What Happens if We Don’t Get Better?


Everyone has high expectations for self-improvement. There is a pressure that haunts us. A voice in our heads says, “Shouldn’t you be getting better? Come on, you are slacking off, look at yourself!”

All by itself, most Christians say, that isn’t a bad thing. It even sounds like something an upstanding person of faith would say, but it can get bad. Really bad. We can lose Jesus in the search for self-improvement. Consider that the curse from Eden onward is that we abandon faith in pursuit of our own glory. This happens when that compulsive voice isn’t subjected to the Word of God that promises: In Christ, you already have redemption.

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We get stuck clawing for self-affirmation in our improvement. We strive to improve because we need to feel affirmed. We can’t feel affirmed until we improve. We can’t accept love until we buck up and make ourselves deserving of that love. We are working out of a massive deficit, as opposed to living as if everything we need we already have in Christ. Some are still thinking, “Well is that so bad?”

If we don’t expressly believe that we are undeserving yet loved, we will subconsciously believe that we should be deserving and won’t be loved until we change.

keep the changeThe thing is, you can trust Jesus to help you change. I find that the Holy Spirit is trying to teach me how to swim, and I am standing in the shallow end of the pool thrashing around in the water. “Look how good I’m doing, God? Pretty good, right? Impressive, right? Did you see that one, God?”

swim fail

I’m splashing so much, everyone around me is evacuating the pool, annoyed. God waits patiently for me to calm down. His hope is that eventually I learn how not to drown in the deep end. And maybe one day, should things go terribly south, I could learn to depend on him when I’m totally shipwrecked.

sparrowDo you want to know what happens when you don’t get better? Here is what happens: God doesn’t flinch.

And, strangely, knowing that God won’t be shocked – in fact that God’s grace is sufficient in the midst of your failure – that is what makes you better.

My Bright Future and You Can Too

A German friend of mine and I were talking about careers and bright futures via email. Obviously, this hit a few theological nerves. Below are the thoughts I shared with him about those common questions: Where is life going?; Am I going to be a failure?; Will my future be bright? etc.

bright future

I didn’t reformat the email much at all, so I hope it is readable. Also, I exaggerated the amount of job offers that I have received. Because, you know, artistic license or something. Besides, he’s in Germany, he won’t be able to check my sources.


Regarding jobs and a bright future, I feel like the process of growing up for me is progressive disillusionment with my lack of progress. I hope my future is bright, but I like to keep the grotesque image of myself getting hit by a bus in my head, just to insure I’m not living as if I’m immortal ;)

I heard something really great a few years ago, the lawyer/novelist John Grisham said that nobody will really respect you as a professional until you are 30 years old anyway, so just study as long as you can and relax through your 20s. Living with this in mind has caused people to interact with me in really interesting ways. I have had more job offers since I have been approaching professionals as if they don’t have any inherent respect for me. Interacting as if I know they aren’t going to give me much respect, but whatever, let’s have a good chat and I’ll share with them what I know without any expectation that they will be blown away by my accomplishments. I find it rather humorous to do this, just because they seem so accustomed to young people trying to impress them. They don’t really know how to take it. I’m always shocked when they say, “Hey man, we would love for you to come on with us eventually.” Then I laugh and say, “I don’t know, I’m kind of in law school at the moment — you would have to make an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
Still waiting for the irrefutable offer, but having fun in the meantime ;)
Life is tough though man. There is this growing awareness of the pointlessness of things. I was thinking this morning why child stars – like movie/music pop stars – grow up so disillusioned. I think it is because the primary carrot of the human psyche – which is “attain success/acclaim/money” – that bubble gets burst too early. They have nothing to live for, to strive for. But to preemptively burst the bubble, I think by taking the message of the book of Ecclesiastes to heart (I forgot what the Germans call Ecclesiastes?), that is a really strange way to live, but I find it liberating. It’s liberating to know that I can enjoy the simple things of life, but also be assured that my ultimate yearning will never be met by attaining success, or actually anything under the sun. It’s why I need to hear the message of the gospel over and over and over – I keep forgetting that everything I need I already have in Christ’s love for me. I’m just preaching now, but it’s true! It just hits the ground so hard in the middle of graduate school, or at any point in the 20s, when all of life is about establishing oneself. So good to be free from the pressure – but also depressing. I’m okay with that though, I would rather have a true perspective that is tinged with the tragedy of honest futility than be obsessed with chasing every crystal starship that is forging ahead to conquer the heavens (I just thought of that metaphor! I like it;)
Your brain probably hurts from trying to figure out the meaning of all my English words. I love you buddy, appreciate you always being a philosophical compadre to me, willing to confront the substantive stuff of life.
Also, David Zahl at Mockingbird just posted a great article about procrastination that captures the thrust of what I am trying to say here. Check it out if you have a minute.

The Theology of a Van Collision

Yesterday, my lovely girlfriend and I were in the backyard driveway at my house washing my Volvo Station Wagon. It was a cute boyfriend/girlfriend thing to do. I described methods for getting all the bugs off, and I talked knowingly about repairs and updates that needed to be done on the car, as if I knew about car maintenance. She was digging it.

Suddenly, we both heard a loud crunch, coming from the road. No screeching tires, just a collision.

She turned to me, “Was that a car crash?”

“Yes. Oh man. I’ll go see if they are alright.”

As I walked around the house to the busy road in front, I expected to see a simple rear-end collision. Instead, I saw two mini-vans in the front yard across the street. One of them had T-boned the other. But why in the world were they in the front yard, not obstructing traffic at all?

One of the mini-vans looked like someone was still in the driver seat, pinned in by the other van outside his door. I had to wait for a car to stop so I could cross the street.

I walked up to the passenger side of the T-bone’s victim. There was an old man whose adrenaline must have been the highest that it’s been in a solid decade.

“Sir, are you hurt?” I opened the passenger door, and immediately smelled the box of fried chicken on the passenger seat.

“I’m okay.” I could see his mouth was bleeding. “I just picked up dinner and was turning into my driveway.”

“Maybe turn your car off,” I said. “And let me help you get out of there.”

I began helping him climb over the passenger seat out of the car, because the driver side door was destroyed, and the other van was still pinning it shut. His glasses were on the floor, and I reached down to grab them so he wouldn’t step on them.

“Guess my van is about shot. Guess it’s about done. Guess it’s totaled.” His voice was shaking.

As he explained the accident, it became obvious that the woman who hit him was completely at fault. A car had come to a stop in front of her, and in front of that car, the old man was turning left into his driveway. She sped around that ghost car assuming it was stopping for no reason and slammed into the old man as he turned.

That explained why we hadn’t heard screeching tires.

Her van hit the old man so hard that both of their cars ended up in his front yard.

I handed the old man his glasses and walked with him around the front of his car. We heard the old woman on the phone.

This is where things get theological.

Her van was not too badly damaged. In fact, considering how far she had pushed the old man’s van, she must have come to a stop quite gradually. She was on the phone with, presumably, her husband, “Some idiot stopped in the middle of the road for no reason and then I didn’t know that someone in front of him was turning.”

At first, I wanted to stay to make sure that the old man didn’t lose his temper at this woman who was obviously delusional about who the idiot in this situation was. Then I realized she was talking about the ghost car. But really? In this situation, where a poor old man stood with a bloody lip, a totaled car, probably some back pain, and certainly a ruined dinner, she was the indisputable idiot. Couldn’t she see that?

But then why was she self-justifying?

In this situation, where there was certainly no legal dispute about whose fault this was, why is she looking to put the blame elsewhere? Even if an “idiot” had stopped for no reason, people on the road are allowed to brake. It’s your job to slow down and resist speeding madly around them.

I have crashed cars before. I remember feeling like a complete moron afterward. It’s such an incredibly shameful moment, especially if it’s during rush hour and traffic is obstructed. And people are driving by, slowing down to eye up the damage, all the while thinking to themselves, “I wonder which idiot caused this.”

But, still, why do we need to self-justify? Why can’t it just be our fault?

Because we have no room for failure in all of our respective theologies. In all our world-views, failure is anti-progress, and anti-progress is deserving of condemnation. Anti-progress, we think, is anti-everything. Progress is everything. Failing is nothing.

If we aren’t moving forward, says the world (and our hearts), then we are nothing. Failing renders you, and me, nothing.

We can deny failure, and claim it was some other idiot‘s fault, or we can accept failure and be deemed nothing.

Unless we have faith that there is a God who can create ex nihilo – out of nothing, then the second option is simply off the table. Who in their right mind willingly confronts failure? We will scavenge for any scrap of glory left in a situation. Sometimes, the only remaining glory is found by calling someone else an idiot, and standing morally superior to that person.

Without the promise of a resurrected savior who demands nothing on our part, we are bound to obsessively assert that we are something.

Without the promise of a resurrected savior, we are not free to fail, but rather in bondage to delusional glory-seeking.

And we are stuck blaming ghost cars instead of helping the battered old man that we just slammed into.

Is Christ our Peace or is the Gospel our Peace?

A while back, a prominent Reformed pastor cautioned Tim Keller that he was using the word “Gospel” to describe what was actually the work of the Holy Spirit. It sounded really spiritual at the time. Plus it was bold to challenge – even semantically – the functional pope of Biblical Evangelicalism.

But the grace-skeptics reincarnate this challenge daily. Is it the Gospel that is our peace or is it Christ who is our peace? The Sunday School answer, as we have learned, is always “Jesus.” It’s always more spiritual to say “Jesus is the answer” than to say anything else.

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And then the kicker . . .

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Anytime someone preaches radical grace, the impulse of every devout person is to put some cautions on it. We simply can’t let that message ring out. If you are at all religious, there is an impulse in you to nit-pick the delivery of the gospel when it is being flippantly tossed to needy beggars. Jesus was always shocking his followers with the status of those to whom he showed incredible grace. It is important to see that, when it comes to preaching God’s promise, we need to let the message ring out without semantic cautions.

Of course, the theologically-minded readers of the blog are going to feel a rise in their blood pressure. “Is he saying semantic precision doesn’t matter?” No. I’m not saying that. I am saying that the demand for semantic precision is usually indicative of our intolerance for no-strings-attached grace rather than any kind of spiritual impulse.

Paul in Ephesians 2 writes, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

So, Christ is our peace. Christ makes peace. And Christ preaches peace.

Did Christ preach peace or did he preach himself? The answer: Yes.

But shouldn’t Paul say “Christ” any chance he gets? I guess he didn’t know we would be keeping track.

If I come back with a glass of water and you say, “Where did that water come from?” and I say, “The faucet,” then what will you respond? Will you snicker to yourself, roll your eyes and say, “You silly guy, it wasn’t the faucet, but rather the well in the backyard.” Then I will say, “Well, yes, of course, and before that it came from the rain. But I am momentarily more concerned about quenching my thirst than providing a dissertation on the source of H2O.”

(Of course, if a thirsty beggar were scooping a muddy puddle to his lips, that would be a situation where some explanation of water sources might be important. But even then it would probably be more effective to offer him some tap water rather than lecture him on the stupidity of his choices.)

Go forth and pass out as many glasses of water as you can. The water that  comes from Christ “will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

People who are thirsty for grace are usually more receptive to this water than those who are thirsty for extra-biblical semantic precision anyway.

How can you claim to be pure?

One of my new favorite writers is Matthew Pierce. Fellow Simulblogger Rich pointed me to his wildly entertaining The Exegeticals, a series of comic book-inspired blog posts starring our favorite celebrity pastors.


This excerpt is from his rolling-on-the-floor laughing ebook Homeschool Sex Machine (only 2.99, you won’t regret getting this one). In this section, his mom confronts teenage Matthew about a CD that he received from his crush at church. The crush, Esmeralda, let him borrow a Christian Pop CD, and Matthew’s parents fear the potential ramifications of that promiscuous gesture.



Later that afternoon my mother found me sitting on my bed. She swept into the room with a stern purpose and sat softly beside me.

“We need to talk,” she said ominously.

In the entire history of everything, those words have never meant something good.

My mother proceeded to question me about my relationship to Esmeralda. She needed to know if I was still emotionally pure, because if I was not pure I might want to be alone with Esmeralda, and if we were alone that was kind of like a date, and if it was a date we might kiss, and if we kissed we might have sex. So, obviously, we were at a critical stage.

I gave the requisite denials, but she pressed on: What was all this business about Esmeralda giving me a CD?

Crap. There were no secrets in a homeschool house.

My mother asked to see the CD. She turned the plastic case over and over in her hands, and finally she drew a deep breath.

“This is a test,” she said with certainty.

Dramatic pause.

“A test…from Satan,” she finished breathlessly.

I… uh… wait, what?

I listened intently as my mother wove together a complex explanation that involved the prince of darkness planting a thought in Esmeralda’s head to give me a CD because DISTRACTION, because Easter was fast approaching and this was the only way the devil could keep me from focusing on the true meaning of Christ’s resurrection. Because hormones.

“You need to give that CD back to her, and don’t listen to it at all,” she ordered.

But… but… but…

“You like her, don’t you?”

Well, yes.

“You’re attracted to her, aren’t you?”

Well, yes.

“How can you claim to be pure?” she demanded.

I opened my mouth to speak, but was cut off.

“Son, 1 Timothy says to treat younger women with absolute purity. Absolute. If you’re attracted to her, how can you be pure?”

Now my Dad was standing in the doorway, arms crossed. I knew that to argue further would be useless. That would lead us to Ephesians 6, about children obey parents NO MATTER WHAT.

As both of my parents glared at me and my renegade hormones, I quietly took the CD from my mother and set it on the nightstand. I nodded my head in resignation and let out a long sigh.


The rest of Homeschool Sex Machine is a breath of fresh air and an essential contribution to evangelical literature. You don’t want to miss this.

The Death of Feel-Good Sermons

I didn’t know this theology was going to be so sad. When I had my first sip of unconditional love, I was totally convinced my life was going to be perpetually euphoric.

chuck thumbs up

It hasn’t been. This is the part where most people say, “The point is: Christianity requires a ton of toughness and exertion, so buck up if you want to be a champion.” That isn’t what I’m going to say, because that is a lie.be a champion

The Gospel levels everything in your life. When God finally tracks you down and sets you free, you will spend the rest of your life picking up the pieces. This is true.

The biggest explosion in my life was the divorce of my emotions from God’s Promise over me. It sounds pleasant and like someone would welcome it, but I was offended. I trusted my emotions. When I did a crappy job, I felt like I was a logical enough being to understand how this must have made God feel. Glory be that God doesn’t follow human logic.

How you feel right now and how God feels about you are not even close to the same thing. I didn’t know this. When someone tried to convince me of this, I denied it vehemently. If I felt bad, then I assumed God was as frustrated with me as I was with my self. It stood to reason. If I was feeling good, then God felt good about me. There were lots of ups and downs. In control, but an emotional train-wreck.

glass case

I wonder if this explains a lot of sermons that are “feel-good.” A feel-good sermon usually works for the mission it set out on: to make you feel good. They feel good because life reform is equated to lasting hope. It gives us false hope that, if we can put our hand to the plow, then we can earn freedom by our own sweat. But when we have driven a divide between our feelings and God’s posture towards us in Christ, then we are less addicted to managing our emotions. We are less addicted to feel-good sermons.


This is where we stumble into the desolate valley of vexation. The Gospel frees you (sometimes against your will) from the pressure of being in absolute control of your emotions. When we call a thing what it is against the advice of a feel-good sermon – when we are honest about the depth of our suffering – then emotions arise that we didn’t even know about. Sometimes incredibly good emotions. Sometimes: soul-crushing. The Gospel is comfortable with this spectrum of emotions. It must be, otherwise it wouldn’t be good news (or news at all) for those who are enduring soul-crushing existential defeat. By calling suffering what it is, we can finally let the fleeting things die away so that we can find a remedy that will actually begin the healing process. The Gospel looks at a gaping wound and says, “A band-aid isn’t going to work on this one.”

For in much wisdom is much vexation,

and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1:18

Are you expecting to find hope “under the sun” where chasing shiny metals (gold) and shiny medals (accomplishments) is our sole preoccupation? Your life won’t resurrect itself with your hard work, your positive attitude, your good-standing. You are a corpse in a morgue drawer. And even a renewed perspective won’t set you free. Your only hope is resurrection.

Morgue Sherlock

The problem is not that you want to change your behavior. That’s usually a good thing. It means your self-respect is in tact. The problem is that we always begin to think hope accompanies self-improvement. On the contrary, actually.

Celebrities prove this all the time. They are getting divorced. They are committing suicide. Lots of them are self-respecting. Lots of them have the time and resources to have a quiet reflection time each day. Lots of them are extremely self-disciplined. You don’t rise to the top of that industry if you are not pretty good at self-improvement. In other words, lots of them are “religiously observant” if we use a broad enough definition of religion. Therefore, religion is not your hope. Life reform is not your hope. You are not your hope. Welcome to vexation.

weep then die

But with great vexation comes scandalous liberation.

At some point, if you stand in the firing line of unconditional love from God long enough, feel-good sermons won’t feel good anymore. Like Paul, you will nod at the elementary principles of the world, and point to a much bigger savior. Some days are vexing. But calling a thing what it is is the beginning of grasping the depth of God’s love for you.

God loves sinners, of which you are one. Be vexed. Be loved. Be free.

How to Get Better

Religion’s power is stripped away these days not by calling it an “opiate for the masses”* but by reducing it to another self-improvement program.


But do some of us religious people actually live like this? Are we giving the critics some fodder? Do most of us live as if “getting better” is the only goal of Christianity?

If getting better means becoming something glorious by the sweat of our brow, I don’t believe in that version of Christianity. But, if by “get better” we mean the less-commonly-used-except-at-hospitals: no longer be sick; then I want to be part of that. If we believe (against the most elementary principles of the world) that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness, that even in our sin we are loved by God, that even in our failings God glorifies himself, then we can only mean “get better” as a slow healing process.

feeling any better

Christ said he came to seek those who are sick not those who are healthy. He didn’t mean that some people don’t need his saving grace. He means that you are either delusional or you know that you’re sick. From Christ’s words, we can only assume that “get better” — if it is at all Christian — must be a slow healing process for those in Him.

But, once in the door, can’t we then help people buck up and get it together?

“‘Speaking the truth in love’ . . . is an empty set. It never happens. Although this form of law is loftily protested as being ‘within the bonds of love and affection,’ there is always that basso continuo of judgment in every appeal of criticism, which disqualifies such speaking from having transformative effects.”
(Paul Zahl, Grace in Practice)


The problem is that “speaking the truth in love” is a way of speaking to someone who is already righteous and no longer sick. When you are speaking “challenges” and “hard truths”, you aren’t speaking to sick people. It’s not how you talk to sick people.


To those who know that they are sick, you don’t speak “hard-truths.” You speak grace upon grace upon grace. To the hard-hearted, however, you can speak all the hard truth that you want. But don’t just make it hard truth and challenges, make it impossible truth and challenges, like Jesus’ sermon on the mount. If anyone can look at that sermon as if it is attainable, then they haven’t a clue how sick they are.

cocky corey

I have been railing against pastors on this blog for a while. I should apologize for some of that. Proclaiming justification by grace alone, as Gerhard Forde says, is polemical by its very nature. It’s a doctrine that hogs the whole space of our mind. It creeps into all the dark corners and roots out the lies, captivating them by God’s promise in Christ. But it’s polemical nature doesn’t entirely excuse bludgeoning people over the head with it. Especially those who I know will continue to disagree with me.

i did not do that

It’s for the sick Christians that I write. For those who need Jesus as healer, not Jesus as imputed super-power.

I met with a pastor yesterday and he said to me, “It’s hard for me to preach self-improvement even if I wanted to. I just talked to a lady who probably isn’t going to be alive in six months. How am I supposed to tell her that the goal of Christianity is that she become more glorious in some ambiguous earthly sense?”

To him I replied: Boom.

To you, I say, go forth and ‘Boom’ on behalf of the sick whom Jesus loves desperately, so much that he gave his life for them. For you.

*A rigorous understanding of law and grace isn’t an opiate for the masses by any stretch, evidenced by how resistant and haunted people are by only a few seconds of God’s law doing it’s diagnostic work on them. If “opiate for the masses” is meant only to make us distrustful of good news, then I think it is a bit redundant: we are already profoundly distrustful of good news. And yet, I say to you, God’s grace in Christ is completely yours. He is for you. And God doesn’t break his promises.