Many erroneously attribute the phrase, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive,” to Shakespeare but it was Sir Walter Scott’s. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, though, because the raw truth his statement contains hasn’t diminished one iota in over 200 years. It has particular significance for followers of Christ. Larry Crabb wrote, “We’re never more deceived than when we think we’re living for God but in fact are living for His blessings. When we persuade ourselves that our job is to pray properly, live morally, and love meaningfully, and that God’s job is to reward us with whatever blessings we most want, we’re deceived.” What Jesus promised us is the exact opposite of material blessings. He announced, “…Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life because of me will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39). I don’t know about you but “taking up my cross” doesn’t sound like something I look forward to doing. We all know what our personal cross is so willingly submitting to dying on it is an act we dread. But there it is. It’s right in front of us yet we try to scoot around it rather than going through it with God by our side. We’ve become pros at self-deception because we’re scared. We know literally losing our life for the sake of following Christ necessitates giving up our painstakingly manufactured, jealously safeguarded ego and too often we think that’s asking too much. We want a guarantee that we’ll get whatever we deem to be the “good life” in return. God says, “I won’t do that. You’re gonna have to trust me,” and we hesitate because we have a built-in aversion to taking risks.
The old way looks less “iffy.” Logic proposes if we do A then we’ll get B. That’s the way the world works. Look before you step into the street and you’ll avoid the oncoming bus. Charge up your phone overnight and the battery won’t run down in the middle of a conversation. (Only a religious nut would expect God to intervene and miraculously power it back up so they could continue talking. He could but odds are He won’t.) Being practical and using common sense is the safest bet. In the same way, we expect being obedient and praying regularly should result in great things happening to us. Simple logic, right? But early on in life it becomes crystal clear that life doesn’t work that way. Otherwise husbands and wives with faithful spouses would never commit adultery. Trusted accountants would never embezzle. Politicians with spotless resumes would never get caught in a scandal. Bible-based churches would never see a decrease in attendance. Do sad things like this occur because we didn’t pray properly, sing praise songs loud enough or tithe more than 10%? To opine they happened because of our negligence or failure to do everything perfectly is to embrace the assumption of the old way. I’m as guilty as any of doing that. The prickly truth is that whenever I set my sights on getting what I want, even if I consider what I want to be holy and pleasing to God, and I approach my Lord with the aim of securing what I want instead of what the Lord wants I’m missing the gospel message altogether. I’m counting on the old way to work and I’m fooling myself in the process.
Now, have I been blessed beyond measure by God’s grace? You betcha. I’m relatively healthy while others fight life-threatening illnesses. I have children and grandchildren while some have neither. I have a beautiful, God-fearing wife whom I love immensely. We live together in a clean, safe community. My list of blessings could fill up several pages. But I’d be lying if I claim I never desire more. Because I’m human and a sinner I often tend to yearn for something more than Jesus. And usually it’s not a nicer, newer car or more financial stability. Usually it’s recognition and notoriety I crave. At the same time the indwelling Holy Spirit assures my soul that Christ is enough and, most of the time, I listen to Him. But the prince of this fallen world surrounding me (one that includes, tragically, a plethora of false teachers) shouts through a bullhorn 24/7 that doing things the old way will pay better dividends. So, just in case I’m not deceiving myself sufficiently, Satan and his persuasive minions will be glad to take over that task. We believers must do everything we can to ignore their suggestions. Christians have already received the ultimate blessing – God Himself. He’s saved us from the tyranny of our own sinful nature and adopted us as one of His own children. To anticipate any other blessing this side of heaven is a self-centered wish and a distortion of what the gospel confirms is the truth of the matter. Crabb wrote, “The blessings we now claim are so often something less than an empowering, enlivening, pride-destroying, self-effacing, joy-giving encounter with God.” That encounter can only become a reality by living the new way Jesus provided two millenniums ago.
If we “practice to deceive” ourselves by living the old way we’ll have to deal with several unpleasant consequences. First, we’ll be besieged by unrelenting frustration and stress. We’ll constantly second-guess ourselves with questions like “I gave my marriage to God so why am I divorced?” or “I made sure my kids went to church every Sunday so why do they blatantly disobey and disrespect me?” or “What in blazes did I do to deserve getting laid off without notice?” We’ll insist on God telling us precisely what He requires us do in order to make our life run smoothly again. We’ll get overwhelmed by the self-induced “pressure to perform.” Second, we’ll run the danger of entertaining doubts about God’s sovereignty. The Scriptures says our cup will “runneth over.” We assumed it’d be overflowing with uplifting victories, not depressing hardships. It’ll enter our mind that perhaps God isn’t in control at all or that maybe He’s nothing more than a figment of our imagination. We’ll throw down our faith and it’ll shatter into a million pieces. Or thirdly, we’ll don the costume of fake humility and beg for God to pity us instead of forgiving us. We’ll come to believe our extraordinary humbleness will coerce our Heavenly Father to make our dreams come true. If blessings show up we’ll naturally become proud of our humility and opine that it had something to do with those blessings being bestowed. We’ll share in the glory instead of attributing all of it to God. In all three scenarios we get caught in the snare of self-deception. The old way didn’t, doesn’t and never will work.
Here’s a thought. Could it be that living the old way (whereupon we insist that, because we’re Christians and all, we should be getting ahead faster in all areas of our life) we’re actually inviting serious psychological troubles to move in and take up residence? Hear what Paul wrote: “For although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or give him thanks, but they became futile in their thoughts and their senseless hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools… Therefore God gave them over in the desires of their hearts to impurity… They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator… And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what should not be done” (Romans 1:21-22, 24-25, 28). It seems when our lives start to revolve around what God gives us rather than what we give to others our thought patterns go haywire, we become selfish brats instead of grateful believers, and then wonder why we can’t see where we went wrong. “But even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing, among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:3-4). Crabb wrote, “Unbelievers do not see Christ as their greatest treasure. Neither do most believers. We live as blind people, chasing after the light we can see – the satisfaction that blessings bring – and not valuing the light we cannot see – the glory of Christ.” But all’s not lost. A new way has been provided. “For God, who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). We can have something better than blessings. We can possess the radiant light of hope that is Jesus.
As I write, my country is electing a new leader. Neither one of the candidates can fix what’s wrong with America. Only God can do that. I do know God’s not too happy about us pushing Him out of the picture and I suspect things could get worse. You’d think I’d be depressed but I’m not. I’m seeing signs that a Christian revival is growing, flying under the radar of the mainstream media’s attention. They don’t notice its slow-but-steady spread because those who believe in the new way don’t look like traditional church-goers. They don’t act religious. They don’t act holier-than-thou. Crabb wrote “They recognize the old way for what it is, a philosophy of life and an approach to life that thinks God should make things go smoothly and cares little whether He reveals Himself to anyone.” They’ve seen the negativity and divisiveness the “me generation” left in its wake and have determined, as John Piper commented, “that none of us has trusted and treasured God the way we should. We’ve sought our satisfaction in other things, and treated them as more valuable than God.” While still far from being the majority, their numbers are increasing daily.
They’re taking Jesus at His Word when He said, “I give you a new commandment – to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). They understand that new way writers like the late Brennan Manning “got it” when he wrote, “In every encounter we either give life or we drain it. There’s no neutral exchange. We enhance human dignity or we diminish it. The success or failure of a given day is measured by the quality of our interest and compassion toward those around us. We define ourselves by our response to human need. The question is not how we feel about our neighbor but what we’ve done for him or her. We reveal our heart in the way we listen to a child, speak to the person who delivers mail, bear an injury, and share our resources with the indigent.” The new way Christians savvy that we can give without loving but we can’t love without giving. Yes, there’s hope for mankind. Those who think God’s given up on us have grossly underestimated God’s mercy.
In this series of essays I’ve pointed out there are two kinds of Christians nowadays; those who believe in the defunct old way and those who believe in the paid-for-by-the-blood-of-Jesus new way. As for the millions of young (i.e. under age 40) non-Christian population, they have but two options. They either abandon God or abandon themselves to Him. The “there’s no God” folks sit on a throne of their own making. They’re of the opinion that if there was a God He’d (1) have the obligation to appear before them and (2) keep bad things from happening to them. Since He’s failed on both counts they’ve adopted an atheistic stance or, even worse, an agnostic one. (Agnostics allow that there could be a God but it doesn’t really matter. How cowardly and irreverent is that attitude?) Those who’ve opted to abandon themselves to God are the ones who’ve opened their formerly-closed minds, given the Bible an unbiased reading and “saw the light.” They’ve died to themselves, stopped telling God how He should be running the universe, made a commitment to being an integral part of His plan and believe He’s the only good answer there is. In doing so, they’ve experienced something wonderful nothing in this world can offer. They’ve discovered how it feels to be, as C. S. Lewis so poignantly described feeling after finally accepting Christ as his Savior, “surprised by joy.”
I know there are many people in our midst that’ve been beaten to a pulp by the circumstances in their life. They try to believe in Jesus but, as far as they can discern, He’s never done a thing to help them. They didn’t ask to be born and they’re becoming angry they were. What smidgen of faith they’re hanging on to is fading fast and God seems more distant than ever. This may sound harsh but perhaps it’ll take them hitting rock bottom for God to get their focused attention; to get them to grasp that their faith was based on promises God never made. That the God whom they thought let them down doesn’t exist. That the God who does exist, the magnificent one reigning supreme over all creation, is the incredibly loving God who Crabb opined “could not be loving if He gave you something less than Himself and expected you to be happy.” The foundering soul I just described isn’t a lost cause. No way. They’ve just put their faith in what the world (or maybe even a misguided evangelist) has told them God’s like. The God of the Bible doesn’t hand out cheap trinkets to His children. On the contrary, He gives them the keys to the kingdom. He gives them everything.
What we all must comprehend is that each of us are God’s “beloved.” Until we wrap our heart and mind around that miraculous truth we’ll remain unfulfilled. Henri Nouwen wrote in his memoir, “I knew I was broken. I knew I was a sinner. I knew I continually disappointed God, but I could never accept that part of me. It was a part of me that embarrassed me. I continually felt the need to apologize, to run from my weaknesses, to deny who I was and concentrate on what I should be. I was broken, yes, but I was continually trying never to be broken again – or at least to get to the place where I was very seldom broken… At L’Arche [a community of mentally and physically handicapped people in Toronto], it became very clear to me that I’d totally misunderstood the Christian faith. I came to see that it was in my brokenness, in my powerlessness, in my weakness that Jesus was made strong. It was in the acceptance of my lack of faith that God could give me faith. It was in the embracing of my brokenness that I could identify with others’ brokenness. It was my role to identify with others’ pain, not relieve it. Ministry was sharing, not dominating; understanding, not theologizing; caring, not fixing.”
What Nouwen found is the new way that Jesus opened up for all to enter. It’s no imaginary yellow brick road. It’s real. Crabb wrote, “It’s a living way – not into a method for making life work, but into the presence of God.” In Hebrews 10:19-20 we’re told we now “…have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the fresh and living way that he inaugurated for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh…” Christ broke down all the barriers separating us from intimately knowing our Father God. The path to heaven is clear. All we have to do is believe. “Because Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, to bring you to God, by being put to death in the flesh but by being made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18). The Father didn’t wait for the prodigal to beat on the door. He ran to meet him halfway. All was forgiven. Scandalous? Indeed. But the Father didn’t care what others thought. All that mattered was having his son back home. For any one of us to yearn for the hollow stuff this world offers instead of God is like settling for a Slim Jim and a Slurpee when the finest gourmet feast you’ve ever been invited to lies just inside the door marked “faith.” Step inside.