Sep 24, 2018

Has the Truth Set Me Free?—The Missing Step to Gaining Freedom

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). End of story, right? Jesus clearly laid out a two-step process here, one I memorized when I was a child. It’s probably on the tip of every Christian’s tongue. When friends have been struggling to overcome a sin or a painful thought pattern—perhaps self-hatred or an addiction—we have counseled them to seek out the truth, to study the truth, to believe and proclaim the truth. “It will set you free,” we urge. 

We are right—the truth does free us. And yet . . . examples pile up around us of long-term Christians who have never gotten victory over their habitual sins, sincere believers whose lives are not characterized by joy, and our own inner souls that are barely staying above water. What is going on?

“I know the truth,” your heart cries, “why do I still struggle with these thoughts?” 

“I know God loves me,” your friend cries. “I’ve read Song of Songs—He calls me lovely. Why do I still feel so ugly, so rejected, so unwanted?”

To be honest, none of us are entirely sure, and so we start talking about the difference between knowing and knowing; Greek-paradigm knowing and Hebrew-paradigm knowing; knowing in our heads versus knowing in our hearts. I have often seen agony inside an earnest woman’s eyes as she eventually grinds to a halt, wondering—“How on earth do I get my heart to know?” She feels she’s done all she can. Verses are memorized; truth is in her brain—if there is some magic way to make it travel down a few centimeters and end up in her heart, she doesn’t know what it is. Perhaps the only thing left to do is stand in the ministry line for prayer and keep asking the Holy Spirit to make the magic happen.

I grabbed my Bible recently to look up John 8:32, and my eyes wandered upward…upward to verse 31 and the words Jesus said right before He told us the truth would set us free. Forgotten words, dismissed words, words we have completely disassociated from the ones following. In a millisecond I learned a lesson I will never forget—do not glide along on memory rather than searching for what the Scripture actually, specifically, says. Right there in plain sight was the first part of His sentence—the key to how to know the truth came right before my memorized snippet that promised we would know the truth.

What I remembered as: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” actually says:If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

A few translations have the words of John 8:31 in the same sentence as John 8:32, others begin verse 32 with “and” or “then,” making “you shall know the truth” dependent on what comes before it. It is clear that these two verses are not unrelated snippets or proverbs—Jesus preached them in one teaching, one sentence, perhaps one breath. Here it is again in the New English Translation:

Then Jesus said to those Judeans who had believed him, “If you continue to follow my teaching, you are really my disciples and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)

The Amplified Version expounds: “If you abide in My word [continually obeying My teachings and living in accordance with them, then] you are truly My disciples.” Abide doesn’t simply mean read it every day. It means do it every day.

Context is not always king, but the first half of a sentence is! It turns out becoming free is a 3-step process, not the 2-step one that’s easier to remember and frankly, easier to agree with. We love the idea that when we know the truth, we will be free. It’s not as enticing to hear that the promise starts with a big “IF”—that in order to know the truth, we have to obeythe truth. 

It’s helpful to note that Jesus wasn’t talking to unbelievers here but to the ones who already believed on Him. He wasn’t saying, “Get saved, then you will be my disciples and know the truth.” Instead, He was telling current believers to live in His Word like a fish lives in the sea—breathe in it, sleep in it, eat in it, think it, see it, stay in it. Abide. Make it your world. Obey it. Follow it. Do it.

So the promise doesn’t go:

   KNOW the truth - - - - > be FREE

It goes:

   LIVE the Truth (the Word) - - - > then you’ll KNOW truth and - - -> be FREE

This progression is reiterated across Scripture. James, such a practical and passionate teacher, tells us to receive the Word with meekness and then he cries out, “But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). Peter also makes the connection clear in a little phrase that rings often through my thoughts: “Since you have purified your souls in obeying the truth by the Spirit…” The Contemporary English Version plainly and beautifully translates it as, “You obeyed the truth, and your souls were made pure.”

“Obeying” inherently includes the understanding that whatever it is we have to do doesn’t come naturally to us, wasn’t our idea originally, and may be a rather unpleasant choice for our flesh nature. Obeying is more than mental agreement—it’s always played out in our actions. This is why abiding can be explained as obeying—it means both staying and continuing in the Word. One can’t “continue in” Jesus’ teachings but not do them; the thought is oxymoronic, nonsensical. (The word oxymoron comes from a Greek word that means “pointedly foolish.” It’s a good description.)

Such nonsensical images are all around us—the spiritual leader who says he loves Jesus but is ordaining homosexual clergy; the politician who says he is a Christian but has an ongoing record of adulteries; the doctor who takes the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm yet kills tiny humans, justifying it because they are not big yet.

Those examples are easy to see, but do we notice the ones closer to home? What if my list above had read like this:  

Such nonsensical images are all around us—the woman who says she follows Christ but is stingy with her love or fearful about her finances; the boss who proclaims Jesus but pays workers late; the wife who says she forgives but keeps record in her heart of the times and ways her husband hurt her. 

The real story of abundant life begins with doing what God says. Freedom from the emotional, relational, physical, and even spiritual junk of our pasts begins with laying down our ways and agreeing with God’s. John 8:31 is paralleled in that famous promise of James 4 that when we resist the devil he will flee from us, a verse which also suffers from our inattention to the first phase of the process. “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (v. 7). The power to send Satan fleeing and the power to be set free—both begin not with ourselves, but with giving up ourselves: Submitting to God. Obeying His Word. 

I was talking to a girl recently, coaching her to do what Scripture says without waiting until she understood why it says it. “Obedience is the way to understand, as counter-intuitive as it seems,” I told her. I spoke of Samuel’s words, “to obey is better than sacrifice” [i.e., obeying God is better than giving Him all the religious things we imagine He’d like from us](1 Sam. 15:22). Embarrassingly, I couldn’t instantly point her to John 8:31 because while I knew the biblical concept, I didn’t remember where it was. But I knew that the pain she was crying out in, the agonizing disconnect between the joy God promised His people and the brokenness she was experiencing in her heart, would not be solved by talk but by her actually beginning to practice the Word of God.

When Jesus commissioned us to preach the Gospel—that climactic moment on the mountain in Galilee before He ascended back to Heaven—He listed two parts to our life-mission to make disciples:

  •         Baptize them
  •         Teach them to obey everything Jesus has commanded us
            (Matthew 28:19-20)

Teaching believers to obey (stay in, remain in, abide in) His words is the definition of making disciples (in other words, obeying is the definition of being a disciple, see John 14:15). So it turns out the first half of that sentence in John 8 is essential. If we don’t turn the car key to “on”, we can step on the gas all we like—it still won’t go. Step 1 is the only reason Step 2 works. Obeying/Abiding in His Word is the first step to knowing the truth. And then, yes—the truth will make us free! 

I’m ready to move forward in obedience, so that I can move forward in freedom. Who’s with me?!

Check-my-heart List:
[  ] Where am I not physically and practically continuing in Jesus’ teaching?
[  ] Do I hesitate to do what the Word says, waiting until I understand it first?
[  ] Do I look for “cultural” reasons the Bible may have given a command, hoping that will mean it doesn’t apply to me?

Abiding unto Freedom:
[  ] With the Holy Spirit’s leading, choose one Bible chapter or passage to prayerfully abide in each day for a week, asking God for ways to practice it.
[  ] At the end of the week, with the Holy Spirit’s help, assess what has happened in your heart. (There may be unexpected results. For instance, a woman who lives in the 1 Peter 1:22 – 2:10 passage, setting her heart to “love one another fervently” and to put away “deceit, hypocrisies, envies, and all evil-speaking” may discover she is less subject to the fear of rejection she used to often feel (see verses 2:4 and 2:9-10). This is just an example—God knows our unique hearts and the roots of our struggles, and will heal and free us in ways we may not anticipate.) 

May 13, 2018

Where is Your Family?

“Where is your family?”

My blond-headed nephew’s three-year-old voice cut sharp and innocent. It was the same question a harried wedding photographer had shouted out to me three days before on the lawn of the pristine church where she was herding my parents, siblings, and the eleven grandchildren into family bunches around my youngest sister, the glowing bride. I think I just shook my head, but maybe I mumbled, “I don’t have one.” And then I took a few deep water bottle swigs—an excuse to close my eyes just long enough for the stinging tears to dissipate before they fell and brought any dark tinge onto my dear sister’s day. My sister who is sixteen years younger than me.

But my nephew, in his car seat, waiting with me for his mom to come back out of the store, is too little to be hurt by seeing my tears. And so he saw them. 

In truth, I don’t really have power over tears. I was given grace on the lawn, that’s why they dissipated. The photographer backpedaled when she realized she’d probably called out the most painful question she could have (not just to me, but in front of the thirty onlookers watching the picture process). She rushed to say something about the entire group being my family and herded me to stand next to the bride, right in the middle of the shot.

It was one of those terribly beautiful days where you get to lay down your heart at the feet of Jesus, whisper that you trust Him, and venture out to rejoice that another person is receiving the thing you’ve always asked for. Not too long afterward, I turned forty.

That same sister is now pregnant with their second child, and I am skipping church on Mother’s Day. Not because I’m ashamed or there’s anything wrong with tears; I’m just unwilling this year to be exposed again by them in front of the congregation. The church is too large to know everyone, and why should the semi-strangers in my row see my most intimate wound? In front of God, however, I’m always ready to split my heart open—because He is safe, and kind, and can do something about it—so I watch the service online and He speaks.

The preacher’s sweet honoring of women, speaking of Ruth and Mary and Rachel, turns profoundly insightful when he gets to Hannah. Hannah somehow knew she was not simply longing for the fulfillment of her personal womanly desire for children—she was interceding for a birth that would pivot the entire nation of God and usher in of the age of kings. Her son, the last judge of Israel, was to anoint the great King David, initiating the messianic line that will culminate in the perfect Man ruling a perfect world throughout the perfect years of eternity. Perhaps she didn’t know these details, but her heart felt them—this desire, this need of a son, was not just for her own sake. It was for the whole world’s. It was that important.

Am I overstepping my place (after all, I am simply one among tens of thousands) to say that my longing feels like this? Are you? To us it seems less like a whine to get the dessert we want tonight, and more like an epic battle that determines destinies. These woman-arms are wrestling, using power beyond their natural ability, to bring the glory of God onto visible earth. I feel like Jacob, wrestling God over what God had already promised.

My father liked to hide a penny in his fist and let my sister and I try to pry his fingers open to get it. In the end we never had the strength, but he always gave the penny. Those struggles were delightful but didn’t ruffle my heart—even at the age of four I knew a penny would buy me nothing. I simply loved wrestling his fingers. But some wrestles aren’t for nothing, nor for the simple joy of touch. They are for something very important. Something beyond ourselves.

It strikes me that the intensity of Hannah’s pain was commensurate with the expansive destiny of the son she prayed for. Are the most difficult, hard-fought, pain-endured areas of our lives that way because they will be the most fruitful, eternal, and life-expanding gifts to not only ourselves but the whole kingdom of God? We aren’t wrestling for a penny with no buying power. Our hearts are troubled, wincing, and calling on every reserve of strength to win this—because we are wrestling for the glory of the glorious God to outshine all the nay-saying, doubting, fear-mongering, destiny-surrendering words the world has surrounded our lives with.

My husband may not be the next president nor my sons usher in the return of the King, but that marriage and those births will be epic releases of the glory of God and explosive proclamations of His faithful nature. You and I may not be Hannah, yet we are. Not only because every baby is worth the whole world, but because the real God’s real glory is worth spending a life on.

Don’t let go of His promises, whatever they may be, and don’t lay down your birthright out of hopelessness. When you must weep, weep with the power of a queen appealing to her king, of a Hannah interceding for her messiah’s birthline. In the end, His promises and your birthright are more about Him than you. The birth of your ‘Samuel’ will lift Jesus’ name high, for every promise kept by God is a display of His true nature. It is that important.

Jan 27, 2016

Ruth's Secret Past

I was recently told that I am not a Ruth. Words don’t normally bother me, especially when they haven’t come out of animosity, but these remained in my mind because they labeled my core. The implication was that someone whose heart is bound to the Jewish people will have shown it by a physical change of location and language. The idea obviously mixes up a state of heart with a state of geography. Yet it has made me contemplate again, as I sit by my south-facing, sunny windows in Kansas City and not Jerusalem, Ruth’s long story . . . Who was she, and are we (who God has not yet sent over to the Middle East) anything like her?

The life of the woman we know as Ruth did not start on the day that she insisted on following Naomi to the promised land. Her marriage to Boaz the Jew was not her first marriage to a Jew. Her move to Bethlehem was not her first embrace of Israel’s God or Israel’s culture. Ruth’s famous, heart-wrenching cry, “Entreat me not to leave you!” was the result of a heart-knitting that had happened long before. For a decade past she had been joined to Israel in the most intimate of ways, although she was living in Moab.

For a decade she had belonged to the family—married.

The Bible’s description of her husband Mahlon is that he married Ruth and lived in Moab for ten years. In every translation the statements come in that order (the time-frame directly follows the marriage; it doesn’t precede it). The implication is very different than our old Sunday-school impression that Ruth hadn’t been married to him long, an impression we hold because she was beautiful, called ‘young’, and she had no children. (In reality, Ruth bore a layer of shame beyond being a Moabitess, a stranger, impoverished, and cursed by God with widowhood—she was also barren. She had been married for perhaps as long as a decade, and had not produced a child.)

We modern Christians think most of Ruth’s beautiful moment of declaration. We see the dust of the road and how she clung to Naomi instead of running back to her own mother. . .  But that moment wasn’t a turning point in her heart. 

It wasn’t her moment of decision; it is our moment of recognition. 

It’s the moment at which it becomes clear who was a sheep and who was a goat. The moment at which the outer layer of looks is stripped away, and the real love in the core of someone is displayed—are you Orpah, turning back to your old gods, or are you Ruth, truly and eternally married to the God of Israel?

Ruth was Ruth (and all that name encompasses) for the decade before she ever stepped foot into the Land itself – the decade in which she was a Jew’s wife and daughter-in-law, in which she was worshipping Yahweh, in which she truly loved her new family, and in which she had bound herself in heart and body to the Jewish people. That day on the road she simply showed the rest of us who she was inside.

The only reason Ruth ever entered Israel is because she had long before bound herself in marriage and love to the God of Israel and her new family. The entrance itself was not the binding. Out of the many believers who have loved the Jewish people with all their hearts, in all the ages and places of the world, Ruth was simply one of the few who was given the privilege of physically displaying it.

Can we perceive only the display -- the flashy, apparent moment she used the words we repeat in marriage ceremonies and then stepped across the Jordan? Or can we perceive the truth of a long love, a secret decade of devotion, a heart history that led her to easily take the dusty steps toward a place in history? In that road-side conversation you can tell Ruth had already loved Naomi for a very long time. I can tell you that those steps toward Bethlehem felt to her like simply the logical next ones -- they weren't spectacular and they weren't out of character. There was little difference between them and the steps she had been taking every day of the previous 10 years. (We think martyrs are strengthened in a moment, but they're actually the product of faithfulness. We think cultures are adopted in a cross-world move, but it's actually a movement of heart that began long before anyone else could see it.)

The real miracle of Ruth’s story is Boaz. This Jewish man saw – saw past the prejudices of his culture, saw past her Gentile genes. Saw – saw past the barrenness of her womb, saw past her stigma of being both childless and widowed. Saw – saw past the difficulties he and his children (if she bore any) would face in the life-long scandal of having an accent-laden outsider as a wife and mother.

And when he looked past those things, what did he see?

He saw into her heart, and discovered a woman who in spite of having lived her entire life in a different country was already knit to Israel, who had long ago married herself into the family and into the people, who already bore the image of the God of love and was demonstrating it by a faithfulness he may not have even seen in the natural daughters of Israel.

He saw that her state of heart had preexisted—and had made possible—her steadfastness during those moments on the road with Naomi.

She, of course, did not think so much of herself. She knew she was a foreigner, not even like one of his lowest servant-girls. She knew she had loved Yahweh from the moment she met Him and that she would give up her old surroundings to remain a part of His people, but she had no idea that she had become so virtuously beautiful because of it. In the true manner of virtuous women, Ruth wasn’t seeing herself; she was seeing Boaz—his character, his kindness, his sight—perhaps as clearly as he saw her.

So each regarded the other with incredulous surprise. While she was incredulous that he actually saw and valued her, an outsider, Boaz’s heart was so truly clear-sighted, he was incredulous that she would even consider him. Rightly incredulous. It’s a thing of beauty, this mutual incredulity. 

Without the other, neither Ruth nor Boaz would have their place in history or King David’s family line. Only their outrageous marriage brought either of them into the pages of the Bible. And that union only happened because each was able to see past the outside, into the heart of the other. Neither of their hearts were created by that moment of deciding to follow Naomi or that moment of deciding to ensure the young woman had enough barley to glean. No, their hearts were set a decade or more before, when they had individually bound themselves to God.

I’ve noticed multiple times in the last few years that certain ones of my friends and acquaintances have used the same particular word with me—when they have visited Israel, they say they have felt like it was their real “home.” They are right. The entire Christian population of the earth can’t all go live there at the moment, there isn’t room nor instructions from God to do so. 

But the fact that our bodies still live in Moab does not mean our hearts are not Ruth’s and our home is not Israel and we have not fully, irretrievably bound ourselves to the God of Israel and the people He loves.

No matter where you happen to be living at the moment or what languages you speak, do not be discouraged; the things He has done in your heart are real, as real as Ruth's unmentioned decade of love, and they will bear the same fruit as hers did. 

“Man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).