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.