Guilt, Freedom and the Power of the Gospel

I love nature and I love books. Probably the best possible combination of these two delights are those rare opportunities when I get to stretch out under a tree or by a stream somewhere soaking up the sounds and smells of a green forest while reading a challenging book. I can remember reading Living Stones of the Himalayas while deer hunting November, 2003. Although the forest was more grey than green, and although I had to periodically move my feet to keep them from freezing, it was a great experience. I was transported in my mind to Nepal, and participated in many a harrowing operation, guided by the author, Thomas Hale. It was perhaps also why two cousins and an uncle shot 8-point bucks that day, and I didn’t even see a deer.

There is a problem I’ve always encountered, however, with reading a challenging book in a very relaxed, unchallenging atmosphere of comfort and tranquility. I am always so stirred by what I read, always so compelled to emulate the commitment and faith reflected on the pages of such books, that I almost invariably begin to feel guilty. Living a deliberately comfortable life becomes suffocating to me, almost sinful. How can I have so much and others so pitifully little? How can I live in unquestioned safety when others are in harms’ way? How can I listen to another CD when most of the world has never even had an opportunity to know what true peace is?

Coming home on the subway two days ago I did something that I have never done before. I listed to my portable MP3 player; I listened to songs by Jeremy Camp and Casting Crowns for 12 subways stops, as people jostled past me. And I felt a little guilty doing it. Why? Because it seems to me that such music, so close to the eardrums, music that so thoroughly drowns out the harsh reality of a subway ride, is almost like a drug. My world is reduced to my own thoughts, as catchy rhythms erase everything else.

Believe me, I am not a person who is primarily motivated by guilt. Freedom, in fact, has become almost a theme of my life in recent years. True freedom. Freedom that comes from a firm confidence in that I am loved by God and that His Spirit lives in me. A spiritual freedom that gives me joy. It’s a fun, invigorating way to live. Work hard, play hard. Emphasize faith and risk. Live with the conviction that God is going to do something. Hopefully the guilt that continues to plaque me periodically is the kind that can bear the fruit of righteousness instead of the fruit of condemnation. If God’s own Son was not sent into the world to condemn the world, and if there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, then I don’t want condemnation to be a priority for me. What a horrible way to live the Christian life. I’ve seen that perspective lived out. It does not inspire love or foster courage.

I do not want to be drugged. To a certain extent, as much possible, I want to enter into human reality, with my eyes fully open and my ears fully attentive. To an extent, I need to live what millions of people live every day. I need to enter into that world, that desperately routine drudgery of many, many people’s lives. I feel this way because I think that this may help me to be humble, and may help me to identify with them. A shepherd needs to understand the sheep. The shepherd is a sheep.

It is easy for me to lose sight of the lost sheep that, by God’s grace, I have been called to reach. It is quite easy, for that matter, for me to lose sight of the daily lives of those who have come to faith in Christ. Salvation doesn’t automatically make a stuffy, claustrophobic subway cool and full of divine space. Life goes on. It has been my experience that such a commitment to Jesus invariably makes life more difficult, not easier.

A couple of nights ago I arrived at Luz’s house on my way to a study with her son, Trinidad, but Luz wanted to talk to me first. She invited me to sit down and began to pour out her heart. Trinidad and Alejandro have been accused of auto theft, and for several years, a pending warrant for their arrest existed against both brothers. About two months ago, the police raided both brothers’ homes. Trinidad wasn’t home. Alejandro was. Alejandro has spent the last two months in prison. Trinidad has spent the last two months in a self-imposed house arrest. He has literally been confined to his house for fear that if he ventures too far he will be spotted by the police and taken to jail. This has resulted in incredible faithfulness in his weekly studies. We arrive at his house, he unlocks the gate and retreats to his house, my co-worker David opens the gate and I drive the van in. He has been, literally, a captive audience.

In Mexico, the justice system pretty much operates on the principle “guilty until proven innocent.” I really do not know if the brothers accused are guilty or not, but to hear their side of the story it would certainly appear that they are not. They replaced some auto glass in a car that was apparently stolen. They did not know this. This happened some 5-7 years ago. They have been living in fear to one degree or another ever since.

Luz, the two boys’ mother, has been visiting her son in prison 3-5 times a week since he entered jail. But this past week, she received a tongue-lashing from her increasingly desperate son. “You aren’t doing anything to help get me out of here.” “You and my father are full of promises, nothing else.” “Why do I have to be locked up while everyone else enjoys their freedom.” “I’m going to lose my business and my family and you don’t care a bit.”

Luz, in tears now, related how after visiting her son in jail she goes back to the car and prays. Luz still uses the more Catholic team “rezar” instead of the Christian term “orar,” but I haven’t tried to correct her…so much better to do what is right and not care so much about what its called. She said that sometimes when she prays, Alejandro’s wife, Mónica, will look at her and laugh, with a smirk on her face that mocks. Luz told me that Mónica has a saint in her house, but not a common saint, but rather La Santa Muerte, a figure of a skeleton with a grinning skull and a sickle in its hand. Holy Death. She worships Mexico’s newest saint…as a growing group of people do. Worshipping death. Worshipping the enemy.

This evening 10 people attended the cell group in Los Héroes. This cell group did not exist at the beginning of the year, and grew in part out of a children’s club that a group from Texas helped us to do the first week in January. Yolanda was there, with her granddaughter Ellie. She trusted Christ the week after the club. Rebecca was there, who trusted Christ in December. The study was on the importance of Bible reading, and was going along smoothly until someone asked the question about whether it was acceptable to go to a Catholic church when invited. Most such events would be family activities, such as a girl’s 15-year birthday party, called her quinceaños, or perhaps a wedding or a baby baptism.

It was so interesting to hear the opinions of these young believers. It was finally determined that it was fine to attend such an event as an expression of support and love to a family member, provided one did not pray to the Virgin or any of the other images. It was very similar to the conversation that took place this morning, at another cell group. One of the neighbors related to Elena, one of the believers here, that she was glad that our church openly invited people of other faiths to attend our events. I was prompted to share that God had been talking to me about inviting a couple young gentlemen in ties, white shirts and pressed pants to spend some time with the group of U.S. students coming down this summer. Our neighborhood Mormon boys would probably enjoy speaking English with a group of their peers. I will kindly ask them not to wear white shirts with a tie. They will probably thank me for that request.

I hate what the Mormons are doing here. I equally despise what the Jehovah’s Witnesses are doing to confuse and damn many people here. Both groups are phenomenally aggressive and quite visible. Nevertheless, I ask myself what Jesus would do. He would certainly condemn what they are doing, making their converts into twice the sons of hell as they are. But I think he would also reach out to them, recognizing their need, identifying with their commitment, and creating in them a desire for something that could truly, permanently, meet their spiritual need.

The power of the gospel dwarfs all other powers. Grace, God’s unmerited favor, is Christianity’s unique answer to the desperate condition of the human race. The answer the cross gives is a unique answer. God became man to take our place and pay the eternal price for our disobedience. We are all Barrabas. The divine power contained in the gospel is far greater than Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Mormonism or Humanism. No condemnation. None. I am free. God has cut the chains from my heart.

The gospel is powerful stuff. Do I believe that, really?

R.F. April 29, 2006

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