21-Day Challenge: Day 21

The contrasts of the new covenant

th-1The new covenant is all about contrasts, and the contrasts present such a different model of Christianity — of any kind of success-oriented teaching, for that matter — that we will miss it if we don’t expose ourselves to it over and over again. Thus, in this, our 21st day of a 21-Day Challenge, we are going to take all the major contrasts in these verses and lump them all together with the hope of perhaps getting the point.

And still we won’t totally get it, because the real message of the new covenant runs so counter to our human and cultural inclinations and lifelong instruction in every other area of life.

We are a success-oriented generation, constantly seeking self-improvement because we are convinced this is the road to success. We are all looking for something that will give us the edge over the competition. The money we spend on products and events that promise to do this for us must be astounding. Yes, competition, because we are always competing with one another. We compete for jobs, for neighborhoods, for school systems, for best body, for best soccer mom, and we compete for best Christian. If we feel inadequate, we go to adequacy seminars where a motivational speaker pumps us up for a few days until we deflate back to who we really are a few days later. For many people, church is a weekly motivational seminar. We all might as well be issued personal pumps that we can hook up to our big toe and pump when needed.

The new covenant flies in the face of all of this. It tells us we are most adequate when we are inadequate (2 Corinthians 3:4-6). That we have the most powerful effect on others when we are most aware of our human and emotional limits (2:12-16). That we are most free when we are stripped of all attempts to cover up our timid selves, or hide our intimidation behind thin veils of false adequacy. That we are most impressive when we lose all attempts to impress (3:18). It tells us we have the most profound effect on others when Christ’s power is seen not because of us, but in spite of us (4:6-7). We have the greatest impact for the kingdom of God when we are afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, and knocked down (4:8-9). And we are better dead than alive (4:10-12).

And even as I write this and you read it, we nod our heads, but we don’t actually get it. And we will finish this 21-Day Challenge and go right on doing what we’ve been doing since Adam, because no one wants to be that vulnerable. No one wants to present him or herself the way he or she really is.

Here it is: Stop hiding; stop trying; stop pumping. Throw your pump away. Your deflated self is just the thing God is looking for!

For sure, God wants people to be impressed around us, He just wants them to be impressed with Him, not with us. And the only way that happens is by contrast — when the most valuable thing we have shines through these common, broken vessels of ours “so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” Impress people with yourself, and no one gets to God.

Last night, on BlogTalkRadio, we had as our guests a couple we have known since the first time we were exposed to this teaching and discovered it together as we walked and talked. Marti reminded us of the time the four of us were guests of the chaplain at Gordon College in Massachusetts, who brought us on campus for a week of special meetings with the students. We taught the new covenant, and each night our numbers grew as the word got out about the freedom of this message, and, I’m sure, the vulnerability of the way we handled ourselves among them. There’s no way I can teach with Marti around and get away with anything. Every night, after I finished teaching, Marti would hold a very frank and honest “So what?” session, often at my expense. “Don’t look now, John, but your veil is showing!” Believe me, it was effective in showing the contrast between our true selves and the power of God in our midst.

On our final night, in a roomful of about 200 students (we had started with 30), we ended with prayer, and Marti invited them to pray out loud as they felt led, and while they prayed, the four of us slipped out quietly and never saw any of them again. To this day we have no idea what happened in the rest of that meeting. There was no arrangement made to end the meeting; we didn’t tell anyone we were going to do this. They could have prayed for hours, someone might have started singing, someone with the gift of leadership might have stood up and taken charge. It didn’t matter. We were four vessels, we had poured ourselves out, and we were done. To be there when they finished praying would have shifted the focus back to us, and perpetuated the myth that they needed us to have the experience they had when we were there. Of course that wasn’t necessary. So we left them with the one thing we could leave them: with the Lord in their midst. (We actually did find out that that group started a student-led weekly gathering that lasted to the end of that school year.)

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. (2 Corinthians 4:5)

Day 21 Challenge:
These verses we’ve looked at over these 21 days are at the heart of the new covenant passage in 2 Corinthians, but it continues into chapter 6 and concludes with the great statement below as Paul challenges the Corinthians to an exchange of openness, because it is only in that openness that we find the Lord together.

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:13)

Action items:
1. What’s your favorite “fall back” to hide behind when you’re feeling weak and vulnerable?
2. Why do you think it’s so hard to embrace these contrasts in our lives?
3. How do you most often avoid being vulnerable? How could you change that? What do you think would happen if you did?
4. Can you think of a time when the power of God showed up in your life in spite of yourself? What were you like? What was God like?
5. What can you do to live a more honest, open life all the time?
6. And our final challenge to you: “Open wide your hearts also.”

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