Losing to Win

Yesterday, I witnessed something quite ordinary yet quite remarkable.
A father and son were playing a board game. The young son was starting to lose as he didn’t really have much of a handle on the inner workings of the game. However, the father, seeing his kid getting frustrated, started dropping small hints on how to proceed. The father kept staving off his own victory to guide his son, though the son wanted to do things his own way. Eventually, the kid won with his dad having only one move left to win himself. The father had guided his son to victory even though he lost himself.
This father had been known through his life to be very competitive yet when it came to his son, he chose to lose instead, even in the sight of all of those around.
As I watched this unfold, I thought of how great a representation this is of God. He chose to suffer defeat at our hands, his own children, so that we could be victorious over sin. Jesus took all the steps to win victory for himself, yet, he chose to lose his life so he could defeat sin and give us that victory. He also continues to guide us to ultimate victory over death even though we may get frustrated when we continually fail by doing things our way instead.
God loves us. He already knows the glorious outcome to our lives and he is working, even in our mishaps, to bring about his ultimate plan of redemption and eternal life.

The Prodigal Son’s Brother

The Prodigal Son's Brother

We often hear the parable of the prodigal son, but rarely do we stop to consider the other son. This other son is rarely focused on, possibly because it doesn’t fit well into how we perceive Father.
The prodigal son of coarse takes his part of his father’s inheritance, travels to a foreign land, and wastes it. Once his life is to the point that he’s living in the mud with pigs, he returns home in hopes that his father will take pity and hopefully make him a lowly servant. However, the father fully restores him as a son and throws a lavish party. Further, his father never even considers that his son-ship was ever lost.
Most know this part of the story, but it is the elder brother’s story, that is often overlooked, that I wanted to focus on here as he is an integral part of Jesus’ parable.
The older brother returns from the field, hears the music and dancing of the party, and asks a servant what’s going on. The servant tells him that his brother has returned home and the father is throwing a party (Luke 15:25-27). It’s here that the story gets even more interesting.
But he was angry, and would not go in. Therefore his father came out, and begged him.–Luke 15:28 (emphasis mine).
Notice in this verse that the brother was angry and the father came out from the party and begged him to join in. It’s commonly accepted that the father in this story represents God. Not only did the father run to and embrace his dirty, prodigal son (which was considered disgraceful during this time period), but he leaves the splendor of the party to go out and beg his other son to come and celebrate his brother being found. In both cases, the father comes down to meet his sons in their misunderstanding of who he is.
But he answered his father, ‘Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed a commandment of yours, but you never gave me a goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.–Luke 15:29 (emphasis mine).
Again, there are some very interesting things going on here that can be easily overlooked or just outright ignored if the rest of the story isn’t considered. The elder brother thought that he had earned such a party in honor of himself since he had served and obeyed. The very least his father could have done was give him a measly goat to celebrate with his friends. We see here that the elder son was far more religious than the younger and thought that he had earned his way to a grand reward. In the elder son’s eyes, the younger brother hadn’t earned it—and he is exactly right, the younger son hadn’t. However, the point here is that neither son had earned it because works can’t earn it. It was the father’s joy to give to either of his sons. This is known as (the scandal of) Father’s Grace. It can’t be earned through religious works and when someone does think they deserve it, they ironically lose out on it.
Further, the elder son was jealous that the father had given to the younger son. He would have rather seen him rejected by the father because of his lack of compliance. In this way he was trying to withhold the father’s grace from his own brother who he had decided didn’t deserve it. However, it isn’t we humans who decide how Father distributes his Grace; it is Father who decides that. This same concept is stated in the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:15 ).
But when this your son came, who has devoured your living with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’–Luke 15:30 (emphasis mine).
I emphasized the reference to the younger brother in the above paragraphs to note that the elder brother wouldn’t even acknowledge the prodigal son as his sibling. This is strikingly similar to how we tend to judge others who “devour their lives with sin” when in actuality they are our lost siblings.
“He said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.–Luke 15:31
There is another beautiful, yet easily overlooked concept in this verse. When we are with the Father, all that he has is ours. That is, the relationship of being with Father is the reward. The elder brother was only working out of religious obligation because he thought he had to in order to earn his way in. He could have been enjoying life with his father instead of living in resentment of his sibling “out in the world partying.” Do we still do this same thing today? Do we live in resentment of our “siblings” out in the world partying their inheritance away while we “slave away” for God? Just imagine if the elder brother had cared to know his father’s heart and gone out to seek his lost sibling himself.
But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.’ ”–Luke 15:32
This verse along with the rest of these scriptures make some interesting points.
-Do we try to mandate how God is allowed to show his Grace to others?
-Are we jealous when those we think don’t deserve it get a “blessing”?
-Are our hearts enjoying the relationship with Father and extending that to our lost siblings, or are we attempting to withhold grace from those we’ve labeled as “worldly” and doomed for hell?
-Are we holding ourselves outside of celebrating life with God because we are so focused on our works based religion?
When I was able to honestly answer these questions for myself, I was able to start living in an amazing relationship with Father through Jesus. Now I’m trying to extend that relationship outwards to others so they can come join the party!

Is it possible?

When I was around 8 years old, I was sitting in a Sunday morning service just like all the Sundays before. As a young kid, I was typically bored. I’m not sure what led to my train of thought at that time as I honestly wasn’t paying any attention to the sermon. However, God asked me a question that has stuck with me. This question has gnawed at me from the back of my mind for over 25 years now.
“Do you think it’s possible to be so lost is Jesus’ love that you don’t sin anymore?”
I had a thought of being literally lost with no way out, surrounded by Jesus and his love.
As I think about it now, this was quite a deep bit of theology to lay on an 8 year old.
At that time, I really had no reference to know yea or nae, however, it did make me pay a little more attention during services from that point on. According to the pastors and teachers, the answer was a resounding “no!” In some way this depressed me as I felt God was teasing me with an impossibility. I felt as though a lifelong devotion of rule following was the path that would lead me to conquer my sin and just maybe catch a glimpse of that type of relationship.
This, however, did not work.
As I grew older, I figured it was possible, just not in this life. To that God seemed to reply “really?”
This sent me on another path of deep spiritual questioning. In a way, it’s almost funny now how God could turn my entire world upside down with a simple question or even with a one word reply.
What if Jesus really did what the Bible says? What if he really removed sin by paying the price in full for it? What if we’re the ones who insist that we have to overcome our sin on our terms. What if it really is that simple (yet oh so hard) to just stand with Jesus, to be lost in Jesus, forever away from sin? What if the Kingdom he brought is already here, in this life, (John 4:23-24, Matthew 4:17, Mark 1:15) and we are free to enter and live in it—not free to sin, but free from sin. Could we, would we, dare to…..hope……that grace is really that powerful? Are there some who would try to stand in the way of those trying to enter (Matthew 23:14)?
As I strive to know Jesus more, as I hear his voice more clearly, as I learn about the words he spoke that religion often ignores, circumvents, or manipulates, and as I start to hope to believe he really did pay the price, I look to that 8 year old kid and begin to humbly, hesitantly consider that…..maybe…..just maybe…..the answer could be…..
yes

Us Verses Them

As I’ve grown closer to God, I’ve realized I’ve had a distorted view of who he is, though my vision is becoming more clear little by little.
I’ve always seen him as being disappointed at my continued failure to overcome sin. This has been taught in both subtle and outright ways all my life. Such a viewpoint causes some to act as though they have somehow gained control over their sin, promoting an external self-righteousness. Otherwise, it drives those away that realize they can’t overcome their sin or manage it to appear righteous enough to others.
In both cases, the sin is still there.
I’ve come to a realization that I’m now starting to be able to believe and apply, though it takes time to fully sink in—Jesus became sin and took the consequences at the cross.
Yeah, I know we’ve heard this all our lives and say we believe it. However, we’re still led to think that we have to somehow overcome our sin.
God, while he loves us, doesn’t seem to like us much until we do.
This leads to all kinds of systems of sin management that have existed for centuries. However, these systems have never been successful at overcoming sin but only attempt to redirect it elsewhere while driving it deeper within ourselves.
We are not the problem, it’s them.” This is a phrase that is stated in many forms. This view attempts to undo all that Jesus suffered to destroy our sin on the cross. We impose our twisted view of God onto the rest of the world—“God loves you but doesn’t like you until you clean up your act.”
Jesus isn’t standing opposed to us when we fail. He is standing right beside us. When we only see him as distant, we have no power to overcome our sin. When we realize that he is in us and we are in him, we begin to realize we have his power within us and can overcome our sin with him.
What we may also fail to realize is that Jesus became sin in every way that sin is sin. He didn’t just symbolically become sin. He literally took all of our sin into himself and paid the consequences for it. Though I can admit this, I have a hard time truly believing it—for myself or for others. I still tend to insist there is something I have to do to overcome my sin. However, just as Jesus literally became sin, we literally became his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21). We have been made saints!
This is probably one of the most significant realizations in Christianity but yet the least accepted.
We continue to try to please God by our own methods when he is already pleased with us. We fail to just trust him and let him stand with us against our sin. We seem to think we are going to embarrass God if our vulnerabilities are exposed, so we act as though everything is okay on the surface.
However, Jesus overcame all of our shame at the cross!
We continue to see ourselves as an old, shameful sinner who has to do enough lifelong sin management to get through the gates of heaven. This causes us to live in a perpetually unfulfilled state.
When we accept that we have become a new creation, we focus on God’s grace and love and receive that fulfillment now, in this lifetime! Jesus is then able to help us overcome our sin as we are ready. This isn’t through force, willpower, programs, or management systems. It is through Jesus. We are also able to stand with others in their vulnerabilities and share Jesus’ love and acceptance with them. Instead, though, we tend to heap shame on others to justify ourselves or manipulate them to do things our way.
It’s not “Us vs Them.” It’s us standing with Jesus and with “them.” God is not on “our” side or against “them.” He sent Jesus to show that he is on everyone’s side.

The Depths of God’s Grace and “Knowing”

I’ve often seen people made to question their salvation status. Questions are asked of what they are doing for God, are they really sure, or what would happen if you died today. These type questions seem to produce guilt and manipulate people to conform and perform. All the while, it doesn’t seem like these people are shown what true salvation is; they are only given a list of ever deepening obligations to attempt to uphold to make it in to Heaven.
This whole system has come to sadden me deeply. When we are truly shown Jesus’ love, we are then able to freely return it and have a deep seated assurance that Heaven is guaranteed. This is how we know for ourselves.
So, how do we know about others? While it is true, the new spirit in us will be able to help us discern if others have this new spirit, it doesn’t give us any right to condemn if not. Condemnation seems to be mostly used as a defense to justify one’s own deficiency. Often, fingers are pointed to others as being more deficient, therefore I’m okay. God doesn’t judge on a scale like this though. Further, this is exactly what Jesus spoke against in the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector. We aren’t justified because we are higher than others on some sort of righteousness scale–we are justified by Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Like the thief on the cross, who was redeemed in his final moments, we have no inclination to know when God will redeem someone. The very reason the thief was on the cross was because he had already been condemned by man as un-redeemable, but Jesus deemed otherwise. The thief’s story now stands the test of time of God’s grace and redemptive power even if the person has no chance for spiritual growth in this life. There are many internal conversations we may not be privy to in someone’s life, especially near death. If God’s plan is that no one should perish, we have no right to say whether a person has made it or not based on our human observations. Likewise, we have a hard time grasping the depths of God’s grace and are not righteous to tell Jesus how he can and cannot judge. This is also conveyed in the parable of the vineyard workers.
Likewise, I recently heard a religious leader preach a funeral. He stated that the deceased had gave his life to God in his final moments, but also lamented of how much more he could have done had he been saved earlier in life. Like with the thief on the cross and the vineyard workers, this assumes we know how God’s plan should work out and when.
Our only ability lies in showing others Jesus’ love through us, by the methods that he desires, and letting him handle the rest.

My First Major Experience with God’s Grace

This is a part of my life that I haven’t discussed in detail with many people. Everything happened over ~a three year period starting around 9 years ago. Over the course of the years, I had so much bitterness wrapped in the memories surrounding this time that I didn’t want to talk much about it even though there were also some good memories. I don’t want to include all of the specific details as to protect the person that I talk about here.
So, it started when my desire to know God began to grow. I had the notion in my head, like many have seemed to have at one point, that there was something major I had to perform physically to prove my desire to know God. I would pray at night asking God what I should do to prove myself to him. At that time, I still didn’t realize some significant things that would have made getting to know him much easier, and I was still stubborn at this point.
Around this time, I began talking to a girl who lived relatively close to me but far enough away that I couldn’t see her often. We played video games online together with several other people and mostly talked through voice chat. She seemed to want to develop a relationship with me. For several months we talked and got to know each other. She had several traumatic events that had gone on in her life which left her mostly isolated from her friends and family.
One day, she disappeared from the online community. I felt like God wanted me to find out what happened to her. She had left me some clues as to where she went and so I looked her up. I got into contact with her again and she seemed very relieved that I had found her. She was dealing with some issues again and seemed to have felt it was an all or nothing proposition to withdraw from everyone.
We continued to talk online for several months. She kept asking me to come to where she was and spend some time with her. I was hesitant, but eventually committed to go see her. Before I got the chance though, some personal things came up again in her life and she had to move much further away. At this time, I kinda figured it wasn’t meant to be. However, we continued to talk online and she continued to ask me to come see her. Again, one day she disappeared and I lost all contact with her. I never saw her online and her cell phone was disconnected. I worried about her some but figured maybe she just didn’t want to talk with me anymore.
After about six weeks, God led me to attempt to contact her one last time. I was a bit frustrated with the whole situation at this point but decided to do it anyway. I called where she use to work and left a message for her. She called me a few days later from a borrowed cell phone. She had gotten badly injured and lost her income. Her landlady at the time let her rent slip for a couple of months so she at least had a place to stay and brought her food and such. Her cell phone had been disconnected because she was unable to work to pay the bill. When I got back in contact with her, she pleaded with me to come see her and stay for a week or so. Reluctantly, I gathered my things and made the 16 hour trip.
In truth, I was hoping that maybe a relationship would ensue. We talked about it and she asked for some time to try to get her life together. The plan to stay a week turned into 6 months as I tried to help her get caught up on bills and such as best I could. I worked a job there many times 60+ hours a week and still was accruing debt just trying to provide the basics. After about 1.5 years, she still didn’t seem to want a relationship with me and she started seeing other guys. I got fairly depressed for a few days and decided I was going to make the 16 hour return trip to go back to my hometown. I let her know and turned in my two week notice. She seemed okay with it but I could tell that she was worried again of how she was going to make ends meet. As heartbroken as I was at the time, God kept hinting that I should stay a little longer. The relationships she seemed to attempt didn’t end up working out and again she was alone. I begrudgingly decided to stay.
Several months passed and she was able to get around like normal again after her injury. We talked again about a relationship, but she didn’t seem to want one with me. She stated that she was too messed up for me and seemed a bit guilt ridden that she had been using me for those past 2 years. I assured her it was okay though I had constantly questioned God of why he had let me get into this situation and why he kept wanting me to stay with someone who didn’t seem to want me. For the most part, God seemed to have remained silent during these years. I was admittedly frustrated and depressed within about the situation.
The job she had wasn’t quite panning out like she had hoped. Mine was about the same. She decided she wanted to move somewhere else in the U.S. and wanted me to come with her. I thought and prayed about it for a while trying to see what God wanted now. He seemed to express that I had done enough and led me to return to my hometown and even directed me to use my GI Bill to pursue an IT degree. She seemed a little disappointed, but understood. I was still angry internally because all the time I had been there seemed wasted. During those two years, my grandmother was sick and eventually passed away. I was only able to leave for a few days to attend her funeral before the bills piled up again.
I helped her pack a U-haul and we chatted a bit as it seemed to be one of the last times we might see each other. I had one final shift I had to work before I left the following day. I was still asking God the entire time before her departure, “Why?”
Why did you have me leave my family God?
Why did you have me come here when it never amounted to anything?
Why did she not like me? Was I not good enough?
Why did you let my grandmother die while leading me far away?
I was angry.
As we said our final goodbyes, she thanked me for all I had done for her. This hardly felt like much of a consolation prize but I begrudgingly accepted. Then she slowly and hesitantly expressed with pain in her voice that I was the only one who pursued her when she continually tried to run away from life. When she got injured and we had lost contact for several weeks, she had decided she was going to kill herself as she just couldn’t seem to ever get her life under control. When I reached out for her again through her work, she had the faintest glimpse of hope that, for the first time in her life, someone actually cared enough about her to keep pursuing when she ran away. She then hugged me and drove away.
As I stood there a bit stunned, God simply said, in response to all the questions, anger, and frustration I had shown him, “That’s why.” I’m amazed that as obstinate as I was, he still did his will through me and allowed me to be a part of his greater plan. I’ve come not to regret any of that time now and have even come to cherish how God has led me. His astounding grace reached out to me and her in that situation.
I kept contact with that girl for about 3 months and she seemed to be doing well. We drifted apart though I occasionally hear of things that are going on in her life. From what I’ve heard, she got a good job that she enjoys and is engaged. I don’t know what her relationship with God is, but, especially based on how he has led me, I believe a seed was planted. Seeing his plan unfold helps me to better understand how his love always wins in the end.

Grace

I never quite understood what grace was growing up. I’d heard of amazing grace and saying “grace” before eating, but the meaning had never been driven home. From what I’d known, God was floating gracefully around the sanctuary handing out blessings. Grace has only been defined to me as it related to cats and ballerinas.
Once I started seeing what grace was, I realized God loved me regardless of my human ability to comply. This made me free and gave me the desire to want to comply. As I grow deeper in God’s grace, I feel I am only scratching the surface.
I tend to wonder why grace was never driven home in any significant way to me. Was I just not paying attention? Did those teaching about grace not really understand what it is also? Were they afraid of it being abused?
I then saw how the apostle Paul presented grace (Galatians 2:21, Romans 6:1-2&11:6). I began to see what grace was–freedom from sin, not freedom to sin. This isn’t because we did something or have to do something to earn/fully substantiate it (other than just accept it), but it is by Jesus’ completed work at the cross. When we come into contact with that grace, we desire to do God’s planned works for us and even find joy in it. This is not to be confused with works that are driven by man’s prerogatives, even if they may seem reasonable on the surface. In addition, we gain the desire to want to be changed to his new creation.
It would seem that I was presented a skewed standard. If I worked more within the congregation and was a good citizen, I earned grace. Likewise, this same grace covered our “grey area” sins. After all, things like gluttony, gossip, and condemnation were all covered by grace as long as we weren’t committing the “immoral” sins like adultery. Even murder was justified as long as we agreed with each other that the person was someone “bad” who deserved it. It would seem that these things are what actually abuse grace.
What we never seemed to realize then is that we are all bad and all deserving of death. That’s what makes grace what it is. It is exactly what we don’t deserve and cannot earn. I still see many act as though it is their entitlement because they act “better” than others. However, we have all sinned and we have all been offered grace for any and every sin (Romans 3:23&24).