The Anchor

Examples of what God has done for other people are really helpful for our own journey. Examples help convince us that God does what he says. Abraham really did receive what God promised, because God is steadfast and trustworthy and doesn’t lie.

I mean, look what God did for the people of Israel! He delivered them out of slavery in Egypt by great signs and wonders. He fed them and kept them in the wilderness. He led them by pillars of cloud and fire. He went before them, fighting for them, giving them the land he’d promised to Abraham. Clearly he does what he promises.

But those examples aren’t really an anchor for me. Not because I doubt God’s promises. But I doubt that those promises apply to me.

I have not kept the Law. I am not a physical descendant of Abraham. I am troubled and struggle all the way through life. I am unworthy of the promise of God and don’t keep up my end of any bargain he may have made.

So when I see that there is a “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” in Hebrews 6:19, I long to actually know what this anchor is that holds fast my soul? What is this strong connection that I have, that I can lean on and be assured of and rest in?

The writer of Hebrews wants us to look hard at a particular promise, from Psalm 110:4: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, you are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

See, just like the promise to Abraham—God promises, and swears. There is a priest, who represents a people before God. And he is above and before the Levitical law. He is David’s descendant, and David’s Lord. His name is Jesus. And thus in the Old Testament  there is a promise that will tie directly to you and to me.

Faith is faith that this promise is true. Not the Abrahamic promise, that one’s obviously true. Not the promise to David, or the promise to Noah, or other promises in the Bible. Nope. Focus on this one, the promise God made in Psalm 110 and swore to never change. The forever-priesthood of Melchizedek.

There is a priest. One who represents us before God. He does not plead with God for mercy on our rotten lives. Rather he calls for justice, in forgiving our sins because he has paid for them all. He is beautiful and perfect and shining, and his perfection is ours before God, because we are found in him. This is the truth: he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. That’s the presentation of this priest in Hebrews 7:25.

If you trust Jesus, he saves to the uttermost. That’s not a statement of try harder, do more, excel, improve, or find any hope in yourself.

Our anchor is the sworn promise of God that Jesus is our priest, above the law, once and for all saving us by his blood alone. This is our assurance. He is ours. Simply by drawing near, by placing our trust in his priesthood.

Focus on the right promise. Be assured. Your anchor will hold. No matter how troubled life gets, no matter how ingloriously you  fail, your anchor will hold. Your deliverer delivers. Your savior saves. Rest in the arms of the one who really has done it all for you.

“What though the accuser roar
Of ills that I have done!
I know them well and thousands more:
Jehovah findeth none.”

Great Is Your Faithfulness

Sometimes it takes the darkest moments to understand where light is found.

Difficulty can sound so mundane. In 586 B.C. Babylon came and conquered Judah, destroying Jerusalem, tearing down the walls, the city, the temple.

That doesn’t sound so bad, really, until you read the poems of the lament. They bring to life the real tragedy, the hopeless destruction.

“In the dust of the streets lie the young and the old; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; you have killed them in the day of your anger, slaughtering without pity.” (Lamentations 2:21)

“My flesh and my skin waste away… my bones break…  I’m enveloped with bitterness and tribulation and darkness and death” (Lamenations 3:4-6). These are cries of suffering and pain and hardship.

The message of Lamentations is made all the more tragic because it is deserved. Random evil didn’t do these things; they are brought on by sin and evil within as well as without.

Yet within the darkest hour there is a glimmer of light that will not go out. We rip it out of context; it is a verse you may know well.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).

In the dead of night. In the moment when there are not flowers and gentle breezes. In the time of overwhelming tragedy, even self-inflicted. At that moment, there remains a light.

The steadfast love of God.

Not our faithfulness. His.

“Great is your faithfulness” isn’t a statement of God meeting us halfway, or of his having enough to pay us for all we do for him.

“Great is your faithfulness” is a statement of hope when all hope is gone. A statement of personal breakdown, of finally finding where light is.

The steadfast love of the Lord means he did not abandon his people. He sent a savior. His faithful son. Who in the midst of our own sin and sorrow and pain blazes forth with the message of care and love and provision.

His faithfulness provides all that we need. His suffering sacrifice cleanses us. His righteousness is given to us. We have only one place to put our trust—in Jesus.

So when the day breaks and there seems to be light everywhere, remember the real light. The one that is steady when all else fails. The one who brings grace and truth. Our anchor, our savior, Jesus.

Don’t hope in yourself. Not even on your best day. Trust the faithfulness of our God in Christ.

“’The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:24).

Lord of All

“Who is this King of glory?”

That’s the question of Psalm 24. Check it out, Psalm 24:8-10, the psalmist repeats it twice. The answer is that the King of glory is our God. He is the Lord of armies. He is the Lord victorious. He is the one who is strong and mighty, mighty in battle, worthy of all praise and honor and worship because of his supreme majesty.

All fortresses fall. All gates open. Nowhere can stand against our powerful God.

The wonder of this song is not that God is powerful and mighty and worthy of praise. Of course he is. The wonder of this song is that we get to gather and sing. That we are drawing near. That we are getting to declare, to exalt, to bring praise.

Psalm 24 describes who gets to do this wonderful praise, who gets to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand and worship.

Those who have clean hands and a pure heart. Those who never have idols. Those who don’t deceive, ever.

So why in the world are we singing this song? That’s not us. We have dirty hands and impure hearts and are constantly falling into idolatry. Deception marks us.

Thus the gospel raises its head. Who is this king? He is not just the mighty warrior, the conquering sovereign. He is also the king who loves me. For my life he bled and died.

This king himself is our peace. He has broken down in himself the wall keeping us out. As Ephesians 2:16 says, he has “reconciled us to God in one body through the cross.” We get to stand in his presence simply and only because of what he has done for us, as we trust in this king of glory.

So don’t just pass over “we gather here to bring you praise,” or “we draw near to seek your face.” What amazing statements of wonder, that we who are nothing get to gather and praise the one who is everything.

We aren’t worthy. But he loves us. And look at what he’s done. Let’s worship the king together.

Everlasting Arms

I was in Arroyo Park last week. Sunshine filtered through the trees and ferns, revealing uncountable shades of green. I was struck again by wonder and amazement at what God has made. Like seeing  the stark beauty of the North Cascades on a clear day. Or looking out at the violet shades of the sunset sky over the Sound. These are amazing snapshots of God’s majesty.

Reminders of God’s sovereign power and majesty are good for my heart, but become worship when coupled with another even more life-altering truth: he loves me.

How could a God who makes wonders have even a single care for me? I am one of over seven billion people alive right now. I am not just insignificant in the grander scope of humanity, I’m sinful and imperfect and twisted. If I think about it too long, and apart from what God’s revealed in the Bible, I default to fear and guilt. I end up redoubling efforts to make myself more presentable, or I end up in despair.

He loves me. This is what I can’t see in the mountains or the sunset. His mighty hands have delivered me, in the arms outstretched at Calvary. The Son of God has come and shown me the love of God in his incredible sacrifice for me.

Isaiah 61:10 says “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.” His salvation, his righteousness. Beautiful, majestic, powerful—and he loves me. Loves me in the gift of his own suffering and death to win me.

It is the love of my Savior on display that lets me—nay, compels me—to lean in. It is the good news of Jesus that assures me that God is for me, that his everlasting arms are holding me. My need is to trust in Jesus, in the gospel of who he is and how he loves me.

Over the past year or so we’ve had a hamster at our home. The first time we took her out of her safe environment and held her, she literally quivered in fear. Her heart was beating so fast it seemed like it would burst. Her nose twitched as her eyes darted to and fro. She was waiting for disaster to strike.

Little did she realize she was in safe arms. If only she would trust us! If only she would lean into the care that we have for her. We feed her. We pet her. We keep the cats away. We want only good for her. Instead of looking for a way to escape, if she would just trust in our care, then she could rest. She could lean in.

How much more strong and safe and loving is our God. Not only has he made us, not only does he provide for us, not only does he make a way to be with us, but also has clearly revealed his incredible love by becoming one of us.

So go ahead. Lean into the everlasting arms. Realize they are the arms of Jesus Christ. If you trust him, he will never let you go.

Homeland

The challenge of your Christian life is believing what you don’t see. The Bible calls this faith.

There is so much that is seen. You see your need for food and clothing. You see injustice and wrongness in the world. You see how things are, how the world works.

Our world is filled with practical, visible concerns. Like what the medical profession calls “ADLs.” Those are “activities of daily living.” Everyone has tasks to accomplish every day, like getting dressed, eating breakfast, taking a shower, and (hopefully) brushing your teeth. Those activities need to get done, they are a visible part of life.

And those basic activities don’t really even touch all the other parts of life. Having enough money. Taking care of kids. Holding on to a job. Making a few friends.  Add in looking ahead to ensure these things in the future, and you have the basis for planning and hoarding. They are based largely in worry.

So what is seen leads to worry. That worry drives behaviors which don’t really settle the anxiety, because plans go awry and riches melt away. And who can plan for illness, or have enough money to cheat death?

James says that the answer to our worry for ourselves isn’t planning and saving. The answer is found in faith. What we need isn’t more attention to building a nest for ourselves. What we need is to believe that our home is not here.

Our hope is not bound up in the success of a life well lived on earth. Our hope is in the coming of the Lord.

“Be patient,” James 5:8 says. “Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” That’s the answer to anxiety. Jesus is coming, and he is coming for you and me. Above all we seek to be with Jesus. We seek a heavenly homeland, where he is. And the calming truth is that he has promised it to us, by his strength and in his timing. He is alive. He is coming again. None of us has seen any of this, we simply trust in Jesus. Thus our lives at our core are not about achieving on earth. Our lives are about waiting for Jesus.

My anxiety is helped when I meditate on the love Jesus has for me and his amazing promises. I think on stories of God’s deliverance—always by his strength, his power, his time, his way. He freed his people from Egypt in mighty miracles, he parted the Red Sea, he provided manna to eat, he gave water to drink, he made a way to dwell among his people, he went before them directing and guiding. And that’s only Exodus!

Activities of daily living remain before you. But don’t worry if you can’t accomplish them. And don’t rejoice if you accomplish them better than other people.  If your heart is set on Jesus, take comfort that this is not your home, and that your faith is to wait for the coming of the Lord. He is coming soon!

You Give More Grace

I go to church. I hear the Word, not just on Sundays, but in my own reading. I meditate on it in my own prayer times. I hear what I have to work on. I understand moral behavior. I hear commands and law. And I get to work. I think that by hearing, I will improve.

Why do I think that? Because that’s how everything in my life has always worked.

I rowed crew in an 8-person boat. That doesn’t include the coxswain, who steered and yelled at us. And a lot of yelling there was, because we had so much to work on. We would get up, our team, early in the morning to practice before college classes. We would come down to the lake in the evening and practice some more. We slowly improved.

I studied medicine, poring for hours over books and diagrams. Memorizing facts. Practicing on patients. As scary as that last phrase is, it was necessary for me, and for other students like me, to improve. Practice makes perfect, right?

If you tell me what the goal is, if you give me instruction on what to do, I will get to work. Because it has always worked for me.

That’s why James is soul-crushing. Because what he tells me has no solution in my methodology. He proclaims that my tongue is full of poison, and gives no solution. He points directly at my heart and says my problems, the conflicts in my life, are based on my bad desires.

Am I supposed to work on my desires, then? Improvement by force of will? Imposition of external behavior? Tricking my mind to think that though it longs for chocolate ice cream, asparagus is actually what it desires?

If what James was saying was that I just need to eat asparagus, I would force it down gladly. But he essentially says I have to like it, too. That’s why it is soul crushing. I can’t actually change desires. I can’t give my heart anti-coveting instructions. I’m helpless.

I am humbled by my failure. And there is grace in the finished work of Christ. There is grace for when I slip with my tongue, or when I have conflict. For when I sin behaviorally.

But I am even more humbled when I see how shallow my successes are. When James convicts me that even though I choked down the asparagus, I didn’t love it. And that’s an inescapable problem. When I finally realize that my best actions are still threaded through with desires that won’t be tamed. Desires that no matter how hard I try, bring conflict and pain.

When I really look at myself, James 4:6 becomes even more amazing: “But he gives more grace.”

I am unworthy. You are too. But he gives grace. And as life continues, and I see even more of my sin, my desires off, my words imperfect, he gives more grace.

I am caught in the wonder of a love that loves me when I have failed, that loves me when I am weak and not strong, when I am unclean, when my wrong desires are exposed. A grace that covers me even when—especially when— I am trying to repay a debt that has already been paid.

O my Savior, I am amazed by your love. You give more grace.

Our Heavenly Wisdom

 

James says that having wisdom means that your life is beautiful. That sounds really nice to me. I would like a beautiful life. A life skillfully lived.

What that means to me, naturally, is practically learning life skills. Making right choices. Showing good works. Developing good conduct.

Not so fast, James says. There are actually two kinds of wisdom. Two types of living that show skillful living and good conduct. They aren’t actually the same thing.

Earthly wisdom, to James, appears to be applying skill in good works from the vantage of self. If the reality is that good works are applauded, then ambition guides rightly to skillfully accomplish them. If good conduct brings reward, then jealousy would be an appropriate motive to get as many works done as possible. The more I do, the more I get rewarded. This is simple math. Wise people can do math.

The problem with this earthly wisdom is that James calls it out. If you think this is the way, think again. It is unspiritual. It is demonic. Ouch. I can just picture James making the point that this is how demons think. They are wise, in some sense. But not in the sense that matters.  Acting wisely from a base of ambition and jealousy leads to disorder and every vile practice. Earthly wisdom is, at its core, futile and ugly.

Thankfully there’s another way. Wisdom that by contrast doesn’t come out of self. There’s no ambition or jealousy. It’s pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, sincere. James calls this wisdom “from above.” Heavenly wisdom.

Ok. How do I get it, if it is outside of me? What exactly is this wisdom from above?

All of a sudden, the gospel raises its head. Wisdom that is outside of you. Wisdom that is from above. Wisdom that isn’t about your attaining, working on yourself, building yourself, obtaining for yourself. It is beautiful and selfless and wonderful. This wisdom actually doesn’t sound like you or me at all. It sounds like a different person altogether. Heavenly Wisdom. Could this be Jesus?

Jesus as wisdom isn’t as far-fetched as you might think. Proverbs 8 tells us that Wisdom as a person was with the Father when he established the heavens and made all that is. In Luke 11:49 Jesus refers to himself as “the Wisdom of God” personified (take a look at Matthew 23:34 if you need to). Jesus is everything that is skillful and understanding and good. Everything he does comes out of a perfect understanding of what is. He literally is the Word become flesh – the truth of God worked out in a breathing, living, practical way.

When you see this, James makes sense. Jesus is pure. Jesus is peaceable. Jesus is gentle and reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits. Jesus is sincere. Jesus brings righteousness.

There’s only one way to get out of the trap of self. It isn’t transcendental meditation. It is wisdom from above. Jesus Christ. All of our skillful living and good behavior is ruined by imperfect hearts. But Jesus takes these ruins and makes them beautiful. By his wisdom. By his righteousness. By his selfless sacrifice, in love, for us.

You can have a beautiful life. Fix your eyes above, on our Heavenly Wisdom. We call him Jesus Christ.

Tongue Untamed

Somewhere along the line in my early Christian life I made some connections that weren’t helpful or right. Maybe it was as I sang “Onward Christian Soldiers,” or as I worked on being a good, hard-working, pleasing-to-everyone kid. The connection I made was between being a Christian and self-improvement.

If I was a Christian, with the power of God available to me, then life should progressively be improving. In particular, it seemed logical and reasonable that I should more and more improve in my holy behavior. I shouldn’t fail, I should prevail. Out I went, armed with thoughts that if I overcame sin, I would be given the crown of life.

In some sense I was like that proverbial fly that Chris Rice sings of in Deep Enough To Dream. I gathered about my wits and pride and tried again for the hundredth time to get to where I was supposed to be—decreasing sin, increasing personal holiness.

It was only later that I realized that I never break through. Not in the sense I naively thought. Just when I thought I was really improving, I realized that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount raised the bar way higher than I even had considered. I saw motives and desires and not just behaviors. I was undone.

James 3 is a useful tonic for us who are prone to redouble our efforts toward self-righteousness. In his biting and insightful way, James shows us how powerful the tongue is. This little tiny piece of our body is incredibly influential. And then he lays on the heat. This little tongue sets the forest of our lives on fire! It stains the body, and is restless, full of poison.

I don’t think of my tongue that way, really. But I appreciate his point. And thus I’m tempted to understand him as prodding me to self-improvement.  Ok, James, I’ll work on controlling my tongue.

Not so fast.

James actually says that if anyone can control his tongue, that person is perfect. And then he says no human being can tame the tongue. There is no hope for us. He vividly depicts how wrong we are, and then stops. There is no call to improvement. There is no imperative. There is no expectation for a more controlled tongue. He just clearly identifies the horror of our ongoing failure.

Do you see what he is doing? We long to avoid the poison of our own sin. We long to be perfect. But we aren’t. We can’t be. Our tongues are a source of sin because they reveal what is in the heart. And our own hearts are imperfect. So out of our mouths come both blessing and cursing.

James gives us law. And like a word fitly spoken, the law is beautiful. And the law reveals our continued imperfection. James leaves us broken. We can’t hope in our increasing perfection. We’re just never perfect, not on earth.

But we know where life is found, where wholeness actually is. It is at Calvary. It is there that the perfect one paid for our sin, where he demonstrated his love for sinners like us. Our failure, his perfection. Our sin, his righteousness. What an amazing exchange.

So we acknowledge the beauty of a tamed tongue. And we see that we don’t, we can’t, for all our striving, attain it. Not before the cross, and not after. We have to go, humbled, to the one who covers us. And trust, always, in his righteousness for us.

My flesh and my heart may fail, and when they do, I look to Jesus. He has overcome for me. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Jesus said in John 16:33. And we do, even the tribulation of our own failure. “But take heart,” he says. “I have overcome the world.”

There’s a Love

When I was younger, fear was a major motivation for me. I worried that I wasn’t doing enough for God. I saw the many ways that I failed him. I imagined his great displeasure at my imperfection. I thought about whether I was really His or not, based on a self-evaluation of my daily activity for God. Even when I behaved acceptably, I saw my own heart struggles and wondered if I really was a Christian.

This is being motivated by fear. Fear that I wasn’t really good enough, that my faith wasn’t real.

Not until I was much older did I see that faith in Jesus Christ is actually the opposite of that kind of fear.

Trusting Jesus is the opposite of self-evaluating fear because trusting Jesus is abandoning hope in myself and trusting in what Jesus has done. Trusting that he means it when he says he loves me, he died for me, he pursued me, he actually likes me. Right now.

My continuing sin and failure are why I need to soak in the gospel every day. My trust in Jesus moves me toward overcoming my natural desire to fear, because that fear is based in self-righteousness. The stunning truth of the gospel is that my acceptance before God is actually based on Jesus’ righteousness.

When I finally was hit with the depth of that gift, I was floored. I continue to be amazed that I’m loved. Loved by the King. Loved by Jesus. I believe in Jesus. I trust him. This is receiving love I don’t deserve. There’s a love, and this gift of love has changed my life.

I am no longer motivated by fear (well, I shouldn’t be, and I know it, though I fail still). Love has set me free, and my thankfulness overflows in living life in the truth of His love.

This is what it means for faith to work.

In James 2:18, Jesus’ half-brother gives an incredible encouragement to believers: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

See, some people want to focus on works. Feeding the poor. Helping other people. Doing good deeds. They want to do that separately from trusting Jesus. In fact, they want to use those works as a measuring stick for if they have enough faith. If they are doing enough. Because they live in fear.

James says—no way. You can’t have works that show how good you are. Trusting Jesus is abandoning your own goodness. So your goodness isn’t what shows. Trusting in Jesus is what shows. And you can be encouraged that this trust will definitely show.

It’s like being alive. If you get this life-giving truth, you’re alive. Life reveals itself. It will show like your heart beating, like your legs moving, like your lungs breathing. You can’t separate the activity of life from life itself, like you can’t separate trusting Jesus from that amazing gift showing.

It doesn’t show in self-improvement or moral excellence, necessarily. It shows in how you think of other people, how you live in gratitude, how your life is flavored by your trusting that you are loved by Jesus himself. It shows in rejecting fear-based living, and moving because of love.

The wonder of our lives is that being connected to Jesus brings forth fruit we can’t produce. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness.

Our feet move because we are alive. Be encouraged. Trust in Jesus and live.

The Law of Liberty

James is an amazing letter. I think it is unfortunate that this wonderful teaching is used as a counterbalance to the grace of the gospel. I can think of countless times in my life where verses from James have been used as a “yes, but.” Yes, the gospel is true, but you have to work. Yes, salvation is by grace alone, but after salvation you have duties. Yes, faith alone, but you need to make sure that your faith works. “Paul emphasizes faith, and James emphasizes works. They’re both needed.” So the argument goes.

But reading James in context leads us away from the balancing act, away from thinking that the amazing grace of the gospel needs some grounding and balance in progressive self-improvement. Reading James in context leads us to think, “Yes, and this is how.” So yes, faith alone, and this is how faith in Jesus plays out in life on earth.

Here’s an example: James 1:25.

“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

That’s high on the list of phrases I don’t hear very often: “Come, let’s look into the perfect law of liberty!” In fact, if you hear teaching on this passage at all, it is usually about not just hearing the gospel, but also doing the law.

But since when is the law, God’s law, the law that frees us? Are we not freed by Jesus? And why does James say to look at it like a mirror, to look never forget? I mean, this is the logical argument he makes in chapter 1, that the law of liberty is a mirror that we need to look at very hard, and never forget what we look like when we walk away.

Without context, I am tempted to insert myself back into the picture here. Saved by grace and then back to the law, to work towards perfection. Grace first, then rules and duties. But that misses James’ point entirely. And that actually goes against the gospel. Putting yourself back under the law is not freeing. If that were the case, then Paul really would have a problem with James. Galatians would stand in fierce opposition!

So what is James getting at? Realize that he is presenting this perfect law of liberty as a mirror. It reveals… me. Me. In all my imperfection. The perfection that God requires is a standard that points out to me the depth of my personal blemishes, imperfections, inabilities. My own failure glares at me, reflected by this law of liberty. Even after conversion.

Never get angry at my brother? Never have a lustful thought? Never do anything for my own gain? Always rejoice? Never worry? I think I fail at all of them. Even as a believer in Jesus.

So how is this liberating? In what way is this mirror revealing my inability the “law of liberty”? Because I see no hope in me. I died to the law. The law condemns me, and it is right. I am condemnation-worthy. The pathway that I trod for so long, the pathway of self-improvement and self-worth under the law has been closed… forever. Look hard, James says, and never forget.

The law again reminds me that my freedom is in Jesus. The law of liberty points to the freedom that I have found in the person and work of Jesus. It is freeing because the bonds of trying to attain and perfect and complete the standards of God, on my own and in my power, are broken forever.

The law of liberty squelches every impulse that I have to again get on the ladder, again climb the treadmill, again be the judge, again find my identity and worth in how I am doing. Because I look hard at this law which frees me, and I lose my confidence in me. I am pushed again to my only hope, Jesus.

Humility is what the law breeds in me now. And thus liberty in the savior who loves me.
I think this is one of the strongest themes in James, and one of the deepest elements of post-Christian daily living. Humility.

James says to look hard at this law that frees you. Look hard and never forget. You are not able, you are not worthy, you are not up to standard; the law is your death, and Jesus Christ your loving savior is your only life.

Yes, James gets the gospel. So look with me, will you? Into the perfect law, the law of liberty, which keeps me centered on my savior, and leads me to actions that come directly out of the truth that my only hope is with Jesus.

Hallelujah! I have found him, whom my soul so long has craved! Jesus satisfies my longings; through His life I now am saved.