Let Your Dim, Sin-Stained Light Shine Before The World

Important Message

“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Verses like this one lead to statements like these:

“Your lifestyle is as much a part of evangelism as your words.”

“Let your marriage be a light to the watching world.”

“You’re an ambassador for Christ at your workplace.”

Have you heard similar statements, or made them? They’re true – a godly life, loving marriage, and honorable conduct in the office really can be examples to non-Christians. And it’s also true that religious hypocrites can do damage to the gospel: pastors who commit adultery, hucksters who defraud with Bible verses, or Sunday afternoon restaurant patrons who stiff their waitress a tip and leave tracts on the table instead.

But for most Christians, trying their best to be faithful but aware of their failings, statements or verses that call us to live our lives as examples to non-Christians can feel like an impossible burden. I know I’m a poor excuse for a Christian parent – now you’re telling me I’m damaging the cause of the gospel as well as my kids. Thanks!

If exhortations to “be an example” have ever fallen on your shoulders with the weight of the world, take heart. There’s a way out from under the burden. Here’s the solution: our message is not about achieving perfection, but about receiving redemption. Do you realize what that means? You don’t have to be perfect!

When the call to let your light shine comes as a burden, we have a basic confusion about our message. Instead of the good news that Jesus came to save and transform sinners, we are believing some other “good news” (that really isn’t so good after all!). The false message might take different forms: if you use biblical parenting techniques, your kids will always obey and never try to strip naked and run screaming through the grocery store. If you put God first in your marriage, you’ll never have a conflict or ever see things differently than your spouse. If you love God more than money, you’ll always be the perfect employee. I’m exaggerating, of course, but do you see the common thread in all these message? “If you…” But the message we witness to as Christians begins with God. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us…” (Eph. 2:4).

The gospel is not simply the best self-help news out there, nor the hottest parenting or marriage techniques to transform your kids and your communication. It is the message that God, through the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ, has made a way for sinners to be forgiven and transformed. We have been and being redeemed, day by day, situation by situation. Even our failures and ongoing battles with sin testify to this message. Asking forgiveness, admitting failure, honestly facing our weaknesses and temptations – these do not deny our message. Instead, they can testify to its truth. Jesus saved, is saving, and will save us – sinners though we remain!

Don’t confuse the message. You’re not living a life of perfection so others can learn from you the secrets of self-mastery. You’re living a life of redemption, so that others can meet the Redeemer who is at work in you. And that message is truly good news.

Photo by Patrick Denker

You Can’t Catch Sin Like a Cold

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It’s my favorite time of year. That time when we send our children off to slap five, share books, and suck on the same water fountains as hundreds of other little germ carriers at the Petri dish we call “school.” Every time one of my daughters comes home and says a classmate went home sick or missed school my wife wants to boil her in bleach, wrap her in Clorox wipes, and lock her in a hyperbaric chamber. If only we could quarantine them to keep them safe from all those nasty germs.

Sadly school is a necessary evil so we have to expose them to the ills and ailments. This is much the way many Christians think of “the world” – that necessary evil that we must be exposed to full of evil and vices and insidious temptations. If only we could quarantine ourselves from that too.

And many Christians do live in cultural quarantine, shutting themselves off from what they see as sinful influences. They avoid “bad” people and even places. They talk about those people and places like they are disease carriers – “We can’t have them around” or “We couldn’t go there.” They act like someone can sneeze sin onto them, that they will catch the bad decisions and guilt of another through physical proximity. What does his shunning communicate to those we have labeled “unclean”? Exactly that, Christians think they are unclean. Not the ideal way to draw people to Jesus. But sin is not an infectious disease

We don’t “catch” sin. It’s in us from birth. We are sin carriers. It’s only by the grace of God that we can become immune to the virus that lives in us, that we can live a life without its symptoms oozing and coughing and exhaling out of us onto others. Because of the work of Christ we are able to choose whether or not to sin. It is a decision, one that we often have a very hard time making, but a decision nonetheless. Sin is a theology too. It is a belief, or lack thereof, in the goodness and work of Jesus. It is this theology, this belief that informs our decision and drives us.

So, when we are around obvious sin, those people and places, we can’t catch their sin. We can choose their sin, but that is a matter of decision, of belief, of theology. If we hold fast to Jesus there is no risk of that sin invisibly taking hold of us like a flu bug might. How freeing! We no longer have to keep our distance or live in cultural quarantine. We can engage those people with grace and freedom without fear. Because we are near Jesus we can be near to anyone without fear that they will make us more like them than like Him.

But it would be nice if they used Purel and covered their mouths when they sneeze.

What Do Unbelievers Really Need To Hear When They First Enter Your Church?

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It’s Sunday morning. You’re standing near the front doors, greeting people as they arrive. Then you notice a new couple walking in, a single child in tow. It’s obvious this is their first time. They don’t greet anyone by name. They stand out of the flow of traffic, hesitantly, with a touch of awkwardness, unsure what to do next. A great chance to welcome a new family! you think. So you go up, introduce yourself, and ask how they found out about your church. “We read about your parenting class on your website,” they tell you. “We could use some parenting help! We don’t believe in traditional marriage, but ever since we decided to live together four years ago we’ve committed to be the best parents we can be for our son.” They smile. You cringe. What do you say? “We do believe in traditional marriages” or, “You need to speak with our pastor”? Or maybe the time-honored, “Excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom”?

We could rewind this little visitor introduction scenario and substitute a whole host of first-conversation-bombshells. The guy who needs four swear words including the Lord’s name to introduce himself. The person who still reeks of alcohol and smoke from the cigarette and the shot  they just downed outside the door. The gay couple. Maybe the conversation doesn’t happen at church, but in your neighborhood or your college dorm. You’re a believer. They’re not. Their lifestyle choices are glaringly non-Christian, and they’re right there in front of you. What does that person need to hear from you?

Here’s the short answer. They need to hear the same thing you need to hear, day after day: the gospel of Jesus Christ. But let’s press that a little deeper. They don’t need to hear – not yet, at least – that cohabitation, swearing, drinking, or homosexuality are prohibited in Scripture. Why? Because those external lifestyle choices – and yes, those are sinful in God’s sight – are not the deepest place that the message of the gospel will confront them. When the live-together couple or the profane swearer first enters your church or your life, you don’t know them well enough to know where Jesus wants to ultimately confront them. Getting to that point is going to take genuine love and good listening, over a period of time. The man who swears probably doesn’t even know his language is offensive. It’s all he’s ever known. Confront him over that and you risk portraying Jesus as a bar-of-soap-toting savior whose sole concern is, like your grandmother, to make sure our language is G-rated. But underneath those surface sins you’ll find a deeper issue, the ruling idol of the man’s heart. It might be an absolute sense of self-sufficiency and independence, or slavery to material possessions, or a craving for the approval of others. It’s the thing the man can’t live without. (Think Gollum with the ring: “My precioussss….”) That is the point where the gospel first confronts the man and calls for repentance. When that idol of the heart is toppled and King Jesus rules in its place, the surface sins will begin to change. Some of them will even disappear overnight. But in most cases those sins – whether swearing or immorality or substance abuse – were not the thing keeping this person from submitting to Jesus. That issue lies deeper, hidden beneath the surface, probably unknown even to the person.

So when you’re confronted with that person whose lifestyle screams “sin” to you, slow down. Don’t rush in with a Bible verse in hand. Take your time. Listen. Ask questions. Pray for the Holy Spirit’s wisdom so that, through you, the risen Jesus can confront this person with the message they must hear, at the point they must hear it. That’s what they need to hear from you.

Photo by evilboarder.

It’s Time to Interrupt Someone

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“Don’t interrupt!” Remember hearing that as a child? If memory serves me correctly, my siblings and I were chronic offenders. Of course like any kid I learned that you didn’t have to use words to interrupt – standing silently at Mom or Dad’s side, staring up at them and giving an occasional tug on the pants leg worked just as well. After all, if you don’t say anything it’s not interrupting, right?

Eventually I came to agree that interrupting conversations is poor manners. But what about a different kind of interruption: interrupting lives? Have you ever thought about how many times God does just that? Consider Paul’s life. Paul, at the time Saul, was perfectly happy with his zealous persecution of the church – and then God interrupted him on a dusty Palestinian road, turned his life upside down, saved him, and gave him a completely new mission in life. The gospels tell the same story about the disciples. Here you have a bunch of fishermen in the midst of their daily routine, and suddenly a man shows up, interrupts the monotony of the mundane, and calls them to leave everything and follow him – and nothing was ever the same. The woman at the well, Lydia on a Philippian river bank, a Roman jailer and his household, even the thief on the cross – all people interrupted by the God who saves.

Your story is probably similar. You were going your own way, perhaps in blatant rebellion against God or perhaps simply avoiding God by superficial “morality” – and then God interrupted you. It has happened, and is happening, over and over again. God is the great interrupter.

But there’s something remarkable about the way in which God’s conducts his glorious interruptions. Most often God interrupts people through other people. A spoken word, a listening ear, a quick prayer together – these become ways in which God invades the ordinary and brings his saving and sanctifying power into human lives.

Because of the pervasive effects of sin, every one of us needs to be interrupted. As believers we still lose our way. Earthly things become too important to us, cares blind us to the character of God, and struggles with sin make us withdraw from the fellowship of the saints. When that happens, the kindest thing God can do to us is interrupt us. And usually God will do it through another person. This is even truer of unbelievers. They are completely alienated from God, and – to varying degrees – from other people. Sin loves the darkness. No matter how gregarious and outgoing a lost person seems to be, over time their rebellion against God will make them increasingly alone. God wants to interrupt them with the glorious good news about Jesus – and he wants to use us to do it.

God is the great interrupter. He invades lives, breaking through the isolation and aloneness to bring his presence and power. And he uses us. So go, open your eyes, pray for the Spirit’s prompting – and interrupt someone.

Photot by Istolethetv.

The Light Shines in the Darkness

 

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If you pay attention to the headlines or the Twitter and Facebook buzz, you’ve probably picked up on something: we Americans disagree with one another. A lot. And about some very fundamental issues. Whether it’s the Duck Dynasty kerfuffle, struggles between pro-life and abortion advocates, the legalization of marijuana, or wedding cakes and religious liberty issues, our debates become heated and the divide between positions often appears to be an unbridgeable chasm. While there is room for Christian disagreement over some of these issues, and complexity in every specific debate, there still often remains a stark choice for believers: faithfulness to Scripture, or acceptance by popular culture. One comes only at the expense of the other.

It seems that, for 21st century American Christians, facing this choice is disorienting and maddening. What happened to “America, America, God shed his grace on thee?” What ever happened to being a “Christian nation?” And so we react with anger and confusion. We rally behind candidates we think will support our values. We write lengthy Facebook posts, make our case in the comment threads, and start petitions. We lay the blame for this decline at the feet of specific politicians or specific historical moments, like removing the Ten Commandments and prayer from the schools. Our reactions are intense and emotional because we feel something of great value is being threatened. But I want to challenge us to reconsider that mindset, and to see our country’s cultural climate as we enter 2014 as not a threat, but as an opportunity. How so, you ask?

Before talking about the church’s opportunity, however, we should acknowledge that the feeling of being threatened is, at least in part, an accurate one. There are movements and mindsets in America that do represent threats to religious liberty or to the dignity and sanctity of human life. Christians should be involved in resisting those influences for the basic reason that failure to do so is a failure of love of our neighbors. All of us have some part to play, and some of us – especially those called to legal or political vocations – have a large part to play.

But having said that, our hope is not that we will “win” the cultural war (whatever that means). And the opportunity before us is not an opportunity to reclaim America as a Christian nation – after all, that’s something God never promised us. The church, not America or any other nation, is God’s treasured possession.

No, the opportunity before us is this: to live lives that reflect the glorious light of Jesus in a darkening society. Our current cultural confusion is not something to celebrate – but it is something God can use. When a society cannot agree on such basic things as what it means to be human, or what it means to be male and female, chaotic darkness will inevitably follow. But in the midst of that darkness, there is an opportunity for the light of the gospel to shine brightly. Our obedience to Christ, though it may appear increasingly strange to our neighbors and coworkers, can provide opportunities to give reason for the hope that is within us. And I’m not talking some sort of “super-Christian” lifestyle, but simple, ordinary Christian lives: marriages that remain faithful over the long haul. Parents who love and value their children instead of regarding them as shackles on their independence. Singles who relate to one another in purity. Churches where people of different races and different income brackets love and serve one another, where senior saints are honored instead of marginalized in favor of the young and beautiful. Simple acts of faithful obedience, but by God’s grace a testimony to a radically different way of living than anything a secular mindset can produce.

The New Testament defines our identity for us: we are those who have been brought from darkness into God’s marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9), a new humanity united in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:15). That identity is something no political system or nationality can produce – it is the work of the triune, redeeming God. It is an identity that will often receive the world’s scorn. And yet, at the same time, in a society that is losing all eternal reference points our identity as children of God is a quiet and constant testimony to the reality of the gospel. May the Lord give us grace in 2014 to live lives that shine brightly amidst the darkness, that many might come to know Jesus, the true light of the world.

I am indebted to Peter Hubbard’s excellent book Love into Light for the idea of seeing the issue of homosexuality as an opportunity, not a threat – I’ve simply taken his thought and broadened it.

Photo by JAaron.