Do you like Christmas?

It’s a bit of a weird question to ask at this time of the year (though it’s almost been cold enough for Christmas): in fact, it’s a slightly weird question to ask anyone at any time of the year, unless his name is Ebenezer Scrooge.

A number of years ago, when I was working with Westlake Church in Switzerland, someone asked me. At Christmas time, too.

Of course I liked Christmas – and still do. In our church we made quite a big deal of it with candles and carols and special radio ads.

Yet this guy asked me if I liked Christmas.

Thing is that apparently the way I spoke in some of the Christmas services you wouldn’t have guessed it. I sounded kind of angry and annoyed. Not at Christmas, mind you, more at the people who were in the congregation.

Like a lot of churches we had people turning up at Christmas who didn’t tend to show up so much the rest of the year. It was great that they came, but somehow my desire to use the opportunity to challenge them about the lack of room for Jesus the rest of the year meant I was coming across a bit angry.

It can be a fine line for preachers. How do you preach to the spiritually careless, especially when you only get one shot at it every 52 weeks? Didn’t John the Baptist tell his brood of snakes they’d better produce fruit in keeping with repentance? It’s hardly being faithful to the gospel to do no more than leave people feeling good about themselves when they’ve basically shut out their Creator. Not that I think we should borrow John’s language, mind you!

The problem is that there is a kind of preaching that leaves people – even the faithful, as they listen week by week – with the impression that they are never good enough and can never do enough. I’m not talking about discouraging self-salvation at this point, it’s more about preachers who feel that their job description is all about challenge. No matter how committed the people are, they ought to do more. No matter how much spiritual progress they are making, they must not rest on their laurels. It’s preaching with a big stick. And it is potentially exhausting.

Why do we do it? Is it because we want to be faithful to God? Is it because of the doctrine of total depravity? Is it because we are fearful and strong words are the best way we know to keep people in line? Is it because we are preaching to ourselves and we are only too aware of our own shortcomings? It can be easier to scold someone else than change yourself!

I preached the other day about grace – or signs that we may not be living in its goodness as a day by day experience. It left people feeling ‘challenged’. I was conflicted about that; for it seems to me that there is something ironic in people going out from listening to a message about grace smarting from a challenge. What kind of grace would that be?

Preaching needs to comfort as well as confront. Too much of one without the other leaves it imbalanced. There is some truth in that old saying that the preacher’s task is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

That seasoned leader, Paul, wanted the Thessalonian church to ‘admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak [and] be patient with them all.’

If your preaching is all about admonishing, you need to add some encouragement.

There is a time to confront and there is a time to comfort. When grace exposes us, it is not to leave us exposed, but to lead us to a place of shelter and restoration.

Think about Jesus and Peter. Breakfast by the lake. The grace that restored Peter first asked Peter the searching question: ‘Do you love me?’

When grace-filled preaching confronts and challenges, it is ready to pour in the comfort of the good news of a Father’s love that comes to us through his Son.

If you’re always scolding, how will your people know that you love them?

Maybe that’s what was wrong with my Christmases.


Thoughts on grace and older brothers…

Ray Ortlund leads a church in Nashville where they use the following wording as a call to worship:

To all who are weary and need rest;
to all who mourn and long for comfort;
to all who feel worthless and wonder if God cares;
to all who fail and desire strength;
to all who sin and need a Savior;
to all who hunger and thirst for righteousness;
and to whoever will come—this church opens wide her doors and offers her welcome in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s a grace invitation. And Ray is big on grace, the grace of the gospel. He says that ‘If you have gospel doctrine on paper but you don’t have gospel culture in relationships, you don’t really have gospel doctrine.’

So it’s a bit of a problem when evangelical churches (who believe in the grace of the gospel and preach it) produce (or at least count in their ranks) people who sometimes appear to demonstrate so little grace.

I’ve talked a lot over the past few years about the older brother in Jesus’ Tale of Two Sons (better known, but less accurately, in my view, as the story of the Prodigal Son). I’ve thought about some of the warning signs that betray a failure to really ‘get’ grace (or be fully ‘got’ by grace).

Here are some thoughts on older brothers, like the one in the story:

  1. ‘But he was angry…’ verse 28. Older brothers find it hard to forgive, hard to extend grace to others. As CS Lewis reminded us, we might think forgiveness is a wonderful idea – until we have something we need to forgive.
  2. ‘…these many years I have served you… yet you never gave me a young goat…’ verse 29. Older brothers live out a transactional type of spirituality that lacks the warmth of a relationship with a Heavenly Father.
  3. ‘…I never disobeyed your command…’ verse 29. Older brothers are very aware of their own rightness which makes them aware of others’ wrongness and often unable to admit their own failings.
  4. ‘But when this son of yours came…’ verse 30. Older brothers make comparisons and struggle to be generous in how they think of others.

For each of these symptoms, the treatment is repentance and a humble receiving of grace, acknowledging, as Jerry Bridges puts it,

Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.

Grace, comparisons and resentment

I’ve spoken quite a bit from the ’Tale of Two Sons’ in Luke 15 over the past while and a few weeks ago I enjoyed reading Henri Nouwen’s reflection on the story: The Return of the Prodigal Son. While there’s the odd bit that causes me to raise my evangelical eyebrows, there are some rich and stimulating insights into the spiritual life.

Take the issue of comparison.

Nouwen reflects that while the father is glad to receive the younger son back, he does not forget the older son. However the older son is bitter and can only see that the younger son is getting more attention than him. Nouwen writes that the father’s heart ‘is not divided into more or less.’

As Nouwen points out, we live in a world that compares people, ranking them on various scales. So when we hear about someone else’s goodness or kindness, we are left to wonder if we are less good or kind than they are. We measure ourselves against others.

I cannot fathom how all of God’s children can be favourites. And still, they are.

I wonder how often we catch ourselves in comparison mode. More, I wonder those of us who are involved in some area of public Christian ministry fall into the trap. Why is that other preacher more popular than me? Why does that worship leader get invited to the big events? Why does God seem to send more people to that other church? Would I not have done a better job if I had been asked to write that series of magazine articles? Why does no one ever ask me to lead anything when other, less capable people seem to get all the opportunities?

Any of that sound familiar?

Nouwen connects this theme with the (puzzling?) parable (Matthew 20) of the workers who are paid the same amount even though they work for different amounts of time. It’s certainly a puzzle. Some people work all day, some work most of the day, some work half of the day and others only work an hour or three. But they are all paid the same amount. Hardly ‘a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’, is it? Not in the eyes of the guys who have worked all day, at any rate. According to Jesus, they have nothing to quibble about: they agreed to work for one day for one day’s pay. Hard to argue with that. But their problem (and ours, probably) is that they don’t think it’s fair that the one hour brigade should get the same amount of pay. What the landowner criticises them for is that they have allowed themselves to be envious because he has chosen to be generous. It’s not that he has been unjust towards them, it’s just that he has been very generous to everyone else!

Nouwen wonders what if the landowner had supposed that the workers would have been grateful to have had the opportunity to work and ‘even more grateful to see what a generous man [the landowner] is’?

God looks at his people as children of a family who are happy that those who have done only a little bit are as much loved as those who accomplish much.

Which leads on to a quotation I posted a few weeks ago, on bitterness and resentment. 

As long as I keep looking at God as a landowner, as a father who wants to get the most out of me for the least cost, I cannot but become jealous, bitter, and resentful toward my fellow workers or my brothers and sisters.

Which in turn leads us back to the story of the elder son in Luke 15. His confrontation with his father at the end of the story carries echoes of the ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’ mentality. ‘I’ve slaved away for you, what have you ever done for me.’

And as long as you and I think like that, we are unlikely to revel in God’s grace. Instead we will be in danger of becoming resentful and closed-fisted, score-keepers and traffic wardens.

Hardly stunning representatives of the Lord Jesus!

Sunday morning reflection: eight signs you may not have not fully grasped the grace of God


I’ve written about this before, but this is a tweaked version. If you are a Christian, but you are aware of a number of these eight signs in your life, you may be in urgent need of a grace refresher course.

  • You are not very good at extending forgiveness to people who need it. Forgiveness can be a very difficult thing, but wherever you see a basic stubbornness and resistance to forgive, it’s a sign that we have not quite grasped the grace of God as we should.
  • You always need to be right and seen to be right. I was in a gift shop yesterday and I saw a plaque that said ‘When I married Mr Right, I didn’t realise his first name was always.’ That is a contradiction of grace.
  • And the other side of that is that you find it hard to admit that you have been wrong on something. Even when you have. ‘I’m sorry if you were offended by what I said’ is an inadequate substitute for ‘Please forgive me. I was wrong in the way I spoke to you.’
  • And somewhere connected to those two, is the need to compare yourself with others. If the comparison is favourable, it results in pride; if it is unfavourable, it leads to jealousy and resentment..
  • Which means that another sign is when there more resentment, (and more anger and more anxiety) in your life than there should be.
  • You feel the need to be everybody’s traffic warden. You are always in fault detection mode. Do you know that there is a website called ‘’? It allows people to write about  mistakes in movies and TV programmes. Some of us are spiritual nitpickers and fault-finders and it is sign that we have not fully comprehended grace.
  • Your spiritual life is more about rule-keeping than a warm relationship with God. It’s about doing your duty, about ticking boxes and checking lists.
  • Perhaps you are not even sure he really loves you. An old Puritan writer put it like this:

The greatest unkindness you can do to the Father is not to believe that he loves you.

Grace – and a song that we sometimes sing

One of those older newer songs (Gerrit Gustafson published it in 1990) includes this double statement:

Lord, if you marked our transgressions,
Who would stand?
Thanks to your grace, we are cleansed
By the blood of the Lamb.

It’s the sentiment of Psalm 130:3-4

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you, there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

Back to Gerrit Gustafson and his version for a moment. If you’ve sung those lines, have you really meant them? I know you’d rather not have a worship leader stand at the front saying, ‘let’s sing these words as if we really, really mean them’, but it is worth stopping to think.

Lord, if you marked our transgressions, who would stand? Really? Are we that bad? Maybe a lot of those other people are that bad, but our transgressions? My transgressions? The song – and the Psalm too – pulls no punches on that one. If God is in divine scorekeeper mode, our language should be like Isaiah: ‘Woe is me.’

But thanks to your grace, we are cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. Really? Are we that clean? Can we be that forgiven? Back to the Psalm – one of the attributes of God is his forgiveness. And I think this is fascinating: ‘that you may be feared’! You would think that a God who never tore up the accounts, but who kept them all – every record of every sin – would be feared. On the other hand, a God who could bring up all your failures and sins and make you pay: that’s a God to be afraid of. But that’s not what the Psalm says: it says that this God is to be feared because of his forgiveness!

So do you really believe all that when you sing? (I mean really, really believe.) If God kept score, you would not stand, any more than I would. But if God forgives, you are clean.

As Jerry Bridges says:

Your worst days are never so bad that you’re beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you’re beyond the need of God’s grace.


6 signs that you may not have fully grasped the grace of God

Return of the Prodigal Son
Christians believe in the grace of God. It’s by grace that we are saved. We sing about how amazing it is. But some of us don’t do such a good job of truly getting it. Or demonstrating it to one another. Or communicating it to the watching world.

We are talking about the unearned, freely given, costly love of God, expressed in the forgiveness that he has made available to us through the work of Jesus.

Here are six warning signs that may indicate that you have not quite grasped God’s grace or that it has not quite grasped you.

  1. You are not very good at extending forgiveness to people who need it. I think this is a major giveaway. Think about the older brother in Jesus’ famous parable (which features above). For him, life was about what you earn and if you don’t earn it, you don’t deserve it. Think about the story Jesus told about the man whose response to being forgiven a huge debt was to throw one of his own debtor’s in prison.
  2. You always need to be right and seen to be right. Which probably means you have to have the closing word in an argument. For it would be too bad if someone thought that you were less than perfect!
  3. You find it hard to admit that you have been wrong on something. This is the reverse of #2. If your sense of well-being depends on being right and everyone acknowledging this, then it’s a small disaster when it turns out you were wrong. It might devastate you, or you might just turn to a string of excuses and rationalisations to cover over the blemish.
  4. You feel the need to be everybody’s traffic warden. Perhaps not literally (though you probably notice every motorist who is in breach of some kind of rule or other), but at least metaphorically. You know where the white lines are and you notice when other people stray across them – even the tiniest bit.
  5. Yet it may also be true that you like to be liked and accepted by other people. Rejection and disapproval are difficult to bear. It’s nice when people admire you; difficult to cope when they don’t pay much attention to you.
  6. Your spiritual life is more about rule-keeping than a warm relationship with God. You are not quite sure about God as a compassionate Heavenly Father. You live more as a slave than a son.

If this was a self-help book, I’d probably need to include a little 5 point scale for each of these, where 0=never and 5=all the time. Then I’d get you to add it up and tell you that if you have over 20 points, you need to talk to God about it. Mightn’t be a bad idea, if you want!