Main talk -- Grace and Healing Conference -- home
This is a question and answer session following a talk on healthy leadership. The questions are mostly to do with the talk, but there are also some more general questions about grace.
How do you become grounded in God’s love in preparation for ministry?
This is really difficult to talk about, because I would love to recommend a book to you. But I don’t know of any book. I would love to recommend the ministry of somebody who has this wired, but I don’t know of anybody. I just know that from the Bible and from experience and from observation that somehow King David got it. He knew he was accepted and loved by God, he poured his heart out, he was a man after God’s own heart, and somehow he learned it.
My wife, Patty Blue, has got it. She just knows that she knows that God loves her, and her whole life is just loving him back. And I know nobody who is stronger, more emotionally and spiritually grounded, and who is wiser than her. She’s the best Christian I know. And she has been tested unbelievably, being married to me.
I’m serious! You ask anybody who’s married to somebody who is bipolar (manic depressive), and somebody who is as extreme as I am, and someone who has spent a large number of years angry, and on top of that moving all the time, and on top of that, having and nursing and teaching eight children. And I’ve watched her handle it so gracefully, because she just knows that she’s special to God, and that he just likes her, loves her and wants good things to happen to her. It’s been the strength of her life, and it was the strength of David’s.
I can’t fill one hand with other examples. I know maybe one or two other people. So we’re talking about something that I think is essential, but something that is pretty foreign to us.
What I would do is find somebody who knows it and find a church that practices it. And I would say, well, good luck. I’m not sure that there are enough around to make that a viable option. But I think that I would find some way – to read, to study, to meditate, to find some way, indirectly and directly – to cultivate the upward vision. I would find ways of doing it somehow. If I had to do it all over again, I would probably go in that direction.
What ways have you found to love God and let him love you?
One of the most helpful things I learned, I’m not sure when or where, was that I began journaling. I began writing my prayers out to God. I’ve learned to distrust teachers in the Christian tradition and become somewhat jaded, and so I didn’t start journaling until I read a bunch of psychological studies. I do a lot of things, so I keep up with the psychological and counselling literature.
And one of the things that I found really interesting is the mental health that accrues to people who journal. Nothing about God – just writing down your emotions and writing down your thoughts. I know that a lot of the current spiritual guides like Richard Foster and Dallas Willard and others have instructed us to journal.
So about fifteen to twenty years ago I began doing that. One of my disciplines is that every morning I get up, and I pour out whatever is on my mind in my spiral notebook. I’ve got a whole bunch of them stacked up on the corner. I don’t know if I should burn them all before I die – no, I don’t have anything to lose, do I? Everybody knows everything that’s wrong with me already! Actually I don’t have to worry about it, because nobody can understand my handwriting.
So I just pour out my thoughts, I just flush out – you know how you get up in the morning and you have your bowel movement – I get up in the morning and I do that, and then I have a kind of spiritual movement, or an emotional movement. And whatever is going on, I get it up, and get it out. Because I don’t want it in here causing mischief.
And the loftiest to the most vile thoughts go on paper. And there is something very therapeutic about that. There is something that makes my confessions to God and my expressions of affection to him more concrete and real if they are written out. I’m not sure how that works, but it works.
Maybe I’ll read the Bible, maybe I won’t, maybe I’ll read a devotional classic like Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for His Highest,” or somebody else’s devotional work – I’ll read it until my heart sort of warms, or I reflect, or I start crying and I’m not sure exactly why, and I’ll reflect on that for a while and talk about that, and say how much I love God, and how much I’m really thankful for my life just the way it is, although I’d like it to change.
And then at some point I’ll get quiet, and I’ll say, “Father, is there anything you want to say to me?”
And sometimes there’s just nothing. Sometimes there are just automatic thoughts that come to my mind that are somehow foreign to me. Like, “I love you – you are my much beloved son – I have great plans for you.” And I’ll just write this down. Sometimes he will give me some specific things, which some people would call prophetic insights or whatever. Things that are going on, ways of interpreting my life, ways to help people. And I write those down.
I don’t put those alongside Scripture as infallible – sometimes I think it’s partly me and partly him, sometimes I think it’s all him. But I just write it down, and if I have any question about the validity of something I’ll show it to somebody. That’s another reason for writing it down – it objectifies it and makes you accountable.
So the very first thing I do in the morning, after the basic toilet things and the hygiene things and the caffeine, is to sit down with a journal. That’s part of the way that I connect with him. And like I said, if I’m feeling badly or I’m depressed, or I’m anxious or whatever, I pump it all out. It all gets out. If I’m angry, if I need to curse, I do that. Whatever’s in I want out. And then I let him speak to me. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t, and sometimes I make it up.
And then I often read Scripture, but not always. And I am often going through some kind of book, some kind of theological work that I know is alive. There’s theology and then there’s theology, just like there’s philosophy and then there’s philosophy. Some philosophers are alive – and some are just making noise. Some theologians and Bible teachers are alive, and some are just putting words down and getting paid for it. So I look for men and women who are on the cutting edge, who can teach me something. And I listen for God’s voice through their teaching.
I also know that a very important part of maintaining the give and take of that love relationship is my responding to him. This is something that I noticed a long time ago – have you ever noticed how some people grow spiritually really rapidly and some people don’t? They grow really slowly, or not at all? Did you ever wonder why? One person is just thick as a board, but they show up, they come to church, they sing the songs, they seem like they’re sincere, but nothing happens. And then there’s somebody else who doesn’t seem nearly as responsible or as good or as stable, and they just grow.
I made this observation thirty years ago, and I believe it to this day: people who respond immediately to God grow. If you give, you get. That’s usually used in our part of the world to get money out of people, and it works. Give and it will be given to you, pressed down, shaken together, poured into your lap, and overflowing. But the “it” is never defined. We put money in there, but if you give anything, you’ll get more of it. Give love, and you’ll get more of it. Give blessing, and you’ll be blessed. Give encouragement, and you’ll be encouraged. Give hate, give grief, give bitterness, and you’ll get the same back.
Give God your affection and trust by obeying him and responding to him now, and you’ll get more. And as you respond more, that’s how you grow. I’ve watched this. That’s how people grow. People who stop, who are fearful, who have some problems, some theological issues, fear of what people will think – they don’t grow.
And so maintaining that upward movement has a whole lot to do with obedience. Obedience is usually taught like this: If you don’t obey, God is going to be mad at you. Look at the Old Testament, where God beat people up and sent snakes and stuff when they didn’t obey. God’s like that, he’s got a mean streak. You better obey.
Do you know what? If you get people scared, they won’t do anything. The reason you obey is to improve the quality of your life. It won’t make God love you one bit more.
I love every one of my children passionately. They are all different. They are all making different choices at different levels. The quality of their life is at completely different stages. But after they are about ten years old, they decide on the quality of their lives by what they do. I’ve watched it in people, I’ve watched it in myself – when I get fearful, when I get conservative, when I get cautious, my whole life slows down.
And I used to think, way in the early days, before I read the books of Galatians and Romans and came to understand grace in all of its truth, or much of its truth, that God was like that. That God was punitive, and you better obey, because ... No. You obey because it’s good for you. You be good, you be moral, you follow the law of God, you love, you do all of that stuff that Paul exhorts us to do, not because God’s not going to like you if you don’t, but for the sake of the quality of your life and the effectiveness of your ministry.
So all of the disciplines, whether it’s meditation, fasting – between us and the walls, it’s never done my much good, but I know a lot of people that it’s done tremendous good for. But I just have to tell you that I just get hungry and lose about twenty pounds. I’ve gone on forty day fasts numerous times. It just seems like the right thing to do.
I spent a week with Bill Bright, and the man’s a salesman, what can I say? You just end up doing what he promotes. But I’ll tell you what got me going on fasting this last round – a couple of years ago I started it again. What got me going on fasting was something that Bill Bright said as we were driving around Dallas somewhere. He’s this little guy, and he’s really big – I thought, he’s probably liked eating all of his life. But he talks about fasting for forty days, at least once a year, sometimes more often.
So I asked him, “How do you do that?” And he said, “You know, I decided to fast to meet God and to get some of the clutter out of my life – and food is part of the clutter of my life. Just to get it out of the way, so that I could meet with God. And if anything happens, like the revival that saves the world and all this other stuff that we’re praying for, so much the better. But I want just to meet God.” And I thought, “Bingo, I can do that.”
Because there is something in me now, that I simply can’t buy anything from God. I can’t obey, believing that he’s going to come across with the goods. I can’t tithe, believing that he’s going to make me rich. I can’t obey, believing that he’s going to like me better. I can’t do that anymore.
The only thing that I can do anything for anymore is the possibility of experiencing proximity to him. He’s in me, he’s closer than my next breath, I know that – but I want to have the sensation of his affection. I want to have the sensation of knowing him. Like Paul says, “I’d give anything to know Christ and the fellowship of his sufferings. That’s all I care about. That’s all I’m thinking about. I’m crazy, I’ve just lost my mind.”
He did everything else – he evangelised the Mediterranean world, and he wrote half the New Testament. He did a whole lot. But he said, what really motivates me is to know Christ and the fellowship of his suffering.
It doesn’t matter whether you read Richard Foster’s book or Dallas Willard’s or anybody else’s on the spiritual disciplines – I do them all. But for me, the only reason is to enhance that upward journey.
So I think that the disciplines are all good, and they’ve all been turned into bondage, because we never understood grace to begin with. We never got this – the Father loves you, because the Father is love, not because of anything in you, good or bad. Not because of your morality. And he’s not impressed by your immorality, either. The church will be impressed and fire you. Your wife will be impressed and divorce you. And your friends won’t want to have anything to do with you. But it won’t make one bit of difference to God. He’ll just weep at a lost and wasted life, and love you no less – not one bit less.
Something occurred to me as I went along. Greg asked me yesterday, “What’s happening in your neck of the woods?” And I said something that relates to the video that we were just watching. There are three things that are happening around the world.
One is that the clergy are joining the laity – and the “successful” clergy – are now deeply, deeply distressed and disappointed with the state of the church. They are deeply distressed and deeply discouraged and disillusioned and disappointed with the state of the church. I know guys in my community in San Diego – and San Diego is like heaven, it’s a hedonistic, pleasurable place. My flesh loves San Diego. And guys who are there, who are well liked, whose marriages are working, and whose kids are good, who you would think have it made – they are telling me in the pastor’s group that I meet with, they are deeply distressed and disappointed with the nature of the church.
And you would think that that would make me unhappy. I get excited. Because I’ve been mad and disappointed for my whole Christian life. This is nothing new for me. I’ve always been mad at something or trying to change something or complaining about something, or kicking against something. Just a mental illness, I guess.
But these guys, who are basically well adjusted and have everything going for them, and have got it made in San Diego, are saying, “This can’t be all there is. I just hate this. This isn’t the kingdom of God. This isn’t what I signed up for. There’s got to be more.” And I know people well enough to know that that’s God stimulating that discontent.
So I’m seeing that all over Canada, and all over the United States. I travel a fair amount, and I hear that everywhere. It’s a very helpful and encouraging sign.
The second thing that I hear everywhere is about pastors wanting to be reconciled to each other, and wanting to get together and to have some kind of unity. That was what that video was about. We know these people, by the way – George Otis Junior and the rest of the group. I can speak for them, and these are credible people. If anything, they have under promised and over delivered. They are downplaying some of the transformations in Columbia, South America, Africa and Hemet, California.
Entire cities like Kali, Columbia, which used to be the head of the Kali drug cartel, the heart of darkness on the face of the earth, are now christianised. And it started with a group of pastors praying together and committing themselves to love each other and support each other’s ministries, and to bury the hatchet – and if they had anything bad to say, to say it to their face.
Chico California, Modesto California, places in Oregon, places in the midwest, places in Texas – there are cities and towns dotted all across the United States. And San Diego might be pretty close to being one of these, where pastors are getting together, making themselves vulnerable, telling the other brothers everything about their lives, getting prayer, and then praying together for the restoration and healing of their community.
And the interesting thing is, it’s not spiritual hype. It’s actually happening. Things actually happen. These are four that they’ve documented on film. It’s worth getting.
The third thing that really encourages me is this huge prayer movement. We’re Christians, we know prayer is important, right? It’s all boring, and all religious and everything. But there is a movement in the United States and Canada, and other parts of the world long before, where people are getting together for sacrificial prayer – praying for days, fasting together, identifying with each other, calling out to God.
There’s a lot of this flagellation, “Oh God, we’re not worthy.” They’re doing it all wrong in my opinion. But just the fact that we’re doing it is so encouraging. Those are the three really encouraging things. And if you put those three things together, I smell the work of the Holy Spirit. I can tell you, I’ve been at it long enough, and I’ve observed long enough, and I’ve read enough church history to tell you that pastors don’t naturally love each other. They see each other as the enemy, as the competition. They are either jealous of them because of their success, or they despise them because of their failure.
Pastors are among the most corrupt population that I know of. I spend a lot of my time doing business seminars, and there is a lot more class among CEOs than there is among your average group of pastors. We are not a sterling group.
Which is even more wonderful if you think about it, because God doesn’t pay any attention to our character or to our jealousy. He loves us anyway. Don’t you find that lovely? Even if we’re bad, it glorifies God. He doesn’t pay attention to our virtue. He doesn’t count our works, good or bad. He just loves us anyway.
We aren’t naturally drawn to love each other and support each other – it’s something that the Spirit is doing. We talk about prayer, but we don’t pray – but now we’re getting together and praying. It’s amazing.
And the deep dissatisfaction that the clergy have always had is now our deep dissatisfaction too. So I just think that that’s very encouraging, and it makes me think that our best days are ahead. I’ve had some golden years with the last renewal that I was right in the cockpit of, but I don’t look back with wistfulness at the golden years. Because what’s coming is so much better. I’m absolutely sure of it.
What do healthy and abusive Christian leadership look like, as implied by the grace message?
In researching and writing the book Healing Spiritual Abuse, I made this discovery – that this is not a small issue to God. I was preaching through the gospel of Matthew, and trying to be as relevant and up to date as possible about everything that was there. Fortunately by then I had learned that all those miracle passages, you can preach and you can do right there in your church. And we’ve seen everything except raising the dead, walking on water and multiplying the loaves.
But then I came to chapter 23, where Jesus is beating up on the Pharisees for being manipulative, for being arrogant, for looking down on people, treating them badly and closing the door of the kingdom of God to them. And I thought, “Oh brother, here’s this old controversy between Jesus and the Pharisees. How can I possibly make that relevant? I know that this whole thing is a living word and it’s for us, so what can I do?”
So I committed myself to reading it the way it was, and to preaching it the way it was. And I discovered as I was doing it that it was really relevant. That what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing to people in Matthew 23 is what I saw going on in the church. Because I give a large place to the grace of God in preaching, people who needed that message especially had a tendency to gravitate towards our church.
So I heard in pastoral counselling a whole lot about how badly they were treated in other churches – how they were manipulated, how they were talked down to, how they were humiliated, how they were loaded down with all kinds of rules, and how it just basically killed their first love. And now they’re very suspicious – it’s really terrible having a church full of people who basically don’t trust you! They trusted their last pastor, and he took them to bed, or he took their money, or he took their time, in an abusive, manipulative way. And now they’re going to be real careful about me, despite the fact that I’m mostly harmless.
And so after hearing their stories a lot, and reading Matthew 23, I said, “Boy, this is right up to date.” And then I made the observation that this is the only social issue that Jesus ever took a platform against. In the United States, we have evangelical churches warring against abortion. It’s just considered murder by conservative evangelicals.
We get excited about all the things that Jesus had in his culture, and yet he never said anything about them. Not that we shouldn’t, but it’s interesting to me that he never said anything about abortion, or slavery, or state sponsored terrorism, or public executions, or taxation without representation, or about homosexuality, or forget abortion: how about infanticide? Which was just normal. The Romans just threw their babies out with the trash if it was the wrong sex or if they were deformed. It was just common. But Jesus never said anything about that.
The one thing that he repeatedly went to war against was the arrogance and the abuse of spiritual leaders. It’s a big deal to Jesus, which means it’s a big deal to God.
And then I thought, you know, that was Paul’s deal. Most of Paul’s polemics were against spiritual abuse. The manipulation of religious power to use and abuse followers. And then I thought, gosh, that’s what the prophets were about. So many of the prophets spoke out about this issue: Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah railed against the abuse of spiritual power, spiritual leadership, abusing your position of authority to hurt people, to get money out of them, to get time and energy out of them, to get them to do things that are important to you.
So to begin with, it’s a really big deal. And what I did with Matthew 23 was to go through it point by point – that’s in the book, Healing Spiritual Abuse, and it’s in the tape set – and just flip his criticism around, and there you have the picture of a good pastor.
Abusive pastors sit in Moses’ seat. That is to say, they say, “Because I sit in Moses’ seat, because I have a position, therefore I have authority over you.” And the people let them get away with it because they have respect for Moses, because he spoke for God, and they have respect for God. So anybody who sat in Moses seat – which was actually a stone chair in the front of the synagogue where the teacher sat, and the people stood – said, in essence, “Because we have a position, therefore you have to do what we say.”
You can spot abusive systems and abusive leaders today when you hear a pastor say, “Because I’m the senior pastor, you do what I say,” or, “Because we’re the elders, you have to follow us,” or “Because I’ve got a PhD, you’ve got to take me seriously. I’m Dr Blue, after all.” That’s what sitting in Moses’ seat is all about.
A non-abusive style of leadership would be someone who doesn’t depend on a title, who doesn’t depend on an office, who doesn’t depend on a position, but takes Jesus seriously when he said, “You shall not be called `father’ or `rabbi’ or `my great one,’ because the greatest among you will be the servant of all.”
The interesting thing is that Jesus had nothing against ambition. That’s an entire misunderstanding. He had something against abusive ambition, but he had nothing against ambition. If you are ambitious to be a lover of many people, to be the servant of many people, if you want to be great and influence a lot of people, that’s great – and I admit to ambition.
I want to influence as many people as I can. I want to subvert as many people as I possibly can to what I know to be the truth. I don’t think that what I’m saying is the truth – I know it’s the truth. And I want to convince people of that. But you know what? It’s for their benefit. It’s to lift them up, it’s to exalt them. If anything, it’s to make them independent of any ability I have to manipulate them. It’s to set them free for whatever reason they want to be free for. I don’t get anything out of it, except the joy of having participated in it.
So the big difference between abusive and non-abusive styles of leadership is that one is a servant and the other one is a manipulator. It’s just really that simple. Servants get beneath people, find out what their needs are, and minister to them according to their need. Abusive leaders wake up in the morning, usually scared, usually sweaty and nervous, and they look out over their flock and say, “What can I do to use these people to make me feel better and look better? What can I do to get some more time, energy and money out of these people?”
Now they might have some twisted thought, “Well, I’m doing this for God. I’m building a great work for God, and I need to get these people’s cooperation in order to do these great things for God.” But they are using people for some reason. They see people as resources. A good shepherd will look out over the sheep and say, “How can I love these people? How can I add value to their lives? How can I set them free?”
Jesus said, “Don’t do what the Pharisees do, because they lay heavy burdens on men’s shoulders, and they themselves do not lift a finger to move those burdens.” Religious leaders lay heavy burdens on people. People ask, “How do I know if I’m in a spiritually abusive church?” One dead give away is that Sunday after Sunday, you come out saying, “Boy, Christianity is hard. I’m going to try really hard this weak to be a better Christian.”
Any religion that throws you back on your own effort is demonic. Let me just say it the way it is. Any religion that doesn’t have God as the initiator, the energy, the Saviour, the empowerer, the forgiver, the doer through your life, if Paul is anything to go on, is demonic. “Who has bewitched you?” he said in Galatians. “Who has done this occult mischief on you? Because before your very eyes, Jesus was placarded as the one who has done everything for you. What makes you think that by circumcision or by keeping a kosher table or by having a better quiet time or by tithing that you can go on to maturity? Who told you that it’s Jesus plus your effort?”
You know who told you that? A demon told you that. “Oh, no, it was my pastor ...” No, a demon told you that, using your pastor. Any religion that throws you back on your own efforts is demonic. The faith that we have in the Lord Jesus Christ is faith in a God who saw us and loved us, and while we were yet sinners sent his Son to die for us. And when we didn’t have two clues to rub together, he gave us the Holy Spirit to live out all of his holiness through us. And when we fail to cooperate with him, he forgives us and picks us up, and gives us a second, third and fourth chance, and never scolds us, and never belittles us, and always has warm, affectionate feelings towards us.
Look at the parable of the father who had two sons. Both sons, big time sinners. “Oh, no, there was this one son who was really good.” No, the good son was just as bad as the bad son. The good son went off to be a servant in the far country and ended up serving pigs, and he was lost to the father. The good son was a good churchman, who was home in the father’s field working as a servant for the father, and he was just as lost.
The father came out to meet the prodigal and said, “Welcome home, my beloved son! Here’s the robe – here’s my robe, here’s the best robe. We’re going to kill the fatted calf, we’re going to celebrate and honour you.”
“Why?? I’ve just come from serving pigs, I’ve blown half of the family’s estate ...” “But you’re my son, I honour you. That’s it. That’s all. That’s the end of the story. It’s my joy to honour you. Now that you’re here, that’s what we’re going to do.”
The father has a good son, too. And he goes out into the field looking for the good son, and he finds him working. He’s out there working ... that’s where all good Christians are supposed to be, working, doing things for God. And he sins just as big as the prodigal does. He argues with his father in public and humiliates him, and rebukes his father in public. “I always obeyed you” – I was always a servant to you. “I never disobeyed one of your orders. And you never gave me anything.”
Isn’t it interesting that Christians will go on working and obeying, and get mad while they do it? Because they are not getting what they desire, which is intimacy with the Father. And the father says, “My son, don’t you get it? I don’t understand you. Everything I had was always yours. You always had everything you wanted. You never had to work for it.”
Why didn’t the father let the prodigal come home and say, “I’m not worthy to be called your son, make me like one of your hired men”? Why didn’t he let him be a servant? Because he already had one. He already had a son who thought he was a servant – the good son. The father wanted something more. He wanted a son. He wanted a son that he could love, and who would love him back. A son who would voluntarily participate in his work.
One of the reasons I travel with my son Whalen is because I want his friendship. I want him with me. He carries my bag, he helps me and all that kind of stuff, but that’s just part of being with me. The affection of being part of his daddy’s work – that’s what I want. I don’t want children who are just obedient but don’t like me, who are just obedient but hate living in my home. I want friends. I want sons.
So does the Father. Any religion that gives you the impression that you are first of all a servant, and that you are a servant to the church and that you gain your worth by being a servant to the church, has missed the point utterly.
And you find me one church in a thousand that doesn’t do that, that doesn’t basically enlist people to serve the church, and that’s their identity – instead of saying, “Yes, let’s serve the church, but we’re in fellowship, in partnership with the Father. It’s the exchange and interchange of love through worship and through my own personal relationship and through our love together, me expressing my love to you, you expressing your love to me – that’s where it’s at. We’re going to build a church and have a great ministry and all that other stuff, but that’s not the focus of our attention.” That just makes people mad. And if they’re good at it, they’re the maddest of all.
The thing that is so tricky about this is that abusive leadership happens even when people don’t want it to, because they have this basic wrong idea out the gate. We are first of all sons and daughters of the Father – that’s our identity. If we want to do something, that’s an extra.
And we will, of course we will. That’s exactly what happened to me. God saved me, and the first thing I said was, “Father, what can I do for you?” I just was desperate to do something for him. And then I got mucked up with religion and stuff, and now I’m coming back just saying, “I just want to do stuff with you, to be with you.” Not to accomplish so that I can be somebody.
Anyway, we’re all getting healed of this goofy notion. Like I said, I’d love to a book or recommend something. This is something that is so big, and we just don’t have anything on it. We’re just going to have to work on it together, I guess.
One of the differences between abusive and non-abusive leadership is that non-abusive leadership takes what Jesus said seriously. You want to be great? You want to be influential? Fine. Be the servant. Look out over your flock and say, “How can I love these people, make them glad they came to church, make them glad they are a part of this fellowship? How can I add value to their lives? How can I solve their problems? That’s what I’m going to spend my time and energy on.”
How do the warning passages to the seven churches in Revelation 1-3 fit in with the grace message?
Theologians have been arguing about how you integrate James and Paul, and how you integrate Jesus saying, “I’m going to wipe you out if you don’t toe the line and begin acting in a particular way.”
In order to get at that, I start off with the question, how do I know true truth? And the first true truth I want to know about is God. Who is God, what is his character, what is he like? The most important thought that you will ever think is the thought that comes into your mind when I say “God”. The image of God that you have determines your theology, your self-concept, your style of leadership – it determines everything. We tend to move by some mystery of the soul in the direction of our dominant thought regarding God.
I want to know the truth about God, I want to have an accurate picture of God. Where would I go for that? Jesus. Jesus said, “When you see me, you see the Father. The Father and I are one.” John said in his first chapter, nobody has ever seen God, but the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, the word from the beginning, has made him known. That’s the technical word for exegesis. Jesus has exegeted the Father. He has made known, brought out the truth of who God the Father is, and made him known.
Jesus is the last word. The writer to the Hebrews said, in former times, we had prophets who spoke in mysterious and dark ways about God, but in these latter days, Jesus has revealed him perfectly. So when I want to know who God is, I look at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and see what Jesus did.
So the rest of the Bible, all of the Bible, James and Revelation included, slopes down from there. The ultimate revelation of truth is Jesus revealed in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I look at what he did. And what Jesus did on the night that we betrayed him, he offered Judas his body and his blood. That’s how liberal Jesus is. He warned Judas, “Don’t do what you’re doing. It’s in your heart to betray me. Here is the communion.”
We keep people away from communion because of some sin or something, or because they are not on the membership. Jesus offered the body and blood of Christ to Judas.
Jesus is the horizon of my understanding of God, and anything that contradicts that, I have to partialize. I look at Peter, who denied Jesus – the very thing that Jesus warns the church in Revelation about. Peter denied Jesus three times, ran away and cursed him. And Jesus after his resurrection specifically goes looking for Peter.
When Jesus said, “Go and bring the disciples and Peter”, why do you think he said “and Peter”? Because Peter would have known that he had disqualified himself. And Jesus said, go and bring the disciples, and especially Peter. Tell him that I specifically asked for him. And then he gives Peter three opportunities to say “I love you”, corresponding to the three times he denied him.
So there seems to be no end to the sacrifice of forgiveness. There seems to be no end to his liberality. He will take us back, he will come looking for us, he will cajole, he will find some way for us to accept his love and his affection. So I partialize all the warnings in light of that. And Paul just provides some of the theological reflection that goes with those stories.
What about the warnings? It’s not a big problem to me personally. I just read it as history. This is what happened. What happens to churches that go apostate? They disappear. It’s cause and effect. All you have to do is stop loving Jesus, get proud, forget your humility, and do all that stuff that the bad churches in Revelation were doing, and you’re out of business. And sure enough, all of the churches in Turkey, which is where these churches were located, were out of business in a couple of hundred years.
There is cause and effect on this plane. Bad stuff happens when you do bad stuff. But it doesn’t mean that Jesus himself has thrown you, the person, out with the trash. You don’t get that in the gospels.
In fact, the things that the Pharisees were most upset about was that Jesus “welcomed sinners and ate with them” (Luke 15). That word “welcome” tells us that Jesus hosted dinners specifically for the outcasts of society. He went out of his way to host dinners. And the Pharisees were saying, “Wait a minute, what’s the deal here? He hosts dinners for sinners. Because God is all into, `There’s people inside the box, who are the good people, and there’s people outside the box who are the bad people.’ And Jesus is hosting dinners for people who are outside the box. This is all wrong!” And Jesus came to tell us, no, you’re all wrong. You’ve got to change everything. God loves the good people and God loves the bad people. And any church leadership that gives us the impression that God’s love is somehow forfeited if we’re bad is not only in error, it’s manipulative, in that it is designed to get you behave in a particular way to make them look good.
But anybody who doesn’t warn you about the consequences of sin – Revelation 1-3 – is also guilty of malpractice. Bad stuff happens to people who do bad things. That’s just the way that is. That’s cause and effect on this plane. It is not God’s judgement on you. It is God’s judgement on you only in that that is the way he built the world. Or to put it another way, we are not punished for our sins anymore, because Jesus was punished for our sins. That’s just basic New Testament. But you and I are severely punished by our sins. It’s a big difference, isn’t it?
How do you handle anger towards other leaders?
You asked the question of the poster boy for anger, didn’t you?
Here is the way this is. On the one hand, the wrath of man cannot work the works of God. But at the same time, there were things that Jesus got angry about. He is white hot angry in Matthew 23. And he calls them names – you whitewashed sepulchres, you brood of vipers. He was really angry, and I would want to limit my anger to the things that Jesus got angry about.
I would also want to take what Paul said seriously, about “in your anger do not sin.” Anger just is. One of the worst things that you can do when you get angry is to say, “Good Christians aren’t angry, stop it.” All you do is press it down so that it can later turn into an ulcer or cancer.
Paul says, “In your anger do not sin”. Express your anger. Find some way of getting up and out the emotions that are actually in there, otherwise they will begin to sabotage you and betray you.
On the other hand, strategically know that an angry response to other leaders is almost guaranteed to get a bad result. And I think it’s just a question of wisdom and self-control over a period of years where you learn how to do what the Proverbs writer says – a soft answer turns away wrath. Sometimes all I can see is stuff that’s wrong. I wasn’t brought up in the church, so when I go to the Bible, I just read it like it’s literature – like the stories are actually real. And I get a whole different slant on this thing than if I was conditioned by the church to read it in a particular way.
And so I see so much that I’m doing wrong – I see so much that we’re out to lunch on, and it just makes me crazy (or crazier). And what I have learned over a long period of time is that if people don’t see it, and if people don’t react that way, then you telling them what’s wrong with them isn’t going to help at all. And so by indirectly talking about the love of the Father, I’m trying to accomplish the same thing in a longer, more roundabout way, instead of so much confronting head on. Paul said that we are won to repentance by the kindness of God, and I’m trying to do that more and more.
So that’s all I can say. But I totally understand anger towards church leadership. And for what it’s worth, so does Jesus.
What do you do about people who don’t want to be free?
Let me tell you something very profound. It’s about how you train fleas. You get some fleas and you put them in a jar, and you put a lid on the jar. Then you put the jar on the table and watch those fleas hit their noggins on the top of the jar. They will be sort of stunned, and then they will jump again and smash their heads on that confinement. After about twenty minutes of beating themselves senseless, they will jump up within about a quarter of an inch, and they won’t jump any higher. They’ve been conditioned.
Then take the lid off, and they won’t jump out. They will jump up just short of where the lid used to be. If people are conditioned to servitude, and it’s all that they know, they simply can’t imagine something else. If you train children to be free, they’ll be free. But if they have been trained to not think, to do as they’re told, to not have a personal life and not take personal responsibility, it’s very difficult.
But the other thing that you’ve already said is that people seem to want pastors to tell them what to do. Which is really a great arrangement, because most pastors want to tell people what to do.
There isn’t much market for grace. You would think, once you see it, once you catch it, your passion is ignited, this is what the world needs – and you just can’t wait to tell people. And you get out there, and you find that people just don’t want it. They are angry, or they are passive, or they can’t comprehend it and they get mad at you because you’re telling them something that they can’t grasp. Or you get accused of being soft on sin, and you get pastors writing hate mail to you and about you and getting your newspaper column in the San Diego Tribune shut down ... oh, but I wouldn’t know anything about that, that’s just an example!
What you’ll find is, there is a huge market for religion. “Come to our church and we’ll give you a theology that will tell you how to get everything that you want from God,” or “Come to our church and we’ll tell you ten things that you have to do to please God ...”
I’m not down on Catholics or anything, but three quarters of the world are Catholics, and one of the reasons is because they have a whole program for you. Go to confession, go to mass, sin all you want during the week – just confess it on the weekend, and you’re covered. Were you baptised? You’re covered. Do certain things, perform certain rituals – it doesn’t matter whether your heart is in it or anything, just do this and go on feeling guilty, and you’re in. And the way that you know that you’re among the elect is that you feel guilty and you feel bad.
People love that. It sounds awful when I caricature it, but people love that. There’s a big market for that. The biggest churches in our part of the world, with a few really good, nice, wonderful exceptions, are controlling, programmatic, do what you’re told, here are ten things that you do to please God, and make sure that you give us ten percent of your income, and you’re covered. But the thought that you have a personal, father-son or father-daughter relationship to the Father, and here’s how you cultivate it, would be the last thing that they would suggest to you.
And as Robert already said, he learned this the ward way – set people free, it’s you and God, do what he says, participate with him and his life, and if our church fits into that, so much the better – that kind of freedom makes them really nervous.
This picture just came to my mind. We’ve lived in the city, and we’ve had enclosed yards, and we’ve had dogs. And the dogs couldn’t wait to get out, or they wanted to get out. They wanted to explore. They wanted freedom. And we wouldn’t let them, because there were city ordinances against it.
Now we live on a farm, and they’re free to go wherever they want. And they stay on the porch. They stay home because they are free to leave. The dogs that we had before were all neurotic and nervous because they wanted to get out.
People want structure and control, and the responsibilities that come with freedom are really scary for folks. I am reminded of the Grand Inquisitor in a novel my Dostiefski. During the Spanish Inquisition, the Grand Inquisitor was the guy who was throwing people in jail and torturing them and all that kind of stuff if there was any deviancy in their orthodoxy, or they were accused of loving freedom too much or something.
Anyway, Jesus came to the town and the Grand Inquisitor came to meet him. And Jesus never said anything. The Grand Inquisitor said, “What are you doing here? You don’t belong here.” Jesus never said anything back. He said, “Don’t you understand that you are cruel, that you are totally inappropriate to the human soul? You came to give freedom and people hate it. It is a mercy that we control them and tell them what to do and how much to do. You’re bad, we’re good. They love us, they hate you.”
That’s a terrific insight. In this world, because of our sin, and for some people it’s just laziness – “Just give me ten things to do. I don’t want to spend the energy getting to know God. But I do want to be covered, I do want to go to heaven. And I do want to have the respect of my wife. So I better go to church. Just give me ten things to do, as long as it doesn’t interfere with sports.”
For other people, it’s just a fear of the unknown. Because it is unknown. According to C. S. Lewis in the Narnia tales, Aslan is good, but he’s not safe. God is not safe. He’s wild and he’s really interesting and he’s really complicated, and he wants a relationship, and who knows where it will lead – but if you have a religion where you can review the ten points, you’ve got it all controlled. But if you’re dealing with a real person, who knows where it’s going to go.
That’s just too scary for some people. And that’s why I think you’re not going to find a big market for grace and setting people free.
If you want to make a lot of money and gather a lot of people, go into religion. I sincerely mean that.
Is there a model for church growth within the framework of grace?
My answer would be yes, and that’s a theory that I’ve been operating on for twenty five years. I haven’t seen it yet. But I believe that maybe, in light of what God is doing, we might in the future. It might be that I’m not really answering your question, because I don’t know the answer to your question. But it might be that Luther got us back to our relationship with God being primary, being based on his forgiveness of us. But Luther never got around to renewing the structures. He left the structures just the way they were. And I wouldn’t be surprised if this next reformation will be a reformation of the structures, and then maybe we’ll see it.
Because right now, administration equals control. How can you organise large groups of people and have big, strong churches without control? I don’t have the answer to your question.
But I really do believe that we are intended to be effective and that because people are made in the image of God, and people are made for God, that you basically can’t lose with the stuff that we use. I basically believe that, but I haven’t seen it actually happen yet. It’s just a struggle, it’s just a fight, I know it’s true but it doesn’t work like I think it ought to. And that’s just my testimony. But I don’t think it’s always going to be like that.
Grace and Healing Conference