self-righteousness

Repentance—the Heart of the Matter

Photo by  Cristian Newman  on  Unsplash

"You've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jeremiah 2:27 GW). This is what God says to His people through Jeremiah. It's a recurring theme in God's messages through Jeremiah to Judah—the southern kingdom of Israel.

Judah had abandoned the living God for lifeless idols. It wasn't just misplaced worship or foolish religion, it was accompanied with gross immorality and perversion of justice. The behavior of the leaders and people was atrocious. But this wasn't God's main issue.

Although God held His people responsible for their bad behavior, His great lament was how they shunned Him. God spoke through Jeremiah to tell the people they committed two evils. Number one was that they forsook God—the fountain of life-giving water.

My people have done two things wrong. They have abandoned me, the fountain of life-giving water. They have also dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that can’t hold water. (Jer 2:123 GW)

Repentance isn't about behavior

Repentance is not about behavior, but a renewed relationship. It's a matter of reconciliation. It's a matter of the heart.

It's not that bad behavior should be ignored or overlooked, but it is secondary. It should change as a result of a changed relationship, not the other way around. When changed behavior is the focus of repentance, God's intent for it is misplaced.

Relationship has always been primary to God. When Adam and Eve gave in to the serpent's temptation, God looked for them because He knew something was wrong. The entire story of redemption began there.

Repentance is a matter of reconciliation. It's a matter of the heart.

A classic picture of repentance is given in the third of three parables in Luke 15—the Lost Son. The climax is when the lost son returns to his father.

The son's focus is on his own sin, the father looks past the son's sin and filthiness to embrace him and celebrate (Luke 15:11-32).

Forgiveness and restoration

However, we still tend to focus on sin—our own or that of others, and it's lingering effect. That's the picture of the brooding elder son in the parable of Luke 15. We want forgiveness and justice, but often have difficulty accepting forgiveness, or as it's often put, forgiving ourselves

Sadly, when we focus on our own sin or how others have sinned, and the ripple effect of sin—we lose sight of the purpose of forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is granted by God to restore our relationship. It's not a means of satisfying His divine justice or wrath against us. Jesus absorbed the penalty of sin upon Himself.

Forgiveness is granted by God to restore relationship not to satisfy divine justice

Righteousness is relational

Of course, things must be made right, but righteousness itself is relational. It's not a theological concept to be understood. Why did the father celebrate the return of his son? Because— 

"My son was dead and has come back to life. He was lost but has been found" (Luke 15:24 GW).

Repentance isn't our effort to be good but the restoration of our relationship with God. As King David requested in his own prayer of repentance, "Restore to me the joy of your salvation" (Psalm 51:12).

Repentance is not about "turning over a new leaf," as if making a New Year's resolution. It's about returning to God. There are countless examples of this throughout the Bible.

Repentance isn't our effort to be good but the restoration of our relationship with God.

Unfortunately, much well-intentioned teaching and preaching focus on changed behavior as the mark of true repentance.

How about John the Baptist's rebuke at the Jordan River (Matt 3:1-12 GW), you might ask? John spoke of true repentance, not a religious or emotional expression.

Changed behavior is the fruit of genuine repentance, not its essence.

Reconciliation

Redemption is not just forgiveness, it is about reconciliation between God and people. Repentance is returning to God. As God said, "you've turned your backs, not your faces, to me" (Jer 2:27 GW)

God wants people to turn their faces to Him, not their backs. He's not interested in what we can do to make things right because He knows it will fall short and be short-lived.

What repentance is not

Repentance is not remorse, nor emotion, or promises of better behavior. It's a change of heart. A changed heart that leads us back to God, as shown by the lost son in the parable.

Repentance is not behavior modification—"changing our ways" or "making a 180º turn"—on our own, but returning to God—the Father—and receiving His mercy and grace.

Once our relationship is restored—yes, through forgiveness on God's behalf—then true repentance results in a changed life.

Repentance needs to start from the inside—our heart—first. External change—changed behavior—follows our heart change.

When our face is turned to God, our back is turned on sin.

Repentance and redemption

There is no true redemption without genuine repentance. But the essence of repentance is returning to God regardless of any personal cost.

The good news is this—God has covered the cost of failure and sin on the Cross. Our work is to turn our face and trust back to God. Trying to change your behavior on your own is a futile effort and doomed for failure.

There is no true redemption without genuine repentance.

True repentance brings freedom

If you're trying to be a good Christian—stop it! But if you want to turn towards God—go for it!

My wife and I saw the power of repentance and reconciliation in the process of disciplining our young children. First, they needed to realize they did something wrong.

Once it was made clear what they did was wrong, our children's heads dropped and their faces turned sad. They were at a point of repentance.

When a form of correction was applied and a new path of behavior and change of heart was discussed, things were settled and the result was freedom. They were reconciled.

True repentance ought to bring freedom, not brooding or depression.

Going back to the parable in Luke, the father celebrated with the restored son, while the elder son brooded. The elder brother couldn't look past his own expectation of justice and his self-righteousness (Luke 15:28-30).

It's your choice to brood or to rejoice. I prefer joy over whining any day of the week and so does God. How about you?

Christianity Is Not About Moral Goodness

Photo credit: lightstock.com
Photo credit: lightstock.com

We Christians—genuine followers of Christ—need to stop moralizing the Christian faith because this misrepresents genuine Christianity.

We need to quit portraying the face of Christianity as moral goodness. Because representing the Christian faith as moral goodness is just that—a face, a veneer, an appearance of goodness.

If you ask most people to describe Christianity—believer and nonbeliever alike—you'll get a reply related to some form of moral goodness...

"I try to be a good person, who does good things and is kind to others."

But is this what Christianity is all about? No!

A caricature of Christianity

When we try to establish our own moral goodness, we are doomed to failure. We may look good on the outside to others, but inside we'll remain corrupted by our selfish nature. This is what self-righteousness looks like.

It's what condemned the Pharisees. Jesus saw through their religious veneer of goodness and saw into their heart. But they couldn't see past themselves and their form of religion.

Their own religious attempt at goodness was only a caricature of moral goodness.

Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness. (Matt 23:28 NLT)

Our attempt at parading our own sense of moral goodness as the Christian life makes Christianity nothing more than a caricature of the real.

The problem of pursuing moral goodness

No matter how hard we try to be good—whatever the description—we can't change our selfish nature from the outside in. It just doesn't work.

This is what the Apostle Paul spoke of in his epistle to the Galatian believers—

For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. Gal 3:21b

So, what is Christianity?

Over the centuries, Christianity as a religion has morphed into the pursuit of living according to a biblical moral code of goodness. Someone might ask, "So, what's wrong with that?" The short answer is—a lot!

Should we discard any desire for moral goodness? Not at all!

We just have it backward when we see Christianity as living by a moral code of goodness, rather than a trust relationship with God based on faith. When we trust in God and His goodness, He transfers a measure of His goodness into us.

When we try to live by moral goodness alone, we are trapped in a squirrel cage of behavior modification—"Don't do this... do this," and so on.

So... how are we to live?

We are to live by faith (Gal 3:11). Is that too simplistic? Yes and no.

Let's face it, we like a good set of parameters to tell us when we're doing ok, and when we're not-so-ok. It's easier that way... sort of.

When we have a certain code to live by things are defined, right and wrong are delineated and there's no guess-work, if you will.

But a life of faith, like the patriarch Abraham for example, is not so defined. Faith, real faith—an implicit trust in God—is messy. Yet, with God, faith is necessary (Heb 11:6).

The Christian faith as a way of life

At its core, true Christianity is not about a life that follows a prescribed moral code. It's about following Jesus the Christ (Messiah). Of course, it's also not to be a life void of a moral compass.

The issue isn't about moral goodness, but relationship. This becomes easier to see when we look at those God esteems, and as we focus on what God says (the Bible).

Some examples

Abraham was considered "a friend of God" (James 2:23) and declared righteous because he believed—he trusted in God. But he presented his wife Sarah as his sister, not just once but twice, to save his own skin (Gen 12:11-13). So, he wasn't a model of moral goodness.

The Lord called King David "a man after his own heart" (1 Sam 13:14) and chose him to be king of Israel. Yet, he also was not an example of moral goodness, especially with his infamous affair with Bathsheba that cost Uriah, her husband, his life (2 Sam 11).

Even the Apostle Paul, who wrote most of the epistles in the New Testament, denounced his own goodness (Phil 3:4-7 NLT)—

For I am the least of all the apostles. In fact, I’m not even worthy to be called an apostle after the way I persecuted God’s church. (1 Cor 15:9 NLT)

How can we gain an understanding of true Christianity?

What are your thoughts about this? 

What do you think Christianity is all about if it's not about moral goodness?

I'd like to hear from you!

 


The Power of Mercy and Love

Over 50 years ago, Martin Luther King Jr said that Sunday morning was the most segregated hour in America. This was because of the common racial separation within most churches. Some churches are working to change that but it's still prevalent.

But there's another type of segregation or division in many American churches. It's been around for a long time. It plagued Jesus and contributed to His arrest and crucifixion.

The trouble is, we—the church—say we want to welcome "sinners" into the church but when they come they often don't feel welcome. Probably hundreds of books and conferences and blog posts address the issue but with minimal impact.

Many things contribute to this dilemma but the real issue is the heart of the matter. A simple story involving Jesus, a religious leader, and a sinful woman illustrates it best.

A story within a story

Jesus told many parables, some short and some longer. Each one teaches a simple truth and is told within a specific context. The setting or situation preceding or following the parable gives insight to the purpose of the parable.

We find a short, simple parable in Luke 7:40-43 where the situation is critical for understanding its truth. Here's the parable—

“Two men owed a moneylender some money. One owed him five hundred silver coins, and the other owed him fifty. When they couldn’t pay it back, he was kind enough to cancel their debts. Now, who do you think will love him the most?”

Jesus was invited to Simon the Pharisee's home for a meal. During the meal, a woman with a bad reputation came in looking for Jesus. Simon's inner thoughts scoffed at the idea that Jesus was a prophet, let alone the Messiah because of this woman's attention to Jesus.

This prompts Jesus to tell this short parable of a moneylender forgiving what was owed by these two debtors. The amounts were considerable. The 500 silver coins were equivalent to twenty months of wages while the 50 coins represented two months wages.

The Pharisee answered Jesus' question at the end of the parable, “I suppose the one who had the largest debt canceled.” Jesus agreed but confronted Simon about the Pharisee's self-righteous, judgmental attitude towards the woman.

Those of us in the church too often fit the profile of Simon the Pharisee. We are quick to judge others as less than ourselves and forget the suspended judgment God showed us because of His mercy.

A study of contrasts

The two characters who interact with Jesus are polar opposites. On the surface, Simon the Pharisee represents the religious elite. He was well-learned in the Scriptures and traditions of his faith with an elevated status and reputation.

The sinful woman had a shameful reputation. She was well aware of her diminished status but she knows of Jesus and of His message to repent because the Kingdom of Heaven was near (Matt 4:17).

This woman risked rejection by both Simon and his cohorts and Jesus. After all, she knew what she deserved, unlike the Pharisees who considered themselves to be godly.

Oddly, no one dismisses her. Did she already know Simon and his cohorts from previous encounters? Her many sins (Luke 7:47) were likely known by many men.

Judgment and mercy

This story reveals a powerful picture of judgment and mercy.

Jesus was invited to the home of a prominent religious leader accompanied by other men (Luke 7:49). Women were only present as servers of the food and had little status then.

In those days, people didn't eat at tables with straight-backed chairs but reclined on the floor, often leaning on one arm while eating with the other hand and with their feet extended outward.

The woman approaches Jesus at His feet away from the table of men. At first, she stands weeping then bends down as she wets the Lord's feet with her tears, wiping them with her hair, and kissing them with affection and respect.

She opens a vial of expensive aromatic oil and begins to anoint His feet. It's an act of submission and worship. She pours her heart out to Jesus with her tears and the oil.

She was an immoral woman and Simon knew it. So he wonders how Jesus could even allow her to touch Him. Surely this Jesus couldn't be a prophet or the Messiah!

Simon couldn't see beyond her past or her gender. He didn't see her as Jesus did.

The power of mercy and love

The parable's powerful message is revealed as Jesus explains why He told it to Simon (Luke 7:44-47). It exposes the superficiality of Simon's self-righteousness.

This sinful woman with the shameful past showed a respect for Jesus unlike Simon.

Guests were customarily greeted with water to wash their dusty feet, a kiss of acceptance, and oil to anoint their wind-blown hair. Simon offered none of these to Jesus.

This woman washed Jesus' feet with her tears and hair, then kissed and anointed them with oil. Her respect was genuine. Her broken heart pursued Jesus in hope of redemption and she received it.

Simon the Pharisee didn't realize his own need of forgiveness because he was so full of himself. Another parable illustrates the strength of this self-righteous condescension towards others (Luke 18:9-14).

Unmeasured mercy and love

The simple truth of the parable and the whole story is summed up here—

“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (Luke 7:47 NLT)

God doesn't measure out His mercy and love, we measure it. We limit it based on our measure of others and we see ourselves as an exception to the rule. But this is self-deception.

How have you seen this same condescending attitude in your own heart? I know I've seen it in mine!

God's work of redemption is based on the Lord's nature and the power of His mercy and love. It will always be greater than any religious or spiritual status we think we hold.

This woman humbled herself, sought out and pursued Jesus, risked rejection and humiliation, and poured herself out at the feet of Jesus through her tears, kisses, and expensive fragrant oil.

This is a picture of worshipful surrender and submission to the Lord.

If we say we love Jesus, how can we offer anything less to the Lord than this woman did?

The full story in its context is found in Luke 7:36-50

If you're a follower of Jesus and part of a church fellowship, beware of a hardness of heart towards others creeping in and taking hold. It will limit your full devotion to Jesus and it will be felt by others. Self-righteousness excludes others and gives a distorted image of the Lord.

When we are mindful of how great the Lord's forgiveness is for us, we are less likely to look condescendingly upon others. When we find ourselves drifting towards self-righteousness, it's time to repent—to surrender our heart to the Lord and the power of His mercy and love!


If you're wondering if churches are still racially segregated, here's a post regarding that— The Most Segregated Hour of the Week?

The Path and 3 Prayers

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Well-meaning people have strived to find ways to please God for generations and generations. These efforts usually create some type of spiritual path or process to reach and please God. However, each of these efforts falls short of their goal because they start from the wrong point.

How does a person please God? In particular, how does a person live the Christian life? Doing good and not harming others ranks high among the many thoughts and ideas put forth.

Some see the need for a strict moral code and religious disciplines. Others may see it as more of a philosophy of being like Jesus, which can take on all sorts of approaches.

@@All humanity's efforts to reach and please God fall short of what He desires@@. The key is what Jesus tells us in the gospels. His way is much simpler and yet more challenging.

The path and the garden

Jesus' call to follow Him

In each of the three synoptic gospels, Jesus tells those who would follow Him what they need to do (Matt 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). Here it is from Luke's gospel—

And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23 ESV)

People have varying thoughts about what it means to "deny" our self and to "take up" our cross. Even the simple call to "follow Me" is made complicated by various leaders and theologians.

How can we determine what Jesus meant? The simplest way I know is to look at His living example and how it fits with what He says. Life example is a basic essential to good leadership, whether to be a good leader or gain insight to what leadership involves.

3 prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane

Before Jesus went to the cross, He asked the Father if it could be avoided. This is also found in the first three gospels of the Bible (Matt 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46). Matthew's gospel gives us the most detail and insight into these three prayers of Jesus (Matt 26:39, 42, 44).

Each of the three prayers is similar. Jesus asks His Father if the "cup" of suffering death on the cross can be avoided. Each ends with Jesus' willingness to do the Father's will over His own.

Reading through the details of this time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, on the Mount of Olives, reveals how difficult it was for Jesus.

He tells the disciples that His "soul was overwhelmed to the point of death" (Mark 14:34 NIV). In Luke, we're told His sweat was "like drops of blood falling to the ground" (Luke 22:44 NIV).

All of this shows us the great struggle Jesus had with accepting the Father's will. This is why following Jesus may be simple on one hand, but difficult and challenging, as well.

Self-denial

Luke reminds us the basic call to follow Jesus is a daily choice, not a one-and-done decision. @@Self-denial is a continuing choice to not go back to our embedded selfish way of life@@. It's an ongoing act of repentance—turning to God and away from our selfish nature.

Denying our self is to acknowledge the futility of living by our inherent selfish nature, which includes such things as—self-indulgence, self-justification, self-fulfillment, self-righteousness, and whatever else that places self at the center of attention in our life.

Most believers don't move beyond this first step of following Jesus. This leads to a performance-based relationship with God similar to trying to live by the Ten Commandants of the Mosaic Law (Exo 20:1-17). It's not the path Jesus calls us to walk (Gal 3:3, 10-14).

@@Following Jesus requires living by faith, only possible through God's grace at work in us@@.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:12 NIV)

Our cross

Moving forward in the next step of following Jesus also requires a daily choice. As it says in Luke, we are to "take up [our] cross daily." The apostle Paul gives us a picture of these first two steps—

Brothers and sisters, I can’t consider myself a winner yet. This is what I do: I don’t look back, I lengthen my stride, and I run straight toward the goal to win the prize that God’s heavenly call offers in Christ Jesus. (Phil 3:13-14 GW)

This is illustrated by a swimmer doing the freestyle stroke. As the swimmer reaches forward with one arm, she pushes down and back with the other arm. It's a continuous double-action stroke along with a flutter kick that propels the swimmer over the surface of the water.

The cross was an instrument of death and a symbol of shame (Gal 3:13). Unlike the liquid and smooth stroke of a swimmer, taking up our cross—dying to self—usually involves a lot of kicking and screaming on our part. @@The selfish nature does not die easily@@.

None of us embrace shame or death easily, let alone willingly. And yet, this is what the call to follow Jesus requires—embracing a death to our selfish nature and life.

If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, who was brought back to life, will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once and for all to sin’s power. But now he lives, and he lives for God. So consider yourselves dead to sin’s power but living for God in the power Christ Jesus gives you. (Rom 6:8-11 GW)

@@Following Jesus requires us to embrace death to our selfish nature and life@@.

Following Jesus

At first, most believers don't realize what's involved with following Jesus. I remember hearing it explained as signing a blank contract that Jesus fills in with details later, as we live out our faith in a daily way.

@@Denying our self and taking up our cross are prerequisite to following Jesus@@. As John the Baptizer said of himself in respect to Jesus, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (John 3:30) This is the point of the first two steps—the decrease of self—the selfish nature.

I remember enduring prerequisite courses in college to get into courses I really wanted to take. After diving into those major courses, I realized the need for those prerequisite classes. They provided a foundation and framework for what I would learn later.

@@A most obvious essential to discipleship is following the example of Jesus@@.

This includes His three prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-46). In each of these prayers, Jesus struggles with surrendering His personal will to submit to the Father's will, which was dying on the cross for the redemption of all humanity.

If Jesus, the Son of God, struggled with submitting His will to the Father, why should we think it won't be a struggle for each of us as we follow Jesus? This is why self-denial and dying to our self precede and lead to actually following Jesus.

Each step requires us to submit our will to God, just as with the Lord's three prayers. Each step is a daily, sometimes moment-by-moment choice. Each choice is a conscious decision to submit and surrender ourselves to the Lord.

A final thought

This continuous, daily choice to follow Jesus will put us at odds with the world around us. Following Jesus in genuine discipleship is the culture of the God's kingdom, and it's counter to the culture of the world around us.

At times, @@what Jesus asks of us personally may seem different and at odds to how other Christian believers live and follow Jesus@@. I often hear what Jesus spoke to Peter after restoring him from Peter's three denials of Jesus—

"...what is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:18-22 NIV)

For me this means I need to keep looking ahead to Jesus, not at others or anything else that would distract me from faithfully following Jesus. I believe it's a personal call from Jesus to each of us.


If you'd like to get a better handle on walking this path of following Jesus, I highly recommend The Calvary Road, by Roy Hession.

The Art of Dying to Self

Most of us have heard of having either left or right brain dominance. Those who have a left-brain dominance are supposed to be more analytical, while those with right-brain dominance are more creative.

Art is defined as a creative skill or ability, and science is knowledge about something or study of a subject. Typically, art and science are seen as opposites, just as with left or right brain dominance.

And by the way, the idea of left or right brain dominance? It turns out to be a popular myth. So, maybe art and science aren't so opposite.