Saturday, April 10, 2010

What Chicken Pox Taught Me about Legalism

I have been very stressed out lately. So much, that last weekend I noticed spots all over my arms - little, red itchy spots. I had the chicken pox when I was a child, and I've been told you can't get them twice. My mother is not a doctor, but she works in the medical field (and she is a mom), so I asked her to look at my spots. After examining me briefly, she said, "I don't know what it is, but if it gets any worse, see a doctor . . . and stay away from me!"

Varicella Zoster Virus (VZV), which causes chicken pox, also causes shingles. Even though my mother had chicken pox as a child, she once experienced a very severe case of shingles as an adult. Knowing her immune system was weak in the face of VZV, she avoided me as much as possible. My father, on the other hand, has an incredibly strong immune system. While my mother ran for cover every time I entered the room, my father sat, undisturbed. The possibility that I might be infected with VZV did not cause him any worry whatsoever. Reflecting upon this situation, I am reminded of a passage from the Book of Romans:
Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. (Romans 14:1-4, Emphasis mine.)

How does this relate to my unidentified illness? I'll give you an illustration. Let's suppose that every time I walked into a room, my mother wore a surgical mask and sprayed disinfectant on everything I touched. Then imagine my mother looking down her nose at my dad because he isn't as health-conscious as she is! Of course, this would be unreasonable of my mother, because my father has no reason to care about being exposed to my germs. It's not because he's stupid, careless, or even attracted to the idea of getting sick. No, the reason my father doesn't care about being exposed to my germs is because he knows VZV does not pose a problem for him personally. My father can handle my germs because his immune system is strong. My mom, in spite of all her pious displays of good hygiene, would only be performing these silly rituals for one reason and one reason alone: her immune system is weak.

The chicken pox scenario in my family is a lot like the way we behave when we are being legalistic, isn't it? When we judge others, it gives us the illusion that our faith is strong. We think, "Oh look at that one wearing makeup, or cutting her hair short, or having a career, or sending her children to public school or feeding high fructose corn syrup to her family or (insert your favorite example here)!" We shake our heads in false pity and feel sorry for this "carnal" sister. After all, her faith is weak. She is easily lured by the ways of the world. You and I, on the other hand, choose to stay far, far away from those things. This is because we have the strength to resist them, right? Wrong.

Look carefully at that passage again. Who in the passage is described as being weak? Is it the one who eats meat sacrificed to idols? On the contrary, the one who is weak is the one who abstains. I'll give you a personal example. Geraldine is on Facebook, and I am not. There have been times in the past when I have openly denounced Facebook with such a passion that I have caused Geraldine (and others, I'm sure) to feel conflicted about it. On the surface, I appear to be the strong one. After all, I'm the one with conviction, right? Geraldine, who experiences doubt about her choices from time to time (thanks to me and my strong convictions) appears weak in her faith. But look carefully at that passage again. Who in the passage is described being as weak? Is it the one who eats meat sacrificed to idols? On the contrary, the one who is weak is the one who abstains. Why is this so? Because the one who abstains is the one who struggles with something that isn't necessarily unclean! (Romans 14:14,20).

I could argue that Geraldine is weak in her faith because she doesn't have the strength to resist Facebook. But in reality, I am weak in my faith because I don't have the strength to use Facebook without encountering a problem. Facebook to me is like the Varicella Zoster Virus. I know that if I am exposed to it, I will stumble into all kinds of sin. Geraldine is not prone to the same sins I am. She can openly be exposed to Facebook and not get sick. Therefore, Geraldine is the stronger of the two of us. And as a result, she has the freedom to enjoy all the fun that comes with having a Facebook account. I do not have this same liberty. Sure, I miss out on the fun, but I compensate for this by telling myself that I am just a lot more holy than all the people who use Facebook. (Do you see how this works? The flesh is clever, isn't it?)

Readers, do you see how deceptive legalism can be? Not only are we imposing rules upon people who do not need them, we are robbing people of the joy that God has freely given them to experience. It is wrong for us to rob others of the joy that comes with seeing a movie or singing a pop song on the radio or wearing the latest fashion, simply because it poses a problem for us personally. It would be like my mother requiring all of you to wear a surgical mask in my presence when being in my presence is not a danger to you to begin with.

At the same time, we are not to flaunt our liberty in the face of the weaker brother. Romans 14 warns the strong Christian to protect the weak one. In other words, if Geraldine were to brag about how much fun Facebook is, and how much joy I am missing out on, and check her Facebook account right in front of me, that would cause me to stumble and it would be sin on her part. But Romans 14 also acknowledges that an equal problem arises when the weak Christian looks down on the strong Christian for the very liberty God has given her to enjoy.

How many of us have deceived ourselves into thinking we were the stronger Christian? We set up unreasonable rules for people to follow, and anyone who doesn't abide by these rules we label "weak." Could this be you? I've heard it said that the number one sign that we are trapped in legalism is that our joy is gone. Consider the possibility that the years we've spent looking down on others for not homeschooling, or having a career, or wearing jewelry -- or whatever -- were not years spent in pious devotion to holy living. The time we spent pitying those "carnal" Christians trapped in bondage to worldly pursuits were actually years we spent in bondage to our own weaknesses. In a similar fashion, some of us have spent years of our lives under the thumb of these legalistic rules because they were being enforced by someone weaker, who appeared to us to be stronger. Well, appearances can be deceiving!

Remember, God has commanded us: "Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats" (Romans 14:3). In essential things, unity. In nonessential things, liberty. In all things, charity. Let's ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the viruses in our lives, so we can be free of the legalism imposed upon us by others, and in turn free others from the legalism we have imposed upon them.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Prayer: The Believer's Ministry

I met with my mentor last year to discuss a grievous spiritual matter. Sitting on the couch where she has often gently counseled me, I shared with her a struggle I was having to break free of paralyzing doubts to enjoy prayer (not just petitions but really enjoying the Lord) as I once did.

It was all so random. Doubt just sashayed into my soul, took the podium front and center, and began to conduct an elaborate sabotage of my prayer life. From there, I continued to describe how I was suddenly restless to know the "context" through which I would serve God. For everyone around me seemed to be in their position and focused. They seemed clear on their calling in life. But me, I've felt and looked so random, unstable, unfocused, and nomad-like. I feel I’m a jack of all trades but a master of none. My interests are so vast and I believe I can learn anything if I have an encouraging and patient teacher.

Well, in her calm and consoling way, my mentor looked at me and said something profound and epiphany-like, "prayer is your ministry." In other words, prayer is a ministry task always available. It is my first ministry unto God. Aha! Then I thought of Anna, the widow, from the book of Luke. I thought how it is recorded that she ministered day and night, with delight and contentment, in the Temple to the Lord through prayers, fasting, and praise. The thought warmed and endeared me.

So, why give all that personal detail? Well, I hope to stir us up to pray. For I am convinced that prayer is every believer's ministry. Any believer experiencing God, (i.e. seeing and feeling Scripture become palatable, or God's movements in circumstances, or experiencing unusual blessings to the soul or the physical) is NOT experiencing something esoteric and unavailable to any other believer.

Prayer is a gate open to all believers willing to enter it, stay the course to triumph over its challenges, and mine the depths of its treasures. The believer is as Esther and Christ is our King--the golden scepter is forever extended toward us in favor. Why wouldn't we take FULL advantage of this benefit in our inheritance package? Do we understand what it is to have the favor of the King?

There is a saying, if you want to hide something valuable from a person (especially in the 21 century)--put it in a book. For, we seldom take time to read. I think this idea is transferable to some of us in the Christian community. If you want to hide something valuable from believers tell them to persevere in prayer to gain it.

....We are so afraid of the false that we quench what is true. We are people of extremes... There are some that are so orthodox but are absolutely dead, because they are so afraid of false excitement and the excesses of certain spiritual movements that they quench and hinder the Spirit and deny the truth...." --Martin Lloyd Jones

If some of us were brutally honest and courageous enough to reveal our thought-life, prayer is really quite ridiculous to us. We've seen it (we think) make a fool of too many people--believing something abstract and unlikely, by faith, that God "supposedly" spoke or lead, not to mention the damage the charismatic movement has done. There are all kinds of self-serving scams and personal deceptions going on in Christendom as it relates to prayer. So we play it safe. We clutch our prized reputations and vow to never be so risky or look so stupid or God forbid emotionally out of control. And consequently, our prayers remain powerless, perfunctory, and stoic—but, of course, doctrinally correct.

But prayer is indeed so much more than unverifiable abstractions and asking for earthly things we desire and need.

Rewarding prayer is when one comes to mount themselves upon an Altar (Romans 12:1-2) to be broken so as to bond with Christ. That is connect in such a way that we find ourselves praying in concert with the intercessions He is making at the right hand of the Father. That is connect in such a way that we pray in concert with the groaning(s) of the Spirit. That is allowing the Spirit to transfer His affections for the subject of our prayers to us--to the point He weeps or wages war through us. In this connection, we begin to pray His will into the earth for ourselves, the saints, even the world. Absolutely, exhilarating—intoxicating.

Prayer is also an occasion for uninhibited self-examination that produces a fresh brokenness over sin which leads to a spirit of thankfulness, surrender, forgiveness, and renewed joy and peace. It provides a fresh purity of heart and motive that was not present before you prayed. You know, it doesn’t always take some catastrophic event to humble or break us. No one has to know. The scripture says God gives grace to the humble but resists the proud. There is a reason God tells us to humble ourselves as we don’t want Him to do it for us. Prayer alone can humble us.

This is the best part of our salvation!

I encourage us to consider that prayer is a believer's first ministry. It is the launch pad to all other ministry in which we would engage. And one should be terrified to embark upon any place of official ministry in a Church without prayer being a pillar of their lives. If one struggles in prayer, praying with others is a great way to jump start affections that lead to prayer. Let us not quench His Spirit with our fear, pride, and unbelief. Let us go take advantage of this means of Grace. So what are your thoughts on prayer? What are your current obstacles? What step will you take today to triumph over the obstacle(s)?

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