Monday, May 16, 2016

The Un-Grace of Today's Piety

I recently spent some time reading the Pulpit&Pen blog and came away thinking it's not atypical of the un-grace behaviors we observe today in our churches and their pulpits.

So with full knowledge that I most likely will be accused of doing the same, I'll put my pen to the subject and provide my opinions on the matter.

What is Grace?

There's a parable that expresses grace very well, but no one ever teaches it that way.  We're tied more to un-grace and, as a result, we express that sentiment instead.  It's called the Parable of the Vineyard Workers and is found in Matthew 20:1-16.

In this parable the kingdom of God is likened unto a man who arose early, went out and found workers, agreed with the laborers a wage and hired them.  He later went out and hired other workers - but without the negotiations: he simply said, "you go into the vineyard too, and what ever is right, I will pay you."  This happened several times that day, at the third, sixth, ninth and the eleventh hour.  At the end of the day he instructed his foreman to pay all of the laborers, beginning with the last to be hired and ending with the first who were hired.  All of the workers received the same wage, even those who were hired first.  So they who were hired first grumbled, thinking they should receive more.  The vineyard owner said, 
"'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?'  So the last will be first, and the first last."
Only in our propensity towards un-grace can we see this as a lesson about God doing what He will with you - His prerogative -  and you just needing to suck it up and be happy you got something out of the deal.

But lets look more closely.

This parable does speak towards the right to "do what I choose with what belongs to me."  But the parable has more to do with His generosity than it does with his money.  Observe how the wage was agreed upon:
After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.
Did you notice who was setting the wage?  It doesn't say, "after the laborers agreed with him for a denarius a day."

In other words, the laborers had a wage in mind, asked for that wage and the owner agreed.  All of the other laborers hired that day did not ask for a wage, but were instead encouraged to place their faith in the owner, that he would indeed pay them "whatever is right."

At the end of the day, the owner paid what was owed to the laborers hired early in the morning.  But he poured out generosity - grace - upon those who chose to trust in his good nature, his integrity: that he would do as he promised.

So then, this parable isn't teaching about God's prerogative, that you just need to buck up and accept your lumps.  It's teaching about the generosity of God: that He can be trusted to be generous - just as the owner was trusted to make good on his word: "I will pay you what is right."

And as a side note, it's suggesting that it's best to let God decide how to reward you rather than asking for recompense yourself: the last will be first, and the first last.  When you set the rules, you're saying "I'm first."

What is Un-Grace?

Without realizing it at the time, un-grace is the reason I left what many consider to be main-stream Christianity.  It's taken a good long time to unlearn and undo the damage unknowingly inflicted upon my soul and spirit all those years ago.  I would go as far to say that I'm still un-doing the damage today.  But don't get me wrong: I am thankful of my Baptist up-bringing and for some of the teachers I learned from - there are things they get right: fundamental truths they properly understand and teach.  But eventually, I had to discharge myself from their ranks and find relationship with God through His word without the encumbrances of the traditions of men I had learned to embrace, love and disseminate.

So what exactly is un-grace?  Quite possibly the best explanation can be found in Philip Yancey's book, "What's So Amazing about Grace?," but I'll give it a bit of a go here.

Un-grace is expressed in many different forms.  One form is legalism: un-grace asserts one must work for a proper standing.  Un-grace makes people pay for their mistakes.  Un-grace condemns rather than builds up.  Un-grace requires repentance before forgiveness.  Un-grace is relentless in it's exposure of the sins of others.  Un-graces strips a person naked and exposes their shame.  And un-grace calls others stupid and dumb when they don't meet your expectations.

Another way in which un-grace is expressed is when it uses the Bible as a sword against believers, or people in general - something I've been guilty of many times.  So "what's wrong with that," you might ask?  Plenty.  Lets allow scripture speak to the issue in order to understand why.

In the book of Ephesians, Paul equates the word of God to the sword of the Spirit; specifically, to be used against the enemy:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.  Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.  Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace.  In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one;  and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints (Eph. 6:10-18)
Paul clearly states that "supplication" is to be made for the saints - not "use the word of God" to wrestle against the saints.  Secondly, these things - as enumerated by Paul above - are known as the "weapons of our warfare" (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  No where in scripture are we exhorted to take up spiritual weapons against people.  Quite the contrary: we are encouraged to bless those who curse us (Luke 6:28).

Consider also, Galatians 6:1
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.
The point, therefore is this:  the sword of the spirit is not to be used against people: it is to be used against our common enemy.  Anyone overtaken or caught (eaten before others is the idea in the Greek - Satan seeks to devour: 1 Peter 5:8) is to be restored in gentleness.  But that is not what we do, that is not what we see happening.  What we observe is outright condemnation and vile disparaging, the laying bare and casting of shame.  And if there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, then what right do we have to condemn others?
Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:4)

Deceitful Religion

James is one of my favorite authors.  He is incredibly deep: with few words he packs incredible amounts of truth.  Consider the following:
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heartthis man's religion is worthless.  Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27)
First, what is a religion?  In its simplest form, religion may be defined as a particular system of faith (beliefs) and worship (actions).  That definition certainly fits a belief system resulting in works.

Secondly, he's not condoning religion.  While he refers to those who have and express a religion through words, he's careful to define a pure religion through action: tending to orphans and widows in need, and keeping oneself unstained from the world (hardly an apt definition of Christianity today).

Finally, consider that the great commission did not include an admonition to keep one's self unstained - that's simply to say this: we're not commissioned to pursue moral purity, we're commissioned to be witnesses (Acts 1:8;  moral purity is a topic for another blog).

However, what we want to pay attention to from James' admonition is this bit of truth:
those who do not bridle their tongues, practice a religion of deceiving their own hearts.
In other words, James is asserting that we can express our religion through our speech.  And an unbridled tongue is the evidence required to expose a worthless religion.

Bridle

Lets make sure we understand bridle.  It means to hold in check, to restrain - so James is referring to those of us who do not keep in check, or restrain our tongue, our speech - which is sourced from our thoughts, ideas and imaginations.  

Deception

Jesus addressed deception and lies when He said, "you will know the truth and the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).  If knowing truth sets you free, then what does knowing a lie do?  It does the exact opposite: it puts you into bondage, into a stronghold.  And scripture is clear on what we're to do with strongholds:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (for the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ; (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)

Our Heart

Finally, we need to understand that our speech reflects our inner most being:
Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23)  
For as he thinks within himself, so he is.  He says to you, "Eat and drink!" but his heart is not with you. (Proverbs 23:7)

In Conclusion 

James is saying this: "when you do not bridle your tongue (when you speak condemnation), you may believe you're doing well, but you're not: you're deceiving yourself and practicing a religion based in self deception."

In condemning others, we use the Bible as a sword (as a weapon) against people: that's the deception of our hearts, the tongue unbridled, as James called it.  Condemnation is un-grace, it is the opposite of restoring someone in gentleness.
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. And the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:17-18)

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