We Need a Whole Lot More Grace


Grace of GodSometimes, I think we don’t have any idea what grace is.

This seems unbelievable to me, given that grace is one of the bedrock distinctives of the Christian faith. When we talk about freeing people from their locked chains, grace is the key in that lock.

But beyond the grace that God gives that allows us entrance to eternal life when we die, what does grace look like in the everyday life of the Christian and the Church?

Grace can’t be for the future alone. What does grace look like now?

I confess that I remain unclear on grace for the present. Part of that is because I see the American Church continuing to add to people’s burdens. The great hope of the Christian faith that we we used to sing about in our old hymns was how grace allowed us to lay our burdens down. But today, I wonder if what we do is substitute a different set of burdens. What grace is there for the mom who is juggling four young kids and a job and yet her pastor says she’s not doing enough for the Kingdom because she can’t find a way to squeeze in teaching Sunday School or going out to feed the poor?

Jesus said this:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
—Matthew 11:28-30 ESV

What does that look like in the life of the average American Christian today? Are we living by grace? Or are we simply finding ways to sanctify burdens?

In addressing another aspect of grace, I wonder what grace today looks like in the lives of Christians who fail. And not just for moral failures but for people who fail in other ways. What grace exist for the student who went to college, found it harder than expected, and dropped out? What grace exists for the person who is bad with household finances? Where is the grace for the businessman who starts his dream business (or dream ministry), only to watch it fail?

One of the strange trends I see in Christian nonfiction books is an over-reliance on stories of success, as if these stories are always reproducible, even if the underlying conditions that made them possible don’t exist elsewhere. More than anything, I’d like to read real stories of real Christians who failed, how they received grace in the aftermath, and how their churches channeled that grace to them. Don’t we all need to know how grace works when we fail in those ways too?

What are your thoughts on grace, its availability, and what it should look like in the everyday life of the Church?

The Dreaded Christian To-Do List


Pile, inbox, list, to-doMy son and I are reading through the New Testament together this summer. Though I’ve read through the NT many times previously, the word of God is rich, my life circumstances change, and people grow and see with more spiritual vision over time.

One truth is hitting me hard this time around.

If you are a parent of a child who has gone through public or private school, you received notes from teachers about your child. Some addressed issues in your child’s life that required fixing. Others were updates on the school or its activities.

In reading the NT again, I was struck by how Paul’s letters to the churches often resemble those notes from a schoolteacher. They contain correctives, do’s and don’t’s, progress info, and so on.

But here’s the thing: If I were try to recreate an image of my child, would those letters he brought home from teachers be sufficient to tell me who he is?

I see this tendency in churches to take the Scriptures and make lists of do’s and don’t’s, form an image from those do’s and don’t’s, and then call them The Gospel™.

Problem is, compiling lists and performing what’s on them is not the real Gospel and never has been. Ironically, there exists a list of 10 To-Do items meant for “religious” people and those religious people found it a bear to do them. Even more ironic, the Giver of those 10 items concurred with the people: Yes, those 10 were impossible to keep perfectly.

And yet for most people attending a Christian Church in America, what comes out of the pulpit on Sunday is almost always a list of more “spiritual” things for them to do. It’s three, five, 10, or 12 bullet points (depending on how long-winded the preacher is) that we must now perform to have perfect





prayer lives,

Bible-study skills,

and on and on.

We have exchanged 10 items impossible to do for innumerable items impossible to do.

Preachers love to mine the Old Covenant for these items, despite the fact that covenant has been replaced by a much better one. Then they look at the better one, read all the “Notes from Teacher” letters of Paul, and use those corrective letters as additional fodder for more lists. (If anything, those corrective letters are intended more for Church leaders themselves to wrestle with. Sort of a “Teacher, teach thyself” sort of thing. But then how many preacher/leaders look at them that way?)

Funny thing  is, though the post-apostolic Church has loved its lists, the early Church knew better. When the issue of lists of Christian things to do came before the apostles and early Church leaders with regard to the gentiles, an astute James said there was no reason to frustrate those believers with a massive spiritual To-Do list. In the end, the leaders kept that list sane and super-short.

Even wilder? Those same apostles and leaders called the spiritual To-Do lists they’d had to contend with their entire lives “trouble” and a “burden.” You can read about this in Acts 15.

Jesus didn’t like lists either. When someone tried to force a list of approved behavior out of Him, He said all you needed to do was to love God and love your neighbor.

You know what? I think I can remember a list of two items. (Still, even those two are tough to keep!)

And yet today, the lists multiply and lengthen.

In Ecclesiastes, the narrator complains of the endless making of books and the weariness that comes from studying them. In our self-help, active, To-Do-centered culture today, books now equals lists. Because, hey, we’re too busy with our lists to focus on anything as lengthy as a book.

As someone 50 years old who has been a Christian for 35+ years, I’ve had enough Christian lists spoken to me over the years to gag a T. Rex. Actually, more like a herd of T. Rex. How many of those lists do I remember? None.

But if I really think about it, that statement may not be true. I do remember those lists—in a way. They bubble and churn under the surface of my spiritual life like so much hidden acid reflux and manifest as a case of spiritual heartburn. Not spiritual conviction, just a feeling like I swallowed something that’s stuck in my throat. Something akin to a millstone.

You know what? I don’t need more lists. You don’t either.

What we need more of is Jesus. And He never was and never will be a To-Do list.

Scolds, Killjoys & Blackmailers: When “Good Christians” Become Annoyances


Something was wrong with Jimmy Swaggart.

Watching his TV show back in the 70s and ’80s, I noticed the gradual change: Swaggart went from preaching the Gospel to letting everyone know just who was in error, who was doing it wrong, and who was screwing up.

We all know who was ultimately screwing up, don’t we?

I learned the lesson of watching a “good Christian” go from a blessing to a scold by watching Swaggart. In his earlier years, he used to show people what they should be for. The later years were instead filled with screaming about who and what people should be against.

I believe that sometimes people with a pulpit run out of good things to say. Even bloggers. I don’t write as much as I once did because I noticed the tendency to go negative in my own writings the more I felt compelled to write something, anything.

John Piper fell into that trap last week when he warned that buying a lottery ticket in the Mega Millions frenzy was “suicidal.”

Really, John? Suicidal?

So I spend a buck and buy a lottery ticket once every five years when the jackpot gets to be some stupidly large amount. Is this truly the pathway to personal destruction?

Actually, I didn’t buy a lottery ticket last week. But with the weather heating up, I will buy an ice cream cone now and then. By Piper’s standard, that cone purchase makes me a bad steward of God’s money on loan to me. Or as he puts it, an “embezzler.” Because which of us American Christians truly needs to further strain against the borders of obesity by shoving more crap down our gullets? I mean, have you seen the size of the Christian T-shirts on the nearly spherical visitors to Main Street in Gatlinburg, Tenn.? Just how many Xs come before that L?

Fact is, if Piper’s judgment is meted out rightly, every Christian in North America is an embezzler of God’s funds, because heaven knows we’re not watching every dime of outflow to ensure its sanctified usage. Do I need a cell phone? XM Radio? Private schooling for my kids? A two-story home?

And sometimes, it’s not what I do that’s bad, but what I threaten not to do.

Case in point: From what is yelled at me from the ChristianMilitaryIndustrialEntertainment Complex, I MUST attend Christian movies when they hit the cineplex or else I am not a good Christian. Entertainment blackmailWorse, if I don’t attend, the ChristianMilitaryIndustrialEntertainment Complex Powers That Be will no longer make exceptional ChristianMilitaryIndustrialEntertainment Complex films for my mandatory consumption, which will result in the gates of hell prevailing (despite what the Bible says).

Here’s the thing: Where is grace in any of this?

It’s sad that Christians, the ones charged with being dispensers of grace, actually seem to experience so little of it in our own lives. In addition, some Christians—and often those who talk the most about grace—don’t seem to extend much grace to others.

The effect is that we become those pinch-faced killjoys on matters of life that really aren’t sin for most people. Instead, our dire warnings boomerang. Our every denouncement becomes ripe for media mockery, and we come off as off-kilter Don Quixotes tilting at really tiny windmills.

I’ve written before that one of the most overlooked traits we Christians need to exhibit far more of is winsomeness. Aren’t Christians the people best suited to be attractive to others because of how zestfully we live life? Shouldn’t we be laughing the loudest when it’s appropriate and mourning the most when necessary? Shouldn’t we bring the best wine to the party? Shouldn’t we tell the funniest jokes? Shouldn’t we be the ones with the most joyful outlook on life? How then is it that we’re so constricted and restricted by other Christians with bully pulpits telling us that buying a lottery ticket on a lark (and with no pretenses toward being crushed if we don’t win) will send us to hell?

We talk, talk, talk about freedom in Christ—and then we lay millstones around people’s necks.

The Bible says this:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God.
— Ecclesiastes 5:18-19

So, why do we reject that gift, folks? Why be scolds, killjoys, blackmailers, and generally unpleasant people to be around?

In other words, for God’s sake, lighten up!