Let Love Lead

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” –1 John 4:7

Many years ago, I heard a sermon given by a wise pastor who said that when you are deciding whether or not to do something, and you feel pushed and anxious about it, that this is not from the Lord. His prompts are more like a draft horse pulling a plow. His powerful love leads us. After all, the Bible says that, “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” (Romans 8:14) The Greek word for led used here is agō, which means to lead out or guide.

In the context, Paul is talking about our battle against our flesh. When we are led by our flesh, we pursue our own pleasure over and above what God’s Spirit desires. But in another place, he says that if we “by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh,” we will overcome. We will allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into ever increasing holiness.  But it can be applied to everyday decisions, too, like job choice, what charities we give to and how much, our choice of close friends–things like that. And that was this pastor’s point: to not be badgered into, guilted into, or in any way, shape, or form coerced by man. So I’d like to talk a bit about motives today. They are SO important and what the Lord looks for when we do anything.

Not too long ago, I saw a quote from a church sign that said, “Forgive your enemies. It messes with their minds.” Now, I think our first reaction to this would be to smile, maybe even laugh…worse yet, to follow that line of thought because it would make our flesh quite satisfied to lay our enemy in the dust. However, Satan is subtle. If he can get us to pick up this kind of spirit of payback, the Lord will not honor our “forgiving.” We are to be imitators of God, not the world. The Lord forgives us because He loves us and wants to restore our relationship with Him. He does NOT want to “mess with our minds.” We are to forgive our enemies with the same motive in mind–to mend the relationship, to somehow draw them to Christ. That is why the directive is: “repay no one evil for evil;” rather, “overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17;21)

There seems to be three major motives that cause us to act when serving God: duty, fear, or love. For example, we may go to church every Sunday, tithe, or live a moral life out of a sense of duty, a sense it is expected and has been practiced for as long as one can remember. These same things can also be prompted by fear–that God will not love us if we don’t give ten percent, that God will not forgive confessed and repentant moral failings, that we’ll go to hell if we don’t (fill in the blank here). Then there is love. God is love, and in all things, the Lord is after our hearts to do, say, think, and live motivated by love:

When Jesus was asked by one of the teachers of the Law what the greatest commandment was, he replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

See? Love “pulls” the plow (in my analogy). The Word often refers to Christ’s teaching as a foundation, and that Christ is the chief Cornerstone. He holds up the entire structure being built by God. And Jesus lived love perfectly. Notice Jesus said that the foremost desire of God is to love Him? In what other religion throughout the history of the world does a deity desire love from its followers? Servile worship, fulfillment of rituals, a laundry list of rules in minutiae, a sense of always needing to placate its anger–these are the norm for the world. And sometimes it creeps even into Christian denominations. But the only true God says first and foremost, “Love me.” This is at the top of His list. It is true it is a command, yet our Lord commands and demands it for our good, because He is the source of all things good. If we love Him first, preeminently, all love and goodness will flow from Him, to us, and then to others. If we love Him first, we will in our hearts be seeking His desires and favor, and will not be caught in the snare of pleasing ourselves or others before pleasing Him. And all of the Lord’s commands, wisdom, and counsel should bring us joy, because His motive is always to love, protect, and bless us.

Now, the reason we all love is because God has loved us first. He modeled it to the world in Jesus, and displayed it on the cross in full public view so that we would not misunderstand or be tempted by the enemy when life gets tough that, somehow, God does not love us or always do what is right. The enemy is a liar, the father of lies, and speaks falsehood fluently. Satan’s first temptation of Adam and Eve painted God as someone who would withhold good from His creation. He maligned God Almighty, our perfect Heavenly Father. He has continued this tactic to this day. But the Word says that God’s love is so expansive, that it is as high as the heavens. I once tried to put that in some sort of mathematical illustration, but I think I failed. The best I could come up with is that the known universe is so big that you could travel around the world trillions of times to exponential powers to match its breadth, creating numbers I could not relate to! The LORD himself tells us He loves us this much. So, because God is our Source, our Model, and our Savior, because we are born again by the power of the Holy Spirit, we love, too. His Word says:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” –1 John 4:7-12

Even the second command in God’s list of priorities is love for one another in the body of Christ and for our unbelieving neighbors. The bible says that this proves our love for God. The Lord wants us to be kind, tenderhearted, and freely forgiving toward others, because it is His heart that we imitate Him, that we be conformed to the image of Jesus. If we do not love others, we cannot love God, because God showed us so clearly that He loves others, even His enemies. This is not a Kool-Aid, New Age, or hip sixties free love kind of thing. It is a strong and deep love rooted in seeking the best interest of the other. God’s love is hard. It is hard because it is different. The world is always trying to remake God’s love, to dress it up, prop it up, and talk it up to suit people, not God. Who is the Creator, and who is the created? Should the child tell his parent what he can and can not do, what is good and what is not?

The 1960s saw a lot of self-seeking lifestyles, and the New Age movement tells us that we need to “accept” each other, meaning if a lifestyle does not agree with God’s Word, we should keep silent and not “judge.” The problem is that such worldly reasoning does not submit to Divine authority. It thinks all our ideas are made up in our own minds and by our own standards. No, God’s love is not negotiable. When He tells us “no,” that is love, too. We are not “judging” our children when they do something wrong, are we? We are teaching them and protecting them from harm. And our love, which is like some base metal, is not superior to God’s love, which is like a precious metal. How can we set down guidelines for our own children, but reject any standard of right and wrong from our own Heavenly Father?

This second command is so important that the Lord tells us not to worship Him at the altar before seeking reconciliation with someone we have sinned against and offended! Jesus said, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24) In modern English, we could say, “Do not give your offering when the plate is passed if you know you’ve sinned against someone. Your Heavenly Father will be most pleased if you go and reconcile with that person first. No amount of tithes and offerings can compare to or make up for the evil that results when you do not seek the good of your neighbor or brother. When you have reconciled, come back to my Father’s house and He will accept your gift and will take delight in you.” So much of God’s paradigm is a complete one-eighty in importance and order from the worldly take on life! And our flesh gravitates to those false ways of doing things because it is just easier. Isn’t it easier to write a check to your local church than to humble yourself, admit your sin, and ask for forgiveness?

The apostle Paul’s eloquent praise of love in the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians tells us that, without love, no spiritual gift, no vast sum of knowledge, no great sacrifice benefits us. He point blank states it amounts to zilch. He says such things, even seemingly godly things like supernatural gifts, giving all your worldly goods to the poor, even moving a mountain or two, done for show, selfish-gain, or any fleshly motive, leaves us noisy, of little esteem, and unprofitable. And it impresses God not one iota.

Can you see how easy it is to want to impress people? Because it pleases our self. The world clamors after fame, recognition, and respect from people for one’s own sense of self-worth and importance. God’s children should be about the desire to bring Him fame (glory), recognition, and honor. Paul was a good example of this. He is known now as a great man of faith. But back then he suffered disrespect, slander, accusations of poor leadership ability, reproach…you name it. But he overcame because his motive was always to please God, not man. The bible says we are but dust. Why do we then try to impress one another?

We need to seek our self-worth and praise from God alone. Only then will we be truly confident and content. Love seeks to please the object of its desire. Praying for the Lord to help us love Him more is, in my opinion, one of the best prayers you can pray. It is the solution to all besetting sin and a foundation that will withstand any temptation or tempest. And it is the Holy Spirit who pours out God’s love in our hearts. (Romans 5:5) Jesus said, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13)

If we apply this lifegiving principle to all we do and pray, we will bear so much fruit. I sense such pleasure from our Lord when I ask Him to help me love in difficult situations and even in the day to day stuff we experience. For example, is our giving done because we feel guilted into it, or has the Lord led us to love the church body, both local and worldwide? Are we moved by compassion to help the homeless man, or a down-and-out family member, or folks who do not have access to human service organizations? Or would we rather give only because it is tax deductible? Do we have a set amount in mind, or do we listen to the Lord’s prompting? Would we give more than ten percent if the Lord would direct us? Would we be obedient enough to give less than ten percent if the Lord would direct us to pay back a a bad debt first? Is it loving to file bankruptcy on our creditors because our church is asking for more money?

Another way to apply love is when we judge another. Is our heart to restore and correct, or condemn? So many times a person’s story affects the severity of the rebuke. For example, I had a friend, a believer, who committed adultery many times over. I didn’t know how to pray, I couldn’t understand. But I counseled them against such things, and prayed for the Lord to help them walk in the Spirit. I found out later that they had a mental illness and physical reason for the behavior. The behavior is still wrong, yes, but the correction is meted out with more mercy because their mind was not right.

There is a beautiful example of how God views a person’s motives, what is in their heart, in Mark 14:3-9:

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.  The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

The disciples wanted to reprimand this woman for “wasting” the expensive perfume she poured on Jesus. Can you imagine giving something worth so much to Jesus only to be judged as wasteful and foolish by others? Perhaps they were offended because she didn’t ask them what to do with the perfume? But Jesus said what she did was BEAUTIFUL, and He was so touched by her act of love that He promised her example would be repeated wherever the gospel was preached in perpetual memory of her. He saw the great love in her heart for Him. Some of the other disciples, preoccupied with procuring a more “righteous” purpose for the perfume, missed the preciousness of her act. So in most everything, when we have a holy love for Jesus in mind, it brings His heart joy.

The most obvious application of being led by love is our choices in life. We are called to be holy, and “love does no harm to a neighbor.” (Romans 13:10) God’s moral requirements are meant to protect us and others. We are told not to have sex outside of marriage because it represents a close intimacy that is a lifelong commitment. Sex outside of marriage requires no commitment, no promise of faithfulness, an easy out for our fickleness. We are commanded not to commit adultery because it wrecks our dignity, hurts our spouse and children, and can even lead to jealous fits of anger–things that will scar our life for years and years to come because of some momentary imagined “fix” or fleeting pleasure. We are commanded not to get drunk, because it leads to debauchery when our inhibitions are lowered. Addictions ruin entire families when a job is lost because of it or funds to care for one’s own children are spent on the desired drug. We become unloving when we let our flesh rule our bodies and lives. Our flesh produces rotten fruit. When we walk in the Spirit, we bear His fruit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. Good fruit that will last throughout eternity.

On a final note, I’d like to add something. The Lord wants an emotional kind of love from us, the feeling of tender affection. But He looks for proof of it in our actions. He always has. In Ezekiel 33:30-32, The Lord says of His people, “Come and hear the message that has come from the Lord.’ My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.” Do we lack preaching in our age, in this country, or has everything become entertainment, too? Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.” (John 14:15)

In the Apostle John’s first letter he writes:

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:16-18)

I have heard of congregations angrily splitting over politics, ministry approaches, building projects–even carpet colors! Really? Does our opinion matter so much that we stubbornly resist one another to the point of what looks like a broken up teenage romance? Remember little old Clara Peller who is famous for her line in the 1980’s Wendy’s commercial? She’s holding a competitor’s burger, stares at the lack of bun coverage, and with an unimpressed quip asks, “Where’s the beef?” I wish she were still around to ask the Church, especially here in the United States and in more affluent countries, “Where’s the love?”

Oh, how we need to clothe ourselves in love! Love covers a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8) Love always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:7-8) God never fails. (Isaiah 55:10-11) “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” (2 John 1:6) He who walks in love follows Christ. If we suffer illness, poverty, death of a dear one, ridicule, scorn, false accusations, imprisonment, even death–the Holy Spirit will fill us with His love so that we will not ultimately fail. He will lead us to His heavenly victory. “Do everything in love!” (1 Corinthians 16:14)

I write this to challenge and encourage. God’s spiritual children mature over time, just like physical children. Do not let the enemy steal your hope. Hope always in the Lord. He is our ever present help and merciful redeemer. He is patient and kind. He offers His good gifts freely. We need only ask.

Jesus said, “…On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) Amen.

Are Christians Supposed to Make the World a Better Place?

“Jesus said…In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” –John 18:37

I’ve often heard people, well-meaning believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, say things like: “We need to make a difference in our world, in our country, in our community, and in our homes.” Or, “Let’s get out there and change the world.” Should we? Or do we, ever so subtly, even by something seemingly good, get sidetracked from our vocation as Christians? I often have felt a check in my spirit when I hear things like this. Up until maybe 4 or so years ago, statements like this confused and weighted me down. I would ask the Lord, “What do you want me to do? Should I start a charity for refugees, protest for the anti-abortion movement, support veterans, fight for civil rights?” The list expands with every desperate need we see in society. So the Lord Jesus has taught me something from all this that I’d like to share with you, with the hopes that it will keep you on task and at peace.

First, let me ask that you read this with care and knowing that love is the motivation. I am NOT saying we are never called to do good works. That is unscriptural. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10). I merely want to draw your attention to the purpose and order of our to-do lists, which, sadly, these days are way too long. We live in a world of Marthas! Remember that it was Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, that chose the good part. It is a distraction and tactic of the enemy to drive a wedge between us and our Lord—always doing and having little time to build our friendship with the Lord. When we love others, we want to spend time with them, yes? How much more should we spend quiet time alone with our Lord and Savior, prayerfully reading His Word and enjoying His presence. He has called us to friendship, not a productivity initiative. We first have to receive from Him, then share it with others.

To start off with, lets talk about our purpose in doing good works. What did Jesus say? “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). Is our purpose here to make a difference in the world? Or to bring glory to God? I beg you to see that our purpose behind our good works is to bring the magnificence of our God to light. So that we can point lost people to Him, not ourselves. So many churches have big programs and events and drives and whatnot. What gets headlined in the local paper or their own web site? Their church! I suppose the idea is to get people to church to hear the gospel. Then they get there to find lots of friendly people, coffee bars, rock concert-type music, and a message that basically says, “God loves you just the way you are.” Which is true in the sense that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” But then they say, “Hey, this church ain’t so bad!” But I suspect most folks walk away with the idea that God loves them so much that they need not change their sinful way of life. This is perverted love! What parent would allow or encourage their son or daughter to continue using something like heroin if it would destroy their life or even cause their death? Is the Lord less loving than a human parent?

I digress a bit, but the preaching of repentance is sadly missing in our seeker-focused churches we have today. But we hear, “God’s love is unconditional.” This is a lie straight from hell. I’m not saying His love is withheld if we do wrong, but it is enforced! Most unchurched people use the term unconditional love to mean that God accepts me as who I am and will allow me to do whatever I want. He will never tell me I’m doing wrong, because that’s being judgmental. ?! Listen. When you get a call at 2 AM from a police officer who informs you that your son or daughter was picked up for drunk driving and has totaled the family car, most parents say, “Oh, that’s okay. No big deal. We will buy them another car so they can go kill themselves or someone else in a head-on collision going the wrong way on the freeway of life. After all, we love them. They’re our child. We need to cheer them on!” NOT. So, anyone who argues that God’s love is unconditional in an attempt to excuse their sin, I challenge to let their own children run their home. Let’s see how that turns out. The church needs to let the Lord run His home, not placate sinners.

Repentance is the one main ingredient lacking in the gospel message today. I even read somewhere that repentance is a work and therefore not necessary because salvation is by grace. This is twisted. Please read in the Word how the apostles preached. Paul said, “[I] declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” (Acts 26:20) Even ‘[Jesus} said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”‘ (Luke 24:47)

There are many more scriptures I could list. Bottom line is that the modern church looks more like the world than a Jesus follower because its kowtowing to the society’s likes and dislikes. Sermons are more akin to a sales pitch or grand marketing scheme to draw the most conversions, because mega is “in” and truth is so outmoded. What does the bible say? “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

It feels so good to scratch an itch. The Church needs to stop it’s co-dependent relationship with its members. The coffers may run dry, the pews may look pretty empty, but let’s let the truth be told out of love. Paul said, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Romans 2: 7-8) What? Works? No. Holiness and righteousness are not works. They are fruit! Remember, Paul said this, the champion of salvation by grace through faith! We need to repent. Itching ears need truth or they will perish. We may even be surprised at the result when we stop striving to fill the seats and let the Lord of Hosts do His saving work.

Okay. So the purpose of our good works is to bring glory to our loving God, out of love for Him and our neighbor. The next point I want to make is the order of our to-do lists. What should be our priority? What is our purpose in this world which is passing away? What was Jesus’ purpose? “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37) What was the disciples’ purpose? “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) We are to be witnesses for Christ, preaching His gospel, testifying to His truth. The Lord’s desire is to fill his house! This should be our number one priority. We can lobby for anti-abortion laws, protest for civil rights, be a champion for the homeless, but if the gospel message is not preeminent, the work will swallow up the purpose of our lives. Truthfully, if our focus gets shifted to the cause, we end up with the same sad world BECAUSE it is the Lord who changes hearts, not man-made laws or government action. The laws may change, but the individual’s heart remains cold. I am NOT saying that any of these causes are not good. I am saying they are out of order. God wants us to speak truth so that He can renew and conform us into the image of his Son. A law does not do this. Only the gospel message can. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16)

Brothers and sisters, please understand. A follower of Jesus is not called to make the world a better place! No amount of doing good will fix this world. Jesus did the ultimate good. He died for us and has given us new life. Did this change the world in the sense of making it a utopia? The early church was brimming with good works. How did they fare in making the world a better place? Who is the ruler of this world? Did Jesus tell us it will eventually get better over time? Or worse? Did he not ask that at the day of his coming, will he find faith on the earth? My concern is that this “better place” thinking is more of a New Age type idea, that if enough people get together and do good to one another, they will impact the world for the better and will evolve into superior humans. Do they see good results? Yes, at times. But devoid of a clear gospel message, people may have all their rights secured and their bellies filled but they are still going to hell. The fix is temporal, not eternal. We need to stay on task. The Apostles preached and testified about Jesus and worked hard making disciples. They apparently, if you look at the world then and now, did not make it a better place. They made eternity a better place!

So what should a Christian do when the world tempts us with all its needs? Look to a person’s overarching need for salvation, then let the Lord supply. Otherwise, we go bankrupt. We have not enough resources or energy or power. Our heavenly Father, on the other hand, can reach into his infinite storehouse. Listen. When we feel tugged and guilty to meet some need in our world, and feel overwhelmed with the task, that is not the Lord calling you to serve. It is a distraction. Jesus, God in the flesh, did not abolish slavery or any other “just” cause because he stayed on task. He came to seek and save the lost. It was His mission, and it should be ours. I am not saying to not get involved in any of the things I’ve mentioned. Just don’t let it distract you from the top of the list. Pray for direction. Do not feel “pushed” or burdened with guilt. It is the order of things that I contest. Any good to society that comes from our good works must ride on the coattails of the gospel message, or it loses its eternal value. So let’s focus on making eternity a better place. Let’s be about the Father’s desire to make His house in eternity full. Amen.

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.” —Luke 14:23

Are You In God’s Way?

“Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” –Exodus 33:15-16

I have often struggled with the fact that the Church of our unchanging God and Savior, Jesus Christ, has become so worldly in its methods and judgement. For example, we meld worldly ideas into our mainstream churches as easily as a new fad, as if trying them on like the latest fashion trend. Remember platform shoes? If you were “in,” you wore these silly creations and were accepted, viewed as conforming to the current standard of beauty. But the eyes of the world are fickle. Beauty fades with the latest “new” thing, not because it is actually new, but because we are tired of the old. We need a change. The bible says, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)

Some of the current fads in the church have crept in like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They are worldly ideas that have been “Christianized,” made to look as innocent as a lamb, tweaked here and there so as not to offend our delicate consciences. But does it offend God? Our consciences can be hardened like callouses by repeated sin. They can also be overly tender, or most superstitious. For example, one could believe that if we don’t go to church every Sunday, we will go to hell. The truth of the matter is that if we don’t want to go to church on Sunday because it’s boring, God probably doesn’t want us there either. And that works both ways. He doesn’t want us there because it’s probably a dead church. If we go to a Spirit-filled church and still think it’s boring or that we’d rather be doing something else, He’s probably not too thrilled with us being there taking up pew space so we don’t feel guilty about our loveless weekly obligation. Because then we’re sleeping, or worse yet, spiritually dead. Does not even the world say, “The first step to getting help is admitting we have a problem?”

If you recognize yourself in any of this, take heart! He wants to wake us and bring us to life. Because He is anything but boring. Or unjust. Or bent on our ultimate demise. Our image of God is often a caricature of His perfection based on all the things that make up a modern church service: all the external rites and routines, the bad sermons that are full of hellfire and brimstone, and the false teaching that grace is given to excuse our unrepentant practice of sin and live like the rest of the hurting and miserable people in the world, because God is “love.” Love? As if he were an absent Parent not caring a whit about our safety, growth, welfare, education, or relationships. A worldly love that is sickening-sweet and always smiling down on whatever we do and dares to swallow the demonic lie that “all roads lead to heaven.” That we are all on the “same path.” That God is much more “tolerant” these days. As if he were sorry for his past insistence that He get all the glory due him. Truth says of Jesus, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

Worldly love is not godly love. It’s flattery. Our Lord did not leave heaven, teach us about His Father, suffer crucifixion, take upon Himself God’s wrath, die, and raise Himself to life again so that He could now and forever flatter us! He did all these things to paint a poignant and painful heavenly mural of how lost and wretched we are without him. It’s as if the Lord were making His Church look in a mirror. We are asleep to what Jesus is doing. Or we are dead to His beauty. He wants us to “see” Him clearly, so that we don’t go around inflicting our faulty image of God on others. He wants us to “see” ourselves clearly, so that we repent.

One of the “new” ideas that has crept into the Church today is the teaching of the Enneagram. Its roots date back to many non-Christian sources, but became popular in the late 1960s when Oscar Ichazo studied many worldly spiritual ideas and founded the Arica School of Knowledge. The gist of the site is a mix of psychology, philosophy, and New Age mumbo jumbo. The goal is knowledge and self-awareness. Why are we drinking this in? What is God’s goal for us? Is it to know ourselves better, or to know Him better? Is it knowledge, or friendship with God? I know some are well-meaning, but that is the temptation. We want to “know” our strengths and weaknesses so that we can serve God better. That’s the Christian slant.

Do you think God does not see through this? The focus is on ourselves, on how we, mere mortals, can deduce from worldly assessments and typologies a way to serve God better! Doesn’t God provide us with His gifts and talents through His Holy Spirit? We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. He is the potter, we are the clay. Are we not knit together by Him in the womb? Do we not trust the Lord who paid it all to also finish it all? Did Paul need to know his Enneagram to serve Jesus any better? Did the Apostle John, the one whom Jesus loved, need his Enneagram to be loved any more? Aren’t we saved and sanctified by the blood of Jesus, new creatures to be conformed to the image of His likeness? Are our destinies determined by philosophies of man, or the providence of God? John the Baptist said, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.” Does knowing our Enneagram equip us any better than the Holy Spirit poured out on Peter and his audience on the Day of Pentecost? My people, the leaven of the world is invading my Church. Such worldly wisdom dressed in a Christian guise is trading the rivers of living water for brackish water!

Another practice of the Church today is the celebration of Halloween with the rest of the world. It has been explained away as a holiday for our children. We dress them up as princesses and dinosaurs, something less ghoulish, to placate our Christian sensitivities. Then they see worldly children dressed up as witches and ghosts and monsters, and since they walk shoulder to shoulder with them on trick-or-treat day, they grow dull to the dangers all around them. They get attracted to “good” witch stories, ghost stories, and progress to demon-inspired movies featuring grotesque modes of death by evil forces, seeding our minds with the idea that Satan is more powerful than any child of God! What does the Word say? We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us (Romans 8:37).

We even use this holiday to “draw” people to our churches. I read recently about a megachurch that had a huge Halloween bash for the purpose of inviting the unsaved to the party, so that they can rub shoulders with us “righteous” folk. While getting people to church may seem to be a noble motive, a most assuredly God-honoring goal, does it really honor God? When a church holds a trunk-or-treat or some such popular idea, and has a big turnout, what do the newspapers take note of? “Thousands Celebrate Halloween at (insert your church here).” Notice what the world sees us celebrating, even though we dress it up in Christian garb? Shouldn’t we be noticed for celebrating Jesus? You may object. These innocent events are “family-friendly,” “safe,” and “fun.” The problem is that it is still imitating the world. Christians “need” a holiday to give candy to their kids, too. Do we? We don’t want to deny our kids some fun on that particular day, so we make it more “acceptable.” To whom? Many churches start well, even, but when they lack the “draw,” they add haunted houses and “spooky organ concerts,” advertising with smiling jack-o-lanterns so that Jesus is not too overwhelming to the dear lost souls we want to save. As if we’re going to hoodwink them into coming to church! Aren’t they rather confused? What is different about this church than the world? Isn’t it Christ’s presence? If not, how will the lack thereof glorify God? Isn’t Halloween just a less-scary version of the steeped-in-paganism original holiday?

It is a fact that Halloween is a Satanic high holiday in our present culture. It has been said by the founder of the Church of Satan that, “Halloween is the most important day of the year for devil worshippers.” Ages ago, it developed from Celtic superstitions and pagan practices devoid of God’s truth. Even if we “tone it down,” does it not obscure truth? What truth? That Goodness and Love triumph over evil, that Christ has overcome the world, that the prince of this world now stands condemned. That hell is eternal life without God, and that He made the way to heaven wide open through one tiny door of faith in Jesus’ deity, death, and resurrection. That He is not out to “get us,” but out to save us. Always. Halloween and everything associated with it obscures this with its association with evil and superstition.

You may still object. You say, “No, it is harmless. You’re making too big a deal out of this.” There are reasons, my fellow brothers and sisters. First, let’s look at the pattern of practices established throughout the bible. Did Moses need or use a pagan holiday to convert the Israelites? Didn’t they try that? Golden calf? They actually called it Yahweh, by God’s name! We know how that ended. Did the Lord command that the Israelites adopt the practices of the pagan nations? Weren’t they supposed to not want to be like them? Would an Israelite have sent their kid to a Baal festival because it was harmless fun? Listen to Paul:

“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:

“I will live with them
    and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.”

Therefore,

“Come out from them
    and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
    and I will receive you.”

And,

“I will be a Father to you,
    and you will be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.” –Romans 6: 14-18

Did Jesus need or use a toned-down Roman festival to a false god as an opportunity to glorify His Father? Did Paul? Paul once saw an “alter to an unknown god,” among all the idols in the city of Athens, and subsequently preached Jesus to them, using it as a springboard to speak God’s truth. But he didn’t hold a festival for Artemis in Ephesus and invite the locals! We make up opportunities to share our faith because we know we “should” share the gospel, when in truth God creates all the opportunities to share the gospel for anyone who wants to, for anyone led by the Spirit of God to speak. Like Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” (John 4:35) His statement was prompted by the events that took place with the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus saw Opportunity approach him in the form of a woman, a water jar, and a heavy heart. Then the entire town believed. Think about it. When His disciples fished and found nothing, when did they haul in the big catch? When Jesus was present. When he told them where to throw their net.

Which brings me to my next point. The Church tries to draw worldly people to Christ by being worldly. A couple thought processes are probably that if I can just get them into church, they’re on my own turf and I’ll have more chutzpa to share the gospel. Or, if they see us as being more lenient on sin, they will not be so offended. I see this in the above example, and also with a lot of music. Not that all Christian music is bad. It’s just that if it looks like the world, sounds like the world, it is of the world. In some Christian music, you can’t even hear the words. And they may be great words! But if they can’t be heard by a non-believer, how can it be a good witness? It looks and sounds just like Metallica to them. Yes, you have liberty! But do you look like Jesus at that point, or the world? Do we want to exercise “our rights,” or bring people to Christ? Didn’t Paul say, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8:13) How much more so for an unbeliever!

But you say, “The motive is to get them saved!” That’s well and good. But does our working and trying and finagling improve on the power of His Holy Spirit? Are we not born again by the power of God? And how did the early disciples get the chutzpa to preach? Jesus told them to “wait for power from on high.” It is not something we muster up. It is received. When we are ready. When we will use it for only God’s glory. When we rely on these worldly things, who gets the credit? Isn’t it often us? Hear the Lord: “For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another.” (Isaiah 48:11) Isn’t our whole approach to evangelization discussed here one of distrust? “How?,” you say. Does music, or the friendliness of our church, or any host of “good” things draw sinners to Christ? What does scripture say? “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:44) No amount of cajoling will bring the lost to Christ. It is the power and work of God from first to last. So that He gets the credit. So that people look to Him, and not mere man. He glorifies Himself for our own good.

I am not saying the Lord will never use our feeble attempts to share His love if done in humility. I know of a church that hands out little candy bags and inserts a gospel tract to the kids who come to visit. This is much more God-honoring, because the seeds of truth go out. Many times I sense He does use our “two little fish” out of compassion for the lost, and recognizes any good motive we have, especially godly love. But I sense he wants more. He wants to glorify himself fully. Who better to glorify God than God Himself? I hear him saying to His Bride, “Get out of the way.” In other words, cease striving, and start surrendering. Trusting. Obeying. Waiting. Seeing His opportunities. If a nurse tries to do an open heart surgery, she would either be thinking more of herself than she ought, or feeling completely inadequate. The surgeon would know she isn’t skilled enough, and would want her to step aside and let him take over. It is the same with the Great Physician. “Get out of the way!”

One last point. How do unbelievers recognize God’s people? John 13:35 says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Who is everyone? Isn’t it believers here? How can unbelievers recognize godly love? So how do unbelievers recognize the Church? Is it our collective love? Hmm…many times sadly missing. Is it our holiness? Hmm…again, we are not perfect, but all spiritual children growing at various stages. Is it our unity? This is downright laughable these days…sorry, not sorry. Were these markers in the early Church? Or did they seem to have problems imitating the world, too? How does the bible say the pagan nations recognize Israel’s God as the One True God?

“Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?” –Exodus 33:15-16

Right before these verses, the Lord is telling Moses to take the Israelites, with whom he is displeased, to the land He promised their forefathers. He tells Moses that He will not go with them, but will send an angel before them to subdue their enemies. And in the verses above, we have Moses’ humble response. His heartrending disappointment at hearing God say He would not be with them. A little bit further on, we have hope:

“Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshiped. “Lord,” he said, “if I have found favor in your eyes, then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance.”

“Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.” –Exodus 34: 8-14

See? God did not say He would be known by what the Israelites did or did not do. He would be recognized by His power and His work. For us. Doesn’t he tell His people by the Red Sea, “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still?” Just like salvation. ‘”My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)

We need to get smaller, so that God can be greater. Like Jesus. He gave us the example. He was God incarnate, yet a servant to all. He was more royal than the the loftiest earthly king, yet allowed the lowliest into His court. He was more beautiful than the vast majority of Jews imagined him to be, yet He came to earth to fully reveal His love. Yet He left it all–His glory, His royalty, His dazzling beauty–to be born a plain and helpless baby in a humble manger, in a little-known town, among headstrong and willful people who would not recognize Him as their God and Savior. Acts 10:38 says, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power. He went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” See? God was with Him. Let’s pray like Moses, with whom God was pleased, that He will go with us wherever He sends us, as well. He is faithful, even when we are not. That is pure grace. Amen.

And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” –John 28:20

Spiritual Journey: A Riches to Rags Story

 Looking at his disciples, [Jesus] said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
 Blessed are you who hunger now,
    for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
    when they exclude you and insult you
    and reject your name as evil,
        because of the Son of Man.

“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
    for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
    for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
    for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.

–Luke 6:20-26

I have often seen these first three verses from our featured passage on literature for poverty relief organizations. Ripped out of context and applied literally, this would mean that Jesus is saying that the physically poor, the hungry, and the depressed somehow have more merit in the eyes of God, and that rich, chubby, happy people are doomed. Hmm. Seems to me there must be something more here than meets the eye–the spiritual eye!

The first four verses are easily recognized as a parallel passage to the beatitudes of Matthew, chapter 5. A key to understanding this passage is looking at the similar one. Matthew 5:3 states: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Jesus must be referring to poverty of spirit, not physical poverty. He is talking to people who recognize their spiritual need, their spiritual poverty in the sight of a holy and righteous God, because they will depend on Jesus for salvation. They rely on God’s mercy and grace, his spiritual charity, and not their own righteousness, and so the kingdom of God is theirs (Romans 3:21-24).

In verse 21 above, it is again not literal food Jesus is talking about. Matthew 5:6 speaks of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. How often Jesus spoke of himself as being living bread and living water! (John 6:51; John 4:10) Similarly, it is not those who are unhappy about justifiably sad events, but rather those who mourn over and regret their sin that are comforted. (Luke 18:13)

Verse 22 is the key to the whole passage. When are people especially blessed? When they have physical needs? No. Here, Jesus makes it clear he’s talking about his followers. It’s when we are hated, insulted, and called evil because we bear the name of Jesus. Just like the prophets and Jesus himself, every one of us who commits our life to glorify God will suffer. But even though we suffer here for a little while, Jesus reminds us to rejoice because our reward in heaven is eternal.

Unlike the passage in Matthew, Luke adds four woes to show a reversal of fortune in the spiritual realm. The first woe is to the rich. Does that mean that wealth is bad? No, some notable examples of faith were very well-to-do, including Abraham. Again, this must be taken in the spiritual sense: those who consider themselves wealthy before a holy God because of their own righteousness. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day felt like they were pretty righteous folks, and relied on their own interpretation of their Law for their feeling of spiritual security.

Again, Jesus said, woe to the well fed, or those who didn’t eat up Jesus’ parables or drink in his spiritual words. Woe to those who joke about or make light of their sin, and who want everyone to speak well of them in public, instead of saying what is true and right. Just like the false prophets in the past, they will tickle the ears of their listeners, seek glory for themselves, and lead people away from God. Woe, Jesus says, for the day is coming, if they do not heed his warning, when the tables are turned, and they will be without comfort, they will go hungry, and they will mourn and weep.

There’s a similar reversal of fortune found in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31:

 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Again, there is a tendency to just read this as a parable about the rich not lifting a finger to do anything for the poor.

This cannot be simply a parable about how the poor go to heaven and the rich go to hell. As mentioned previously, Abraham himself was wealthy beyond imagination. Here in this parable he is comforting Lazarus at his side. So if Abraham is in heaven, why and how did he get there? Why is the other rich man in hell? Why is Lazarus in heaven?

Throughout the bible, Abraham is held up as a model of faith, not in himself, but in God. The bible says that when God promised Abraham a son in his old age, that he “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Abraham’s spiritual children are all who, like him, believe God, and are credited righteousness: “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9).

We know Lazarus did not go to heaven on his own merit. Poor people are just as needy spiritually as you and me. So here’s the deal. Did you know that the name Lazarus means, “whom God has helped?” Lazarus is just like those in our featured passage who are poor in spirit. He is hungry for God and covered with all sorts of spiritual sores that need healing. Even the dogs have more empathy and spiritual sense than the rich man!

So who is this rich man? In context, Jesus had been talking to his disciples, sharing another parable, and when the Pharisees overheard it, they sneered at Jesus, because they loved not only wealth, but also their way of life, their practices, their culture, their own wisdom, their own selves more than the lives of those around them. Jesus said to them: “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Luke 16: 15). They were supposed to be Israel’s religious leaders and teachers, but they held sinners in disdain and refused to help the most spiritually needy right under their upturned noses.

It would be like people today, especially modern-day religious leaders, who get wealthy without giving a crumb of real spiritual food to their flocks. Or individuals and religious leaders who weigh down people with many “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” before helping them understand Jesus’ only required work for entrance into heaven: “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). Or individuals and religious leaders today who like to mix extra-biblical material with orthodox Christian thought, polluting the faith with heretical ideas that do not glorify God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit, but rather man. Simply put, the rich man is a pseudo-religious figure who cares nothing for the eternal well-being of the wretched soul lying just outside his doorway.

Am I trying to minimize the role of humanitarianism and the importance of aiding the poor in society? Never! Jesus himself tells us how we should care for and have friendship with the poor and disabled in our communities. He said, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed” (Luke 14:13-14). I’m only pointing out the spiritual overtones of these passages. God does not want us to look at our own works and say, “Well, I have gone to church every Sunday, I have given so much to the poor–hey, I’m a pretty decent and kind person. Thank God I’m not like [insert least favorite political candidate]. I’m sure he will let me in heaven.”

That is the attitude of Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Note the reversal of fortune at the end? We seem to have it all backwards, upside-down, & inside-out! Isaiah 64:6 states it best: “How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” So, no. God doesn’t want us to rely on or boast about what we do. He wants us to say, “I believe in Jesus. I’m sure he will let me in heaven because I know he died for me . . . even though I missed church about half of the Sundays this year and I didn’t give five bucks to that homeless man today because I thought he would buy a bottle of cheap booze with it. Dear Jesus, forgive me. What should I do?”

Jesus: “The next time you see the homeless man, at least buy him a sandwich and a soda. I would prefer that you do this though, because the kingdom of God is all about relationship with me and other people: The poor and disabled are not just projects. They are potential friends. Eat with him. Listen to his story. Tell him about me. The sandwich will be gone in fifteen minutes. You’ll leave him in sixty minutes. If you and my other children keep doing this and more for him until he believes in me, then he will not only be off the street, but he will also be with me forever in eternity, just like you, and you will have gained a new friend. You will be so moved by the whole experience that you will actually look forward to worshipping me on Sundays and doing more.”

When you think about it, don’t you just want to tell everyone you can about Jesus? Don’t you wish everyone could experience the grace of God and come live in heaven with you? I do. Ahem. Let me say that I have not always had that attitude. God matured me over the years (yes, years!), and has helped me understand him in such a loving way that I want other people to know my God in all his awesomeness. Let’s pray for the heart to want to take as many people with us to heaven as we can, with God’s help. Hey. Even the rich guys dressed in purple and fine linen need our prayers, too.


Are You Looking for a Purpose in Life?

Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” –Numbers 13:30

 

Have you ever been around someone who just exudes confidence and faith? They have a real gift of encouragement, if people are willing to listen. Not so with our dear Israelites. In this account of biblical history, twelve leaders, one from each tribe, are sent to spy out the land of Canaan and report back on what they see & hear. Out of the twelve, only Caleb & Joshua tell the community that the land is everything God promised, and that with God’s favor they will be able to possess the land the Lord will give them.

Have you ever been influenced by a group of people that is fearful? The other ten men in our little spy group were afraid of the people in Canaan, and emphasized to the other Israelites their physical size, saying, “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 13:33) Yet Joshua and Caleb tell the people, “Do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:9)

These ten men that spread the fearful report have the Israelite assembly so riled up and feeling defeated that they want to stone Joshua & Caleb, the men that are trying to encourage them to trust in their God! They grumbled against Aaron and Moses, whining: “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt? And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.'”

When we look at our circumstances and assume negative outcomes based on supposed facts stripped of faith, we would most likely come to a similar conclusion as the Israelites: if only I didn’t have to face this problem. I was better off before God’s intervention in my life. Let’s elect a different leader who will guarantee my safety and happiness.

Sound familiar? I know I have days where I struggle with the wrong outlook, and then the Lord reminds me I am forgetting about trusting him to do good for me. The only leader who can guarantee my safety and happiness is Christ. He is our Rock.

When I read the above account I couldn’t help but think of our current political climate. I’ve been praying recently about the handling of Syrian refugees, whether or not they should be allowed to come to the U.S. or if we should close our borders to them. I have come to the conclusion that while proper security measures should be exercised, actions motivated by fear alone frustrate the will of God. God’ will is to love Him and other people as you would yourself. I know if I were a refugee, faced with homelessness, war, death, hunger–I would want someone to take me in and show me some kindness and mercy, not to fear me because of my ethnic or religious background.

Jesus told his disciples that when it comes to their own hides, they should fear God, not man. It is my duty as a follower of Jesus to love–both my neighbors and my enemies: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5: 43-45) If you ever wonder what your purpose in life is, it is to love people and God. Like Jesus’ life illustrates, sometimes that means laying down our self-interest to focus on the benefit of another.

I Love You to the Moon and Back

“For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.”

–Psalm 103:11-12

On the way to church this morning, my husband mentioned during our small talk that the odometer had just turned over to 66,555 miles. “Just think,” he said. “We’ve driven a little over a quarter of the way to the moon!” Although I knew the moon hadn’t been our destination these past ten-odd years of driving, I had to laugh at his delightful way of mapping our progress. It started me thinking about heavenly bodies.

Back on a cold late night in March 1997, I remember looking up into the dark sky to see the Hale-Bopp comet furrowing its cosmic path across the heavens. I had just heard on the news that the comet would be the closest to the earth this night, a mere 122,236,887 miles away. That’s 512 times the distance the earth is to the moon! As I stared in wonder at this astronomical phenomenon, the Lord whispered Isaiah 55:9 to my heart: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” I felt so humbled and awed at the greatness of my God!

I don’t think it coincidence that the sermon this morning was about how much God loves us, despite our faults, our sins, and our flimsy excuses. We might feel we have a neon sign on our forehead that flashes our sins and that is all God sees. We need to remember that because of our faith in Jesus, he sees us in whole, as his precious child. He sees our regret for our sins. He sees our frustration when we try to overcome a sin on our own, without the help of the Holy Spirit. Most importantly, the Lord sees our fear that he may stop loving us.

It was no mistake that God wanted me to think on an astronomic scale this morning. He wanted me to know that there is at least 122,236,887 miles of his love for me, for each and every one of his children. In my heavenly journey toward Love, in odometer terms, it’s like I’m still in the driveway, just beginning to explore God’s endless road of loving kindness. Can you hear him speak to your heart? It’s as if the Lord is calling out, “I love you to the moon and back and many, many times more.”

Dear Christian, Never Give Up!

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” –Luke 15:20

The entire fifteenth chapter of Luke is a series of three parables about lost things: a sheep, a silver coin, and a younger son. It is worth noting that all these things have progressive value. The sheep would have been commonplace, the silver coin (worth a day’s wages) would have been of far more value, and anyone could relate to the irreplaceable loss of a priceless child.

Now, tax collectors, various “sinners” of all sorts, the Pharisees, and teachers of the law gathered around Jesus to listen. The Pharisees and teachers had just been muttering under their breath, complaining about the fact that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. I can hear the disdain in their voices. It would be like a modern-day religious person saying, “If Mike knew what I know about Frank and his buddies, he wouldn’t be inviting them over to dinner all the time.” Jesus had the opposite attitude. He invited people of all walks of life to his gatherings–both religious snobs and prostitutes. He ate with them and didn’t care who was watching. He dived in and got his hands dirty–he got social. Why? Why did an up-and-coming Jewish rabbi (teacher) risk his own reputation with those in power?

Because it was the right thing to do. And because Jesus knew that real power comes from God and is birthed in love. Jesus loved others and he always perfectly reflected God’s love toward us. We should also try to reflect that love. If we were to look in a spiritual mirror, would we see love? What if we saw fear, superiority, or indifference?

If I am honest with myself, I see fear. Sometimes a bit of indifference (I’m too busy. It’s not my problem). Sometimes I’m afraid to share the gospel for fear of making a mistake. I might misspeak, or what if I offend someone? What will other people think? Then I pray about it, and God reminds me that my focus in on myself and not the other person. The Lord has something akin to emotional algebra that states “x” amount of worry is always less than “y” amount of love.

These parables here in Luke sum up God’s heart for the spiritually lost, or anyone famished for God’s love and care, anyone whose heart seeks forgiveness. Note that verse 16 says: “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.” Verse 18 says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.” Note the change of heart. This could include people in our own church, even those struggling with sin.

Now this is for the spiritually mature Christian. Paul says in                      1 Corinthians 5:11: “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater, slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” Surely Paul did not have in mind a mature person who speaks and prays with another for the goal of gentle spiritual correction and restoration. His concern was that the relatively young church in Corinth was having some issues, and he feared that the bad behavior of some would tear down everyone else (verse 6). Paul was writing to impressionable Christians who wanted to socialize with “sinners” for their own pleasure. This was a wrong motive. Love and restoration of a believer is a right motive.

But Jesus warns us against having the wrong attitude. He says, “How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:4) If sin is the speck of sawdust, what is the plank? Judgmentalism. If a person can’t see his own weakness and need for God’s help, how can he presume to help someone else who has a burning, stinging, scratchy, tear-producing sliver of wood in something no less sensitive than your eye? I, for one, would not want anyone touching my eyeball if they couldn’t even see. They would either simply miss the cause or could gouge my whole eye out! Ouch! Talk about making someone blind to God’s love.

Jesus also said in Matthew 18:17 that if an unrepentant sinner won’t listen to you, two others, or even the whole church, that we should “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” Does this justify a judgmental attitude? How did Jesus treat the tax collectors and sinners? Like they were lost sons and daughters.

Ephesians 5:1-2: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.”

If you are a Christian who is struggling to live a godly life, break a bad habit, forgive someone, escape from addiction, or whatever else is “common to mankind,” I want you to know that God is faithful, even when we are not. (1 Corinthians 10:13) You may be a spiritual mess, like the young man in the video who has given up and is a physical and emotional mess. The Lord will help you even when you’ve given up hope. He will pick you up in his arms. He will carry you on his back. He will work with you until you get it. He will cry when he sees you try. He will applaud your first steps. He will throw his arms around you and hug you and kiss you, because you were near death, and have been revived.

PRAYER: Dear Father, help us trust you and love like Jesus. Not necessarily a warm, fuzzy kind of love, but a gritty, tenacious kind of love, one that empathizes with a person’s true spiritual state. They may cuss, swear, drink, stink, dress weird, think they’re tough and to be feared, seem aloof and above reproof, wear nose rings and sport full-length body tattoos, or simply hate the Good News . . . but their true state is one of utter weakness and brokenness before You. Help us see them this way so that we can bring them to Jesus to mend and make whole. Amen.

 

 

The Camel and the Needle

But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is [for those who trust in riches] to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” –Mark 10:24-26

What? Is Jesus saying that he can’t save rich people, or that wealth is bad? Wretched out of context, you might think so. A more careful reading reveals so many things jam-packed into this relatively short conversation in Mark chapter 10!

First, there seems to be a contradiction here compared to the preceding verses. In Mark 10:14-15, his disciples decide that Jesus is too important a religious teacher to waste his time on blessing little children. But their attitude toward children makes Jesus indignant. He tells them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” Is it any wonder that by the time we read verse 26 that the disciples are dumbfounded by the seemingly impossible task of entering the kingdom of God?

Looking at a little more context, Mark 10:17-22 tells us that a young man runs up to Jesus, falls on his knees, and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  The first thing he tells him is, “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except God alone.” In one breath, Jesus alludes to his deity AND makes a blanket statement. God alone is good. No one else can claim to be good. The greek word for “good” is agathos, meaning “good, profitable, generous, upright, virtuous.”

Jesus then reminds this man of several of God’s commandments, such as “you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.” The young man tells Jesus that he has kept these laws since he was a little boy. His desire to please God was humanly sincere. To test that sincerity, Jesus tells him there is one thing he lacks if he wants to be perfect. He tells him to go and sell everything he owns, lock, stock, and barrel, give it to the poor, and invites him to become a follower. Then the bible tells us, “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

You see, with this little spiritual “pop quiz,” Jesus reveals that the young man’s desire to observe external rules perfectly cannot be compared to an internal love for God. By asking this rich young ruler to part with all his wealth, he pinpointed his failure to keep the first commandment, to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, to love God passionately. The man simply loved his money more than he loved God. He turned from Jesus and chose to walk away from the only One who could save him and give him supernatural love! And here we come to our quote wrenched out of context.

Starting in verse 24, after this dramatic exit, Jesus looks around him and tells his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” He then gives this striking image that likens the rich person’s salvation to leading a camel through the eye of a needle! Camels are not only large animals, but also carry heavy cargo. They are true beasts of burden. Some scholars believe this could be a reference to a narrow gate that required the reign-holder to strip the camel of its cargo before being able to pass through. Others claim the meaning was simply a hyperbole, or exaggerated statement, referring to the actual eye of a sewing needle. Regardless, the message boils down to the impossibility of the situation.

And here, I think we have in a very condensed passage of scripture, the message of the gospel. Salvation is simple. Remember verse 15? You “receive it” like a little child. It is a gift of love from our heavenly Father, just as earthly parents provide for the needs of their children. Another thing to note is that children are not beasts of burden, like camels. They are not called upon to physically or emotionally labor for the love of their parents. A good parent simply loves their child and allows them to play and grow while nurturing their development. How much more so with our perfect Parent? And one last thing. If the camel in this word image refers to the rich man, what does the eye of the needle represent? Jesus! We live in a world filled with the mindset that all paths lead to God. But Jesus made it clear that there is no other way than through the eye of a needle, Jesus himself. He said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

And the crowning gem to this story is in verse 27 where Jesus says: “With man [salvation] is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

Dear friend, if you feel God tugging at your heart to come to him, don’t be afraid. You don’t have to be perfect. Simply receive his love like a small child. If you already are a Christian, but because of an imperfect parent you have the habit of always working to please in order to get love, rest in knowing God’s love is not earned. Perhaps you are in a faith tradition that teaches you may not go to heaven if you don’t give enough, sacrifice enough, go to church enough, serve enough, pray enough. I pray God frees you from that false notion, because “Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7: 24-25) Trust in God’s goodness until love, a perfect motivator, replaces fear. Your heavenly Father wants you to simply love him so that all else follows. God’s love is not earned. It is simply returned to the Giver.

PRAYER: Dearest Father, lead all of us to Jesus, who loves you infinitely, and allow him to cover our feeble attempts to please you with his perfect sacrifice on the cross. In his precious and holy name, Amen.

 

Love, the First Commandment

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” –Luke 10:27

I recently read the parable of the good Samaritan, and couldn’t help but notice the first commandment that God gave the Israelites was to love him. And it wasn’t to be a casual love, but a whole-hearted, deep-in-your-soul, to-your-last-breath, wholly-conscious love. This must have been a unique concept of God at the time, for I can’t imagine people who worshipped pagan gods felt any affection for their idols. It is the only true God who initiates relationship with his creation. And while the Israelites were making their golden calf, God penned this first commandment: love. The same kind of love that Jesus had for his Father, that empowered him to walk, talk, eat, and breathe his Father’s will. The same kind of love that was poured out on the early church and created leaders like Paul who left all for the sake of Christ, or like Peter who, although he denied knowing Jesus three times, ultimately died a martyr. After the resurrection, what did Jesus ask Peter three times? Do you love me?

I felt the Holy Spirit asking me the same question. After some thoughtful consideration, I said, “Yes, BUT not as passionately as I should.” I think about the times I say no to God, and realize that it is those very times that are an opportunity to deny myself and follow Jesus. I think what our Heavenly Father was trying to tell me was that at the point of my “no” there is a false god or something that I love more hindering me. God did not make love the first commandment by mistake. It is out of love for Him that all things flow. It is out of love for the Father that the Son left his glory and became like us, yet obedient to death, even death on the cross. It is out of this kind of love that Jesus was able to say, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)

PRAYER: Dear Father, pour out in our hearts your Holy Spirit, that he may fan the love in our hearts into a holy love for you that is steadfast and without reserve. In the precious name of Jesus, Amen!