Posts Tagged ‘John Zahl’

I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus!

October 27, 2016

This Sunday I’m preaching on Luke 17:3-10, a collection of teachings that seems, at first, like a hodgepodge. N.T. Wright, however, believes that they are linked by our need for humility. Regarding the disciples’ plea for greater faith in verse 5 and Jesus’ response, he writes the following (emphasis mine):

Perhaps not surprisingly, the disciples realize in verse 5 that all this [i.e., what Jesus has said in vv. 1-4] will require more faith than they think they have. Jesus is quick to respond. It’s not great faith you need; it is faith in a great God. Faith is like a window through which you can see something. What matters is not whether the window is six inches or six feet high; what matters is the God that your faith is looking out on. If it’s the creator God, the God active in Jesus and the Spirit, then the tiniest little peep-hole of a window will give you access to power like you never dreamed of.[1]

So faith, like most things related to the life of the spirit, is not about us; it’s about God. Of course.

Anyway, in today’s devotional from The Mockingbird Devotional, John Zahl shares a related thought about faith (emphasis mine):

Faith means trusting Him to be all the things you need Him to be, despite your own inadequacies, and, for that matter, in light of the fact that you don’t actually know what you need or what success actually looks like. He won’t give you strength; He will be your strength.[2]

Finally, I tried to make a similar point in a sermon earlier this month about the power of the Holy Spirit in Acts 4:1-22:

Consider Peter… Even though he seems so brave and strong and powerful in today’s scripture, he wasn’t so different from that scaredy-cat that we saw the night that Jesus was arrested. He hadn’t changed that much in a just a couple of months! Especially if we consider what Paul writes about Peter in Galatians 2.

There, Paul describes a situation in which, he says, he confronted Peter “to his face” for his hypocrisy.

Why did this happen? This was a time in the early church when Jewish Christians weren’t so sure how they were supposed to relate to their non-Jewish brothers and sisters. Many of them believed that these Gentile believers had to first become Jewish—by being circumcised and following other Jewish customs. And unless or until they did these things, Jewish Christians wouldn’t mingle with them. They wouldn’t sit down at a table and share a meal.

Paul, of course, would have none of this: As he writes in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And Peter was on Paul’s side—at least at first. When Peter came to visit Paul’s church he enjoyed table fellowship with Gentiles.

Until some Jewish Christians from Jerusalem showed up—then Peter stopped associating with them. Paul says in Galatians 2:12 that Peter did this because he was “afraid of the circumcision party.”

So let’s get this straight: In Galatians 2, years after the events described in today’s scripture, this same Peter, who wasn’t even afraid of being killed as he stood before the high priest and the Sanhedrin, was afraid of other people’s opinions—he was afraid for his reputation; he was afraid of what others might think about him!

So much for brave and fearless Peter!

I’m not saying this because I think Peter is a bad guy. Not at all. I’m saying this because Peter isn’t so different from us! Aside from being filled with the Spirit in today’s scripture, he was mostly the same old person he always was!

I know it seems obvious to say out loud, but Peter’s success as an apostle isn’t because he—to whatever extent he had been sanctified—had become a much holier person; it was because of God’s power working in him.

Our Wesleyan emphasis on sanctification, while true and fitting, is also potentially dangerous, as I’ve discussed in the past. “Yes, yes,” we say, “even sanctification is a gift of God.” But is it really? Or is it something we achieve as we apply ourselves to the task? Is it, in other words, self-improvement by another name?

I don’t need self-improvement. I need Jesus! At every moment! Because I’m a disaster left to my own devices. Because I’m utterly lost and helpless without him.

I’m not kidding. I have enough emotional scars to prove it. Scars on top of scars. And so do people who get closest to me. Thank God many of them still love me!

1. N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 204.

2. John Zahl, “October 27” in The Mockingbird Devotional (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2013), 362.