Humans have a fascinating propensity to swing the pendulum. Like an instinctive throwback to our childhood days on the school playground, we almost find joy in stomach butterflies created by the repetitive back and forth. When we see an area of abuse, misuse, brokenness, or failure, we assume the opposite is the answer. We prescribe to offset the abuse with equal balance, rather than seeking to return it to wholeness and original design.

Not even the Gospel of Jesus Christ is immune to this phenomenon.

I see two main ways we completely miss the message of the Gospel – two swings of the pendulum, two opposite extremes, two ways of taking a portion of the message and turning it into the whole message – and I believe both are hijacking humanity’s understanding of true Christianity.

The first we’ll call Moralism. Or Legalism. Pharisaism (if you like big theological words). This side of the pendulum is typically associated with religious people, and understandably so. But moralism isn’t a religious problem, it’s a human problem.

Moralism screams, “There is a standard and I will meet it! In many ways, moralism the default setting of the human heart. We instinctively celebrate the meritocracy of those who “get it right” and malign those who so obviously and pitifully fall short of the standard. The only problem for moralists is that Scripture clearly says we all miss the standard.

Here are a few ways the moralism side of the pendulum swings away from the true Gospel:

  1. Moralism creates horizontal comparison and always leads to pride or despair. In Luke 18, the Pharisee arrogantly prays, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” Last week on our way to dinner, my wife told me I was driving way too fast. My instinctive reaction was to remind her which of the two of us has more speeding tickets! My comparison was no longer with the posted speed limit, but with my wife’s driving record. This is what moralism does. We no longer compare ourselves to the Father’s standard but with other fallen people. When that comparison is favorable, we feel a sense of self-righteous pride. When it’s unfavorable, we fall into shame and condemnation. This isn’t the message of the Gospel.
  2. Moralism dumbs down God’s standard of righteousness to an attainable level. Moralists misdefine sin. They look at outward words and behaviors when Jesus so clearly looked at the heart. The Sermon on the Mount wasn’t good advice from Jesus on how to live a nice, moral life. It was intentionally crushing demands from God incarnate intended to leave us pleading “who then can be saved?” Jesus didn’t lower the standard, he upped the ante! The Gospel does not offer us a dumbed down standard of righteousness.
  3. Moralism makes ME the savior. If righteousness is a standard I can meet, then when I achieve that standard I am my own savior. As a recovering moralist, the Gospel did not really come alive to me until I had lived long enough to realize how huge God’s standard of righteousness actually is and how far short of it I actually fall. The Gospel leaves no room for self-salvation.

But the answer to religious moralism isn’t the removal of morals. The opposite arc of this pendulum is equally off-base. We’ll call it Progressivism. Or Human Enlightenment. Or antinomianism (if you once again like big theological words). If moralism says I will meet the standard, progressivism says I will REMOVE the standard. This swing is typically associated with “secular” people, but unfortunately it finding it’s way into the Church, too.

Here are a few ways the progressive side of the pendulum swings away from the true Gospel:

  1. Progressivism seeks first to remove the standard. Romans 1:21 tells us plainly, “Yes they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship as God or even give Him thanks.” Individuality is one of the dominant gods of our day. When I was a kid, my parents wanted us to stop watching TV and do something together. Now I find myself begging the family to put down their own individual entertainment devices so we can watch a TV show together! Everything is personalized, even our definition of righteousness. And like the serpent in the Garden, our personal preferences whisper deceptively in our ears, “did God really say?” The Gospel leaves no room for self-defined righteousness.
  2. Progressivism always results in the creation of a new standard.And they began to think up new ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused.” (Rom 1:21). The problem with removing God from the equation is that human beings will always worship something. As our individualized worship begins to bump up against one another, a new set of cultural standards develops with new human arbiters. Our God-stamped identities long for the truth, joy, and beauty of His Kingdom, and so we try to create it (without the King). The Gospel leaves no room for other Kings.
  3. Progressivism makes ME the savior. If I can make the standard or just remove it altogether, I become my own savior. Or perhaps I just eliminate my need for a savior altogether. The Gospel leaves no room for self-salvation.

Sound familiar? It should. Moralism and Progressivism are just two sides of the same self-righteous coin. Moralism redefines the standard in a way I am able to meet, progressivism just removes the standard altogether. Both put me at the helm, me at the center, me on the throne. Neither swing of this pendulum is the Gospel. In fact, they’re the anti-gospel.

There are three aspects to what I’ll call a “Wholistic” Gospel:

  1. The Law Crushes. The purpose of God’s Law is not just to give us great advice to live by, it’s to completely destroy any and all confidence in our flesh. If we don’t first grasp the immeasurable weight of God’s Law, then there’s no need for Grace.
  2. Grace Resurrects. As Brennan Manning so eloquently put it, “all is grace!” We are incapable of living the lives God designed us to live without the merciful gift of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not about making bad people good, but dead people live!
  3. The Spirit Empowers. This is one element often left out of the conversation. Romans 6 tells us that the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead now dwells in us! (Chew on that for a minute). We are now empowered to live lives pleasing to God because His very Spirit dwells in our grace-resurrected bodies. It’s not our ability to meet God’s standard, but His power in us!

This is the good news. The WHOLE Gospel. Jesus Christ has done for us what we could never do for ourselves! Get off the swinging pendulum and find real life in the center of this beautiful Gospel message.

My oldest daughter wrapped up her basketball career with a gut-wrenching last minute loss in the high school state semifinals this past weekend. We knew this day was coming, we’d even talked about it openly, but for some reason no amount of mental preparation was ample enough. I’ve had to (not-so-subtly) excuse myself from more than one room the last few days, not quite sure where all the different layers of emotion were coming from.

We’re sad.

We’re joyful.

We’re grieving.

We’re thankful.

Yes. Thankful.

When we walked into the first meeting before freshman tryouts four years ago, we just hoped Emma could somehow make the team. We weren’t AAU parents. She never played on travel teams or spent time in the offseason at skills camps or with special trainers. We weren’t looking for college scholarships, we just wanted our shy kid to find a place to fit in, to make some friends, and enjoy her high school years.

As I look back, I think that accidental perspective is actually what made the experience so rich. Unlike other areas of our lives, we didn’t see our family as being owed anything. Every moment, from her first cleanup minutes off the bench as a freshman member of the JV squad, to watching her take the court as a varsity starter in the State finals at Bankers Life Fieldhouse – none of it was expected. All of it was a gift. A glorious surprise we never saw coming.

I believe one of the key reasons Emma’s basketball career was so deeply fulfilling is because we experienced it with such unforeseen thankfulness.

Entitlement shrinks my world. It makes me selfish and grouchy when my expectations aren’t fulfilled. It creates a barrier between me and others.

Thankfulness opens the floodgates! It deepens my relationships and fills my heart with joy, even when things aren’t unfolding the way I planned.

What if I approached more things in life this way? 

Owed nothing.

Grateful for everything.

I want to experience more seasons of life that are so rich and full that I can’t help but weep when they’re over. What if thankfulness is the secret sauce that just might make that possible?

A few months ago I typed the following words into my MacBook’s screen saver:

“Be thankful today, even for the littlest of things.”

I want to do better. I don’t want to take anything for granted. What my daughter has experienced, the forever friendships she’s made, the incredible young woman she’s become – all of it has been such an unexpected gift.

Thank you Covenant Christian. Thank you Coach Smith and Angie, Coaches Howell, Fish, and O. Thank you to all the parents who have become dear friends, and are still willing to sit next to me in the stands even when I’m yelling irrationally at the referees. Thank you to all the beautiful girls who have loved my daughter so well and given us so much joy.

We’re thankful for it all. Every. Single. Bit. This isn’t the end, it’s a new beginning. Let’s embrace it all with thankfulness. It’s not just the best way to play basketball, it’s the richest way to live.

Our Hope Is In Christ

Erik Cooper —  January 20, 2017 — Leave a comment

There is a story in Scripture that absolutely confounds me. The Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years when God decides it’s time for their exile to end. He does it with flare: snakes, and plagues, and an Angel of Death, seas parting, water from rocks, pillars of fire, three square meals a day miraculously falling to the ground, shoes that never wear out. Supernatural stuff!

The tangible presence of God was in their midst every day, leading and guiding and saving and providing. And yet the first thing – the very first thing! – they did when Moses left them to go up the mountain was to make their own god out of gold and bow down to worship it.

On first read, this seems like a new level of insanity! Until I realize that I do the exact same thing, too. Every day.

“Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”
–John Calvin

Every day we fight the broken, human instinct to fashion gods with our own hands – gods we can understand, control, and ultimately find our power and identity in. We were made for God, and yet we default to making gods. As we watch the various public reactions to the transfer of power taking place in Washington DC today, and even as we gaze inward to the condition of our own hearts, this idolatry becomes clear in so many ways.

We all have political leanings, and in our own way we can each reconcile these beliefs with our faith. But we are prone to find our identity, and ultimately our hope, in the wins or losses of our preferred political candidates. As Christians, this should cause us great concern.

If your party is taking power today, go ahead and celebrate the ideological win. But don’t place your hope, and certainly not the security of your Christian faith, in the incoming administration. That is idolatry.

Our hope is in Christ.

And if your ideology is leaving office today, don’t despair. If you find yourself despondent and emotionally wrecked by these election results, your hope was in something that was destined to fail you. That is idolatry.

Our hope is in Christ.

I believe God allows us to experience the futility of the many things we place our trust in apart from Him. He does this because He loves us. Our idols will always fail us. If your hope, security, and identity is moving in or out of the White House today, I encourage you to pause and reflect. The idolatry of politics will fail you, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ never will.

Some nations boast of their chariots and horses,

but we boast in the name of the LORD our God.

Those nations will fall down and collapse,

but we will rise up and stand firm.

–Psalm 20:7-8

For Yours, Jesus, is the Kingdom, the power, and the glory forever and ever.

muslimgirl

She surrendered her life to Isa (Jesus) and it cost her everything. Her father wasn’t content with simply rejecting her, he turned her into the police and they didn’t speak again for 6 years. Ostracized from her entire community, she found refuge in the tiny underground church in this North African city where Christianity was illegal and congregations were counted on your fingers (if you could find them at all).

Yet there she was, full of hope and life and boldness and passion. It was contagious.

Every dinner table hosted a similar guest of honor, as each member of our team was inundated with broken-English stories of dreams and visions, supernatural encounters, and the power of the Gospel at work in a truly dark and lonely place. I was humbled and overwhelmed, completely riveted by her unfolding narrative of God’s grace and redemption in her life. Then, without warning, she turned and asked me:

“Do you have any daughters?”

“Two,” I said. “And one son.”

She put her hand on my arm and hit me with the haymaker.

“Don’t over-promise to your daughters. Teach them to depend on Jesus.”

Her comments caught me off guard. When did we start talking about me? Tell me some more stories about covert church gatherings and the spread of the Gospel in these Muslim strongholds.

But God was using this persecuted Christian girl to remind me of something vital. As a father, I am my kids’ protector, a provider and covering, an imperfect reflection of God placed there by God.

But not to replace Him.

The greatest gift I can give my children is to “teach them to depend on Jesus.”

I don’t ever want my girls to be forced to walk the road this young, persecuted Christian girl has been forced to travel. But I sure want them to be able to. If I remove every hardship, resolve every problem, allow them to side-step every suffering, in whom will they place their trust? In me or in Jesus?

It’s such a delicate balance and discernment, isn’t it? To be their protector and lead them to The Protector. To be their covering and lead them to The Covering. To be their hero yet lead them to The Savior.

Let’s take the challenge of this beautiful, young, persecuted believer.

Teach them to depend on Jesus.

Nothing

Sometimes things don’t work the way we planned.

After nearly 40 hours, an overnight airport delay, and two itinerary reroutes, I found myself cuing in a mass of disgruntled travelers in the Addis Ababa airport waiting for our now twice-delayed Ethiopian airline flight to board for Nairobi. Our original team of twenty had been split up twice already, and my wife and three kids were the only 4 left with me. We were trying to count that blessing as my children, travel novices at best, were questioning why we ever left our quaint Midwestern suburb for dad’s claim of a life-changing missions adventure. In all my travels, I had never experienced anything quite like this. We were exhausted, we were hungry, and we were stuck in one of the least desirable airport terminals in the world. And to top it off, I was powerless. There was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

So we pulled a few snacks from our carry-on bags and tried to keep each other in good spirits as many of our irate East African co-passengers argued with the gate-check agents in unknown tongues about the unexplained delays and lack of communication. The intensifying scene was already beginning to make me a little uncomfortable when I glanced down at my 11 year old son. He had been complaining of an upset stomach since we arrived in Addis, but now his face had grown a bit pale, too.

What happened next unfolded in slow motion. His knees stiffened, his eyes rolled back in his head, and his body tumbled backward like he was doing the Nestea plunge. Had it not been for his oversized backpack, his head would’ve certainly cracked hard on the concrete floor. His sister’s scream silenced all other activity and conversation in the buzzing terminal, and we found ourselves on our knees tending to our unconscious son surrounded by a circle of curious and concerned Ethiopian onlookers.

This was not the beautiful journey I had promised my kids for the last 6 months.

Thankfully, he had just passed out, the result of extreme fatigue, lack of food, and airplane dehydration. After convincing the airport officials he was not suffering from some horrific communicable disease and in need of quarantine, we were finally allowed to board the plane to reunite with the rest of our companions (although I can’t say as much for our luggage).

This was not the trip I had planned. It was nothing like the picture I had painted in my head. But there are unexpected blessings to encountering moments of complete powerlessness.

Many of you know my son’s personality. He’s a strong-willed negotiator, never content with an answer he doesn’t like. On many occasions I’ve told my wife, “I wish he would just listen to his dad sometimes. I wish he could find rest in my decisions, that I know what’s best, that I can be trusted.”

This terrifying moment deeply impacted him. In this new unknown environment, he’s humbly asked a lot more questions, he’s paid attention to my instructions, he’s literally clung to me physically as our days have unfolded here in Kenya. He falls asleep grasping my arm. As a dad, there’s nothing you long for more, even though the circumstances that got you here could not be desired less. He’s sought refuge in his father, and together we’ve both found refuge in The Father.

Powerlessness can be a gift. It can connect us to God in unmatched ways, draw us into His covering and protection, and tap into a strength so much greater than our own. We were made to find our rest in the Father, but to get there we usually have to walk the uncomfortable road that leads us to the end of ourselves.

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”
–Matthew 5:3 (MSG)

So here’s to powerlessness. It just might be more powerful than you think.