Archive for the 'Devotional' Category

I’ve been thinking about taking up my cross, denying myself, and following Jesus. A lot. It’s a horrifying thought—sacrifice myself, deny the very impulses that give life to my hands and feet, follow someone I have never seen, heard, smelled, or touched. It’s all there…and in case I have any doubts, the one voice I do constantly hear is the one that says, “Yeah, He’s right.”

I constantly reply, “I wish He wasn’t.”

In his book After You Believe NT Wright explores what it means to be a Christian—a follower of Jesus. Early on in the book he poses a question (and provides an answer) which essentially defines the content of the remainder of the book. He writes,

‘How should I behave?’ contains two significantly different questions within it. First, it refers to the content of my behavior: In what way should I behave? In other words, what specific things ought I to do and not to do? But second, it refers to the means or method of my behavior: granted that I know what I ought to do and ought not to do, by what means will I be able to put these things into practice? […] Interestingly, Jesus seems to have given both sides of this question the same answer: ‘Follow me!’ This is both what you should do and how you should do it. (14)

And how do we follow Jesus? By taking up the cross and denying ourselves—necessary precursors which must be recognized, accepted, and in place before we ever take our first step behind him. Wright goes on, “The theme is stark and challenging: in order to develop Christian character, the first step is suffering” (177). I heard this while listening to some older music last night. It’s an old Petra song called ‘Hit You Where You Live.” This short lyric stands out to me as one of the best lyrics Bob Hartman ever wrote:

The evidence leads to conviction
When we don’t live everything we say
There’s got to be a crucifixion
We can live dying everyday

A crucifixion. It’s not original to NT Wright or Bob Hartman or any of the other hundreds of writers who have dragged their arms across the paper, pen in hand, and dared to etch these words into the fabric of their heart. I know why I sing them and write them and repeat them: to remind myself, constantly, that this is the life I was chosen for and that I chose. Frequently this life makes no sense and oftentimes God’s silence is deafening. He’s there; he’s not there. The road up Calvary, surrounded by thousands of people, is a lonely road.

The idea was original with Jesus and picked up on by those who dared drag their cross around the Roman infested Middle East. Peter said it. Paul said it. John said it.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is true worship. (Romans 12:1)

He also wrote and, worse, I assume, believed and, worser, expected those who read his writing to also believe:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who love me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

I could go on and on and on and on quoting this author or that author and demonstrating unequivocally that we are, as disciples, called to the crucifixion driven life. (Well, we are also called to the Resurrection Driven Life too, but one is necessarily a result of the other; and the other necessarily a precursor to the other; I’ll leave it up to the Holy Spirit to teach you which is which.)  But the fact is, regardless of how many people say it or how eloquently they say it, no matter how poetically it is written or how much it is romanticized, this life, this life of self-denial, cross bearing, and Jesus following is not for the faint of heart. And there are times when I am sick of it; tired of trying.

I know what you’re thinking:  that is rather anti-climactic. I’m sorry to disappoint you.  I’m sorry if the perception of the Christian life we sometimes give off to those around us goes something like this: “Oh, I found Jesus and now my life is set! I can smile all the way to the bank! I can rest easily at night” and that that perception, however well intended, is decidedly, emphatically, wrong. I’m sorry if you have been misled to believe that dying is meant to be, uh, fun.

It’s hard. I’m not crying about it. I am pointing out that sometimes, all the times, this life—this learning to live the Jesus life—is terribly confusing. I’ve come to believe that it (this crucifixion driven life) has nothing to do with whether or not I succeed or whether or not I actually contribute to the world or make a so-called difference. Frankly, I believe this crucifixion life is the most personal aspect of our lives and it is, to be sure, the one place along our walk where God most loudly announces his love for us. Love.

It’s hard to believe that God loved us so much that He gave His one and only Son. It’s even harder to believe that He loves us so much that he requires us, as part of the plan, to take up our cross, deny ourselves, and follow Jesus. It’s hard to believe that he loves us so much that he calls us and when he calls us, he bids us come and die. It’s hard to believe he loves us so much that he is bound and determined to rid our lives of all that destroys us, of all that fails to bring glory to his name, of all that does not bear his image. “We are being recreated in the image of our Creator,” Paul wrote.

And some can say this with a smile and a Hallelujah! But Paul and others know the truth that that which lives inside of us is dark and must be murdered and that the darkness wages war, a bloody, violent, aggressive war, a counter-offensive, and that it seeks to maintain its strongholds at all costs.  It’s hard to imagine that God loves us so much that he not only points out what the strongholds are and where they are, but that he also leads the charge against them.

Love.

There is no hope for me, you realize this, right? It is simply impossible for me to believe in this God, let alone purposely decide every day to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow Him, right? And, let’s be honest, the cross I am called to bear is not a hangnail or a splinter or a crank boss. The cross is an instrument of death. It is the very means God uses to unwrap and undo self-sufficient humans.

I saw the fruit. It was good for food. It was desirable for gaining wisdom. It was pleasing to the eye. So I ate. The fruit became my cells, my tissues, my organs, my systems, and my being.  Now I have to throw it up and my insides must be turned outside. I must be undone.  (I think it much easier to sit around pots of meat and leeks and vegetables in Egypt, but don’t we all?) Who can rescue me from such a life? Who can fix me? Who can bring life out of death? Who cares so much about my life that he is willing to let me die (forces me to die?) in order that I might live? I can’t do it. I have no power.

Christians, then and now, are the only persons on the face of the earth who worship a crucified Savior—to all appearances in every and all cultures a rejected, humiliated, and failed Savior. [...]

These are background observations for understanding why what I am calling ‘acquired passivity’ is so difficult for us to take seriously and then embrace—and why it is absolutely necessary to embrace it if we are to accustom ourselves to living in a world characterized by the grace of God, for ‘by grace you have been saved.’ There are no other options. It’s grace or nothing. There is no ‘Plan B.’ (Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection, 93)

Follow Jesus.

“But Lord,” I say, “I don’t know where I am at or where we are going.”

And his reply?

“Well, Jerry, if you are following Jesus, does it matter?”

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

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I was editing my church’s listing information on Google when I came across this:

Google business listing

This is designed for businesses.  Plumber?  Yes, this business serves customers at their locations.  Hardware store?  No, all customers come to the business location.  Simple.  I put “No” for our church.  Somewhat because we are still stuck in the business church model of the last 100 years, but mostly because I’m having a hard time bringing myself to say Yes.

This past Sunday I preached a first-person sermon from Jonah (you can listen to it here if you want):

 
icon for podpress  Jonah - Called to Go: Play Now | Play in Popup | Download

During my sermon study I always try to examine my own life in light of what I am going to be preaching and you can’t help being changed when you spend the necessary time and depth that a first-person sermon requires.  Jonah was called to go to Nineveh.  One of the extraordinary things about Jonah is that the book is the only latter prophet whose message is presented in narrative prose.  One of the functions of the literary genre of narrative is that the audience naturally identifies with one or more of the characters.  A talented narrative writer is adept at drawing the reader into the story, not just to be surrounded by it, but to become a part of it.  Part of the function of the book of Jonah was to do that for the people of Israel: to see themselves in Jonah.  To see their rebellion against God was a rebellion of the heart, a rebellion against His very nature.

And so I did.  I saw… I see myself in Jonah.  And I can’t even claim to have any enemies.  Jonah didn’t want to go to those he detested.  I don’t want to go to those I am uncomfortable around.  I know that my God is compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love, patient.  Maybe that’s why I’m still allowed to be where I am… to do what I do… even though I don’t want to go.

I think it’s time that I– that we– started to say “Yes, this business serves customers at their locations.”

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Not Babylon - but fit my moodSo I just finished the Psalms on my Through-the-Bible-in-90-(Commute)-Days journey.  One of the last psalms in this book is Psalm 137 – a hauntingly beautiful Psalm that has been worked into modern songs and art.  It is set during the Babylonian captivity, and speaks to the sorrow of a people oppressed, persecuted and removed from their homeland:

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.

There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

This is one of those passages in the Bible that reminds you that following God is not always about being blessed and putting the best face on grief. Sometimes it is just too painful and immediate to deal with sorry as joy. I know I have felt that way before.

What is interesting to me is how the modern “borrowings” of this Psalm stop where I have stopped above, or before, and pretend that the ending of the Psalm was never written:

Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”

O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us-
he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

In a way it is sad when we neuter Scripture – be is Psalm or prose – to remove the sting it might contain.

There are times where we curse and do not bless. There are times when we do not love our enemies. There are times where it is our burning desire that God would see them repaid and – at least figuratively – their infants “dashed against the rocks”. And it is sad when I repress these true feelings, pretending they do not exist, rather than dealing with them – both in anger and later (hopefully) in regret.

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From Oswald Chambers :

We are uncertain of the next step, but we are certain of God. As soon as we abandon ourselves to God and do the task He has placed closest to us, He begins to fill our lives with surprises. When we become simply a promoter or a defender of a particular belief, something within us dies. That is not believing God — it is only believing our belief about Him.

There’s more to the devotional.  I recommend the whole thing.  But I thought this part was particularly good.

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As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m currently going through the “The Bible in 90 Days” podcasts on my daily commute (which will work out to more than 90 Calendar days, but probably less than 90 commuting days).  Last week, I got to hear one of my favorite stories from I Kings and its parallel in II Chronicles (one that always makes me laugh out loud), though I had completely forgotten one aspect from the story.

The story (from the I Kings retelling):

For three years there was no war between Aram and Israel. But in the third year Jehoshaphat king of Judah went down to see the king of Israel. The king of Israel had said to his officials, “Don’t you know that Ramoth Gilead belongs to us and yet we are doing nothing to retake it from the king of Aram?”

So he asked Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to fight against Ramoth Gilead?” Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.” But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, “First seek the counsel of the LORD.” So the king of Israel brought together the prophets—about four hundred men—and asked them, “Shall I go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?”

“Go,” they answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”

But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there not a prophet of the LORD here whom we can inquire of?”

The king of Israel answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one man through whom we can inquire of the LORD, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad. He is Micaiah son of Imlah.” [THIS is even funnier listening to the story than when reading it!] “The king should not say that,” Jehoshaphat replied.

So the king of Israel called one of his officials and said, “Bring Micaiah son of Imlah at once.”

Dressed in their royal robes, the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat king of Judah were sitting on their thrones at the threshing floor by the entrance of the gate of Samaria, with all the prophets prophesying before them. Now Zedekiah son of Kenaanah had made iron horns and he declared, “This is what the LORD says: ‘With these you will gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.’ ” All the other prophets were prophesying the same thing. “Attack Ramoth Gilead and be victorious,” they said, “for the LORD will give it into the king’s hand.”

The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Look, as one man the other prophets are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favorably.” But Micaiah said, “As surely as the LORD lives, I can tell him only what the LORD tells me.”

When he arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or shall I refrain?”

“Attack and be victorious,” he answered, “for the LORD will give it into the king’s hand.” [Note the sarcasm that had to be present here!] The king said to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the LORD ?”

Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the LORD said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’ ”

The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?”

Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD : I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the host of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’

“One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the LORD and said, ‘I will entice him.’
“By what means?’ the LORD asked.
“I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.
“You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the LORD. ‘Go and do it.’

“So now the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The LORD has decreed disaster for you.”

Then Zedekiah son of Kenaanah went up and slapped Micaiah in the face. “Which way did the spirit from the LORD go when he went from me to speak to you?” he asked. Micaiah replied, “You will find out on the day you go to hide in an inner room.”

The king of Israel then ordered, “Take Micaiah and send him back to Amon the ruler of the city and to Joash the king’s son and say, ‘This is what the king says: Put this fellow in prison and give him nothing but bread and water until I return safely.’ ”

Micaiah declared, “If you ever return safely, the LORD has not spoken through me.” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people!”

Now, as I was driving, I found I had a number of things to unpack from this (not all of which I’ll share), including (in order of increasing importance).

Q1: Who names their kid Jehoshaphat? Seriously.  You’re just asking you kid to get beat up on the playground, so he’s either gonna be really tough or really scared of his own shadow.  Or he and his best buddy, Gesundheit, are going to form an exclusive club of two.

Q2: Why does the Bible always describe folks from Jerusalem going down to see folks in Israel (which is north of Judah)?  OK, so I know this one – Jerusalem is at a higher elevation, and maps were not yet printed with North at the top of the map.  But still…

Q3: If you can imagine this scene playing out on the silver screen with Sean Connery as Jehoshaphat (gesundheit), Alan Rickman as Ahab, and John Cleese as Micaiah, you should be able to see why I find this scene so funny.  (You might also understand why my wife sometimes numbers me among her children).

Q4: I’ve gotten into a good number of discussions over the past decade or so about systematic theology and how it is simply man’s invention to explain God, and how it quite often serves to place God into a box of our own making, rather than simply seeing him in light of the same being who spoke to Job, to Moses and to Jesus.  Systematic Theology is our way of making God “safe”, but to borrow from C.S. Lewis, God is not safe, but He is good.

One area where I find the most amusement in the discussions about systematic theology is the concept of God’s sovereignty – and how sometimes the folks who pay it the most lip service (as the hinging proof of their theological system) are the same ones who, in practice, seem to want to prove that they don’t really believe it.

For example, when discussing free will, they want to die on a hill they’ve created in that “God cannot be sovereign if He allows man to have a choice in whether or not to follow Him”.  The thing is this: If God is sovereign, He has the power to do pretty much whatever He wants to do, including the rather mundane task of delegating some decisions.  [The process of delegation is, by definition, worked by one individual with authority to someone else without it.  In the process, though, the one in authority does not lose his authority in allowing the lesser party to execute the task/decision.]

The typical answer I’ve gotten to this observation is that there are, indeed, some things that God cannot do – with the first example always seeming to be that God cannot lie. [As if this isn't an argument of apples-to-oranges, since lying is a sin for man to commit, but delegation is not, though I digress.]

This story in Kings & Chronicles, though, actually throws a bit of a wrench into that works as well, since we’ve got a prophet of God, Micaiah, who is shown a vision by God, in which God, at the very least, condones a spirit going out to lie to Ahab, in order to entice him to his death.

So God let me laugh twice that day – once at the story, and again at the part of it I forgot.

Good times.

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The Dome of the Church of the Holy SepulchreHappy Resurrection Day!

This is the final post in the current series of articles on Holy Week:

Part I: Lamb Selection Day
Part II: Passover Preparation
Part III: Passover Banquet
Part IV: Passover Sacrifice (also inserting Jesus’ use of remez while on the cross)
Part V: The Feast of Unleavened Bread

Today, in Part VI, we will briefly discuss the Feast of Firstfruits.

As was mentioned in yesterday’s article, the feast of Firstfruits is the third celebration during Passover week, and it is celebrated the day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

The Meaning of Firstfruits

Gezer Calendar StoneMany Christians do not realize that the Jewish calendar, as established by God, is set up around the agricultural calendar of Israel. There have been number of discoveries of ancient agricultural calendars from Israel, which link the religious and agricultural calendars together. One of the most prominent was the discovery of the “Gezer Calendar Stone” (right), which is housed in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum in Turkey.

When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance and have taken possession of it and settled in it, take some of the firstfruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land the LORD your God is giving you and put them in a basket. Then go to the place the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name and say to the priest in office at the time, “I declare today to the LORD your God that I have come to the land the LORD swore to our forefathers to give us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God. Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, putting us to hard labor. Then we cried out to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with miraculous signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, O LORD, have given me.” Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him. And you and the Levites and the aliens among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household.(Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

So, the same way that we are to give to God the first part of our money, resources, time and everything else, these people brought the first part of their crop to God.

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Unleavened BreadJust as a refresher, here is where we have been thus far in this series:

Part I: Lamb Selection Day
Part II: Passover Preparation
Part III: Passover Banquet
Part IV: Passover Sacrifice

In the past, we’ve also examined Jesus’ use of remez while on the cross

Tonight, in Part V, we will be examining the Feast of Unleavened Bread.

Timing

“Celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because it was on this very day that I brought your divisions out of Egypt. Celebrate this day as a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. In the first month you are to eat bread made without yeast, from the evening of the fourteenth day until the evening of the twenty-first day. (Exodus 12:17-18)

“These are the LORD’s appointed feasts, the sacred assemblies you are to proclaim at their appointed times: The LORD’s Passover begins at twilight on the fourteenth day of the first month. On the fifteenth day of that month the LORD’s Feast of Unleavened Bread begins; for seven days you must eat bread made without yeast. On the first day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work. For seven days present an offering made to the LORD by fire. And on the seventh day hold a sacred assembly and do no regular work.’ “(Leviticus 23:4-8)

On the Jewish Calendar, the Passover Festival is often a combination of 3 Festival celebrations, spread over a 7-9 day period (depending on which day Passover falls). These three festivals are: Passover, Unleavened Bread and Firstfruits. The Feast of Unleavened Bread, while it lasted a week in total, was celebrated in sacred assembly on the first Sabbath after Passover – whether it was the day after or seven days after Passover. Firstfruits was then celebrated, per Leviticus 23:15, the day after the Feast of Unleavened bread (and then the Feast of Weeks – Shavuot or Pentecost – seven weeks later).

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Slaughtered Sheep (Do not click here if you are squeamish!)In Part I of this series, we examined Lamb Selection Day, and in Part II, we examined the preparations for Passover. In Part III, we delved into the Passover Banquet, now called the Seder. Tonight, in Part IV, we will examine the passover sacrifice.

Origins

The origins of sacrifice in Hebraic tradition, and so, too, for us, goes back hundreds of years before Moses and the Exodus to the time of Abram. In Genesis 15, we read:

After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:
“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:1-6)

In this passage, God has promised to protect Abram and to reward him. In Abram’s culture, the two most important things one could have were children and land – because these were the only things that could carry on as a legacy to future generations. Nothing else could truly serve as a reminder to future generations of people the worth of a person and his or her life.

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In Part I of this series, we examined Lamb Selection Day, and in Part II, we examined the preparations for Passover.

In Part III, we will examine the banquet traditions of Passover as practiced in the first century – in very similar manner as is done today – with the intention of examining some significant details relevant to Christianity. It is not my intention to give an all-encompassing look into what is now referred to by faithful Jews as the Seder (which is most likely not the name used for this meal in the first century). If you want to see all of the parts of the service, there are a number of Christian and Jewish websites which document this.

The Banquet

Unlike the traditional Christian “Lord’s Supper”, this meal was a four-course banquet, each with a specific cup of wine to symbolize it, which might take five or six hours, total, from beginning to end. While we are certain that this was practiced in the First Century, we do not know whether Jesus and his disciples each had four cups or if only Jesus had the four cups (there is evidence of both, though the synoptic accounts seems to indicate that Jesus shared from one cup for at least the third cup), which also signified where they were in the meal. We do know, though, that the tradition of the cups of wine began some 200 years before Jesus and his disciples met in the Upper Room.

These four cups, according to Jewish tradition, are given their meaning from Exodus 6:6-7

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will deliver you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.

The four cups are (sometimes the English translations for the names differ, but the meaning is consistent):

  1. The Cup of Blessing/Thanksgiving (I will deliver you)
  2. The Cup of Judgment (I will free you)
  3. The Cup of Redemption (I will redeem you with an outstretched arm)
  4. The Cup of Praise (I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God)

Each of these four cups symbolized one of God’s promises, and it is believed, from numerous early Jewish sources, that wine was representative of life/blood, and that God was promising on His own life that He will keep His promises (more on this in the next installment, if it seems a little “odd” to you).

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HopeOver the past 20-odd years, I’ve had a number of opportunities to teach and/or counsel high school youth groups, along with some additional experience w/ folks struggling with addiction recovery (groups that have more in common that you might think).  One of the common topics that I’ve found that these people have struggled with is the concept of decoupling forgiveness from the consequences of sin.

“If you have forgiven me, then things must go back to the way things used to be…”, so the argument goes.  “If you are still going to treat me different/punish me, then you really haven’t forgiven me,” is cry of the addict, and it is the siren call of the addicts’ enablers in allowing the abuse to continue.  In addictive/abusive relationships, it is quite common for the abusers to manipulate those around them by taking a key component of Jesus’ teaching about living in the Kingdom – the concept of forgiveness – and twisting into something antithetical to its purpose.  As the saying goes “the best lies are the ones that contain the most truth”..

And without a good grounding in the Word, it is easy to fall for this lie, which is why so many do.  And, as so many of the key threads of Jesus’ teaching do, the decoupling of forgiveness and consequences begins in the Garden of Eden.

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