Testimony

 

Feb

28

2014

Hafeez Baoku|12:01 AM CT

My Brother Zach

I remember as if it were yesterday the first time I heard the gospel preached. Four years ago this month I was invited to a Bible study for football players at my university.

I had never attended a Bible study, so you can imagine my unease and anxiety when I arrived. But when I walked into the room I was shocked to see it filled with young, African American men who you wouldn't think would ever be sitting in the pews of your local church.

Hafeez (right) with Zach (center) and his wife, Brynn.

Hafeez (right) with Zach (center) and his wife, Brynn.

Then when I met the leader of the Bible study I went from being amazed to perplexed. He introduced himself to me as Zach Marcum, a short white guy from rural Kentucky. Zach isn't one of those guys who tries to act like he was from the "hood" in order to fit in; he is 100 percent suburban white. Neither is he one of those guys who keeps on talking about his favorite African American movies or rappers in order to prove that he understands "my people." Zach is simply an honest, genuine guy who shows everyone genuine Christ-like love and affection that isn't based upon reaching some ethnic conversion quota.

God has used Zach to lead not only me to Jesus, but also dozens of other African American men on campus throughout the years. How does he do it? What is his magic formula?

There isn't one. He is simply a man with a genuine love for people who are different from him. And he has decided to move outside his comfort zone and obey God's call to make disciples of all nations.

End of Tension

We often hear about ongoing racial tension. Did you know that Sunday is the most segregated day of the week because of homogenous church services? Did you know that many church leaders of the past owned slaves and supported their beliefs with the Bible? Did you know that many evangelical seminaries did not allow minority students until the latter half of the 20th century? These questions and many more remind us of the challenges.

But as we ask these questions we must also seek answers to the problems. How? By looking at the early church we're inspired as we see the beautiful message of the gospel spreading to people of all nations and places (Acts 2:1-41). We see new believers from Ethiopia (Acts 2:24-29), Egypt (Acts 18:24-27), Corinth (Acts 18:1-4), and Rome (Acts 28:23). Remarkably, they were all led to Christ by Jewish men and women who were ethnically different from them. The Holy Spirit tore down the dividing wall of hostility in order to show that "in Christ we are all children of God, through faith" (Gal. 3:26).

The early church knew that Jesus made it possible for all people—regardless of race, creed, or nation—to join the trans-cultural family of God. These Christians didn't view people of other ethnicities as projects, and they didn't view them as "those people" they were guilted into helping. They saw these men and women from around the world as created in the image and likeness of God, as purchased by the blood of the Lamb. Still today such Spirit-empowered Christians share this heartbeat. Captivated by a beautiful vision of the diverse family of God, such believers trust God to end the ongoing racial tensions in our country.

Heavenly Destiny

The day Zach got married, I still remember crying as I sat in the church. At that moment I reflected on our love for one another, a bond stronger than blood brothers. The world says we could never be friends. But my friendship with Zach offers a glimpse into what relationships are going to be like in heaven. Before the throne of God we'll enjoy love between people of all races and places as together we worship Christ (Rev. 7:9-10).

We serve a God who is big enough to bring together for his glory people who have been segregated for years. We will never experience this family perfectly until eternity. But we can still catch peeks of our destiny today.

 
 

Feb

04

2014

Matt Smethurst|12:05 AM CT

Returning Home to Ex-Cannibals

The Sawi were headhunters and cannibals when Don and Carol Richardson arrived in their Indonesian village carrying their seven-month-old boy, Steve—and a message that would change the tribe forever. The year was 1962, and Steve and his siblings would spend their youth among the Sawi, learning the language and embracing the culture in ways that would shape the rest of their lives. The Richardsons' story was immortalized in Don's bestselling book, Peace Child: An Unforgettable Story of Primitive Jungle Treachery in the 20th Century and a feature film of the same name, inspiring a new generation to take the gospel to the remaining isolated tribes of the earth.

Fifty years later, Steve joins his father and brothers to visit the Sawi village where they grew up. Does a gospel church remain? Are their childhood friends alive? Will anyone remember their family? Thanks to this short film produced by Pioneers, we can journey with the Richardsons to the Sawi swamps and explore the gospel's effect among a once-unreached people.

*************

The Storyframes Collective is a collaborative effort between The Gospel Coalition and the Austin Stone Church for the purpose of celebrating the extraordinary work of God in the lives of ordinary people. Through excellence in the art of storytelling (film, photojournalism, spoken word, and writing), this project aims to recount God's redemptive, transforming work in the lives of our brothers and sisters. In form, this website collects encouraging stories about God's grace. In function, we want these stories to inspire you to praise God.

As a collective, we hope that people from around the world will join us in collecting and telling the amazing stories of God's grace and the power of the gospel. We hope this project will increase your faith, encourage your spirit, and open your eyes to the extraordinary work of God every day in your life and in the lives of others around you.

While these stories differ in characters, formats, and locations, they share the same hero: God. Whether highlighting addiction recovery, healing, renewal, transformation, or any other form of good news, they testify to God's power and grace, made available to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

We hope you not only enjoy reading, hearing, and seeing these stories, but also take time to observe the stories of those around you. Tell others the story of what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ, and tell us your story—what God has done in you.

 
 

Jan

03

2014

Matthew S. Wireman|12:01 AM CT

Hearing God in the Midst of Suicidal Thoughts

No one ever suspected. I worked hard to have a polished smile and on-cue laugh. But several times during my teen years I contemplated taking my own life.

Had someone asked me why I was thinking about suicide, I would never be able to rationally explain my reasoning. It's hard to admit that I thought life was so hard that I wanted to end it—especially considering how easy my life has been in comparison with people suffering all over the world. It's also hard to describe the experience of depression. It's like trying to describe living in a room that is pitch black.

Suicide-prevention-pictureOnce I became a Christian, I thought I had victory in Jesus, my Savior. Yet within a few months I found myself fighting the demons again. Why did I continue to struggle with this? Why does depression continue to crouch at my door even today?

It can be dangerous to speak generally about depression and suicide, and I don't want to give anyone the impression that such thoughts of self-harm are acceptable. While they are more common than we care to admit, we should not give in to the debilitating lie that death is better than life. This is true especially in light of our overly psychologized culture that too readily qualifies us as victim—and not also a perpetrator in our own mess.

No Easy Answers

Lest you think that I ascribe an overly simplistic approach to depression (by saying it's all about decisions and doing), let me clarify that I offer an anecdotal account and do not mean to prescribe or denounce your experience. But for those going through such struggles, I hope you may find that much of my antidote—listening for the voice of God in Scripture—will speak to your own experience.

I am writing to you who feel like suicide shouldn't even be entering your mind. After all, you have the mind of Christ, and such thoughts seem contradictory to his. You know you have been declared righteous—but you don't care. You just want the world to stop. You want the blur of confusion and numbness to go away. If you could just cast yourself upon the rocks below, you think you would be able to enjoy bliss.

Let's start with what we know to be clear in Scripture. You know that it is wrong to murder (Lk 18.20). You know that God will never leave you or forsake you (Heb 13.5). You know you have been brought out of darkness into his marvelous light (1Pet 2.9).

Yet you also know that the darkness seems to pull you in like a black hole. No matter how much you preach to yourself, the darkness doesn't flee. You feel alone and forsaken. And you know you have murdered yourself a hundred times over in your heart.

God Meets Us in the Darkness

This is where the gospel meets us. The sadness you feel over your sin and the world is exactly how you should feel. The darkness surrounding you is real. No shiny, happy people holding hands here. Grief and disgust is entirely appropriate for our fallen world.

When I had suicidal thoughts in my Christian life I used to condemn myself for thinking such horrible things. I used to try to think of my "happy place." But I have come to embrace the reality we live in: This fallen world is painful.

God invites you to embrace this sadness, for on the other side lies hope. It may only be a flickering flame, yet it pushes back the darkness. Hear your maker's voice asking, "Where are you?" (Gen 3.9). And as your head is heavy with grief, you hear his voice again saying, "My soul is so sorrowful, even to death" (Matt 26.38). You hear him as he weeps and cries out in anguish. You feel the torment. You grieve. You feel helpless. And yet, you hear his voice again asking, "Why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" (Jn 20.15).

This is the beginning of the remedy. In the midst of your garden of sorrow, seek his face. Know that he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isa 53.3). You are not alone or forsaken.

 
 

Oct

16

2013

J. F. Arnold|12:01 AM CT

The Beauty of 'Boring' Testimonies

Many Christians struggle with their own testimonies. Our stories are boring, uninteresting, and mundane—or so it often seems to us. Who would listen to us even if we did share?

What often qualifies as "interesting" is the sort of thing someone would write (and read) a book about: ex-felons, ex-addicts, ex-something-or-others. We are all sinners saved by grace, and yet, as unclean and broken as we may be, many of us haven't gone a day in our lives not knowing about God. Often we describe our testimonies in terms of reshaping or renewing our current faith: we are reminded of the sin we have, or convicted of the sin we didn't see, and now we can return to the gospel we've known all our lives. It isn't so much a 180° change as a couple of degrees at a time.

Always Amazing

We're suckers for big and loud stories—look at the film industry for evidence—and so we tend to write off anything that doesn't fit that pattern. We don't volunteer to tell people we grew up in the church and asked Jesus into our hearts as soon as we learned to speak. Who would find that story anything but boring?

The solution isn't to seek a more powerful testimony—let's not sin that grace may abound—but to expand our understanding of what constitutes a beautiful testimony. We can describe those who grew up in the church as spared from the horrors of the criminal life, but this story feels empty. The negation isn't nearly so powerful as the positive expression: we are saved from the damnation we earned by the great grace of God's Son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course we desire to be remembered, to be seen as moving examples of the grace God can provide. The examples trumpeted stand out in the wide course of history, especially those saved through harrowing circumstances: Paul's persecution of Christians, Augustine's many sexual sins, right on up to the teenage-atheist-turned-30-something-Christian C. S. Lewis. We see that great Christians of the past have often come from broken places.

No Ordinary Christians

This emphasis on dramatic testimonies can be harmful, though, despite the intention to inspire us. While these testimonies can encourage us to look and see the greatness of God, we tend to only see God's grace manifest in those who have been saved from what appears to be much. If we took for our role models "ordinary" Christians—local pastors and elders, our parents and professors, our peers—perhaps we'd be more capable of seeing God's explicit and awesome grace in our "ordinary" lives.

I don't recommend removing the historical "greats" from our studies, nor should we discount the explosive testimonies we so often hear. Rather, we ought to broaden our understanding of what makes for a compelling story of grace.

Every Christian has a redemption story. Whether you are saved from cocaine addiction or a prideful heart, from deep in a prison cell or the comfort of your suburban home, your story is filled with grace. If we can't see the beauty of a redemption story, the problem isn't with the story: the problem is with us.

After all, every story of redemption is one so powerful that Christ died to fulfill it.

 
 

Sep

16

2013

Joe Rigney|12:01 AM CT

Questioning Within the Borders of Faith

"If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?" (Psalm 11:3)

I was reminded of the psalmist's question as I read through Matthew Lee Anderson's latest book, The End of Our Exploring: A Book About Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. David's desperate question (and Matthew's excellent book) has particular resonance for me. David's question kept me seeking, kept me hoping, kept me pressing on during a dark season of doubt during my sophomore year of college. In the psalm, "the foundations" that David is referring to are most likely the wise and just rulers of Israel, those responsible for the well-being of God's people. If the wicked destroy such leaders, what will the rest of Israel do? When the guardians are laid low, who will protect the people?

In my experience, the question hit closer to home. It was not the safety of foundational leaders that I was concerned for, but the authority and trustworthiness of the Scriptures, the foundation of my faith and the source of my knowledge of Jesus Christ. During my freshman year at Texas A&M, the Bible broke open to me in unprecedented and life-altering ways. I devoured sermons, articles, and books, and most of all, the Scriptures. During those days theological anchors such the doctrines of grace and the glory of the gospel were set. "Growing by leaps and bounds" is the phrase that always comes to my mind when I think about that year.

Unprepared for the Questions

In the fall of my sophomore year, I decided to develop this love for the Scriptures by taking a class on the Old Testament. In that class I was first exposed to higher criticism of the Bible, to the JEDP theory and other attempts to deconstruct the integrity of the Bible and treat it as just another ancient (and error-filled) collection of texts. Suffice it to say, I was ill-equipped to deal with such theories.

The questions came and kept on coming. Is the Bible true, trustworthy, and authoritative, or is it just another human and fallible expression of man's religiosity? What if Christianity isn't true? What if Jesus isn't the way to God? What if Buddhism or Islam or atheism are actually true? If the Scriptures are up for grabs, how can I have any assurance about reality? And given the eternal stakes involved, how can I begin to sort through it all?

The question of the stakes involved really set me spinning. The reality of hell landed on me like a ton of bricks. I knew what the Bible taught: millions of people, including people I knew, would suffer for eternity for their rebellion against God. But now I was unsure whether it was true. The swirl of questions sent me into a tailspin: extreme anxiety, panic attacks, desperate tears followed by emotional numbness, an extended spiritual depression. In that context David's question about destroyed foundations proved to be so meaningful to me. If the Scriptures are destroyed as my foundation, what am I supposed to do?

David's question didn't answer my questions. They remained as potent and incessant as ever. In fact, they had become more than mere questions; they were now deep and unsettling doubts. And as Anderson points out in his book, doubting and questioning aren't the same thing:

Doubt seems to be more of a state or condition, while questioning is a pursuit. When we doubt, we hesitate over whether to welcome or accept what is before us. We waver in our stance and hold ourselves back from committing ourselves. The posture of doubt is even different from outright unbelief: it is neither the boldness of an outright rejection or the humility of belief. It is, instead, a vacillating double-mindedness that prevents us from living a fully integrated life within the world. It is to be tossed about by every wave and wind of the sea.

But David's question was so helpful precisely because it didn't try to answer my specific questions. I'd already chased (and caught) enough answers to know that I could always (and would always) come up with more questions. David's question anchored me for the same reason that John Piper's description of "self-extinction" in his biographical sketch of Charles Spurgeon did: It confirmed that I wasn't alone, that I wasn't the first to feel the despair of foundations melting beneath my feet. And in the absence of answers, that was enough to keep me going.

Christ Is the Answer

Psalm 11 confirmed for me that it wasn't answers that I really needed. Instead, I needed to encounter the Answer, the One whose throne is in heaven, the Righteous One who tests the righteous so that they can stand before him. David's question re-oriented my questions, so I now sought the face of Yahweh.

I wish I could say this re-orientation produced dramatic results, that God responded to my new pursuit with the "Job moment" I so desperately desired. I recall begging God to break down the door with a whirlwind and kick me in the face with his own questions, for at least then I would know that he is real. But the Job moment never came. Instead, I kept believing, even if it was a "help my unbelief" kind of faith. I kept seeking since it was the only way to find what I was looking for. I kept hoping since, I thought, if the biblical God is real, then surely he can break in. And over time, the darkness became less dark, the depression less intense, the questions less incessant. Dawn came slowly, but it did come. I came to realize that the shakiness I felt was not so much in the Scriptures but in me. I realized the truth that, as Anderson writes, "We cannot . . . 'suspend judgment' on whether Christianity is true as though we are standing beyond and outside of it and rendering a verdict in the court of law. . . . If our faith makes us who we are, then all our questioning happens within the borders of faith."

So question within the borders of faith. Let your faith seek understanding. Or, as David shows us in Psalm 11, take refuge in the Lord, then ask about those foundations. This posture, this type of faithful and imaginative exploration, will inevitably lead us into the presence of the Lord. There we behold his glorious face, shining with brilliance sufficient to still all doubting waves and calm all panic-stricken seas.

 
 

Aug

06

2013

Kendra Dahl|12:01 AM CT

Redemption for the Scars

My hands trembled as I held the directions, struggling to read them. I was 16. Active member of the youth group. A Christian school kid. I had no idea how to take a pregnancy test.

Slowly, meticulously, I did what the directions commanded. My trembling sunk into a quiet, terrifying calm. I replaced the cap on the test, set it carefully on the bathroom counter, and slid to the ground, my back to the door, waiting for confirmation of what I already knew: I was pregnant.

Despite what I knew to be true, I only debated briefly. I knew abortion was sinful and wrong. But then again, so was sex before marriage. It was a little too late to be worried about sin. All I knew was that in three weeks I would move to a new town and start a new school. I would go to cheerleading camp and be a normal high school junior full of promise and potential. I would never look back.

It wasn't that simple, of course. The blood haunted me for weeks, whispering my secrets in the dark corners of the laundry room. And while soiled clothes could be washed clean, the dark stains remained on my heart—invisible scars carved into the deep crevices of my soul—and no amount of scrubbing would help.

Oh, but I tried. I tried purity vows and youth group and missions trips. I tried college ministry and Christian community and being the nice girl. And when all of that proved futile, I threw my hands in the air and gave into flashing lights and loud music and blurred memories.

Eventually I found myself in another bathroom, holding another positive pregnancy test. My mind raced: memories of the gray walls and the nurse's face and sad-eyed women waiting. Memories of the blood. I knew I couldn't do it again, so I wondered, was there redemption here? If I chose differently this time, would it reach back into the past? Would it make the scars hurt less? Would they disappear now? Would a new life replace the one forfeited years before?

I was 22 when my daughter was born, and I sought in her the redemption I craved. I determined to be a strong, independent single mother and prove to the world that I was better than my tainted history. But my daughter could not erase the pain of years past, and despite the strength I feigned, I crumbled under the weight of my sin and the pressure of trying to prove I was good enough.

Gracious Rescue

Praise God that in his mercy he rescued me from myself. He graciously confronted me with the depths of my sinfulness and the weight of his holiness. He softened my heart to repent of my sin and receive the promise of forgiveness found only in Jesus. He lifted my eyes to see Christ bear the full weight of my sin and shame, offering in exchange my freedom from condemnation and the right to be his beloved daughter.

God in his sweet grace makes all things new. I devoured Scripture, hungry to learn the truth that I had missed all those years in church. My daughter and I were welcomed as family into a community of believers. I married a wonderful, godly man who determined to love and lead me and become a father to my daughter.

You Have to Pay for That

Shortly into our marriage, my husband and I learned that I was pregnant. We were thrilled, which actually felt quite strange. It was a road I had walked before, and yet this time I was excited.

A week later, I miscarried.

I didn't know how to process the pain of that loss. It was an experience eerily similar to the one I had chosen at 16, but this time it was completely out of my control. And the lies that still raged in my heart convinced me that it was fitting. Why wouldn't God take away the baby I finally wanted? I deserved that. It was time to pay for the sins of my past.

Sinful Woman

One of the most scandalous claims Jesus made while walking the earth was his ability to forgive sins. In one account, a prostitute interrupted Jesus dining with a Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Despite the woman's reputation and public shame, Jesus welcomed her acts of repentance and assured her, "Your sins are forgiven" (Luke 7:48). Onlookers were shocked: "Who is this, who even forgives sins?" (Luke 7:49) Luke recorded a similar question earlier: "Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Luke 5:21)

The people were right—God alone can forgive sins. But they were blind to a crucial truth—Jesus is the very Son of God. And with that authority he could make such an audacious claim to forgive sins.

But those watching knew that a holy, just God cannot simply forgive sins—they must be paid for. And they knew that God had instituted the means through which forgiveness was possible: the shedding of blood (Hebrews 9:22). So when Jesus granted this egregiously sinful woman forgiveness while giving no instructions or provisions for her atonement, the people were baffled.

Sin must be paid for, yes—but Jesus knew something the onlookers didn't: there would be blood. And it would be his.

In his book The Prodigal God, Tim Keller elaborates on this truth:

Jesus was stripped naked of his robe and dignity so that we could be clothed with a dignity and standing we don't deserve. On the cross Jesus was treated as an outcast so that we could be brought into God's family freely by grace. There Jesus drank the cup of eternal justice so that we might have the cup of the Father's joy. There was no other way for the heavenly Father to bring us in, except at the expense of our true elder brother.

Is It Enough?

The instinct to strive for self-atonement runs deeply in us all. Grace by faith alone is hard to accept and even harder to remember, especially when we're continually confronted by the sin that so easily entangles. And for those of us whose invisible scars are so often blinding, we are left asking, Is it enough? I know you paid for it, Lord, but do you see these scars? Don't I need to pay for it too?

I didn't know that question still dominated my heart. But I was working so hard to be a submissive wife, to be a good mom, to be a good Christian. I thought I understood grace, but I was still desperately trying to be good enough. God graciously used a miscarriage to level me. He confronted my scars head-on and then he lifted my eyes once again to see his Son—his very Son whose nail-scarred hands paid for my sin in full.

A mother doesn't need scars like mine to look to her performance to prove her worth and find acceptance. We are all desperate sinners standing before a holy God, and we are painfully aware that we do not measure up.

Sisters, we stand confidently before God because of Jesus, our great high priest, who "entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Hebrews 9:11-12). The precious blood of Christ has purchased our acceptance and approval. It is enough! Nothing—nothing!—can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). Regardless of the scars of our past—on our best days of mothering and on our worst—there is no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

Wounds That Heal

So many of us in the church bear invisible scars. And while over time they may fade into the background, they still bleed for some. They are a constant source of turmoil as we face haunting memories and fight to believe that there is enough redemption even for us.

Jesus has scars, too. We cannot work hard enough to make ours disappear, but we can rest from all our striving and remember this: by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

 
 

Aug

02

2013

Chris Castaldo|12:01 AM CT

The Remedy to Religious Guilt

Conversion means change. But when we're converted, we don't immediately appreciate the thoroughgoing nature of divine grace—that God works in and through us despite our shortcomings. So change can be slow and arduous, especially if you were raised in a religious tradition that strongly emphasizes the role of human merit.

About this experience, I can speak most specifically from my own background, which happens to be Roman Catholic. Like many who convert to Christ and begin worshiping in an evangelical Protestant context, I quickly realized the profound influence that the Catholic vision of salvation exerted upon my religious mind. For instance, perhaps the most common and spiritually injurious issue is the problem of religious guilt. It's a nagging fear that preoccupies the soul, a root of doubt that questions whether we are truly forgiven in Christ. In bed at night I would often wonder, Has my behavior been good enough to merit divine approval? Like Martin Luther who sought a gracious God, I never knew whether I had produced a sufficient amount of righteousness to be fully accepted.

Throughout his writings, Luther describes his struggle to please God with the German word Anfechtungen. The English language lacks an adequate translation. Sometimes it is rendered "temptation" or "challenge," but in Luther's experience Anfechtung included the existential torment of his soul and conscience. Perhaps it is best to let Luther describe it. About his days in the Catholic monastery, he writes:

I was a devout monk and wanted to force God to justify me because of my works and the severity of my life. I was a good monk, and kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, I would have gotten there as well. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I would have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other works. [1]

Psychology of Religious Guilt

The following anecdote is admittedly exaggerated, but the extremes can help us appreciate the deficiencies of certain views. Imagine: You are a Catholic having dinner at Spark's Steakhouse in New York on a Friday night. Since it's during the season of Lent, beef of any kind is prohibited. Your host insists that you have the steak tenderloin with mustard-cognac sauce, because it's the chef's specialty. What do you do?

At once, your conscience sends you into a tailspin. To consider eating meat on a Lenten Friday is a venial sin, and wanting to eat it is another one. You haven't opened the menu, and you've already committed two sins. Your waiter delivers your beverages and says that he will return in a moment for your order. In the meantime, you wonder, What if I ask for the steak? Would this constitute a venial or mortal sin? It all depends. If you think it's mortal, it may very well be. If you think it's venial, it could still be mortal.

By this point the waiter returns. He greets the host by name, looks at you, and with a genteel-sounding accent says, "May I suggest the steak tenderloin with mustard-cognac sauce?" You quickly decide that on this occasion at least, eating steak can't be more than a venial sin, and therefore respond, "I'll try it." Although you freely made this choice, you figure you can go to confession within 24 hours before the Saturday-evening Mass. But does a venial sin become mortal when it's freely chosen? That's the risk you're taking. What if you mistakenly thought it was Thursday instead of Friday? This would allow you to eat meat; but, unfortunately, forgetting it was a Friday of Lent might be a sin. How about if you remembered it was Friday after your second forkful? Is it a venial sin to continue eating? If you fain a stomachache and not finish it, would lying then be a sin? Within ten minutes you've committed so many sins that your visit to purgatory has been extended by 15 years.

Pandemic Problem

We understand, of course, that injurious forms of religious guilt are not limited to Catholics (although in my humble opinion, the Catholic Church is especially vulnerable to the problem). Misdirected guilt is a human problem that plagues every religious tradition, including Protestantism. In its most acute form, this guilt is not simply an incident; it is a lens through which we view the Christian faith. Over time, it can control our mental framework.

I was recently reading the humorous book Growing Up Catholic. Written by several Catholic authors, it contains a segment called "The Great Guilt Contest: The Catholics and the Jews." Maybe because I'm a Long Islander who grew up with a multitude of both, I resonate with the following excerpt. Regardless of where you're from, you'll find that it contains an insight concerning the problem of guilt:

In the contest for the Guilt Championship of the World, the undisputed co-champions are the Catholics and the Jews. Protestant work-ethic guilt, while a contender, just isn't in the same league. Although Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt may appear to be similar, they actually have very different origins. Jewish guilt is generally induced by the Jewish family after the violation of a cultural tradition, such as refusing to take home the extra chicken soup your mother made for you, or becoming a forest ranger instead of a doctor.

Catholic guilt may be related to family disapproval as well, but not in such an immediate sense. The root of all Catholic guilt is the knowledge that every sin committed—past, present, or future—adds to Jesus' suffering on the cross. Since virtually anything you do (or don't do) may be a sin, this is a very heavy burden to bear. It's bad enough that you have to pay for sins yourself, but making the Nicest Guy Ever take the rap also is just too awful.

Thus the two outstanding forms of guilt may be summed up as follows. The wayward Jew thinks, "What an awful thing to do to somebody." The Catholic sinner thinks, "What an awful person I am." [2]

When we feel awful about ourselves, our first inclination will be to hide from God. Like Adam and Even in the Garden, we sense our inadequacy seek to run from the divine presence. However, rather than fleeing, liberation comes when we turn directly toward God in repentance and faith.

Escaping the Trap

Victory over unhealthy guilt follows from understanding who we are in Christ. After several years of walking with Jesus, God used Galatians 2:20 to instill this lesson, particularly the words, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." Furthermore, a lesson from the ministry of Luther called the "dung hill" also allayed my troubled conscience. Maybe you'll find it helpful too.

Supposedly, Martin Luther was sitting down with some of his students beside a window when snow started to fall. Luther pointed to a pile of manure near his house and explained to students that on account of sin the moral condition of humans resembles the stinking pile of dung. Among the implications of this condition are guilt and condemnation before God.

Within the hour snow had fallen so steadily that the dung hill was completely covered. Luther paused from his lesson and once again pointed to the mound. He asked the students to tell him what they saw. Instead of manure the students described a powdery white hill. As the sunlight gleamed off the fresh snow, Luther stated, "That is how God sees us in his Son, Jesus Christ. While we remain full of sin, in Christ we are clothed with his perfect righteousness and therefore we are acceptable in God's sight."

Whenever I share this anecdote, I quickly point its flaws. Because God provides his Holy Spirit and accomplishes his work of sanctification in us, he makes us more than dung (feel free to say "amen"). This is where the analogy breaks down most obviously. But there's another part of the illustration that is not only accurate, it is also glorious. It is the "great exchange": namely, Christ takes our sin and gives us his righteousness. The idea is summarized nicely by the 16th-century English theologian Richard Hooker:

Such we are in the sight of God the Father, as is the very Son of God himself. Let it be counted folly or frenzy or fury or whatsoever. It is our wisdom and our comfort; we care for no knowledge in the world but this, that man has sinned and God has suffered; that God has made himself the sin of men, and that men are made the righteousness of God. [3]

Because our identity is founded in the resurrected Christ seated at God's right hand, God looks upon us as being clothed with the perfection of his Son. On this basis, we have the audacity to lift our eyes to heaven in the absence of guilt and know that we are accepted as sons and daughters of almighty God.


[1] Walther von Loewenich. Martin Luther: The Man and His Work. Trans. Lawrence E. Denef. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1982), 72.

[2] Mary Jane Frances Cavolina Meara, Jeffrey Allen Joseph Stone, Maureen Anne Teresa Kelly, and Richard Glen Michael Davis. Growing Up Catholic. (Garden City, New York: Dolphin Book, 1984), 123-124.

[3] Richard Hooker. 'Sermon on Habakkuk 1:4' (1585), in The Works of Richard Hooker, ed. John Keble, vol. III (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 5th ed. 1865), 490-91.

 
 

Jul

18

2013

Emily Belz|12:01 AM CT

From Mad Marxist to Compassionate Conservative

Marvin Olasky bicycled across the United States and took a freighter to the Soviet Union before he found Jesus. He was a registered member of the Communist Party who believed religion is the opiate of the masses, but he couldn't outrun the "hound of heaven."

Today Olasky is the editor in chief of WORLD magazine, a Christian news magazine founded in 1986 that now has about 400,000 readers. Olasky has worked in academia and served as an occasional adviser to former President George W. Bush. The New York Times referred to Olasky as the "godfather" of the "compassionate conservatism" concept that formed a central plank in Bush's campaign platform and his presidency.

Olasky was born in 1950 just outside of Boston, to Russian Jewish parents of modest means. He celebrated his bar mitzvah at 13 and informed his parents that he was an atheist at 14. The atheist went to Yale University (just as George W. Bush was graduating), where he eventually discovered and embraced Marxism.

Olasky put his worldview into action. He started a "worker-student alliance," naming a college janitor as an honorary Yale fellow. He sat for five days outside the Yale administration building fasting, in solidarity with a strike among the cafeteria workers. During this time Olasky also had his first foray into journalism. When he graduated in 1971, The Boston Globe offered him a full-time job, but he declined in favor of bicycling across the country with only a tent, sleeping bag, and one change of clothes.

"In my mind, flush with anti-American rhetoric, I was touring an empire on the eve of destruction," Olasky recalled in a series of autobiographical pieces he wrote for WORLD.

When he reached the other side of the country, he found a reporting job at an Oregon newspaper, The Bulletin. But he soon resigned in protest of the "capitalist press." He officially joined the Communist Party. He wrote in his political notebook at the time, "Around the world revolutionary societies are developing; what is holding them back is the power of the American empire." His views reached extremes:

People are always being killed by governments, one way or another. The point is, how many, and which ones, and why. . . . Some radicals take a soft-headed approach to revolution. They can't understand that [Communist Party] work is bad work which must be done, sin whose time has come. Communism may be sin, in its revolutionary power enthusiasm, but it is sin going somewhere.

The Communist Party wanted him to go to Moscow as a foreign correspondent, while building ties with Soviet officials—essentially, to be a Soviet agent. He boarded a freighter to the Soviet Union, playing chess with one of the crew members as they crossed the ocean. He took the Trans-Siberian railroad to Moscow.

When he finally arrived, he discovered what he now considers a divinely merciful communication mix-up. No one in Moscow knew why he was there, and the Soviet officials greeted him with blank stares. A week later Olasky headed back to the States where he decided he would work as a reporter at The Boston Globe again. His pieces focused on class struggles.

What if Lenin Was Wrong?

One afternoon in 1973 everything changed. He sat down to read Lenin's essay "Socialism and Religion." He suddenly asked himself, What if Lenin was wrong about God? "When I sat down in that chair at 3 p.m. I was an atheist and a Communist," Olasky recalled. "When I got up at 11 p.m. I was not." Through the night he wandered, calling out to a higher authority. Over the next few weeks he began reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Whittaker Chambers's Witness, and essays of ex-Communists in The God that Failed. He tore up his Communist Party membership card.

But he was still several years from professing faith. Olasky compares that period of his life to the experience of the main character in Walker Percy's classic novel The Moviegoer, who goes to the movies to escape pressing questions about existence. Olasky joined a film club and watched Westerns to escape. But the Westerns got into his heart, teaching him about moral absolutes.

During this time he met his wife, Susan, and proposed to her two weeks later. Together they looked through the yellow pages for a church in their new home in San Diego, where Olasky was teaching. They chose a Baptist church simply because they knew that Christians were supposed to be baptized. (Today the Olaskys are members of the Presbyterian Church in America.) The Olaskys still put off committing to faith, until an elderly deacon came one day to visit. Olasky remembered, in WORLD:

He and I sat outside in the fall southern California sunshine. A simple, kind man, he did not offer any intellectual razzamatazz. He held up a Bible and said, as best I recall, "You believe this stuff, don't you?" I mumbled, "Well, yeah, I do." He said, "Then you'd better join up." Irrefutable logic. My response—"Well, I guess I should"—may have set the record for the weakest proclamation of faith imaginable. Joyfully, Christ's deeds and words, not our own, are key.

The Olaskys' young faith—and their family—grew, and he eventually took a job as a speechwriter at the chemical giant DuPont. But he grew disenchanted with the corporate world, declined a promotion, and in 1983 left to take a journalism professorship at the University of Texas at Austin.

In Austin, Marvin and Susan—also a writer—helped plant a church and a Christian school. Susan started a crisis pregnancy center, convinced that the pro-life movement needed to offer more help to pregnant women. They were foster parents. A pregnant teenager moved into their home for [about a year], and she eventually married the baby's father. They had three biological children and adopted another child. In 1992, Olasky took up editing WORLD magazine.

Tragedy of Compassion

Olasky began writing what would become his most well-known book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, about how 19th-century Christian charities flourished, but with the growth of government services for the poor and suffering, Americans grew less compassionate. He argued that faith-based organizations, rooted in human relationships, provide more lasting help than government programs. As part of his research, for several days he wandered Washington, D. C., dressed as a homeless man to see how different organizations treated him.

In 1995, new-to-power U. S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich discovered The Tragedy of American Compassion, and he made it required reading for Republican members. "Our models are Alexis de Tocqueville and Marvin Olasky," Gingrich said in his first speech to the nation. "We are going to redefine compassion and take it back." Olasky's ideas helped craft welfare reform, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1996. An essentially shy and sometimes stiff man, Olasky became a Washington star, a special guest at expensive dinners. Arianna Huffington (then conservative) asked him to run a charity with her, the Center for Effective Compassion.

Back in Texas, an attempt to end government grants to a Christian substance abuse program prompted Olasky to write an editorial in The Wall Street Journal. The piece caught Texas Gov. George W. Bush's attention, and he called Olasky. The two connected over the role that faith-based organizations could play in helping those in need. Bush recalled the role faith played in his recovery from drinking. Eventually Bush made "compassionate conservatism" a part of his 2000 election plank, and as president he set up the first White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Under Bush the federal government expanded grants to faith-based organizations.

But Olasky didn't "play nicely in Washington sandboxes," in his words. Some press reports characterized him as an oddball evangelical and extreme. After all the political attention, he turned his focus to teaching, writing, and editing WORLD.

Now based in Asheville, North Carolina, at WORLD's headquarters, he teaches college journalism students the concept of "biblical objectivity." In his understanding, reporters look at the world not as blank slates but with their faith as a guide to understand and write truth. A favorite Olasky aphorism is, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the streets declare the sinfulness of man." He wants WORLD reporters to write about both glory and sin. Olasky always expresses intense awareness of his own story of sin and Christ's glory. Olasky, writing in 2008 soon after he had double-bypass surgery, said, "Christ changed my life a third of a century ago. Every year since then has been a gift. Thank you, Lord."

 
 

Jul

16

2013

Matt Smethurst|12:01 AM CT

Heart at Risk, Heart at Rest

Four years ago, Julie Manning drove to the hospital for a planned C-section. Doctors would discover an irregular heartbeat—not in her baby, but in her. Six weeks later, Julie's cardiologist explained that her heart was malfunctioning, that she may need a transplant, and that she wouldn't have another child. Julie lives at virtually constant risk for sudden cardiac death. "There are hundreds of times a day I'm reminded that my life is not my own, and that at any moment Jesus could take it," the wife and mother of two says. "But I trust that he is in control, and that includes every breath and every heartbeat."

Julie is convinced that suffering is a stewardship. "This story isn't about some girl who has a heart problem," she explains. "It's about how God is sanctifying and winning my soul for his name, and how he's turning one of his people to praise him despite circumstances of this life."

Watch the 9-minute film, pray for Julie, and praise God for giving her a steadying vision of his sovereign love and her ultimate home.

***************

The Storyframes Collective is a collaborative effort between The Gospel Coalition and the Austin Stone Church for the purpose of celebrating the extraordinary work of God in the lives of ordinary people. Through excellence in the art of storytelling (film, photojournalism, spoken word, and writing), this project aims to recount God's redemptive, transforming work in the lives of our brothers and sisters. In form, this website collects encouraging stories about God's grace. In function, we want these stories to inspire you to praise God.

As a collective, we hope that people from around the world will join us in collecting and telling the amazing stories of God's grace and the power of the gospel. We hope this project will increase your faith, encourage your spirit, and open your eyes to the extraordinary work of God every day in your life and in the lives of others around you.

While these stories differ in characters, formats, and locations, they share the same hero: God. Whether highlighting addiction recovery, healing, renewal, transformation, or any other form of good news, they testify to God's power and grace, made available to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

We hope you not only enjoy reading, hearing, and seeing these stories, but also take time to observe the stories of those around you. Tell others the story of what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ, and tell us your story—what God has done in you.

 
 

Jul

01

2013

Marcy Deck|12:01 AM CT

When a Church Loves a Woman

Saying goodbye is never easy, especially when it's a farewell to someone or something you love dearly. In my case, it was a whole church. For nearly two years, a body of 300 people, including two dedicated pastors and their wives, had loved me when I was broken, lonely, and not at all sure where God was leading me. 

When I started attending, the church was only a couple of years old. It was growing rapidly, and I knew the reasons why after my first visit. The pastor was heartfelt and engaging with the good news about Jesus Christ; the congregation was warm and welcoming; the music was lively and full of the Lord's presence. But the thing I noticed most could not be seen. This church didn't have its own building or even the comforts you take for granted in many other churches. But this place had a heart I could feel from the moment I walked through the door.

The heart of the church comes through in its mission: "we are passionate about coming together to meet a Jesus who is radically committed to loving broken people, and who then equips us to share in the privilege of mending our broken world with him."

A privilege? Growing up in a different kind of church, I never thought of worshiping or serving as a privilege. But here, that's exactly what it was—a responsibility they took very seriously.

The Privilege of Truth

No one comes into church perfect and polished, deserving of God's love. Indeed, I was far from it. I was in a sinful relationship, my work was my idol, and I frequently put myself and my comforts above others.

The church saw my discretions, and neither did they ignore them or punish me for them. Instead, they loved me well until I saw the error of my ways. They invited me in. They gave me resources. They spoke truth when I needed to hear it. They were there to help pick up the pieces when I had to deal with the consequences of my actions.

Essentially, they loved me in ways the world doesn't know how to love. Love can be costly when we put ourselves on the line to speak truth to one another. But love does the right thing even if it may offend. I celebrate the power of God in loving me through the body of Christ, with a love full of grace when I needed it most. 

The Privilege of Pursuit

I was also granted the privilege of being pursued to serve other women in the church. I saw in action what Jen Wilkin commended in her recent article "The Complementarian Woman: Permitted or Pursued." She writes, "The challenge for any pastor would be to consider whether he is crafting a church culture that permits women to serve or one that pursues women to serve. Because a culture of permission will not ensure complementarity functions as it should."

In a healthy church, women feel comfortable stepping up to fill the inevitable gaps. By being asked to start a women's ministry group and being encouraged to start a small group for women in transition, I was, in turn, able to pursue the women of the church in meaningful ways.

The Privilege of Community

As Paul writes, in Romans 12:5, "So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." This church was a model of this verse in action. From the welcome card that gives the option to have coffee with the pastor, to the annual family retreat, community was built into the church's DNA. 

It emanated from the staff—from the pastors and their wives. They made an effort to get to know everyone in the church personally, even as it grew. Meals and events at their homes are among my fondest memories of church community.

Letting Go

While I certainly didn't want to leave the best church I had ever known, the Lord had a different path for me. I struggled with the thought of finding a new church home. After all, experiencing something so wonderful is both a blessing and also a curse when it's hard to replace.

My church family kept loving me well as I prepared for the next phase of my life. While my small group family gathered around me in prayer at my farewell gathering, one of the pastors shared a piece of advice I will not soon forget: "Don't look for a church that's exactly like this one because you won't find it. Instead, bring this church wherever you go."

He knew something I need to remember if I will ever be content with a new church experience. Instead of looking for what the church could offer me, I need to look for a church I could serve in the ways of love I learned through my last church. 

While I will miss a lot of things—the coffee breaks during service to connect with friends, the personal communion messages delivered by the pastors to each person in the congregation, my small group and fellowship with women I had grown to love—I will forever cherish this experience and seek to bring that gift to others wherever I'm going next.

Thank you, All Souls Community Church in Rockland County, New York, for loving me as Jesus commands. May many more souls like mine—broken and in need of God's grace—find your doorstep so that they may experience love in Christ beyond anything they can imagine.