I’m dancing at some theological edges in this post.
I reserve the right to re-think or change my mind about anything I write here.
Heard a killer sermon this weekend from my friend and colleague, Tim Doering, that has really had me thinking. Tim taught on the perspectives and experiences of the two thieves who flanked Jesus’ cross while hanging on crosses of their own.
One of Tim’s key ideas was submission to the declaration of truth that hung in three languages on the cross over the head of Jesus: King of the Jews. The two thieves each possessed a perspective of who they were, who Jesus was and how they were going to interact with the truth in front of their eyes.
If you know the story, you know one thief mocked Jesus and demanded the Son of God validate Himself by taking them all off their crosses. The other thief humbled himself before the King of Kings and asked to be remembered.
Both thieves were broken physically, but only one was spiritually broken, and it was He who lived even though he died.
In my experience, Christians deal with brokenness from two vantage points:
1. Brokenness morphs into self-help and self-medication. After all, Jesus died and rose again so that you and I can be whole and have victory, right? So declaring/owning your brokenness or living in light of being a broken person is actually a compromise of who you are in Christ. So be healed! Be positive! Tell sin what is up! Live in power! You were a sinner, but now you’re new, so just have faith to be that new person, walk in victory, and be free. What happens when you lack faith, or step into the old, or are defeated, or return again to bondage? Well…that’s a serious problem for which you’ll just have to try harder next time. But remember, you wouldn’t be in those places if you had more faith, more discipline, more strength, more spirituality to begin with, so don’t make those mistakes again. Do you see what a self-centered mindset this is? A denial of spiritual brokenness and need is just Christian self-help and self-medication. True brokenness is a God-focused concept.
2. Brokenness morphs into self-loathing. The problem with self-loathing is inherent in the term. Self-loathing requires oneself to be at the center. Self-loathing is based in shame, and God does not shame His children. Rather, He meets them at the points of their sin-induced shameful experiences and offers grace. Grace is a God-focused entity that keeps God’s heart and government at the center. Again, true brokenness is a God-focused concept.
Here’s the thing about grace: Grace is only realized in the presence of truth.
There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying,
“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
Tim made the point that the first thief, the one who was against Christ, was representative of our current cultural mindset that says I should be able to live my life how I want, make decisions that are destructive to myself and those around me, and still demand that God save me, even arrogantly challenging His personhood by saying “If You really are who You say You are, then You’ll get me out of this, and if You don’t save me from this, then You’re not who You claim to be.”
It gets even more cloudy for Christians, because most of us think we’re generally pretty good people. I mean, this thief was scoundrel, right? He had been tried for his crimes, knew what he had done and was receiving the penalty for it. He was a bad guy and he talked to Jesus like a bad guy would talk to Jesus.
On the other hand, I am essentially a good guy, and because I am essentially a good guy that means I can take liberties here and there in my life, doing things that are against God, but hopefully able to get away with it without consequence because of my previous and pretty consistent good behavior. What this thief called for from Jesus is exactly what we ask for as well: personal choice without personal responsibility. The ability to be relatively moral, blow it from time to time and escape the consequences of those choices by pointing to our basically consistent morality.
What a deception! There can be no grace applied to this way of living. Shame will abound, and it will eat us until you and I become fully honest and fully own who we are as sinners, who Christ is as Savior, and throw ourselves upon His loving rescue. Grace without truth is not grace (John 1.14-18). Grace without truth is nothing more than entitlement.
A couple weeks ago, our daughter Christy was in the hospital again. Had some complications regarding her cystic fibrosis care that required an admission. As with all hospital stays, there was pain, worry, anxiety, discomfort, disruption of our family…it’s a really lousy experience and always brings to the front a question I ask in dark hours of the night:
Do my kids have this disease because of my sin? Yes? No?
Easy, Jay! Don’t take that weight on yourself! You didn’t do this to them, sin did this to them! Jesus told His disciples that the man born blind was not born blind because he or his parents sinned, but so that God’s glory could be revealed.
Well, yeah, I totally believe that. I also see that the realities and consequences of sin are real and held within the government of God. That’s not to say they haven’t been overcome by the cross; it is to say that Paul’s struggle with himself and the power of sin in his life is real (Romans 7). After all, the guy ended his life calling himself the chief of sinners.
Why did David’s son die after his sin with Bathsheba?
Why did Moses’ son suffer the pain of circumcision as a young man?
Why did a generation of children have to wander in the wilderness for forty years?
Why does Psalm 78 call us to tell our children the dark stories of our wretched, sinful miseries?
Why the warning to “not provoke your children to anger”? Is their sin in that place not my responsibility?
In some way, isn’t there father-responsibility for all of these situations?
Disease exists because of sin. Cystic fibrosis exists because of sin. Sin exists because we as humans have embraced and continuing embracing it. I am the father of my children and they received their nature of sin from me, a man who has and does actively sin and who passed that same proclivity on to them.
I don’t think God is capricious, cruel or vindictive. In no way do I see Him sitting up in Heaven, looking down at me and saying, “Well Jay, that’s one too many sins. I’m going to smite your children with a fatal disease because of you.” As you can see by my previous language, I do not see God as the author of sin.
But I can’t carry this weight. I can’t carry the heaviness of the realities of my sin and how it affects those around me. I’m just saying that me being aware of and owning who I am when I choose to live without Christ — and the way it affects the people in my life — is the beginning of receiving grace.
Note the response of the other thief. He rebukes the arrogance of the first thief:
But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Truth. Responsibility. Ownership. Fear of the Lord.
Not self-loathing. Not toxic shame. Not defeatism.
Just simple spiritual realities of who I am and what I have done. These realities break me and leave me fragmented, utterly incapable of repairing or healing myself. This brokenness is the beginning of grace, and without this beginning, grace cannot rescue.
Truth, responsibility and ownership — and the brokenness I subsequently feel — align me with the ability to see God for who He truly is, submit to that truth and receive the riches of His heart. Tim’s concept stands firm that both thieves read that sign over Jesus’ head, but only one submitted himself to its reality.
And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And [Jesus] said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Can I release myself in the truth, responsibility and ownership of my sin to God’s grace?
Why do I want to prove it’s not as bad as He thinks it is?
What possibly conceivable grounds to I have to be defensive with God or other people who are impacted by my sin?
Why is my instinct to turn from the spiritual realities I’ve embraced and their consequences and decide to work harder and be more moral instead of falling head-long into the depths of the grace of God?
Do I believe that God’s grace is sufficient for Christy, even in the stark reality of the brokenness of her disease?
Do I believe that God’s grace is sufficient for me, as I — on some level — am the channel of that brokenness to one I love so much?
Time and again, we see the people who come or who are brought to Jesus for help or healing as people who are broken, humble, without recourse. Think of
the tax collector beating his chest as the pharisee judges him
the woman caught in adultery
the syro-phoenician woman who asks for the scraps from the table
the man whose friends lowered him through the roof
the lepers who cry out for mercy
the sisters whose brother recently died
the loose samaritan woman at the well
the centurion whose daughter was dying
the woman who reached out for the hem of his garment
the man who asks him to help his unbelief
the disciple who denied him three times
Brokenness is the God-focused awareness and ownership of our sin, and the results of that sin to ourselves and those connected to us. The reality of that brokenness simplifies our options. Either we receive it and are changed by it, or its reality crushes us. But its intent and purpose is to throw us at the feet of Jesus, headlong into His arms of grace.
To whom else would we go?
He alone has the words of life.