The smallest presents under the Christmas tree this year came packed with great power. At least mine did.
Mercy, who is now 10, tucked a single piece of paper inside of an envelope for each member of our family. On it, she wrote scripture references arranged in an acrostic: highlighted letters in Bible book titles spelling out each person’s name.
“I wanted to give you something encouraging,” she explained.
The day after Christmas I looked up my page of verses, stunned by the message that unfolded under my pencil. Mercy woke up and came downstairs just as I finished and I gave her a hug.
“Umm, you read your Bible verses?” she mumbled into my chest. I nodded, choked up.
“They were encouraging?” she asked. I nodded again.
“Umm, Mom? Can you stop hugging me? I can’t breathe.”
“Honey, these verses are more than encouraging,” I said, reluctantly letting go. “You have no way of knowing what God has been teaching me lately. But the Holy Spirit lives in you, too. I think when you had your Bible open, he gave you these verses for me. Did you know there’s another spiritual gift besides, “encouragement” that also starts with an “e”? It is called, “exhortation.” It is a very strong way of encouraging somebody to do something. Your verses are an exhortation to me. God used them like a bright yellow highlighter underlining what he wants me to make important in 2015.”
Hear, O heaven, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken. Children have I reared up but they have rebelled against me. (Isaiah 1:2)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. (Romans 1:16a)
Beginning from the baptism of John until the day he [Jesus] was taken up from us –one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection. (Acts 1:22)
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8)
[They sang] “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.” (Ezra 3:11b)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 1:7b)
I have been living as if I’m ashamed of the Gospel.
Sin isn’t pretty is it. In fact the Bible speaks of sin as blinding. That’s why I haven’t seen it.
Quizzed on the question, I would tell you that I’m not ashamed of the Gospel. Not intellectually. My words would pass. I would never affirm with my lips, “I am ashamed of the Gospel.”
But when I do a functional theology check –not what I think, or what I say, but what I do, I find that in some ways I have been living as if I am ashamed of the Gospel.
How can this be?
The truth is the Truth is true. The Gospel is so bright, so illuminating, I have kept it under a bushel rather than let light have its natural way. I have shaded it, made soft becoming candlelight of bright, high intensity light that God intends to illumine, not flatter, the human condition. God fully intends us to be undone in the light of His perfection, to be humbled by clear-sighted vision of our inadequacies.
God intends His light to have the opposite effect, too: to illumine and to draw us to the hope we have in Jesus Christ.
That has been gut-wrenching: understanding that in playing it safe, doing what I thought was expected of me (which is actually about my own sinful need to please people), I have deprived my house of the full radiance of the Gospel shining from the lamp stand my life (Matthew 5:15).
David Powlison, who also has the gift of exhortation, puts it this was in his essay, “God’s Love: Better Than Unconditional.”
“The opposite of conditional and judgmental might seem to be unconditional and affirming. The opposite of unreasonable expectations might seem to be no expectations at all. The opposite of being bossy might seem to be non-directive. Or so people wish.
Yes. Conditional love is obviously hate, not love. But unconditional love –used with the meaning the term now carries [in our culture] –is a more subtle deceit. It keeps company with teachings that say to people, “Peace, peace,” when from God’s holy point of view, there is no peace (see Jer. 23:14, 16).
If you receive blanket acceptance you need no repentance. You just accept it. It fills you without humbling you. It relaxes you without upsetting you about yourself –or thrilling you about Christ. It lets you relax without reckoning with the anguish of Jesus on the cross. It is easy and undemanding. It does not insist on, or work at, changing you. It deceives you about both God and yourself.
We can do better. God does not accept me just as I am; he loves me despite how I am. He loves me just as Jesus is; he loves me enough to devote my life to renewing me in the image of Jesus.
This love is much, much, much better than unconditional! Perhaps we could call it “contraconditional” love. God has blessed me because his Son fulfilled the conditions I could never achieve. Contrary to what I deserve, he loves me. And now I can begin to change, not to earn love, but because I’ve already received it.
….[Y]ou need something better than unconditional love. You need the crown of thorns. You need the touch of life bestowed on the dead son of the widow of Nain. You need the promise to the repentant thief. You need to know, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” You need forgiveness. You need a Shepherd, a Father, a Savior. You need to become like the One who loves you. You need the better love of Jesus. And by God’s grace, that is what he offers you.”
David Powlison, Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lense of Scripture. The Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, P & R Publishing, 2003. p. 169-170.