The Way of the Cross – Lenten Season 2018
“If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Romans 10:9,10 NIV).
“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective” (James 5:16 NIV).
The Courage of Confession
We gave it a try. We really did.
The new Pastor asked everyone to get together for a meeting and we all came. I brought my wife and daughter (since they were also involved) and the Pastor brought the elder who had offended. The Pastor was a believer in the power of reconciliation and apparently had convinced the elder to show up. One of the other elders had given the Pastor our names as people the Board needed to reconcile with. When we had stood up for Scottie, a street evangelist who was thrown out of the church for making people feel uncomfortable and always asking for money, we got thrown out as well.
So we all showed up, all of us believers, all of us excited about the prospect of true reconciliation. Everyone except for Scottie. They never did get around to him. They should have started with him. The ministry of reconciliation is spiritual warfare and we were terribly unprepared.
It was like pulling teeth. We apologized for anything we could think of but the truth was that this elder but also the whole Board (who wasn’t there) were in the wrong. But he couldn’t admit it. He was spiritually blind to his sin.
In some ways, it wasn’t his fault. He had no training in church discipline really and he didn’t know that it should always be done in the context of discipleship. He thought that as a leader he had a right and an obligation to get rid of people who were a problem or a danger to the rest of the church. Not true. But very common thinking among leaders in churches. The goal is reconciliation. Always and in every situation.
Even the Pastor agreed with him for a while until I explained that the context of discipleship and reconciliation was missing. Then he reluctantly agreed with me but the elder stayed true to his justification and the rationalization of his actions and never confessed that what he had done was not pleasing to God.
I mostly let my wife and daughter talk since they needed the reconciliation as bad as I did. We were all kicked out as a family. At one point, the elder tried to say that he had not threatened to call the police on Scottie and my daughter stood up and rebuked him for his lies. “We were all there,” she said. “We saw it with our own eyes and we heard what you said in front of everyone.” It was beautiful. A thirteen-year-old rebuking an elder of the church for lying to cover up his sin. He had to admit the truth, but he did so reluctantly. He was beginning to realize that coming to this meeting was not what he had expected. His hard heart was being exposed because he refused to expose it in humility on his own. That is what confession means.
He finally admitted that with us (he didn’t mention Scottie) he should have tried harder to find a solution that didn’t involve kicking us out of church. So I stood up and gave him a hug and told him that we forgave him (again). One of the other elders had also arrived and we gave hugs all around. Some tears were shed. It was a beautiful moment.
Or was it?
Was there true reconciliation? Did my wife and daughter go home cleansed and renewed by the Holy Spirit? Was the cross at the center of this encounter? You might say that we accomplished a lot just by having the meeting (and that might be true) but to pretend that it was reconciliation is just plain naïve. The relational consequences of that night broke my relationship with the Pastor and, ultimately, the Pastor’s contract with the church was not renewed. Was it because of this meeting, this insistence on reconciliation (but done badly without previous spiritual work, without an awareness of the spiritual warfare involved)? Probably. I’m not sure. But I am sure that it didn’t help. Why? Let’s talk about that….
Yesterday we talked about the True Confessions of a Disciple. This is not easy work. It is the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting the world of guilt with regards to sin. Here is a quote from yesterday…
And don’t think that this is a light issue. This is where the battle is the fiercest, where Satan spends most of his time distracting the church and giving them other battles to fight, other issues to deal with. This is where the Holy Spirit focuses all of his power and effort to bring sinners to the foot of the cross in brokenness and repentance.
But the truth is that nobody talks about sin much anymore. We have been forgiven. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Sin gets relegated to the background. We think it is spiritual to just love people and “cover over a multitude of sins” (which is a total misunderstanding of that verse in James 5:20). For some reason we seem to think that God just set aside his justice in the name of love. If it was that easy, we wouldn’t need the cross. But we do it all the time. In the name of love, justice doesn’t matter, sin doesn’t matter. Just be nice. If you are nice and don’t take offence then there is no problem. Not true.
How many people in the church (Pastors included) think that being nice or being moral or being professional is the same thing as being spiritual. Spirituality is more than those things (even if it is not less). Jesus said that we needed more than the righteousness of the Pharisees, but he did NOT set aside the law of God……rather he fulfilled it. Let’s be clear. Love does not set aside the law but fulfills it. That is why sin cannot be ignored it must be dealt with. And dealt with in a very specific way that God has laid out for us in the Word and is rooted in the cross of Christ.
Here is another quote from yesterday’s blog post….
Confession is about looking reality square in the face and calling things what they truly are, no excuses, no justifications, no rationalization. Sin is what it is. Rebellion, self-authority, selfishness, disinterest, ignoring a relationship that cannot be ignored. If we are not convicted of our guilt with regards to sin and rebellion before God (which is a gift of the Holy Spirit), we cannot be forgiven.
The elder finally admitted that his process wasn’t perfect and that he should have tried to find ways to solve the problem without kicking us out of the church. But would he give up his right and responsibility as a leader to throw people out of the church if he saw them as a problem that would affect the rest of the church? No. That is a fundamental responsibility of leadership, isn’t it? To make the hard decisions, to do what is best for the majority, to defend the church against problem people? No, it’s not. We do not defend the church. We defend the gospel and in defending the gospel, we defend the church. Otherwise it is called Spiritual Abuse or just plain abuse of authority. Nothing more and nothing less. And there is a lot of it going around.
This elder (or the Pastor) would never see themselves as capable of Spiritual Abuse. They are nice people. They mean well. They are well-intentioned (mostly). They love the Lord. Yes. True. But that’s not enough. Your righteousness needs to be more than what the Pharisees offer, Jesus said (Matthew 5:20). Many of them were nice, too. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Gamaliel (and his father and grandfather) were all pillars of the community, truly interested in the welfare of the people, and totally in the wrong. Jesus called it Spiritual Blindness and rebuked them for being the blind who lead the blind. He was the fiercest with the Pharisees because their “leven” was the most poisonous to the people. It kept them from embracing the Kingdom of God which has an entirely different approach altogether to sin.
You would think our elders and leaders (and Pastors) would know that. Many do not. Many can preach it but get confused when they try to implement it in conflict situations. Even among Pastors but especially among elders and other lay leaders, there simply is no training on these things. How can that be?
Isn’t the ministry of reconciliation the heart of the gospel? Yes, it is but we tend to think of it only in terms of evangelism and not in terms of discipleship. It’s hard after all. The trick is to create a spiritual culture that understands the power and priority of the ministry of reconciliation. But expect opposition because the Devil will not let you go there without a fight.
We will talk more about these dynamics over the next few days, about what true reconciliation looks like and how forgiveness leads to reconciliation (but isn’t the same thing at all), and how powerful a spiritual community rooted in true reconciled unity can be in evangelism and discipleship and transformed lives. It is glorious (as it should be).
But for now, we will talk about the courage of confession. It isn’t easy. For any of us. In the flesh, without walking in the Spirit daily, without sacrifice, without focus, without understanding the Way of the Cross, we just won’t do it.
Even more so for a leader who still has quite worldly ideas about what leadership means in the church. But don’t feel bad. You are in good company.
James, the brother of John, was always playing the power angle. He wanted to get the best seats beside Jesus (with his brother on the other side) even on the night of the Lord’s Supper. He wasn’t the only one, mind you, but he was kind of obvious. Remember that he got to drink from the same cup that Jesus drank from and was one of the first martyrs in the early church (Acts 12:2), never a leader of the church but always the leader, one of the first, in martyrdom. Strange how things worked out.
James, the brother of Jesus, (often called “camel knees” for his long periods of prayer on his knees), became the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 12:17 et al), wrote the epistle of James (James 1:1) and witnessed the resurrection of Jesus even before the others (according to Paul in I Corinthians 15:7 although the timeline is unclear). The Bible tells us that the brothers of Jesus (children of Joseph and Mary, Matthew 13:55,56) did not believe he was the Messiah or Divine (John 7:5) and yet, Jesus appeared to James in a special way to convince him of the truth and prepare him for leadership. His humility became legendary (especially after and because of denying his brother throughout most of his life). There is a wonderful story of grace in there somewhere.
So you have James, the brother of John, interested in power at the right hand of Jesus but instead was given the grace of early martyrdom and you have James, the brother of Jesus, not able to accept that his brother is anything more than what he appears to be, blind to his divinity, blind to his messiahship, even though he spent years at his side, more so than even the disciples. And he is given the grace of leadership (although tradition says that he was also martyred later on).
If you let him, the Holy Spirit will burn those worldly ideas of leadership out of you in the cauldron of confession and repentance. But if we have a church culture where we deny the reality of sin and it’s ability still to derail us on the way of the cross, then there is no hope for us.
We avoid it like the plague. We even think it is spiritual to just skip the hard part and go straight to the love part. How many times have I heard people say that they don’t want to get into it, they don’t want to dredge things up again, they don’t want to talk about what happened, he said, she said…..and they are right but they are also wrong.
If you’re going to dredge it all up but not deal with it properly, then don’t bother. But in order to deal with it properly, you must dredge it all up and talk about the behavior (with good intentions or not) that is not pleasing to God. And do it with grace. The Bible is rather clear about most of it and if there is a real difference of opinion (not just ignorance of the Word), then Paul tells us what to do about that too. It’s not a mystery. The problem is that we are not Bereans (Acts 17:11), we don’t dig into the Word of God and discuss what it says and pray and think and talk together to clarify what is pleasing to God and what is not. We all just think we have a right to our own opinion and that’s the end of it. Very post-modern of us, don’t you think?
Do you want to know the real reason why nobody wants to drag up old sins and talk about them? It isn’t because they are so spiritual (since they are skipping the first and most essential step in the way of the cross) but because they are so lacking in understanding of the ways of God. They don’t understand sin. They don’t have a cross focus. They aren’t committed to the Way of the Cross. You don’t believe me? Let’s take a closer look….
Is there any question that people are reluctant to talk about sin? No. Is there any question that many leaders believe and teach that we should just go straight to forgiveness. No, that’s true too.
Did Jesus not say, if someone sins against you, you should talk to them and if they won’t listen, bring someone with you as a witness? Do we do that? No.
Is it not true that James tells us to confess our sins one to another? Yes, it’s true. Do we do it? Not very often. Why? Because it’s scary and very often our confession will be used against us rather than for us. There is no context of grace but rather a culture of shame.
To this day, most leaders believe that if another leader sins publicly, he must be removed from office. He loses his position of leadership, his career, his income, probably his wife or family. Why in the world would anybody do something so foolish?
Yes, they should not have sinned publicly (or privately) in the first place and there is obviously a spiritual issue (or weakness or warfare) going on in the background that needs to be looked at. But we treat it like a disease, thinking it needs to be cut off before it affects the rest of the church. Again, we miss the entire point of the ministry of reconciliation. It isn’t just about NOT sinning. Yes, we need to make every effort not to sin. Obviously. But our lack of grace and our commitment to a shame-based culture makes sinning even more likely, not less likely. It isn’t first and foremost about whether or not we sin but rather what we do about it when we sin. The mark of a true leader is not in his clean, perfect, professional lifestyle but in his humility before the Cross (Paul, David, Moses, Elijah).
Our church culture is most often based on shame and not grace and that’s the truth of it. Very few churches get this right and that is why we have the form of religion but lack the power of it.
If we go deeper, we can see that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between justification (Jesus is my Savior) and sanctification (Jesus is my Lord) and this has led to all kinds of problems in the church. Satan isn’t stupid. He’s done a good job of obscuring the main issues of the faith. The question is whether or not we are aware of his schemes (II Corinthians 2:11).
Let me say this as clearly as I can…..no, wait. I’ll let John say it instead…..
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin.
But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 1: 8-2:2 NIV).
Last time I checked, the word “anybody” also applies to leaders and pastors.
Statistics show (from anonymous surveys), that most pastors have committed sins privately that they have never confessed publicly and it is eating them alive.
Statistics show that a majority of pastors and church leaders (mostly among the men) are ensnared in pornography even while preaching the power of the gospel on Sunday morning and they are getting used to it.
Statistics show that a majority of pastors and church leaders have a private life that they are ashamed of but are afraid to talk to anyone about.
This is the truth. John says, “If we claim to be without sin…” which we do every time we go to a Board meeting or preach on Sunday morning pretending that we are right with God when it is a lie…..”we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” And if we are confronted with this truth and we deny it, what are we saying. John makes it clear. “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” We are calling God a liar. John seems to think that sin and dealing with sin through the power of the cross is pretty normal stuff. It is the work of every day ministry.
You say, “But God has blessed my ministry. People have been born again. Lives have been transformed.” I don’t doubt it. One of the most troubling verses in the Bible for leaders is Matthew 7:21-23.
“Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!”
I never want to hear those words from the Lord. We all assume that we will hear the other words, “Well done good and faithful servant!….Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21 NIV). But is it true? How do we know beforehand which one it will be?
For myself, I am confused. I have not prophesied in his name (unless you consider preaching a form of prophesy, which I do). I have not cast out demons or done miracles in his name. My ministry is rather dull and pedantic. This kind of ministry is wonderful, exciting, dynamic. No wonder people are being saved and lives are being changed. I can only envy those who have that kind of leadership in their ministry. They are no doubt charismatic, relational, dynamic. Wonderful speakers and deep thinkers “who correctly handle the Word of Truth” (II Timothy 2: 15b NIV).
In my case, my own passion and enthusiasm got me into a lot of trouble. I tend to say what I think and I had no classes on politics when I was in seminary. My marital problems, my intimacy issues, my own weaknesses and pride and arrogance and the church culture I grew up in could not be talked about much less confessed. I left the church, then my wife left me and then I left God (or tried to). It was a downward spiral from the heights of my leadership position to the depths of my sin. It was a long time before I realized that this was God’s severe mercy. His agenda is always eternal. His goals are to create in me a clean heart and to make me into the image of His Son, no matter the cost (to me, my reputation, my family). But I had to be willing to walk the way of the cross and for a long time I wasn’t.
I had a Bachelor’s degree in Religious Education, a Master’s degree in Theology from a top Seminary. I won one of two scholarships for a second Master’s degree in Old Testament Theology (which I never finished) and was preparing myself to go to Sheffield University in England to study for my PhD in the Old Testament as Literature. My future was assured. The other guy that won the other scholarship in New Testament studies ended up as a Professor at that same prestigious Seminary in the States. Well-thought of by his peers, contributing to the Kingdom of God as a Professor, a leader in his local church. I decided to forego the ivory tower in search of a more practical, hands-on experience of the transforming work of God. I was not satisfied with the way things were going and wanted to get my hands dirty. I didn’t realize that I was about to be thrown face first into the filth of the pigsty of church work and church culture. I’m sure you don’t see it that way, good for you. It isn’t an accusation so much as a description. That’s where the work is done. Call it “the desert if that sounds better to your ears.
In all of my studies, they never prepared me for the real world of church work among people and leaders who did not have a culture of confession, repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. Bible College (and even Seminary) tended to pull the best and the brightest from each church and put them together in one place. The joy and fellowship we shared was fantastic. The ministry we did together and did to each other was deep and meaningful. Yes, there were issues and problems but they were generally dealt with through confession of sins, the faith walk of repentance, the power of forgiveness and the ministry of reconciliation. It was wonderful. Then I became the Pastor of a local church in our denomination.
It wasn’t all their fault, of course. I had my issues to deal with (as do we all). The point is that the church is entirely unprepared to deal with the reality of sin especially among leaders and I was naïve enough to try to explain it to them and use myself as an example. You can imagine what happened next….
Yes, I envy those leaders who seem to have no problems, that don’t have sins to confess, that never fall to temptation, that never create a mess of their own making while being leaders of the church…….just like in the Bible…..leaders like Moses and David and Elijah and Paul…..squeaky clean…..never made a mistake……leaders to look up to…..oh, wait….those are the wrong guys to pick.
Moses was a murderer. He couldn’t even speak properly. He wouldn’t get past his background check. Forget about him…
David looks good. He would no doubt be a great leader… until the affair with his secretary, Bathsheba, and the death of their son happens……then on top of it all, this guy gets his secretary’s husband killed by playing with the brakes on the family car so to speak and creating an accident. Nobody’s fault. Things happen. (I know of a Pastor who had an affair with his secretary and when the husband found out, he hung himself in the garage and they found him there with a note saying he could not face the shame of it all. Try to live with that for the rest of your life…).
Or Elijah, the powerful prophet of God who could bring down fire from heaven and destroy those who would stand against God. His preaching was powerful. He could cast out demons. He could do miracles. People’s lives were changed. The entire direction of the church or denomination could be affected by this one man. But for some reason, he was also a coward. He ran, weak-kneed from the fight when it got to it’s fiercest. And he complained about it bitterly, depressed and alone, cutting himself off from the rest, isolating himself and not sharing the weak side of his ministry.
And Paul, well, what is there to say? Just a few months ago, he had the police pick up one of the elders and dragged him downtown in front of a judge for some trumped up charge or other…..all very embarrassing. I’ve heard that some of those guys never showed up again…..they just disappeared into the system…..sometimes with their entire families. Nobody knows for sure but they say he had them killed….and you say that he’s applying for a job as a missionary pastor with our church? Are you kidding?
In the case of some of those leaders who preach, cast our demons and do miracles, God will say “I never knew you.” To others, like Moses, David and Elijah (much less Paul), they are considered the heroes of the faith (Hebrews 11). What’s the difference? What is the difference between David and Saul? Between Peter and Judas? Between those who do ministry but do not walk with God and those who walk with God as their fundamental life ministry even if it costs them their church ministry, their leadership, their marriages, their families.
They may be unwilling at first, but, like David, when they are rebuked in their sin, they fall to their knees in repentance and faith and walk the way of the cross.
Your church ministry must always be rooted in your life ministry and walk with God. If it isn’t, then God in his severe mercy may bring situations about that will face you with your sin and the moment of truth will arrive and you will have to make a decision of whether you will save your soul or your career, your relationship with God or your relationship with the people. You may be crucified for it. Welcome to the club.
For this elder, it was a thirteen year old girl who rebuked him for his lies and the hardness of his heart. For Pete’s sake, how do you justify throwing someone out of the church for asking for money and then throw out the family that stands up for him (whether they did it in the right way or not)? But he couldn’t see it. He needed his Pastor to help him to see his sin, and call it sin. But that didn’t happen either. Otherwise, the sin cannot be dealt with at the foot of the cross and there is no true reconciliation.
That is the courage of confession and the beauty of transparency.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s pray to God….
Lord, my own spiritual blindness scares me. How do I make sure that I don’t fall into that trap? I don’t ever want to hear those horrible words from you, “I never knew you.” I want to be like Paul and declare that all my degrees and studies and positions of leadership and ministry goals and successes are all garbage and don’t mean a thing to me if I can’t have you. Your path is much harder, much more dangerous, but also glorious. I want to walk your path with you, Lord. Help me to do it everyday. In your name I pray. Amen.
Read more (from The Temptations of the Cross)
Gabriel shuddered at the enormity of it. He could be hurt, his blood, his life could be spilt upon the ground. He could go hungry, he could cry human tears. Gabriel paused. Yes, he could cry with them, be hungry with them, hurt with them, but how would that help other than to show His love for them? Maybe love was enough.
Gabriel had been pondering these things for almost thirty earth years since he had first been given his assignment. He did not understand it all, but he would protect him the best he could with the twelve legions of angels under his command. (Read more…..)