Saturday, November 16, 2013

Grace: A First Glimpse

Yay for Bing's Photos, if nothing else.
Something about grace simply bothers a man. This undeserved gift from God is awesome and beautiful and we sing about it at church on Sundays, but so often we forget about it or question its effects. Is grace really real in me? When do I use it? How do I use it? What if I am not strong enough to use it wisely?

The first question I cannot answer for you, but the fact remains that grace is very real, and if it is real in you then consequences will follow.

Nonetheless, I will monologue about the other questions. Now, I know it is rather strange to see grace worded as though it were a weapon or magic ring we use at our bidding, but, let us be honest here, is that not the way many of us Christians treat grace in our daily living?

We have all heard it before: Grace is a gift from God bestowed upon undeserving sinners so that they won't die like they are supposed to, but have eternal life. Dowdy denotation, to be sure.
What follows when someone receives that grace, however, is uncertain; after all, we have been told that God's grace saves us from Hell and "allows us to enter His Heaven." This is a stunning truth, of course, but sometimes it feels as though grace were left with a "now what?" expression scribbled across its face. So, you were saved, you wretch, and are you not glad? You are no longer counted as a sinner is God's eyes, therefore...go rejoicing and skipping in golden, dew-bedangled fields! ...Maybe? And then a throng of excited ten-year-long believers rush around New Christian with their deepest congratulations for becoming a believer, too, all the while impressing upon him that he had now better behave like one, that he had better be good. 

Sure, this is an exaggerated case, and while I do not deny that this very scenario has been played out in quaint churches all across America, I neither intimate that it is common. Still, do you not think it is common for many of us, Reformed or not, to practically live as though grace stopped at salvation? That we embrace a sort of deistic sanctification? Yep, the ayes have it.

We praise God for saving grace, and have little to no clue what happens to it after that.

But grace is so much more than God sending His only begotten Son to die. See, we do not need grace just for God to wash our sins away; we need grace to be able to do even one little thing well. I think we are often confused about grace now because we do not realise that God's grace is not just forgiving. It is enabling. Becoming a Christian is not simply about being cleansed, but about allowing us to do and be ~ to live ~ something righteous. To a self-righteous law-lover like yours truly this is disconcerting, for it means that all our post-Christian "good" works are not good because of you or I, but because of Him. Grace kind of messes things up for Pharisees, and that messing up goes deeper than just being eternally saved. It goes into being momentarily good. Yes, grace reaches beyond the cross. Grace is for the good girl.

Definitely, this never-ending, presently-practical grace unsettled me at first, but once I began to think about it, how beautiful and solidifying and comforting did it become! That I sincerely, frightfully, awfully need grace to be sweet for an hour, to speak a kind word for a minute, to think a clean thought for a second, and that God has supplied that grace to me! All those "good things" we do once we are saved? Yeah, that was grace, too. It sure topples self-righteousness, but, then, I would rather have Christ than me. So, perhaps grace would be less confusing, seem less intangible, if we as a group of Christian young men and women would accept that we hopelessly need grace to be good even now, and that God is constantly showering that sanctifying, enabling grace on we who are His own. It is not about waving a magic wand whenever we think we need a dose of grace. Grace is divine, out of our control, and lavished on us all the time, or we'd go right back to being dead in our trespasses and sins. Consequently, besides singing about the grace that brought Christ to die, we need to celebrate the grace that lets Him live today, interceding and covering for us ~ the same grace that lets His Holy Spirit abide in us so that our works are not counted as filthy rags, but divinely pure robes. See, grace is not only for the good girl, it makes the good girl.

So, no, grace is not a magic ring or sword that we wield whenever we are trying to be good or trying to forget we are bad. That's still living by works. No, grace destroys the magic ring along with the suicidal sword, and instead gives us life. A life that is free, free, free! because God's gift of grace includes the making of a righteous soul.

Hold up, though! Anyone feeling queasy again? Anyone doing the Romans 6:15 squeam?* Yeah, I understand. Living by grace feels like someone took the rails off the railroad and left the train running at full speed to who knows where but no place good. I understand, really. But that is to see grace as license, not love. Remember what we said? Grace makes the good girl. Living by grace is more like chucking the train and buying a really really safe version of one of these babies. Grace may be scary, but it is safer, stronger, and ~ even better than a maglev system ~ it carries God's seal for operation and completion.

The railroad tracks of the law are, in all honesty, only as strong as you are. And you are pretty weak, if I do say so myself. Grace, however, is borne of a love that is as strong as the Lover, the Almighty Himself. His Love for His glory, His love for His name, His love for His Son, His love for you, and your Grace-bestowed love for Him are all in your favor. A person who is truly living by grace cannot help but be drawn to the ultimate Attractor, like a magnet is drawn to the loadstone rock. God is casting away the self-will of a stony heart and giving you the Godwill of a fleshy heart invaded by His Spirit. It is like staying married because you want to, not because you have to. Forced marriages find loopholes. Loving marriages only grow stronger.

Thus, nothing is more secure than grace. We will slip, but we are saints. We have old habits, but we are being made new. We are not yet perfect, but we are being perfected. "What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31). In short, living by law is betting on yourself. Living by grace is betting on God. Since I don't like risks, I am going to bet on God, on a divine love that inspires divine obedience. Sure, it means giving up on me completely, for salvation, for present goodness, for future perfection; but, hey, to live is Christ. And so, we can sing in praise for God's grace at all times, in unison with the Bride of the Song of all Songs:

"Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm,
For love is strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the Lord. 
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. 
If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, 
He would be utterly despised....
Make haste, my Beloved, and be like a gazelle
Or a young stag on the mountains of spices."

Love is stronger than death, and floods cannot stop it.
"The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ," (1 Corinthians 15:56-57).

*So what, I nouned an adjective. Sue me.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

One About Marriage

It has recently come to my attention that most every Christian girl blog offers a post in which the girl blogger writes about marriage, whether to vent or to lecture or to rationalise or to struggle or to conquer, or anything else, really. As long as she sermonises about marriage, the post counts. The only exception to the rule, that I have come across, at least, is if Girl Blogger is far more interested in showcasing her pictures of cupcakes and pies and roast squash than in logging her thoughts about life (but nonetheless, some said Cupcake Blogger Girls cannot seem to escape that one marriage post, even then).

Before you think this is a mere diatribe against such posts (I bet I could do a pretty good diatribe, though ;) ), let me announce that I am about to cross The Marriage Post off this girl's Blogger Bucket List.

Yep, this is me writing about marriage. And singleness. And all that good stuff.

And in good Jenn fashion, it will probably end up looking like a rant. Sigh. (Hey, I am not married, so aren't you glad I didn't choose to lecture?) And now, without further ado....

In the Christian Marriage world of young people today, after reading through reams and reams of words dedicated to this touchy topic, one would think that Christians fall into one of two camps in the apparent struggle over how marriage fits into Christianity ('cause, yeah, we have to admit that this struggle pervades a lot of modern Christian societal dialogue ~ and the struggle ain't new, either):
  1. There are the Christians who openly support marriage, and, what is more, openly support getting married and getting married young (aka now or the next two years). There are varying levels within this "let's get married" camp, ranging anywhere from the "Martin Luther raids monastery and weds ex-nun" (epic story, really) to your Average Joe Preacher who is working through Genesis 2:21 this Sunday morning. God created man and women to glorify God together. God commands us to be fruitful and multiply. Marriage sanctifies. Or even, God has a soul mate hand-picked for you somewhere. Your other half waits; wait for him/her until you find him/her (or, for some of us, until God brings him/her to you). There are a lot of good people who are part of this camp.
  2. Then there are the Christians who start off with something along the lines of "I am all for Godly marriage, but...." This writer is often a young person who five years ago expected she would be hitched in five years. But she wasn’t, and now she has to deal with it. Marriage is a gift that is not for everyone. Marriage is not the end and the beginning of all things; birth and rebirth are. I have Christ - what/who else do I need? Or even, Jesus is my boyfriend. He fills all my desires so I can live a rocking full life. Again, there are a lot of good people who are part of this camp.
Am I on your nerves yet? Don't worry; there's more.

Honestly, I am grown weary of the polite and subtle fighting between these two camps, and so I would like to bring up a few points to see if we can get anywhere better than the regular "I grew up in Camp X and am sick of hearing Camp X all the time and am concerned that Camp X is damaging the Church, so I am going to swing over to the completely opposite side” story. In short, Jenn hopes to move away from reactionary writing, step back, and take a good look at what is going on in our hearts.

The first point is about Context and "the Church." Both people from Camps 1 and 2 generally end up saying something like, "The Church is not helping by...(fill in the blank)," and they get all holily worried about how the Church is leading us poor young lads and lassies astray. Either the Church pushes people off into marriage like a flock of so many unsuspecting sheep, or the Church is not encouraging marriage at all. The reactions of second-generation Camp 1 or 2-ers always come from their context. Well, please remember that whatever problems you see in your local and/or ideological Christian community are by no means characteristic of every Christian community.

For example, I know of someone whose local church one year invited a guest speaker to talk to the youth about marriage. He was for young marriage and, on top of a Biblical exposition on why marriage is good, he also used the argument that people who marry young get to look forward to a night of "holy sex" instead of being stuck playing video games in a basement. The next youth conference, however, the very same church invited another guest speaker to talk about marriage. He went through the Bible showing how marriage is a big step and it is important that young people spend years maturing in Christ before they even think about being glued to another soul who has another host of problems, because you don't want immaturity ruining your marriage before it even gets started. Recipe for a slightly crazed and confused youth group? I think so. But see how these different camps are not limited to one set of Christians (for example, I think it is unfair and incorrect to equate the Homeschooling movement with Camp 1)? I have had different respected Reformed pastors tell me both, "Jenn, make sure you are preparing for a good marriage now. That is how you will win the world," and "Jenn, hold off on marriage until you are ready to settle down and give yourself up to a husband. Take as long as you can doing what you alone can do for God's kingdom."

Obviously, neither the church nor even a given denomination (nor even vaguer groups like "Homeschooling Families") are united in their problems and concerns regarding marriage. Let's not be silly and blame "the Church" or be petty and blame "Homeschoolers" or be biased and blame "Modern Youth Culture" for problems manifest in your circle of friends. Most of the time, the window we have into the universal church is very small, and thus our basis for reaction is likewise limited. Are there Christian girls who foster unrealistic expectations about marriage? Yep. Are there Christian parents who set their kids up for disappointment and disillusionment when it comes to preparing for and getting married? Oh, yes. Are there lazy and controlling young Christians who will come up with any excuse to put off (until further notice) the fetters that marriage would put on their selfish or workaholic lifestyles? You bet. Are there Christian parents who discourage their kids from marrying because they want those kids to prosper financially before locking into family payments? There are too many of these parents. Yes, just as many churches demean marriage as idolise it. Maybe we would do better to admit and address only that which we know, or, better, admit and try to know what other believers are thinking on whatever subject you are addressing. Make sure you aren't reacting from a bubble.

The second point is this whole notion of Marriage versus Singleness in the first place. Seriously? Who ever said our identity was our marital status, and that we have control over what that status is? In 20 years, a lot of the people who are currently married are going to be single and a lot of the people who are single are going to be married. Believe me. God is huge and can change your world in a year or a day. The idea that marriage or singleness is a choice you can make, a door you can close or open, strikes me as very odd and rather conceited. It is like thinking you actually have real control (for more or less) over the number of babies you have. God will do whatever it takes to make us as believers look more like His Son. That means that a 50-year-old woman is never a confirmed spinster and a 20-year-old bride might not die with her husband at her side. Our earthly marital status is not forever: in Heaven there will be no giving in marriage and in Heaven we as a Church will be married to Christ. There can't be a proper Married versus Single struggle because there aren't proper sides. All you know about the future is that God will be faithful in conforming you to Christ-likeness, whatever circumstance(s) it requires.

Perhaps if Christians would truly see that a believer can become more like Christ (be sanctified) just as effectively inside marriage as outside of it, and that God is writing each of His children's life stories in such a way that they would best grow into holiness and help others do the same, then we would stop this clandestine holier-than-thou attitude that exists on both sides of the marriage war.

Because the whole point of life as a Christian (and the third point of this post) is know it by now...become more like Christ with each passing day. Both as we grow as individuals submitting to Christ and as labourers of grace in expanding His Kingdom. That is all that matters for me and for you if you are God's child. Truly, we should be thrilled to see the likeness of our Saviour blossom in a fellow believer, whether God is using marriage or singleness to increase Christ in that person's life.

Now, I think that God has called the vast majority of people to marriage as one of His tools to achieve Christ-likeness in His followers. I think that God loves a Christian marriage which reflects His good news of a groom winning his bride. I think that He has placed in most of us a desire to be married so we might preach the Gospel as couples and give birth to children who will at least see that Gospel lived out in their homes. And I think this desire for marriage is okay, even good, and that this desired marriage ought to be prepared for. (About that, though, I also think that anyone who is striving to become more like the Lord is, in all the most important senses, being prepared for marriage. Even if you don't know how to cook.) But guess what? I have no clue and you have no clue if we are going to get married, and we need to be certain in knowing that we are complete in Christ regardless of marriage. Paul was single, folks, and God used Paul in astounding ways. See, our lives here on earth are so so so so not about our wedding days. If this ruffles any of y'all's feathers, too bad. I am just talking Bible-speak.

In conclusion.

For the married: Marriage is a beautiful and God-given thing. It is blessed by Him and He asks it of most us. Marriage represents the Gospel story in a unique and stunning way, reflecting the entire story of the Bible. The Bible begins and ends with marriage. You have a special and God-given opportunity to make little disciples of Christ (according to His will) as you train up your children in the way he should go, which single people do not have. You have been placed in a glorious situation for becoming more like Christ as you learn to live out the Gospel intimately attached to another, sacrificing and submitting as do Christ and the Church. Make sure you find your soul's satisfaction in Christ alone and not in your spouse, for you have a relationship with Christ apart from your wedded state. And you know what? Your marriage isn't going to last forever.

For the single: Singleness is a beautiful and God-given thing. It is blessed by Him in the few times He asks it of us. Singleness demonstrates the life-transforming relationship each of us as believers has with Christ, and the sufficiency of that relationship to let us live joyful, fruitful lives. You have a special and God-given opportunity to make disciples of Christ for you have the freedom and ability to go places and do things and spend the time with people that many families do not have. God has placed you in a glorious situation for becoming more like Christ as you learn to rely on Him alone for all your needs and come to a sweet knowledge of all He is and has done for you, and all He is again. Make sure you realise that you don't have to choose between marriage and Christ. And you know what? Your singleness isn't going to last forever.

So, whether you are married, single, unmarried, remarried, or pink and purple all over, embrace the fact that to live is Christ, not wedding cake.