July 25, 2014

iMonk: “Getting Better?”

THE LAST POT

 From Michael Spencer’s classic post, When I Am Weak

* * *

Evangelicals love a testimony of how screwed up I USED to be. They aren’t interested in how screwed up I am NOW. But the fact is, that we are screwed up. Then. Now. All the time in between and, it’s a safe bet to assume, the rest of the time we’re alive. But we will pay $400 to go hear a “Bible teacher” tell us how we are only a few verses, prayers and cds away from being a lot better. And we will set quietly, or applaud loudly, when the story is retold. I’m really better now. I’m a good Christian. I’m not a mess anymore. I’m different from other people.

Please. Call this off. It’s making me sick. I mean that. It’s affecting me. I’m seeing, in my life and the lives of others, a commitment to lying about our condition that is absolutely pathological. Evangelicals called Bill Clinton a big-time liar about sex? Come on. How many nodding “good Christians” have so much garbage sitting in the middle of their lives that the odor makes it impossible to breathe without gagging? How many of us are addicted to food, porn and shopping? How many of us are depressed, angry, unforgiving and just plain mean? How many of us are a walking, talking course on basic hypocrisy, because we just can’t look at ourselves in the mirror and admit what we a collection of brokenness we’ve become WHILE we called ourselves “good Christians” who want to “witness” to others. I’m choking just writing this.

You people with your Bibles. Look something up for me? Isn’t almost everyone in that book screwed up? I mean, don’t the screwed up people- like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Hosea- outnumber the “good Christians” by about ten to one? And isn’t it true that the more we get to look at a Biblical character close up, the more likely it will be that we’ll see a whole nasty collection of things that Christians say they no longer have to deal with because, praise God! I’m fixed? Not just a few temper tantrums or ordinary lies, but stuff like violence. Sex addictions. Abuse. Racism. Depression. It’s all there, yet we still flop our Bibles open on the pulpit and talk about “Ten Ways To Have Joy That Never Goes Away!” Where is the laugh track?

What was that I heard? “Well….we’re getting better. That’s sanctification. I’ve been delivered!” I suppose some of us are getting better. For instance, my temper is better than it used to be. Of course, the reason my temper is better, is that in the process of cleaning up the mess I’ve made of my family with my temper, I’ve discovered about twenty other major character flaws that were growing, unchecked, in my personality. I’ve inventoried the havoc I’ve caused in this short life of mine, and it turns out “temper problem” is way too simple to describe the mess that is me. Sanctification? Yes, I no longer have the arrogant ignorance to believe that I’m always right about everything, and I’m too embarrassed by the general chaos of my life to mount an angry fit every time something doesn’t go my way. Getting better? Quite true. I’m getting better at knowing what a wretched wreck I really amount to, and it’s shut me up and sat me down.

I love this passage of scripture. I don’t know why no one believes it, but I love it.

7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)

Let me attempt a slight retelling of the text, more in line with the Christianity of our time.

But we have this treasure in saved, healed, delivered and supernaturally changed vessels, to show that God has given to us, right now, His surpassing power over ever situation. We are no longer afflicted, perplexed, in conflict or defeated. No, we are alive with the power of Jesus, and the resurrection power of Jesus has changed us now…TODAY! In every way!. God wants you to see just what a Jesus-controlled person is all about, so the power of Jesus is on display in the life I am living, and those who don’t have this life, are miserable and dying.

crackedpotContextual concerns aside, let’s read Paul’s words as a basic “reality board” to the Christian life.

We’re dying. Life is full of pain and perplexity. We have Christ, and so, in the future, his life will manifest in us in resurrection and glory. In the present, that life manifests in us in this very odd, contradictory experience. We are dying, afflicted, broken, hurting, confused…yet we hold on to Jesus in all these things, and continue to love him and believe in him. The power of God is in us, not in making us above the human, but allowing us to be merely human, yet part of a new creation in Jesus.

What does this mean?

It means your depression isn’t fixed. It means you are still overweight. It means you still want to look at porn. It means you are still frightened of dying, reluctant to tell the truth and purposely evasive when it comes to responsibility. It means you can lie, cheat, steal, even do terrible things, when you are ‘in the flesh,” which, in one sense, you always are. If you are a Christian, it means you are frequently, perhaps constantly miserable, and it means you are involved in a fight for Christ to have more influence in your life than your broken, screwed up, messed up humanity. In fact, the greatest miracle is that with all the miserable messes in your life, you still want to have Jesus as King, because it’s a lot of trouble, folks. It isn’t a picnic.

9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Here is even more undeniable, unarguable language. Weaknesses are with me for the whole journey. Paul was particularly thinking of persecutions, but how much more does this passage apply to human frailty, brokenness and hurt? How essential is it for us to be broken, if Christ is going to be our strength? When I am weak I am strong. Not, “When I am cured,” or “When I am successful,” or “When I am a good Christian,” but when I am weak.

Weakness- the human experience of weakness- is God’s blueprint for exalting and magnifying his Son. When broken people, miserably failing people, continue to belong to, believe in and worship Jesus, God is happy.

Comments

  1. Richard Olsen says:

    Oh man…I’m so glad someone said it. It makes me feel so much better to know I’m not the only screwed up Christian around. One of the best articles yet. It really hit me where I am at. Man, am I in love with God’s Grace because if it weren’t for that, I’d really be screwed up.

  2. When God called me to faith ten years ago, one of the first Christian writers I stumbled across was Michael. He, as much if not more than anyone, has influenced my approach to the Christian life and this essay is just as powerful now as it was when I first read it years ago–I referenced it just Monday in a conversation with a friend on sanctification.

    Thank God for Michael bringing sanity and wisdom to what had been (and still can be when I forget that “Christ dwells only in sinners”) a roller-coaster existence of joy and despair.

  3. This will make a great introduction to my sermon this Sunday on sanctification. Should get their attention.

    DSY

  4. I appreciate the honesty; however, I think you have left out some significant texts yourself. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, which is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV) I do not like it either when matters of faith are handled tritely. Life is more complicated and frustrating and wounding than we can ever handle in a twenty minute sermon on Sunday morning. Nevertheless, the hope of the Gospel includes the hope that we can overcome through the grace of Jesus – otherwise, why would Paul have said, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Yes, the Bible is filled with the stories of flawed, jacked up people that God used for his glory. But we should never forget the help, hope, and healing that Jesus offers. No, I am not perferct; but I am not just becoming a kindler, gentler, more self-aware mess who follows Jesus. He is changing me — Am I better? Maybe not as much as some preachers like to think they are — but Jesus is owning more of me which gives me hope to carry on.

  5. Randy Thompson says:

    If Stephen’s face “glowed” as he was being stoned to death, Stephen certainly didn’t know it. (He was busy looking at Jesus. )

    It seems to me that if we’re salt or light or a city on a hill, we are such because we don’t know it. My heart is a bottomless pit of dark things, yet it is also the place from which I desire, seek, and love Christ. Maybe, just maybe, somebody somewhere has seen a glimpse of God’s glory in me. If so, I’m clueless about it, and that’s good for my soul.

    When we most think we’re salt, light and the city on a hill, then we are most clueless, and probably either making an odd spectacle out of ourselves, or providing someone–maybe God–with comic relief.

  6. An internet search on the Doctrines of Grace led me to this site several years ago (I know, ironic huh?) This was one of the first posts I stumbled across. At first I was a little frightened, but I kept reading. And reading. Reading. In the wee hours of the morning I felt like standing up and cheering. Here was a fellow Southern Baptist (and a pastor no less) that felt just like I did about the nonsense going on in the church today, only he was actually brave enough to say it.. I wasn’t alone.

    I’m thankful for Chaplain Mike, Jeff and others for keeping this site going. I admire and respect each of you very much, but I miss Michael dearly. I am so grateful to him for leading me out of the wilderness and into a Jesus-shaped spirituality. And for giving me the courage to be the Christian I am today. Thank you Michael.

    I pray that the purpose of Internet Monk never changes. That you continue to ‘talk hard’. I continue to worship and serve in the circus of a typical Souther Baptist church today. Internet Monk serves as a daily place of rest for me. Michael’s book and this site, especially the archives, are a treasure. God bless each of you.

  7. fairly regular reader, occasional commenter.

    Messages like this are always a real relief, though the return to my church surroundings often offers a somewhat different methods. The message (mostly implicit) is that we are ‘getting better’ – if we keep on praying, reading our bibles, and attending church (doing the things that christian life seems to consist of) then we will become more holy/more like Jesus, or words to that effect. Maybe it doesn’t often get preached directly, but it always seems to be there – something ‘true’ that no-one would think to question. I suppose that if, as it is in our church, the gospel is about dealing with human sin, then the natural expectation is that, if this christianity thing ‘works’ at all, we all should be sinning less.

    I actually did ‘get better’ (I think) in one way. The area of my life I wanted the most to change, has done. But I wouldn’t say was much ‘closer to God’, even much happier now its (mostly) gone.

    Alongside that, there is this feeling that we all ought to be ‘radical’, ‘passionate’ christians, who, first of all, rarely sin in any meaningful way, and secondly, engage in personal evangelism on a regular basis. Oh, and volunteer regularly, for things like flyering for evangelistic events. I must have clocked over 300 hours volunteering at university. Rather like throwing coins into a well, trying to fill it up.

    This isn’t helped by the fact that we could open our bibles and find any number of passages that seem to support this radical, improving christian idea. That bit in revelation about being a lukewarm christian for example. And there’s all these songs about giving God everything, and being totally devoted to him.

    I can’t actually be bothered with that right now. I think I’d rather just read, write, listen to music and go for walks. And keep reading internetmonk.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Alongside that, there is this feeling that we all ought to be ‘radical’, ‘passionate’ christians, who, first of all, rarely sin in any meaningful way, and secondly, engage in personal evangelism on a regular basis. Oh, and volunteer regularly, for things like flyering for evangelistic events. I must have clocked over 300 hours volunteering at university. Rather like throwing coins into a well, trying to fill it up.

      I believe this is called “Wretched Urgency”, with overtones of “Christianese One-Upmanship”.

      Some speculate it’s a legacy of Calvinism and Puritanism, where you’re constantly trying to prove to yourself you’re one of The Elect by being more Godly than that other guy. Or it could just be “look how much I do!” one-upmanship with a Christian coat of paint; it sure gives you a reason to look down your nose at the Lukewarm Apostates.

  8. I hear what he is saying, and I agree that we are never perfect. However, Im not sure that the intent of the passage there in 2 Cor 12 is to make us happy about being weak. Paul doesn’t seem to be boasting about spiritual weakness – he’s not saying, “I know I’m a lustful, drunk, who hates on everyone and has a bad temper, but thank God for his grace.” He is referring to physical weakness and persecutions and calamities (v10).

    I don’t think this line of thought squares with such passages as Titus 2, where the grace of God is training us to renounce ungodliness and wordly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age? It seems that God’s grace is not just intended cover our weaknesses, but in fact to improve our weaknesses – to make us more godly.

    • I indented to mention that these calamities and persecutions are outside of his control. Despite these things, Paul is saying that he is still God’s apostle. In 2 Cor, He is defending himself against the charge the he is not a worthy apostle (but not because of some moral failing). In fact he says in v 11, that he has been speaking as a fool, previously (12:1-10). He then goes on to speak highly of his own self-giving service in verses 12:12-18, which doesn’t seem to make sense if he were seriously just boasting about what a lame Christian he was.

    • You may be right about the specifics of the passage. I’m not sure you can argue with the experience of saints through the eons. The more I “grow,” the more I feel and see my sinfulness and weakness. Anyone who thinks he can chart his progress is probably fooling himself. No, is fooling himself.

      • CM, perhaps our biggest reason for our time on earth to worship the perfect God who made us, and understand with every step toward Him that we remain dirt-bound sinners who are Loved fiercly anyway. I know from my expereince, and what I have read about saints, is that the more I try to walk in His footsteps, the more I realize what I mess I was, am, and evermore shall be. The more we see of God, the more we can see our own faults and failings……and throw ourselves on His mercy and grace while we do what we can in our mission here.

  9. Chaplain Mike,
    Why do you think Christians lie about the condition of their lives? What is (are) the motivation(s)? Is there one main motivation? Ironically, I find that the people I know who are into New Age religion and neo-paganism have the same kind of smiley-face attitude and lack of self-understanding.

    • Many reasons, I’m sure. For one thing, we really want to believe we can escape ourselves. For another, the church is a human gathering, with all the dynamics of any group: comparison, competition, fear of rejection, feelings of superiority or inadequacy, the desire to fit in, be respected, and please others, etc. I’m sure there are a million more.

  10. I rarely comment here, but I read what you all have to say fairly regularly. I “stumbled” upon this site some years back when Michael was still alive. Of all the things Michael wrote, I think this one is my favorite. The Lord used Michael to speak the words I needed to hear. I had confused the Christian life with being good and getting better for far too long (I still fall into this trap far more often than I care to admit). A big thank you to all of you who keep this work going.

  11. Not long ago I read someone’s thoughts on their religious affiliation. It went something like, “If at the end of my life, I am called a Christian because of the way I chose to live & serve others, then so be it. However, until then, I will simply continue to follow Christ as best I can.” I remember being impressed because of the humility this person expressed, a humility you don’t hear enough from many Christians. But I think this also expresses the same orientation as Michael. I don’t think he would deny that using our free will to show mercy & do justice does shape us in a Christ-like way. But all too often, our tendency is to focus on the good we do & not the gift of grace that enabled us to do it in the first place. Somehow, identifying oneself as a Christ follower allows room for weakness, uncertainty &, therefore, requires faith whereas identifying as a Christian suggests certainty & leaves little room for Christ to enter in.

  12. This essay was my first introduction to I.M. It took my breath away & rekindled a small flicker of hope in my confused mind & bitter, albeit broken heart. Broken by the pressure to perform, pretend & measure up to an impossible standard of perfection.
    Being in church leadership meant we no longer walked with a limp, we, us leaders, after all were the advertisement to sell Jesus to others. Which meant basically pasting on a plastic smile to cover the angst & sins going on inside. Long story as many others here have shared. ( Eagle)

    When I stumbled across this remarkable piece, I wept. I hadn’t been in a church for several years, I thought my heart was dead to Christ and perhaps it was, but I wasn’t dead to Jesus. This essay opened up the possibility of another way to live the Christian life. I haven’t totally found my way, but have made progress in understanding grace and as corny as it may sound to some I am sincerely grateful for this website.

  13. Great stuff.

    Related to this, I remember Michael saying that one of the most important prayers in the bible is from Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

  14. i still miss michael

  15. I grew up in a ‘fellowship’ which believed heavily in ‘sinless perfection’, so this stuff is hard for me to read without the ‘righteous glasses’ kicking in.

    I think I agree with the conclusions (my experience does, in any case), but like a previous commenter, I’m not completely comfortable that in the quoted verses ‘weakness’ can be equated with ‘sin’, nor that the ‘affliction’ is self-inflicted as opposed to coming from the outside.

    Can some kind commenter help with this dilemma?