13 December 2012

Notes from God

by Dan Phillips

When I was a child, I had a pretty prodigious case of asthma. During the days when doctors made house calls, my parents would have to call the doctor occasionally to come and give blue-lipped gasping young me a shot of adrenalin to open up my lungs, so I could breathe again.

So later on in school I had a note from Mom, excusing me from physical activities such as track and the like. Running meant wheezing, and that wasn't good. So that note from Mom meant I didn't have to do what all the other kids had to do. Them, yes. Me, no.

That was a real note, a literal note, for a real reason. I didn't write it; my mother did. Behind her was the doctor. It had oomph. It was legit.

Throughout the 400 or so years of my Christian life, I have been astonished over and over at how many Christians imagine they have "a note from God." Unlike my mother's note, it isn't visible, it isn't readable by others, and it won't stand inspection. The oomph it has is supplied by their own imagination, and a complex series of accompanying diversions and rationalizations.

This phantom note excuses them from having to do what every other Christian in every other age and every other location on the globe (other than their little 2X2 spot) has been morally obliged to do.

Them, perhaps. Me, no. I have this note.

Such notes, and usually for such transparently flimsy reasons!

Here is a representative, non-exhaustive list:
  • Scripture says that God calls me to involve myself in a local church, but I'm excused because no church leaders measure up to Biblical standards.
  • Scripture says that God calls me to involve myself in a local church, but I'm excused because I haven't found a church that _____ (insert non-essential requirement of perfect adherence to personal demands).
  • Scripture says that God calls me to involve myself in a local church, but I'm excused because ______ (insert sad story of bad past experience).
  • Scripture calls me to love my wife as Christ loved the church, to nourish and cherish her, to assign her honor and live with her in an understanding way, but I am excused because she _____ (insert non-divorce-warranting litany of complaints here).
  • Scripture calls me to subordinate myself to my husband in all respects as the church subordinates itself to Christ, to help him and respect him from my very heart, to win him by godly and respectful behavior and not a barrage of verbal abuse, but I am excused because he _____ (insert non-divorce-warranting litany of complaints here).
  • Scripture calls me never ever even to think of abuse, threats, or divorce as marital aids or ways to resolve marital conflict,* but I am excused because _____ (that isn't my calling / I wouldn't be lauded as being nuanced and helpful and thoughtful / the Club will rescind my membership).
  • Scripture calls me to honor my father and mother and make them glad I'm their child and not ashamed, but I am excused because they _____ (insert irrelevant personal issue here).
  • Scripture calls me to devote myself to giving and serving in a local church that puts the preaching and doing of Christ's Word central, rather than shopping churches as if they were my personal Walmarts, stressing my convenience and my comfort-level and my desire to be served and coddled rather than called to serve and love, but I am excused because ______ (rationalization; or "my wife ___").
  • Scripture calls me to study and learn and grow in my understanding of the word of God, but I am excused because it's hard / I can't concentrate / I'm just not a student (which = "I'm just not a Christian").
  • Scripture calls me as a pastor to put the Gospel and the preaching of the whole counsel of God, including both the positive ministry of exhortation and the negative ministry of rebuking error, and to do it heartily, boldly, and without compromise wherever I go, but I am excused because _____ (that isn't my calling / I wouldn't be lauded as being nuanced and helpful and thoughtful / the Club will rescind my membership).
  • Scripture calls me as a pastor to warn the folks in my congregation against serious sin and error regardless of how they will respond to me, but I am excused because _____ (it'd split the church / I'd lose too many members / that isn't my ministry).
  • Scripture calls me to own and repent of the sin isolated and nailed by one or more of the previous bullet-points, no matter what anyone else does or does not do, but ____ (insert rationalization that will not stand up to the Judgment Seat of Christ here).
To make any personal use of the list, we must understand an axiom of human nature. It is the characteristic of each note-holder is that he will insist that his note is legitimate. He really does have a note from God, excusing him. He is the exception. Anyone not convinced by his rationalization "just doesn't understand," or worse.

But such note-holders need to remember: every unrepentant sinner is convinced that his sin is different. (See #15 here.) No exceptions. It's axiomatic.

Every one of us sinners insists that what we're doing is right — until we repent of it. So the person who refuses to get involved in a local church, refuses to treat his/her spouse as Christ commands, commits rape or murder or theft, refuses to love/respect his/her spouse, indulges homosexual desires, gossips, gripes, mopes as if he had no grounds for hope — they're all the same; and they're all the same in that each imagines he's different.

Repentance changes all that. Repentance puts God's finger on me, stops me dead, isolates me from everything, changes the issue to God and His Word and me, shatters all pretenses, and requires death and resurrection.

See, we tend to forget that the Gospel is radical and transformative. We tend to forget: when Jesus calls us to Himself, He calls us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. To deny myself is radical and transformative. It is to unseat myself as lord. To take up my cross is radical and transformative. It is to die to that life of rationalizations and excuses designed to cushion the pursuit of my own wants, needs and desires. To follow Jesus is radical and transformative. It calls on me to take my internal Canaan, city by city, and subject all of it to the Lordship of Jesus.

And we'll never make headway in any of that until we learn to shred every last one of our imagined "notes from God." 

* Note that this is carefully worded. I am not speaking of those areas where God does expressly permit divorce as an option — and, even then, not a requirement.

Dan Phillips's signature


37 comments:

R.C. said...

Excellent. I found that my note, at least over the past few years, read something like this- My son is being lead through a hard providence. Please excuse him from speaking graciously to his children, interacting with strangers, focussing on the needs of others. I'm sure you understand. Sincerely, God.
Hardship sure can breed selfishness. Thank you again.

DJP said...

Thanks for the gracious, encouraging words, R. C.

Kerry James Allen said...

This reminded me of my sinful past (pre-conversion) in high school. I'd ditch school, the next day my home room teacher would ask for a note, and I would write the note from "mom" right in front of him, sign it, and he would accept it! Blatant? You bet! And I've written dozens more right in front of an all-seeing God! Blatant to the extreme!

The note I now need says "Father, forgive this prodigal of his note-writing and cleanse him in My blood for his excuse making."

"Thou God seest me!" Genesis 16:13

DJP said...

One-star hater feels his note from God is an exception to the post. As do all note-holders.

Rob Steele said...

God, I thank you that I am like other men ...

Robert said...

Dan,

I'd add on to the people who say that they are not students that they can even fall into the trap of saying "God hasn't called me to be a student" or "that isn't what I'm called to do". Or maybe that is just the way they double down on the note they've made.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to take some notes of my own over to the shredder...thanks for the prompt reminder!

Magister Stevenson said...

Or maybe the note from God was to give this post one star?

Sharon said...

but I am excused because ______ (rationalization; or "my wife ___").

Sadly, we have lost several of our faithful church musicians to "milk" churches because their wives thought our pastor was too "biblical" and didn't tell enough jokes and stories. Makes one wonder who truly is the head of that family!

rockstarkp said...

I wish your writings would be put into a daily devotional. Maybe in an App form. So good, challenging, and biblical. Thank you!

Jules said...

Checked the signature on my note...it was my own.

DJP said...

Sharon, I've learned this over the years.

When I talk to a husband who, after a question or two, is absolutely unable to explain why "he has decided" to bail on a Bible-teaching-and-practicing church, it means one thing: I'm not talking to the decision-maker.

DJP said...

Oh, rockstar, if my stuff were any good, all the famous bloggers would be linking and tweeting and interacting and doing interviews and stuff. And if they somehow missed it, their readers would be pointing it out to them.

No point in publishing what would be ignored and buried, right?

But thanks, sincerely.

Robert said...

Could a note be added about holding up bitter feelings instead of accepting correction? Like from said famous bloggers/groups/coalitions that refuse to intreact with Christians who offer sound, bllical criticism of their actions?

donsands said...

Good work brother. Thanks for labor you put in the Word.

"...changes the issue to God and His Word and me,..."

When I run into a brother, or sister who has a "note", and this person's emotions are in 110% control of his, or her, heart and soul, then I go to the Word, with compassion, and understanding, that I'm no different.

And sometimes it does bring this live-wire of a brother, who is saying, "YOU, HAVE, NO, IDEA!", back down to earth.
Other times the Word of God doesn't hold truew to this particular situation, as you have taught us here Dan.
When that happens, then I leave, and pray.

Have a terrific day in our Savior's love and kindness.

Kerry James Allen said...

On Sharon and DJP earlier, and at the risk of being called a misogynist, I quote a pastor friend: "Women leave churches. Men follow them."

After 19 years of pastoring the same church, I'd say that is mostly true, and I've seen that "note" many times before. And the note almost never contains Scripture.

Michael Coughlin said...

Underlying all this is a phenomenon so sad. I'm sure we've all been note holders and we each probably hold a couple now ... but when your life is affected by the note holders oh how difficult that can be.

Like what Robert posted "Could a note be added about holding up bitter feelings instead of accepting correction?"

I am suffering from someone else's note of this nature now.

And this one "When I run into a brother, or sister who has a "note", and this person's emotions are in 110% control of his, or her, heart and soul, then I go to the Word, with compassion, and understanding ... "

Oh how sad it is when the Word of God is rejected!

This is such a great post, Dan, and as Frank would say, "The people who need this most probably arent' reading this blog."

I hope someday they will.

DJP said...

Yep, Kerry. There are lots of cave-men. By which I mean "men who cave."

In those (and not all) situations, Wifey emotionally vents a torrent on Hubby, and he meekly goes to "explain" why they're doing what he knows there's no good reason to do. The clue is his case collapses under a judicious question or thought, or two. But he does it gamely, just to keep peace at home.

Which never really works.

And thus, in giving his wife what she wants, he denies her what she needs. Obeying her, rather than helping her face and learn something important, he fails her. God isn't well-served, and neither party really is made happy in a godly way. Sad all around.

DJP said...

Michael, maybe they just need someone nicely to point out what they're missing.

Michael Coughlin said...

And thus, in giving his wife what she wants, he denies her what she needs. Obeying her, rather than helping her face and learn something important, he fails her. God isn't well-served, and neither party really is made happy in a godly way. Sad all around.

amen.

Michael Coughlin said...

Michael, maybe they just need someone nicely to point out what they're missing.

Not sure to what you are referring; my previous comment was too long.

DJP said...

Michael, referring to:

"The people who need this most probably arent' reading this blog."

I hope someday they will.

trogdor said...

What's especially dangerous is holding onto our notes so long, we start to think that they're scripture. Or at the very least we start reading scripture in light of our notes - the text says this, but it can't really mean that.

It's actually refreshing to work with people who disobey scripture because they just don't know any better. At least they can be taught!

Solameanie said...

There's a story (maybe apocryphal, maybe not) about W.C. Fields on his deathbed being caught reading a Bible. He was supposedly vocal on his unbelief, but when the friend caught him reading the Bible and asked W.C. why, he is said to have replied, "Looking for loopholes."

If I have learned anything over 52 years, the majority of that being as a believer, we have uncanny ways of looking for loopholes in many things the Lord wants and expects us to do. By His grace, that tendency is being sanded out of me, sometimes painfully.

JJoy said...

People who habitually use the phrase, "yeah, but..." will find themselves, eventually, turning into a herd of wild donkeys.

Jim Pemberton said...

Good post, Dan. I remember learning how to forge signatures in grade school so I could write my own hall-passes, etc.

I'm also going to remember that bit about the cave-men. As far as cave-man go, I've seen at least three marriages this past year in my church split up because the wife left the husband. I have to wonder that some cave-men fear not just a cold bed, but a permanently empty one. It should also be a wake-up call for men to be more discerning in who they marry in the first place. On the other hand, if men were men to begin with, they wouldn't attract the kind of women they did, but rather the kind of women who would respect them.

David Koenig said...

You've been a Christian for 400 years?

DJP said...

"It's not the years, it's the mileage."

(And to all helpful readers: yes, that was deliberate.)

Cathy M. said...

I'm so grateful that you expanded this theme to include my own "notes." Nothing like a peek back into my box of old notes to cure my uppity view of others' notes.

I'd also like to add my $.02 to the "cave-men" discussion. Women's fallen nature to usurp is proportional to Men's fallen nature to abdicate. If the cart is in front of the horse, the onus is on the horse. IMHO, naturally.

Steve Scott said...

Dan,

Your list isn't exhaustive, of course, but I thought I could add a very relevant one to today's American church climate:

Scripture calls all of us to consider how to spur one another to love, how to spur one another to good deeds and to encourage one another during that church meeting that we can’t forsake the assembling of, but our church is excused because our pastor would rather invent his own ecclesiology and change the meaning of Hebrews 10 to “Thou shalt go to church on Sunday” because he feels that he should be the only one to speak during that meeting.

Tom Chantry said...

Wow.

There's nothing like having an agenda, I guess.

DJP said...

I guess, if one ever met someone like that, Steve. Which in nearly 40 years of being a Christian, and seeking to obey that verse along with 13:7 and 17 and the others essays linked in the post, I never have.

Robert said...

Steve,

So you think that Paul just went and opened Scripture and told people to pipe up as he was reading and teaching? You think this is how he commissioned Timothy and Titus? Really? Talk about extrabiblical nonsense. I guess you don't think that we should submit to church leadership, either, right?

trogdor said...

"(insert rationalization that will not stand up to the Judgment Seat of Christ here)"

That's really the heart of the matter, isn't it? All of these excuses are attempts to persuade yourself or your buddies or whoever that your disobedience is OK. The problem is, your pal isn't the one who will sit in judgment. And I suspect that God won't be swayed by your excuse, as though it's something He just hadn't thought of.

A. Amos Love said...

Can you clarify?

“Scripture says that God calls me to involve myself in a local church, but I'm excused because no church leaders measure up to Biblical standards.”

Are you saying the qualificatios for elder/overseer
in 1 Tim 3:1-6, and Titus 1:5-9, are NOT important?
And should be ignored?

What does one do if a church leader
does NOT measure up to Biblical standards?

DJP said...

What did you think of those sermons, Amos?

A. Amos Love said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DJP said...

Don't comment again until you listen to those sermons, Amos, and then only on-topic. Yes, this is a special rule, just for you.

And for any other reader, the intent of the "Note from God" Amos singles out is, I think, pretty transparent. It's one of a host of rationalizations used by men (and women) whose real problem is that they can't just shut up and let someone teach and have authority over them as God orders them to do. So you make impossible standards, decided no one (no one else, that is) lives up to them. Voila! there's your "note from God"! Now you are excused from obeying what He's commanded Christians to do — and what Christians have done, under far worse circumstances — for 2000 years.