Jesus Isn’t Convenient

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Some days I can’t imagine what a pain Jesus must have seemed for his disciples.

Here’s Peter and his co-workers after fishing all night with no return. They’re sorting out their nets and just want to get home.

The sun is starting to blaze in the sky, adding to the misery of having to tell their wives and children that they wouldn’t have a catch of fish to sell. In the midst of this disappointment and hard labor walks Jesus.

He’d like to teach a crowd of people who have been crowding along the shoreline. This is the shoreline where Peter and his co-workers are trying to get their nets sorted out. Commercial fishing doesn’t work great as a spectator sport, but Jesus doesn’t just bring along a growing crowd. Jesus asks a favor of Peter.

Jesus wants to teach the people from Peter’s boat.

We could hardly blame Peter for saying, “Nope, the shop’s closed. Can you give us a little room here to wrap things up?”

While we can’t imagine a reason why Peter would say no because we’re used to Peter playing along in this story, anyone who has worked at demanding physical labor all day can hopefully imagine that lending his boat as a preaching platform was hardly a sure bet. Of course with his boat sitting in the shallows as Jesus teaches, Peter sticks around to hear Jesus teach.

Who knows what Peter’s family is thinking about at this point. Why is he taking so long? Is he safe?

At the end of the talk, Jesus has yet ANOTHER request for Peter. We may imagine Peter trying to pull his boat onto the shore so he can get home.

No so fast.

Jesus wants Peter and his crew to take the boat out AGAIN. They had to haul the boats back out in the light of day, a bad time to fish, after failing so spectacularly just a few hours before.

Let’s not forget that they had just cleaned up and repaired their nets. They would have to do that all over again. We may well imagine Peter’s co-workers nearly staging a mutiny or at the very least grumbling among themselves.

Who does this Jesus guy think he is, anyway?

By the time their nets were filled with fish, they realized that they certainly didn’t know who they were dealing with.

Peter knew enough to tell Jesus to leave. He wasn’t a holy man. He saw his sins stacked up, making a case against him.

Of course all of those sins were of no consequence to Jesus. He wasn’t looking for a perfect group of followers. Peter had the one thing that Jesus needed in a follower.

Peter allowed Jesus to interrupt his life. He made himself available, setting aside his plans and goals. He took a small risk and allowed Jesus to change his plans for the morning.

Jesus had a bigger interruption planned for Peter: a whole new career where he would interrupt others as he too had been interrupted.

On his last day as a fisherman, Peter learned that presence trumps perfection.

I Was Saved But I Lost My Soul

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Jesus said, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Mark 8:36 (NIV)

I’ve always thought of this passage as Jesus speaking of what saves our souls in the next world. In other words, become my disciple by converting, and you will save your soul with eternal life.

Having taken a trip down “Romans Road” and praying the Sinner’s Prayer, I thought I had my soul covered. Perhaps not.

I’m not going to say that “eternal security” is the wrong way to read this passage, but I think I’ve been missing the fuller meaning of Jesus’ teaching. There are depths here that I have yet to explore.

The contrast in this conversation is between a disciple and someone who gains the whole world instead. One has chosen to follow Jesus with the promise of a cross to bear and the safety of his/her soul, while the other gains notoriety, respect, and comfort while losing his/her soul.

My soul isn’t just the part of me that goes to heaven when I die. It’s also a place where I commune with God today. Those who follow Jesus keep in touch, so to speak, with their souls, while those who gain the whole world will lose touch with their souls.

Think of John Wesley’s question: “How is it with your soul?”

Those who have learned to abide in Jesus can answer that question.

Those who do not may well respond with a list of their accomplishments.

Although I have very much considered myself a follow of Jesus for most of my life, I have lost touch with my soul over the years. I’ve pursued financial stability, a career that makes sense based on my talents, and some measure of popularity and acclaim as a writer. Each time I’ve let go of a particular desire or goal, I’ve found that a barrier has been removed between myself and God.

I’ve freed myself to find God a little bit more each time as I’ve let go of my false self and my misplaced priorities.

Jesus is speaking in extremes when he mentions gaining the whole world vs. saving your soul. This isn’t an all or nothing proposition.

I have given up my soul in pursuit of a tiny little piece of the world, nothing close to “gaining the whole world.”

It doesn’t matter if I can point to someone who has sacrificed more of herself or gained more of the world. We can lose ourselves and our connections with God over the smallest distractions and shifts in direction.

I have no interest in saying who is in and who is out when it comes to saving souls for the next life. Jesus warned us specifically against playing the role of judge in such matters. I do know, however, that I have considered my soul safe and sound when, in actuality, I had no clue where it was or how to find it.

My soul had no anchor in the presence of God. I was blown about by my anxieties, the wisdom of others, and my shifting, endless, fruitless goals.

My primary job is to seek the presence of God, making my soul a place for the Spirit of God to rest. Anything else that follows isn’t for me to determine.

In the Gospels, Jesus speaks of the spiritual life as a matter of abiding, becoming like a vine that connects to a branch. When I lost my soul to the pursuit of my own desires, I had cut myself off from the branch, hoping to be spiritually fruitful without the “work” of simply abiding.

It’s so hard to fathom how abiding is both work and not work. The work of abiding is the stillness, the surrender, and the desperation that comes from opening ourselves up to God and trusting God to provide everything that follows.

The work of abiding opens our lives up to God so that God can point at our souls and say, “There you are. See how you are loved and how my peace rests on you? Here is who you really have been all of this time and how I will always see you.”

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

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The Greatest Sin of All Isn’t Unbelief or Disobeying the Bible

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I spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about Matthew 25. It strikes me as one of the most important passages in the Bible because it describes a striking scene where the true followers of Jesus are separated from the false followers. Perhaps something about my “closed-set” evangelical background draws me to this scene.

My particular fascination has to do with this: Evangelicals, based on Paul’s letters, teach that the righteous are saved by faith, but this passage teaches that we’re saved by what we do.

Jesus doesn’t welcome people because of what they prayed or believed. He welcomes those who gave food to the hungry, visited the prisoners, and clothed the poor.

I don’t want to necessarily create a false dichotomy here. Of course real, genuine faith is confirmed by our actions. In fact, the word we translate as “believe” is the verb form of faith, which means we’re actually “faith-ing” or taking action with our faith. Having said all of that, evangelicals such as myself have spent so much time focusing on the sin of unbelief, heresy, or criticizing those who allegedly don’t take the Bible seriously enough, we don’t have any time left to examine what we do.

In other words, we don’t say to people, “You are unloving and uncaring, and I question your salvation.” We have traditionally question someone’s salvation based on beliefs alone that we could boil down to answers on a theology exam.

We could have a whole other discussion about whether we should even question someone’s salvation in the first place (I would argue that’s never our role). That discussion is not my aim here. I’m interested in personally examining ourselves with the same standards the Jesus said he would use.

How do we know we’re actually on the right course in following Jesus?

Matthew 25 has a pretty startling, yet straightforward answer.

You can safely assume you’re following Jesus if you love other people because you see Jesus in them.

Period.

If you see the inherent dignity and worthiness of the least powerful, most vulnerable, and even the most damaged and unworthy, then you’re in good shape according to Jesus. If you love these people, then “You get it.”

And it’s not just a matter of loving the people who love us. It’s a matter of loving everyone. If you can manage to love the people who have the least to offer you and may even cost you time, money, and sanity, then it should be a cinch to love everyone else in our lives.

Put another way, if God is love, then the ultimate sin we can commit against God is to not love others.

When I am angry at people, when I ignore those in need, and when I think I’m above serving, then I am most unlike God. I’ve hidden behind my theology long enough. I should have started practicing my speech:

When did I see you hungry, homeless, and in prison? I was busy studying theology so that my faith would be pure.

I have been working on learning the startling lesson that Jesus loves me just as I am, but he doesn’t expect me to stop there. I’m learning to simply value the presence of Jesus in the first place and to receive his love. If I have truly received his love, then it should start transforming the way I view others and, most importantly, how I treat them.

There aren’t the worthy poor and the unworthy poor.

There aren’t the worthy prisoners and the unworthy prisoners.

There aren’t the unworthy, lazy unemployed and the worthy, industrious unemployed.

Every year Christians spend thousands of dollars looking for Jesus at really nice conferences full of super successful pastors and teachers. I won’t say that Jesus isn’t there, but I will say that ONLY looking for Jesus among the affluent, successful, and influential is an epic fail according to Matthew 25.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 25 that he is among the poor, the failures, and even the criminals. The goodness we do to those we perceive as “the least” is done to Jesus.

So where does this leave us?

I still think the most important step we can take begins within ourselves: welcoming Jesus and his love. We won’t value the presence of Jesus among others if we don’t value or recognize his presence in the first place. This presence of Jesus brings the ongoing renewal of our minds and hearts that Paul speaks about and fills us with his love.

When we finally receive the love and acceptance of Jesus, we’ll have something powerful to share with others—especially the “least of these.” In fact, if we’re still dividing the world into those worthy and unworthy of Jesus’ love, then perhaps we haven’t truly experienced that love in the first place.

Buy A Christian Survival Guide and 3 Other Books for the Price of One

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Starting Monday, August 18th and ending Friday, August 22nd, three of my most recent books will be $2.99, and one will be $4.99. Best yet, my latest book A Christian Survival Guide is available as a free eBook on Monday the 18th only. Here are all of the details:

 

A Christian Survival Guide is also being offered at a steep discount this week.

On Monday, August 18th, it will be offered as a free eBook at select sites:

Amazon and B&N

Tuesday-Friday, August 19-22, it will be offered for $2.99. (See also the Publisher)

Print Copies: Get $3 off on Amazon this week.

Survival Guide Order Button

 

 

DISCOUNTED EBOOKS: The Good News of Revelation and Hazardous (a book about making the risky decisions that result from following Jesus), are both $2.99 at Amazon. Unfollowers is $4.99 at my publisher’s website. Scroll down for the links. All offers end August 22nd!

 

Publisher’s Weekly shared about A Christian Survival Guide:

“Cyzewski approaches each topic with candor, sharing stories that make it easy to relate to the topic at hand. While many of the topics are complex, he provides a point of entry into each and raises thoughtful questions about how much importance Christians can assign to aspects of the discussion.”

After you’re done reading A Christian Survival Guide, I’d love for you to share what you think in a brief review.

Thanks so much for reading!

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The Good News of Revelation
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Hazardous: Committing to the Cost of Following Jesus
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Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from the Doubters of Jesus

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Thanks so much for reading my books. If you have a moment today to share this post using the social media links below, I’d be grateful.

Happy reading!

If You Want to Stop Sinning, Stop Trying to Stop Sinning

Garden lettuce spiritual growth lessons

I used to plant the lettuce in my garden in long rows, thinning the sprouts according to the seed package’s specifications. Then I spent the rest of the summer pulling all of the weeds around my lettuce.

It’s likely that I pulled more weeds than harvested lettuce.

I liken weeding to mowing the lawn one blade of grass at a time. It’s my least favorite part of gardening, and since we garden organically, I had to come up with a better weed prevention strategy.

I thought I found my solution with a bale of straw. I could fill all of the gaps in our garden with straw and keep the weeds to a minimum. We saw a drop in weeds, but I still had to keep up with them. At the very least, I cut our weeding in half.

However, once we moved to Ohio where I built two raised beds in our small backyard, I discovered that straw wasn’t going to work. An army of slugs took refuge in our straw and used it as a highway to eat everything in our garden. We needed to find a way to prevent weeds without using chemicals and without covering the ground with fabric that would deplete the soil or straw that gave safe haven to slugs.

I found the solution in my in-law’s garden.

My in-laws have been gardening for as long as my wife can remember, and their lettuce patch replaces my orderly rows with a sprawling patch thick with lettuce. They spread their seeds in an area, thin the sprouts a bit, and let the heads of lettuce grow up right next to each other.

This was a huge “Aha!” moment for me.

We now grow a lot more lettuce and spend virtually no time weeding. As of this summer, I have yet to pull a single weed by our lettuce because our seeds were so evenly scattered.

Mind you, this is a bit of work at first. I had to spend a lot of time thinning the seeds I’d scattered. However, in the long run, I don’t have to do a thing most days. There are no weeds competing for garden space because I’ve invested time in creating so much life in our garden.

The key to defeating weeds is to invest in growing healthy plants that will take their space.

I was doomed to keep fighting weeds as long as I was focused on weed prevention rather than plant cultivation.

I have seen the same principle play out in my life when it comes to Christian living. If I want to leave sin behind, I have to stop fighting against sin. We can only leave sin behind when we pursue something (or someone) else in its stead.

When we talk about repentance, we often speak of an abrupt “about-face” or turning away from our plans to God’s plans. If you think about it, fighting sin or sin-prevention strategies prevent us from actually turning away from our sinful ways in order to pursue God.

We’re so busy looking at what we can’t have that we’re unable to see what God offers instead.

Fighting sin does nothing to cultivate the health of God in our lives. We’ll just keep moving from one “weed” to another, waiting for another weed to sprout in our lives since nothing else has been sown in its place.

While we can always take commonsense steps to avoid sin, the real victory over sin is won when we give God space in our lives and actively pursue God. Whether serving others or devoting time for prayer, these steps toward God keep us turned away from sin. Repentance is turning away from sin, but holiness happens in our daily interactions with God.

There is freedom in the pursuit of God that conquers sin. While there are moral standards of a sort for Christians, we leave certain paths behind because of Christ’s “yes” rather than our own “no” that strives for holiness.

We have been called. Christ has said, “Come!” to you and to me because we surely thirst for the redemption he offers.

He has better things for us, but we’ll never leave our own plans behind if we refuse to believe it.

Franklin Graham Does Not Understand Holiness

Franklin Graham and his holiness fail.
Image of Franklin Graham from The Christian Post.

In a recent speech, Franklin Graham demanded that pastors in his audience speak out boldly on several moral issues, lest they fall under God’s wrath for being cowards. He said:

“The definition of a coward: a coward will not confront an issue that needs to be confronted due to fear. That is a coward,” said Graham.

“God hates cowards. And the cowards that the Lord is referring to are the men and women who know the truth but refuse to speak it.”

Graham essentially used the fear of God to prompt his audience to overcome their fears of speaking out.

There are many different aspects of Graham’s talk we could challenge, but I’d like to call into question the role of a wrathful God who hates people in prompting people to change their behavior, such as speaking out on specific moral issues. Graham’s right wing agenda aside, is God really in heaven with his finger on the “hell” button, waiting for us to screw up? I know that I’ve lived this way, fearing that one day’s failure had finally cut me off from God.

Most importantly, how does this approach to God’s wrath and holiness compare to the message of Jesus and the New Testament writers about holiness?

A misconception of holiness is at the heart of Graham’s statement. According to Graham, God demands a particular lifestyle, one of moral crusading in American culture, and those unwilling to conform to God’s program receive God’s hatred and an eternity of suffering.

I’ve stated that crassly, but I believe it’s accurate because I also thought that way for most of my life. It’s pretty much what you’ll hear today if you listen to most Christian radio shows.

The only way to avoid God’s wrath in Graham’s system is to change your actions out of fear for self-preservation.

Did Jesus relate to people through fear and the threat of his hatred?

 

How Did Jesus Interact with Sinners?

Jesus said he didn’t come to judge the world. Isn’t that nice to know? Perhaps he knew that his followers would do enough of that in the future.

In fact, Jesus adopted the role of doctor, comparing the “notorious sinners” of his day with the sick. They were still told to leave their lives of sin, but he didn’t walk around telling people to clean up their acts or God would hate them.

In fact, Jesus sat down to share meals with tax collectors and women with unsavory reputations. When Jesus saw someone living in sin, whether that was cowardice, sexual immorality, cheating, or violence, he had… wait for it… compassion.

Rather than Jesus pounding his fist on the table and shouting that his followers needed to shape up, he slapped his palm to his head when they failed to understand the gift of the Spirit that would empower them to serve others rather than rule as kings.

Far from sitting with his finger on the hell button, Jesus rolled up his sleeves and entered into real life with people. He humbled himself, even taking the form of a servant to help us find the way of redemption.

He called his disciples “friends” rather than threatening them with an eternity of suffering.

Before facing the cross, he promised that the Spirit would come to empower us, fill us wisdom, and guide us into all truth. Yes, there are consequences for rejecting the message of Christ. But he related to others through mercy and grace, imparting his Spirit to imperfect people who desperately needed God’s presence in order to pursue holiness.

 

How Do We Live Holy Lives?

Whatever you’re trying to do for the sake of Christ, the most important lesson from the Gospels and epistles is the centrality of the Holy Spirit. You won’t last long by simply trying harder.

Living in fear of an angry God will grow old.

When fear of God gives way to loving God as a father, holiness becomes a natural response.

Graham wants the pastors in his audience to fear God, and he’s hoping that this fear of God will trickle down into their congregations. He wants them to try harder as culture warriors in order to win God’s favor.

Sadly, Graham has adopted a kind of works-based righteousness for the sake of a political agenda.

Graham doesn’t realize that God’s favor already belongs to us. All who are thirsty are called to come and drink. God so loved the world after all…

Before the cross, God had an intense, undying love for us.

In the epistle to the Romans, Paul had God’s mercy rather than his wrath in mind. He also called his readers to be renewed in their minds rather than trying harder:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  (Romans 12:1-2, NIV via BibleGateway)

I rarely call out specific Christians in my writing, but Franklin Graham’s approach to holiness is contrary to the message of Jesus. It grieves me to think that pastors who look up to him are receiving a message that fails to consider the mercy of God, the healing Jesus brings, and the power we receive from the Spirit to live in holiness.

Paul wrote that the Spirit of God does not give us a spirit of fear (2 Timothy 1:7, BibleGateway). We have been adopted as God’s sons and daughters. God demands holiness. It’s not a free for all, but God’s ways under the Spirit are not rooted in fear and wrath.

God relates to us as a caring and compassionate parent who desires to restore us—end of story.