Updated: Aug 26, 2022
I’ve only recently discovered Chipotle. The rest of you have known for years. I just love how I can pick from a vast assortment of tasty options to custom-design the ideal bowl (my fav). Similarly, a good friend wanted to celebrate her milestone birthday at a Gucci Tampa restaurant where you pay the price of a typical entree for each side. I can tell you that final bill was super steep. Yes, picking a la carte options is seemingly delightful but can be really costly. The very same is true of God.
Jesus, friend to sinners.
I was at a gathering recently and someone piped up about Jesus.
With indignant certainty, she said something like, "God doesn't want to send anyone to hell. Jesus would never exclude people that way."
This assertion was a wee bit off. Actually, way, way off. It's true that God doesn't want anyone going to hell. He doesn't send them. They send themselves by rejecting His get out of hell free option, Jesus Christ.
Jesus is indeed a friend to sinners. While Jesus Himself was condemned by the religious elite for hanging with riffraff, Jesus nonetheless exhorted those sinners to turn from their sin and laid out rather unpleasant consequences if we ignored God's law.
I don't know why we seem to overlook this, but we do.
Jesus actually raised the bar of what constitutes sin by addressing motives and thoughts. Jesus pointed to Himself as the only possible remedy, while still telling us to obey the law and seek holiness with His considerable assistance, also to simply avoid the destructive real-life consequences of sin.
A posture of humble dependence is really the only thing that makes any sense at all.
We don't like the idea of Jesus, Prince of Peace and Love, laying down any conditions, pronouncing any judgments, or excluding anyone. Both Christian believers and unbelievers alike prefer to think of this unconditionally loving, universally soft-spoken, open-armed Jesus—but that's just not accurate.
While God is love, He is also God, and He alone determines the terms of our relationship with Him. I need only read The Book to see a more complete picture of God.
Those of us who are Christians need to be clear on this, too. The Bible indicates there are real-life implications--here and in eternity--for our sin. Sometimes, extremely grave, apart from God's mercy and grace. I have experienced it. Have you?
Is this life in a broken world, active punishment, basic consequences, or God lifting his hand of grace and mercy? Does it matter? Yep.
Correctly diagnosing the problem determines the solution.
In Twelve Step programs they say, "a God of your understanding." I like to say, "Yes, a God of your understanding, not of your invention." The assumption is you will eventually have a better understanding of Who God is, not who we wish He was.
Abusing God's mercy and grace this way magnifies sin and is really hurtful. In other words, YES, Christ suffered and died for the sins of the whole world, but as Paul states emphatically, this isn't carte blanche to keep on sinning. In fact, it's an all the more urgent call to obedience, out of love for the One who saved our skin willingly. Moreover, in Christ, we're empowered to resist sin by the power of the Holy Spirit, and as we struggle, we also have the gift of ongoing repentance, restitution, and forgiveness, so we don't have an excuse.
Think of the particularly patient, loving, and long-suffering friend or spouse who is taken advantage of or mistreated. Over time, if the offender never comes clean, apologizes, or does come clean and then goes right on injuring, the relationship may be irreparably damaged or even broken. Such impunity indicates something is terribly wrong.
While in Christ, we are never separated from His love or condemned to the hell of hell (though some denominations make a good case you can lose your salvation or call into question your initial status--Yikes!), our own conscience or wanton disregard for Him cannot help but harm our ongoing harmony within our own hearts or with Him, and likely, others. I've lived this, too.
The truth will set you free.
I suggest you pause soon to read The Gospel According to Matthew--or any number of other Bible books--to get a sharper image of The (one and only) Messiah. I know that might be a tall order in this moment, especially if you just don't want to know the truth. Denial is more than just a river in Egypt, it's a dead end. Yet, I encourage you to consider that God's motivation is always love and that as I've said many time before, His loving intent is to minimize needless suffering.
Before I finally "inked the deal" with Jesus twenty-two years ago this year, I wrestled with what it would cost me in terms of behaviors or attitudes I wasn't all that interested in surrendering. Regular readers know I actually cried aloud, "I don't want to be a nun!" during the "negotiations." No, I don’t want to be a nun, though some aspects of the nun lifestyle are more appealing today than ever.
Still, what I really wanted--and sometimes still do--is an la carte kind of Jesus, the one who didn't have so many inconvenient limits, expectations, rules of engagement. He's a package deal, one whose constituent parts cannot be purchased separately.
Even now, God routinely brings things to mind that call for attention or fixing. Even now, I sometimes haggle with God, holding out, or pouting, or simply ignoring the voice.
While He may be sad or mad for my defiance, like any good parent with a wayward child, I'm really the one who suffers the most. Sin is its own punishment.
How to know you're out of line.
The Christian life is not easy and can be full of intense challenges even if you're squarely in God's will. But there is definitely a sense of conviction or uneasiness or just plain facts that can warn you're out of line. No doubt. On a national scale, you can easily assess our status if what I'm saying is true.
Regardless, if you don't rely on the Word of God as a mirror, you can sense this dis-ease in your own conscience or spirit.
The voice isn't usually audible--though that can happen. It can be a simple uneasiness, anxiety, depression, more intense discomfort, or real agony. It can be consequences, like a broken relationship, a lost job, obesity, missed opportunities, a health diagnosis, you name it, that signals "the wages of sin is death." Nationally, the stakes are considerably higher. Sin leads to the death of something…you can count on it. That's why God--the author of all life--wants so much for us to choose Him and His way. It's not so much that God is punishing you for your waywardness, as you've punished yourself for doing your own thing.
My own resistance has been so costly to me personally.
I can tell you today that we're at a distinct disadvantage "negotiating" with the God of the universe. He wins every time. The upside is it's really a win-win, because God is good and loves me a lot. He wants to protect me from the many ill-effects of ignoring or plowing through His loving guardrails.
Pesky problem areas.
Now, for those of you who feel the nudge, let's look at just a couple of common pesky and prevalent problem areas afflicting our society now.
At the risk of irritating just about everyone, I have to point out that this is a VERY important issue for God. Jesus Himself addressed the issue bluntly on a few occasions and it's strongly warned against elsewhere including actual threats of judgment for believers and non-believers alike (e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:4-7).
Why such a big deal?
Sexual intimacy is the most precious and sacred expression of love and a picture of God's relationship with us. Our bodies are not our own and they, too, are intended to be pure and holy. Since sexual immorality usually involves someone else, our behavior is also injuring someone else for the sake of self-serving pleasure, consensual or not.
The kind of sex folks are having these days is not love. It’s just not. It may be in search of love, or scarcity of love, or even misdirected hate, but it’s not love.
For our sake and the sake of all humanity, God wants us to honor His definition of what sexual intimacy looks like. Violating His perfect ideal has practical implications for everyone--I could go on and on, ya well know.
I'm not going to bother defining sexual immorality because the Bible does a fine job, but mostly, I think we have a fine sense of it ourselves if we honestly tune into what our hearts, minds, bodies, and reality itself tell us.
I personally believe that nearly every love song ever written is really about God, though God also blessed us with human love, including the romantic variety, including sex.
Sexuality 101, part 1: No sex outside of marriage.
I know this sounds downright bizarre to some, especially now, but it's for real, people and for real people. I could easily write a book on the real-life consequences I personally suffered before becoming a Christian with lasting after-affects. God is gracious and has repaired some, but not all of it, following my turnaround.
If you're a Christian and still trying to have it your way, I think the consequences are worse!
Today, I look around and see so many of my peers, single or divorced, desperate for love, acceptance, and intimacy, acting accordingly, paradoxically and predictably deepening their feelings of self-loathing, rejection, and isolation. Others are tormented with insatiable and distorted desires that distract or destroy. And once that horse is out of the gate, it's hard to wrangle him back in there.
It's not that there isn't grace for all that, but it's so costly.
If only we had confidence that our Dad truly does not want to spoil our fun! He wants only good things for us.
As a society, we're paying an exorbitant cost for our defiance and since we're unwilling to acknowledge the real source of the problem (sin), we cannot fix it.
Remedy at any point in the process? Jesus Christ first and the right, God-given spouse second--the only rightful and truly satisfying wells to fulfill these normal human longings.
There's no magic to this. Just trust and obey.
2. Money and greed.
Another wildly unpopular topic. Really, who wants to talk about the money issue? Anyone? God does. Money and possessions are discussed more than just about any other topic in the Bible. It's also one of the most corrosive forces in American society today.
Jesus' familiar encounter with the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27) neatly sums up some important God principles about money:
You can have it all and be a swell guy and still have a God-shaped void (v.17).
Ain't really nobody good but God (v.18).
You can be all sorts of nice, and be a really conscientious rule follower, but if money (or anything) is more important to you than God, you cannot really follow Him (v.19-20).
The attachment to money and material belongings reveals a lot about our heart, priorities, and attitudes about ourselves and others (v.20-22).
Jesus has a special affinity and concern for the poor and wants us to bless others sacrificially (v.21).
Thus, the antidote to the divisive poison of greed is sacrificial generosity (v.21).
God sees and judges our true heart motives and has compassion for our misguided priorities and devastating impacts, including keeping us from Him (v.21).
We condemn ourselves by material attachments and greed (v.22).
Wealth makes it challenging for people to enter the Kingdom of God here and hereafter (v.23-27).
I want to climb up on my soap box and call out Jeff Bezos types. Jeff's net worth is $162 billion and yet the median Amazon salary was just over $29,000 in 2020.
Will God, who has always had a vocal passion for the poor, look blindly on indefinitely?
Could the worker shortage--particularly affecting teachers, healthcare, travel, and service industries—increasingly upending our way of life, have anything to do this this dramatic disparity? Are these mere consequences or God's active punishment on a prosperous nation indifferent to the needs of their neighbors here and elsewhere?
Even if we're not Jeff Bezos, we can examine ourselves. I had bags of nice kid clothes my boys outgrew overnight and was planning on bringing them a consignment shop. As a single mother I can use the money, but I felt discomfort. Had I not gotten lots of free clothes in my lifetime? Is there someone poor who could really use these clothes? I gave them away.
What must happen to prompt a change of behavior if not our heart toward God?
Years ago, I read an article on criminal justice for a college psychology class and it said discipline is most effective if its swift and severe. That sounds awful.
Note, too, that 1 Corinthians 5:9-13 actually tells Christians to “purge” Christians who are willfully sinning in a few specific ways and sexually immoral or greedy top the list. Seriously. His words, not mine.
Mind you, sexual morality and money are only two of many areas with which we humans seem to struggle the most and are really eroding the fabric of our world. Sadly we are way out of alignment in other areas, too. Legalism and hypocrisy within the church are ongoing issues. Another is our attitude toward the value of human life which expresses itself in a number of distressing ways I don't have time to tackle here but will soon.
The problem with any sin, and particularly the two I highlighted here, is that they can feel good enough for a spell to numb us to their damaging effects until it's too late. The GOOD NEWS is that it’s never too late with Jesus until we’re dead or He returns (which can happen anytime). Jesus can redeem anything or anyone.
Is it really possible that so many of our personal and societal problems really boil down to simply being out of alignment with God? The Bible and personal experience say yes. If God is real and we are under His righteous judgement, do we deserve to be blasted by His mighty super finger? Yes, but thank God for God, there's good news.
The Good News.
Our God, a perfectly loving father, offers a solution to our human dilemma: Jesus Christ. But in order to accept this love gift and enjoy the benefits we must recognize and admit our need. This usually involves repentance, restitution, and the restoration, renewal, and freedom that comes with forgiveness and right relationship with Him and others.
Indeed, there is amazing grace available to us when (not if) we fail. But we don't want to continue to suffer ever increasing and worsening consequences, do we?
One day, those of us who have accepted God's gracious love gift will join Him in heaven, a real Xanadu, "an idealized place of great or idyllic magnificence and beauty" (Oxford Languages).
One day, He'll suddenly return to clean up this hot mess.
We want to be ready.
Love, joy, grace, and peace in Christ,
This week, the prayer follows the tool. You'll see why.
Takeway Tool: Take some paper and draw two columns. Read the Gospel of Matthew. As you read, make note of Jesus' words of 1) loving comfort, encouragement, and 2) confrontation, commands, and warnings. Note: Sometimes the love and confrontation will be combined!
Prayer: Jesus, thank you for loving me so much that you offered yourself freely in payment for my sin. Please forgive me for abusing your love by my sin. Please restore and renew my life and help me live in alignment with your Spirit. Thank you.
Action: If you're interested in exploring this topic further, I urge you to consider hosting a CU Fire Retreat. These 1.5 days simulcast events you can host in your home, church, or elsewhere, are designed to more closely connect you to God and others, paving the way for personal and national revival. You can learn more by visiting ChristianUnion.org/fire.