Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Zero Tolerance

So he wants to be a Baptist. Baptists have it right, #1-son says. Whoa, buddy, we're talking mega-legalism there, I tell him. Yes, I know, he says. How many Baptists do you know? he asks me. But, Mom, you don't even know legalism until you know a Baptist, he says. And they have it right. Zero tolerance for sin, that's what it's all about. None of this grace business, none of this wishy-washy, namby-pamby, I'm okay-you're okay business. None of us are okay; let's get that straight right off! These are the ideas he's toying with. (Is that still Christianity, by the way?)
This has led to some stimulating conversation around here lately. Really, it has been fun. He's a great kid, earnest and contemplative, sincerely trying to noodle out certain disparities he sees between the Word and Christianity as he's seen it lived out in his young life.
And I'm not really a Baptist-basher at all. As it happens, I'm also not quite as sheltered as #1-son thinks I am, and some of my favorite people are proud Baptists. They remain staunchly devoted to their tradition, but even they freely admit they were raised in an atmosphere of crazy legalism.
So, we've been talking lately about the tension that exists between legalism in the Christian walk and grace. It can be a fine line, I'm realizing. There's a subtlety between the two that has more to do with heart than law. In my opinion, he is tending toward legalism – harsh, condemning, lacking in grace and compassion. And I'm thinking that in his opinion I must be fat, lazy, unrighteous and ungodly, lax in my acceptance of worldly ways. Okay, maybe not lazy. But definitely not uptight enough. (He loves his mom and wouldn't say these things. I'm extrapolating a little from other things he's said.)
On the other hand, he knows sin when he sees it. And those "certain disparities between the Word and Christianity as he's seen it lived out" are undoubtedly an indictment of me and his dad. I can't pretend there isn't sin in my life, so let's get this over with.
I overeat! There, I said it.
But wait, how can this be? Do I not know that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in me, whom I have from God, and that I am not my own? (1Corinthians 6:19) And if I'm an obedient child, why would I be conformed to the former lusts which were mine in my ignorance, rather than like the Holy One who called me, be holy myself also in all my behavior; because it is written, 'YOU SHALL BE HOLY, FOR I AM HOLY.' (1 Peter 1:14-16) And if I love Him, will I not keep His commandments? (John 14:15) To be a believer in the Lord Jesus is to have zero tolerance for sin in our lives. We must not dilute the message of Christianity; we must not allow the infusion of humanism or pervert the faith for the sake of making it palatable to a weak and self-indulgent culture. Obedience is the goal. No excuses.
Oh dear. I know. I know these things are true. And if I really understood the gravity of my sin, if I could claw through the layers of apathy resulting from years of turning a blind eye to this sin, I would be paralyzed with self-loathing.
So where does that leave me? What do I do now? Well, I could jump right to the ending point, where I know I'll end up at the end of the discussion anyway: "I'm forgiven! Grace, baby! That's why Jesus died, so I'm okay!"
But this is exactly why, having been raised in non-denominational churches, #1-son now eschews the whole non-denominational movement. And he does have a good point: we tend to skip over the sorrow-over-sin step, jump right to grace and forgiveness, and then we pretend we're experiencing the joy of the Lord. At that point it also becomes a bit of a farce to say we're awash with compassion and grace for the sinners around us. We've skipped over the parts of the journey that fill us with joy and make our hearts overflow with compassion for other sinners – the part where we're broken over our own sin.
Let's go back to the point in the discussion where I'm paralyzed with self-loathing over my bad eating habits. Actually, let's start a few steps before that: let's begin where I recognize my sin but am not yet willing to change my ways. Rather than jumping to the end where we know the right answer like circling the right letter on a multiple choice test, take a little time with me while I hang out in that uncomfortable place. Let me meditate on the tender love my Savior has for me, on His faithfulness, His concern for me and His constant presence, as that of a best friend. Even as I stubbornly pursue my rebellious course, let me keep eye contact with my Savior today. Let me experience His tender love and commitment to me as I disobey. Let me feel His hurt with Him as I choose a bowl of ice cream over loving Him through obedience. Let me hear His gentle voice, never condemning, always patient, always close, even as He watches me sin, let me hear Him whisper, "I will never leave you, little one." What happens to a sinner's heart on a journey like that?
I contend that only a heart that has been on that journey can know the joy of Jesus and feel compassion for other sinners, because it has been bathed in undeserved compassion itself. The rest is just cheap Christian jargon – we talk about joy and compassion because we know we're supposed to be filled with it, but it's just claptrap. Over time our actions and words betray the reality: we are not experiencing the kind of joy and compassion and peace we talk about. We've looked at the outside of the package, we've been told there's joy inside so we like to talk about all its wonders, but we haven't opened it yet to experience personally how great it really is because we resist honest and painstaking confession of our own sin.
We prefer to let our minds dwell on the large portions of the Christian life that we do keep under control: for myself, I don't lie, swear, steal, or commit adultery; I don't drink too much, I work hard, I pay my bills, I bathe everyday and wear clean underwear. I even make my bed and pick up after a messy family. How much more could possibly be expected of me? But sometimes I resist engaging in any extended conversation with God about the nuts in my life that are too hard for me to crack on my own. In the depths of my heart, I know what He wants to talk to me about. And when I'm willing, we can have the kind of conversation I outlined above about my eating habits. It'll be great. In the meantime, He continues to love me, to never leave me, to bless me in ways I could never deserve.
It's the Holy Spirit who nudges us in those tricky places that we'd rather ignore, those parts of the Christian life we have a harder time getting under control on our own. We do need to run to Him with our sin. We do need to bury our face in His bosom, ask for His help, and listen to His still small voice offer words of assurance and wisdom and correction. But in the end, I put very little confidence in my own ability to conquer my flesh. This is His work. He knows exactly where the real issues reside, and He can reach those deep places in my spirit that give rise to obstinate sin in the first place.
But rather than run to Him, we more often either ignore our own sin (much preferring, after all, to enjoy the lofty discernment of other people's transgressions), or we jump straight to cheap grace. Either way, we miss out on an opportunity for wonderful intimacy with Jesus.
In addition, we end up confused about what appears to be a tense dichotomy between grace and legalism in the Christian walk. Doesn't that tension evaporate in the face of meaningful, intimate, daily dialog with Him? Either one by itself is a deficient rendering of Christianity. Both are shallow and result in a lackluster, lifeless, powerless, and joyless caricature of the real thing. We need to obey, and we need to accept forgiveness for our weaknesses, all in the context of loving interaction with God.
So, he can be a Baptist, if that's what he ends up choosing. There are definitely worse things for a couple of sinful people like me and his dad to have turned out. (I'm only poking fun here, folks. I love my Baptist friends.) He'd be a great Baptist. He'll be a great Christian of whatever sort he chooses. And I'm confident God will work mightily in his life, that his love will abound more and more with all knowledge and discernment; I'm confident he will approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Philippians 1:9-11)

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