Jesus Is Better

Although He did it almost 2,000 years ago on a cross outside Jerusalem, Jesus established a new way to salvation when He announced It is finished (John 19:30).  In that moment the fruitless old way was history.  Despite a plethora of miracles/wonders, God’s chosen hadn’t fulfilled their part of the original bargain.  Not one of them came close to passing the test.  Over the centuries God had sent prophets to urge His people to get their collective act together and obey His commandments like their ancestors promised they would but their entreaties and warnings went unheeded.  They pleaded, “Listen, you deaf ones!  Take notice, you blind ones!  My servant is truly blind, my messenger is truly deaf.  My covenant partner, the servant of the LORD, is truly blind.  You see many things, but don’t comprehend; their ears are open, but do not hear (Isaiah 42:18-20).  Nothing worked.  The Israelites kept sinning like there was no tomorrow.  Finally God backed off, stopped lecturing and let them stew in their own juices for 400 years.  He never abandoned them but He did leave them alone.  When the Messiah arrived to usher in the new way they rejected Him because He didn’t bring paradise and guns with Him.  What He brought was forgiveness, mercy and redemption for all the inhabitants of earth but that wasn’t enough for them.  They wanted their will to be done, not God’s.

 

The marvel that is Christianity survived their rejection.  The new way of believing in the Good News is the “real deal” is still evangelized.  But vestiges of the old way linger.  The fact that the old way failed miserably (and was replaced by something a zillion times better) doesn’t prevent folks from putting stock in it.  The health-and-wealth, “prosperity gospel” continues to be preached in spite of its falseness.  Truth is, doing A doesn’t always lead to B.  Tragic events and horrible sufferings occur whether we pray or not.  Reading the Scriptures daily doesn’t prevent us growing older and weaker.  Bible-based churches led by loyal servants of God are often only a quarter full on Sunday mornings.  Individuals who’ve put all their faith in Christ get depressed because the hurts, hang-ups and habits they laid at the foot of the cross continue to bedevil them.  It’s not that we’re stupid sheep.  Most have learned to avoid the trap of picturing God as a supernatural vending machine but when we read passages like Carefully follow the terms of this covenant, so that you may prosper in everything you do (Deuteronomy 29:9) we’re tempted to think maybe God’ll give us what we desire if we straighten up and fly right.  The problem is, deep down, we want the Good Life more than we want to know our Heavenly Father and subconsciously we reinforce the belief that, if we live godly lives and pray a lot, we’ll receive great blessings from our generous God.  The Catch-22 is that we’d have to behave perfectly for that to work and nobody on the planet is perfect.  The Israelites couldn’t do it and neither can we so we must be wary of what we wish for.  The impossible-to-comply-with old way carried serious consequences.  God said, “…If you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish! (Deuteronomy 30:17-18).  All things considered, the old way is anything but Good News.  Personally, I wouldn’t stand a chance.

 

Imagine if the United States crowned a king/queen and they had surveillance devices installed in every room inside your home, as well as in your vehicle and workplace.  Imagine they enacted a list of restrictive laws every citizen had to comply with.  As long as we did as instructed the monarch would see to it we had our every need met but if we were observed making just one mistake we’d be arrested, tortured and imprisoned.  The unending pressure fueled by the fear of messing up would be unbearable and it’d take all the joy out of living.  Now imagine some wonderful, unique person came along who abolished that oppressive system and provided a new way that made it possible for us to live, not just as subjects, but as royal heirs.  A way that didn’t demand we dot every “i” and cross every “t.”  A way that didn’t have a toll booth.  To say we’d be grateful is an understatement.  In fact, we’d all yearn to draw nearer to and learn everything we could about our amazing liberator.  Well, the story isn’t fictional.  It’s true.  That’s exactly what happened.  The former way of doing things, a system of commandments that never worked out the way it was supposed to, was set aside; the law brought nothing to maturity.  Another way – Jesus! – a way that does work, that brings us right into the presence of God, is put in its place (Hebrews 7:18-19).  While the old way was, at least technically speaking, fair, it was also impossible for human beings to obey.  Because of Christ we’ve been freed from that unrelenting pressure forevermore.

 

It doesn’t mean God’s moral laws no longer apply.  We know purity in our thoughts and actions still matters and nurturing a righteousness mindset should be one of our core goals.  Christians can still influence this world.  I.E., it’s a wise parent who teaches their kids to love God and respect His Word even though it’s no guarantee they won’t wander astray when they grow up.  But it goes without saying children brought up in a Christian environment do have a better chance of staying out of trouble than those brought up by cruel, narcissistic or uninvolved parents.  What has changed because of the new way, though, is we have incentive to live a life pleasing to God.  Using common sense, if someone donates a kidney that adds years to your life you’ll most likely do everything possible to express your gratitude for their sacrifice as long as you live.  Jesus figuratively did the same for us except in His death and subsequent resurrection He’s enabled us to anticipate a sublime eternal life.  Therefore each and every moment allotted to us should be dedicated not only to loving God but to loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Larry Crabb wrote, “The blood of Jesus has opened a New and Living Way, a different direction to take, whether life is working well or falling apart, whether we’re more aware of our kindness or our self-centeredness.  In the New Way, the pressure’s off.  Living better might or might not improve our life circumstances.  But now our appetite is different.  We want something more than the Better Life of Blessings.”

 

However, for some people this new way presents some disconcerting difficulties.  One is it requires we give up harboring all illusions of control and to trust in God’s plan completely.  Steve Maraboli wrote, “You must learn to let go.  Release the stress.  You were never in control anyway.”  Another is coming to the realization it’s harder to enjoy God than it is His blessings.  Crabb opined, “Only the mature value the blessing of presence over the blessing of presents.”  It all comes down to the basic fact that we, by nature, want everything on our terms.  Not anybody else’s terms.  And especially not God’s.  That stubbornness is what kept the Apostle Paul up at night.  In verses 3 & 9 of Galatians 4 he first points out to his readers they used to be helplessly enslaved by the old way.  Next he reminds them that, because of Jesus, they’ve now been set free to develop and delight in an authentic, one-on-one relationship with the Creator of the universe.  And then he chastises them (and rightly so) for wanting to go back to being shackled and imprisoned by the old way that didn’t work!

 

Now, before we start looking down our noses at the congregation in Galatia, we must admit we do the very same thing.  Subconsciously we’re sure if we do A correctly, B will result.  Well, sometimes it does.  Sometimes it don’t.  The only thing we can depend on 100% is that God’s master plan is perfect but too many of us act like that won’t cut it.  Walk into any Christian bookstore and you’ll find great books by gifted writers.  Alas, you’ll also find tomes like “Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day” and “God Wants You to be Rich: How and Why Everyone Can Enjoy Material and Spiritual Wealth in Our Abundant World.”  I don’t get it.  Why do we insist on studying ways to get what we’ve already been given?  God improves our life constantly by living inside us.  And wealth?  Fuggitaboudit.  The Bible says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that although he was rich, he became poor for your sakes, so that you by his poverty could become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).

 

Modern-day Christians have a bad habit of talking the new way while walking the old way.  Those two don’t jive.  We need to get our walk aligned with our talk.  That’s why ministries like Celebrate Recovery have helped so many.  They provide much-needed direction by steering disoriented folks toward Christ.  In CR’s small groups believers safely open up and share their concerns, their doubts and their struggles without worry of being judged.  And, by being accepted by their peers as they are, they begin to see that God accepts them as they are, too.  They realize they don’t have to prove themselves worthy of God’s love and that the new way of Jesus is a much less-strenuous road to travel.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed (James 5:16).  The “each other” part of that verse is vital.  We’re not meant to go it alone.  We need brothers and/or sisters in Christ to hold us accountable when we start veering off-course and to remind us we have a built-in spiritual compass (The Holy Spirit) we should consult regularly.  Thomas Merton wrote, “The whole purpose of spiritual direction is to penetrate beneath the surface of a man’s life to get behind the conventional gestures and attitudes which he presents to the world, and to bring out his inner spiritual freedom, his inmost truth, which is what we call the likeness of Christ in his soul.”  At CR meetings I’ve witnessed many times palpable relief engulfing someone’s countenance when they finally comprehend they’ve discovered a place where they can take off their mask, be real and “open up the vault.”  It’s a sight to behold.

 

Once that breakthrough occurs it’s time to grab a shovel and start digging through the layers of denial to reach the divine stream of living water that flows within.  Shallow wells run dry fast so we have to dig deep in order to dislodge the old way that has no power to change our hearts and minds.  We must embrace the new way.  Crabb wrote, “With our almost unlimited capacity to deceive ourselves, it’s possible (and the possibility has been realized to epidemic proportions) for people to sincerely believe they’re living the Christian life when in fact they’re following a highly Christianized version of the Old Way.”  Take me, for instance.  I’m guilty as they come.  Due to my being a leader at CR many mistakenly think I’ve successfully overcome all my character defects.  They observe I’m more than willing to encourage others, offer suggestions on how they can strengthen their faith and help them get over the rough patches of relapse that’ll tempt them to give up.  So, from a distance, it looks like I’ve “got it all together.”  But I don’t.  I still struggle with sin.  I want to be a “finished product” but I’m not.  I’m a “work in progress.”  That’s what all of us who follow Jesus are.  We still have areas of our character the Holy Spirit still has “under reconstruction.”  Although I’ve never been so transparent in my life there are still things I keep hidden because I’m afraid to expose my shameful hypocrisy.  I still think if folks knew the “despicable me” I really am they’d label me a deplorable phony and avoid me like the plague.  Therefore I deliberately choose my “level of vulnerability” with care.  My fundamental problem is I’m more concerned about how I feel about myself than how I feel about Christ and how He feels about me.

 

I can empathize with Dr. Crabb when he wrote, “Who am I?  Am I the moral weakling I so often know myself to be, full of pride and fear?  Or am I the man of God I long to be, centered in the Person of Christ and empowered by the Spirit to reveal His glory through my life?  I’m a mystery to myself.  Sometimes the Spirit flows freely within me, and I’m full of joy and spiritual power.  Other times, another source of energy takes over, and I’m out of sorts, occasionally to the point of absurd pouting and faithless despair.  It’s then I’m more easily tempted to find pleasure wherever I can.”  Sound kinda schizophrenic?  Well, that’s a great description of my own walk with the Lord all too often.

 

I don’t think I’ve yet to grasp how much God loves me.  I can’t figure out why He would.  J. I. Packer wrote, “It’s staggering that God should love sinners; yet it’s true.  God loves creatures who have become unlovely and (one would have thought) unlovable.  There was nothing whatever in the objects of His love to call it forth; nothing in us could attract or prompt it.  Love among persons is awakened by something in the beloved, but the love of God is free, spontaneous, unevoked, uncaused.  God loves people because He’s chosen to love them and no reason for His love can be given except His own sovereign good pleasure.  Thus God saves, not only for His glory, but also for His gladness.”  One of the things I try to remind someone who’s having a hard time forgiving themselves for an ugly sin in their past is when they accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior their sin was forgiven.  Therefore, to not forgive themselves is to place their opinion above God’s.  Recently it occurred to me that the same principle applies to the problem I have with loving myself.  How can I possibly rationalize not loving myself when the God of the universe who created me loves me more than I can fathom?  Who am I to do that?  Only by loving myself as an adored child of God will I possess the ability to do what Jesus commanded – to faithfully and sincerely love others as I love myself.

 

I can’t help notice that in the Ten Commandments the word “love” only appears once (in the clarification of #2) and it refers to the manner in which we’re to worship God instead of dumb idols.  According to the old way, loving everybody, even one’s enemies, wasn’t a priority.  Evidently the more essential “ground rules” had to be set in stone first.  In contrast, the new way is almost exclusively about love.  Love for God.  Love for His Son.  Love for the Holy Spirit.  Love for yourself who’s been fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) by the Great I AM.  Love for all people near and far.  The old way focused on what we did.  The new way is focused on how we love.  Paul wrote, If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but I do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-2).  I’m convinced that if I ever comprehend how much God loves me then only His kind of love will radiate from me.  Brennan Manning elaborated on God’s love in his inspiring book, “The Furious Longing of God.”  He wrote, “…The shattering truth of the transcendent God seeking intimacy with us is not well served by gauzy sentimentality, schmaltz, or a naked appeal to emotion, but rather in the boiling bouillabaisse of shock bordering on disbelief, wonder akin to incredulity, and affectionate awe tinged by doubt.”  In other words, the fact that God loves us as much as He loves His only begotten Son should be the most outrageous, fantastic thing we’ve ever heard.  It should make us want to change everything about us.  Jesus showed us what pure, undiluted love looks like.  The old way never did work right.  Jesus, the new way, is better.

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