Welcome to the Family of God: A Letter to a New Christian

Author’s note: This is a hypothetical letter to a new Christian who has just accepted Jesus. The focus is specific, but the truths are timeless.

Dear my new brother/sister in Christ,

I was reading Psalm 113 in my Bible this morning and found these verses:

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the LORD! (v. 7-9)

There’s something so unique about these verses. In “Bible times,” the poor, the needy and the barren woman were three examples of people who didn’t belong in society. Look no further than the beggars Jesus encountered. And barren women were not able to give children, something important in a patriarchal society.

These verses reminded me of the love that you have just received in a very personal way for the first time. Get used to it. The greatest thing about being a Christian is that you’re now a recipient of the greatest love anyone will ever experience. It’s a love that looks past your past to you, to who you are now and who you will be forever. Oh my friend, God loved you then, He loves you now and He will always love you. Yes, like Celine Dion, He will always love you.

Forgive the pop culture reference, it’s something I do all the time with my friends, my family. Yes indeed, you are now a member of a big family, and this is the second greatest thing about being a Christian. You are now part of a club of people that have all received the same love you have. We’re not perfect, and we fight all the time. Good gracious, we fight. Sometimes we fight more than people that aren’t part of our family. But we have a perfect example of how to love one another from that love I talked about before, the love of the Father towards us.

Yes, God is your Father now. He’s your protector, your savior, your provider, your sustainer. I think of what Jesus says in Matthew 7:7-11,

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Let’s be real: the benefits of following Jesus are unreal.

But there’s also a price. I hope that you were told of what following Jesus will cost you. It will cost you friends, likely. You’re answering a call to seek to live a life that’s set apart, that’s spent in pursuit of truth and obedience. You will never do it perfectly – that’s what the grace you’re accepting is for. We have a guidebook – the Bible, that thing I hope you’ve read. It will be hard. It will be challenging. You will be stretched.

But it is entirely worth it. The peace and fulfillment that comes from following Jesus is unreal, and you won’t experience it until you get here, until you’ve accepted Him and you’re following Him. It will be an up-and-down journey, but it will be a worthy one.

One last thing: Don’t be afraid. There can be a lot of things to be afraid of around Christians – being judged for your weaknesses, not being “good enough,” not knowing enough, being too sinful. The right people won’t deny you because of those things, they’ll embrace you. In the body of Christ, your weaknesses don’t make you an outcast, they make you part of the family.

Welcome to that family, the family of God.

In Christ,

Zach

Christians on Social Media Tell Me I Need to Tell Others How to Behave. Is That Really What I’m Supposed to Do?

Christians often do an awful good job of telling people how to behave or complaining when people don’t behave as they ought. I’m guilty. I keep telling whoever reads these posts to lighten up, to love people no matter what and to stop idolizing virginity as a perfect thing.

So I wrestled with this question this morning. Where does “get the log out of your own eye” fit in with the command to “make disciples of all nations”? How do we balance our calling as ministers of the Gospel with the command to deal with your own sin before trying to nitpick others?

It’s a question I wrestle with often because there are thousands of tweets, blog posts and other forms of media that every day tell us what we’re doing wrong and what we need to change. And I think God has given us these tools to help and encourage one another, to challenge each other in our following of Jesus.

But is there a degree in which we go overboard in telling people how to behave differently?

It’s this kind of question that I think we don’t like asking or answering because we’re afraid that it’s going to make us feel guilty for how we’ve approached other people. It’s also such a nuanced issue, a matter of levels and intensity instead of something black-and-white.

Here’s the black-and-white:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

These things are the words of Jesus, straight from the Bible, so they’re irrefutable. Let’s key in on specifics.

Let’s start with the second passage. We are called to make disciples of all nations. What are the aspects of making disciples of all nations? Two things: baptizing people, and teaching them to observe what Jesus commands. So there is a command to instruct others how to live. And, to be honest, I don’t like it. But there’s a truth to that I can’t deny.

Here’s where I think it goes wrong: we take that command to the highest extreme, which we are prone to do as people. Just ask my friends, I do it all the flippin’ time. We go overboard on telling people what to do so much so that we forget that we’re called to examine ourselves first.

Then Matthew 7 comes into play. Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t tell people that they’re screwing up.” What He does say is this: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Jesus sets up the order for how we are to help others see the faults in their lives.

First, He says, we must examine ourselves.

This is probably one of the hardest things to do as a Christian, at least emotionally. Actually looking at your life for the crap strewn throughout it isn’t that hard – all you have to do is look at your last 24 hours and compare it to what the Bible instructs us to do. But wrestling with the fact that, if we look at ourselves honestly, we fall short can be really tough. For some, it can be a huge blow to the ego and to the pride they’ve built up. For others, it can be incredibly discouraging and can make us forget the Gospel, forget what it means to be forgiven and loved by the Creator of the Universe.

But if we are to fairly look at others’ lives and say, “Hey, you’re missing this,” or, “These people are sinning in this way,” Jesus says we must first examine ourselves and deal with the issue in front of us.

Here’s another question: to what degree do we have to deal with our own sin before we can rightly instruct others? I don’t know the exact answer to that. But what I think (and I could be entirely wrong) Jesus is saying is, “Hey, deal with yourself and make sure you’re doing everything possible to kill the sin in your own life before you go nit-picking in others’ lives.”

One last thing: through His excellent forestry analogy, we see Jesus’ ideal hierarchy for sins. No, it’s not one sin is greater than another.

Your sin, your personal individual sin, is a log. That other person’s sin, it’s a speck. For comparison’s sake:

Screen Shot 2015-10-01 at 9.13.30 AM

Compare an individual speck of wood to the log. That’s how others’ sin should look in comparison to ours.

If I see a speck in someone else’s eye, I want to help them out by sharing with them. But I can’t see it properly unless I get rid of the log in my own eye first. This is how we are called tell others about their sin.

But how often do we act differently? And not just in our own minds, but publicly? Do we go to social media to condemn others and their sin, or can we use those tools to also step back and say, “Yeah, I screw up too, and here’s how I do it, and here’s how God is helping me through this and can also help you too!” as well?

I think we could be a lot better witnesses of Christ and follow what the Bible says a lot closer if we took this approach. By sharing our own sin first, we could give God tons more glory and praise than He already gets, and make the Gospel look 10 million times better.

Hyperbole, yes. But the Gospel is worth all the hyperbole we can give it. It’s that awesome. It means the sins we commit – and the sins of others, if they are believers – are forgiven and no longer held against them. I’ll talk about that all day long.

There’s a Difference Between Who You Are and What You Do.

In journalism, there’s a standard procedure for identifying someone you’re quoting in a story. You put the person’s name and then you put what they do.

For example, if I’m writing an article about the president’s latest policy idea and I’m quoting a college professor who has experience in the field, I would say something like this: “The President really has a grip on this situation,” said John Smith, professor of economics at Harvard University.

The identification is the name and then the profession, the job, what they do with their lives. It’s common practice for journalists. But it’s also commonplace for how we identify people we meet. The first two questions you usually ask are “What’s your name?” and “What do you do?” What happens in the mind is we begin to associate the person with what they do. Those two things become linked in a crazy way.

God doesn’t work that way. Even if sometimes it might seem like we think He does.

Let me ask you this: how many times have you asked yourself or someone else if a certain person is a Christian because of what they do? You say, “Well, they may be a Christian.” We look at one action and one instance of their behavior and we make an instant judgement. We don’t want to take the time to really get to know them.

Now I know what might be said here. “But the Bible says we must judge them by their fruits!” Let’s look at that verse in context, Matthew 7:15-20:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

The context of that phrase is in talking about false prophets. Should we take that and then apply it to every person we meet? There is something fair to looking at someone and making decisions based on what you’ve seen them do. That’s just common practice by humans. It’s how you hire people, sometimes how you decide who to marry, it’s a crucial thing to be aware of.

But what if you were judged solely by your fruits? Could you be called a Christian? Could you, without a shadow of a doubt, be called a follower of Christ?

Honestly, I don’t think I can. I see the sin in my life and say that, “Well, if I’m being judged as a Christian based on what I do, I don’t think I can claim Christ in good conscience.”

Being a Christian is not about what you do. It’s about what you believe. We’ll never do everything perfectly. We’ll never even believe perfectly. So linking who we are as a person to what we do would lead to all of us being filthy hypocrites with nothing to offer.

But God doesn’t see us that way. He is not necessarily pleased with our actions, but He doesn’t stop loving us because of them. It’s grace by faith that saves us, not our works (Ephesians 2:8-9). If you’re not a Christian, you will miss out on eternity with God because you didn’t believe rightly.

Give others, and yourself, a break. Just because you screw up doesn’t mean God loves you any less. It just means you need Him more. And if you’re a Christian, He loves you enough to give you the help of the Holy Spirit, the grace of the Gospel and the company of other believers. If you’re not a Christian, those things are offered freely to you. All you must do is believe.

You’re not defined by what you do. You’re defined by who you are in Christ. End of story.

The Worst Kind of False Teacher

I was reading in Matthew 7 this morning and ran across Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount on false prophets. Verses 15-20:

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

Instantly, my mind went to people we in the evangelical subculture love to label as false teachers: Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, etc. And, to be fair, sometimes those guys, whether intentionally or unintentionally, paint themselves as such. One of the big items in the news recently was Creflo Dollar asking his flock for $65 million to buy a new plane, a fundraiser that was recently halted after backlash over the idea. Some people just can’t help themselves, can they?

Oh, I would know. Because often in my own life, I am the worst kind of false teacher I could ever listen to.

A King Knows The Best Way, Right?

2 Chronicles 14-16 is one of my favorite Bible stories because it shows me just how weak I am, just how little I know how to handle situations that come my way. It tells the story of King Asa of Judah, a king who initially is all about serving the Lord. His army of 580,000 dudes came up against an Ethiopian force of a million men, and Asa got the victory. How? He sought God to give him the victory.

His life was marked by submission to God, destruction of idols, leading the people to worship the Lord. He even kicked his mom out of being queen mother because she built a false idol! Asa was all about cleaning up the streets and leading people to worship God.

Then chapter 16 comes around. The king of Israel leads an army to build a city to make sure nothing could come in or out of Judah. Insurmountable odds? Maybe, maybe not. But not nearly as difficult, at least in my limited understanding, as defeating a million men in war with a significantly smaller force. But what does Asa do? He goes to Ben-hadad, the king of Syria. Syria and Judah have NEVER got along. Asa says to Ben-hadad, “There is a covenant between me and you, as there was between my father and your father. Behold, I am sending to you silver and gold. Go, break your covenant with Baasha king of Israel, that he may withdraw from me” (v. 3).

Ben-hadad broke the covenant, attacking Israeli cities, which distracted Baasha to stop building the city, which ended the threat against Judah. Done deal! Judah is safe, all is well, King Asa once again saves his people from being defeated by their enemies.

But wait. A seer named Hanani comes to Asa and tells him off. Verses 7-9:

7 At that time Hanani the seer came to Asa king of Judah and said to him, “Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.”

Asa is chastised for his lack of reliance on God and his full weight of reliance on his enemy, the king of Syria. But one might argue: things got done! The task was accomplished! But was it really? The end result, as Hanani said, was wars that lasted throughout the rest of Asa’s reign.

What happened here? Asa trusted himself and his own decision-making over God, and in that, he was the worst kind of false teacher.

We Lead Ourselves Astray

It’s so easy for us to pick on the false teachers of our day, whether it’s those that are straight-up heretics or those that get one or two non-salvation things wrong. Joel Osteen, for instance, believes that salvation comes when you place your faith in Jesus.

But here’s where I got stuck this morning. How often do I lead myself astray? How often do I tell myself that I have the right way figured out and that I don’t need God to tell me what to do? I mean, that’s what I do every time I sin. I say God’s way is not good enough for me and that I’ve got it figured out.

When I sin, I act just like Asa: I expect my enemy (sin) to take care of needs. And perhaps it does, for a moment. But that action of sin displeases God because I’m not trusting God in that moment. God is there for me to lean on, but I tell myself that I don’t need him. In that way, I am exactly as Jesus describes in Matthew 7, walking around in sheep’s clothing but actually a ravenous wolf ready to devour any kind of consistent obedience I’ve built up. I am the worst kind of false teacher. I teach myself falsehoods every day.

Why do I listen to myself in those moments? Because I think I’ve got it all figured out. I think I know how to solve the problems that present themselves before me. I think I know what to do. I think I’m capable, when in reality I am far less capable than anyone. In those moments, I need the God of grace whose eyes run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose hearts are blameless before Him.

And this is where the Gospel comes in. The only way my heart is blameless before God is because Jesus died on the cross, because He was not swayed by false teaching while He was on earth, because He did everything He was supposed to, because He fulfilled the law. He was perfectly obedient so I didn’t have to be. I have the opportunity to be forgiven for every time I choose myself over God because Jesus chose God every time.

I am the worst kind of false teacher.

Can I be honest with you? So are you.