Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Dangers of Comparison, and Partial Testimony

I originally posted this on Facebook, but decided to post it here as well:

One of biggest human flaws is to compare ourselves to others.

Sometimes we hold others in such high esteem, not realizing they struggle with many of the same thoughts and issues that we do.  We're may feel dwarfed by their shadow,  jealous of their lifestyle, or envious of their demeanor.

On the other hand, there are those we may think we're quite better than.  We hold ourselves up against them and think, "Man, I'm glad I'm not like that person."  I call this Pharisee Syndrome.  In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus speaks of two men with two very different attitudes and two very different prayers.

"Two men went up into the temple to pray;
one was a Pharisee, and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself like this:

‘God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get.’But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn’t even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying,
 ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’
I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Back in these days, tax collectors were greatly despised.  I suppose they still are today, but in Jesus' day, tax collectors would often collect more than required in order to fill their own pockets.  Therefore, they were seen as shady and crooked, and no one enjoyed dealing with them.  My mind conjures up images of  an unethical, dubious character such as a used car salesman attempting to rip off customers by over-exaggerating the qualities of a vehicle (which is really a lemon of a car).

Thing is, we may feel like we can easily point out these characters, but the truthfully, we all have a little "tax collector" inside of us.  And, if we're going to be completely honest, we all have a Pharisee inside of us too.

I bet the tax collector saw these Pharisees and thought, "I wish I could be like them.  They have it all together.  They follow the traditions. They live holy lives. If only I could be as righteous!"

Allow me to back track a little bit.  In order to clearly see this picture, you need to have a firm grasp of who a Pharisee is.  Now days, it's a negative word synonymous with hypocrite, but in those days, Pharisees were known to be very righteous men.  Pharisee means "the separated ones", as in "separated for God's purpose" and were viewed as "God's loyal ones".  In his daily bible study, Wayne Blank points out that this is "extremely ironic in view of the fact that by [Christ's] time, they made themselves the most bitter, and deadly, opponents of Jesus Christ and His message. The Pharisees perhaps meant to obey God, but eventually they became so devoted and extremist in very limited parts of The Law (plus all that they themselves added to it), that they became blind to The Messiah when He was in their very midst. They saw His miracles, they heard His Words, but instead of receiving it with joy, they did all that they could to stop Him - eventually to the point of getting Him killed because He truthfully claimed to be the Son of God."

It's interesting that Christ, as He is teaching the people, makes the remark, "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven."  To others, the scribes and Pharisees seemed to be pretty righteous people, but we can see throughout the New Testament gospels that much of it was just tradition and their hearts were not devoted to God.  [While this verse may seem to convey that Jesus is preaching a works-based salvation, in context, He is making the point that, if we have any hope of going to Heaven, we must be perfect.  Since we know that perfection is impossible, what are we to do?  It is hopeless!  That is when the Good News, otherwise known as the Gospel, reveals itself.  When we repent of our sins before God and turn away from our sinful ways, we are "covered in Christ's blood"- that is, His sacrifice pays the price for our sin, and when God looks upon us on judgment day, He will not see us in our wretchedness, but instead, He will see a justified, sanctified person through His Perfect Son.]

It's not that their unwritten rules were bad or even off course.  In fact, these little extras they added were originally implemented buffers to keep them from being unclean. [More on that later.] However, these additions were pushed upon others and became a routine of tradition rather than an act of the Holy Spirit's guidance.

Here's the thing: I know my life seems a little radical and strict to others.  I know people look at my beliefs and the way we live and believe that I look down on all others who don't live as I do.

For the most part, I don't.
Of course I have moments when I look down my nose at people.  To say I have never done and will never do such a thing would be a flat out lie.  In fact, I'm pretty sure you could read through past entries and see plenty of times when I have scoffed at others.  When I see mothers living as though they are single, childless college students- partying several times a week and plastering Facebook with photos of themselves hanging on different fellows with a drunken smile, there are many judgy thoughts that spring to my mind.

Then God wacks me upside the head and says, "Do you remember your past?"  And, as I rub my noggin, memories I'd rather not consider spring to mind.  Memories of multiple marital separations and hardships, of trying to fill the God-shaped hole in my soul with things that would never satisfy, of being regretfully boogered up and hungover on Nolyn's first birthday, or even of spending nights in a bed of a man whose bed I should have never been in. I can look back and see my life slowly decaying, and why? Because the self-righteous life I had tried to live for so long did not stand the test of time.  Why? Because it was not written on my heart. It was a service of routine and tradition, born of a list of expectations and standards, not conceived out of love for Almightly God.

In those times, I would look to friends who seemed to have their lives altogether. Interestingly enough, many of the people I looked up to in those days have since gone through some very difficult trials.  Three of them have had affairs (or their spouses were unfaithful).  I was shocked to find that one of the elders in our religious group who played such an influential part in the turn-around of my life did not walk his talk.  He had such good advice for me, yet he didn't follow it himself.  We had a lot in common- trying to look the part, knowing what was right but unable tohonestly walk it.
On the other hand, people I had formerly looked down upon were the people who were my biggest supporters and encouragers.  These were the people who had gone through the mud and the muck.  These were the folks who had struggled through the same things I did.  These were the people who knew what it was like to be marked with impurity due to adultery, infidelity, and lustfulness.  People who had stumbled in pride and defensiveness. These were the people who knew the intimate struggles of marriage, who went to the brink and back.  These were the people who had seen their own families torn apart and wanted to save me from the same fate.  These were the ones who had experienced a string of failures themselves- natural, spiritual, relational, and moral- and understood the confusion, distress, and consuming woe that balled up inside of me, choking the life out of me.

Those years of my life were very humbling.  For years I had been a Pharisee, appearing to live a righteous life.  And then, one day in February 2006, I looked over my life and realized that I was a failure.  Everything I touched, everything I tried to fix, everything I did on my own will power failed miserably, and not only failed but made things even worse.  I had lived a life of comparison.  I had tried to live up to the rules and regulations, much like many of the Jews tried to live according to the Law of Moses and the additional Pharisaical rules. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I am not saying that the 10 Commandments are useless. In fact, we should live by the ten commandments.  Jesus calls us to obey His commands (I John 2:3-6)!  We should honor our mother and father. We should love the Lord God with all our being, and we shouldn't worship idols or other "gods".  We shouldn't kill, steal, lie, covet or commit adultery.  And, we would do good to keep His name Holy (not use it in vain) and to respect the Sabbath day.  (By the way, these are all summed up in the two commandments Jesus gives to love the Lord God will all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love your "neighbor" as yourself.)

There are people who live out the commands in their lives, at least, it appears that way.  But, let us be honest, our own thoughts betray us.  Inwardly we lust, inwardly we lie, inwardly
we covet.

Sometimes, as the kids and I pass rows of houses on our way to the park, I wonder about the people within.  On the outside, their lives seem to be quite lovely and organized.  Their flowerbeds overflow with blossoms.  Their cars and trucks are shiny and clean.  But what's going on beyond the brick exterior?  The couple that waves and smiles as we pass, are they struggling in their marriage?  Are their sons and daughters trying their patience?  Are they at their wits end?  Are there stacks of unpaid bills upon their table? Do they go to bed wondering how they are going to make it, wondering if they are going to lose their home, their cars, their jobs?

There are times, when I'm stuck in traffic, that I look at the faces around me and wonder, "What's going on in their minds?"  Are they dreading returning home from a hard day's work?  Where are they going?

I remember a time in my life where I would get in the car and drive.  One day, I walked out on my life.  As my brother and my husband stood watching, I grabbed my daughter (Merika), climbed in my car, and fled.  They had no idea what was going on in my head.  They assumed I was angry (and I was), but they had no idea the trouble boiling beneath my skin.

I drove and drove- tears streaming down my face, until I saw a huge bridge looming before me.  The thought solidified in my mind.  This would be the day I would die.  I was sure I was going to hell.  I knew it with all my being, but this suffering, the anguish inside.... I couldn't take it anymore.  I cried because of the pain inside, and I cried because I knew I was going to take my daughter off that bridge with me. [Thankfully, God used people in my life to intervene as I sped up the bridge. Amazing what a simple phone call can do!] I sobbed because of the hopelessness and emptiness inside of me.

Two and a half years later, I would feel that same hopelessness, yet instead of leading me to a bridge in attempt to commit suicide, it would lead me to cry out, "I cannot do this! Who will save me from myself?  Lord! I am a wretched sinner, and I need you to fix this wreckage!"  [I actually like to think of it this way- instead of going to a bridge to die, I went to The Bridge (Christ) to live.]

I write this to make this point- comparing ourselves to others is a horrible way to live.  It doesn't make us better people.  It doesn't lead us to more righteous lives. When we compare ourselves to those who we believe we are "better than", we fail to extend mercy and grace. (And we forget that God works in all people in different ways at different times.) In reality, we are overlooking our own flaws, choosing to white wash ourselves instead of confronting the issues.  When we compare ourselves to those who seem to have it all together, we place them upon a pedestal without knowing the complete story.  We begin to envy and covet what they have.  We see glimpses of their so-called perfection, and grumble over our failures. And, instead of taking our short-comings to God and allowing Him to mold, shape, and change us, we try to do it on our own.  We live on the surface. Then, when these people we hold up so high stumble, falter, or fall we begin to pick them apart and chew them up.

Now, it is important to understand that often God does reveal where we fall short through the lives of others.  Sometimes He will use the life of another to convict us.  Sometimes the words and actions of others makes me examine myself, my motives, my heart, my walk.... but the key point is that upon this examination, I must turn to Christ, not to myself for the answers.

I know many of you do not believe as I believe.  Some of you do not believe in the God that I believe in.  Some of you do not believe in God at all.  You may think I frown upon you, but I don't.

Sometimes we say well-meaning things like, "You believe as you believe, and I'll believe as I believe and we're both right." But the truth of the matter is that I can't possibly believe as I believe and think that everyone is right.  If I say I love the God of the Holy Bible/Scripture and worship Jesus Christ, then I must love what He loves and hate what He hates.

Because I love children, and because I love life, I have to hate anything that kills our children and destroys life.
Because I respect strong godly marriages and families, I must hate anything that destroys them.
If I truly love God's truth and light, then I must hate lies and darkness.

People may think I am judgmental when I discuss my beliefs, yet I come from a place of "been there, done that".  I have the scars to show it.  There was a time when I was completely against God.  Not intentionally.  In fact, I didn't even realize the extent of my sin. I did not realize how against God I was.  Afterall, I thought I was living a pretty good life.  I thought I was a fairly good person.

Until I began to examine myself.  Truly examine myself.  When I stopped holding myself up to others and comparing myself to mankind and began holding myself up against Christ.... I saw how truly horrible I was.

Stick with me here.

See, deep down, I knew I wasn't that great of a person.  Deep down I knew I was an awful human being.  But, I refused to really look at myself, because, when I did, the weight of it all settled upon me and became to much to bare.  So, instead of holding myself up to Christ, I held myself up to people who I felt I was better than.  And, instead of looking to Jesus for my strength and lifting Him up, I lifted up others who were likely to make mistakes.  I placed myself on a man-made rating scale.

Sure, I lie and cheat, but I'm not as bad as Hitler.

Okay, so maybe this particular thing isn't really that great, but most Christians do it, so...

I wanted someone to tell me I was a good person, that I was okay.  And, let me tell you, there were plenty of people who justified my actions for me, who made it seem like, hey, I'm a pretty good person, and when I'm not, I have a perfectly acceptable reason for being that way.  After all, we're all human, right?

But even more than I wanted to be told that I was right, I, strangely enough, wanted someone to tell me I was wrong.  No, I didn't want someone to just poke and prod me and say, "You're stupid. You're wrong.  You're such an idiot."  [And yes, there were people who said that!]

No, I wanted... I NEEDED... someone to tell me, "You're wrong.  Here's what the bible says."  I needed them to reach out to me in the love of Christ, not for the sake of tradition or routine.  I needed someone to tell me life was more than a check list.

Be a good wife. Check.
Be a good mom. Check.
Don't steal. Check.
Don't murder. Check.

I desperately needed someone to come along side me and say, "I see you're searching.  I see you are completely miserable.  I see you need love and care and tenderness.  I see you crying out, and I know Someone who wants to help you.  I know the Answer. You don't have to live like this anymore!"
I needed someone to show me Christ.
However, most people thought I already knew Christ.  Most people thought I was a good little Christian.  Most people didn't know I was completely lost and drowning in my sin.

Because I looked pretty righteous.  Because I was trying to blend in to the rest of the good little Christians.  I was trying to mimic the walk and talk of others I thought were "good people".  It was not an act of love and worship to Christ.  It was drudgery. It was a burden. It was not a joy.

You see, I had an idea of what was right, but I felt powerless to achieve rightness (and I was powerless, for the mindset of the "flesh" is hostile to God for it does not submit to God's law and is unable to do so [Romans 8:7]).  In the month before I submitted my life to Christ's lordship, I was consumed by my list of sins.  In fact, there are a few of you who may recall conversations with me in which I would repeat over and over, "I'm going to hell. I mean, I. am. going. to. hell. There is just no way around it. I am destined for hell."

I saw all my wrong, and I saw it plainly.  For the first time in my life, I was stripped of excuses and I was being crushed by my own horribleness.

Whenever I read the bible, I saw condemnation.

As I read 2 Timothy 3, I had a mental check list of where I had betrayed God.

"For people will be lovers of self (check), lovers of money (yep), boastful (nodding), proud (mmhmm!), blasphemers (check), disobedient to parents (oh yes), ungrateful, unholy, unloving (check, check, check), irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good (sounds like me), traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (why yes, that's me), holding to the form of religion but denying its power."

I saw myself for who I was. I saw my "nakedness", so to speak. I stepped into the light. The darkness no longer hid my thoughts and deeds. I could no longer use my old system of rating righteousness.

And then I fell on my face before the One who could change me, the One who could wipe the slate clean, the One who was extending His hand in mercy and love, and calling out to me.  Christ gave Himself for me to redeem me from all lawlessness!  He gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a special people, eager to do good works [Titus 2:14].   I had been a slave to my sin. I couldn't escape it. I tried to do good, yet I kept returning to my bad works like a dog to his vomit.  I feared what was coming. I feared death, and yet I feared living as well.  I had been reading my bible since I had learned to read, yet I did not understand that through His death, He had destroyed the power of death and the one who holds the power over death (Satan) [Hebrews 2:14]. I knew He had died for me, but I did not really understand it.

I had viewed God as this angry, horrible ruler just waiting for me to screw up so He could punish me. I did not see His mercy. I did not feel His love.  I did not "get it" until I began to see Christ, to see how He had left His throne in Heaven (where He was glorified, loved, and adored) to come to earth and take on a suit of flesh, to become like man so that He could become a "merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people." [Hebrews 2:17]  I began to understand that my God was a personal, loving God- a God who does not want any to perish but all to come to repentance (and therefore, salvation) [2 Peter 3:9].  I began to see His laws- not as silly regulations to keep me from having fun- but for my own safety, much like a parent warns their children not to run out into a busy street or get in a car with a stranger. His commands not only protect me from Satan and his demons, but from myself as well. Mankind has long been estranged from God, but Christ? He was always in the presence of God.  That's why the Gospel is so amazing.  People think Christ wept because He was thinking about the natural side of His death.  Let me tell you something, many men went to the cross. Many of his disciples (all of the apostles) suffered in horrible, horrible ways, and GLADLY for the message of Christ.

Christ was in turmoil because He knew what was coming. He did not fear what the Romans were about to do to Him. He knew that, on that cross, there would come a time when He would be separated from God.  The sin of all the world (past, present, and future) would be placed upon Him, and Our Holy God would have to turn His face.  I cannot even imagine the agony Christ endured as He cried out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?"  It was not the pain of the nails through his wrists. It was not the physical, human pain.  It was the WRATH OF GOD upon our Savior that had him sweating blood.

For us. For me. For you.  So we could be declared legally right before Him and could be treated as righteous and perfect before God.  As one of my favorite preachers (Paul Washer) says, "If we would, could understand sin, we would have more rejoicing [of Jesus, in Christ, of God] and more weeping and repentance over our sin!"  We think we understand God's wrath. We don't. We have never, ever truly experienced God's wrath nor have we ever known what it is like to be completely abandoned by God's presence- even those who are lost still experience God's blessings and presence, but that will not always be the case.

Christ was willing to be separated from the One whom He loved more than anything.   You see, there is not one moment in our life that is not tainted by sin.  There is not one moment in our life that we have loved God as God deserves to be loved.  But Jesus was not tainted by sin in His life EVER, and there was not one time in His life that he didn't love, praise, glorify, and worship God as God deserves.  He was always, ALWAYS, in perfect obedience to God. He lived a sinless, perfect life on earth.  The only time sin tainted His life was when OUR sin was put upon Him.

I think the reason we (me included) take this so lightly is because we do not understand it.  We cannot conceive the vileness and wretchedness of just a fraction of sin because our culture takes pride in it. Our culture boasts in it.  Our culture promotes it.  Just turn on the television, and you'll see it paraded and approved of. Take a walk in the mall and you'll see posters plastered on store fronts encouraging it.

You see, now I see my sin for what it is.  But I see the forgiveness. I see the Savior.

The one who has been forgiven much, loves much.  And, because I love Christ, I no longer want to do those things I once did.  I don't want to go near it. I don't want to look upon it.  I have been saved, forgiven, and freed... not so I can boast in myself, not so I can serve myself.  He "saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began." (2 Timothy 1:9)  I no longer have to live in fear, "For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment" (2 Timothy 1:7).

I am not perfect. I still struggle. I still sin because I still live in a body of flesh, but God does not let me get away with my sin.  He doesn't let me feel comfortable and cozy in my sin.  He does not let me rest on sugar-coated preaching and false teaching just so I can comfort myself and feel as though it's okay for me to do as I want because I am already saved. God does not want me to become complacent. He does not want me to be comfortable with sin.  He desires me to still be SHOCKED by sin, to be DISGUSTED by sin, to be REPULSED by sin.  [However, in this day and age, as I previously mentioned, sin is so blatant and openly accepted that it no longer shocks or sickens us.  Instead, even Christians- myself included- find ways to justify it. We justify ungodly wars, murder, robbery, and dishonesty never considering how it grieves the Spirit of God.]

While its true- I have done nothing, and can do nothing, to earn so great a salvation:

"For we too were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, captives of various passions and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, detesting one another. But when the goodness and love for man appeared from God our Savior, He saved us-- not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy..." [Titus 3:3-5]

.... my love for Christ, my thankfulness, my worship, my praise.....
         should drive me to serve Him and submit my life to Him.  How can I claim Him Lord of my life if I do not give Him my life?

"The Lord knows those who are His, and everyone who names the name of the Lord must turn away from unrighteousness." [2 Timothy 2:19]

"They profess to know God, but they deny Him by their works."  [Titus 1:16]

"In the same way faith, if it doesn't have works, is dead by itself."  [James 2:17]

Take the story of Abraham, for example.  Abraham was counted as righteous before God because he heard God's word, believed it, and acted upon it.  His belief was not a stagnant belief, but an active belief that drove him to live his life under God's direction.  He believed God's promises and acted upon them as if they had already been fulfilled, as if they had already happened.  Faith was active together with his works and by works, his faith was perfected (James 2:22).

If you look upon his life, you will see that Abraham made mistakes- plenty of them. He was not a perfect man. He sinned, but he repented and submitted himself to God's will and direction.  Yes, he had to pay the consequences for His sin.  Yes, I am sure there were times when his wife questioned his decisions (and also suffered due to poor choices).  We are not free from the consequences of our actions in this life.  God can and often does spare us more than we realize, but more over, because of Christ, we are free from the consequences of sin after this human body passes.

I know some of you are likely rolling your eyes by now (if you've stuck with me this far).  You probably think I'm babbling, it's mere crazy-talk, ravings of a Jesus Freak.

Yet, I know in Whom I believe. I have placed my trust in Him and He has saved me from a life of misery.  I have believed His promises, and it has proven to be the best decision I ever made.  He has not failed me- not once.  This is not to say my life has been perfect, or that God has answered Yes to every single one of my prayers.

But let me tell you this- even if God did nothing else but give me a joyful eternal life with Him, it would be enough.  All the rest is just icing on the top.  The joy, the peace, my children, the restoration of my marriage, the restoration of other relationships, the fellowship with other believers..... it's the sweet addition, the extra blessings.  And I am thankful for it all because I know I do not deserve it!


Amy in AL said...

Beautiful, amazing, transforming grace! Oh, what a Savior! Thank you for sharing the testimony of it!

Amy in AL

Mommy N said...

GREAT Post from a VERY real place that so many never talk about.

twotinybluelines said...

Wow. I'm kind of speechless. This was really powerful. Thanks for posting. I have this thought too, when it comes to motherhood--we are always comparing against other moms aren't we??