This essay’s title is inspired by two things. (1) Jeremiah 17:9, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” and (2) the haunting lyrics at the end of the Bruce Springsteen song, “Nebraska,” when the protagonist (a convicted murderer) sings “They declared me unfit to live/said into that great void my soul’d be hurled/They wanted to know why I did what I did/Well, sir, I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.” In light of what the scripture from Jeremiah bluntly informs us, we must conclude the most devious “devil’s advocate” sits right inside each of us and it’s complicit in making this world a wickedly sinful, dangerous place to live. An energized, courageous Body of Christ could undoubtedly improve things but before that can happen a reawakening of soul-stirring faith must dawn in the heart of every believer. Each Christian must wean themselves off living their life the old way and commit to living it the new way. It’s what’s required if Christ’s church is to regain its status as a powerful force for good to be reckoned with. Larry Crabb wrote, “Meaningful change in our culture, enduring change rooted in improved character rather than legislated cosmetic change, can come only after revival hits the church. We tilt at windmills when we thrust our swords at pornography, abortion, fatherlessness, and teen violence without first weeping over shallow community in our churches.”
A Christian movement must take place if the escalating “meanness in this world” is to be subdued. Cultural reformation won’t come until a spiritual revolution erupts inside each saved individual’s heart and an authentic, Spirit-led revival flows out of the church doors to saturate this fallen planet with the love of Jesus. Now, even a blind atheist can see modern civilization’s in a steep decline and it’s tempting for even the strongest believer to start thinking reversing our downward spiral is a mission impossible. Better preaching won’t fix it and cramming family values and Bible-based morals down secular society’s throat won’t, either. The light in this darkness has to beam out from our hearts. Followers of Christ need to experience a fresh encounter with God whereupon the most destructive sin is revealed to be our determination to make our lives work as we want it to, no matter what. We must acknowledge our pride views the old way of the written code as still being a viable path to happiness, realize how frequently we hop onto its obsolete bandwagon, cease doing it, open our arms to embrace the new way of the Spirit and allow it to redirect all our yearnings toward pleasing God. We must confront ourselves daily with the question, “Am I desperately seeking the ‘Good Life’ (as I define it) or am I dead set on knowing and serving better the Living God who made it possible for me to be an unshackled, emancipated soul, no longer having to run in the ‘pressure-to-perform’ marathon?” If you’re anything like me, you do a little of both.
Truth is, if I don’t keep my attention focused on Jesus my heart will take off on a “sin binge.” Left to pursue its own inclinations it’ll judge others, covet what they have and concoct lies to cover up the dishonesty involved – all before noon! The inherent meanness in my heart will dominate my personality and it’ll be a hard-fought battle to worship God, to love my neighbor as myself and be an effective witness to Christ’s healing grace. My despicable lifestyle will belittle the faith I profess to possess. I can’t let that happen. Because of the Son of God dying a horrible death on the cross I’ve been provided a way to glorify my Heavenly Father with my actions if I’ll just let Him rule my heart and mind. So why don’t I? It’d be simple enough to blame my shortcomings on Satan and his demonic gang. After all, the Bible makes it clear he’s the majority shareholder of meanness in this world. Nonetheless, that’d be a cop out. I have to hold myself accountable for the decisions I make and too often I opt for the old way. Here’s an example. In my role as a leader at Celebrate Recovery meetings I’m blessed God has put me in a position where I can encourage others to not give up when the going gets tough. I love the fact they respect me. When they tell me I’ve made a difference I’m elated. When I write an essay, like I’m doing right now, I sometimes feel the Holy Spirit working through me and the prospect of God using my words to touch someone is exhilarating. It also makes me extremely happy when people “like” my blog enough to start following it. Yet what I just wrote is me describing my idea of the “Good Life.” It’s the old way creeping into my Christianity.
Living in accordance with the archaic Law of Linearity (Do A, get B) can give folks the false impression I’m living righteously. Like the Israelites, I’m liable to label evil good and good evil. Through His prophet God said, “Those who call evil good and good evil are as good as dead, who turn darkness into light and light into darkness, who turn bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter” (Isaiah 5:20). What happens when I choose to “follow my heart” instead of following Jesus is everything starts being about me. Crabb wrote, “When any ambition other than drawing near to God assumes first-place significance in our hearts, whether the ambition is blatantly self-serving or clearly kingdom-advancing, we’re living the Old Way.” Conversely, if we’ll make drawing nearer to God our primary goal we’ll stay firmly connected to the vine that is Christ and we’ll bear nourishing, invigorating, soul-saving fruit. That’s living the new way. But if we start demanding blessings because we consider our behavior exemplary or if we start anticipating rewards from God because we’ve been faithful to tithe or if we think we’re entitled to anything more than our daily bread due to our admirable fidelity we’re living the old way. And when the blessings don’t come, the rewards don’t materialize and the fridge ain’t full we’re tempted to get down on ourselves for not doing enough to earn God’s favor. The pressure mounts and joy disappears.
If that’s where you are right now I suggest you take a breather and back away from the brink of despair. When you accepted Jesus as your Savior the Holy Spirit took up permanent residence in your heart and He brought priceless gifts with Him. He gave you a new purity – a sparkling spiritual cleanliness that shines through any stains you glean from the mud puddles you roll in from time to time. He bestowed upon you a new identity – one designating you as an adopted child of God and a bona fide heir to the King of King’s immense estate. He gave you a new point of view in that sin now repulses you whereas holiness attracts you. He also endowed you with new power – an unexplainable but palpable ability to enter into an intimate, one-on-one relationship with the Creator of the universe. When we opt to live the old way those incredible gifts dissolve. Don’t believe it? Check out what the Apostle wrote: “Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! …You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace!” (Galatians 5:2, 4). Paul was telling the born again gentiles of Galatia they’d figuratively (not to mention foolishly) be putting Jesus on the bench if they insisted on trying to win the game without Him at quarterback. As it applies to us, he was teaching we can attend every church service, volunteer to help in a dozen outreach ministries, watch nothing but G-rated television shows and spend quality time with our kiddos but if we’re doing it to rack up Brownie points with God it’s a waste of time. Those wonderful gifts of the Holy Spirit will lie inert. God will stand on the sidelines and merely observe if we’re resolute about living our lives the old way.
Your Father in heaven longs to be personally involved in your life. But you have to willingly invite Him into it. Once you do, His presence will transform everything about you. J. I. Packer wrote, “The stress of the New Testament is not on the difficulty and danger of drawing near to the holy God, but on the boldness and confidence with which believers may approach Him: a boldness that springs directly from faith in Christ, and from the knowledge of His saving work.” Paul said of Christ, “…In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). One of the most difficult things Paul had to deal with as he spread the gospel message was the counter-productive conditions Jewish Christians wanted to impose on non-Jewish believers. They had no problem openly acknowledging Jesus as being the promised Messiah but they had big problems with letting just anybody join the club without first paying some dues. They thought they had to “Judaize” the world. They loved the concept of the new way of living but they wanted to drag the old way along with them like some kind of security blanket. Sadly, the 21st century church tends to do the same. It’s the same old “faith vs. merit” conflict. The irony is that merit has never played a part in coercing God to smile on someone. Look at the Old Testament characters who were justified by faith alone. Abraham. Moses. David. Jonah. Lot. Not one of those guys were pristine saints. Abraham lied. Moses had anger issues. David was an adulterer. Jonah ran from God. And Lot may have been the worst of the bunch yet Peter tagged him as being “a righteous man.” What gives? The only thing these men had in common was their belief in God. In their actions they all came up well short of the goal line. In essence, they were saved by pure grace, just as we are today.
What I’m getting at is this: Despite our “admirable intentions” to behave like we think good, religious Christians ought, too often it’s the sins of pride and coveting that motivate us. We want our righteous deeds to be noticed, praised and duly appreciated by God so He’ll give us what we want. Paul didn’t pull any punches when he addressed the church in Galatia for falling into that trap. He let ‘em have it. “You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort? Have you indeed suffered so many things for nothing? – if indeed it was for nothing. Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:1-5). The old way implies obeying God is the means of acquiring blessings and thereby obtaining the “Good Life.” The new way insists that being able to draw ever closer to our Father God is the blessing. Most churches get most of the gospel message right. Jesus suffered the death penalty we all deserve for being sinners. Check. Thus if a person repents of their sinful ways and surrenders their life to the care and control of Christ they’re redeemed in the eyes of God. Check.
But then the old way mentality surfaces. Want a great marriage? Do these things. Want well-adjusted children? Follow these rules. Do you want to be considered spiritually mature? Adhere to these principles. Do you want your business to thrive and prosper? “Name it and claim it” for God’s promised to bless you with what you covet in abundance. All you gotta do is do everything He required of the Israelites to perfection. It’s in the Book! “The LORD will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always end up at the top and not at the bottom, if you obey his commandments…” (Deuteronomy 28:13). What some preachers conveniently skip over is the earlier verse that reads, “Cursed is the one who refuses to keep the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 27:26). Talk about pressure! Crabb wrote, “Modern Judaizers cheapen God’s eternal word by twisting it, like the serpent did in Eden. Rather than insisting that the blessings of life were indeed made available to any who kept God’s law perfectly from the heart, and then teaching that Christ kept the law as a man and then was cursed in our place because we broke the law, they teach that it’s possible to keep the law well enough to win the blessings we desire.” Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with living one’s life according to what the Bible teaches. The Word is our infallible owner’s manual. But if our covert aim is to earn God’s blessings in the here and now we’ve gone off track. If “being nice” is a strategy to get what we want then we’ve put our ego in the driver’s seat and God’s become nothing more than a gas pump. We buy into the lie that we can somehow manufacture our own blessings.
Little wonder unbelievers are put off by what they perceive Christianity to be. It looks to them like they’d have to shoulder the burden of doing a lotta additional stuff. Their life’s busy enough without piling on more “pressure-to-perform.” Too many rules. Thanks but no thanks. They see many of their Christian acquaintances complaining constantly about needing more of this or that so what’s in it for them? Those folks’ “trust-in-God” religion certainly doesn’t render them immune from the “meanness in this world.” Why “live by the Law” if you end up hobbled by the same hurts, habits and hang-ups as everybody else? It’s evident that we, as ambassadors of Christ, haven’t conveyed to the unbeliever the real blessing of being born again; the blessing of having the unshakable knowledge that, because of Jesus, sinners can get adopted by God. We must emphasize to them that nowhere in the Scriptures does it say all humans are children of God. Yes, God’s love is unconditional but adoption isn’t. J. I. Packer wrote, “Sonship to God is not, therefore, a universal status into which everyone enters by natural birth, but a supernatural gift one receives through receiving Jesus.” Adoption into the family of God is the greatest blessing of all but it’s only available via belief in Christ. Jesus made it clear. “…I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Since Jesus made that definitive statement, anyone opining He was nothing more than a wise teacher is dubbing Him a shameless, heretical liar. He avowed He is God. What He offers to everybody is to be an adopted son/daughter of the Heavenly Father for all eternity to come. Common sense will tell you only God can usher you into His everlasting, mind-blowing kingdom. The old way says we have to earn that privilege. The new way says all we have to do is believe the incredibly Good News.
Does this mean God doesn’t bless His children? That we have no hope of relief from the “meanness in this world?” Not at all. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said believers will be rewarded for their faith. Packer wrote, “The purpose of our Lord’s promise of reward is not to make us think in terms of wages and a quid pro quo, but simply to remind us that our Heavenly Father will notice, and show special pleasure, when we concentrate our efforts on pleasing Him and Him alone. Good parents never simply ignore what their children are saying, nor simply disregard their feelings of need, and neither does God; but often He gives us what we should have asked for, rather than what we actually requested.” I’ll put it like this: To live the old way is to harbor doubts about your salvation and think you have to grind your teeth and work tirelessly to secure it. To live the new way is to live a pressure-free life, knowing your place in God’s kingdom is assured because you belong to the Lord.