No Escape

“Therefore, any one of you who judges is without excuse. For when you judge another, you condemn yourself, since you, the judge, do the same things. We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is based on the truth. Do you really think — anyone of you who judges those who do such things yet do the same — that you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your hardness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment is revealed. He will repay each one according to his works: eternal life to those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor, and immortality; but wrath and indignation to those who are self-seeking and disobey the truth but are obeying unrighteousness; affliction and distress for every human being who does evil, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek; but glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does what is good, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek. There is no favoritism with God.” (Romans 2:1-11 HCSB)

Quick, what’s the solution to this complicated puzzle that unlocks the key to next clue? Is it left, left, right, left, right or left, right, right, left, left, right? Do I push the green button (seems too obvious) or the red button (it’s never the red button)? Sound familiar? A recent cultural trend in America is to participate in “escape” scenarios to get out of a locked room in a specified period of time. You get your smart and clever friends together and see if you can figure out the puzzles that unlock the room in less then 30 minutes, or so. In fact, we recently bought a home version of this same type of game to use for a Youth party in our home or at summer camp. Sounds like a fun time and can be adapted and used over and over, again. Have you participated in one of these games or escape rooms? If so, did it challenge you and leave you wondering if you would be stuck forever in that locked room? Thank goodness for panic buttons, safety nets and timers that automatically unlock the door when you fail to figure out the clues in the allotted time.

In some ways, our lives mirror this concept of the “escape room.” We often feel trapped in some aspect of life while trying to figure out the key to unlocking the door to happiness, contentment and purpose. We often think that the next job, next achievement, our next promotion, next purchase, or the next relationship will be the key to unlocking those things we feel are missing from our lives. If we aren’t looking for the next fix to our broken lives then we are often blaming our broken lives on someone else. It might be your spouse/ex-spouse, your boss or, more likely, your former boss, a grumpy old neighbor, your constantly nagging mother-in-law or maybe even your children who are holding you back from great achievements in your life. Maybe you’ve thought, “If I can just figure this out then everything will be alright and I’ll get past this hard time I’ve been struggling through.” Really, hasn’t this year felt a bit like an escape room adventure, so far? Have you wanted to look up at the heavens and scream, “Why don’t you just kick me again when I’m already down! What else can possibly be added to an already CRAZY year? A super volcano? An enormous asteroid on a crash course with earth? Enough already!”

Now, I go an pick a passage from the Bible for us to study together that can be viewed as one of the darkest, most negative and condemning passages in scripture and we spend multiple weeks talking about God’s wrath on man’s sin. Sheesh. Let’s get to the positive verses and skip also this negative stuff. Who needs and wants to talk about sin, right? I do understand, believe me, but to fully understand and appreciate the incredible love and grace of God, we must have a firm grasp on the sinfulness of man and, more specifically, a clear understanding and accurate view of our own sin. You see, sin is one of those things we love to point out in the lives of others while completely ignoring its grip and impact on our own lives. It might be the source of everyone else’s problems, but it isn’t mine. I’m a really good guy. My brother-in-law? Not so much. My former boss? Not a chance.

Last week, we focused in on how those who are searching for meaning and purpose in life through their sexual/gender identity, whether heterosexual, transsexual or homosexual, and are out of touch with God but are not out of His reach through the Gospel of Christ. This week, we will focus in on Paul’s words regarding those who might look to condemn such a lifestyle while completely ignoring their own sin and condemnation before a Holy God. It is not uncommon today to hear the words, “Hey, don’t judge me.” Those words are often stated by non-believers and are intentionally aimed at believers. In some ways, their words are on target and actually align with Paul’s intentions in this passage. That last statement may surprise you, a bit. Go back and read it, again. Now, let’s take a look…

Being judgmental is a charge that is often targeted at the church and, in some ways, we really deserve it. Before I get too deep into this and lose some of you whose personal defenses are already rising, let me define the terms: JUDGING and being JUDGMENTAL. To start with, to judge is to be able to determine right from wrong or the truth, moral value or rightness of something. This capacity is a part of the human soul and is closely tied to our ability to think and reason. To live we must be capable of judging whether something is good or bad, right or wrong. Our human survival depends on this and is an innate ability that God has given us to consider whether our thoughts, feelings or actions are good or bad, right or wrong. We often call this our conscience, but it is so much more than what most tend to realize. It is truly the Spirit of God at work in our hearts and lives. The problem comes when we no longer trust God’s definition of morally good, bad, right or wrong and we venture off on our own and begin defining right and wrong based on our feeling or desires.

One question we need to ask ourselves is whether our consciences can be shaped and altered by external influences? Absolutely. We see this in so many examples, but the most obvious is how Hitler and his Nazi culture shaped German thought and action in the years leading up to World War II. In many ways, good people lost the ability to rightly judge truth from error, right from wrong. But even with those radical influences, they knew deep down inside that what they were doing was wrong but they continued acting in ways contrary to their conscience and, eventually, their consciences were silenced. We often call this, “searing the conscience.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever had a really bad burn but it is possible to be burned so deeply that your nerves are destroyed and you lose the ability to feel pain in that spot. The burn has so “seared” you that you lose the ability to feel pain and, thus, can become subject to physical damage due to the loss of feeling. When our conscience or feelings are so deeply and consistently burned by external influences and culture that we lose the ability to distinguish right from wrong, then our conscience has become seared and we are subject to spiritual damage. This “searing” of one’s conscience can happen to believers or non-believers and I want to address those separately.

When this searing of our conscience happens before we know and have relationship with God through Jesus, it can actually prevent that relationship from developing. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I’m NOT saying that someone with a seared conscience can’t know and relate to God. God is ALWAYS available to and capable of touching those who are open to His love, grace and mercy. As Luke reminds us, if God can make the old, barren womb of Elizabeth bear a child (John the Baptist) then “nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37 HCSB) But those whose consciences are seared or have a hard and calloused heart tend to be closed off to God’s love, grace and mercy and that tends to silence the desire to know and relate to God. Often, God must use a traumatic or difficult experience in their lives to break through their indifference. If those words describe you, I want to encourage you to be open to God’s love, desire God’s grace and mercy. If you will, He can transform your heart. If you know someone like this, don’t give up on them. Keep praying for them and pray specifically that they be open to God and that His love bring transformation to their hearts and, thus, their conscience.

So, judging is the ability to know, distinguish and to choose between what is good, bad, morally right or wrong in any given situation. But our ability to know and choose what is right and aligned with God’s will and purpose can be altered and influenced by our previous choices, our environment or culture, and can even by the influenced of others. However, that doesn’t remove our personal responsibility for those choices. Deep down, God’s Spirit is still poking, prodding and trying to direct us towards what He has placed in our hearts. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts. Their consciences confirm this. Their competing thoughts will either accuse or excuse them” (Romans 2:15 HCSB)

Next, I want to define JUDGMENTALISM, talk about the seared conscience of believers and get to the heart of Paul’s point in our focal passage. Judgmentalism is the attitude of someone who HAS experienced God’s love, grace and mercy (a believer) but loses sight of their own sinfulness and begins to see God’s judgment as something others deserve. Up to this point, Paul has really been focused on the sinfulness of the world and, especially, those who deny the God of Israel. Now, he unloads his full fury on those religious folks who are sitting back with smug, self-righteous grins on their faces. While Paul’s words are primarily aimed at the smug, self-righteous Jews in Rome, they are certainly not limited to them. There are plenty of smug, self-righteous Christians today who need to hear Paul’s words. Some of them might be reading this, right now. Now, before you get to rankled and begin to think Paul a heretic for such a crazy idea you ought to hear and really listen to Jesus’ own condemnation of the same attitude…

“Do not judge, so that you won’t be judged. For with the judgment you use, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a log in your eye?” (Matthew 7:1-4 HCSB)

Jesus isn’t condemning someone’s ability to “judge” or determine what is right or wrong in life but He is clearly condemning their hypocritical and judgmental attitudes towards others. They ignore their own egregious sin (log in their own eye) while condemning someone else’s incidental sin (speck in their brother’s eye). This is really Paul’s focus in Romans 1-2 and we often overlook that. In chapter 1 he clearly established God’s authority as creator and man’s responsibility towards God. He then drew attention to some of the common sins of his culture and, specifically, their tendency towards idolatry, sensuality and self-worship. He then closes his logic trap, as he opens chapter 2, by drawing these smug, self-righteous Jews into the net with their nodding heads, whispered agreements, and judgmental attitudes. Surprise! He has done the same to us and that’s really my point in this post.

It has been really tempting and quite easy over the past several weeks as we talked about sexual sin, gender identity, homosexuality and idolatry to sit back and point our fingers at those who are guilty of such things. But, as I pointed out last week, when that accusatory finger is pointing at others and their apparent sins we often fail to notice the three fingers that are pointing back at ourself and our own sins. We readily see the sins and failings of others and love to heap scripture upon scripture about the ways and means that God will judge and condemn their actions while failing to see our own sin and ignoring that we are guilty of the very same things.

For example, many American Christians become enraged over the idea of social and religious equity for Muslims in the United States while we completely ignore the fact that our personal rights and needs have taken precedence over God’s commands to love Him and to love others. We cry out, “Sharia law, never! Not in these United States. Not while I have a breath left in my body. In God we Trust. We’re a Christian nation!” But when we’re called on to love one another in a selfless way or pray for our enemies, we sure don’t seem to want God’s law to rule in our lives or in America. “Pray for our enemies, ha! I’ll pray God’s hell fire and condemnation on them. That’s what I’ll pray for them!” Is that the extent of our hypocrisy? Not a chance. That’s just one example.

I want to end by pointing you towards one more biblical example of this same judgmental attitude. In Luke 15:11-32, Jesus tells the story of a father and his two sons – the parable of the Prodigal Son. We often focus on the failings of the first and the father’s loving forgiveness and we see this as a wonderful example of God’s love towards sinners. Those are certainly admirable and noteworthy aspects of the story, but they aren’t really the focus. The focus of the story is really on the older son, the one who stayed home. After the younger son wastes his money and comes home just hoping to be a servant in his father’s house and the father forgives and restores him to the family, the older son refuses to join the celebration and rejoice in his brother’s restoration. Instead, he adamantly refuses to come in and, in essence, condemns his father’s actions even as he cites his own self-righteousness and his father’s inequity and unfairness. In essence he says, “I can’t believe you forgave him after all he’s done. I’m nothing like him and I’ve always obeyed and honored you…” even as he stands there disobeying, disrespecting and dishonoring his father. If you’re not catching the point, go back and read that last statement. The older son is declaring his self-righteousness and obedience even as he disobeys, disrespects and condemns his father’s righteous actions. THAT is the point of the story and that’s what we are often guilty of doing… I deserve your love, he doesn’t.

I want to be very clear here, please read this carefully. American Christians often lament the current state of the church and American culture, but we do so in ways that are self-condemning. The current (and future) state of affairs in the American church is NOT because of who we have or have not elected to the Presidency, to serve in Congress or appointed to the Supreme Court. It is ONLY due to the current spiritual state of American Christians! As long as we sit back and point our proverbial finger at our neighbors, our culture, our legislators, our President, our Supreme Court Justices or anything else as the cause for our spiritual impotency, we will NEVER begin to see the church energized, empowered, emboldened and transformed by the Spirit of God. Without change, will never see it impact our culture with the truth and power of the Gospel. As long as we stand on the fringe of our culture’s challenges and ignore or minimize the pain they are feeling, we will never see the power of God flow through us to bring healing and wholeness to their lives. God is capable of reaching our culture with the Gospel, but as long as we continue on the path we are taking His work at reaching our culture won’t be through us.

Regardless of your views on the issues our culture currently faces, ultimately, the primary issue is human sin our own self-righteousness. Paul’s lament is that we cannot find healing and wholeness in our own lives until we are willing to confess our own sin, the church’s failures and our part in our culture’s struggles. If we stand back and, like the older brother in the Prodigal story, refuse to participate in the celebration of God’s grace upon our repentant brother’s sin then we question our Father’s love, goodness and righteousness and stand condemned by our own disobedience. You may wonder how the church can possibly be compared to this unforgiving, unrepentant and merciless brother but our focus is NOT on our Father’s grace towards our lost brothers but is on our own needs, desires and personal achievements.

Yet, God is at work in places that would likely shock you. We seem to think that God can only work in places, like America, where we are free to worship according to our desires and conscience. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is a revival occurring in the Middle East, in Muslim countries where Sharia law is the law of the land. Am I suggesting we enact Sharia law? No, God forbid. However, I am suggesting that it is not the slightest hindrance to the power and grace of Almighty God in bringing salvation to those who earnestly seek Him.

So, what’s my point? The power, work and movement of God is NOT hindered in America by extending religious freedoms to our Muslim neighbors, or kindness and love to our Black, Bi-racial, Hispanic, or non-English speaking migrant neighbors. It is isn’t hindered when we love, befriend and really care about our Homosexual or Transgender neighbors but it IS hindered when the people of God fail to obey God by loving Him more than our own lives and loving others like we love ourselves. It is hindered when we refuse obedience to God’s Word or when we’d rather seek personal financial gain ahead of or instead of God’s glory and honor. It is hindered when the church would rather seek her own glory, exert her own power and extend her own kingdom instead of seeking His glory, trusting in His power and seeking His kingdom in our own lives.

Paul says that there’s no escape from God’s wrath when we ignore our own sin and yet condemn the same in the lives of others. It is as if God is recording our own words and will simply replay them at the judgment. Our own words will condemn us. My prayer for you, for me and for Christ’s church is that we would clearly see, tearfully repent and confess our personal and corporate sin and seek God’s grace, forgiveness and personal obedience. It is arrogant, foolish and spiritually damning to do anything less.

To be painfully honest and brutally blunt, you may be smart, clever and able to solve the most complex puzzles but THIS is one locked room you won’t escape without God’s help, without God’s grace and mercy. There’s no escape but there is hope and life in Christ’s love and grace.

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