Grace and Truth

I’ve been in a wrestling match for some time now. What have I been wrestling with you ask? A topic of great importance, and the more I struggle with it, the more it’s mulled over, prayed over, talked over, the more I realize how important and central it is to our interactions with others and our understanding how we live in the Kingdom now. This struggle is in understanding the interplay between grace and truth.

Let me set it up this way – in my experience with fellow Christians, and in my own life, I feel a very real tension between grace and truth. I visualize a sort of tug-of-war with grace on one side and truth on the other. Truth is the side that sets an absolute standard, that says this is wrong and this is right. Truth points out sin. Truth says we’ve gone too far over the line, we’ve messed up, we’ve sinned. Grace, on the other side, says, your sin is not counted against you; you are forgiven and free.

Tug-of-war between grace and truth

Tug-of-war between grace and truth

Now how this struggle plays out with Christians in real life, I believe, is something like this. We see sin in the world around us, and we feel like if we show too much grace, if we let people off the hook too much, if we don’t point out sin, then anything will go, and nothing will be seen as wrong or sinful. What it will be like is that the only sin left in this scenario is the sin of negatively judging others’ behaviors and attitudes. This scenario, or the potential of this scenario, doesn’t sit well with me or many evangelical Christians. We feel like the world is getting more and more accommodating to sin, and that they view those of us who might point out sin as backwards, close-minded jerks.

But then let’s look at the other side. When we just stand on the truth, the standard of right and wrong, there is coldness and harshness there that leads us to look down on people and push them away. The image of this is sort of a ‘holy huddle’ where we insiders are all OK, and we’re pointing our fingers at those bad sinners out there who aren’t measuring up the way we are. We have the truth, and we’re good people, so what’s their problem? They need to just get in line and do what’s right. There are many, many former church members and attenders who have left the church because they have felt the pain of truth poured down on them without the grace alongside of it. They’ve seen the hypocrisy of some from the inside, where the standard of truth gets applied to others, but not to themselves, and it looks ugly, so they’ve chosen to turn away from it.  My heart breaks for them.

So, the central question for me in this is: How can I stand on God’s truth, how can I have His standard, not just of what’s right and wrong, but hold to the fact that there is right and wrong at all and that people do the wrong, how can I stand on that, and yet not do it in a way that alienates, puts people down, pushes them away, or devalues them in any way, but rather draws them to God?

John 1:14 says,

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

The ‘Word’ is Jesus. He came to this earth, from His Father, and He was full of grace and truth. For Jesus, there was not a tension between showing too much grace or showing too much truth – He was completely filled with both at the same time, and at all times. So, to begin to answer this question I turn to Jesus, and look at who He is and what He did. Looking into His life and His interactions with others there are many incidents where we see grace and truth at work, but I want to share two stories of Jesus’ interactions with sinners that help me get a handle on what being full of grace and being full of truth might look like lived out. The stories both come from John’s gospel, the woman caught in adultery in John 8 and the woman at the well in John 4.

In both of these stories there is clear measurement of truth that these women did not meet. They had both committed sins, they had both fallen short of God’s standard of holiness and purity. Both passages make it clear the women had sinned, the woman in chapter 8 had committed adultery, that charge was never challenged or dismissed, this was not a matter of someone spitefully bringing up false charges, no, there was a sin committed. In the John 4 passage Jesus points out her sin to her, she’s living with a man who’s not her husband, and has had a string of husbands (although we don’t know the details of how each of those marriages ended, the implication is that she was at least partially to blame). So, what is clear is that these women fell short of truth, they fell short of the standard. These women had both sinned. But it’s in these interactions here, I believe, we see the power of Jesus being full of grace and truth on display.

Jesus, being full of truth, never says their sins are OK. He never says that what they did was no big deal, but, being full of grace, He did not make them bear the punishment of their sin right then. He held out the full standard of truth, and they didn’t measure up, but yet they were not condemned and by the grace they were shown, they were offered life, life to be lived according to God’s truth, but by God’s strength. To the woman caught in adultery He says to her, “Go and sin no more.” The sin was evident, it was what others would use to define her, but Jesus calls her to a more truth-filled life, and he underlying implication is that this cannot be done on her own strength, but that God’s grace covers her sin and strengthens her to live faithfully. We see even more evidence of this in the John 4 passage.

This woman who Jesus met at the well was ashamed. She tried to hide from the effects of her sin. She didn’t go to the well when others did so that she didn’t have to face ridicule or shaming. When Jesus talked about living water that she could drink so she would never thirst again, she thought that was a pretty good idea, that way she wouldn’t have to keep coming out in public every day, she could just hide herself away, but when she was touched by the truth of her sin and the overflowing powerful grace from Jesus, she was filled and strengthened to not hide behind her sin anymore. It no longer defined her, and she boldly went to the same ones who ridiculed her, to share with them the great truth of who Jesus was. She was no longer feeling beaten down by her sin, but liberated from its effects, and empowered to boldly point to the one who poured grace out on her.

Dallas Willard defines grace as God empowering us to do the things we could not do on our own. Grace is not just something that saves us from the effects of our sins, but rather that it is the fuel that propels the Christian on to righteousness and purity. So when we merely look at offering grace to others just as ‘letting them off the hook’ (and also fail to realize the great number of times that we ourselves have been ‘let off the hook’), we miss the great truth that God’s grace is empowering – it truly is what enables us to live a faithful, holy, pure life, something that we could never even come close to on our own strength.

And also, one of the great problems with applying truth to others, is not that we don’t correctly point out their sin, rather it’s when we fail to apply the truth to our own lives as well; when we don’t realize that I too, you too, are a wretched sinner who doesn’t measure up to God’s standard of truth and holiness. The more that we realize the bar is so incredibly high that we haven’t measured up, I believe we’re able to deal more gently with others. Now, it’s at this point where we could go off and say, well since none of us measure up, then it’s no big deal the sins any of us commit, let’s just try to be decent people. No, then we’re losing sight of God’s truth. We must hold on to truth, but to apply it to our own lives as well. Yes, there may be some sins that you struggle with that are not a struggle for me, but that does not make me better than you, that makes me different than you, because there are sins that I struggle with that you may not, and that doesn’t make you better than me. All of us fall incredibly short of God’s standard of truth; the bar is far too high for any of us to reach, which is where God’s grace comes in to fuel and strengthen us. May we be humble people who hold onto God’s great truth, but also generously offer God’s grace to help fuel others to deeper and more meaningful relationship with God.

There is so much more in this struggle that I have yet to work out in my mind and even more to work out in my words and actions, but my prayer is that I seek after God to drink deep of His living water so that I may know who I truly am in Him, may know His truth fully, and may know His grace fully, and offer that grace generously to those around me.

The Day God Spoke to Me

Does God speak to us today? I never remember a time when the audible voice of God spoke to me. I’d experienced Him speaking to me when I’ve been reading or praying or through discussions with others, I’d get a sense in my spirit that God was telling me something, but never had I heard a clear call of God’s audible voice. Never, that is, until I met an unemployed man begging for a job on the side of the road.

Last fall we were leaving Bloomington, IN after several hours of shopping and eating and some quality time at the coffee shop, and as were heading onto the highway, to go back home, I noticed a man standing on the side of the road at the opposite on-ramp. We had some water bottles left over from lunch that I had been looking for someone to give some of them to, but I thought ‘well, we’re on our way home now, I’ll just keep going.’ But as I was starting to head down the highway I sensed an urging to turn around and get off at his exit and give him a water bottle and possibly a few dollars that I had in my pocket. (You may have different thoughts on giving ‘beggars’ money, sometimes I do it sometimes I don’t, or I’ll offer food or something else, I try to let God lead me in that.) It took a couple of minutes to get turned around and headed towards his exit, but as we were getting closer to the spot he had been, I noticed that he was still there (another confirmation that this was from God). When I stopped, he asked if I had a job for him, which I did not, but I offered a couple of water bottles to him, he took one, and I also gave him the $5 bill I had.

It was at this point I expected him to thank me, possibly say something like ‘God bless,’ and I’d feel good about doing a good deed and he’d have something positive from me, but that’s not what happened, and it’s what he said in response that struck me. He did thank me, but as we were about to pull away he said, “I love you.”

Yes, this could be dismissed as a crazy man saying something crazy, but I believe, deep in me, that this was the very voice of God delivering a simple but powerful message that I needed to hear. You see, I’d been really down the few weeks before then, struggling with feelings of failure in life and ministry. I’d really been down on myself and doubting who I am, and if I can do the things I’d been called to do, and God, who created me and knows me better than anyone possibly could, wanted me to know that I am His precious child. He wanted me to know that He is my Father, that He is the one who strengthens me, equips me, guides me, and all ultimately for His glory. And the power to be who I really am, the strength to lead, to dare, to risk is fueled by His great love. And God, who has always identified with the poor, used this man, standing on the side of an off ramp of Highway 37, in Bloomington, IN, to deliver a sacred message, to me, an unworthy and cracked vessel, that I am made worthy and made right, not because of what I have done, but because of His great love, because of His great power, because of His great worth.

I don’t know the man’s name, and I may never see him again, but God brought us together, in a perfectly timed moment, so that I, in some small way could bless him, and that he, as a faithful and obedient servant of God (at least in that moment), was a mouthpiece of God Almighty to proclaim His great love for me. It was humbling and meaningful, and I am grateful to this man, and eternally grateful to the God whose grace and love are beyond what I could earn, but are poured out on me – He is good.

God I thank you for your love – may it drive me to be the man, the husband, the father, the pastor, that you have created and called me to be.

The Broken Plate

Corelle Plate

Growing up we had these great Corelle dishes, white with green floral trim.  We loved them, but there was one significant problem with them, they broke easily.  When you dropped one or knocked it off of the table, it would not just break, oh no, these things would shatter into dozens and dozens of pieces.  Shards scattered all over the kitchen floor from one end of the room to the other.  The broom would immediately come out and the floor had to be meticulously swept in order to save everyone’s feet from an unfortunate encounter.

This past weekend we celebrated the highest and most significant day for the Christian, Resurrection Sunday, also commonly called Easter.  So what does a broken plate have to do with Jesus’ Resurrection?  As I was reflecting on the meaning and significance of what Jesus did, and what His resurrection accomplished, the word ‘restoration’ came to mind.  Jesus restored  what was broken.

Brokenness extends to all of creation, as Paul writes in Romans 8, “creation has been groaning” in its “bondage to decay,” but you see, we have each broken our lives as well.  We have all ‘dropped the plate’ of our lives and broken the connection and relationship with God.  We have all made a mess of our lives.  We all have sin and decay.

I never attempted to glue any of our shattered plates back together, there were just too many pieces scattered all over that even if you could gather all of them together and start assembling them it would be a fool’s task to set it all back together for even if you managed to do it, the plate would not be very nice and it would not be strong and stable like it was before being broken.

I recognize how foolish and wasteful it would be to try and put a shattered plate back together, yet, so often, I try to put the brokenness in my life back together by myself.  I think if I can just be nice enough, if I can just be a decent guy, then people will like me and all will be good.  And, the more I think about this, I believe what we tend to do is that as we are trying to put the pieces of our lives in place, when we think we’re doing a pretty good job of it, we look down on others whose plates don’t look as good as ours, all the while the brokenness remains, the frailty remains, the pride remains.

The deep truth that I, and every other human, must understand is that I stand broken before a Holy God.  I have broken that relationship and no amount of ‘glue’ (good works, nice words to others, acts of charity, church attendance) in my life can restore that relationship, can make me who God made me to be.  I stand broken before Him and I have no defense on my own.  This is the power and majesty of the Resurrection in our lives.  Only God, through Christ, can restore the brokenness.  Sin only causes death and decay in our lives and hurts our relationships with those around us, and breaks our relationship with our Holy God.

But He, and He alone, takes my shattered life, my frailty, yes, even my stubborn pride, and brings life and healing and true restoration.  It is only through the power, grace, and work of Christ that He accomplished through His death and resurrection, that I, or any of us, can stand before God as His child.

God, may You take the brokenness in my life, the sin, the decay, the hurt I’ve done to You and to others, and bring true healing, restoration, and life.

You’re Worth It!

This past weekend something incredibly meaningful happened about 60 miles down the road from where we live.  At the 35th Annual Rodes City Run 10K in Louisville, KY on Saturday morning, one of the participants was a lady named Asia Ford.  Asia’s story, even before the race, is very inspiring; the mother of three wanted to lose weight and get healthier, not just so she could be there for her children, but to help inspire them to be all that they could be.  This race was to be one great example to herself and to her children that each of us is valuable and we can achieve more than we ever thought possible.  But as the race progressed, things were not going as planned.  Having recently gotten over pneumonia, Asia, at about mile 4 of the 6.2 mile race, did not feel like she had the strength to finish.  Her son TJ with her, she was praying for the strength to make it a few more steps.  Soon they had made it to mile 5, and it was at this point that the story turned into one that has already touched millions of lives.

Seeing Asia Ford struggling, Louisville Metro Police officer, Lieutenant Aubrey Gregory, on duty the morning of the race, stepped in to see if he could help her.  As he neared, she took hold of his hand and, in this gesture of kindness and help from the officer, she gained the physical, and more importantly, emotional, even spiritual support that she needed to finish the race.  Photographer Jonathan Roberts captured the beautiful moment of triumph as Asia, Officer Gregory, and TJ, crossed to finish line together, hand-in-hand.  Truly a beautiful and powerful image.

I love this story, and other stories like this, for what they are on the surface, but also for the deeper places in our lives that they point towards and shine light on.  In knowing the meaningful moment was captured on camera, and, in an insightful way, sensing that the image would possibly be seen by many people, Asia Ford offered these deeply important words to all of us:  “When you see the photo, just know that you’re worth it. And you can do anything that you put your mind to.”

Just know that you’re worth it.

These words, in a serious way, harken to the words that Jesus speaks to us.  In what is probably the most well-known Bible verse of all, we find the bold and powerful proclamation that “God so loved the world.”  But it’s in the next verse, John 3:17, that Jesus goes on to say, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”  Now, that word ‘condemn’ carries with it the imagery of what we today would say about a dilapidated building.  The building inspectors would ‘condemn’ the building, saying it’s not worthy of use, it’s not even worthy of being repaired, the only thing left is for it to be destroyed.

God did not look at our broken, sin-stained world, at our broken and sin-stained lives, and say, “Forget it, I’m sick of these people, just get rid of the whole thing.”  Oh, praise God that He didn’t!  Rather He saw people whom He created, people whom He loved, people made in His very image, and His heart cried out – “Save!  They need to be saved – they are worth it.”

Lieutenant Gregory looked on Asia Ford, not as someone who unfortunately didn’t have the strength and ability to finish the race she started.  He did not see her as someone who was just another face in a crowd.  He saw her and he saw worth, he saw a fellow human who was struggling, and he reached out and became a part of something so much bigger than himself.  Whether he knows it or not – he gave us all a beautiful picture of the Kingdom.  He gave us a glimpse of what God Himself did.

Now, I don’t want to over-spiritualize a moment or put Lt. Gregory up for sainthood, but what we see in that picture, I believe, is a picture of God’s in-breaking Kingdom.  It’s the kind of picture, that as we seek God’s Kingdom, we’ll see is happening all around us.  When we live in the Kingdom, when we take on the character and heart of our God we look at those around us not as people who need to get their act together, not as people who are different than us, as people who we don’t need to bother with, but rather we look at those around us and say, “You are worth it.  You are worth my time and attention.  You are worth my affection.  You are worth it, not because of what I can get from you, but because God has created you uniquely and wonderfully.  And you are worth it because, in God’s eyes, when He looks at me, somehow He says ‘My child, you are worthy of my love.'”

I cannot, for the life of me, understand why and how God does that.  I do not measure up to a holy God.  I am not adequate enough to receive any good thing from God’s hand.  Yet God, through the worth and sacrifice and triumph of Jesus, makes me worth it.  Wow.  And as I think about this, I realize, this needs to be the driving force in our mission as His followers, that people are worth it.  The mess and sacrifices of life are worth it because people matter to God, and none of us have the right to look down on others because without God we would be nothing.  Praise God for His great love!  May His Kingdom break into our lives more and more.  May we reflect His heart and His character more and more in our relationships.

Holding Out the Vision of the Kingdom

I’ve been a full-time pastor for almost 10 years now.  I’ve been in more church buildings and church meetings than I can count.  I’ve helped start programs and run church activities.  I’ve met with people in their best of times and in their worst of times.  I’ve led Bible Studies and preached hundreds of sermons.  I’ve devoted a good portion of my life to serving God and His people.  But in the midst of all of that, I have a nagging sense that I’ve missed something; that there is something deeper and more meaningful that I haven’t yet fully lived in and held out for others.  I sense that I’m not traversing the depths of my own soul or helping others do the same.

The realization of that fact came on me like a blast of wind in my face that could not be ignored when I read this quote from the early 20th century French poet and author Antoine de Saint-Exupery,

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders.  Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

In many ways the church in the United States is struggling.  For many of our churches our numbers and giving are down.  We don’t do the same programs we did years ago, we don’t have the same life and vitality we once had.  I see it in the churches I’ve been privileged to serve, and I see it in my own discouragement.  What I believe I have been missing and what many of my efforts have been lacking is the clear vision of the Kingdom.

It’s ultimately not my job to “drum up” church workers and church activities, rather, by God’s Spirit’s leading and enlightening, I must traverse those deep and dark recesses in my own soul, I must understand who I truly am as God’s child, I must gain a clearer picture of what “Thy Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven” really means, and then I must hold that grand and mighty vision of the Kingdom out for others to see.

Just trying to get people to do things is not very inspiring to me or to them.  It doesn’t capture our imagination, we don’t want to devote our lives to programs.  But I believe God’s Kingdom is breaking into our world more and more.  God’s Spirit is alive and moving, but if our eyes aren’t focused on it, we miss where He is at work redeeming and restoring what has long been broken and damaged, and we miss the opportunity of being a part of that great redemptive work.

I want to give people hope.  I want to help people live meaningful and purposeful lives.  I want our churches to touch as many lives as we can.  I want my own life to matter, and I want others to know that their life matters.  And where I believe the great depths of our meaning and purpose come from is in our identity as a beloved child of the King living fully in His Kingdom for His glory.  That is where I want to live because that is where true life and true love reside.

For His glory,

Ian McMillan