Guilt Without Accusations

17 January 2023

How do you talk with contemporary people about guilt? If you grew up with a fairly traditional Christian set of categories, it can be tricky. In a self-consciously post-Christian world, people tend to blow off the things you would normally say. There’s a place and time to preach a barn-burner, but in general, my goal is to speak about guilt without taking the role of the Accuser. The devil’s got that one covered. It’s not like he needs my help.

The fact that guilt and brokenness don’t fit into the contemporary sense-making scheme doesn’t mean that contemporary people have somehow eliminated them. One of the dangers of thinking everything is a “language game” or everything is socially constructed is that you think you can change reality just by changing language. Guilt and shame are enduring realities; people today are as guilty and broken as a preconversion Luther — but unlike Luther, they’ve been deprived of the language to make sense of it all. Because that language has lost currency, there is no generally accepted way of talking about those realities, but people try to put them into words anyway. I spend a lot of time listening for what language this person is going to use. Some common options include absorbing the sin into their identity (“I guess I’m just a cheater”), attempting to positive self-talk it away (“I just gotta stop focusing on the negative”), or aspirational sociopathy (“Eh, shit happens; gotta move on”).

If I can help someone put their guilt into words, then I’m not the one who’s accusing them of something. They introduced the problem; I’m just helping them sort it out. At that point, I can introduce sin by way of contrast:

“We used to talk about this kind of thing as sin. We’ve kind of ruined the word; anymore the only time we talk about sin is when we’re selling desserts or lingerie. But it used to mean something. In the classical sense, sin doesn’t mean you had 5% too much fun or some crap like that. It means missing the mark. It means that you were built for a purpose, and you stepped outside the design parameters in a way that’s gonna hurt you and others around you. See, God is not a tight-shoed, overly regimented Father who says ‘Don’t play!’ He’s a caring Father who says ‘Don’t play in traffic.’

“What I’m hearing you say is that you did play in traffic, and you got hurt, and some other people got hurt because of you. You can’t make it all better, and you don’t know what to do about it, because the culture you live in has deprived you of any way to make sense of that and deal with it.

“The good news is that what’s happening in you is actually totally normal. You’re not crazy or negative or neurotic; you’re actually built to notice when you’re outside the parameters in damaging ways. Just like physical pain is designed to tell you when something is wrong, guilt is moral pain designed to tell you something is wrong. Just like with physical pain, the purpose is not to punish you for doing a bad thing; it’s to motivate you to correct the problem. Even though the culture is a little brain-dead on this, God hasn’t forgotten how to deal with it.”

From there, I can go straight to what the cross and the resurrection really mean, or I can take a more priestly role and lead them into a direct confession of their sin in the situation we’ve been discussing, in order to then talk about the cross and God’s promise of forgiveness and life.

Lots of people have heard of Jesus dying on the cross; many of them don’t know what it means. When Jesus was crucified, every sin, every weakness, every sickness, every character flaw, every dark thing that separates us from God, all of it was nailed to the cross with Jesus. Died on the cross with Jesus. Was buried in the heart of the earth with Jesus. And when God raised Him from the dead three days later, Jesus did not come out of the grave dragging along a Hefty bag of your crap. It’s gone. It’s done.

Anything that you think is separating you from God — He’s already tended to it. You could let it go today, right now, and be free for the rest of your life.


Epiphany: Just Jesus

6 January 2023

Epiphany is the day we celebrate Jesus revealed to the Gentile world. Nothing Mary and Joseph could have said or done would have convinced the Magi – wealthy, powerful astrologers, philosophers, and rulers – to pay attention to a toddler. But God pulled it off. Through a combination of Balaam’s fourth prophecy (1400 years before Jesus was born), Daniel’s rise to chief of the Magi in the Babylonian captivity (900 years after that), and signs in the heavens, God led them from their home in the empire next door to a construction worker’s house in Bethlehem. What did they find there? A treasure hoard, a magical amulet, scrolls brimming with ancient secrets? No. Just a person, Jesus Himself. And they worshiped.

Mary and Joseph, for their part – what did they get? Did they get a vindication that salvaged their reputations with their families? No. They got gold, frankincense, and myrrh – symbolic gifts to be sure, but more importantly in the moment, unexpected wealth with which to fund their flight to Egypt to save their child’s life. 

God gives us enough. He doesn’t often give us what we expected, but He gives us what we need. When God reveals Jesus to you, it will be the same way: not necessarily what you like or how you expected, but what you need, when you need it. Say yes – Jesus is enough. 

The Twelfth Day of Christmas: Do The Thing 

5 January 2023

In hindsight, it’s easy to see how key figures at pivotal moments in history have opportunities to enact major social change: St. Fabiola, the Nicene bishops, or Basil of Caesarea for hospitals; for slavery, figures like William Wilberforce, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. But most of us don’t find ourselves in that kind of position, and that’s ok. Remember how Jesus constantly surprised people by acting on the Father’s guidance? Follow His example and act where you are. 

That’s what St. Paul did. St. Paul wasn’t in a pivotal position to abolish slavery either, but that didn’t stop him from doing something surprising when God dropped an opportunity in his lap. A runaway slave named Onesimus came into Paul’s circle, having fled from a Christian master named Philemon – a man Paul knew. As a runaway, Onesimus could have been executed. Paul wasn’t in a position to take down the institution of slavery, but by doing what he could, he planted the seeds of its demise. In one short letter that has haunted slaveholders for centuries, Paul forced Philemon to resolve his former slave’s precarious legal position, freed Onesimus, and did it all at his own expense. 

“I appeal to you for my son Onesimus…I am sending him back….Perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but better than a slave—a beloved brother….If you consider me a partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you or owes you anything, charge it to me….I will pay it back.” (The whole letter is only a few hundred words long – click through and read it; it’s worth your time.)

The question is never about what you can’t do.  The question is what you can do, right where you are. Perhaps you can’t change healthcare, but you can change the bandage on a homeless man’s hand. You can’t change the past, but you can provide a firm hug and a soft landing for someone who’s trying to put their life back together. Jesus came to heal the brokenhearted, free the oppressed, heal the sick – follow Him by doing what’s nearest and clearest, what’s within your reach right now. (In an age of social media slacktivism, I feel compelled to add: You can’t “stand with” anybody while sitting on your ass. Go actually do the thing.) Merry Christmas! 

The Eleventh Day of Christmas: The Slave is our Brother

4 January 2023

“Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother/And in His name, all aggression shall cease.” My favorite Christmas song has been “O Holy Night” since I was a kid. Those two lines from the second verse are my favorite part. Whence this bold assertion of brotherhood with a slave? You won’t find that anywhere in the ancient world, but it fits very naturally in a Christmas song. Why?

Ubiquitous across time and culture, slavery is everywhere in history and still practiced in places to this day. Jesus came to liberate the captives, and Christians started working against slavery very early, but abolition was slow and painful. By the late Middle Ages, a number of jurisdictions in Christendom had rejected slavery, but then we lost ground and had to stomp it out all over again several centuries later. We didn’t bin it for good until 1865. In the long argument over slavery, a lot of the apologists for slavery were Christians. Christians today find that embarrassing, and should. 

It’s particularly embarrassing because abolition is uniquely ours. The entire discourse of abolition was–and still is–conducted on Christian principles. And it was so wildly successful that the whole Western world now thinks of the universal brotherhood of humanity (and therefore abolition and equality) as common sense. We often forget that to this day, the Christian West remains the only culture in world history ever to abolish slavery as a matter of moral principle, because it’s harmful to the slaves. We think that’s common sense now, but only after Jesus did it become common sense, and only in Christian and Christ-haunted places does it remain common sense.  

For which all thanksgiving. Merry Christmas!

The Tenth Day of Christmas: Like Yeast in Dough

3 January 2023

“The Kingdom of God is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal until all was leavened.” That’s the way Jesus taught us to think about the Kingdom: it grows like yeast. Ever made bread? You put the yeast in, make the dough, and then go about your business. There are some variables you can tweak to help it rise a little faster or slower, but yeast is alive, and it does its work even when you’re not looking. Slowly. So slowly, in many cases, that it’s hard to see. 

Jesus sent His followers to heal the sick, and we’ve cared for the sick and dying everywhere we’ve ever gone. We stayed in the plague-ridden cities to care for the sick when Galen fled to the countryside. We founded and staffed leper colonies at risk of our lives. We scoured the hillsides for unwanted babies abandoned by their parents (a crime now, but common practice in the ancient world). We literally invented the concept of public hospitals. We’ve been so successful that today, everybody just thinks having hospitals is common sense. Nobody thinks of hospitals as a peculiarly Christian thing. But even in a city as young as Denver, most of the hospitals were founded by Christians: Rose and St. Joseph’s (Catholic), Swedish (Lutheran), Porter and Littleton (Adventist), Presbyterian/St. Luke’s, and so on. 
This is Christmas working its way out across history: God incarnate in Jesus offers us all access to the divine nature. That being the case, humanity is unitable in principle; in an important way, we are already one, and should treat each other accordingly.

Merry Christmas! 

The Ninth Day of Christmas: Why You’re So Unhappy

2 January 2023

So to review: God incarnate in Jesus destroys our certainty about who we are and how we relate to the world; calls us to abandon our respectability; challenges us to forsake simplistic decision-making and listen to God’s voice. He renders angelic powers and allegedly divine human rulers un-worshipable, and in their place gives us a direct relationship with God as our Father, effectively forcing us into spiritual adulthood. Add it all up, and it’s profoundly destructive. “You want to know why you’re so unhappy?” my mentor Rich once bellowed at a crowd. “Because Jesus ruined everything!” 

So He did. Where’s He going with all that? Jesus told us: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed; to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD,” and again: “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” 

The old world dies so that the new world can be born – a world of freedom and healing that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. What will that be like? The prophets Jesus quoted talk of a time when the lion lies down with the lamb, when disease, hunger, and war are no more. We are obviously not there yet. Do we have to wait until then? Jesus says no; if He’s the real thing, then it’s already here. Fully here? Of course not. But truly here nonetheless. How would you like to live there? 

You can – it’s what Christmas is all about. Merry Christmas!

The Eighth Day of Christmas: Acquiring a Father

1 January 2023

Christians often think of the Old Testament as focused on the Father in the way that the New Testament is focused on Jesus, but they’re wrong. The Old Testament focused on the First Person of the Trinity as Creator and Judge. While fatherhood is hinted at, we don’t really come to know Him as our Father until Jesus shows us how.   

Everywhere the news of Jesus spread, certain things inevitably followed. Once Jesus showed us what God is really like, it became much harder to worship angels. Once Jesus showed us what incarnate God is really like, we became unable to take “divine” kings seriously, and they slowly ceased to be. Likewise, Jesus showed us the Creator as our Father, and this gave us a standard by which to measure human fathers. 

Your father might have been great, or terrible, or somewhere in between, but he certainly wasn’t perfect. When you meet God the way Jesus shows Him to us, you meet a Father who covers the gaps your father left, whatever they might be. He stands ready to restore what was lost. But don’t take my word for it: let Him show you. Merry Christmas!

The Seventh Day of Christmas: No Naked Babies With Wings

31 December 2022

In the modern world, we have a deeply impoverished view of spiritual powers. When we think of a cherub, we picture Michaelangelo’s naked babies with wings and halo. Ezekiel actually saw them: legs like an ox, with hooves shining like burnished bronze, four wings, four faces (ox, lion, eagle, and man), glowing like burning coals. Imagine one of those showing up in your bedroom. No wonder when an angel appears to someone in the Bible, the first thing it usually says is “Don’t be afraid!”

No wonder, too, that fallen angels were able to demand and get human worship. Can you imagine refusing? It’s something even Israel struggles with throughout the Hebrew Bible. The Babylonian captivity forever cured Israel of worshipping lesser gods, but what about the Gentile world? You would expect the cure for idolatry to be some transcendent display of world-breaking power…and in a way, it was. But nothing like you’d have predicted.

Like an adult squeezing through the door of a child’s play house, infinite God became man and entered our world the way we all do, through a birth canal, bloody and squalling. So it is that St. Paul cheerfully concedes there are “many gods and many lords,” and then continues “but for us there is one God, the Father from whom are all things, for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist.” Once we’d met the real thing, however counterintuitive His appearance, it no longer made sense to dally with impostors. Merry Christmas!

The Sixth Day of Christmas: Shut Up and Listen

30 December 2022

Jesus was frequently unpredictable; He surprised the disciples constantly. That means if we’re following Jesus, we should expect surprises. In American folk culture, when we ask “What would Jesus do?” we’re conditioned to think in terms of money (give more), sex (don’t), and power (be nice). I promise you, if all you do is be nice, be generous, and keep your genitals to yourself, you will not inspire the kind of resistance that Jesus did. 

Jesus operated in a different set of categories: He acted as priest, king, and prophet. Priests present people to God and convey God’s blessing back to the people. Kings order the world. Prophets call people to turn their hearts back to God. Jesus acted out of this rich set of options, choosing (or combining) as the situation called for it. You could never be sure, going in, what Jesus was going to do: bless, impose order, call for a change of course, some combination of those? 

How did He choose? He tells us: “I do nothing on my own; I do what the Father taught Me. The One who sent Me is with Me.” It’s not a recipe you can execute on your own; it’s a voice you listen to as you go. If Jesus’ life teaches us anything at all, it teaches us that humans can hear God’s voice, because God is present with us. Merry Christmas!

The Fifth Day of Christmas: “Thank You!” 

29 December 2022

Following Jesus is a daunting prospect. The religious elite rejected Jesus; the populist street-preachers hated him too; the political realists balked at Him. Later, the philosophers would be equally scandalized. Over the objections of all the Respectable People™, Christianity asserts this promise: that you, as you are, can partake of the divine nature, as it is. That in so partaking, you will not lose your humanity, but gain all that humanity was meant to be. 

We know this is possible because it has already happened. In Jesus, we meet undiminished humanity and undiminished deity in perfect harmony. Following Jesus doesn’t mean striving to check an impossible list of boxes; it means being united to the power to act as God’s hands and feet in the world. If Jesus’ life is any indication, this will not be a popular way to live. 

So bring out your respectability and set it on the dining room table. Treat it like Marie Kondo would treat an extra jacket: thank it, then put it in the box of thrift store donations. It’s someone else’s now. For you, it has become an encumbrance, and it’s time to let go. Merry Christmas!