R is for Righteousness (an alphabet for penitents)

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. -Matthew 5:20

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” -Romans 1:17

Righteousness has fallen on hard times. We live in an anything-goes-culture, more Kardashian than Christlike. We buy what we want to buy, we cut corners where we can, we sleep with whoever we want to. The “just say no” slogan of previous decades has given way to moral permissiveness. Conservative Christians who used to call themselves the Religious Right and the Moral Majority, are among the most vocal and committed supporters of Donald Trump, a serial adulterer who’s boasts about sexual assault and harassment are well known (along with other moral quagmires and questionable things).
Continue reading R is for Righteousness (an alphabet for penitents)

Why us Good People Don’t Like Bad Christians (Especially When We Are One): a book review

When Bad Christians Happen to Good People: Where WE Have Failed Each Other and How to Reverse the Damage by Dave Burchett

We all know people who used to go to church but quit going because of the way we Christians treat each other. Likewise, we know Christians who are back-biters, gossips and bitter people. We have seen these people use the gospel of Grace to make people feel like guilty, lowly sinners. We’ve seen volunteers get used up and spit out while those with special needs often are isolated and forgotten. Christians can be really big jerks and there are a lot of wounded people because of it. This is exceptionally heartbreaking because too often ‘good people’ like me, also fit the profile of the bad Christian.

David Burchett is also no stranger to bad Christians. When he and his wife Joni had their daughter Katie they knew that she was terminal, could not open her eyes and she  had a deformity which left tissue exposed at the back of her skull (which they covered with a dressing). The church that they attended informed them that Katie would no longer be welcome in the nursery because of the risk she posed to other kids and the trauma it would inflict on nursery workers if Katie died on their watch. The Burchetts were not consulted about this and no concerns were ever communicated to them until they were told that their daughter was not welcome in the Nursery.

And so Burchett wrote this book exploring all the ways we Christians do damage to each other and fail to communicate God’s love to those outside of the church. The book divides into three parts. In part one Burchett discusses the way we Christians treat one another (i.e. unfriendliness, schism, fear-based Christianity). In part two he explores how we interact with the wider culture (i.e. hypocrisy, Christianese, Jesus-Junk and ‘the culture wars.’ Part three suggests how we Christians are to be in the world (gracious, humble, well-versed in the Bible and what we believe).

I never read the first edition of this book but it is refreshing to hear how Burchett feels he’s grown since when he first wrote this book (this edition came out in 2011; the original edition is copyrighted, 2002).  As Burchett describes it, writing this book was cathartic for him because he could err his grievances about all the ways we Christians hurt one another. His own book called him to hold himself to the same standards, but something was missing.  He didn’t yet know the meaning of grace–at least as an experiential reality.  At a conference put on  by an organization called TrueFaced (also a book authored by  Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol,  and John Lynch) he  was transformed by the notion that God has already wired us to be the saints he’s making us into and is calling us to inhabit that reality. He was blown away by the reality of God’s grace.

So if you chose to read this book, you will hear stories and critiques of the way we Christians have often been saints behaving badly. You will also read suggestions and exhortations to step out and be Christians who serve the world, love one another and give their lives sacrificially for God’s mission.  But you also will hear a testimony of God’s grace–that it is the Spirit at work in us, transforming us into what we already have become in Christ.

This  book has an eight week discussion guide making it usable for small groups. The chapters are short and pithy with good humor and could be good springboards for discussion.  But when I read Burchett say, “If you only have the budget to buy one in the near future,  I would tell you to buy TrueFaced (205),” I wonder if I should recommend this book or tell you to just get the book Burchett likes. I haven’t read TrueFaced, so you get no recommendation from me, but I liked this book and am grateful for Burchett’s exhortations and practical challenges.

Readers of my blog may notice that this book covers similar ground to another of my recent reviews, Accidental Pharisee by Larry Osborne. Osborne’s book is more narrowly focused on how we become Pharisees (albeit unwittingly) with our pride, attitudes, exclusivity etc. This book does address the problem of hypocrisy but also talks about how we can be better at communicating the gospel to the wider culture. Both authors have good things to say and are challenging. I think Osborne was more personally helpful in taking stock of personal attitudes where I got off track, but Burchett offers good critique of Christian culture and the ways in which we hurt (or exclude) others.

Thank you to Waterbrook Multnomah for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Because They’re Not Fair You See!: A Book Review

Accidental Pharisees: Avoiding Pride, Exclusivity, and the Other Dangers of OverZealous Faith by Larry Osborne

A Christian camp song I loved as a child, I Just Want to Be a Sheep, had a verse with these words:

I don’t want to be a Pharisee

I don’t want to be a Pharisee

Because they’re not Fair You See,

I don’t want to be a Pharisee.

And indeed, nobody wants to be a Pharisee. And yet, for those of us who take the Bible and our Christian duty seriously, it is so easy to become one.  When we become overzealous and ‘biblically unaligned,’  our fervent desire to follow God makes us ‘jerks for Jesus.’  We become legalists, hypocrites and we hoist impossible standards on our neighbors.  We might not mean to do it, but we do. We are “Accidental Pharisees.”

Author and Pastor Larry Osborne has written this book to help us stop being Pharisees. The thing is the Pharisees themselves didn’t start out trying to be ‘Pharisees’ in the sense we use the term today. These were people who cared about following the Bible and moral formation.  They had lots of rules and regulations because they wanted to make sure their behavior was pleasing to God, but along the way they lost sight of God’s grace.  Osborne examines the  ways that we too can get ourselves offtrack by emphasizing having right behavior or right theology. Not that these things aren’t important, but when you look at the type of people Jesus loved, accepted, justified and restored, it wasn’t because of what they did, but because of his  mercy and love. Osborne helps us cut through our own attempts to justify ourselves.

The book is divided into seven parts. In part one, Osborne introduces the concept of ‘accidental pharisees’ and provides a case study of Joseph of Arimathia (the guy whose tomb Jesus was buried in, a Pharisee and ‘secret disciple’).  While we would be tempted to not number Joseph among the disciples for his failure to stand up for Christ before the Sanhedrin, he is described as a disciple in the gospels.

In the rest of the book Osborne describes the characteristics of of our pharisee-ism. In part two he describes the sin of pride.  We are all tempted to compare ourselves to others, and see their faults more clearly than we see our own (Log-Eye disease).  In  part three, he discusses exclusivity and the way that we want to ‘thin the heard’ and call people to greater commitment is antithetical to the gospel of grace. In part four, Osborne shows how our desire to have ‘litmus tests’ to prove that we are ‘real Christians’ shows how we are legalists who rely on our own righteousness (rather than God’s mercy).  Part five discusses our tendency to ‘idolize the past’ and the ways in which our idealism distorts reality. In part six, Osborne shows how we confuse unity with uniformity and demand other Christians conform with our theology and peculiar cultural distinctives.  In part seven, Osborne discusses how the way we compare ourselves to others cause us to either feel arrogant because we got it together and other people don’t or guilty because other people are gifted in ways that we are not. He also discusses the ways in which we Christians have a tendency to judge one another for the ways we handle money (not being good stewards, not being generous enough, etc).

Each of the seven parts of this book concludes with discussion questions which would be useful in a small group discussion (over seven weeks) or for personal reflection. This is the sort of book that demands that you ask hard questions about the condition of your own heart and attitude. More than once I felt that Osborne had rightly named my sin–my self justification and judgmental attitudes.  This is a book that you should read prayerfully, and with a willingness to engage in some self examination.

In a couple of places I felt like Osborne overstates his case and marginalizes Biblical texts which exhort us to our Christian duty. However, what he writes here is a good corrective and I loved the ways in which he commends us to rest in God’s grace rather than the burden of obedience. There is something right about what Osborne is saying even if he runs the risk of minimizing some of the Christian call to action. We are recipients of God’s grace before we are missional activists. I like that Osborne challenges me to make sure my gospel presentation rests on the mercy of God and that everyone is included. Still part of me worries that he doesn’t emphasize enough the need to ‘count the cost’ and take up our cross and following Jesus.’ Certainly, I am a pharisee and I need to be called to account for it. There is a such thing as the scandal of grace and I can’t earn my salvation. On the other hand, I am called to a life of discipleship which demands something from me.  In several places in this book, I wrote in the margins, “Yes, but . . .”.

None of this is to say I didn’t like the book, or that I don’t warmly commend it. I think this is the sort of book which we all need to read and we need to watch out for the ways in which we can fall into exclusivity, pride and legalism. This book is well worth reading. May God use it to make us disciples who are humble, hospitable and gracious to one another.

Thank you to Cross Focused Review and Zondervan for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for my review.