Summary: The Company We Keep, part 9. When we decide to get serious about spiritual practices in our lives, we find that grace gets hijacked and replaced with guilt and oppression. How does this happen, and what are we to do?

Hijacking Grace

The Company We Keep, prt. 9

Wildwind Community Church

David Flowers

June 27, 2009

We have come a long way in our learning about the Jesus life – how to enter into and live in the life of peace and rest Jesus said is available to us. Today I want to talk to you about some things that will stand in the way of your being able to take hold of this life. And really it’s one thing that takes many forms.

The main obstacle to entering the Jesus life is difficulty in receiving grace. Difficulty in receiving grace. When something intended to be a means of grace, a way of knowing God, becomes a source of guilt and oppression in our lives, grace has been hijacked. On May 30 I challenged you to give up television for a week. Immediately after the service, I was approached by many people (some serious, some not), each offering to me their excuse/explanation for why they wouldn’t be following the “rules” 100%. For some it was hockey. For some it was family movie night. For some it was hoping that this would not include video games. For some it was a need to put the kids in front of the TV for brief periods so they could have time to work out or do other important things around the house. Etc. A means of grace was extended, and for some people, it was immediately hijacked and made to serve the purpose of inciting guilt and causing spiritual oppression.

I stood there listening to these explanations and do you know what I heard? For the most part I didn’t hear people who were trying to weasel out of the challenge. What I heard were people who were struggling to make peace with themselves. “Let’s see, the challenge was to not watch TV. But this hockey game – this exercise thing – this family movie night – I need to make sure I get clearance from the pastor and get validation that my exception is acceptable.”

The first and most persistent obstacle you will encounter as you pursue the Jesus life is difficulty in receiving grace. This was not the resistance I expected. What I expected was, “I’m not doing it. That’s nuts. That’s not necessary,” and defensive comments of that nature. I did not expect that there would seem to be this guilt over not meeting the exact terms of the challenge, even before people had walked out of the building!

Now what I want to do for a moment is hold that guilt up to the light and turn it around and really look at it. We’re going to discover something amazing in it. Before we do, let’s go back and listen to the voice of Jesus…

Matthew 11:29-30 (MSG)

29 Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.

30 Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."

So this is the call. To walk with Jesus and learn from him how to live. And so we receive a challenge at church. “Let’s rid ourselves of one of the biggest distractions in the spiritual life –television.” This was a challenge designed to help us quiet down, eliminate some distractions in our lives, and hopefully hear the voice of God and enter into rest – into unforced grace – into lightness and freedom. That was the point of the challenge, right?

And the response to the challenge showed the very reason why the challenge was so necessary. Because rather than hearing the challenge as an invitation to lightness and freedom and joy – a chance to remove from our shoulders a burden that is affecting us and our children every day – some found just another opportunity for guilt – another chance to beat themselves up for not measuring up fully. And I am confident that those I heard from represented just a fraction of those who had these feelings.

This tendency toward guilt and perfectionism masks itself as the voice of God, and reveals how we actually think of God! After all, if we knew God as a gentle shepherd, one who loves us and protects us from danger, then we would enter into rest with a sense of lightness and joy, anticipating what God might do in our lives. Since most of us do not know God this way, we enter into this rest feeling a little irritable and resentful. A little suspicious and afraid we won’t measure up – as if God will stand next to us with a whip saying, “Rest I tell you. REST I say!! Watching the hockey game? You’re not DOING it right! Enjoying a movie with your family? SHAME ON YOU! Following a link someone sent you to something on YouTube? That’s Internet television! A pox be on you and your house for your unfaithfulness!” At the very least, perhaps we’d better get the pastor’s permission to “cut a few corners” here and there because if I don’t I’ll feel guilty all week.

Difficulty in receiving grace. The one who has offered you limitless grace and compassion continues to offer it to you, and wants to lead you down the path where it can be found. But instead of taking his hand and enthusiastically walking with him to where freedom and lightness can be found, we hear him being critical of the way we are walking, or critical that we aren’t holding his hand tightly enough, or critical that it took us too long to decide, or critical that in our ignorance of the path we occasionally veered off in the wrong direction. We hear him speaking to us harshly, with a demanding and impatient voice. It is interesting, isn’t it, that this is the voice we ourselves often use with people? This is the voice we use with our spouses and children, with employees and employers. With waitresses and school teachers and other service professionals. My friends, that voice of impatience, criticism, and harshness – that is not God’s voice, but our own!! And when we try to enter into spiritual disciplines, that voice we hear as the voice of God in our heads – condemning and accusing us and telling us how insufficient our efforts are and how far short we’re going to fall – that’s us. And we discover that we don’t use one voice with others and a different voice with ourselves. The impatience we demonstrate to those around us we also demonstrate with ourselves. The harshness with which we approach others comes back to us in harshness with ourselves. Our willingness to criticize others comes back around to self-criticism sooner or later. See, this is all toxic stuff that comes up out of who we are, and NO ONE escapes it – we puke it out all over everyone in our path – including ourselves. The person whom no one can make happy is a person who has never been able to make themselves happy. Their grouchiness and critical spirit and harshness proceeds up out of the kind of person they are in their deepest soul.

Matthew 12:35 (NIV)

35 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.

It can’t be any other way.

James 3:12 (NIV)

12 My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

At the core of our being we are people who find it difficult to receive grace. Now God himself IS grace. And if we cannot receive grace, we cannot receive God. And that is precisely what is happening when we have an opportunity to enter into the rest that Jesus promises, and we hear voices of condemnation and reproach and guilt in our heads and mistake them for the voice of God. Hear these words from the Apostle Peter:

Acts 4:10-11 (NIV)

10 ….know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.

11 [Jesus] is "'the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone'.

Jesus IS grace, and the human response to grace was not to thank God for it, open our hands, and receive it, but rather to kill it – to snuff it out – to nail it to a piece of wood. To take grace itself – living and vibrant and active and gentle and kind – and turn it into something dead and dull and lifeless and harsh and mean. That is the universal human tendency. We don’t know what to do with grace. We find grace confusing and mystifying. We drain the life out of it by subjecting it to our legalism, our perfectionism, or a hundred other things we do that rip it to shreds.

In our fallen insecurity and misguided desire to fend for ourselves, we even find grace threatening because it starts with “you don’t deserve what I’m going to do for you,” which we find offensive and ends with “but I’m going to do it anyway,” which makes us feel like we’re in somebody’s debt, and that is an assault on our pride (which in reality NEEDS to be assaulted!). Grace is an affront to all that is sick and sinful in humankind.

What are spiritual disciplines? What’s that name I taught you a few weeks ago? Means of ….? Means of grace! In other words, WAYS that God works grace into our lives. Now if we struggle with grace, we’re going to find ourselves struggling with the MEANS of grace. Here are some ways we’ll struggle with it:

• We’ll get defensive. Why do I NEED to do that?

• We’ll get perfectionistic. I can’t do that the right way.

• We’ll get legalistic. Does it count if I’m at Best Buy and walk by the TV aisle there and glance at the TV’s?

• We’ll get discouraged. Nothing I have ever tried to know God has worked.

• We’ll get angry. Who are you to tell me I shouldn’t watch TV?

• We’ll get apathetic. Whatever…I’m so not motivated right now.

• We’ll get into denial – I could give up TV for a week if I wanted to, I just don’t want to.

• We’ll get irritated – why does he keep harping on this thing?

• We’ll get self-justifying – God loves me just the way I am.

• We’ll get childish – I’ll just do whatever the pastor tells me just like he tells me. After all, he’s the one responsible for how and whether I grow.

• We’ll get spiritual… Oh yes, this is a fine idea.

• We’ll get rational. The idea is fine, but perhaps presented a bit overzealously, don’t you think?

• We’ll get emotional. I guess I’m just inadequate and pathetic.

• We’ll get theological – Where does scripture say we should practice spiritual disciplines?

• We’ll get ideological – This is a Catholic thing, isn’t it?

• We’ll get practical – How is this going to change anything?

• We’ll get literal – If turning off the TV is good, throwing it away is even better!

• We’ll get judgmental – I wonder what’s up with the people who didn’t accept the TV challenge

• Or we could get pastoral – What? I’m the GIVER of challenges, not the receiver.

There are all kinds of different ways we can get about exercising the means of grace, and it’s easier to get any of these ways than to get down to business.

All of these things I listed – they are all obstacles to the Jesus life because they are all things we can say to ourselves that will prevent us from entering into this life or staying on the path long enough for it to make any difference. And they’re all related to our difficulty in receiving grace. This is why spiritual direction is highly recommended for all who are serious about walking this path. I just listed eighteen different responses we could have to practicing the means of grace, any one of which could derail us. And when they come to us, we mistake them for reality. Some we even mistake for the voice of God himself, and it can be difficult to know what to make of these voices. A spiritual director is a person who is trained to help us understand how God is moving in our lives and what the Holy Spirit might be saying to us. I can stand up here and give you advice on the spiritual life and how to pursue it, but I cannot give you the individual guidance you may need.

So I want to use the rest of our time together to tell you about an opportunity we will be making available at Wildwind starting in September. This past year we have attempted to do leadership training the first Friday of every month in the office classroom, and to be honest, though it has been received well by those who have come, not many have chosen to come. Rather than try to force that on you, we’re going another direction and it’s related to what we’ve been talking about the last ten weeks.

In our leadership training material we’ve covered stuff like having a good attitude, not burning out, seeing our blind spots, etc. Good stuff and stuff we could probably all benefit from. But I keep thinking of this passage:

Ephesians 4:17-24 (MSG)

17 And so I insist—and God backs me up on this—that there be no going along with the crowd, the empty-headed, mindless crowd.

18 They've refused for so long to deal with God that they've lost touch not only with God but with reality itself.

19 They can't think straight anymore. Feeling no pain, they let themselves go in sexual obsession, addicted to every sort of perversion.

20 But that's no life for you. You learned Christ!

21 My assumption is that you have paid careful attention to him, been well instructed in the truth precisely as we have it in Jesus.

22 Since, then, we do not have the excuse of ignorance, everything—and I do mean everything—connected with that old way of life has to go. It's rotten through and through. Get rid of it! And then take on an entirely new way of life—a God-fashioned life,

23 a life renewed from the inside

24 and working itself into your conduct as God accurately reproduces his character in you.

Everything involved with the way we lived before Christ has to go. And as Christ renews us from the inside out, do you suspect that our attitudes will improve? Do you think that the process of spiritual formation in Christ will help us to learn and be honest about our blind spots? Do you think we might learn gentleness along the way of Jesus that can teach us not to burn ourselves out? Do you think that with less sin knocking around inside, less depression, less anger, less irritability, less discouragement, less resentment, that our marriages will get better and our relationships with our children will improve? See I have a vision. What if it wasn’t John Maxwell who was our guru, but Jesus? What if we were learning more from Jesus than from John Ortberg, more from Jesus than from Dallas Willard or Max Lucado?

Don’t get me wrong. We’re still doing the monthly training. But we’ll have a group that meets once a month for women, and a group that meets once a month for men. And this training will teach us how to live our lives in the Jesus way. We’re replacing the word “leadership” with the words “spiritual formation.” The #1 quality we’ll be looking for in those who are leaders at Wildwind is a desire to live in the freedom and lightness of Christ – to let go of our heavy burdens and live according to the law of love. Wildwind is becoming a church where people will be free to come and sit and not make spiritual progress, but where we will expect our leaders and our members to be actively engaged in learning how to live the Jesus life. That is, how to actually learn to live free of the heavy burdens that right now dominate most of our lives much of the time. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could know that if someone is in leadership at Wildwind, they are on a deliberate path to learn to deal with anger, to say I’m sorry, to truly become different? That is what should happen, and if we apply the appropriate practices to our lives under God’s loving care, that is surely what WILL happen! You’ll hear more about the spiritual formation groups as we get closer to September.

In the meantime, I want to encourage you to keep asking yourself the question, “Does that sound like God?” Because any voice you hear in your mind that oppresses you and causes you to beat yourself up is not God. It’s hard to receive grace. But I want to enter with you into a way of life where we will learn how. Sound good?