In the darkness of the middle of the night, I was wielding a baseball bat and chasing burglars through unlit hallways and across a rooftop. It was 1986, and another pastor and I lived in a church that had been burglarized earlier in the day. Separated from my fellow pastor, I pursued several fleeing figures that I could barely see, hoping to get close enough to . . . I don’t know what. Turning a faintly lit corner, I came face to face with a police officer, his gun drawn and pointing at my chest. “Stop right there!” he commanded. I did. “Who are you?” he demanded. Raising my hands and baseball bat above my head, I stammered, “I’m a pastor—Ralph Harris—and I live here. My roommate must have called you.”
I have never forgotten the feeling of grave danger and of being out of control. My life was on the line unless and until I answered that question adequately and the truth made the difference. I did and it did.
I want you to stop, at least for a moment, and answer the question, “Who are you?” However you answer that question will reveal what you think will save you because your life is on the line. Right now.
There is an awful lot that suggests an “awful you” or a “lesser you,” one that bears little resemblance to who you are because of how you’ve been made—or re-made by God. And if you’re reading this, chances are good that you know what I’m talking about: the new creation you. I’m not talking about the businessman or businesswoman you, I’m not talking about the student you, the employee you, or the father, mother, son or daughter you. Those are all tributary identities to the primary identity—to the source identity—to the “you”you truly are. I’m talking about the you that is clean, holy and perfect, the Spirit-born you, an actual son of God, a light in this world, in whom the Kingdom of God dwells, because God saw to it when he took care of you through the new birth in Christ.
I’m talking about that you.
I simply want to remind you today that sometimes you’ve got to stop or be stopped (as it was with me) in order to think again about who you are because it can get lost in the things we do. And if we have been made to live by faith in Christ (that He is who He says He is, perfect God toward man) and that you and I are who He says we are (perfect sons and daughters), then we’re going to have to answer that question, “Who are you?” We’ll even have to ask it of ourselves so we can proceed in our days and live from the answer. Only then can our lesser and tributary identities receive and be influenced from the source.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got to ask that sort of question of myself all the time. As perfectly united with God as I am, having Him now inside of me, when I wake in the morning sometimes it seems as though God and I did nothing together at all yesterday, or that He doesn’t even exist, which puts me in serious trouble. I’ve lost my identity and am subject to the lesser ones of this world. There’s a lot of grief and twistedness there. But He does exist, and I am well with Him; it’s just that my thinking needs a repentance—a “WAKE UP!” call.
“Who are you?!”
And then I am revived. The Holy Spirit in me sees to me, takes care of me, and together we can do all things. So can you when you’ve had your wake up call. Maybe this, “Stop right there!” will serve that purpose.
Do you have some thoughts about Easter? Let me ask you a question: When Jesus was on the cross, where were you?
If we think of Jesus as going to the cross by Himself, we have a discounted Easter, an Easter worth less than it actually is. That’s no bargain. We don’t have everything, and we need to.
While enduring the awful human torment of carrying a shameful cross through the streets of Jerusalem and out to Calvary on the edge of the city, Jesus—God Himself—knew what was before Him. Through the pain, He was overjoyed!
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, italics mine).
Seemingly all alone on His tortured trek through town and the many people lining the streets, Jesus held a fantastic secret: He was taking them with Him. They thought they were onlookers to a tragedy only; He knew they were participants, not just in the cause but also in the act and triumphant result.
An incredible, miraculous, retroactive and future fact of Easter is that Jesus’ faithfulness to the cross was the initial act of bringing to an end one creation—darkened, stumbling, sin frustrated mankind—and the making of another—a glory-sharing, innocent and holy new race (See Ephesians 2:14-22). That was His joy, and now it’s ours!
On the cross and knowing what was coming in three days, Jesus reached for you in the crowd—the crowd in the past, the crowd right in front of Him, and the crowd in the future—and accomplished God’s timeless desire; union with His people. He didn’t simply hold you close, He brought you in. Jesus removed what hindered us and brought us into Himself, where there can be no distance, no transgression and no fault, making us new, safe and secure with Him, who loves us perfectly. And He did it in three days through two acts: the cross and the resurrection.
Romans 6:6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.
Ephesians 2:6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
Easter is all about life to the full—Christ’s and yours. When Jesus rose and fairly strutted out of the tomb (as I picture it), He was full and full of joy! We were in Him, and He was joyously satisfied, just as He planned.
He is risen! And so are we. Happy Easter!
(See Romans 6:1-7; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:6-7)
Do you have favorite odd verses in the Bible? You know, scriptures that cause you to tilt and scratch your head, and pull on your chin in wonder? “Whaaaat? That seems backwards.” I sure do. One of my favorite examples of how God does this on purpose will be beautifully proven in the next few days. It’s from the New Testament book of Philemon 1:6: “I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ” (italics mine.)
For a long time, that seemed backwards to me. Doesn’t it to you? I thought people had to study and understand every good thing they have in Christ before they could be active in sharing their faith. It’s not so, oddly enough, and many of us will see it played out over the weekend.
Here’s what going to happen: starting today, people are going to feel encouraged and invigorated when they say or write simple yet meaningful Easter statements—you know, crucifixion and resurrection stuff. They’ll say things like, “Jesus died on the cross for me,” “Christ was raised from the dead to make me okay with God,” and maybe they’ll sing, “Christ the Lord is risen today . . .”
That’s going to happen a whole lot. People are going to say what they believe—more than they normally might—and then recognize and feel the goodness and fullness of what Christ has given to them. After saying or singing something, they’ll think, “I feel good about this,” and that proves my backwards scripture verse! They share their faith (“He is risen!”), and then they’re given a more-full understanding of every good thing they have in Christ. It hits them beautifully and perfectly because of Who is in them, standing up and cheering the truth.
Christ in us—the people of Easter—thinks we’re His workmanship, even our faith. I know it seems backwards, but aren’t you glad? Isn’t it fantastic that the gospel we love really is “the power of God”, and we feel it? How good is that? So buckle up and share, Easter people! Here comes your thrill ride.
“Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!”
Do you ever feel like you’re caught between what you want to do and what you have to do instead? Do you ever struggle between some kinds of business principles or workplace rules and those of the Kingdom? And does it ever get so frustrating that you have a blow up or a break down? You know, really lose it? I do.
I simply thought from Jesus this morning that He knows we’re prone to frustration and anxiety and outbursts of temper: “I can’t handle this!” And He has not one iota of condemnation for us—not one. I think He wants you to know that.
You and I are living while caught between two worlds—the temporal and the eternal. The one we can see, and the one we can’t. The one that passes away, and the one that lasts forever. Just as the world in which we fit and belong—the heavenly one—begins to get into focus—“I can see it! I can taste it!”—the other one comes barging in. I can be enjoying the day, knowing Jesus and trusting in Him, when suddenly something worldly knocks me over . . . or knocks me mad or regretful. This stupid and horrible pandemic. Politicians fighting over nonessentials. A sleepless night of worry that makes me edgy around my family, grumpy on social media, terse when asked for my opinion. And, let me tell you, it all starts adding up and boiling over.
Or maybe I read someone’s facebook post that’s supposed to encourage me, but it’s got so much, you know, over-the-top, “everything and everyone is beautiful, life is good, butterflies for everyone!” junk that I want to throw up on their post. It’s like I’m happily flirting with spiritual maturity, and then it rudely breaks up with me. “Not happening, baby breath! Change your diaper, Ralph!” I don’t like it at all.
But the truth is that I’m no less of an attractive target for the life, love and grace of God Himself than I was yesterday. Maybe I’m a bigger target. “Hooray for me!” I can imagine a picture of my face on a big billboard alongside the freeway with the title: “God’s most needy.” Frankly, we’re all in competition for that title; I just think I’m winning.
I know that none of us really wants to be the most needy place for God’s work today. But, if it’s true, He doesn’t mind. He doesn’t have something better to do. When you consider how He moved in order to get to the most needy during His days among us, do you think He’ll stop before getting to you, repulsed by your neediness? No way. He’s really good with you. He’s Perfect.
And He doesn’t have far to go in order to get to you, right?
Romans 5:5 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. (Where’s the glory or evidence of God going to show up best? In me. In you.) 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Parenthesis mine.)
So if you’re having one of those sloppy, stuck-in-between days, take a moment to breathe. There is such purpose to this life, and through it all, God holds us securely in Christ, holy and righteous, priests of the earth.
While this life is a mess, the next one won’t be. But in the next one there won’t be any chance to live by faith in what we cannot see, no opportunity to grow and succeed in the battle against temptation, no one to introduce to Jesus, no one to forgive, no friend we need to pray for, no groceries to buy for a neighbor or a down-and-outer, and no growing in Christ and the fruit of the Spirit in us. All done. Complete. Nothing will be in-between anymore. Everything will be exactly—way beyond exactly—as our hearts long for it to be.
That will be such a good day! It’s just not today.
There’s a whole lot of fear and suffering going around these days. Far and wide. Have you ever heard or read that we’re supposed to “rejoice in suffering”? Like if we’re good Christians, we’ll act all happy and cheer-leadery when life is bad, difficult and painful? Many of us think the “rejoice thing” is true, but we’re not sure why.
So that’s the question: Why rejoice in suffering? Whatever for? If you make it to the end of this message and you’re still sound and sober(!), I think you’ll be really glad.
For starters, it is very common that we do not see ourselves as “in Christ,” but as separate from Him. Maybe walking alongside of Him. That’s a problem. The New Covenant speaks far more of our being “in Christ” than it does of Him being in us, so it’s a problem if we don’t think about it very much. It’s actually going to hurt us in some way. Because we don’t think about where we are, in Christ, many people become fairly terrified about “suffering for Jesus,” and I don’t blame them. Seeing it that way—as though we were separate from Jesus—I would be nervous, too. Why wouldn’t we feel exposed and vulnerable?
Much of my book, God’s Astounding Opinion of You, has to do with what God thinks He did for us and to us through the cross and resurrection, not the least of which is that He brought us into Christ, forever secure there, in Him. We have a new location, a new address that’s out of this world, and frankly, it’s astounding. He is in us and we are in Him.
Suffering that God permits is NOT directed at us, as though we will somehow become better for the suffering . . . if we rejoice enough. Suffering is not a penalty, suffering is not a goal, nor is suffering something that God hopes we’ll get through and by which we will get better. The sufferings of Christ at the cross have already had much to do with making us as good as we can get! But something happens to us through suffering. Something is produced in us and through us that shows something very important: it shows where God is—In us. He is in you. He is in me. And it shows how good He is where He is. We are together by design in suffering.
The target, the bull’s eye of undeserved suffering is Jesus, and that happens to be your location; it’s where you are—in Him. He is the target. Suffering is directed at Him. And what does He plan to do? Well, He plans to be Himself—what He is like—because of where He is, in you. That is your hope!
While we will grow in confidence about who we are and where we are (in Jesus), the purpose and hope for suffering is that Christ in us may be made evident—to us and to others—and that He will be exposed as living in us and affecting life through us. Wouldn’t that be great? Well, that’s the plan. Suffering gets at Christ in us, who is perfect for every need that suffering might put upon us.
I’m thrilled to find Christ in me any way I can, even through suffering—maybe especially through suffering, since the life and grace of Christ in me redeems an otherwise ugly and traumatic situation. Who doesn’t like finding Christ on the inside? What a pleasure. It’s my favorite. Especially in suffering.
This is why Paul wrote in Romans 8:18—I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Wait. Who is in us? Jesus. His plan is to show up and to be revealed in us in suffering. Wouldn’t that be a glory?
Consider the following: 1 Peter 4:12—Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.
Where is His glory going to be revealed? In you. In me. Whose sufferings were the people of God enduring? Well, not their own sufferings, but Christ’s. Did they probably feel like it was their sufferings? Oh, yes! But because these Christians knew where they were—in Christ—they knew better than to get deceived and accidentally rob Jesus of His sufferings and His opportunities. Satan would surely love to deceive us into believing that suffering is only ours, but we know the truth.
Where were the sufferings directed? At Jesus. And where would the evidence and glory of God be revealed? In and through His people. What a plan. That’s why they were going to be “overjoyed”. They weren’t going to be “overjoyed” because they were obeying a command: “Look here, my sons and daughters. Be overjoyed when bad stuff happens.” No. That’s not it at all. They were going to find “Christ in me, the hope of glory” (see Colossians 1:27). And the onlookers, the fans gathered in the stadium seats to watch the Supernatural Bowl that was happening in the Christians, were going to see Jesus. It’s the same for us today.
Today. Right now.
1 Peter 4:14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (He’s going to do something!) 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. (Well, that makes sense, because He’s not involved in that stuff.) 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name…19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator (Where is He? Inside of us.) and continue to do good. (Parentheses mine.)
This suffering “according to God’s will” attracts us not to a performance that we’re supposed to work up and carry out, but to God, who lives in us and who works through us. He is exposed, both to us and to our audience. We look for Jesus in us—inside and happy and capable. Perfectly. Of course! That’s how He is. That’s the plan.
This is what the apostle Paul wrote about to the Colossian Christians. It’s an otherwise odd verse: “Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of His body (or the benefit of His body), which is the church” (Colossians 1:24, parenthesis mine).
Why would Paul rejoice in suffering? Because he knew who the target was, Jesus, and Paul was in Him. “Hey! I’m involved with God in suffering!” he might have said. And he knew that while the target was Jesus, Paul was the vessel, the pouring out place for God’s great display to everyone in view; Jesus was in Paul. That was the plan. That was why he rejoiced. Paul knew and saw God!
Think of the benefits that came from that. Prison guards and their families became Christians as Paul spoke the gospel to them. People were healed. Paul wrote the prison epistles—Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon—under the terrible suffering and pressures of the worst kind of prison confinement. (It was nothing like a “self-quarantine” in a nice, well-stocked home.) Jesus was the target of the suffering, and Jesus in Paul was the evidence for which God had planned all along. The evidence of God came out of Paul, and Paul rejoiced at it. In suffering, we are together with God—Literally!
(This explains what’s happening in 2 Corinthians 1:3-11, where the Christians are sharing in the sufferings of Jesus, and the comfort of Jesus is overflowing from within them to others. It will help you to take a look at that chapter, and 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 as well. It’s terrific.)
In suffering, I’m going to see Jesus, and you are, too. All over the world, we are the gates for Jesus, the pouring out places for Him in us. How brilliant is that? That means I get Him, and so do you, and so do others—Jesus, all over the world. We will see the suffering, and then we will see the glory of God in us and around us. Count on it, and that’ll be faith.
See? This wasn’t so bad, was it? For the people of God, there’s actually good news about suffering.
I have found that failing to understand differences is always costly—ignorance is not bliss. If you do not know the difference between the Old and New Covenants, between Law and Jesus, you will suffer. The following will move you toward health, where you belong.
So what’s the difference between Law and Jesus? To answer that, let’s look through the lens of another question: What’s the difference between diagnosis and remedy? You have some experience with that, right?
For a long time, the Law of God proved the diagnosis that man was heartsick and could not heal himself. The Law was Diagnosis, not Remedy. The Law was perfect in proving man’s need for life—Jesus—on the inside. He is The Remedy. Those who have Remedy (and are forever free of Diagnosis) may, nevertheless, become entranced and entangled by Diagnosis. You know how that goes—they get confused because the only true way to life—God’s life—is through Remedy and what He gives and does by grace and for free. Diagnosis is merciless and powerless. Have you ever been examined and exhausted by it? I bet you have.
In the same way that you cannot live just by knowing what’s wrong with you, Diagnosis is worthless except it points to Remedy. The only thing Diagnosis has ever done well is to be the set-up for Remedy. Remedy ends Diagnosis in the same way that Jesus ends the Law. If you have Jesus, the other is done. Finished. Obsolete. Irrelevant.
If Diagnosis has been busily proving failure and sickness to you, be done with it. It’s not for you and it won’t help. You know who The Remedy is, and it’s Him you want. Tell Him. Talk with Remedy. Turn your faith to Him and how He is toward you, because that’s how you live. He is the life—the giver and producer of it—for you and your heart. He has everything you need for free, and He makes fantastic house calls.
If you don’t know what and where God’s playground is, it’s likely because something else has distracted you and kept you from it. You don’t want to miss a good playground with God, do you? Well, as a son or daughter of His, you’re set up for this.
First, beware of acquiring so much information about relationships that you treat people as case studies for the templates you access in the file cabinets of your brain. Do you have some of those? I sure do. Those templates, whether they involve children, adults, co-workers, love-interests, relatives or strangers, can easily get in the way of Christ in you and the leading and evidence of the Holy Spirit in you. Plus, you’ll not as easily get to know God, who is all about relationships and is rather good at them. While relationships get our interest—and they must—they are the playgrounds of God with you. Keep the truth of the gospel in the center of your relationships, reflecting upon it and the immediate presence of the Spirit, and you and yours will know “the power of God.”
Let me show you this from the New Testament. The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 2:1–“And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, 4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”
That makes a difference, right?
So why was the great apostle Paul afraid and trembling when with the Corinthians? Well, certainly the Corinthians had a not-so-good reputation for behavior toward others. Paul likely knew that. However, I think Paul trembled because he didn’t erect and rely upon a personal façade, a kind of “Here’s-the-image-I-want-to-project-to-the-Corinthians” template to get them to do what he wanted. He had nothing to hide behind. No personality to push at them so they’d understand better. No excessive happiness (“You Corinthians are the greatest people in the world! You’re my best friends!”), no professional demeanor (“Please take your seats, Corinthians, and I, apostle, professor, bishop, reverend, ex-Pharisee, brother Paul, shall bring you the gospel hidden for thousands of years.”), and he had no promise of prosperity following his ministry among them if they tithed (“You’re on the gravy train now, Corinthians! The wealth of Rome is on its way to you!”). No, he had none of that.
Among the Corinthians, Paul believed that knowing Jesus and that He had been crucified for them all was the best way to navigate relationships—elbow to elbow, face to face. No façade. No show. No template. When he could easily have put up a front that conveyed confidence and authority, he chose instead the defenselessness of knowing Jesus right then, whether Jesus gave him anything to say or not. That is scary. And that is where the evidence of Christ in you is uncovered. Is it mysterious? Of course it is! It’s white knuckles sometimes! It’s choosing an uncertain blindness to what fills the eyes for what fills the heart instead—and that’s God. But unless you choose it, you may not find how good life in the heart really is.
In a phrase, it’s worth it! And it’s yours by grace.
When you do this you may find yourself saying a lot less, actually. I have. You may find yourself caring a lot more. You may find that you see people differently—better, more truly. You may find that it gets easy because it’s with Him, and that’s the point of Christianity—with Him, who comes to live in you. You may find that what you do say to people is right from your heart to theirs. And that is going to be meaningful.
That is why a godly trembling might be just the thing for you right about now—a holding back from the old relational templates of days gone bye . . . when you didn’t have more, when you didn’t have Who you have now. It will mean that God is calling you to the playground. A little “Come away with me. Let’s do something great for people. You and I, we’re good at this together.”
A recurring plague amongst Christians is summed up by the confession, “I worry about how I’m doing with God.” Do you know that worry? While it doesn’t exactly kill us, I think of it as something like the contemporary Christian version of the Black Plague of the 14th Century. It threatens and cripples a lot of us a lot of the time, darkening our hopes. But it doesn’t have to.
To see if you’ve got the plague, think for a moment on this question: “Can I, a Christian, sin up a storm and lose anything with God?” If you answered, “Yes,” then you’re sick.
When the apostle Paul wrote the following to the sin-crazed Corinthians, he wasn’t making something up in order to gain a following; he knew something foundationally important. “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (1 Corinthians 10:23). I’m concerned that the church today majors upon the “but not,” rather than upon the “All things are lawful, . . .” How about you? Which part gets your focus? Are you a “but not” person?
Oftentimes, we think of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth as a “but not” letter. In other words, “You can do all kinds of stuff, but not _______________.” Indeed, there is a lot of corrective instruction for the Corinthians, but “correction” always brings one back to the truth. Always. As you know, that’s especially important for a Christian, since he lives by and rests upon the foundational truth—the starting point—of the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is that truth? Well, it certainly is not that we mustn’t have divisions in the church (1 Corinthians 1-4), nor should there be immorality (chapter 5), nor lawsuits amongst brothers (chapter 6), nor freedom that takes advantage of another person (chapter 10). That’s all ancillary truth, or truth that supplements and comes about because of the starting point. So none of those are the starting point.
However, the Corinthians were looking pretty lousy in the ugly light of those things, so Paul warns them against the lunacy of running “aimlessly” from their starting point (See 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). The Corinthian runners were not in danger of God taking anything away from them, but of not enjoying the benefits given to them at the start of the race.
In every one of Paul’s eleven letters to the church, he begins with the benefits of our foundation, the starting point truth of the New Covenant in Christ. Here it is: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, you have everything from God already and can relax in your race concerning Him, because Jesus has run it and won it for you already, setting the world record, and given you the gold medal as your own. Run as the champion you are.
This is not some obligatory salutation, a mandatory greeting to simply get out of the way so Paul can get onto the deeper doctrine. This is everything. In our correction of others (whether we’re giving a sermon to a room full of people, writing a note, making a video, or simply addressing ourselves in our own head), if we do not start at the start, as Paul always did, we will succumb to the “but not” plague. In the light of how we look in our race, we’ll believe we’ve gone off course and gotten lost, and might be in danger at the finish line.
Look at Paul’s starting point with the Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 1:4 I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge— 6 God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. 7 Therefore you do not lack any gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. 8 He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
That is the every day, every moment starting point for every runner in Christ. You have everything God could give you. You’ve lost nothing. That is the New Covenant. God took you out of having to ever earn anything of the everything He has already given you in Christ. You’re not part of the covenant equation—there’s no pressure upon you to keep it. It’s all on Him. You simply get all of the benefits. Forever. He has seen to it already.
You can run because of your beginning, which has taken care of your finish. This is how a Christian lives, by looking to his beginning point. “Ralph, you’re done. Look at Jesus—keep your eyes upon Him—because He is your reward before you run anywhere. To be sure, you will know some corrections on the course—some ‘but nots’—but you can do anything, Ralph—it’s all legal, it’s all lawful—because the race is won. Press on.”
Do you see what that does? Those who have stumbled, get up again. Those wearied are renewed in strength. Those who doubt they can make it to the end because of how they’re running, take heart because the secure and excellent end is not in doubt. “He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8).
After assuring the Colossian Christians of their secure, New Covenant starting point, Paul writes:
Colossians 3:1-4 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.
What a finish line! And what a glory that will be.
A question came to me recently: “Ralph, I often hear people say, ‘I can’t seem to forgive myself.’ What do you think of that?”
Frankly, I don’t like that wording. To me, and in my experience with others, it keeps the complete forgiveness of Jesus—an accomplished event and fact—as “incomplete” or even “insufficient” for a Christian. In other words, I don’t enjoy what Jesus did for me until and unless I do something to finish the job. I’m put into a position of separate authority, even a higher authority than Jesus. That will drive me crazy. A possibility of a work not yet done—mine—keeps the enjoyment of a sovereign benefit already given—His—from being enjoyed. It’s similar to what Paul warned the Corinthians about in 2 Corinthians 6:1 — a receiving of God’s grace “in vain.” In other words, grace has been given to me and I have it, but I’m not enjoying the benefits.
What Jesus Did for Us
I’ve heard people instruct listeners to forgive themselves, but instructing people to forgive themselves is like instructing them to “rest in Christ.” Neither actually requires anything of a Christian, but we can sure mess them up if we lead them to think otherwise. Christians ARE forgiven and ARE at rest in Christ. He did it for us. That’s the grace of God for us. We may not feel like we’re forgiven, we may not believe we’re at rest, but if you’re a Christian, you are forgiven and you are at rest. That’s the gospel, and that’s good news. Examine it, turn it over in your mind, and ask the Spirit about it—“Am I really forgiven? Am I really at rest?” But don’t set Christians up in a way the New Covenant does not.
Let’s help people believe the truth about forgiveness and rest so they can enjoy the benefits of what Jesus gave them.
Our Work is Done
Christ’s sacrifice for sin and our forgiveness was perfect and perfectly enduring; there is now no sacrifice for sin needed (see Hebrews 10:1-18).
Christ’s perfect accomplishments and the gift of His perfect righteousness have achieved for us a perfect rest from any works to achieve any perfect-er(!) condition with God. Belief into Christ (salvation) becomes our entrance into His perfect rest (see Hebrews 4).
Each of these points—perfect forgiveness and perfect rest—is essential to our identity and not something we must achieve. Before the cross and resurrection, during the Old Covenant, Jewish believers improved their identity and earned blessing by their obedience. They became righteous, became forgiven, and were given rest by what they did. After the cross and resurrection, because of the New Covenant, Christians are given an identity because of what Christ did. We are the righteous, we are the forgiven, we are at rest apart from our obedience. That’s our identity!
If we do not know the gift of our new and perfect identity, if we’re taught and if we believe we have to achieve an identity, then the grace of God to us in Christ is ours in vain, and behavior-focused legalism is inescapable. And crippling. This is why the gospel is such good news, as well as why it’s such important news!
Living in Forgiveness and Rest
We have been made new and obedient from the heart (Romans 6:17), apart from anything we have done, and that’s where our union with God is most obvious and effective. From the heart! He’s right there. He’s right here. And when we know it and live in faith, our behavior is going to be easily affected because we’re affected. We’re fruitful branches knowing our place in the Vine. We are receivers, and He is producer. Because we are in Christ, forgiven and at rest, we don’t have problems to solve, but new situations for us to know Him and His leading in our heart. That’s new life. You and I need to renew our minds to this truth all the time, but we will never need to renew our hearts. We renew our thinking, and our hearts come forth. I bet you’ve noticed that.
This is why the gospel of identity must precede the gospel of behavior. Get them reversed, get them mixed up (“You have to forgive yourself!” “You have to rest in Christ!”), and it’s no wonder believers struggle tremendously and believe they’re incapable, broken, sinful, unforgiven, powerless, not at rest, have two natures, and have a whole lot of work to do that Jesus did not. That is anti-Christ, and we don’t want anything to do with that.
We are the forgiven. We are at rest in Christ. He is the Benefactor, and we the beneficiaries. He will not ever allow that to reverse! That’s what we believe, and life is found and realized by believing.
I don’t like walking into a room without any light. You know, pitch black. I will carefully and fully caress the walls around my entry point, searching for the light switch that makes navigating the room possible. And if children have been in the room before me, then I know there are toys and kid-built structures lurking that either I will break or which will hurt me when I step on them. Landmines.
If I have to go forward without light because I can’t find the switch, then I take on the “I am a shuffling ninja!”posture. I slide my feet as if ice-skating on the floor, wary of damaging plastic toys and little cars, and extend my arms as if Kato from the Pink Panther movies is about to attack. I go all kinds of crazy.
Yes, I am Peter Sellers—Inspector Clouseau—when the lights are out. Frankly, even when they’re on.
The truth is that everyday is like walking into a dark room of unknown danger, and there’s never enough light, never enough understanding or ninja skill to avoid pain. However, there is one thing, one amazing, better-than-anything-ever-invented piece of reality that you and I do get: God’s love. That keeps and enables us through it all. I’m serious.
In the last 24 hours here’s what I have encountered: a woman who is enduring the pain of having recently lost a twin in childbirth. She wonders, “Why me?” On the way home from a church gathering, I passed by a five car accident, and saw the pain of a woman holding her face with blood-stained hands. And she wonders, “Why me?” And just now I saw on the news that an amazing, one of a kind, rookie baseball pitcher, who came to the big leagues right out of high school, has torn the muscles and ligaments of his shoulder and will require immediate surgery. He will be kept out of baseball for 12-18 months, and it may well be that his career is over before it begins. You know he has to wonder, “Why me?”
We know that we will all meet with pain and stunned questioning throughout our days—there is no escaping it. Work as hard as we can, pray as hard as we might, and “Why me?” events will break through anyway. What will get you and me through all of it is God’s love. While a good attitude, a solid support group, and decent health care help in times of trouble, it has been and always will be knowing God’s love that makes noble conquerors out of victims.
Love is famously described in 1 Corinthians 13: love is patient and kind, it doesn’t envy or boast, it isn’t proud or rude, it isn’t self-seeking or easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs, it doesn’t delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth, and it always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres—it never fails.
Be sure to notice that love described in the passage is not what we’re supposed to do; it’s not an assignment—Here’s how Christians should behave. That’s not it. This is a description of what love is. Love is wonderful! And love, God’s love, is most obvious, powerful and best known in calamity. Consider what the apostle Paul, the expert on calamity, wrote about God’s love in Romans 8. That’s the passage that describes what keeps us and makes us spectacular during the “Why me?” events of our days.
The apostle Paul writes, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
Look, there’s a lot about sorrow and suffering in the New Testament, some of which comes with the specific purpose that Jesus’ life—His loves and desires and feelings and abilities—may be revealed in us and through us (see 2 Corinthians 4:7-12). That’s an amazing reality and an incredibly honorable fact of our days in this age. Really! Christ in us. Him. And much of the stuff that goes on around us is getting at Him in us. But what keeps us secure and noble as we face death and are considered by some as “sheep to be slaughtered,” is knowing and trusting God’s love for us—especially, knowing it for yourself.
Wanting to know His love is the best desire and prize of my life. It shapes my days, channels my efforts and focuses my hopes in the midst of uncertain, dangerous and ugly times. God’s love—for me and for you—is my favorite benefit of having Him living in me right now. Frankly, I wish that after God first made His home in me in 1980, that His entrance meant I could figure out and avoid all of the ugly and painful pitfalls of my days. I have even attempted to employ angels and God Himself toward making my days entirely painless and free of “Why me?” events. That would be a life worthy of a major movie memorial, wouldn’t it? — “Ralph Harris: A man who motivated God to give him a pain free life.”
Unfortunately, I would have gone through this world’s not-so-painless death experience in order to get that title, so I think I’m giving up on it. Yeah. That’s not happening.
What is happening, however, is that I am growing in the joy, grace and purpose of God’s love for me. God’s love always affects the people who know it best. It won’t be hidden, it won’t be denied, and it won’t fail. Not ever.
And for this shuffling ninja, this stumbling man who is so loved, God’s love is the way forward. I suspect it’s yours, too.