Chapter 2 - A Scandalous Freedom by Steve Brown
A summary of the book. . .
“A SCANDALOUS FREEDOM”
by Steve Brown
Martin Luther said, “We must preach the good news to each other lest we become discouraged.” Jesus said we would know the truth and would be free indeed. As believers we oftentimes find a disconnect between what is supposed to be true and what really is. Much of the “freedom” Christians proclaim has the feel of a stuffed dog – it looks nice, but it has become only a semblance of the real thing. When Jesus used the word “free,” he employed a term that means “liberation from bondage.” If Jesus said we’re free, we ought to accept His declaration at face value and run with it – but we don’t. We continue in our bondage by obeying rules, doing religious things, and being nice – as such, we have sold our heritage of freedom for a mess of pottage.
This might come as a surprise to you – if freedom doesn’t include the “freedom not to obey,” then it isn’t real freedom. The Bible is quite radical – Paul writes, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor 3:17). Paul said, “You were called to freedom, but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence” (Gal 5:13). He did not want them to use their freedom to sin, but they could – why? Because they were FREE! Sometimes we destroy freedom by saying, “We must be careful with this freedom thing – people will take advantage of it.” But that is not freedom – that is a new kind of bondage.
The truth is, what repeatedly kills our witness is “pretense,” not freedom. It would be so refreshing to say to our unbelieving friends, “I really mess up sometimes, but let me tell you something really good: “God is still quite fond of me! Wouldn’t it be great if you belonged to a God like that?” If we were really honest, the world would beat a path to our door. I strongly stand on what the Bible says about freedom – let me give you a radical statement: “You are really and truly and completely free!” There is no if, and, or but – you are FREE! You can obey or disobey. . . you can run from Christ or you can run to Christ. . . you can be faithful or unfaithful. . . you can cry, cuss, spit, laugh, sing, and dance. You are really FREE!
Legend has it Abraham Lincoln went to a slave market and bought a young gal being auctioned off – as he walked off with his “property,” he turned to the woman and said, “You are free.” The woman didn’t understand what being free really meant, so she questioned Lincoln. In the end, she asked him if she could do whatever she wanted to do. . . and go wherever she wanted to go? Lincoln responded, “Yes, it means you are really free and can go wherever you want to go.” The woman then responded with tears in her eyes, “Then I think I will go with you.” That is what God has done for us. That is what the Christian faith is all about – we’ve been bought with a price by a new Master – and He has set us “FREE!” Really FREE!
Being free means “God will love me no matter what – His love and grace are without condition!” But that does not mean that God is “pleased” with behaviors that are contrary to His will – God is only pleased when we trust Him and live by faith (Heb 11:6). God’s fondness for us is dependent on His love and the cross of Christ – not on my earning it. It is critically important that the believer understand that if you are not faithful, God will not withdraw His blessing from you nor turn His back on you (2 Tim 2:13). God will love you and bless you without condition, without reservation, and without equivocation. You are indeed FREE! If you feel no attraction to a God who loves you without condition, there is something wrong with you. We respond with love to those who love us – if someone likes us, we generally like them back. On the other hand, if someone is always judging, dishonoring, and criticizing us, we want to get as far away from them as we can. There is something extremely attractive about love. Not only do we feel attracted to someone who loves us, we find ourselves wanting to please them. Paul says, don’t you know that “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Rom 2:4). The truth of the matter is this – the more we experience God’s love and grace, the more we want to please Him.
Satan obviously doesn’t want you to believe that you are really “free!” And those he most often uses to steal your freedom are “other believers.” Many Christians will require things of you that God doesn’t require – they will tell you that God is angry when He isn’t, and will try and make you feel ashamed and guilty when you shouldn’t feel ashamed and guilty. When the new Christian tries to get out from under the burden of rules, regulations, and righteousness, many churches try to shame them into continuing! This kind of behavior made Jesus angry. He said of them, “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to bear them; Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees! You are hypocrites!” (Mt 23:4, 15). Says Brown: “I believe we show our depravity less by the bad stuff we do than by our reversion to Pharisaism. It is not our sin that is so bad (Jesus fixed that on the cross), but our stiffness – there is something about religion that can make you cold, critical, and mean. It is a tendency we have to fight all the time.”
Freedom threatens “religious people” – it makes it more difficult for them to maintain control. Jesus was not big into “control.” He said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant; even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve (Mt 20:26-28). Sometimes we think the only thing that will make a Christian “go” is a bit of fear and guilt. Jesus wasn’t into the “authority model” so much either – He said, “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over people and exercise authority over them – it shall not be so among you” (Mt 20:25-26). Brown writes, “Freedom scares religious folks to death because a lot of ego goes into being right and righteous – something in us causes us to feel good when we condemn others” – it’s our fleshy nature! The problem with most of us Christians is that we are into “performance” and “perfectionism” – we like being able to “measure up” and feel good about ourselves. In some perverted way we actually think better of ourselves when we see other people fail and stumble – how sick is that!? – yet the reality is, another person’s behavior has nothing to do with how good or bad we are. . . most often it merely brings out the evil in our own hearts. Thus, the Christian life is not about feeling good about “ourselves” (pride) – it is about feeling good about “Jesus!” (1-24)
If there is no God, there is no value, and we live in a meaningless universe. If there is a God, He is in charge – if there isn’t, then you are. What you believe or don’t believe about God has profound implica-tions for your freedom. What you believe about God’s nature will largely determine how you live. Many of us don’t live free because we don’t believe in a God who loves us enough to give us the gift of freedom. Many believe God is against freedom, opposed to laughter, and easily angered, so we create gods who rob us of our freedom and joy, such as –
1. The magical Santa Claus God – These individuals bring their own agenda to God, expecting him to bless and honor it, and then feel devastated when He refuses to play their little game. What they fail to realize and accept is the fact that “God is sovereign” – we don’t get a vote – we are asked to accept “His will” in life. The God of the Bible isn’t one who“blesses our agenda,” and promises to make us healthy, wealthy, and wise – if that is your God you have a serious problem. Millions of Christians live with discouragement, bitterness, and anger simply because they worship a god who doesn’t exist. As such there is a large gap for many Christians between what they “expect” from their Christian faith, and what they actually “experience.” They have grown up expecting to see “dramatic evidence” of God working in their lives – if they don’t see it, they feel disappointed, betrayed and often guilty. If God exists only to bless our dreams, hopes, and desires, we will either turn away from Him or create a new god.
2. The child-abuser God – When our dreams shatter, we tend to create a child-abuser god. Thisgod makes everything you enjoy sinful, and takes great delight in messing up your life – all for your own good, of course. This god gives failure to those who dare to step out of line. If you believe in such an ogre god, you will live in perpetual fear of offending Him; if you worship a God who is out to get you, you will never be free – you won’t laugh, sing and dance, and you won’t cuss or spit! Desire so often proves fruitless, so it seems utterly absurd to continue to hunger or yearn for anything any longer. To hope is to become vulnerable to “more pain.” These Christians talk more about God’s requirements than His grace. If God is really a monster, then when bad stuff happens to me, I will become more bound, enslaved, and angry. If, however, I understand that God is my Father, that He loves me without reservation, and that He knows exactly what He is doing, I will learn how to live in freedom. I might get angry at first, but in the end, I will run to Him and eventually will be able to accept His way in my life, and do so with joy and freedom.
3. The absent God – When you try and fail to worship a god who can’t be pleased, then you often create a god who has gone away on vacation –this is the god of “deism,” quite popular in the 18th century. Since God has left the building, he might as well not exist. The problem with the uninvolved, uncaring, unfeeling god is that he tends to make one uninvolved, uncaring, and unfeeling. This most miserable of all theological views robs one of passion–at least those who believe in the “Santa Claus God” can laugh and sing... and at least the “child-abuser God” solicits some kind of action... but, sadly, believers in the “deist idol” do nothing.
If the bad stuff in life comes from (or is allowed by) a “monster God,” I will continue to seethe with anger. But if bad stuff comes from a “loving, sovereign God,” at some point I will rejoice and be free – but don’t expect freedom to come without a struggle. Until a Christian struggles with the issue of freedom, he or she will remain frightened, obsessive and bound. One has to struggle. Unless you are living a Christian life of denial, you know that many pieces of evidence suggest that the God who is, does not always look as benevolent and as kind as we would like. Most Christians blandly accept the clichés of the faith without dealing with the complexities – “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so” is fine until the doctor tells you that you have cancer, that your business has gone down in flames, that your child has died, or that your spouse has left you for someone better looking and more understanding.
The mind believes only what it has “learned” – the heart believes what it has “experienced.” Most of the ideas we have about God arise from a visceral rather than a cerebral source. If our experience has primarily been a painful one, we will believe in an abusive God who has inflicted that pain. Most of us draw our idea of God from the “experiences” (good or bad) of our lives. Biblical Christians should find out about God from “Jesus” – if something we think about God violates what we know of Jesus, what He taught, and how He acted, then that thought “lies.” In short, if you want to know what God is really like – look at Jesus. By looking at Jesus, we discover two crucial facts about God that significantly impact our views of freedom and grace: He is KIND and He is GOD. If God is the vindictive, angry, abusive deity that many tell us He is, then we have a serious problem – we will live in constant fear, and with very good reason (Heb 10:31). Conversely, a “user-friendly god” is not God – that kind of god exists only in our imagination. He certainly is not the God of the Bible.
Many Christians frequently create and worship a benevolent “grandfather god” out of their own desire, because he is a far safer, far less terrifying god. But the God of the Bible is both a “kind and stern God” (Rom 11:22). Jesus talked about a “narrow way” that leads to life, and a broad and easy way that leads to destruction. And He taught clearly about God’s judgment, hell, and the wrath of God. That, dear friend, is not a safe God. At the same time, Jesus showed an incredible understanding of human weakness and sin. He said, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest; I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Mt 11:28-30). So is God confused? No! Only by understanding both the rule and the kindness of God do we find great personal balance and freedom. Notice the “bridge” between wrath and love – “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). So what does this mean? If you are a Christian, it means that God will never be angry with you again, because He imputed Christ’s righteousness to you! How can God be angry at perfection? “There is no condemnation to those in Christ” (Rom 8:1). God is both scary (holy!) and compassionate (loving!). Now, if you really believed that God was good, and that He was in charge of this mess, and that He never grew angry with you – how would you act? Therefore, if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed! (Jn 8:36). (26-48)
Are you getting much better than you were? With all of the teaching you have received about being obedient, holy and sanctified, is it working in your life? If you are honest, you will probably admit that “you are not getting much better.” Bryan Chapell in his book “Holiness by Grace” tells about the 17th century pastor Walter Marshall who said many in his congregation were “killing themselves in their efforts to be godly.” The issue of “getting better” is not the point – our “relationship with God” is the point. When we are obsessed with being better instead of being consumed with God’s love and grace, we become prideful if we can pull it off and self-centered if we can’t. The greatest cause for our “not getting better” is our obsession with not getting better – there is a better way of getting better than “trying harder!” Sanctification becomes a reality in those believers who don’t obsess over their own sanctification. Holiness hardly ever becomes a reality until we “care more about Jesus than about holiness” (performance). Writes Steve Brown –
I’m about as good as I’m going to get, and I’m tired of trying. There is hardly anything that will beat you down and rob you of your freedom more than “your efforts” to get better. Writes C. S. Lewis about people trying to live by the law – Either we give up trying to be good, or else we become very unhappy. . . the more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier.
Paul addressed the problem of “antinomianism” (living with “no law”) when he wrote: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? No! While perfectionism (living by the law) considerably inhibits our freedom, so does antinomian-ism. The issue we have to resolve is this – we aren’t going to get much better; that is, we aren’t going to get much better by our own “self-powered efforts.” When you give up on trying to “make yourself better,” you will begin to identify with Paul’s problem – “he wanted to do good, but when he tried, he ended up doing the very thing he didn’t want to do” (Rom 7:15ff). Our focus must be on “grace,” because we so desperately need it! By the way, “trying to be perfect” is a good thing, because if we never exasperate ourselves by trying, we would never know that “we can’t be perfect!” Here’s another good that comes from all this – the fact that you want to be better, is a sign that you belong to Christ.
The “desire for perfection” indicates the presence of something in us that gives us that desire. That something is the “Holy Spirit” – He is the one who brings us to the point of “giving up” on what we simply cannot do. Unfortunately, the desire to be better can become a “monster” that robs us of our freedom – the downside of desiring to be better is “perfectionism” (i.e., performance). When Paul honestly admitted his inability to do the good he wanted to do, he faced up to his own helplessness and hopelessness.
Do you remember “Sisyphus” of Greek mythology? He revealed Zeus’s rape of Aegina to her father, and as his punishment, Zeus doomed him for all of eternity to roll a huge stone up a hill, only to have it roll down again each time he tried. Perfectionist, thy name is Sisyphus! Don’t you wish you could just leave the stupid stone at the bottom of the hill and walk away? Are you tired to trying and trying and trying and trying. . . yet never getting much better? You’ll find great relief and freedom in “giving up!” By the way, you greatly diminish your freedom when you “pretend” to others that you are accomplishing perfection. It is called “hypocrisy,” and it is quite injurious to your freedom.
The only people who “get better” are people who know that, if they never get better, God will love them anyway! The corollary to that principle is this: God will not only love you if you don’t get better, He will teach you that “getting better is not the issue” – “His love is the issue!” Martin Luther wrote a letter to his friend “George Spalatin,” a Christian brother who worked with him in the Reformation. Spalatin was suffering terribly from enormous guilt about some bad advice he had given to someone – he was devastated and depressed. Luther wrote to him: My faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hardboiled sinners. . . Christ must be a Savior and Redeemer from real, great, grievous and damnable transgressions. . . yea, from the very greatest and most shocking sins.
How often have we, like Luther’s friend, spent hours “grieving over our lack of perfection”? Our freedom has been taken away because we thought we couldn’t be free unless we were perfect! Guilt has only one purpose – to drive us to the throne of grace, where we allow God, if He deems to do so, to change us and make us better. When we allow guilt to do anything other than that, we become perfectionists – miserable, guilt ridden, afraid, and lonely. There is really something quite “neurotic” about Christians who spend most of their time “trying desperately to please God” who is already very pleased! They don’t have any freedom! Writes Steve Brown: “When I stopped working so hard at being better and turned to Jesus, that’s when, almost without noticing it, I started getting just a little bit better. So I have decided to get as close as I can to Jesus, who will always love me even if I don’t get any better!”
The closer we get to God, the more we see the truth about ourselves and how very far off the destination really is. The truth of the matter is this: “We are better because we are closer to Him; but the closer we get to Him, the less we feel like we are getting better” – it may sound crazy, but it is true. Rather than obsessing about our goodness God asks us to hang out with Him (walk with Him) and see where He leads us – He promises He will never leave us or forsake us. So we can quit worrying about getting behind in our holiness and sanctification. The more we worry about that, the worse we are going to get, but the more we abide with Him, the better we will get – even if we don’t know it! Paul tells us, “what God begins, He brings to completion!” (Phil 1:6). That means God’s beginning in our lives is the absolute promise that He will continue working to completion. We just have to trust and believe that “God’s Spirit” is busy at work in us making us like His Son (Phil 2:13). (50-73)
The institution of “religion” can be a very hard taskmaster – it can demand your soul by putting you in a prison of guilt and shame. Religion can make people mean, angry, critical, judgmental, frustrated, miserable and neurotic. Worst of all, religion can keep people from God – it becomes a “substitute” for a relationship with God; thus it will kill your freedom. Jesus reserved His harshest criticism for the religious folks who “tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders” (Mt 23:4). Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives!” (Lk 4:18). The good news of the gospel is that it offers people freedom, healing, meaning, immortality, and forgiveness – the gospel is not a “misery pill!”
The good news is that Christ “frees us” from the need to obnoxiously focus on our goodness, our commitment, and our correctness. Religion has made us obsessively obnoxious! The truth is, the only ones who will ever “get any better” are those who know God won’t be angry with them if they don’t get better! Someone has described the church in America as a nice man standing in front of nice people, telling them that God calls them to be “nicer” – which is mere “moralism!” By the way, Buddhism is probably better at producing moralists than Christianity. When we become moralists, we miss the good news that “our righteousness” isn’t the point – that is nothing more than performance-based religion! In other words, we buy into the view that religion’s sole purpose is to “make people good.” Many will argue, “I know atheists who are really nice people, and Christians who are hypocrites” – if the essence of the Christian faith is “morality,” then they have a point.
Remember, Paul told us that Abraham was given “imputed righteousness!” — so were we! Jesus took care of sin on the cross, and that means all of our sins are forgiven – past, present, and future! Conversely, He has given us “His righteousness!” People call it “cheap grace!” — listen, if it wasn’t cheap, you and I couldn’t afford it! If it cost us one thing – commitment, obedience, etc. – it would still be in the store on the shelf. It is a “gift” that makes us righteous – and it didn’t come cheap – it was purchased with the “blood of Christ!”
One of the greatest sins Christians commit is “constantly focusing on their sin.” When Martin Luther told his friend Melanchthon, “Why don’t you just go out and sin so you will have something to repent of,” he was encouraging his friend to “stop focusing on himself!” Our sin is not the issue! Fixating on flying purple elephants (which is akin to fixating on the law) won’t help! But focusing on the God of grace and love most certainly will! One of the problems of cultural Christianity is that we focus on “fixing people” (focusing on their sinfulness); no wonder pagans don’t want to be around us! Jesus said to His disciples, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20) – the Pharisees were the most obedient religious folks in Jewish culture, and were theologically correct in almost everything they believed and taught — yet that “wasn’t good enough!” The issue is this – it is not “our righteousness” that is the issue, it is “God’s righteousness!” Now go out and dance, and do it with gusto and with freedom! (74-92)
Religious professionals have to wear a number of “masks” to keep their jobs. The masks we wear bind us to a role that kills the very freedom Christ died to give us. Sadly, most of us view ourselves from the perspective held by others – this constitutes our “self image” – as such, we deal with life based on this “faulty self-image.” If we don’t know our true selves, we will live in a prison of “false expectations;” that means we will try to live up to “others’ expectations” instead of living out who we really are. Jesus is not into good or bad self-images – He’s into reality! The only valuable self-image is the one that reflects the reality of who we truly are; anything other than that, good or bad, is a lie – and we eventually will have to face the truth. Because “grace runs downhill,” it is very important that you not stake out your territory at the top of the hill. If you come to the place where you think you are wonderful and good and spiritual, when you really aren’t, your “wake-up day” is coming!
A common mask for many of us former legalists is the “mask of guilt.” Whenever we wear that mask, we are horribly bound, and our prison bars make us miserable and depressed. The masks we wear – be them masks of unreality, superiority, or inferiority – take away our freedom. Start by trying to deal with the “truth” of who you are. As Paul wrote, “For by the grace given to me, I say to everyone not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; rather be sober in your thinking” (Rom 12:3). Many of us don’t feel that good about ourselves. The prayer God almost always answers is this: “Lord, show me Yourself” – He’ll show you how much you are “loved!” After that, and only after that, does God show you the stuff you need to know about who you really are. You can handle any truth when you know “you are really loved and valued!”
A true self-image includes some “positive and negative” aspects. It is extremely important that you get your self-image from Jesus – He will never lie to you, and He will always love you. Don’t ask your enemy to tell you the truth about yourself; instead go to Jesus, He loves you and will tell you the absolute truth… and He will always temper that truth with His kindness and His grace. Once you know “God’s unconditional love” and the “truth about yourself” – you will rest easy, and you will be free! You may think if people really knew you, they wouldn’t want to be around you, therefore you should just keep on pretending. But “that’s a lie” from the pit of hell!
When the requirements for acceptance in any particular group, require us to act in certain ways, we tend to fake it. Allow me to let you in on a secret – “Nobody fits the mold!” When we give the impression that we have it altogether, and live 100 miles from any known sin… when we seem to be anything other than what we are – sinners saved by grace – we do a great disservice to one another, and we become bound to the masks instead of freedom in Christ! Here are the facts – You need me and I need you! If we aren’t honest with each other, those needs will go unmet! Christ can give you the freedom to “stop pretending” to be who you are not! Of course, superficial Christians will probably reject you… and religious leaders in control will probably kick you out of their groups. . . but if that should happen, “Rejoice and Celebrate!” You have now determined who is and who is not playing games with your mind and your heart. You will discover that it took a lot of “emotional gasoline” to keep that mask on – and now you don’t have to do that anymore! It is also important that you understand that “none of our biblical heroes” were exempt from the necessity of the cross! They were “all sinners” just like you and me! If you read the Bible carefully, you will discover that they frequently revealed their sinfulness when they wrote.
The Church should be a place “you can say anything” and know you won’t get kicked out. . . where we can confess our sins knowing others will help us. . . where we can disagree and still be friends. It ought to be the one place in the world where we don’t have to wear masks. By the way, if we took our masks off, the world would flock to our doors! Because “genuine freedom” is an attractive commodity! You can’t be “free” and wear a mask in the presence of unbelievers. . . and our witness is incredibly important! God does not call us to witness about “our goodness” – we are called to witness about the “freedom and joy” we have found in Christ! Listen, if people think they have to “be good” to come to Christ, they will run in the opposite direction! If we take our masks off, we will attract people to Christ! Wearing masks simply chases them away! Even though you’re afraid to – take off your mask! and “enjoy the freedom God died to give you!” (94-116)
Augustine said: “Do you wish to be GREAT? Then begin by BEING!” Steve Brown writes, “I have spent most of my life trying to find people to put on a pedestal – and God has spent most of my life destroying the pedestals and reminding me that nobody belongs on one except Him!” Anytime we make another human being more than “a sinner desperately in need of God’s grace,” God takes great delight in showing us the truth about our heroes. It is very dangerous to worship at any altar other than God’s! Some of the biographies of famous Christians should never have been written, because they don’t tell the bad as well as the good – as such, they don’t inspire excellence, because they are a “lie” and will only make you feel guilty. The truth is, God uses sinful, flawed human beings, because those are the only kinds of human beings He has available to use. One of the wonderful characteristics about the Bible is that God was very careful to allow us to see the greatness and the smallness of biblical characters. Throughout Scripture, we encounter heroes of the faith with major flaws. . . serious sin. . . and embarrassing failures – Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Rahab, Paul, Peter, etc. The Bible tells the story of “flawed” human beings, and it also tells the story of how God used those flawed human beings in exceptional ways. As Paul said, “We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power belongs to God – not us!” (2 Cor 4:7-10). There are no super-Christians!
When we deify others, we do a great disservice to them; we rob them of their humanness, forcing them to remain on the very pedestal that will eventually destroy them. When we deify leaders, we force them to live a lie, a lie that will make them both defensive and shallow. The late Jack Miller, founder of World Harvest Mission, often said that “only the repentant have anything to teach God’s people.” In fact, writes Steve Brown, “the most genuinely repentant person in a congregation should probably be its pastor!” When leaders become puffed up with their own importance, their lack of freedom and their loneliness is as much our fault as it is theirs. When Christian leaders act as if they have a hotline to God, don’t listen to them – by affirming that kind of nonsense, you allow the leader to stay in a prison where it becomes impossible for him to truly be free. When leadership lacks humility and grace, it can lead to the pride that goes before a fall. Says Brown: “The only qualification for joining the ‘Christian Club’ is to be unqualified.”
Charles and Janet Morris in the book “Jesus in the Midst of Success,” describe a number of successful Christians who have learned to live by a radically different definition of success. One leader they describe is Doug Cobb, founder of the Cobb Report and the president of a venture capital company. They write: Unfortunately, when “luck” seems to be smiling on us, unseen spiritual dangers often lurk beneath the surface. Cobb, a Christian, says the reason for that is no mystery: “Success blinds you to your true spiritual condition; people think you’re wonderful.” Even as a believer it’s easy to drift into a self-confident independence. It becomes a habit to be always the benefactor, never the supplicant. As one pastor says, tongue in cheek, “It’s hard not to feel superior when you really are superior.”
Wise leaders lead, but they don’t take themselves so seriously that they consider their decisions the moral equivalent of “God’s decisions.” Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton, was a great man, but His greatness lay in his humility. “What’s wrong with the world?” he once asked. “What’s wrong with the world is ME! God has ordained only one Messiah! You’re not it! I’m not either!” (118-140)
Steve Brown makes “three startling statements” that will help free you from the power you have given to others. They are as follows:
1. You don’t have to pretend to be good, because we all know you’re not. When we confess to one another that we aren’t good people, the necessity of my demonizing you – because I need to feel good about myself – is no longer a necessity. The apostle Paul said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost”. Paul insisted that no Christian could speak as an“outsider”of the human race. Speak the truth (“you’re a sinner!”) and be free! You won’t have to wear a silly mask anymore! What if we really felt that being human was ok? What if we no longer had to pretend that we are good? When you don’t have an agenda but Jesus, you will be convinced that –
* We are a lot worse than we think we are, and God’s grace is a lot bigger than we think it is. * We are really messed up folks whom a sovereign God has decided to love unconditionally. * Grace always runs downhill. * Power really is made perfect in weakness.
2. Christians don’t have to be right. A big disagreement arose in the church at Rome about eating food offered to idols. Paul advised thus: “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:4-5). Don’t demonize those who disagree with you – you will end up encasing yourself in concrete and call it freedom. It is hard for those of us who are right to tolerate those who aren’t. Only people who get it wrong sometimes, and know they get it wrong, find it easy to be tolerant. God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are My ways your ways” (Is 55:8-9). If God says that, then it stands to reason that a fairly good chance exists that anybody who thinks he has it all right – in fact is wrong.
3. We don’t have to fight a battle already won. Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities – and triumphed over them” (Col 2:15). And said, “Take heart, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). Christ is the victor. The battle is already over! God won! There is no contest! We don’t have to fix anything. God doesn’t need our help. He did just fine before we came along, and will do fine long after we are gone. The great thing about being a Christian is that you can forgive, love, and encourage them all, and let God sort it all out. There is a lot of ego involved in being good, and being right. When religion becomes leverage, it ceases to be the religion of Jesus. The gospel of grace takes away the leverage. If God loves me, you can’t manipulate me by threatening to take away your love.
All of us are pretty much alike – we’re all sinful, afraid, lonely, regretful, sometimes doubting, wrong, angry, loving, hateful, selfish, kind, wounded, very human. Nobody can speak as an “outsider” of the human race – we are all sinners – we all have the same problems! (142-190)
Scott Peck tells us that the tendency to avoid problems and emotional suffering is “the primary basis of all human mental illness.” Conversely, Larry Crabb says, “we all have a place of pain… and we try to go anyplace but there; furthermore, in order to get to a place of wholeness, we have to keep on probing and probing at the pain until it gets so bad only God can fix it.” The idea that we as Christians can “avoid pain” is completely unbiblical. What does the Bible teach? Let’s start with Adam and Eve: when they sinned they were “cursed,” and what happened to them affected all of us – men must “work hard” to eat… women must “painfully” bear children… and all creation is subjected to “futility.” Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33). Jeremiah felt so down he wanted to give up. Paul felt so depressed he despaired of life itself. Peter feared others and their opinion of him. And what can we say about Job’s experience with pain, loss, and rejection? The Spanish contemplative of the 16th century, Saint Teresa of Avila, prayed the way many of us may have prayed, “Lord, you would have more friends if you treated the ones you had a little better.” In spite of the fact that “pain and suffering” are a part of our calling, most of us still try to avoid it any way we can. Most of us live our lives trying to make them as pleasant as possible. You think about that.
We should be aware of what happens when we try to “avoid pain” – We fail to discover the depths of God’s faithfulness, and the joy that transcends our circumstances. There is a direct correlation between your willingness to face the darkness of your own pain and your ability to live freely and fully. The freest people in the world are Christians who know that the world is not a nice place – they know about the Fall, about pain, and about sin. And in knowing they find a wonderful freedom. He says to himself, “I’m called to be here and to even suffer sometimes, but I’ll face the reality and dance anyway!” Psalm 23 – “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Thou art with me.” If you play games with evil and death, you will never experience the “sufficiency of Christ,” and you’ll miss out on large chunks of “grace” that could have been yours.
Paul was given a “thorn in the flesh” – Most believe it was some kind of physical malady, but whatever it was, Paul pleaded with God to remove it – “Lord, this thing is destroying me! I can’t stand this thing! Please remove this from me! Lord, if you heal me, I’ll give you all the credit!” Here is God’s reply: “My grace is sufficient for you, My power is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, “Paul, if you didn’t have the wound, you wouldn’t have the power.” One of the most profound realities in life is this: “What we go through is what makes us successful or great.” The difference between an unbeliever and a Christian when they lose a business, face death, or suffer the pain of loss is “the way they handle it.” The world can see the difference Christ makes. So when you experience pain – don’t run! embrace it! It has shown up so that you will find God! Sometimes that’s the only place you can find Him! Remember, nothing in this life is arbitrary – everything happens for a reason – either it drives us to God, or drives us away from God.
I’ve heard it said over and over again, that “Jesus is all you need;” that’s true, but you won’t know it is true until Jesus is all you have. Every broken road leads to God – so, if you refuse to walk on the broken roads, you’ll never get to Him. If you run from pain, you will never know God’s wonderful sufficiency and grace. In the middle of a tragedy, God will show up! And you will discover an exhil-arating freedom and joy you’ve never known. When you lose everything, Jesus invites you to laugh and dance and sing in His presence, knowing that nothing can separate you from Him and His love. That is the “freedom” Jesus wants us to experience! He sets us free from the bondage of misery! So when pain comes – and it will! – run to it! and you will find you have run into the arms of Jesus! Buck up, face it, embrace it, and know that you and Jesus can deal with it! Then you will laugh and dance in the freedom and the reality of God’s sufficiency, and the awesome power that God reveals in your weakness. (142-216)
“I am a failure,” wrote a counselee of Steve Brown, “and it has been good for me to be a failure – I have learned so much from my mistakes, and God has allowed me to see Him in a far different and more profound way than I did before. I praise God that He is in charge of every circumstance.” Steve Brown said: “I affirmed her belief in God’s sovereignty.” My friend Fred Smith has said the difference between Christians and pagans when both fail is that pagans blame luck and Christians blame God – unfortunately, there is some truth to that. But let me tell you about some other truth – many Christians live in a prison of failure, thinking they cannot gain their freedom from that prison. And most of them think they don’t deserve freedom. They have lived in the abnormality of a dark prison for so long they won’t look up at the open door God has given them – an open door into the light of freedom.
Steve Brown tells his Seminary students, “If you don’t deal with your ‘guilt,’ you will end up having a ministry of condemnation.” He reminds them of what Paul wrote: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). I fear too often the church has become an organization of “guilty people” with a “guilty preacher” telling them they should “feel guiltier!” I’m really surprised that any of us ever accomplish anything of note in the name of Christ!
Most Christians never accomplish what God wants them to accomplish because they don’t think they “deserve” God’s good purpose for their lives. Christians often see themselves as bound and helpless sinners, deserving of any punishment an angry God might choose to dish out. A part of that, of course, is true – we don’t deserve anything commendable! We haven’t earned anything good, but that isn’t the whole truth! Consider the faulty reasoning that enslaves us –
Major premise: Christians are undeserving sinners. Minor premise: I’m an undeserving sinner. Conclusion: I deserve nothing but failure.
While there is “some truth” to such logic, it is only “a small part of the story! Quite frankly, despite your sin, your unworthiness, and your rebellion – you’re going to turn out fine. Our problem is that we have misunderstood the “gospel” – we are enormously valuable to God; so valuable that He bought us at the highest price imaginable – the blood of His own Son! And He did that to “set us free” from sin and death! We need to know who we are and feel comfortable with that. Our problem is we give the “law” a condemning power God never intended – First of all, the law of God is simply a schematic for the way the world works; the law of God is the best way to live; and to the degree that you follow it, you will be happy. Second, the law of God is a safeguard – when you walk in a minefield, you might want to know the location of the mines. The positive side of the law brings happiness; the negative side provides protection. Third, the law of God is a sampler – it is no secret the laws of Western Civilization are based on the revealed laws of God in the Bible. Those laws point to a just, compassionate, benevolent society, and to the extent that a society does a reasonably proficient job of living by them, that society will echo the way things get done in heaven. When Jesus said we should pray thus: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” He meant we ought to pray for the “laws of heaven” to be lived out on earth. By the way, things would be a whole lot better if that were to happen.
The “law” was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith (Gal 3:24). Do you know what the law did for you? In the struggle to keep it, you realized you were in trouble – serious trouble. So the law is the “tutor” that brought you to Christ – through the pain of self-revelation, exposed by the law, we came to the throne of grace. The law is not only the “tutor” that brings us to Him, it is also the “glue” that keeps us there. Paul said that when he wanted to do good things, he couldn’t; and when he didn’t want to do bad things, he couldn’t help it. Paul called it an ongoing problem in his life. He cries out to God, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” And then the wonderful answer, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:24). At some point we come to the end of ourselves, and that actually happens quite often – our sin and failure cause us time and again to run to Jesus. We cry out with Paul, “Lord, I’m in trouble! Can You help me?” And Jesus says, “Yes, I can help.” The wonderful truth is, He accepts us no matter how dirty we are! I can’t tell you the number of times I have crept into the throne room of God thinking, “He’s going to really get me this time!” The Lord responds, “Come My child. I was wondering when you would come. I was waiting.” And then we discover that “God’s not angry with us!” How can this be? What an incredible God!
Our relationship with God is not a matter of “reward,” but “love.” Fortunately for us, God doesn’t base our relationship with Him on “our merit” – if He did, who among us could stand? The fact that God bases His relationship with us on “love” means we can enjoy staggering freedom in His presence. We are “free” to be who we are! We don’t have to “perform” to be accepted! There isn’t anything we could do to cause God to “love us less” or “love us more” – nothing! The revelation of your sin – as painful as that is – is a gift from God. God’s “grace” is the point! It is foolish to think we can present a “suitable offering of service” unto the Lord – we simply don’t have the wherewithal to do that. Sometimes God gives us the “gift of obedience,” and sometimes He doesn’t – when God doesn’t, He gives us love and forgiveness. When He does give us the gift of obedience, God also gives us an acute awareness that it wasn’t us – it was Him. Most importantly, God gives us Himself – freely, joyously, and without reservation.
You may be wondering why I left out the guilt, the condemnation, and the promises to get better and better in every way, every day – I left them out because they aren’t in the Bible! We’re all drawn to that stuff, but it simply isn’t there. Something about “religion” will make you into an insecure, self-doubting, failure-producing worm – it happens with the misuse of the law. You can define yourself by your inevitable failure to live up to the standards of the law, or you can define yourself in terms of God’s love, acceptance, and the great value He has put on you. Learn to deal with guilt properly and biblically, because it serves no purpose. Let’s review the faulty reasoning concepts we stated on the last page, and correct them –
Major premise: Christians are undeserving sinners, and I’m an undeserving sinner. Minor premise: God’s grace is bigger than my sin, and His love is bigger than my failure. Conclusion: Therefore, I gratefully accept any blessing He deems proper for me.
If you are not careful, an improper use of the law will confirm your inferiority. When that happens, Satan will rejoice, and you will become as useless as you have come to think you are. Without knowing that God gave us the law as a “gift,” then the freedom and success God desires for us will go wanting. The reason for Tiger Woods golf success can in large part be attributed to what his father told him: “If you stay angry with yourself over a bad shot, you won’t be able to prepare for the next one. That’s the key – play every shot with the same frame of mind and let go of what happened before.” That really is the key to life – one must live life in the present. It is our heritage of freedom. The past is the past, forgiven and redeemed; the future is ours, a gift our Father will give us. God has put us in the present as a place to struggle, succeed or fail, risk, and make a difference. You are free – really free! You are free because you are forgiven and loved. God is for you and controls all the circumstances of your life! So get moving! (218-238)
It is for “freedom” that Christ has set us free; therefore, stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery (Gal 5:1). Something about freedom gets lost when you start “obeying certain rules” in order to attain it. Says Brown: “I’ve been walking with Jesus for a long time, and no doubt I’ve done it wrong a number of times; but there is something to be said for listening to someone who struggles mightily with being free.” I’ve gone down several paths that I would like to spare you. Peter said, “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Pet 2:16). Paul essentially said the same thing: “You were called to freedom; do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh” (Gal 5:13). Paul said, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful” (1 Cor 6:12). In other words, you are really free – but don’t be stupid about it; don’t get bound by your use of freedom.
Says Brown: “If I’ve tried to do anything in this book, it has been to get you away from obsessing over your sin.” The rules are so hard, and there are so many of them. If you get obsessive over rules and laws, you will end up breaking them all. The fact is, one major reason Christians don’t obey is they obsess over their obedience. Here’s the key: Stop making “your goodness” the issue! This isn’t about you and me; it’s about Jesus! When you obsess over anything but “Him” – including being free – you can lose it. Jesus is freedom, and to the degree you stay focused on Him, you will find yourself free!
“God has not given us a spirit of fear” (2 Tim 1:7). “God delivers us from our fears” (Ps 34:4). “We don’t need to be afraid because God is our strength and our song” (Is 12:2). “The more we are loved, the less we fear; there is no fear in love” (1 Jn 4:18). Most of us feel afraid – we feel that we will blow it really bad, so bad we can’t be fixed. We fear losing control and doing something stupid. We fear what others think. The truth is – almost anything you do with God that comes from fear is probably wrong. When you live with fear you will miss the joy of laughing and dancing and God’s presence.
The Bible says a lot about how “our past” can affect our present and our future. Peter says: “You are a chosen race, a people for God’s own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light... you have received mercy” (1 Pet 2:9-10). In other words, your past is your past. The past can take away your freedom. God highly values us and has adopted us into His family – that is our reality, and that is how God wants us to define ourselves. For “freedom” Christ has set us free! (Gal 5:1). Really free people will make themselves “servants to others” that they might win them to Christ (1 Cor 9:19). Free people remain free to give up their freedom. Martin Luther, in his book, The Freedom of a Christian, said, “To make the way smoother for the unlearned (for only them do I serve), I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit – A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; and a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (Lull, p. 586). Regarding our being servants to others – a free mind serves one’s neighbor willingly, not because he feels obligated to do so; he serves out of love, because he is “free to love!” (240-250)