christians in this country would…[fill in the blank]” or “my church would give more money if they actually believed what they say they believe.” Do other Christians need to work out their salvation? Yes (Philippians 2:12). But we can take it too far and become critical of the work of God himself. Again, this is an overemphasis on humanity’s role in sanctification and implies that people are hindering God. Nope, sorry. Doesn’t work like that. 

We are assured that Christ will bring his work to completion (Philippians 1:6) in his time. Becoming frustrated or angry puts my plans ahead of God’s and is unloving to the church. Everything is on track, and we are to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15), realizing that he is still building his kingdom (Matthew 16:18)!

The Temptation to Indulgence

Unfortunately, God’s patience can also manifest in ungodly indulgence. This is a particularly dangerous pitfall which twists the patience of our Lord into permission to sin. “Oops, I guess that was just a bit of the old self” or “no one is perfect.” This is obviously wrong when I say it, for it presumes upon the sacrificial work of Christ (Romans 2:4). Nevertheless, it can creep into my life in more subtle ways, such as with a particular sin or for a particular season of life. And it creeps in so easily because it has a grain of truth to it. Yes, we will always struggle with sin on this side of eternity, and yes, in his divine purpose God has allowed sin to persist in believers. 

But, a believing heart will never be comfortable with sin again (Ephesians 4:22–24). The struggle must continue. This is key; a believer may struggle with recurring sin for the rest of their life, and the sin itself may look identical to that of an unbeliever, but the Spirit of God will never abandon the believer to feel at home in sin (John 16:7–11). A believer with a new heart takes after the character of God, and God hates sin (Romans 6:11).

What is Truly Valuable

So when our sanctification seems slow, it may be because we still have a lot to learn about what is valuable to Christ. We can become obsessed with a particular sin while Christ has bigger fish to fry. He may be working in us on a more fundamental level.

And the kingdom of heaven is not about you. It includes you, but it’s not all about you. So cultivate a heart of gratitude that you are included, and the fruit will be selfless love and service to others, without regard to their degree of sanctification.

Finally, know that there is a fire in you. The Spirit is alive and active in tectonic (powerful but often invisible) ways. Consider that the Scriptures make sense to you, you’re convicted of your sin, you are interceded for, works are prepared for you (and you for them), prayer to the Father is open to you in Christ, and a peace which passes understanding is yours.

When we seek to understand what is valuable to the kingdom of heaven, we start to see more and more of the beautiful work of Christ all around us and in us. Soon there is no room for despair because we see the fingerprints of God in our lives. A growing love for God’s people prevents our self-righteous frustration as we celebrate the small victories and realize they’re not that small after all. And we find that the new self takes on new life, caught up and pulled along by the hope and excitement of the gospel, leaving behind the old self where sulking in sin simply makes no sense anymore.

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When Conviction Comes to the People of God

“Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads” — Ezra 9:6

It’s unlikely that Ezra 9 tops anyone’s list of favorite chapters in the Bible. But with regard to grief over sin, few sections of Scripture are more instructive.

By way of background, Ezra is sent from Babylon to Jerusalem roughly 70 years after the first exiles made the journey. Ezra is both a priest and a scribe, and he will teach the law to the people in the rebuilt temple of God. Ezra 8 describes the travel to the holy city, then Ezra 9 opens with a bombshell.

The Faithlessness of the People

Ezra is told that many Israelites “have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (Ezra 9:1). They have married women from the surrounding nations who do not worship God. And it gets worse: “And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:2).

Ezra’s response is dramatic.

As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. (Ezra 9:3–4)

This is no run-of-the-mill sin. The identity and integrity of this new Jerusalem settlement is being compromised by these marriages. The issue is not mainly cultural or ethnic—it is about worship. Every spouse has enormous religious influence on their partner, and Israel’s history is peppered with unfaithfulness to God beginning with a marriage outside the faith.

Ezra grasps the severity of the situation, and he is undone. He is as torn up as his garment and facial hair.

While his ministry seems to have born fruit—witness those gathered with him who revere God’s word—the unearthing of sin this pervasive is devastating.

Communal Sin

Ezra sat appalled in his grief for a while. Then at the evening sacrifice (a public event), he fell on his knees to pray (Ezra 9:5).

O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. (Ezra 9:6–7)

Ezra quickly turns from “I” and “my” to “we” and “our” in this prayer. In Ezra 10, there is a full accounting of those who violated the law against marrying foreign women. Ezra’s name doesn’t appear there, and we have no reason to think he was individually guilty of this sin. So, why does he identify with this transgression? Why is it our guilt?

In most of the Old and New Testaments, the people of any community belong to each other. This is especially true when God himself establishes and gathers that community. There are laws and expectations governing individual behavior, but the individualism of the modern West is completely absent.

So while Ezra might not be personally implicated in this scandal, these are his people and this is his community. Regarding this specific sin, we can imagine how friends and neighbors did not keep each other in the way of righteousness. The bulwark of day-to-day encouragement to pursue good and to flee evil had cracked and broken.

Sin in the Face of God’s Kindness

Ezra has a deep knowledge of history, related both to the sins of the people and the kindness of God. He thanks God for his favor to leave a remnant of Israel, to give them favor with the kings of Persia, and to help them reestablish the house of God in Jerusalem (Ezra 9:8–9). God has not forsaken them!

And yet, in the midst of God’s goodness, they have violated his specific commandments (Ezra 9:10–12). Though God has punished them less than they deserved, they have repeated their ancestors’ sins (Ezra 9:13–14).

Ezra knows the holiness of God in ways we might not. He knows that God could be so angry—justly angry—that he might wipe out this remnant of his people (Ezra 9:14). He concludes this way.

Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this. (Ezra 9:15)

Pointing Forward

You might have noticed, this is not a cheery chapter of the Bible! No inspirational slogans to be found. And yet, as with all of Scripture, this chapter makes us look to Jesus.

God is grieved when we turn to worship anything but him. Ezra’s visceral sorrow reflects the size of the offense against the Lord. In this text, we see the people’s need for a savior—we are “before [God] in our guilt,” as no one “can stand before [God] because of this” (Ezra 9:15). The need for forgiveness and transformation is gigantic. And God has provided! Jesus is the one who was consumed in anger, he was the remnant that was eliminated in our place (Ezra 9:14).

Of course, conviction of sin happens again and again as we follow Jesus. And we need not fear conviction. Our sins are completely covered, and we are thoroughly forgiven as children of God. We will not be thrown out or disowned when our sin comes to light. This takes some getting used to, but our loving, holy Father leads the way.

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Links for the Weekend (2022-07-15)

Each Friday, I’ll post links to 3–5 resources from around the web you may want to check out.

Community: A Struggle to Fit

I enjoyed this article about the church and what we can learn by living in community with people different than us.

I might have to grow in patience as I listen to others who take longer to formulate their thoughts. At the same time, others will have to grow in gentleness in how they respond. God does not want my rough edges rubbing against you, though they will, and will continue to do so until glory. But my rough edges will make you smoother, and your edges will help shape me. When I embrace people who are different from me, it stands to reason that my heart will need to be reshaped so we can fit together. This is not always a pleasant prospect, but it is a beautiful one.

How to Keep Yourself from Loving Money

The biblical antidote to the danger of loving money is contentment. How can we pursue contentment?

How do we resist the pull? By pursuing the ordinary ways God has given to grow our faith. When we worship together each Sunday or pray and meditate on his Word, he reorients our perspective. The routine rhythms of the Christian life, almost imperceptibly, steel our spine against the allure of “more.”

Nipping Gossip in the Bud

This article lays out three steps to take in order to battle gossip.

One reason gossip can be so difficult to define is that it so often masquerades as something more mundane, perhaps even beneficent. I’m sure you have witnessed plenty of prayer requests shared on someone’s behalf that seemed to include unnecessary details or salacious information. You’ve probably heard your share of “words of concern” that bordered on insinuation or improper speculation. Maybe you’ve offered such words yourself. I know I have.

On the WPCA Blog This Week

This week on the blog we published an article I wrote called How Do We Obey the Gospel? If you haven’t already seen it, check it out!

Note: Washington Presbyterian Church and the editors of this blog do not necessarily endorse all content produced by the individuals or groups referenced here. 

Links for the Weekend (2022-06-03)

Each Friday, I’ll post links to 3–5 resources from around the web you may want to check out.

Our Hope in the Ascension

Protestant Christians don’t always do a great job understanding the ascension of Jesus. Here is an article that explains why the ascension should give us great hope.

More important than history, of course, is the Bible. And here we find that Christ’s ascension is more prominent in Scripture than many realize. Luke describes the Ascension in the most detail, first in his Gospel and then in Acts. Peter’s Pentecost sermon is, in part, about the Ascension and enthronement of Christ. Likewise, John’s Gospel is full of references to the Ascension of the Son of Man and the importance of Jesus returning to the Father.

Submit Your Felt Reality to God

What we think and feel does not always match reality, and it takes some humility (and perspective) to realize this. I appreciated the language and categories this article gave me.

Reality and felt reality aren’t the same. Sometimes they align — what I think and feel fits with what is actually happening. Other times, my felt reality is out of accord with reality. In such cases, I might be believing lies, or framing reality wrongly, or overreacting. My perspective might be distorted by my emotions or my sinful desires or my own limitations.

Building Deep Community in a Lonely World

Here’s a podcast episode in which Collin Hansen interviews Jennie Allen about her book on building community. It’s hard to make and keep friends, and this conversation was helpful on the topic.

On the WPCA Blog This Week

This week on the blog we published an article I wrote called The Christian Life is a Waiting Life. If you haven’t already seen it, check it out!

Note: Washington Presbyterian Church and the editors of this blog do not necessarily endorse all content produced by the individuals or groups referenced here. 

Links for the Weekend (8/13/2021)

Each Friday, I’ll post links to 3–5 resources from around the web you may want to check out. Note: Just two links today!

I Need You to Read Your Bible

I really appreciated this meditation from Glenna Marshall. We so often think our spiritual practices affect only us, but here is a helpful story of how God used one woman’s devotional life to bless another.

I need my own spiritual disciplines of study, reading, and prayer for my personal growth, knowledge, and affection for Christ. I want the believers in my life to do the same for their own edification and growth. But I also need the believers in my life to pursue their spiritual disciplines because I am desperate for them to do so. I want the spiritual food God has been feeding you. I don’t need worldly or even pseudo-Christian encouragement when I’m discouraged or doubting or worried. I need what is true and biblical and dependable.

Taste God’s Goodness in the Sweetness of Honey

Andrew Wilson writes about God’s good gift of honey, and in this writing he models how we can delight in God as we delight in his gifts.

We are called not just to learn about God but to experience him. We are invited to taste his sweetness and allow his golden richness—beautifully expressed in his rescue, his Word, and his grace—to brighten our eyes and refresh our souls. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8).

On the WPCA Blog This Week

This week on the blog we published an article written by Erica Goehring called Broken, Yet Assured of God’s Plan. If you haven’t already seen it, check it out!

Note: Washington Presbyterian Church and the editors of this blog do not necessarily endorse all content produced by the individuals or groups referenced here. 

Links for the Weekend (4/2/2021)

Each Friday, I’ll post links to 3–5 resources from around the web you may want to check out.

What Is the Historical Evidence that Jesus Rose from the Dead?

Justin Taylor helpfully points us toward an article which argues for the historical credibility of the claim of Jesus’s resurrection. There are also two videos linked in Justin’s post made by apologists arguing for the resurrection.

Rejoice Together, Suffer Together, Repeat

Christians are to rejoice with each other and weep with each other. Anne Kerhoulas writes about what it means that these commands come in the context of writing about worship. Quite an insight!

Rejoicing is an act of worship. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). It is always about God because every good and perfect thing comes from Him (James 1:17), and we get to praise Him for what He has done. When my friend got engaged I didn’t tell her good job for her accomplishment. No, we celebrated what God had done and was doing.

Let Go of Lies About Heaven: Eight Myths Many Believe

Years ago, Randy Alcorn wrote a big book about heaven. In this article, he points out eight common myths about heaven. He directs our attention to the Bible to examine what God says about the future.

In an age when people try to make doctrines more appealing by ignoring or twisting biblical truth, here’s the irony—the true biblical doctrine of Heaven is far more attractive than the dull, inhuman view of the afterlife that has long prevailed in evangelicalism.

Note: Washington Presbyterian Church and the editors of this blog do not necessarily endorse all content produced by the individuals or groups referenced here. 

I Am Not Enough

When my son was born, due to stay-at-home orders we had none of the external resources we had planned to lean on. Play dates and church programs for our daughter, housekeeping and childcare help for us, even parks and library outings disappeared overnight. 

It was just Zack and me—and we were not enough.

We were not enough to be the sole source for our two-year-old’s social interactions. We were not enough for the bottomless needs of a newborn. I struggled and usually failed to live out the fruits of the Spirit while tired and stressed. Of course, we had never been “enough,” but before we could hide behind all the things we used to supplement our own parenting. 

It’s crushing to know as a parent that you are not enough for your kids. 

A Sufficient Grace

Paul also confronted his own weakness, a mysterious “thorn.” He pleaded with God to remove it, but God did not. Paul wrote:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10)

When we are not enough, God’s grace is sufficient. God’s grace is sufficient to preserve my kids through hardship and loneliness. God’s grace is sufficient to forgive my failures, like when I snap at my kids because I’m just done with today. And by God’s grace our weakness makes room for the power of Christ to fill us with the ability to serve and give and love when there’s nothing left in us. 

We are not called to hide our weaknesses or project an image that we’ve got it all together. Paul says he boasts of his weakness, because that makes it clear it is Christ at work, not himself. 

A Sufficient Gospel

God working through weakness sits at the core of the gospel. Paul points out in the following chapter that Christ himself “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4). Christ became weak, so weak that he died, and through his “weakness,” God demonstrated his power to save. 

We can lay at Jesus’s scarred feet the places where we feel we are not up to the task. Jesus doesn’t ask us to be enough; he asks us to lean on him. Much like God gave Paul his thorn, he places things in our lives—like pandemics and newborns—that we are unable to handle. These things drive us back to the cross, reminding us that we do not live by our own strength but by Jesus’s power through the Holy Spirit. 

*Record scratch*

There’s a rub here: Some days I still find myself feeling spent by 11 a.m., and Jesus has yet to show up to watch my kids while I take a nap. What does it mean to live in the power of Christ in the day-to-day? 

A lot of prayer, for one. Prayer has (at least) two benefits. One, you truly are soliciting supernatural help from the Lord of the universe. Two, the act of praying leads you to rehearse the truth of the gospel. I find myself repeating back to God his own truths, like God’s patience with us and Jesus’ boundless sacrifice. Bringing these truths to mind can put your own struggles in context and lead you to have more patience with, say, the sixth time you’ve asked the toddler to put on socks. Totally hypothetical example.

God also placed us in a community. It was hard to take care of my family without support—because God designed people to need one another. Christians individually and the church collectively are God’s literal hands and feet in the world. It is unlikely that Jesus will personally show up to do my dishes. But he might remind me that my soapy hands are being used to serve the tiny neighbors in my home, just like Jesus’ pierced ones served me. 

In those early weeks of my son’s life, I felt numb with the truth of my own inadequacy. God had placed more on me than I could handle, and it was crushing me. While I could have happily gone my life long without such a stern reminder, I have also never seen so clearly that every step was not in my own strength. God—in his mercy!—places overwhelming circumstances in our way, not to cause us to rise to the occasion, but to drive us, like the crack of a whip or the sting of spurs, to himself.

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Links for the Weekend (5/15/2020)

Each Friday, I’ll post links to 3–5 resources from around the web you may want to check out.

Quarantine Exposes Our Need for Grace

Joshua Zeichik relates some of the frustrations he’s encountered when working from home during the pandemic and some of the sinful ways he has responded. He turns to James 4 to show us how to take inventory of our hearts when we get angry.

The tendency in all of us, when we feel the pressure of not getting what we want, is to get frustrated with those around us. But when we see that kind of response come out of our hearts, we should realize that God is being gracious with us to reveal an area to grow in.

A Six-Part Teaching Series on Parenting

In 2011 Jen and Jeff Wilkin taught a six-part parenting class at their home church in Texas (The Village Church). The sessions are filled with humor and biblical instruction on how to be intentional with the gospel. Parents of children of all ages will find encouragement in these lessons.

Critique Gently, Encourage Fiercely

Scott Sauls writes about loneliness and how we can find family by belonging to a local church.

How do we experience loneliness-slaying love in the midst of imperfect, messy community? It has been said, “Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a hard, hidden battle.” As we limp toward transparency and community and friendship with our own fears and insecurities, we recognize that we aren’t alone. We are all much afraid. We all feel more insecure than confident, more weak than strong, more unlovable than lovely, more irredeemable than redeemed. When we see that we are not alone, we can reach out to one another. Don’t underestimate the power of words.  While shaming words can take courage out of a soul, encouraging and affirming words can put courage back in.

Thanks to Maggie A and Phil A for their help in rounding up links this week!

Note: Washington Presbyterian Church and the editors of this blog do not necessarily endorse all content produced by the individuals or groups referenced here.