The Christmas Love Of God


Isaiah 7:14
“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.”

Isaiah 9:6
“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us;
And the government will rest on His shoulders;
And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

A child born, not a son born. The Son is preexistent, the I AM, and did not come into being that day when Mary gave birth. God gave us His Son. He left heaven, emptied Himself, took the form of a bondservant, and was found in the likeness of Man.

He who fashioned Man in His image, took the likeness of the one He had fashioned. And as a child, He was born—the humble relinquishing of His place at the right hand of the Father in order to secure for us a place at His heavenly banquet table.

I can’t conceive of a greater example of love. The Father giving His beloved Son. The Son obeying the Father and leaving His heavenly home to come to earth. The Triune God expressed His love for us in giving Jesus and in His coming in the form of Man.

In that one act God showed His generosity, His self-sacrifice. But He also showed what His love means: it’s not sentimentality or warm, fuzzy feelings. It’s not tit for tat or “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” It has no limits and is freely given. Further, God’s love “has legs”—it’s not just an emotional expression but it has action to back it up.

God’s love is not about God spoiling us. He doesn’t treat us like a sugar daddy. His love has our best in mind—a spiritual and eternal best. Consequently, God doesn’t hesitate to correct us as part of His love for us. He will not withhold discipline for fear that we might not like Him as well any more. He’s also not concerned about people concluding that they might be nicer than He is. He knows the truth and His love doesn’t compromise the truth.

In fact, God’s love is an extension of His character. He can no more stop loving than He can stop being God.

What did it mean for Immanuel, God with us, to take up residence outside of glory? He was subject to all the stuff of Mankind—the passions and joys and hopes and successes, but also the dreams cut short, the sadnesses, the temptations.

Indeed, the temptations. Scripture says He was tempted in every way we are, yet without sin:

For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Heb. 4:15)

Impossible, some may think. How could He be tempted to OD on computer games or look at dirty pictures?

We know He lived life among us for over thirty years. At different junctures during His public ministry, the religious leaders laid traps for Him, trying to trip Him up so they could catch Him in an offense they could prosecute by law.

But what about those years before He began preaching and healing? Isn’t it likely that the strains of His blended family created temptations? Perhaps He also faced noisy neighbors during those years or the abuse of a bully. Because of the wedding in Cana, we know He had to deal with the expectations of His mother. Perhaps He also dealt with jealous brothers.

Later He may have had to deal with the temptation to abandon His life work to fit in with the role His family likely expected Him to fill—that of elder brother, settling down, marrying, and caring for their widowed mother.

Unfortunately we too often reduce Jesus’s temptations to three—the notorious ones recorded in the gospels for us where Satan entices Him to made bread from stones, to swap worship for power, and to test God’s promise. Lots of people have lots to say about these temptations—the kinds, the depth, the significance. Meanwhile, we’re overlooking a little clause in Mark 1:13.

And He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to Him. (Emphasis mine)

So on top of the thirty years of temptations Jesus encountered by living life among us, he also had an intense forty days of Satan throwing whatever he could at Jesus. Whatever we face today, Jesus faced a comparable temptation.

But His coming among us served two greater purposes than offering us an understanding heart to turn to when temptations crowd in upon us.

First, He showed us God. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father, He told His disciples. Paul said, “He is the image of the invisible God,” and “In Him all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.” We look at Jesus, we see God—which makes sense, of course, because He IS God.

However, without the second reason, His coming would have amounted to cruel taunting. Here’s God, a-ha-ha-ha-hah, you can see but you can’t approach. Jesus came precisely for the reason that we needed what only a perfect man could give—His blood, for the remission of sins. Not for His own sins, because He had none. He poured out His life’s blood so that our sins could be forgiven.

In so doing, He opened up the way for us to be reconciled to God:

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16, emphasis added)

A Child come and a Son given as an expression of God’s love!

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in December, 2014.

Advertisements
Published in: on December 18, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

Upside Down Commands


Like other elements of society, the Church follows trends, even fads. They might show themselves in worship styles or catch phrases (how many times have I heard a preacher “unpack” a passage of Scripture? 🙄 ) Those are certainly harmless. Less so, however, are the shifting points of emphasis which seem to change with the winds of preference.

One such shift has been toward creating “seeker friendly” (also a catch phrase) churches, which, in my opinion, seem to miss the point of believers assembling themselves together weekly. Then too, of late there’s been a noticeable increase in the attention churches are giving to service. No longer do we want to sit on the sidelines, but we are admonished to “be the hands and feet of Jesus” in our community.

And we don’t stop with admonishing individuals. We are organizing programs and partnering with para-church organizations to feed children, care for orphans, tutor those struggling with literacy, provide clothes for the needy, beds for the homeless, medical and dental care for the poor.

In short, we’ve left the comfortable pews behind and have made a determined effort to charge out into the highways and byways to reach the unreached through our good deeds.

“About time,” some say. The church in America has been trying for far too long to create a safe, wholesome place where our needs are met and our sensibilities aren’t offended. We’re overdue for a little boat rocking. In fact, the whole thing needs to be turned upside down.

There’s a lot of truth in that position, which, I’m discovering, is the place where a lot of error starts. Just as in every other area, we must look at Scripture and take our lead from God, not from what sounds good, and certainly not from what is currently trendy in the church.

So what does God think about caring for the poor and orphaned and widows? He’s all for it!

Problem solved? Not so fast.

There’s something He’s even more all for. He’s all for us loving Him. That’s the first commandment, the greatest one, according to Jesus. We are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Then and only then are we to love our neighbor as ourselves. It seems to me we are in the process of flipping the order of the two commands, as if doing for others is more important than loving God.

Over and over the people of Israel were admonished to love God or fear Him, then to obey and serve.

Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul (Deut. 10:12).

So here’s the critical point. It is in loving God that we will genuinely be concerned for serving others. It won’t be a passing fancy or a program that we’ll swap out for another one later on down the road.

No, if we love God with our whole being, we will want what He wants, go where He sends, do what He says. Loving Him seems like the only sure way we will end up loving our neighbor self-sacrificially. After all, these are the people the One we love passionately came to save. Why wouldn’t we in turn love them too? Isn’t that the way it works when two people love each other—they take on each other’s interests and passions. They pay attention to what they had never cared about before.

So, sure, it’s time the church in America became less self-satisfied and self-centered. It’s time we stopped loving ourselves more than we love God. But the answer isn’t to try to make ourselves love other people more than we love ourselves. That might be an admirable goal, but it has the commands Jesus enumerated upside down. Unless we do the first, we won’t be doing the second either—not the way we could or should. We’ll simply be trending.

Re-posted from the original article published November, 2011.

Published in: on October 9, 2018 at 5:03 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , ,

A New Commandment


First I have to say how blessed I am because my church has an abundance of Bible-believing pastors who love God’s word and can communicate its truth.

So Sunday our executive pastor preached from a verse in John:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.(John 13:34)

He starts out by asking, Since Jesus said this was a new commandment, what was the old commandment?

That made me think. When someone asked Jesus what was the greatest commandment, He said, Love God, and a close second is love your neighbor as yourself.

We can logically conclude that since the New Commandment has to do with relationships on the horizontal plane—a human being with other human beings—the Old Commandment would have been the “love your neighbor as yourself” part.

As it stands, loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is a pretty demanding commandment. I mean we quite naturally take care of ourselves from birth. How many babies decide they’ll wait for breakfast until morning so their mom can get a good night of sleep? None! They are hungry, so they want to be fed.

Even the Yale baby studies reported on 60 Minutes some five years ago, admit to our natural love for us over others:

The youngest kids in the study will routinely choose to get fewer prizes for themselves just to get more than the other kid.

In other words, the Old Commandment was an admonition to bring others up to our status, to love them with the same kind of care that we provide for ourselves. Do we want to be first in line? Then we should also want our neighbor to be first in line. But what if there’s only one line, and we both need to be in it?

That’s where the New Commandment comes in: Jesus said we are to love other believers, not the way we love ourselves, but the way HE loves them. That would of necessity be self-sacrificially. In other words, I am willing to give up my place at the head of the line so that you can be first.

Well, that’s a bit shocking. But Jesus went on to say that this kind of sacrifice-love will set us apart from others, so much so that when this kind of sacrifice-love is observed, people will know: Yep, they are Christians.

One more cool thing from the message. In Colossians 3 Paul listed things Christians should “put on.” Seven of them:

put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other (vv 12b-13a)

Then Paul adds one more:

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (v 14)

The ESV says it this way

And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

That word for “binds” or “bond” also refers to ligaments. You know, the things that hold our bones together. So Pastor Jeff gave the illustration of a professional athlete who does these amazing things with his body—until he injures his ACL. Even the smallest tear in that ligament can shut down the athlete.

So Paul was saying that all the things the Christian should “wear” in his new life in Christ, is held in place by love. Kindness and humility and gentleness and forgiveness—all of it. Love holds them all together, helps them move in concert, as the ACL helps the parts of a knee function together.

And it is this love that will make Christians exhibit the New Commandment love Jesus was talking about.

One more vital thing. This kind of love doesn’t come from trying harder. It comes from the Holy Spirit. We need to allow Him to empower us, fill us, guide us. So if we want to love like Jesus told us to, we can’t accomplish that by deciding to do better. It actually comes from intentionally entering into a closer relationship with God. The more we know His heart, the less we will want to go our own way. Why should we hold a grudge against someone Jesus Christ loves so much He laid down His life to save him?

Christ died for him, but I’m going to remain angry because he was late and didn’t call? And is always late and never calls. As James says, “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. (1:20)”

It seems unjust. He’s getting away with being a jerk! And all I’m supposed to do is love him?

Yes, love him, which means you are willing to confront someone if they need to learn ways to relate to others that would glorify God. Confronting people is uncomfortable. Loving people is complicated. It’s not all smiles and flowers. A lot of times it’s forgiving people while they’re yet sinners.

But that’s the New Commandment, the one that will let others know we are Christians.

Published in: on September 5, 2018 at 5:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , ,

Who Is the Christian to Love?


A few years ago I had the embarrassing experience of getting kicked off someone’s blog. The irony was, I was trying to make the case that a Christian is to behave the way Christ called us to behave.

Sadly this was not my first experience of getting kicked off a blog for trying to convince the proprietor it was wrong to malign others. My error was to react by speaking the truth without love.

And yet the main thrust of my argument became this: God’s guiding principle for our relationships is love.

Yep, I who wanted to be faithful to Scripture did not follow Scripture in defending it.

I hope I don’t have to get kicked off any more blogs or withstand rancorous name-calling mockery before this lesson stays home.

Who is the Christian to love?

I’ll answer with another question. Who did Christ love?

  • “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son …” (Jn 3:16a)
  • “Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end (Jn 13:1).
  • “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13:34-35).
  • “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him” (Jn 14:21).
  • “but so that the world may know that I love the Father, I do exactly as the Father commanded Me” (Jn14:31a).
  • “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love” (Jn 15:9)
  • “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:12-13).

If I did the same kind of study in the other gospels, I’d find Jesus’s instructions about loving our neighbor and loving our enemies, even those who persecute and mistreat us. I’d find stories that illustrate loving the lost, the wayward, the prodigal. I’d find Jesus’s own example of forgiving those who crucified Him.

Some people point to Jesus’s harsh words to the Pharisees as evidence that we are therefore allowed to speak harshly to false teachers. However, Jesus was concerned about the Pharisees’ spiritual state. He never spoke harshly to them because he didn’t like the color of their robes. He didn’t speak harshly to them because they had leprosy or were short or gave taxes to Caesar.

He reserved His wrathful actions and statements for their open disobedience to the Law (buying and selling in the temple), their blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Jesus cast out demons by Satan’s power), and their hypocrisy (coming to be baptized without “bear[ing] fruit in keeping with repentance”).

I’m sure that’s not an exhaustive list, but here’s the point. Jesus was bold in calling sin, sin when it came to the people who thought they were without sin. But He lived a life of servanthood.

He gave the time of day to people who were pushed aside and disrespected by most of society. He also sought out the rich and powerful whose hearts were hungry for the Bread of Life. He wasn’t a respecter of persons.

He didn’t hesitate to tell Peter off when he was blowing it (Get behind me, Satan), but He didn’t stop loving him, didn’t stop serving him.

Who, then, is the Christian to love? I’m pretty convinced I’m to love whoever God brings across my path—in my physical world and in cyberspace. In real life the consensus seems to be that it is harder to love those we know best. In cyberspace it might be harder to love those faceless strangers with whom we disagree.

This post is an updated version of one that appeared here in August, 2010.

Published in: on August 7, 2018 at 5:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Loving God Means What Exactly?


IconsMore than once I’ve heard or read people saying they love God but want nothing to do with religion. I can’t help wonder what those who hold this position mean when they say they love God.

Is loving God some kind of emotion we generate toward an icon, an idea, or even toward a person? I guess that question puts the focus on the main thing: what do people removing themselves from the constraints of organized religion mean when they say “God”?

I wonder if there is anything close to a consensus. I mean, without organized religion—people coming together in agreement—can’t “God” mean whatever a person wants? So God could be an impersonal force, like fate or destiny. Or God could be the Perfect or Enlightenment to which we all can strive. God could be nature or the universal good or a great pool of consciousness or a spark within each person or … well, you get the idea.

It seems to me, no one can love God unless they know Him. By definition, God is set apart as Other. So how can we know what is transcendent?

Sea_Goddess_of_MercyThe monotheist understands God to be supreme, the ruler, even the creator. Those of a pantheistic mind set see god in all things and all in god. In between are those who believe as the Greeks did or the Hindus do, that there are many gods, each needing to be kept happy in his or her own way.

With all these ideas floating about, how does someone come to an understanding of God?

One common approach I’ve heard is to say, To me, God is …

That approach strikes me as odd. We wouldn’t do that with any other person we know, and we criticize others if we think they are inventing things about someone else. In fact we even have slander and libel laws to punish people who make up harmful stuff about other individuals.

People do repeat false statements about celebrities and politicians, and we wrangle about lines like President Obama is a Muslim or Donald Trump is an idiot. Whether or not the public realizes it, they don’t arrive at these false ideas on their own. They’ve been fed those lines by a propagandist who wishes to influence public thought.

So too with God. Average people did not independently arrive at views such as, To me God is loving and would never care about a person’s sexual orientation; or, To me God is a cosmic force that put the world in motion; or, To me God is a divine spark in each of us. They’ve been fed these lines by an individual who “takes his stand on visions he has seen”—meaning, a spirit has put it in his head—or who is “inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” (quotes from Col 2:18).

God, being God, can’t be known unless He discloses Himself. In virtually all the definitions of God, he is understood to exist “apart from and not subject to the limitations of the material universe” (Oxford American Dictionary). How, then, could people subject to those limitations study, grasp, comprehend, or know One who is outside the confines of our experiences and abilities? The only way to know God is if God would choose to disclose Himself to us.

And He has done precisely that.

So when it comes to loving God, the first and foremost definition of love, as I see it, is recognizing God to be who He says He is.

The online site LinkedIn allows individuals to endorse others with a click of the button. From time to time I get endorsed by people in subjects which don’t reflect what I do or who I am. I appreciate the fact that the endorser was thinking of me, but I also know the person doesn’t really know me or they wouldn’t have back-slapped me in an area in which I have no expertise.

God, of course, has unlimited expertise, but people who don’t know Him put limits on Him, essentially denying who He is. They’ll say He’s loving but not a just judge; He’s powerful but not powerful enough to create the world with a word; He’s good but not so good that the hard things could actually be part of His plan.

How can we get past our limitations? Only by accepting God’s revelation. He, like any artist, poured His heart, His personality, into what He made. So we can look around us at the world—the parts that Humankind hasn’t tainted—and draw conclusions about God. He’s beautiful. He’s interested in the smallest details. He’s cosmic. He’s orderly. He’s nurturing. And so many others.

In addition, He’s disclosed Himself directly to people and has had them pass on His messages to the rest of us. Ultimately He put on skin and became one of us to show us His heart.

Because God made it possible, we can know Him. To love Him means we accept Him for who He’s told us He is.

Loving God also means agreeing with Him. Disagreeing with God is just another way of not recognizing Him to be who He says He is. How could He truly be transcendent and wrong? or just and wrong? or good and wrong?

In short, anyone who loves God will want to do as He says. This, I believe, is a response of the will and not one of the emotions. The funny thing is, where the will goes, the emotions are sure to follow.

This post is a revised and updated version of one that first appeared here in August 2013.

Published in: on July 26, 2018 at 5:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Love In The Wake Of Another Shooting


Happy Valentine’s Day! Oh, and at least 17 people died today at a Florida high school because a shooter committed mass murder.

I think it’s time we stop treating love as if it is some trivial sentiment, some result of the sex drive, or some meaningless emotion expressed by tingles and butterflies in the stomach. Perhaps worse is the idea that God is love and by that statement the person means, God is ONLY love.

Sadly we have turned love into permissiveness and toleration, when, in fact, love is not that at all. We’ve even come up with the adjective tough to differentiate love that goes beyond the lenient, indulging, pandering kind we so often mean.

Fewer and fewer people in our society understand that “spoiling” a child is actually a bad thing, meaning we are doing damage, wrecking, ruining, destroying.

I’m not saying the Florida shooter was spoiled as a child—I don’t know anything about him. Except that clearly he has no understanding of love. He can’t love his family or the kids he once went to school with or the teachers, his community, state, country. He did a selfish, destructive, hurtful thing that has far reaching ramifications, and love was nowhere in his actions.

God’s love stands in stark contrast. He cleans up our messes, holds our hand through the valley of the shadow of death, and takes our punishment in His own body. He draws us, woos us, holds us, seals us. His love isn’t going to break down, and it isn’t going to let go.

There’s nothing trivial about God’s love. It sent Him to earth in a backwater town to an unwed mother where he was wrapped in cloths meant for a burial shroud and stuck in an animal feeding trough. And that was just the first few hours of his earthly existence. Things didn’t get noticeably better. But He came, lived, and died “for the joy set before Him.”

We’re that joy. Us, His people, whom He loved and determined to save.

I kind of think that’s the message we need to be teaching in our schools and churches, in homeless shelters and hospitals.

People are afraid and lonely and losing hope. We promise them falsely that this government program or that will solve the problem. If we just change marriage laws, allow whatever “loving” relationship a person wants, then we’ll all live happily ever after. But no amount of change in our outlook on “family” is reducing the growing problem of senseless shootings.

“It’s a mental health issue,” one commentator said. And maybe it is. Maybe all the shooters are simply mentally ill. But I think God loves the mentally ill, too. Jesus Christ died, even for the mentally ill. Shouldn’t we find a way to show the love of Christ to the most needy among us?

Of course, no one walks around with a sign that says, I’m a potential shooter because I’m mentally ill.

Rather, we’d actually have to take a risk and love someone we don’t necessarily find lovable.

Kids aren’t really in a position to do this, though they should start learning. Adults in the lives of troubled young people need to do this. But I don’t see it happening apart from God. It simply isn’t natural.

That’s why God’s love is so extraordinary. He loves us “while we were yet sinners.” He doesn’t demand we clean up first, meet His perfect standards, and then He will share His love with us.

On the contrary, He gives His love to us when we have done nothing to earn it. Because it’s a gift. I want to say, with God every day is Valentine’s Day. But His love goes beyond the hearts and flowers and special dinners. His love falls into that tough love category, so that what He gives us is what we actually need.

Sometimes that means a serious talking to or a time out or forty years in the wilderness. God knows. He’s not going to pander to us because He’s not going to do something now that will lead to our eternal destruction. Better to teach us, mold us, shape us in the image of Jesus Christ so that we can enjoy eternity with Him.

Of course some people ignore Him or actively push Him away. Those, He does what He so often did in the Old Testament—He gives them exactly what they want. Nothing could be sadder, because their end is destruction, their god is their appetite and their glory is in their shame. They simply set their minds on earthly things. And they miss the love God wants them to receive.

His love is so great because He knows us so well, because He’s invested in us to the point of going to the cross for us. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” and that’s precisely what He did.

God’s love is far from trivial, far from indulgent, far from silly and sentimental. His love is actually infinite. It’s complete. It’s life soaked in love.

Published in: on February 14, 2018 at 6:16 pm  Comments (22)  
Tags: , , ,

Christianity Starts And Ends With Grace


I was listening to a radio sermon today and the pastor said all of Christianity could be summed up in the word obedience—obedience to Christ, submission to His will. That caught me off guard a moment. It’s not the word that came to me at once.

I didn’t have to think very long before I came up with the word I’d say encapsulates Christianity—grace. Or maybe forgiveness.

Obedience? Especially obedience when it’s tied to submission? I wouldn’t say that pastor is wrong, especially in the context of the series of sermons he is airing. But obedience for a Christian is way different than it is for someone in a different religion or for someone outside of all religions,

For the Christian, doing what God wants us to do is like a wife making her husband his favorite dinner or a husband bringing his wife flowers. Maybe a better example is a husband shoveling snow so his wife won’t have to wade through it to get to her car. Or a child making her daddy a get-well card when he’s sick.

The point is, none of these things are mandated. The wife doesn’t cook the special dinner because she has to. If the government passed a law that all husbands brought their wives flowers every Tuesday, the bouquet would soon become meaningless. The wonderful thing about doing little acts of kindness is because they say so much, and one of those statements is NOT, “I’m doing this because I have to.”

Rather, a husband takes his wife’s car to get the oil changed, not because she’s incapable of taking it in herself, but because he wants to save her the aggravation.

He’s saying, I want to make your life a little easier, I’m thinking of what’s best for you, I want to care for you, I love you.

If the Department of Motor Vehicles required husbands to take cars for oil changes, would his actions say any of those things? Of course not. They would say, I’m doing this because I have to.

The point here isn’t really about husbands and wives or parents and children. The principle is true for donating to charities or helping friends. Do we cheerful pay our taxes or send money to victims of disasters? Do we joyfully go to the office party the boss requires us to attend or to our granddaughter’s soccer game?

Clearly, whether we give a gift of money or time or goods, the meaning behind it is greater and the attitude we have in the giving is dependent upon our freedom to give. If we’re simply meeting a requirement, or even an expectation, the statement is not so meaningful and the accompanying attitude is not so great.

But if the gift is given freely, if there is no expectation, then the act accomplishes a great deal, for both giver and receiver.

But what if the giving isn’t a one-time event? What if it becomes a habit? Everyday the wife gets up at 4:00 to make her husband breakfast. Everyday the friend takes the trash out for her neighbor. Everyday the husband scrapes ice off the windshield of his wife’s car.

Aren’t the habits of love and thoughtfulness and concern even greater than the one time surprise events?

Well, in some measure these human examples approximate a Christian’s relationship with God. First God showers us with His grace and forgiveness. In loving response—not because God commands it—we worship Him, we pray, we read His word, we attend church. Of course, we know those things, and any number of other things, like being honest, not swearing, being kind to one another, we know will please God because they are in His word.

We can actually look at those things as mandates. But if we love God, doing the things that will please Him becomes a joy. We want to do what He wants us to do. Not because we are under law but because we are under grace.

Someone who looks at God and thinks they have to obey Him to earn His favor might do the exact same things as someone who looks at God and chooses to do what will please Him because they are so grateful for His grace. The outward appearance might not differ at all, but the inner attitude of the heart, where God looks, is vastly different.

Sometimes it’s easy to understand why God wants us to be a certain way—loving to our neighbors, for instance. Other times, what pleases Him is hard to understand and hard to do—loving our enemies, for instance.

The secret to life in Christ is to create the habit of obedience, of pleasing God, not just when it makes sense to us and feels good, but when it’s hard to understand and hard to do.

Trust God through suffering? Yes, that pleases Him. But it’s not so easy. Doing so, not because He’s commanded it but because we love Him, now that brings joy.

Published in: on February 12, 2018 at 5:54 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , ,

God Started It – Reprise


Nativity_Scenes004When I was growing up, my brother, sister, and I had . . . disagreements from time to time. We squabbled about silly things—whose turn it was to do the dishes, who got to sit in the front seat of the car (or if Mom and Dad said we all had to sit in the back, who got the window seats), what TV program to watch, who got the Sunday funnies first, who got to sit where at the dinner table—silly things.

Inevitably our disagreements would escalate, and Mom or Dad would intervene, scolding whoever had caught their attention. Just as sure was the response from whichever one of us was in the hot seat: But he started it! Or she. We were not the instigator. Ever. At least as we saw things.

In truth, there is one time when in fact that line is true. When it comes to our relating to God, He started it.

In the grandest scheme of things, of course, He started it because He started everything! But specifically in relating to Humankind after the first man and the first woman turned away from Him, He started it. And on a personal level, with me, He started it.

The grand scheme refers to the cosmos. God created. The specific dealing with humanity refers to God’s plan of salvation—sending His Son as the sacrifice to expiate our sins. The personal refers to His work to bring me to Himself.

At no time did I or anyone else initiate with God.

He started everything by making Man in His image, after His likeness. Like any child, Adam was helpless when it came to deciding what color hair he’d have or how tall he’d be or how smart he was. He didn’t decide to be like God, with a will and emotions, with the capacity to create and to communicate. It was God who wanted us to be like Him, and so He made us.

It was also God who loved the world, who determined to love us while we were yet sinners, who chose to express His love by His actions. He gave His Son, and His Son died that He might cancel out the certificate of debt we each owed.

And speaking of “each,” God chose me, called me, rescued me. It’s very personal—not some generic salvation, as if he tossed his net into the sea of humanity and scooped up the ones who couldn’t get away, so I was caught along with a myriad of others.

The point is, I wouldn’t be here, there wouldn’t be a Church of which I am a part, and I wouldn’t be His child if it weren’t for the fact that God started it. John said it plainly in his first letter: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (KJV, 1 John 4:19).

Paul spelled out God’s initiating activity more fully. First our condition:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

Pretty hopeless—if God didn’t enter the picture. There was no way for dead people to be made alive without a miracle. There’s no way for sons of disobedience to become righteous and holy, apart from God transforming our lives. There was no way for children of wrath to become children of peace and reconciliation except by the power of God to cause us to be born again.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:4-10, emphasis added)

Love is the fourth and final quality our church is emphasizing as part of the Advent season, and certainly love seems to be a part of Christmas. We are reminded of the love of our families—some traveling many miles in order to have a few days together with loved ones; most spend hundreds of dollars and precious hours shopping in order to give gifts to those we love.

We even include a “love” tradition—the hanging of mistletoe—as part of our Christmas celebration. And the holidays aren’t complete without at least one Christmas romantic comedy or classic story with romance.

Then when we look at the events of that first Christmas, we’re aware of Mary’s love for her newborn child, of Joseph’s love for his little family, of the wisemen’s love and devotion that took them far from home to worship the king.

But none of it would have happened if God hadn’t started it. He formulated the plan before the foundations of the earth, Peter said:

you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18b-20)

And Paul verifies the plan:

But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior (Titus 3:4-6).

There was no salvation until the kindness of God and His love for mankind appeared. There were no deeds we could do to earn a righteous standing with God. The great change from dead men walking to alive in Christ came because God started it. And He did so as an expression of His great love.

This post first appeared here in December 2014.

Published in: on December 19, 2017 at 4:00 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Truth And Love


Instead of starting with Love or even with Truth, I want to start with a discussion of post-truth.

Post-truth: adjective

Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire’

‘some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age’ (English Oxford Living Dictionaries)

As it happens, the Oxford Dictionary picked post-truth as their Word of the Year for 2016. Fitting, some might say. Truth is having a hard time because so many politicians and media people and Washington insiders lie regularly.

But there’s more to that definition: in place of facts we’re apparently forming our opinions based on our beliefs. Which implies that our beliefs are already divorced from facts. So we’re believing something because . . . ? What’s the basis for our beliefs if not something we can label as True?

Are we believing what makes us feel good? I believe I’ll win the lottery. I believe it will not rain this weekend. I believe the Dodgers will win the World Series this year. I believe I’ll sell my fantasy series for a six figure advance. Silly stuff, that. Those aren’t beliefs, though they’ve been framed as belief statements. They would more accurately be called wishful thinking or pipe dreams—unattainable, unlikely, or fanciful desires.

Truth is not part of that kind of wishful thinking.

But clearly our society has moved belief out of the camp of truth and into the camp of post-truth.

Yet Jesus, standing with his disciples turned to Thomas, the doubter, and said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6; emphasis mine) He went on to say that if they’d seen Him, they’d seen the Father. So Jesus is Truth, ergo, God is Truth. Essentially He said, You’re looking at God, who happens to be Truth.

But God is also Love. As it happens, Jesus is the proof, the evidence, the tipping point that demonstrates God’s attribute of Love:

The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:8-10; emphasis mine).

In other words, when God sent Jesus, He demonstrated to the world that He is Love.

How so? Because He stood in the gap for the world, according to John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” We on our part must do nothing but believe. God, manifesting His Person as Love, sent His Son to do what we could not do for ourselves.

We could not deal with the sin in our lives and in the world. We could not bridge the gap between us and God. We could only suffer the consequences for sin: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

So why the big deal that God is Truth and that God is Love?

In our post-truth culture, we live as if the truth and love are mutually exclusive. If I have the truth and you disagree with me, then you are engaging in hate! Of course, my truth might not be your truth unless you say that your truth is absolute and unshakeable and eternal. Such a statement marks you as a hater because the only truth we can know for sure is that there is no absolute truth. How we know this has never been explained, but our post-truth society embraces it.

But what if we Christians step out and do the ministry of reconciliation in our communities and families—what if we Love in Truth and what if we speak Truth in Love? What if we show by our lives that God is Truth and God is Love; what if we, His children who house His Spirit, reflect His qualities by what we say and do?

Too often people look at Christians and see us at war with our culture. Or they see us withdrawing from our culture. We either embrace Truth and seek to stand by it or die trying. Or we embrace Love and shy away from anything that could offend or stir up ill will or that could be misunderstood. We want above all to clasp hands with our neighbors in hopes that they realize we love them because of God’s love (which we never talk about because *gasp* we might offend someone) in us.

Or we retreat into our own. We trust Team Jesus, and we’d just as soon keep all our dealings with the home team. No offense. We’d just rather not have to deal with, you know, The World. That’s one of the enemies, right up there with The Flesh, which we pretend has disappeared when we became Christians, and The Devil, which we must guard against. So, to avoid fighting battles on two fronts, we’ll separate ourselves from The World.

It’s not quite that simple.

The World doesn’t refer to the latest movies or songs on iTunes. It doesn’t refer to today’s fads and fashions in clothes or piercings or tattoos. It refers to the system by which the world operates. The system that opposes God, that denies The Truth about God, that lies about who we are and how we got here and why we exist.

We can only counter The World by submerging ourselves in The Truth and engaging those who need to hear it with the same love Christ had for us while we were yet sinners. In other words, we must be proactive, not reactive.

We must not play favorites with God’s nature. His Truth can’t be ignored. His Love can’t be ignored. Otherwise we’re representing a God who doesn’t actually exist. He’s not a kindly grandfather trying to give every boy and girl a lollipop and a pat on the head. His Love is radical and dangerous and transformative.

As is His Truth. But His Truth does not make God hard-nosed, unkind, or insensitive. He isn’t a drill sergeant waiting for recruits to mess up so he can send them on a night run as punishment. He isn’t playing some game of “gotcha.”

No. His Truth is fueled by His Love. And Jesus exemplifies both.

Now it’s our turn—those who believe in Jesus—to go out into the world and preach Jesus as The Turth which the post-truth generation needs, and to do so in The Love that will enable them to hear what we’re saying.

– – – – – –

For more on Truth and Love see this RZIM article, “Truth Or Love: What’s Your Choice?”

Published in: on March 13, 2017 at 6:26 pm  Comments Off on Truth And Love  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Love by George Herbert


I’ve been thinking a lot about the odd marriage of love and truth that runs through the Bible. God is Love, but Jesus is the Truth. The Apostle Paul said we are to speak the truth in love.

I think the best testimony a Christian can give is to walk the razor edge between love and truth, which will show the world what God is all about.

That being said, I want to focus on love today by re-posting a short article from some years ago which is less my writing than it is the Renaissance poet George Herbert’s.

I don’t post poetry … ever, but next month apparently is poetry month, or something like that. So in preparation, I’m making an exception.

Honestly, George Herbert is one of the poets I can say I really like. T. S. Elliot’s Christian poems too, though the ones he wrote before he was saved are depressingly powerful. I like Robert Frost too. See? I lean toward poems that aren’t so very poetic. 😉

But here’s one that is more like a hymn, I think.

Renaissance poet George Herbert

George Herbert lived during the Renaissance, making him a contemporary of John Donne, another poet I really like. Herbert was a Welsh-born Anglican priest, one who put his faith into his poetry.

In truth, the Renaissance writers as a group had a pretty good handle of what faith in God should look like.

Raised in England, Herbert went to Trinity College, Cambridge, became the Universiy’s Public Orator, and eventually spent a short time in Parliament. When he first entered Cambridge, he’d intended to go into the priesthood, and he returned to that pursuit in his early thirties.

After he was ordained, he took a job as rector of a small parish where he cared for his parishioners, preached, and wrote poetry. Never a healthy man, he died of TB in 1633, just a month before his fortieth birthday.

Anyway, here’s perhaps my favorite poem of all time.

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

– George Herbert

This post is a revised and expanded version of one that first appeared here in April 2011.

Published in: on March 10, 2017 at 6:16 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , , ,