Wednesday, July 30, 2014

THE CAPITAL LETTER LIFE - Justification by BuzzFeed

This is the third post in a series called "Functional Justification"
See also "Beards, Bacon & Badass - Justification by Manliness"
There you are… hand resting on your mouse, eyes staring blankly at the screen as your forefinger turns the little wheel that makes your Facebook feed scroll down. A seemingly endless supply of links, selfies, memes and pictures of cats flash past your eyes at a rate that makes it virtually impossible to actually process any of the information on the screen. Then all of a sudden something grabs your attention! Something causes you to turn that little wheel in the opposite direction and zoom back to the link that caught your eye… and there it is… all in capital letters… the words “…WHAT HAPPENED NEXT BROUGHT ME TO TEARS!!!”

And so you click on the link and watch the soppy video of a child’s wish coming true… a father’s passionate yet humorous speech to his future son-in-law… a dog who was loyal to its master… or the ridiculously talented little girl singing some love song with lyrics that are way beyond her years of comprehension. And you don’t even care that the site is packed full of advertising… that you have to click through a thirty-seven image long slide show… or that you know these sites are merely designed to get you clicking a lot so that their statistics increase ensuring a more lucrative advertising deal. You are uncontrollably drawn to the capital letter caption and before you know it you are hitting the “share” button to pass on the riveting experience to all of your friends.

The dramatic increase in the prevalence of these link-sharing sites has been something to behold over the last couple of years on social media. “BuzzFeed” is just probably the most recognisable version, but there are now countless creatively named sites that basically do nothing more than scour the internet for videos, pictures and articles that are on the verge of going viral and then they exploit the content they didn’t create in order to generate advertising revenue. There are even specifically Christianised link-sharing sites which target Christian audiences who are ready and willing to have their faith inspired by a 3 minute video.

Perhaps the reason we are so fascinated with the content on these sites is because we are just completely bored with the monotony of our lives and the videos and slideshows provide us with a distraction from the daily grind... but I reckon there is at least some part of us that is drawn to click on the capital letter link because deep down inside we are captivated by that which seems to lift humanity to a higher plane of existence.  We are amazed by the clips of people who seem to reach one level higher than the rest of us and the moments that seem to transcend our mundane existence.

Now on one level this is good because it highlights that in the frailty of our humanity we sense that we were designed for so much more than monotony... we were made for eternity!  But the problem that easily flows from our obsession is that the growing prevalence of people appearing in the videos convinces us that the only life worth living is the capital letter life... the upworthy life... the life that transcends.  And so we use our social media profiles as our own version of BuzzFeed... scouring every moment of our lives looking for spectacular events to justify our online existence.

It is almost as if we need to be able to think of our life as spectacular or we might be destined to dwell amongst the mundane masses.  So we desperately hope that our moments of epic win are somehow captured in a format that can be uploaded and we carefully craft stories that certify our greatness.  We even use our children as pawns in our quest for capital letter status; sacrificing them to the gods of social media, longing for their drawings, sayings and talents to be voted as upworthy by the throngs of people waiting with bated breath for our next Facebook status.  The problem is of course that the bar keeps going up and the world always requires our awesomeness to escalate, so we get dragged back down into the ordinary life just as quickly as we voted ourselves up.

The beauty of justification by faith in Jesus Christ is that we are set free from the pursuit of being upworthy.  Titus 3:5 says, "he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy..." meaning that God's acceptance of us does not require us to be spectacular.  Therefore we don't have to prove ourselves by attaining to the capital letter life because our justification rests not on how upworthy we are but on the infinitely upworthy life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So don't stress if your weightloss transformation didn't turn out as you had hoped and your before and after shots are not dramatic enough to post... don't worry if your no make-up selfie really needs some make-up to make it postable... don't fret if your attempt at making a viral video only resulted in 23 hits 7 of which were you... and don't fear if your children are not musical, artistic or sporting prodigies, rendering their performances 'normal'... the reality is that the upworthiness of your life means nothing in God's Kingdom.  In Christ you are set free from the capital letter life because you get to share the benefits of His infinitely perfect life...

Seeking to justify yourself through the appearance of awesomeness will crush you under the weight of your incapacity to captivate your online audience and bleed you dry as you chase your own tail looking to manufacture upworthy moments.  Only is Jesus is the true and lasting justification... not based on your worth but His!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Beards, Bacon & Badass - Justification by Manliness

This is the second post in a series called functional justification...
OK OK before we get too far into this post I am not ignorant of the fact that most of the junk that gets put up on Facebook is purely lighthearted entertainment... but behind every cultural quip is a cultural norm being expressed in one way or another.  So when my newsfeed is flooded with images of "real men", it is not hard to deduce that there is a huge push on at the moment to set the cultural markers of manliness.

This is not new... for some reason from generation to generation men have always had very clearly defined markers of masculinity.  But the advent of social media has heightened the rate at which young men can be indoctrinated with the latest ideas of what it takes to be a "real man".  From scrolling through my Facebook feed and viewing TV and print advertisements, the image modern young men are obviously trying to live up to is that of a well built man (in other words a guy who lifts), with some sort of inkwork, facial hair and a styled haircut who knows how to rock a tailored suit.  Throw in an abnormal love of bacon and apparently you have more testosterone than the East German weightlifting team from the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Now let me just say that all these markers of masculinity are completely neutral... at the end of the day there is nothing dangerous or detrimental about beards and bacon.  In fact common grace tells us that in every generation's image of manliness there is going to be something of benefit to human flourishing.  So I am not opposed to any of these markers and I am not advocating that everyone pulls out the old Gillette Blue II and shaves their hipster beards off.  The problem is not in these markers themselves but in the fact we seek to justify ourselves with them.

I am just going to come out and say it... as men we struggle with feelings of insignificance!  From the day that the curse of sin entered into humanity men have been struck by the helplessness of working hard but accomplishing nothing.  Perhaps for a man there is no more crippling  fear than feeling you will never contribute anything, amount to anything or be recognised for anything.  So us men are suckers for the cultural markers of manliness... because if you can achieve all the markers it fills your significance tank; it marks you as a true man.  And so we will line up to get ink done, grow our beards, fork out for that tailored suit, start benching at the gym and constantly post it all to Facebook so that everyone will know that we are men!  This is how we prove ourselves... this is how we feel good about our masculinity... this is how we build our sense of significance... this is how we justify ourselves.

The problem is that the cultural markers of manhood make for a terrible source of significance... because culture is always changing... and our capacity to make the grade is always deteriorating.  Sooner or later we will find ourselves outside of culture's picture of the perfect man and we will feel ourselves slipping into insignificance again.  The cultural benchmark of manhood keeps moving further and further away from us and we are left languishing in the wake of a new generation of men who seem far more manly than us.  Justifying yourself through your manliness is destined to failure.

There are biblical markers of manhood and they have nothing to do with beards, bacon and badass no matter how much the young evangelical beard wearers want to deify their beards.  The biblical markers of manhood have more to do with responsibility, initiative, stewardship and loving sacrifice... but even our ability to display these is not what justifies us.

The doctrine of justification by faith frees you from having to justify yourself with the cultural markers of manliness.  It calls us to consider our beards, bacon and badass look as dung compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ.  See in Jesus we don't have to measure up to the ever changing manly image... in fact only in Jesus can we admit our failings as a man because we don't have to prove ourselves to God or anyone else... Justification by faith means that we can rest in the reality that Jesus lived the life of perfect manliness that we have so often failed at... He took initiative to take responsibility for the mess we had made and lovingly sacrificed Himself as He became insignificant in our place; beaten, mocked, shamed and killed.  According to Isaiah's prophecies Jesus even offered his cheeks to those who would tear his beard out (Is 50:6). But God raised Him from the dead and gave Him victory over all of His enemies.

And so by all means grow a beard and eat a bacon sandwich wearing a badass suit... but know that it proves nothing... It is not through our beards, bacon and badass that we find our vindication; but through faith in the truly perfect man Jesus.  Only through Him can we be set free from trying to measure up to our culture's image of the perfect man and the burden of our failings.  Only in Jesus can we find all the significance we crave.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Functional Justification

Preaching through the book of Galatians over the last few months has once again brought the doctrine of “Justification by Faith” to the forefront of my mind. In the broader evangelical church today this doctrine is hotly contested so as I began to plan out the sermons and dive into the commentaries I very quickly became swallowed up in the various debates. But then I remembered that as a preacher I had to stand in front of a congregation of real people and teach them not only the fact of justification by faith but the implications of it. As much as I had to make decisions about what Paul really means when he speaks of being justified by faith I also had to translate to the congregation what this reality means for their day to day lives.

So as I have prepared each message I have been asking myself this question: what tangible life change am I calling the congregation to make today that will mark them as people who have been justified by faith? In other words, what does it means to live like one who is justified by faith? I hope by God’s grace that this has been happening throughout the series and that He is shaping us to be a community who truly and practically live by faith.

However, as I have gone on this journey of examining my life and the Christian culture around me I have come to the realisation that more often than not we are lacking the most powerful practical expression of justification by faith. Daily I catch myself or see other Christians visibly living in a way that actually denies justification by faith. We have blindly embraced the cultural norm of our generation without realising it betrays that our hearts seek justification from a source other than the person and work of Jesus Christ.

In Philippians 3 Paul tells the story of his illustrious past. He outlines his privileged birth, his adherence to the cultural and religious expectations of Judaism, his studious success as a Pharisee and his passion for the cause of his people. See for Paul meeting the cultural and religious expectations placed on him was where he drew his sense of self-worth; it was how he justified himself before God and humanity. But in verse 7, as he looks back at his life, he explains what he thinks of all this privilege and effort now that he has encountered Christ,
“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…”
And in here is what I believe is the most powerful implication of justification by faith: If we are justified by faith in Christ then we are free from having to justify ourselves.

For Paul faith in Christ meant that his righteousness was not his own! All his cultural and religious success was, as he puts it, “rubbish” or more literally “dung”. Trying to justify himself before his fellow man and God he was running on a treadmill, constantly trying to prove himself acceptable or worthy and measure up to society's standards of success. But coming to faith in Jesus freed him from his self-justification. Instead Paul could rest in the knowledge that he did not have to prove himself to anyone because he was justified by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus had proved Himself worthy and acceptable to God through His sinless life and sacrificial death and graciously gave this justification to Paul and all who would believe.

And yet so often we are bound to run the treadmill of measuring up to the cultural expectations of our society. Theologically we claim to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ but functionally we slave our guts out to justify ourselves in the eyes of our generation. Longing to present ourselves in such a way that might lift us in the estimations of those whose opinions matter most to us, we constantly ask ourselves the question: how will this seem in the eyes of others?

My guess is that this has always been a problem but it is so much more prevalent today because we have possibly the most powerful tool in self-justification ever invented – social media! For all the good it does social media has created a context where I can express the image of myself that I want portrayed to the world. I can craft every status update, carefully choose every photo and manage my privacy settings so that only the right people can see me.  Can any of us honestly say that we have never posted something purely to impress others and then sat back and waited for the "likes" and "comments" to roll on in?

The truth is that so few of us can ever really obtain cultural success with the vast majority of us battling to keep our heads above the water.  And even if your photo, video or status of self-justification goes viral and the world gets to bask in your cultural awesomeness, it only lasts a day and you spend the rest of your life trying to reproduce the goods or trying to ride the coattails of your success. 

If we truly believe that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone then surely it should free us to recognise our efforts to meet up to the expectations of our culture as dung compared to everything that Christ has achieved for us.  And so over the next few post I hope to identify some of the markers of cultural awesomeness that we are battling to attain to in the hope that we might allow the all surpassing worth of Christ free us from them.