Tag Archives: legalism

Lent: Is Your Life a Feast or Famine?

By Eugene C. Scott

Easter Worship at Red Rocks Amphitheater

Several months after God first grabbed me by the heart (I was fifteen years old), I attended an Easter sunrise service at Red Rocks Amphitheater in the foothills west of Denver. Suddenly colored eggs, chocolate bunnies, and new Easter outfits paled as symbols of a holiday that affirms the resurrection and forgiving power of Jesus Christ. I remember–still–how guilt and shame, self hate and fear slid off my heart like a winter crust slides off a blade of spring grass. With Jesus living in me, my life switched from an old, grainy, black and white movie to full living color. Everything–sight, sound, joy, pain–reverberated with an edge, a flavor, that jolted me. As a musician who was popular back then, Phil Keaggy, sings, I felt

 

“Like waking up from the longest dream,

how real it seemed,

Until Your love broke through

I was lost in a fantasy

That blinded me,

Until Your love broke through.”

That Easter in 1973 I realized the reality of God’s love breaking into my life and beginning a revolution. Freedom reigned. My heart danced as my life became a whirlwind of much-needed change. Tragically, my list of sins to abandon was quite impressive for a mere fifteen-year-old, especially since I abandoned the same sins multiple times. Slowly my struggle against sin transformed my Christian life from a joyous explosion of forgiveness into a smoldering list of forbidden actions I never fully managed to avoid. Christianity lost its life and became an oppressive duty.

Don’t get me wrong. The Bible clearly communicates that sin makes us incompatible with God and the banquet he has planned for us. Drug abuse, lying, gossip, skipping school, and the like were good things to give up. But when Christianity degenerates into a constant striving against life, it loses its power for life. My freedom in Christ was swallowed by guilt and fear and dos and don’ts.

There’s a story about a Presbyterian who moved into a Catholic neighborhood. Each Friday he grilled himself a steak. His neighbors were sorely tempted as they dined on their traditional fish. Soon the Catholics took matters into their own hands and converted the Presbyterian to their flavor of Christianity. That following Sunday the Priest sprinkled water on the man saying, “You were born a Presbyterian, raised a Presbyterian, but now you are a Catholic.” His neighbors welcomed him into the fold warmly.

But that next Friday they were drawn to the new convert’s deck by the aroma of a tantalizing steak. As they stepped onto his deck, they saw him sprinkling a slab of meat with A1 saying, “You were born a cow, raised a cow, but now you are a fish.”

That joke betrays an all too common belief among Christians–Presbyterian, Catholic, Independent, whatever–that Christianity is comprised of rites, rituals, traditions, and laws. Therefore our faith becomes that which Jesus died to save it from: outward expressions of inward emptiness: legalism.

Next week millions of Christians worldwide will begin looking toward Easter and remembering the resurrection of Jesus by participating in the season of Lent.  Unfortunately, as beautiful and meaningful as Lent can be, for many it teeters on becoming the modern poster child for an empty legalistic faith. On Ash Wednesday thousands will begin a fast in which they will give up chocolate, soda, TV, or something similar.

The prophet Samuel confronted Israel’s first king, Saul, with these words: “To obey is better than sacrifice.”

What’s the difference between obedience and sacrifice? Obedience stipulates an inward desire to do what God has commanded not outward acquiescence. Jesus said, if we love him we will obey his words. Obedience is a response of love to God’s love. Further, obedience is taking God’s word in and then living it out. Jesus illustrated this with the story of a house that has been swept clean of its demons. But then, because the house remained empty, many more demons rushed back in. Obedience then is an outward expression of an inward fullness. Sacrifice often is an outward expression of an inward emptiness.

Fasting has its purpose: to remind us of our need for God. But be honest. Did giving up sweets last Lent really fill you with a deeper love for our Savior? My daughter once wondered why we don’t instead add something to our lives during Lent. In other words, embrace–take in–the good things God has for each of us. And if you choose to fast, give something up, that is not healthy for you, replace it with something that is. This Easter add the fullness of the Holy Spirit to your life. Instead of fasting, feast. Dine on the simple presence of God. Read the Bible to know God not just to wrest his will from its pages. Give yourself to God in worship. Be with God.

The Apostle Paul said the harvest of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He did not intend this as a legalistic list, but an illustration of a life with the Holy Spirit permeating the soil of the soul. Like a crop in rich earth, the fruit of the Spirit thrives in a life filled with God. Fruit withers when disconnected from the branch. If your faith is a series of outward responses based on an inward emptiness, hanging fruit on yourself will only weigh you down.

As Lent leads us toward Easter, feast on outward expressions of inward fullness; fast from outward expressions of inward emptiness. Is your life a feast or a famine? God desires it to be a banquet of freedom, forgiveness, and his very presence.

********

Beginning on March 13–the Sunday following Ash Wednesday–we will begin a Lenten series at The Neighborhood Church titled

“Embrace: Discover, Desire . . . Jesus”

During worship we will explore those things of God we can embrace and add to our lives as a response of love to Jesus.  These worship gatherings will also include hands-on opportunities to practice these things God asks us to add to our lives.  Join us.  See tnc3.org for worship times.

Eugene C. Scott writes the Wednesday Neighborhood Cafe blog.  If you’re reading this on Facebook and you’d like to join the conversation, click here. www.bibleconversation.com. Eugene co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, CO

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Are You A Good Christian?

In 1955, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham developed a diagram they called the Johari Window. The purpose of the diagram was  to help people better understand their interpersonal communication and relationships. The diagram looks like this:

A person’s answers to a battery of questions–along with input from their peers–helps them determine whether or not they are cognizant of their  strengths and weaknesses.

But does a “Johari Window” of sorts exist that helps us determine whether or not a person is a good Christian?

Please join us in our daily Bible conversation to find out.

TODAY’S READING

Amos 4:1-9:15
Revelation 2:18-3:22
Psalm 130:1-131:3
Proverbs 29:21-23

INSIGHTS AND EXPLANATIONS

Amos 4:1-9:15. God criticizes the wealthy women of Israel, calling them “cows of Bashan,” because they were being fattened for slaughter. The women enjoyed lives of indulgence while ignoring the plight of the poor. These women weren’t completely pagan, though. They brought their sacrifices and tithes to God but failed to see the needs around them. What they failed to realize was that the need around them was an opportunity to return to God: “‘I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me,’ declares the Lord” (Amos 4:6).

God sent hardship on the people in order to get their attention, but they looked anywhere but him.

So how do they escape the impending destruction? “Seek me and live,” he answers. Paired with that command, he adds, “Seek good, not evil” (Amos 5:14). Seeking God and seeking good are nearly one and the same. We cannot separate our faith from our actions. We live what we believe. Yet doing good is not enough:

I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.
Amos 5:21–22

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THE WORD MADE FRESH

Over the past few days, we’ve read seven letters Jesus dictated through John the apostle to churches in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) in the book of Revelation. But really, the letters focus on two areas: Spiritual Vitality vs. Spiritual Deadness, and Legalism vs. License.

As I explain the differences, remember that churches are composed of people like you and me. Dead churches are filled with dead Christians. The same goes with spiritually alive churches.

The difference between Spiritual Vitality and Spiritual Deadness is pretty self-explanatory. Some churches are spiritually vibrant, even in the face of persecution. The two prime examples in Revelation are the churches in Smyrna (2:8-11) and Philadelphia (3:7-13). On the other hand, we also read about dead churches in Ephesus (2:1-7) and Sardis (3:1-6).

Legalism and License require a little more explanation. Legalism, according to the Klassen Dictionary of Religious Terms, is the belief that following the rules brings us into a right relationship with God. If the Bible says to observe the Sabbath, then legalistic people do absolutely nothing to violate it–and believe that it makes them better Christians. License, on the other hand, is the belief that our actions have nothing to do with our relationship with God. If it feels good, baby, do it.

The tendency for most of us is to place ourselves in one category or the other. But in reality, they really appear on a continuum, like this:

No follower of Christ lives in total legalism or license, nor does any follower of Christ experience a completely spiritually vital or dead life. It’s also helpful to know that our places on these continuums are always changing.

When we place these two continuums into a diagram, they look like this:

So, after reading the letters to the seven churches, I placed them into the diagram. Here’s my version of where the seven churches appear on the diagram:

For good measure, I also placed the prophet Amos’s Israel in the diagram.

The churches in Thyatira and Pergamum appeared on the “license” side of the spectrum, yet notice that no churches appear on the “legalism” side. That probably wasn’t as much of an issue for the churches in Asia Minor, although the church in Galatia would probably appear up there.

The church in Thyatira was vibrant, but also soft on the affects on sin. Sardis and Ephesus committed themselves to many good deeds but they were spiritually dead.

Then we read about the church in Philadelphia. Jesus affirmed them for their deeds and their perseverance under trial. I want to be like them.

What I find most interesting is that among the seven churches, the church in Laodicea was the most repugnant to Jesus (3:14-21). Because the church was lukewarm, Jesus said he wanted to spit them out of his mouth. They played it safe in every way. They appear even worse in God’s eyes than the churches that followed the sexual practices of the Nicolaitans—people who indulged in sexual immortality and believed it didn’t affect them spiritually.

Here’s what I glean from all of this:

1. We are how we live. We cannot separate our spiritual vitality from our everyday lives.

2. God doesn’t want us to live safe. Laodicea did all the right things, but that wasn’t enough. God wanted them to be either hot or cold–anything but lukewarm.

3. Spiritual vitality is more than doing good deeds and following the rules. The esteemed church in Ephesus is a good example of appearing spiritual, yet lacking any life.

I’ve been playing around with these ideas, but I’m interested to read your thoughts. Any insights you care to share with the rest of us?

CONVERSATION STARTERS

  1. What spoke to you in today’s reading?
  2. Where do you appear on the diagram?

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Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church with Eugene Scott in Littleton, Colorado.


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