BY PAUL DUNK
According to Martin Luther, it is human nature is a little like a drunkard trying to ride a horse. When we fall off into a ditch on the left, we resolve not to make that mistake again, and so we remount with such force that we soon find ourselves in the ditch on the right. Historically speaking, the church has fallen off the gospel horse into the ditches of legalism and lawlessness.
From the ditch of legalism, the Scriptures that tell us that our justification has nothing to do with anything we do, but rests solely on everything Christ did … and then we grit our teeth.
From the ditch of lawlessness, the Scriptures that tell us that the grace that scandalously saved us is also reforming us to live godly lives … and then we head for the hills.
Despite the fact that the we fall into these sorry ditches like drunken Christian peasants, the Hound of Heaven hunts us down. He rescues us and takes us back. Again and again and again – and again.
As we find ourselves on the precipice of a new year, I thought I’d write about two different ditches that seem to get extra deep around New Years.
I’ve fallen into both, so my directness here as not an exercise in ax grinding – I’m guilty of falling into what I’m addressing. As Mark Twain once said …
“If you hold a cat by the tail, you learn things that cannot be learned in any other way.“
I know the confusion and frustration that comes with pitching your tent in these ditches, and I hope that sharing this serves you as you look toward 2017 to navigate your own thoughts, feelings and expectations for the upcoming year.
THE DITCH OF SPIRITUAL CONSUMERISM
As spiritual consumerists, we see our faith as a tool for getting things from God.
In this ditch we still use the language of Christianity, but we’re functioning more like deists. We look toward the new year and our expectations are stratospheric because we don’t relate to God like He’s a wise and loving Father who gives us what we need, we relate to Him like a genie in a lamp who exists to grant wishes.
In a consumer theology of prayer, God is only relevant if He gives us what we’re ‘believing for’. We say the gospel is good news but functionally, it’s old news. If God doesn’t grant our requests, we will question His nature and His existence. We get confused and angry because from this ditch, we have very little use for God who doesn’t give us what we want.
I’ve done it. I used to start each new year by writing things down that I wanted from God. Now, if I was simply making my requests known to God in a Philippians 4:6 sort of way, that would have been fantastic – but that’s not what I was doing.
I grew up being taught that faith needed a target. It needed to be directed towards something. What I discovered after the doctrines of God’s grace gripped my heart, was that Christian faith already has a target – and it’s not something God has, it’s Someone God is.
While the scriptures invite us to make our requests known to God, they never instruct us to make our requests the focus, the target or object of our faith. Elevating a request so that it becomes the target, hence the focus of our faith, dethrones Christ.
Just in case you think I’m splitting hairs using wordplay here, consider the implications when something and not Someone becomes the object of our faith.
When our requests eclipse Christ as the object of our faith, we begin to define God’s faithfulness by our checkmarks instead of by Christ’s cross.
If we pray for something and we receive it, then check! – God is faithful. If we pray for something and nothing happens, or the opposite happens, then the jury is out on God’s faithfulness. I’ve done it and scores of people walk from the church because of it.
I’m not diminishing God’s faithfulness to answer our prayers or denying His ability to do miracles by His sovereign will. I’m saying that Christ’s cross is the determining factor for His faithfulness.
As we head into 2017, our faith does need a target – and that target is God’s grace for us in Christ, regardless of what’s happening around us, to us or in us.
THE DITCH OF FATALISM
As fatalists, we become indifferent to the loving nature of God.
‘Are you saying we shouldn’t ask God for things? If God already knows what we need before we ask Him for it in prayer – why bother praying? Does God’s sovereignty mean that our actions and our prayers are of no consequence …?’
Against a backdrop of disappointment, suffering, heartbreak or disillusionment with God because of unanswered prayer, we can fall into this ditch. I have. We stop praying because we’re not sure if God’s listening – or if He cares. We resign to the idea that if God wants to do something, He will. There’s no point in praying to Him about anything.
Except that Jesus is God and He tells us to pray.
God gives us prayer as a gift so that the grace that is objectively true in His gospel can be experienced as He ministers to our souls in prayer.
If we’re just pieces on a cosmic chessboard, being manipulated by God for reasons unknown to us, then we have no reason to look out into 2017 with humble confidence that God’s grace will be sufficient for us.
In this ditch, our distorted view of God’s sovereignty justifies our aversion to prayer. Ironically, we say that God is sovereign but by not praying to Him we demonstrate self sufficiency – making us sovereign.
God’s sovereignty isn’t cold fatalism. He didn’t set the world into motion to sit back and be indifferent to our lives. Search the scriptures and you will find that His sovereignty looks like loving, gracious Fatherly engagement.
GRACE FOR A NEW YEAR
As we rest in God’s grace, we recognize faith as a gift for enjoying life with God.
According to the scriptures, God doesn't exist for us at all. We exist for Him. That’s an essential distinction that gives rest to our hearts.
We don’t need to stress and try to get God to endorse whatever we think is the next great chapter in our story in 2017. We’ve been swept up into His massive, eternal, grace-laced story.
As creatures whose lives are in the capable and loving hands of our creator, we have good reason to look toward this next year with hope – not in a particular set of circumstances, but that united to Christ, God’s grace is sufficient in all circumstances.
Live your life boldly, Christian.
God is on the other side of everything you choose, working it out for the good of your salvation and for His glory. You are not defined by your successes or your failures this next year - you are defined by a cross. You are His.
Throughout the New Testament epistles you find the words, “grace and peace to you” in their introductions. This is because grace is what the gospel is for you and peace is what the gospel gives to you.
The gospel liberates us from the torment of being held hostage by circumstance.
May you look toward this new year with humble confidence, incredible peace and indestructible hope as the gospel continually draws your attention back to what Christ accomplished at His cross and forward to what He has promised in His return.
May God’s grace strengthen your heart and lift your head in the paradox of joy and pain that is this life. May you increasingly know God’s love toward you and His power in you this year.
Paul is a graduate of Knox Theological Seminary and the founding pastor of KW Redeemer in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario. He is an MCO race school graduate, but presently his main hobby is drinking espresso because it's cheaper than fixing cars. Paul and Susan live in Waterloo with their three children.