Category Archives: Substitution

Rule for Life

IMAGE - Heartbeat Lifeline

As New Year’s approaches, many of us will be establishing New Year’s resolutions.  These often help us to direct our lives in a more positive direction.  Sometimes, they come from a healthy desire to grow, and sometimes they come from guilt and shame over how we have managed our lives up to this point.  Oftentimes, we abandon our resolutions after a short time, adding to the guilt and shame that might have motivated them in the first place.  Maybe a better approach to this practice would be to establish Rules for Life.

A Rule for Life establishes a rhythm in your life.  (In fact, you could call it a “Rhythm for Life” if the word “rule” seems too legalistic.)  It is a spiritual discipline that invites the Holy Spirit to partner with you as you practice Romans 12:1-2.  A Rule for Life “[offers] your [body] as a living sacrifice” so that you can “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” It puts you in the right place at the right time with the right heart for God to do transformation work.  Your part of the partnership is showing up with the right heart.  God does the rest.

Sometimes, we try to rush God into the few minutes that we have available for Him in our busy schedules, but my experience is that God rarely shows up when I summon Him.  He is unlikely to give in to my need for Him to be present just when I have the time.  He is a jealous God who won’t compete with the idols of work and entertainment that I choose to worship with my time.  Instead, He requires that I make Him a priority both in my time and in my behaviors.  He wants me to schedule Him into my calendar and show up ready to spend time with Him.  He wants me to choose Him in moments when I’m tempted to choose my sinful nature. God wants me to prioritize Him even when I don’t see the benefit. I am often impatient for the proof that my behaviors are making things better, but much of God’s work in my life is way below the surface.  It’s inner transformation.  If I show up regularly and choose God over evil when I am tempted, God will be faithful to reorient my soul towards Him.

Some examples of Rules for Life are:

  • Begin every day with prayer.
  • Meet with my accountability partner each week.
  • Practice a Sabbath rest.
  • Tell God thank you.
  • Stop eating before I’m full.
  • Let each person be my teacher.
  • Visit God’s creation.
  • Bounce my eyes when I feel tempted to look.
  • Spend time journaling each day.
  • Demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit with each person I meet.
  • Keep Christ on the throne of my heart.

Notice that these are not SMART goals.  Making them Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound can lead to legalistic observance.  Instead of worrying about whether you met the specific criteria of a Rule for Life, allow God to speak to you about them.  Practice the spiritual discipline of Examen at the end of each day by asking, “How did I do with my Rules for Life today?  What pleased you?  What would you have me do differently tomorrow?”  God won’t beat you up over what you didn’t do, but He will redirect where necessary and encourage you so that you have the strength and motivation to keep going.

Rules for Life can sound a lot like New Year’s resolutions, but they shouldn’t come with emotional baggage.  A Rule for Life should help you love God more.  If it makes you feel guilty because you aren’t doing it, let it go.  It shouldn’t be a legalistic practice to “earn God’s love.”  If it becomes one, you know that Satan has gotten ahold of your Rule for Life and twisted it for his purposes.  As long as you cling to it, Satan will have the power to accuse you for not living up to your commitment.  Just release it, and try to find a different Rule for Life that gives life to you. When you think about your Rule for Life, it should bring peace into your soul.  It should be time that you long for or practices that resonate with you.  Keep experimenting with different Rules for Life until you find ones that uniquely fit who you are and where you are in life.

Instead of New Year’s resolutions this year, try establishing some new rhythms.  Make yourself more accessible to God’s good work of transformation in you.


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Filed under Daily walk, discipline, habits, sanctification, Sharpening the Saw, spiritual disciplines, Substitution

Son of the High Chief

A friend of mine shared this story recently.  My friend is part Samoan and part Hawaiian.  He was born in Hawaii but moved to Samoa during his childhood.  Adjusting to the new cultures in this high-context society was difficult for his brother and him, but they made a friend in one of the locals.

Their friend, as it turns out, was the son of the High Chief.  We might expect the son of a high-class family in power to be arrogant and dismissive of foreign-born, mixed race kids who were new to the area, but he was anything but.  He was friendly and took a personal interest in helping my friend and his brother adjust.

He taught them local customs, like cooking the family meal on hot stones outdoors every Sunday.  He taught them local culture, like the need to show respect for elders.  He taught them the local language, and he helped them to fit in.  He was a good and faithful friend.

One day, the town drunk appeared as the three boys were playing outdoors.  Children knew him to be a violent and abusive man, and they avoided him whenever possible, but today, he caught the boys by surprise.  My friend could tell he was drunk again, and he could see the rage in his eyes.  This day, he had come for the two foreign-born boys.

But just as he moved to attack them, the son of the High Chief stepped between his friends and the man.  The man’s anger snapped, and he began to beat the boy mercilessly.  Several times, he knocked the boy to the ground, but each time, the boy would stand again, blocking the way to his friends.

My friend and his brother asked each time he fell if they should go for help.  Should they go to get the townspeople, who would come and rescue their friend, the son of their High Chief?  The townspeople wouldn’t allow such a crime to happen to their leader’s family.  In fact, they might have even killed the drunken man for what he had done.  But each time, the answer was, ‘No,’ and the boy would stand again to take the beating.

When the man’s anger had been spent, he left them alone, and the boy was taken to the hospital to treat his wounds.  My friend and his brother visited him the next day.  His face was unrecognizable under the bruising, the cuts and the swelling, but he was alive, and he would recover.  The boys looked at their bandaged friend and asked him to solve the mystery that troubled their hearts, “Why wouldn’t you let us go for help?”

He looked at them as the teacher who patiently tries to birth a new way of thinking in the minds and hearts of his students.  “I have taught you so much… This is what it means to be the son of the High Chief.”

The boys couldn’t have asked for a clearer picture.  Their friend, knowingly or not, had shown them an image of what Jesus Christ did for each of us when He went to the cross.  He stood between us and the evil one, who wanted to hurt us.  He took the beating that was meant for us.

Had Jesus wanted, legions of angels would have come to His rescue, yet he refused to call for them.  Each insult, each beating, each whip of the lash, each thorn of the crown He accepted as an act of love for us.  And each time He fell on the road to Golgotha, He stood again.  His purpose was set; His mind was determined; no matter the cost, He would stand in the gap for us, because This is what it means to be the Son of the High Chief.

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Volunteer Donor

I was developing a game for our church’s Christmas celebration, and I needed some photos for the game cards.  In my search, I came across the one pictured above and noticed that the label says, “Volunteer Donor.”  I wonder if that is an important designation.  Are there non-volunteer donors?  How do you get selected for that assignment?

But being the Christmas season, I think it’s appropriate for us to remember that there was an ultimate “Volunteer Donor.”  His name is Jesus Christ, and He volunteered to donate His blood a few thousand years ago so that we might be reunited with our Lord and Creator.

But why blood?  It seems so creepy!  All those Christian songs about the blood washing us clean and making us white as snow…  It seems really weird.  Why couldn’t Jesus just give us a “Get Out of Jail Free” card?

I’ll admit, it’s a hard concept to get our 21st century minds around.  Most of us don’t come in contact with blood on a daily basis unless we are avid fans of CSI, Law and Order, Dexter or Bones.  Even so, we all know that it’s precious…that without it, there is no life.  We take it for granted until the day we are in a serious accident or when a friend is in the hospital.  Then, we begin to grasp how essential it is.

God set the standard in the Garden of Eden.  After Adam and Eve sinned by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they tried to cover their shame with fig leaves.  God replaced their itchy undergarments with animal skins, because they were a more perfect covering and because He was illustrating that only a blood sacrifice would cover their sin.

It’s why Cain’s sacrifice of produce wasn’t acceptable to God and why Abel’s animal sacrifice was.  It’s why God required daily animal sacrifices from the Hebrews.  It’s why He also required an annual atonement sacrifice where the high priest would sprinkle animal blood over the cover of the ark of the covenant.  Only a blood sacrifice covers sin.

The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death.”  This means that when you sin, you earn death.  The debt of death has to be paid.  Blood has to be spilled.  In the Old Testament, God allowed men to pay their debt by killing certain animals.  Killing other humans wouldn’t work, because they had their own sin debt deserving of death.  We know this from Romans 3:23 – “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The death had to be of someone/something innocent.  No humans were innocent – not even babies, because they were born with a sin nature.  In other words, they inherited sinfulness from their parents.  It can be hard to see in a precious infant, but it’s there.  It just takes a little while for the infant to be able to communicate his or her selfishness.

Animals are always innocent, because they don’t have free will.  They can’t choose to sin, because they don’t know the difference between moral right and wrong.  They can learn consequences, but they can’t learn to modify their behavior based on a moral code.  So, animal blood is always innocent.  It can pay the debt that men earn by sinning.

The problem is that animal blood only pays the debt for a short time.  Eventually, you have to sacrifice another animal, and then another, and then another…  It never ends.  Unless…. Unless there could be a perfect sacrifice – one that wouldn’t wear out – one that would pay the debt for all time.  That’s where Jesus comes in.

God gave the Hebrews the animal sacrifice as a model to point them toward the perfect sacrifice that Christ would make on the cross.  He was demonstrating that we needed a Savior, one that would end the need for daily and annual sacrifices of innocent blood.

But why is Jesus’ blood perfect?  Because He is the only man who has ever lived without sin.  He didn’t inherit sinfulness from His parents, because He was conceived from the Holy Spirit.  He lived His entire life without giving in to temptation.  At the end of His life, He had no sin debt to pay for Himself, so He was able to offer His payment (the innocent shedding of blood) for those He loved – namely you and me.

Blood is life.  Without it, your physical body could no longer sustain itself.  But the blood of Jesus is Life!  Spiritual Life!  It doesn’t sustain the physical body; it sustains the spirit and gives us the hope of new Life here on earth and everlasting Life in heaven after our physical bodies give out.  The blood of our Volunteer Donor pays our sin debt.  It IS our “Get Out of Jail Free” card.

That should give you a very Merry Christmas, indeed!

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Earn vs. Return – Part 1

Much of the world throughout history has been trying to earn its way into heaven (or nirvana, Shangri-La,  Moksha, Elysium, Jannah, Fiddler’s Green, Utopia, Valhalla, Goloka…), but it’s just not possible.  We can’t ever be good enough to earn our own way.

All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags… (Isaiah 64:6)

Nothing we do goes toward eliminating our sin debt.  Jesus had to settle the debt for us.  He paid the price that we couldn’t pay in our spiritual poverty.

But even Christians who accept that they are going to heaven only by the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus still try to earn God’s approval.  Many of us do good works so that God will be happy with us, so that He won’t be disappointed.  We imagine that God is like Santa Claus, with a long list of the naughty and nice things we do, and we really want our nice things to outweigh the naughty ones.

Here’s a difficult truth to swallow:

God is already happy with us.

More than happy, God is pleased with us!

Read it again.

Do you believe it?

It’s hard to accept, because we know about all the bad things we do.  We know we don’t deserve God’s pleasure, because we struggle every day with submitting our will under His authority. But God’s pleasure isn’t dependent on our behaviors.  He is pleased with WHO we are even when He’s not pleased with what we DO.

And our sin doesn’t make us less righteous or less justified or less holy in His sight, because it’s really not about us.  It’s about Jesus. No matter how far from perfection we are, Jesus makes up the difference.  When the Father looks at us, He sees the righteousness of His Son.

Isaiah can help here:

I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God.  For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10)

Jesus did two things for us:

1) He clothed us with salvation (i.e., we get to go to heaven).

2) He dressed us up in a robe of righteousness (i.e., He covered our unrighteousness with His righteousness).

Just like we can’t earn our salvation, we can’t earn our righteousness.  It’s a gift.  That’s why Jesus could tell the disciples:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matthew 5:48)

There’s no way they could have accomplished perfection on their own, but God’s plan is:

You do what you can; Jesus will make up the difference.

We still have our part to play.  We are to do what we can.  But even if we turn in a miserable performance, we are still righteous in God’s sight, because Jesus makes up the difference.  And when we are doing what we can, we aren’t earning; we are returning.

Through obedience and good works, we give back to God what He has given to us.  You see, we can only do good through God’s grace.  He gives us the heart to do good; He gives us the energy; He gives us the talent or the money or the time….  Anything good we do originates with God.  And truth be told, we are only returning a fraction of what He has given us.

For example, when we tithe, we give God ten percent of what we earn.  But where did the ability to earn the 100% come from?  Where did the job come from?  Where did the talent and skill and knowledge come from?  It all came from God.  It’s like He handed us one hundred dollars and asked for only ten back.  We are only returning a portion of what He gave us, and He’s okay with that because He enjoys giving good things to His children.

So we don’t do good to earn His love; we do it to return His love.  Out of gratitude.  Out of a joyful heart that recognizes that there’s nothing to earn – that we already have all the righteousness that we need and that we have God’s pleasure despite what we DO because of WHO we are (i.e., His children)!

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Fig Leaves

Genesis 3:7 tells us that Adam and Eve were ashamed of their nakedness after their sin.  To cover themselves, they sewed fig leaves together and wore them.  This seems an expecially unfortunate choice, since fig leaves are rough and induce painful itching.

But isn’t this just like us?  When we sin, we try to hide our shame by beating ourselves up.  We practice negative self-talk, we kick ourselves, we acknowledge that we are terrible Christians.  Some even go so far as to chastise themselves physically.

God never tells us to beat ourselves up after we sin.  He tells us to return to Him.  But instead, we hide in the bushes, making God come after us.  Why do we do it?  You can bet that Satan has a big part to play in it.  He is the accuser, and we listen to him far too often.  Another reason is that we don’t understand God’s grace.  We mistrust it.  We can’t believe that God could really forgive us with no strings attached.  Surely we have to do some penance.  “God will forgive me if…”

We’ve also learned that some self-flagellation will go a long way to changing public opinion about us.  We know that we will be judged by the sins we commit, so we seek to lesson the criticism by doing some of the punishment ourselves.  It’s a pretty good strategy, actually.  People are less quick to dogpile if they see that a beating is already being administered.

Benefits aside, God wants us to come to Him in our nakedness when we sin.  No covering.  No self-disciplining.  Just us, admitting we were wrong and asking for God’s forgiveness.  Adam and Eve had it exactly backwards.  They prolonged their suffering by hiding from God.

When God found them in the garden in their sin, He replaced their covering with His.  His covering involved sacrifice.  An innocent animal had to die to pay for their sins.  Its blood covered their sin, and its hide covered their bodies.  God was demonstrating how they would now have to live in order to maintain a relationship with Him, and He was showing them how He would eventually solve the problem of sin forever. The death of an animal is a picture of Christ’s death on the cross.  His blood covers both our sin and our spiritual nakedness.

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Unsportsmanlike Conduct

Sara Tucholsky swung and connected.  It was a beauty!  All the way over the center-field fence!  Home run!

What made it even sweeter was that it was her first home run – ever!  And it happened at the end of a tough season in her senior year at Western Oregon University.  Prior to this swing, she had only connected three times out of 34 at-bats.  That’s at least 99 unproductive swings.  She was going to enjoy this home run, and it would give the team the numbers they needed to win the conference and go on to the playoffs.

But as Sara rounded first base, she missed the tag.  Realizing her mistake, she swung around too quickly and wrenched her knee – most likely a torn ligament.  The pain was incredible!  It was all she could do to get back to first base.  She couldn’t make it the rest of the way.

The umpire shared Sara’s options with her.  “You can call in a pinch runner, but then the home run will count as a single.  If your teammates try to help you, you’ll be called out.”

First baseman, Mallory Holtman, of the opposing team, witnessed the interaction.  Being the career home run leader in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, she sensed the injustice of the situation.  And putting aside her own team’s goals, she asked permission to help Sara around the bases.

“Nothing against it in the rules.”  the umpire said.

So, Mallory and a teammate picked Sara up and carried her to each of the bases, allowing her to touch them with her good leg before moving on.  The home run counted for three of Western Oregon’s four runs in a 4-2 victory over Central Washington University, and it put Central Washington out of the playoffs.

It’s so…what’s the word?…unsportsmanlike.  I’ve watched softball games before.  The women are often more competitive than the men.  Since when would an player give up her chance of a championship in order to help an opposing player complete a home run?  I bet her teammates couldn’t wait to give her a swirly back in the lockerroom.

But isn’t it beautiful!  What an act of grace!  Mallory intentionally gave up her season to do the right thing.  That takes courage, the willingness to stand alone and the humility to look like and be treated like a fool.

I believe that anytime you see something like this, a window of heaven has opened up, and you are getting a peek at God’s incredible love for us.  Mallory isn’t Jesus; I don’t know if she’s even Christian, but she can be used by God to reflect His Son. 

Sara Tucholsky is the Everyman.  Striking out time after time; unable to connect with the fame and success that most of us crave.  And then her big break – she knocks it out of the park in an important game!  But as she heads towards her success, the strain of the effort causes a breakdown.  It’s not within her power to get where she wants to go. 

This time, her failure is more pronounced.  Everyone is watching.  Faced with discouraging choices, she’s not sure what to do.  But at her moment of greatest need, the one she thought was her enemy becomes her friend.  None of Sara’s peers could help her; it had to be someone on another team willing to give up everything in order to get her home.

Images of God are everywhere.  We have no excuse.


(S – Associated Press, April 30, 2008, “Opponents Carry Injured Home-Run Hitter Around Bases)

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The Covering

My eight-year-old is a theological scholar – to me, at least. We were out on the town for a “Boys’ Night Out” last night and dipping deep into the spiritual well of the story of Adam and Eve. I was asking him some questions to make sure he had really read the passage he claimed to have read earlier that day, and I thought I would throw him a few that troubled me some.

“If God knows everything, then why did He ask Adam where he was?” (Me)

“Maybe because He wanted to see if he would tell the truth.” (Him)

“Hmmm…okay, that’s an interesting thought. But why did it bother Adam and Eve that they were naked? I mean, they were naked before, and it was no big deal.” (Me)

“Maybe it’s because their hearts were naked.” (Him)

The truth of what he said struck me. Their hearts were naked! That made more sense. So we continued to talk through the idea that your heart could be naked, that an uncovered, sinful heart before a righteous God was a dangerous thing that invited judgment. And before dinner was over, we had developed a pretty good exposition of the text. Here’s what we came up with.

Adam and Eve were created with God’s spiritual covering, but when they ate from the Tree, they stepped out from under it. Immediately, they realized they were naked, but it wasn’t physical nakedness that caused them shame; it was their spiritual nakedness. Never having experienced this before, they focused on their physical exposure and fashioned their own covering out of fig leaves. (Not a good choice, as it happens. Fig leaves are terribly itchy.) That sort of addressed the physical need but totally missed the spiritual.

God came walking through the garden and asked Adam where he was. It wasn’t a physical question; it was spiritual. “Where is your heart?” Of course God knew the answer, but He was giving Adam an opportunity to step up and play the man. Instead, Adam complained of his nakedness and then set about blaming his wife. In the words of a popular blog site – that’s an Accountability Fail.

God shared the new rules with Adam and Eve. That’s “rules” – plural. Because they couldn’t live with just one rule, they now had to live with many – and these first rules were just the beginning. Later would come Exodus and Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Once we got the hang of it, we started writing our own books about even more rules. (My wife is a rules person – she would understand.)

But God is gracious and merciful. He replaced the itchy fig leaves with “garments of skin” before sending Adam and Eve out of the Garden for their own protection (because, if they had eaten from the Tree of Life, they would have lived forever in their fallen state).

Here’s the beauty and efficiency of what God did. By providing the garments of skin, He covered not only their physical but also their spiritual nakedness.  And with the same gesture, He trained them on how they could cover themselves in the future.  The blood of the animal sacrifice provided the spiritual covering, and their hearts were no longer naked.

How did animal blood provide a covering? Scripture says that “the wages of sin is death.” That means that the penalty for sinning is death – spiritual death in our relationship with God and eventually physical death of our bodies. The penalty has to be paid, and only someone/something that doesn’t have a debt of his/its own can pay it. Animals are innocent of sin, since they have no free will, so they can serve as our substitute. Their death, their blood covers our sin.

Unfortunately for Adam and Eve, it was only a temporary fix. Animal blood had a short shelf-life as a covering for their sins, so they had to repeat the sacrifices over and over to keep their naked hearts covered.

Fast forward several thousand years. Jesus, the Christ, enters the physical world as a baby and lives a life completely free of sin. For the first time in history, a man without a sin debt has walked among us. He alone is qualified to pay what we owe. And this payment is eternal. The blood of Jesus is so powerful that it covers every sin ever committed by any person. It covers every sin that ever would be committed. It’s a one-time payment in full to the one who has a lien on our spiritual property – his name is Satan.

There’s only one catch.  Jesus has provided the covering, but we have to choose for ourselves to come under it.  He won’t force us.  If He did, He would destroy free will, and a choice that is compelled is no choice at all.

Ironically, the covering is big enough for everyone who has ever lived, but few of us will choose to take advantage of it.  Instead, we’ll try our best to cover our spiritual nakedness with money, accomplishments, love, sex, fame, entertainment, drugs or other religions….anything to make us feel less exposed in front of a righteous God.  But though they provide temporary relief, they are just fig leaves with different names, and in the end, they will cause us more discomfort than they are worth.

There’s only one Covering that covers both our physical needs and our spiritual ones.  Won’t you come under it today?

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