Monday, July 22, 2013

Squeaky-Clean Doctrine in a Lake of Fire

Not all that long ago, another staff member at The Crossing closed out a group prayer with the words, "We love you, Lord, and we trust You know that we are all seeking to do Your will here. Amen." For me, the simple words she used to express her authentic emotional connection to Jesus struck deep into my heart. I couldn't help but think to myself, "Wait a minute...what's been going on with my own love for the Lord lately?"

It was instantly clear that God had used her heart of prayer to show me something profound about how far I had drifted from "a desire for relationship" into a nearly-exclusive focus on "right doctrine" and "good works." I have since repented, and continue to do so. And I routinely confess my foolishness and advise others to avoid this trap by joining me in repenting of their theological brilliance and/or righteous deeds (Isaiah 64:6).

If you have attended The Crossing even once, you no doubt have surmised that our church cares a great deal about preaching and teaching sound Christian doctrine. This is without question a good thing. Jesus told us that the Father was looking for worshippers who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:21-24), and Paul commanded Timothy - and by extension, all of us - to guard his Christian doctrine with all care (1 Timothy 6:20-21). My point in sharing this episode in my own life of faith is simply to warn others that the pursuit of right doctrine - like all other good things - can itself become a snare whenever a sinful human heart grabs hold of it.

Possible Warning Signs: Do you find yourself "over-enjoying" theological debates? Have disagreements over Scripture divided you from friends and loved ones? Do you ever find yourself running to the Bible to prove someone else wrong? Are there other ways by which you have misappropriated the Truth and used it as a club with which to beat someone else down? Whenever we step away from a heated conversation, one that has perhaps moved someone further away from accepting Jesus than previously, it's helpful, I think, to remember that most of Jesus' committed enemies, the Pharisees, had been trained such that they were able to recite the first five books of the Bible from memory. And yet Jesus seemed fairly certain of Himself in saying that their "achievements" had missed the point entirely (Matthew 23:1-36).

Pastor and author John Piper, never one to mince words, has an excellent book of devotions entitled Taste and See: Savoring the Supremacy of God in All of Life. I have read this book multiple times, and always profit from it whenever I pick it up. One of the devotions in this book, Devil Prayers and Divine Pleasures, starts off with a fairly memorable sentence: "A great incentive to be authentic in our love to God is to recognize our best religious efforts duplicated in hell." The online version of this devotion will give you a good sense of where Piper goes after this attention-getting intro, but the print version on my desk contains a couple more disturbing paragraphs:
James marveled that professing Christians could be so far from true, saving faith. To shock them he reminded them that the devil is a pretty orthodox person. "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder" (James 2:19). Not only are they fairly orthodox in their theology; they have better religious responses to what they believe than some professing Christians, for they tremble at the reality of God.

The point for James was that right doctrine without a demonstrative, heart-felt delight in God and reliance on God is spiritually worthless. Devils realize it and sell their souls to do as much damage as they can before they are bound and cast into the lake of fire (Matthew 25:41). But religious humans seem to be unaware of it. This is what is so pitiful - people with no real love to God pronouncing truths about God. People in love with themselves and with the praise that comes with religious performance, but who have not tasted the true glory of God himself.
No one is going to "out-Piper Piper," of course, but one of the more consistently-excellent resources that has profoundly informed my thinking on how we human beings can take good things - service to the church, for example - and twist them to demonic ends would be The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Again and again, I find myself returning to the truth that the enemy of our souls is entrenched deeply in this world, and he seeks nothing less than to distract, divert and destroy. We frail, fallen humans have such a powerful drive to be gods ourselves that our enemy long ago quit trying to talk us out of the existence of God. He merely entices us to go on thinking we are serving Christ as we slowly-but-surely descend into the pit of self-involvement.

"Go ahead and serve the church. Memorize Scripture. In fact, memorize lots of Scripture, more than anyone else in your small group!" Anything to get you to stop authentically interacting with Jesus.
Lord, my heart is wild with the desire to be its own master.
Even as I seek to serve You, I can often feel myself slipping further away.
My favorite person to lie to is myself; I do it all the time.
Protect me, Jesus, from the deceitfulness of my own heart.
Thank You for accepting whatever good may come from my feeble obedience.
You are gracious to me beyond anything I am able to comprehend.
Help me, Lord, to stop thinking about myself.
"My" health. "My" finances. "My" status in Your community.
Do not give me over to the false gods I yet keep enshrined in dark corners.
Glorify Your name by keeping the enemy at bay in the lives of Your people.
Sanctify me and my loved ones to Your purposes.
Do whatever seems best to further Your kingdom in my life.
Amen.

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