The Power of Narratives: Sin & Old Country Fences

fenceWhen I was a kid, we had one of those old country fences around our house. You know those fences that have round wooden posts and old wire? We had that fence around our house for years. One day my dad decided the fence along the road needed to go. So we took it down but hadn’t gotten around to taking down the posts yet. Those posts stayed up for at least a week before we got to taking them down. In the meantime, the dogs in the neighborhood had a history of getting into fights with our dog. Well, when the fence was up they could run at each other and bark and growl and snarl through that fence. But now that the fence was down, we wondered if it might lead to more trouble with the dogs.

A few days in, one of the dogs came running down the road. Our dog saw him and took off down the yard, barking and snarling. They were nose to nose between the posts, standing with an invisible fence between them. That fence had been there so long and the posts were still there…they didn’t realize the fence was gone and there was nothing keeping them from getting to each other. They didn’t touch each other and both walked off. It was pretty funny to watch.

Narratives work like that. The story in their mind was that fence was there just like it always had been. Remove the fence and they still act like it is there. Sin works like that. Often, even once we have received forgiveness through Christ we still act like that old fence is still up between us and God. We don’t always act or feel like we can walk right out of the old ways of doing things into the freedom of Christ. Thankfully, we have a new story to live by that involves the tearing down of any barriers that stand between us and God. Now, let’s live like it and not get consumed by the narratives of the past!

Do Church-goers Really Get Salvation?

If you were to ask the average church-goer in Churches of Christ what salvation is all about what do you think they would say? Several things come to mind of what the typical response might include:

  • Getting to heaven
  • 5 steps of salvation
  • Having our sins forgiven

While all of these things have scriptural merit and are not to be discounted (except some might contend salvation is not accomplished in “steps) does this really hit the bulls eye or is there more to salvation than this? Also, why is it that many who have been in church for decades are still really not that much different than the world? Could it be that we have watered things down so much that it no longer makes any more demands on their life than repentance and baptism (done many years ago for some) when the Bible clearly teaches so much more than that?

What I believe has happened over the years is we have missed much of what is really going on with salvation in order to boil it down to the steps of salvation in order to show our differences with denominations. It is easier to debate whether or not baptism is essential to salvation than it is to develop a more fully biblically informed view on what salvation itself is really all about. When was the last time you heard in a sermon or Bible class anything about Jesus conquering sin and death? When was the last time you heard any teaching on what eternal life was all about? When have you heard anything about sin other than it results in death and separates us from God? In the Churches of Christ we need a more biblically informed view of what salvation is all about and not water it down to only one half of the equation (the 5 steps we take). God is doing so much on our behalf in the salvation process and yet you rarely hear any of that in our circles. At least, that is my experience. Have any of you noticed the same thing?

The only way people in the pew are going to get it is if we start to teach it. If we are going to teach it we have to get it first ourselves. This does not mean we discount repentance, baptism, etc but it does mean we also fully endorse many other biblical principles and teachings on salvation itself.

Sin and Walking in the Light

I grew up with an in/out mentality of salvation. When you are baptized you are in. When you sin you are out until you repent of your sinfulness and then you are back in…until you sin again. I have been really thankful for 1 John 1:5-10 in sorting this out.

5This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[b] sin.

8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

In these six verses we see that John was writing to people he considered to be walking in the light. But he says that they still need forgiveness of sins and that if they deny their own sinfulness that they are only deceiving themselves. This flies in the face of what I was taught as a child and teenager. John is saying that walking in the light doesn’t mean we are sinless or that once we sin we cease to be in the light. Walking in the light includes confession of our sins and forgiveness.

No more of the old in/out dance for me. I know that I am God’s and he will be the judge of my life. And I know that he can deal with my sin and keep me in the light. Now, if I choose to go the other way and unrepentantly pursue darkness then we are talking about something else.

One problem this brings up is reconciling this with Isaiah 59:1-2 which is a verse that people use to say God hides his face from any and all sin,

Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.

But your iniquities have separated
you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear.

That is a proof text as that there were times in Israel’s history where they were sinful but not to the point of God’s hiding his face. So to say in and all sin result in God hiding his face from us misses much of what is taught in the entirety of scripture. I am sure grateful that God is so gracious and kind.

Comforted or Disturbed?

Bob Bliss and I noticed that in a meeting we had yesterday the theme of being disturbed came up on several occasions. I got to thinking about this and I think there is a tension between being comfortable and being disturbed that is worthy of investigation. Look at the ministry of Jesus. Jesus spent time making the comfortable feel disturbed and time comforting those who were disturbed. The Pharisees were spiritually comfortable. They needed a renewed sense of the disturbing aspects of their faith that they had come to view and commonplace. Then there were the tax collectors and “sinners” who lived very disturbed lives. Jesus spent his time comforting people like that. There are disturbing things in life they we should never grow too comfortable with. There are times we will feel disturbed about things (sin, injustice, etc) and know that in those times we might just be more aligned with Jesus than we have ever understood.

The Naughty Lists

In scripture there are several lists of sins that cover a wide variety of things. These lists include Revelation 21:8, 1 Cor 6:9-11, Galatians 5:19-21, Col 3:5-6, and 1 Samuel 15:23 (just for good measure). Here are all the naugthy lists combined into one big list:

  • cowardace
  • unbelief
  • being vile
  • murder
  • sexual immorality
  • practicing magic arts
  • idolatry
  • lying
  • being wicked
  • adultery
  • being a male (or female) prostitute
  • homosexual offenders
  • stealing
  • greed
  • getting drunk
  • slandering
  • swindling
  • impurity
  • debauchery
  • witchcraft
  • hatred
  • discord
  • jealousy
  • fits of rage
  • selfish ambition
  • dissensions
  • factions
  • envy
  • orgies
  • impurity
  • lust
  • evil desires
  • arrogance
  • rebellion

If we aren’t careful we can really fool ourselves with our own sense of “goodness” because some things on this list don’t tempt me at all. I have never been tempted to be a male prostitute and have never been tempted to have an orgy. But I have had envy, selfish ambition, and arrogance in my life. I have never wrestled with drunkness and debauchery but I have had to deal with lust, jealousy, and hatred. I haven’t ever practiced any witchcraft or magic or murder but I know I have been a coward in my faith when I should have stood up for things. It is easy to point fingers at things we don’t struggle with but all of us have probably struggled with something on this list. That makes this list a real guy check for me because it is easy to think we have it together better than those who struggle with the “really bad stuff” but the truth of the matter is we all wrestle with some powerfully bad things.

If God is even handed about these things He can’t tolerate, shouldn’t we also see them all as serious too? I have never seen the AFA or any other Christian organization boycott someone or something for being arrogant or having selfish ambition. When was the last time you heard Christians shouldn’t watch a particular television program because the characters are so selfish? (I am not calling for boycotts or else we would ultimately have to boycott ourselves too! I am calling for us to be fair in our approach to what we do and do not tolerate in our own lives.) I know I have overlooked many of these things among my friends, the entertainment I have chosen, and even in my own attitudes and actions. Yet none of these are more or less dangerous to our lives than any of the others. But before you go reprimand someone for being greedy…make sure you aren’t arrogant, hateful, or doing it for selfish reasons!

The Problem With Culturally Defined Truth

A few things that were once considered culturally acceptable by various groups:

  • Slavery
  • The Crusades
  • Killing infants by exposure (leaving them to die)
  • Murdering Jews
  • Segregation

The list could go a lot further than that but the point is, at some point in time there were large groups of people found these things socially and morally acceptable. If you are going to take moral relativism to its ultimate end you would have to contend that all these things, even though they are detestable behaviors to us, were perfectly morally acceptable to them because what is true for us may not have been true for them. At the end of the day subjective truth fails. It is possible to be fully convinced of something and be wrong. That is easier to see in others from past decades and centuries than it is to see in ourselves.

We have our own list of things today that are viewed as socially acceptable, “our truth”, that hopefully one day people will look back on and see as barbaric practices. Abortion is #1 on that list. Can you imagine some kid 200 years from now asking his dad if Americans really did kill 45 million of their own babies (dwarfing the 11-17 million killed in the holocaust). Not just murderous, hate-filled people…but every day folks just like you and I giving permission for their babies to be killed before they were born. But if moral relativism prevails we just continue to delude ourselves into thinking bad is good and good is bad.

Culturally defined, subjective truth, just doesn’t work out in the real world. I understand why people find it so appealing but the reality is in the end it will fail to do a better job than the objective truth it set out to replace.

We Need More Finger Pointing…to Scripture

But instead of pointing fingers of judgment toward those we disagree with, we need more fingers pointing to scripture. When it comes to disagreements, especially among brothers, we have to keep pointing to scripture and keep personal attacks and agendas out of it as much as possible. When you point someone to scripture, they are forced to wrestle with that. If done in love, it is a lot harder to be defensive toward scripture than it is to be defensive over personal attacks. When it comes to hot button issues, we need more fingers pointing at scripture in order to discern what God has revealed to us regarding various issues. Second, we need never forget to point the finger at ourselves, when necessary. We have to take a good look at ourselves and make sure that we aren’t doing something even worse than the very things we condemn. David condemned a man in Nathan’s story for killing a sheep, while he was guilty of murdering a man and committing adultery. David was quick to point fingers in judgment, not realizing that when he did so, he was really pointing at himself.

This does not mean that we don’t care about sin. It means we care even more about what God thinks about sin, but first we have to get our own house in order and realize that those we sit in judgment of are often in the process of trying to do the same. Many times God is more patient with people than we are. My prayer is for patience, that God would allow me the wisdom to treat people with love and mercy and grace in recognition of the fact that he has done so for me on thousands of instances.

Randy Harris on the Importance of Epistemological Humility

Disagreement with me is not necessarily disagreement with God. If we are not humble about what we know, we are unteachable…For example, I’ve changed my mind on Romans 7. Once I was absolutely convinced that Paul was talking about his post Christian experiences….As I kept reading Romans 7, I became absolutely convinced that I had it wrong. Now, I think Paul is talking about his experience of trying to be righteous under the law, experiencing a transformation of the gracious call of Jesus Christ, empowered in a way he never was when living under the law. I had been wrong. There have been other cases like this, with even more critical doctrinal issues at stake. but if we aren’t a little humble about what we currently believe then we are unable to have open conversations and find it extraordinarily difficult to learn anything new. – Randy Harris in God Work – Confessions of a Standup Theologian, 15-16

I would say Randy is wise beyond his years but he is getting older. I saw him at Gulfcoast Getaway in January. He was dressed in black, as always, so I asked him if the event coordinators couldn’t at least replace the red cord on his ID badge with a black one. Harris is an exceptional speaker and is extremely gifted in connecting with college students. I think that is true because he is not afraid to be honest. He is not afraid to be honest because he is not looking to prove himself right. He is looking for truth. Young people today respect that. He personally exhibits this characteristic of epistemological humility that he describes so well in this quote.

I highlight this quote because more and more of our churches need to be in tune with this principle. Let me put it bluntly. Churches that don’t will decline sharply within one generation and will likely not exist in any recognizable form within two. For so many years some within our fellowship have tried to corner the market on truth, proving ourselves right and everyone else wrong. In order to do so some avoided, neglected, proof texted, or shouted away areas of weakness. We believe scripture contains the truth as God has decided to reveal it to us and yet we do have honest differences in interpretation, not just between different Christians but even within our own views as we grow and mature over time.

God never intended the world to put up with or open up to his people when they were proud, disingenuous, and uncaring. He didn’t intend that because when we act that way we cannot accurately reflect the living and loving God we serve to a world that is all too familiar with death and hatred. But if we are willing to recognize our weaknesses the world will see that we are finally ready to have a discussion where we treat them with love, respect, and dignity. When that happens, expect to see the church engaging the world at its very best and expect to see some of those in the world respond in a way they never would when they knew we were not ready to humbly acknowledge our shortcomings.

Five Commands for a Dying Church – Revelation 3:1-6

1“To the angel of the church in Sardis write:
These are the words of him who holds the seven  spirits of God and the seven stars. I know your deeds; you have a reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God. 3Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. 4Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy. 5He who overcomes will, like them, be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels. 6He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
– Revelation 3:1-6

If you want God’s prescription for a dying or dead church, this is it. Five things God wants from his people when they are no longer serving their purpose on earth – Wake up! Strengthen what little remains! Remember…Obey…Repent! The hardest part is for the dead or dying church to realize they are in need of waking, to recognize their own weakness, to understand the scope of their forgetfulness, to characterize disobedience as obedience, and to think repentance is for someone else.

Many people believe that the problem at Sardis was total cultural compromise. They stood out in the city as prominent and successful. But in order to do so they had blended themselves so thoroughly into the surrounding culture that you really couldn’t tell them apart from anyone else. Could it be a problem if the world starts recognizing Christians as “alive”? Not always. But in some cases it might just mean that we fit their definition of what living is all about and, in reality, be dead or at least on spiritual life support.

Corporate repentance is not something we see in the church today. Remembrance is something we do well together. But repentance is reserved for individuals, not congregations. Yet, there can be a time and place for a congregation to realize how wrong they have been, how they have missed the mark, or how their attitudes have been less than Christian and make a congregational turn back to God. This is easier to identify in past generations of Christians than it is to identify and come to grips with what we face today. We can point back to the horrific nature of the Crusades to the cultural compromise of segregation in the churches.

What issues face Christianity today that we are in need of recognizing and repenting of?

The Sacred and the Secular

In the Old Testament there was a view that things fell into one of two categories. Either it was sacred or it was secular, holy or profane. Those categories did not mean things were either good or evil but that they were either set apart for special purposes or that they were ordinary or common. This distinction has to do with how something is used or what its purpose is. For instance, the articles used for temple or tabernacle worship were holy. That means they were only to be used for sacred purposes as defined by God. They wouldn’t go into the temple and throw a big BBQ bash using the tongs, altar, etc…all seemingly great for a nice dinner gathering. But using it like that would be taking something holy and sacred and using it for common or ordinary purposes. It would be using those items and that location in a way inconsistent with what God prescribed in scripture.

In the Old Testament the holy or sacred could be broken down into three categories: people, things, and places.

People – In Leviticus 20:26 we see the Hebrews were to be set apart as a holy nation. This meant God’s people aren’t supposed to act like the other nations because they are holy, set apart, and on earth for a different purpose. We see that in the New Testament in verses like 1 Peter 2:9 – God’s people are still a holy nation. Though now that nation contains both Jews and Gentiles

Things – In Exodus 29:37 the altar is called holy. Lev 5:15-16 tells what offerings to make if someone violates God’s holy things. The point is, you don’t use the objects of worship in the tabernacle or temple however you want and for whatever purposes you want. In the New Testament there is not as much a connection with holy things as it was in the Old Testament.

Places – There were several holy places mentioned in the Old Testament, each of these represented at one time or another the presence of God on earth. Bethel (which means House of God) was considered holy by Jacob in Genesis 28 where he had a dream of angels ascending and descending from heaven – Jacob’s ladder. Sinai was holy (Exodus 19:23). Sinai was also called Horeb and this is where Moses first encountered the Lord and was told it was Holy ground (Exo 3:1-5). The tabernacle and temple were holy. Exodus 26:33-24 mentions the Holy Place and Most Holy Place. You don’t walk into the Holy Place when you want and do whatever you want. It is a holy place to be used for holy purposes.

In the New Testament we see a shift from places to people. Jesus said he was the replacement of the temple in John 2:19-22 when he cleared the temple and said he would destroy it and rebuild it in three days. Jesus also compared himself to Bethel, the house of God in John 1:51 when he said his disciples would see angels ascending and descending on him. Jesus was God in the flesh, the presence of God on earth. After Jesus went back to the Father, we are considered God’s holy place present in the earth (1 Cor 3:16). In that verse we are called a temple where the Holy Spirit dwells. In 1 Cor 6:18-20 we see what it means to be holy today. Because we are God’s holy temple we don’t do things to our bodies that are out of character of a holy place, specifically sexual immorality in this verse. Just like they weren’t to use the temple or tabernacle for common or profane uses, we aren’t to use our bodies for things that are not in line with God’s purposes for our lives.

Because we are God’s temple we are to be used for holy purposes. Just like how they couldn’t go in the tabernacle or temple and treat it however they wanted and disrespect God’s wishes, we are not to use ourselves, as God’s temple, in a way that would desecrate that temple. If forsaking the temple regulations was punishable by death (Exo 28:35, 43; 30:21) how much more serious are we to treat our own bodies that were made holy, not by washing with water, but by washing by the blood of Jesus Christ?

“Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy;
without holiness no one will see the Lord.” – Hebrews 12:14