Saturday, April 30, 2005

The 'Big Picture' series - 4: Repentance

Practicality: In order to be a part of Kingdom of God and be part of God’s family, we must leave sinful ways. We must faithfully choose against sin and instead be committed to do what is right, and not think that choosing to sin is acceptable behaviour for Christians.

In light of my previous posts, it should be a relatively straightforward step to discuss repentance and salvation. There is no doubt that salvation is a major theme of Scripture, but we should not forget that repentance is also a major theme. So, let us firstly look at repentance.

Simply put, repentance could be described as leaving the kingdom of sin. As I discussed in my previous post, this entails a choice cease being selfish and leave sinful ways. Repentance is the opposite of choosing to be faithful to something, and in the Bible is means to no longer be faithful to sin.

But sadly, repentance has been dulled down, and is now widely thought to involve feelings of guilt, regret, remorse, and wretchedness. “Repent”, people say, and suggest that this requires them to feel bad about the wrongs they’ve done. Certainly, repentance will often be coupled with feeling bad about previous sin, but it is not always. Indeed, the point of repentance is not to feel bad about sin, but to leave it – even if it still appeals to you. After all, we sin because we want to, and that is exactly what we have to leave – our selfish desires.

What is worse about popular ideas of repentance is that the notion of actually leaving sin and denying self is largely ignored. It is replaced by the idea that everyone will never be perfect here on earth. Eventually, such reasoning leads to the current popular idea that when you choose to become a Christian, it is the start of a journey away from sin and toward the likeness of Christ. There is no suggestion that repentance from sin will cause a marked change in behaviour – to stop sinning. The idea of ‘put to death your selfishness’ that is referred to in the Bible as ‘dying to self’ has been replaced with something like ‘start disliking your selfishness – but it’s normal for it to remain as it was before’. Yes, we should ‘dislike our selfishness’, but repentance involves not just dislike of it, but the choice to wholly revoke it. So, repentance should be evident in our actions, a repentant person chooses to leave sinful ways.

Let me address here an important objection. We are not perfect, and yes, a true Christian may not be as perfect as Christ. For instance, we may not notice that someone needs help in a situation, and therefore not do the good that we could have done. This situation is like a child who does not yet know the ways of being an adult. But it is another matter entirely for a Christian to realise someone needs help in a situation and selfishly choose not to help them. It is worse still for a Christian to know what not to do, but when faced with the choice, to do it anyway. For instance, as a Christian I should not steal, but if I knowingly steal I have willingly chosen to obey sin instead of God.

The issue is one of choice. How can we say we will leave sin and put to death our selfish desires, and then choose sin and obey our selfishness? Or worse, how can we say we have left our sinful ways and go on choosing to sin? You say “no one is perfect, and so we will all still sin” as an excuse to choose to sin. If you have the choice, it is exactly that – a choice! A repentant heart will habitually choose not to sin.

I believe most Christians do still find some choices difficult to make, and occasionally will choose to follow their selfish desires instead of what they know is right. Yet, just because most people sometime do this, it does not make it any better. Repentance is ongoing. Remember I said it was the opposite of faithful commitment to something – it is the faithful commitment against something. It is not a tick by your name that says you have ‘repented’, a mere one-time act, but someone who has repented must be faithful to keep that commitment to leave sin and forsake selfish desire – every day.

In the story of the prodigal son, the son repented by returning to his father. But what good would it have done if the son had still continued to live a life of sinfulness? But the son went to a “distant country” – which implies when he returned he was far from the sinful lifestyle he had lived. His repentance was to leave the distant country, which of course signifies a life of selfish sin. He could not bring the distant country back to the house of his father, such a thought is ridiculous – to pick up rocks and earth and trees and carry them back to his father’s house so that he may enjoy them there. Likewise, we cannot seek to bring with us sinful ways if we come into God’s family, for it defeats the purpose of coming into his family and pollutes the Church. If we are still living in sin, we are still in the far away land. A relationship with God from such a place would feel distant, perhaps with very limited communication. It strikes me how many Christians describe their relationship with God as feeling ‘distant’ from Him.

Further, to use the analogy in my previous post of the soldier doing battle, repentance is like defecting from a bad side to ally with the good one. It is nothing but words unless one actually no longer fights for the bad side but instead for the good. Again, it is a poor soldier who switches allegiances back and forth during the battle, one moment choosing to fight for good and the next begin bad.

The Bible is practically bursting with instruction to repent and leave sinful ways. God tells us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, holiness, and to be “perfect as He is perfect”. The mere fact that God keeps telling us to choose righteousness and forsake sin strongly suggests that He knows we have a choice.

So why should we repent? Repentance is required for salvation, the topic of my next post. As I hope we will see, salvation is worth repenting for.

Some verses to ponder (from the LITV). Note that these are just ones that have the actual word “repent” in them, but the idea of repentance is prolific throughout Scripture in instructions to cease wicked, disobedient, selfish and idolatrous ways.

From Lexicons: Hebrew: “repent” = to turn back, Greek: repent” = think differently

Job 42:6, Jer 18:8, Jer 18:9-10, Mat 4:17, Mat 9:13, Mat 11:20, Mat 12:41, Mar 1:15, Mar 6:12, Luk 3:3, Luk 15:7, Luk 24:47, Act 2:38, Act 3:19, Act 5:31, Act 8:22, Act 17:30, Act 19:4, Act 20:21, Act 26:20, 2Co 12:21, Heb 6:1, 2Pe 3:9, Rev 2:5, Rev 2:16, Rev 3:19

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The 'Big Picture' series - 3: The Two Kingdoms

Practicality: People are always having to choose between loving and serving themselves (or idols) or God (and hence others), which are fundamentally opposed and mutually exclusive. Whether people belong to the Kingdom of God or the kingdom of sin is dependent which King they give their allegiance to – themselves or God - and whomever they are devoted to they serve with their actions. Thus, we need to be completely selfless and instead be whole-heartedly committed to loving God and loving others in everything we do.

There is a powerful figurative thing that is often referred to, but little understood. Christ often spoke of it when He taught, as did the apostles. In fact, it encompasses so much of what it means to be a Christians that perhaps we, too, should spend as much time thinking about it as Jesus and the apostles did. I speak of the Kingdom of God.

What is it, and how does it relate to us? Before I give answer to that, I must describe a different kingdom, the one that is not of God. I will call this kingdom the kingdom of sin, and seek to describe it.

The nature of a kingdom is that it has a king, and kingdom is defined by the people who give allegiance to that king. Thus, people in the kingdom of sin are allied to sin – they serve it, they obey it, they live for it. In what way can someone be so allied to sin? Well, in my previous post on sin I described it as being a failure to love God and love others. Thus, anyone who is not devoted to doing this is therefore devoted to something else, and as I mentioned in my previous post, such devotion is typically to either themselves, or things that distract people from loving God and others (idols).

So, the citizens of the kingdom of sin are determined by their devotion to things that are unloving of God and others. At the extreme, this involves intentional harm to others – but nevertheless, such intentions are generally grounded in either selfishness or idolatry. Citizens of this kingdom therefore make as their king their own desires – and they are ruled by them. They are ruled by things like greed, lust, materialism, ego, unfairness, competition and appearance. These are the type of powers that Paul writes Christians battle against. The eyes of people living in the kingdom of sin are turned not to God and others, but to themselves and to things.

It is not good to live in the kingdom of sin. The ultimate futility of life in this kingdom can be easily seen, for we enter this earth with nothing and with nothing we will return. The prestige, wealth, and size of ego we gain is ultimately of no value, for it is only what we give that remains. What is worse, however, is that the selfishness and idolatry of the kingdom of sin lead to pain, dissatisfaction, lack of fulfillment, and relationships that are only a shadow of what they could be. Indeed, it is only in relationships that meaning for our existence is found, and so by loving on others but ourselves and meaningless things – we naturally destroy our relationships, for true relationship is inherently about loving someone else. People in the kingdom of sin ultimately find little but loneliness and the yearning for a deeper life.

Because the citizens of the kingdom of sin do not serve God or others, these two become things to serve what they are devoted to. They view God as something that will benefit themselves, or as a way to serve their idols. Naturally, God does not indulge them, for to do so would merely feed the selfishness and idolatry that keep them enslaved. What is worse, is that they also use others to benefit themselves or serve their idols. Such selfishness tends to hurt others, because instead of creating love and care among people it steals it away, and people are abused, wronged, cheated, lied to, enslaved, and even killed. Such a description is fitting of our current society, where we are so familiar and disturbingly comfortable with it that we do not imagine a different way of life, and that is exactly why Christ described the Kingdom of God

The Kingdom of God embodies a way of life that is completely different from the kingdom of sin. Indeed, they are totally opposed, as light is the opposite to darkness. Those in the Kingdom of God do not love themselves nor idols, but God. I use the word ‘love’ not only in an emotional one, but also in the practical sense that it is the purpose of our actions. Relationship with God becomes paramount – it is literally what those in the Kingdom live for. Because people of the Kingdom do not serve their selfishness, they no longer value selfish gain, but in giving love to others. Members of the Kingdom are not selfish, and it is for this reason that citizens of the Kingdom of God are described as ‘dead to themselves’ but living for God. The selflessness of the Kingdom of God is illustrated by Jesus many times. He tells parables of a people giving up all they value for it, and it is precisely because they give up what they want that they can join God’s Kingdom. This is the ‘cost’ of following Jesus in His loving relationships with the Father and with others. Selflessness is the cross that Christ tells us to carry – for on it we put to death our selfishness – the word is rich with the idea of self denial, for Romans forced people to carry the very cross they would die upon.

So, in the Kingdom of God, it is true that those who find their life, ultimately lose it; but those who loose their life, and instead live for God and others, gain true life. By denying our selfishness, we can love others and form true loving relationships with God and others – which is where we find we truly find life. In loving God and loving other people, we are obeying God’s instruction – which teaches what loving Him and others involves in practice.

It is an appropriate analogy to describe the two kingdoms as two lands separated by a large distance. People in the kingdom of sin cannot be in the Kingdom of God while remaining in the kingdom of sin, because the Kingdom of God is far from it. Is it not sensible then for Jesus and the apostles to urge us to leave sin? Unless we leave sin, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Nor can selfish citizens of the kingdom of sin expect the kingdom of God to come to them, for the Kingdom of God has nothing to do with the kingdom of sin – but rather people choose what kingdom to be allied to in their hearts, for “the Kingdom of God is within you”.

The two kings therefore do battle for our hearts, and we choose who wins by who we serve. If we are selfish, we serve sin, but if we love God and others instead, we serve God. The two kingdoms are totally opposed and mutually exclusive. It is no surprise, then, that Jesus said that no one can serve these two masters. We serve one of these kings, whether we like to admit it or not.

But when do we serve God and when are we serving sin? The essence of faith is committed devotion, and so needless to say we should be always serving God. Indeed, if our selfish desires ‘die’, then analogy suggests that Christ-like character should come to life in us to replace it, and so selfishness should not come back to life.

Yet, we think we can be committed to serving both ourselves and God, so in fact we are committed to neither. We are like solders doing battle who repeatedly change allegiances during battle. Surely, the commander of such people would rather they do not fight at all! Such double-mindedness is condemned in the Bible. This lack of allegiance to either seems to be why the Laodiceans were described as “lukewarm” in Revelation, and it is surely why God disliked their behaviour.

So, we need to be committed to God’s kingdom, and to do that we must leave our selfishness that causes sinful action. These thoughts will lead us to the next topics I intend to discuss, repentance and salvation.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The 'Big Picture' series - 2: Sin

Practicality: Sin is rooted in selfishness or idolatry, and is ultimately harmful for us and others because it is opposed to loving God and loving others. For this reason, God wants to free us from sin to restore these relationships, for these healthy relationships cannot occur where there is selfishness or idolatry.

If all God’s commands can be distilled into two; to love God, and to love others, then sin is surely a failure to do this. This is not love in the romantic or emotional sense, but in a practical sense. As Jesus taught, a person always loves something or someone at the sacrifice of love for other things or people (Mat 6:24). So, I suggest that sin ultimately due to loving things other than God or people. The Bible lists many of the ways in which people do this, such as disobedience, greed, coveting, and failure to help or be fair, and the list goes on. However, it seems failure to love God and people is due to two main causes – loving things (idolatry), and loving one’s self rather than God or others (selfishness).

Oddly, many seem to treat sin as something God has a real problem with – in and of itself. “God is Holy,” they say, “and so cannot tolerating being in the presence of sin.” Yet, Jesus spent much of his time with sinners. Indeed, the ideas of God not wanting to be around sin is almost the opposite of what we see in Jesus, and far more reflected in the current attitudes of so-called Christians. These ideas stem from a false conception of the nature of sin, for sin is not something God has a problem with – but something we have a problem with. Sin is harmful to us and others, and it is because of this that God hates it. He does not hate it simply because He is some spotlessly pure being who cannot tolerate the thought that sinners may dirty His clothes, He hates it because it hurts the people He loves. The hurt of sin is not only physical pain, but damage to relationships, and relationships are arguably the most important things in life. Relationships are the framework in which Jesus summed up God’s instructions – love God, and love others – love is essential to good relationships.

Some current ideas suggest that somehow, through some action of Jesus, God can now accept us AND our sin – as if sin is some kind of baggage that we carry in large suitcases. I think such ideas miss the point, because we are still hurt by the sin we do, and God wants us to be free of the sin. The importance of our sin is not the guilt, it is the consequence. We must realise that God wants us to be free from sin, not merely to leave us being hurt by it.

The damage of sin is subtle, but dramatic. Perhaps the reason we no longer understand God’s perspective on sin well is because we try to interpret in from an individualistic mindset, rather than a relational one. When life is about me, my sin hardly matters for I can do what I want – my life is all about me; but when life is about others, my sin matters a great deal. Too often, we view sin as the objectionable baggage that God must graciously overlook because we are thinking of ourselves. “Sin is something that stops God from liking ME.” “God please forgive my sin,” (so that I don’t have to renounce it). No, we should not be viewing sin as something that is stopping God from loving us – it is because of His love for us that He wants us to stop sinning! God has a relational mindset, where sin is something that damages relationships – the most priceless things God has blessed us with. Sin damages our relationship with God not because God cannot love us as much, but because selfishness causes us to not love God as much. Likewise, idolatry causes us to love Him less. Sin is not loving others as we should – and therefore it is bad for our relationships with others.

At its core, sin is about putting us first – about caring more about ourselves at the sacrifice of our love for God and others. So, how can we view sin as something that we need to be pardoned so that we can be loved and accepted more? Such a view is childish, for it is still focussed on self-interest! Rather, sin is something that we need to forsake so that we can love and accept others more – because sin comes from selfishness and righteousness from selflessness. The focus should be on giving love, and not on merely getting what we want. God has already given us an amazing example in Christ of sin-less, self-less character, for He loved people not for His benefit, but for theirs.

Idolatry is similar in effect to selfishness, in that it hinders our love for God and others. Instead of loving who we should be, we love things. God never told us to love things, He told us to love relational beings – Himself and people. Thus, idolatry is similarly in contrast to the righteous love that God commands. One may think, “Idolatry is hardly common in the Western culture, but it is surely more in the East where they have small statues that they pray to.” What a narrow view of idolatry! A thing does not need to be carved in wood or stone to be an idol. In Western culture, we love all manner of things, like fashion, looks, money, fame, power or business. These things are not bad in themselves – some can even be good – but they become sin when they detract from our love for God and others. Certainly, we are an idolatrous society because we too often focus far more on things than we do on God and other people. Such things are not sinful, it is our neglect of what is important and what is right that is sinful. For we only have a certain number of hours in the day, and a certain amount of resources and if we commit them to things we forfeit giving them for God and others.

I believe that the ideas about sin I have tried to present here have helped me understand the Scriptures and God’s heart more, and I hope they do the same for you. More posts related to this topic will follow.