Monday, August 21, 2017

A Call to Christlike Love

When I first came to Christ many years ago, the idea of Christian love was massively confusing. The commands to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” and “do good to those who hate you” made no sense at all (Matt 5:44, Lk 6:27). I practiced just the opposite for twenty plus years and, honestly, this sounded like dangerous and even bad advice.  I remember the first chance I had to put faith into action regarding forgiveness and how beautifully strange it felt. On the one hand, I was giving up my right to retaliate and win. On the other, I was gaining victory by choosing to love, relying on Christ's power at work in me. This was about as close to walking on water as I could imagine – exhilarating and yet risky.

Fast forward thirty years and I find myself in all kinds of situations that continue to challenge this call to love and forgiveness, especially when I receive mixed messages. Trying to understand what a person actually means and what his or her intentions are can be incredibly disturbing. And it is tempting to focus on discernment, rather than love, to guard my heart from further pain. I reason that if I learn to discern well enough, I can avoid difficult relationships altogether. But, this is not the call of Christ – to measure out love and forgiveness only to those I consider deserving or trustworthy, while protecting myself from the others. His call is to love them regardless -- when they say what they mean and mean what they say, and when they do the exact opposite. Why? Because that’s what he did.

The disciples said they loved Jesus, but they slept when he was sweating blood and continued sleeping in spite of his pleading that they wake up and pray. They denied him and tried to use him for position and power. But none of it deterred Christ from showing them love. He could have easily left the boat rides, the mountainsides, the dusty roads, the garden and the cross with a well-documented and justified declaration that these people were not trustworthy and did not deserve His love. His case would have been clear cut, even among his family members who refused to trust and follow him. Surely, no one demonstrated perfect love toward him in word and deed, and yet he kept giving.

Christ loved profoundly, extravagantly, sacrificially and wisely, never blindly or selfishly. He knew the heart of man was deceptive. And while he was committed to lavishly giving love, he never put his hope or trust in the return of it. He knew the Father alone could give the faithful love that never fails, and only he as the God-man could perfectly live it out by the Spirit’s power. Because of this, he is the only one who can teach us how to love, setting an example that is etched on all believer's hearts by the Word and the Spirit. We witness him blessing his enemies, refusing to retaliate, feeding those who are needy but do not see their need for him, healing many who are not thankful and leading those who are struggling to accept His divine position as their very creator.

We can look to him, the great author of our faith, and see that he did all this not for the immediate gratification of getting his needs met but for the joy set before him (Heb 12:2). He was able to scorn the shame of rejection, hatred, humiliation and contempt because His goal was love -- to give each one of his children the ultimate gift of His righteous life. He pressed past the stares and glares, the broken promises and the insults. He refused to be discouraged by the unbelief and the slander, the lack of dedication and the breaking of promises, not because he believed these responses would change but because he was on a divine mission to pour out the most downright, beautiful love mankind would ever know. His eyes were fixed on the prize of the mysterious cross, where sin and death were defeated by resurrection power and shame was eclipsed by honor and glory unimaginable.

As his daughters and sons, we share in his glorious mission by the power of his indwelling Spirit. We, who have no good in ourselves apart from him, have with him the ability to practice this mind defying, life transforming mercy and kindness, even to those who harm us. But it does come with a cost. It demands our right to be treated fairly and to see immediate justice, our innate desire to retaliate, and most of all our often obsessive longing to be loved in return. In exchange, we receive the promise that he is with us and will comfort us when our hearts are broken, that he will love us perfectly in the way we long for and that he will give us the grace, strength and wisdom we need to keep loving and giving, over and over and over again, until our death is ultimately swallowed up in his resurrection victory and we receive the eternal prize he has promised. At that instant, all brokenness and pain from imperfect love will cease, and we’ll experience all of the fullness of the perfect love of our Father (Eph 3:20).

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Stop, Drop and Pray

“If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Gen 4:7). When God spoke these words to Cain, His kind warning was unfortunately ignored. Instead, Cain yielded to the covetousness and envy in his heart and took the life of his own brother. As I consider the tragic outcome of his choice, I am all too aware of my own sin nature and the opportunity I have each day as a Christ follower  – to listen to God’s Truth, trust and follow Him or do it my way and suffer.

It seems an easy choice up front. In fact, I don’t think any logical person if presented with this story and the options would choose to ignore God’s leading and walk in misery. But, interestingly, we do it every day. The Lord shows us that going to bed angry or with unforgivness in our heart will result in a root of bitterness (Eph 4:26), but we often ignore the warning and refuse to let go of the anger. He says that if we worship idols we’ll become like them and our hearts will be darkened (Ps 115:8), but we reason that He couldn’t be serious and continue to bow our hearts to money, people, pleasure and our own selves hoping for the best. He says that if we leave “jealousy and selfish ambition” in our hearts, our lives will be chaotic and filled with all kinds of evil (Jas 3:16), but we refuse to let go of what we want and disregard the warning.

Like Cain, “sin is crouching” at the door of our hearts and desires to have us. It’s only as we submit to God, resisting the enemy and choosing instead to walk in the Spirit that we have victory (Jas 4:7). But how do we actually “do” this in the midst of hectic lives and not nearly enough time and space for reflection?

When we lived in Korea, we often exercised on the trails by the ocean and mountains nearby. It seemed I got a pebble in my shoe almost every time we walked, but I usually tried to ignore it to keep from stopping. I didn’t want to lose my momentum, but the pebble became so distracting that ignoring it became far more frustrating than the inconvenience of stopping for a few seconds to get it out. That’s the way it is with sin in our lives throughout the day. As soon as we notice that something is not right, that we’ve lost God’s peace or that we’re convicted of saying or doing something we know in our hearts is not pleasing to God, it’s time to stop. Delaying dealing with it only steals from what could otherwise be a joyful and peaceful day.

Once we realize that our communion with God has been breached and we stop to acknowledge it, there’s the opportunity to either yield our hearts to Him in prayer or keep moving forward, maybe with excuses and even good intentions to deal with it later. This reminds me of when the girls were young and would start crying about a problem. Depending on how focused or busy I was, I was tempted to ignore it, which only made it worse and usually the tension escalated. If, on the other hand, I would stop and carefully consider what was happening, drop what I was doing and deal with the struggle it was much more quickly resolved.

The decision by faith to go before the Lord and ask Him to show us specifically what has happened to unsettle our hearts really doesn’t take much time and it frees us to keep a clear conscience.
Not only that, the answer is guaranteed! He promises that when we ask for wisdom with sincere hearts, He’s not going to turn us away but will show us His truth (Jas 1:5-6). When He reveals what we’ve done or not done or how we’ve taken offense at another person’s action or inaction or allowed our emotions to rule us, we can acknowledge and repent of these sins and claim the cleansing blood of Jesus over us (1 Jn 1:6-8). As we strive in the Spirit’s power to keep a clear conscience before God and others, we not only experience inner peace but we are able to reflect Christ’s light and love (Acts 24:16; Matt 5:14).

It Makes All the Difference
We may think that it doesn’t really matter if we leave sin in our hearts, but we see from Cain’s life that it made the difference between life and death. Not that we’ll have such a tragic ending, but each day we ignore God’s Spirit nudging us to listen, trust and follow, we become less and less spiritually sensitive and our relationship with the Father grows cold. This, in turn, impacts our relationships with others. As we grieve the Holy Spirit, we lose interest in reading the Word, praying and seeking God’s Kingdom and our hearts begin to chase after other idols to satisfy the longing only Christ was meant to fill (Eph 4:30). As our hearts become hardened, we cease living in joy and fellowship with the Father, which leads to many other sins (Rm 1:21-25).

Cain’s struggle is our struggle, too. And God’s warning to Him is the same one He gives us. As His children, we have access into His presence at all times (Heb 4:16). Not only that, we’ve been given all that we need for life and godliness (2 Pet 1:3) and we have His promise of forgiveness for all our sins --- past, present and future (Col 2:14). But we have to choose to walk in this truth to experience His love and freedom (1 Jn 1:7). It’s a choice we make throughout the day that can certainly seem cumbersome, but dealing with the sin that seeks to master us is by far the wiser choice that trying to ignore it. Like a pebble in our shoe, the sin and the Spirit’s conviction remain until we stop, yield our hearts and turn back to Him, confessing and forsaking those things that separate us from a life of loving fellowship with the One who loves us perfectly!