The Black Hole in Our Gospel
Christian angst in a kingdom full of grace.
Five years ago I was standing in a church service in Asia, in full worship. Without warning, a word hit me:
There is a black hole in your gospel. It stands against every intention you have to progress in the Christian life. It is this thing about ever needing but never having. Ever asking but never getting. Always thirsting but never filled. Always wretched, never righteous. Ever infirm but never well. It longs for the “one day,” but the one day never comes. It fears defeat, yet never rests in my victory.
Black holes suck. 2000 years after Jesus’ once-for-all-time sacrifice for sin, how to regard and deal with it is still a real problem in the world today. Billions of people all over the world, day-in and day-out have their identities filtered through feelings of guilt, shame and/or weakness. We need to know what is really going on.
What is this defeated thought, and where did it come from? Jesus didn’t have it. Paul didn’t either. George Fox didn’t, and neither did John Wesley, William & Catherine Booth, Charles Finney, Aimee Semple McPherson, Smith & Polly Wigglesworth… in fact, none of the men and women of God who’s lives discipled millions suffered from this mentality.
I believe they understood something very significant.
Stellar black holes are made when the center of a very big star falls in upon itself and collapses. That’s a pretty good description of the king of Babylon, a mighty empire-builder who went from the peak of superstardom to eating grass like a beast in an obsessive quest to attain godhood under his own steam (see Isaiah 14).
In the same way, human beings who, according to Psalm 8, have been designed at a level “just shy of God himself,” are often deceived into thinking like that fallen star. This defeated thinking is what New Testament authors call “the flesh,” a pseudo-culture that began as soon as Eve replaced her own glory with the lie that God was withholding something she lacked.
The Question of Sin
Yes, but if Christians are the supposed righteousness of God, why do they sin?
Here is something to think about — when the slaves were emancipated by proclamation, why in many cases did it take time for them to leave the plantation?
The greatest license to sin is not a too-radical doctrine of grace. The greatest license to sin is the belief that, in this life, man must remain a sinner.
In my own experience, a massive hindrance to spiritual growth and effectiveness has come from a belief that may best be explained by a mistranslation of one of Paul’s greatest statements:
Now the Lord is the judge, and wherever the Spirit is there is conviction of unworthiness. And we all, with downcast faces, beholding our sins and weaknesses as in a mirror, will be transformed from glory to glory (in the afterlife).
Though surprisingly common, even among believers, this misconstrual is fairly described as faith in sin and not faith in righteousness. Charles Spurgeon laments:
“I’m a poor sinner, and nothing at all.”
Yes, that is quite true; but are you going to sing that one line for ever? Is that your style of singing? — one line forever? If our leader, just now, when we sang the hymn, had kept on… I should have pulled his coat-tail, and said, “Go on with the whole verse.”
Many do not possess the land because of unbelief. “Alas! it seems too good to be true.” So, in this case, you say –
“I’m a poor sinner, and nothing at all.”
Why not go on to sing –
“But Jesus Christ is my all in all”?
You are empty, but Jesus fills you. You are in prison, but Jesus sets you at liberty. Why not rejoice in that liberty? The Lord deliver us from unbelief, for it is enough to shut any man out of the inheritance.
As per Romans 6, we are to reckon ourselves completely dead to sin through Christ’s death and fully alive to righteousness by his coming back to life. Surely, if we are troubled by failure — sin or otherwise — Paul would ask, why navel gaze? Instead of looking down, we have a glorious opportunity to look up at the goodness of Jesus Christ, for
the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit is there is freedom. But all of us with face unveiled, mirroring the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, as by the Lord’s Spirit. (2Co. 3:19)
As Perry Noble states in no uncertain terms, “If you don’t let your past die, it won’t let you live. Period.”
One caveat, however (also addressed in Rise of the Lethal Meek):
Dying does not mean denying.
I was watching a cartoon with my son. He was, of course, enjoying it. I was more or less ambivalent — that is, until this exchange:
KARA: I remember dreaming a horrible nightmare. All I wanted to do was get home. I did terrible things.
KAL-EL: Darkseid lives for manipulation… his only function is to break your spirit.
KARA: But, did he influence me, or did he bring out the darkness that was already there?
KAL-EL: You’re here. With me. And nothing else matters.
After this, Kara Zor-El chooses to become Supergirl, and I saw in it the mystery of how to birth a champion.
It’s not about ignoring, or trying to get out of your bad deeds. Dying means coming to terms with your past, making peace with it, and ultimately forgiving the wounds made by yourself and others. In this way, we refuse to shy away from anything we’ve done, or anything that has happened to us.
We confess where we came from, what we came out of, our personal demons, our fears and our failures. Like Jesus, who inspired the publicizing of his genealogy (in Matthew 1 and Luke 3), we take ownership of our family, our community, our nation, and even the world at large — after all, all of us are in this together. It means facing our shadow — our id — not for the sake of unreasonably resurrecting our past, but to bring it, with an intentional finality, into redemptive contact with God.
To do otherwise, psychologists agree, is a sign of a troubling pathological condition. For the minds of the mentally ill are quick to compartmentalize their behaviour, and deny or justify the personal and corporate impact of their actions. This kind of emotional stupefaction divorces perception from reality, or worse, absolves one from taking any responsibility for his or her behaviour.
Love is love, absolutely, but true love is not blind. It is acutely more aware than hate or fear. I believe this is what John was thinking when he wrote,
If we say we have no sin we lead ourselves astray and the truth is not in us.
Of course, this emphatically does not affirm man’s continued depravity upon being regenerated in Christ (how that oxymoronic notion persists among theologians I cannot fathom). It is simply being truthful when we have fracked up — whether our life, or someone else’s.
Every “Yes” Aligns You with Heaven
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes,
Those who exist according to flesh incline the mind to the things of the flesh; but those according to spirit, the things of the spirit. For the mental inclination of the flesh is death; but the mental inclination of the spirit is life and peace.
Every new Christian, from day one, should be sat down, face cupped, and told: whenever you yourself agree with, and believe in, and act on what Jesus says about you, you come into alignment with the divine. This is real repentance, true humility, and a crucial part of what the Church Fathers called theosis. As lies break off, we are far more likely to see natural, even effortless God-ward change.
On the other hand, if we habitually speak over ourselves things in the enemy’s category — sinfulness, sickness, death, fear, despair, etc. — we are, in a very real sense, shaking hands with the devil. Speaking repeatedly of sinfulness is by no means Christian humility. Think about all of the con-artist films you have seen: interaction with a liar virtually guarantees a distorted view of the world, and in our case of God, his Word, ourselves and each other. No wonder, then, that the Christian life is so often reduced to a constant cycle of one-step-forward, two-steps-back.
There is a way out, but it does not involve climbing.
New Covenant Repentance
Ask yourself, what do I really believe about repentance? How you personally define repentance largely determines how you interact with God, and others. When I feel responsible for my own repentance (like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day), there is tremendous pressure to “be good.” The problem is, those who focus on being good tend to forget to be loved.
Like Israel on Mt. Sinai, in a cowardly bid to exert at least some say over my personal fidelity, I choose a standard of rules over simple relationship with God, only to (unsurprisingly) find myself, in the ensuing “centuries,” endlessly ping-ponged between feelings of self-righteousness and guilt. By oneself, this is harmful enough, but too often one finds oneself projecting this thinking onto others. And, like Israel, the moons of my misery, wading through drowned marshes of regret lined with the teeth of my efforts, wax and wane ad infinitum.
I am a man in torment — who will deliver me from the body of this death? — Paul
Until one day, I realize that God has already taken up the joyful responsibility of finding and restoring me, and in the process releases me from what once controlled me. By faith I enter into the joy of my Master. I enter into his rest.
Major Ian Thomas, a trailblazer in the field of living by the Spirit, says this mindset can only be reset by a true and final reckoning.
Don’t fight a battle already lost by the flesh. Enjoy a victory already won by the Spirit! How are you to deal with this old nature, the flesh? Roll up your sleeves and take it on? No! God said if you do that you’ll be defeated every time — it’s a battle already lost. You are to walk in the Spirit. You are to encounter the risen Lord Jesus who indwells you, and claim his life in the same way that you came to the crucified Lord Jesus and claimed his redemption.
The escape hatch out of the paralyzed and powerless life is to switch our focus from how we were, or what we wish we were to who we are — as reflected in the One after whose mold we are made. As Jesus and his followers amply demonstrated, the believer was never a mere purveyor of the gospel, but the conduit for its entire invasion. The world needs such men and women who are unafraid of themselves — people who, divested from a paralyzing preoccupation with failure, are free to begin tackling the great big problems in the world-at-large.
KAL-EL: You said to me once you didn’t want to be anybody’s champion. There’s somewhere I want to take you, where you can be safe. Where you can fit in. Where you can just be yourself.
Like Jesus, we can become a living notebook for the promises of God. Promises are for believers, i.e. people who believe them! Watch a person with the Word of God in his mouth and heart — he or she is like the phenomenon of nuclear fusion inside a star. Only there is no supernova, nor fizzling out, for
Even as Jesus is, so are we in this world.
If you missed the “prequel” to this article, His Word Enfleshed, check it out.
The more I learn, the more I discover just how vast a landscape of histories, languages and cultures are featured in the Bible. It’s not easy! Where do you start? That’s why I made a deck of ultra-convenient cards unlocking a rooted understanding of the world’s most treasured book, one card at a time. And, while you’re at it, become a patron and get all kinds of useful New Covenant merch sent to you.
N E X T → Tragedy at Rest: A Slam Poem
Reconciled At His Touch, Part 2 ← P R E V I O U S