125. The Christian and Psychology

           A number of years ago, a church I was in, invited a group of Christian therapists to come in and teach for several months (men and women were in separate groups to facilitate openness). Let me admit upfront that I like psychology and have often benefitted from its insights. Yet, in my class, the teacher made a statement that caught me off-guard.  He told us that, in counseling, we should never to use words like “should”, “ought”, “must”, “need to” and so on.

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124. The Light Grip

  Years ago, I was a violinist. One of my college instructors, Alan Heatherington, was a brilliant musician. During casual conversation one day he made a comment I’ve never forgotten. He said, “When I am playing triple forte’ (as loudly as one can play), if someone were to tap my bow it would fall out of my hand.” It turns out, as most instrumentalists know, that relaxed muscles are crucial in order to play an instrument well. A clenched muscle only fights the musician’s movements. A death grip kills the flow.

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123. Calloused or Mature? pt. 2

  Recently, a Christian friend of mine picked up the habit of swearing. The words he uses, at least in my presence, would be considered mild obscenities in our society and are quite common.  What’s interesting, though, is that this man is a committed believer, not a nominal church-goer. When I mentioned Ephesians 5:4, in which Paul warns, “nor should there be any obscenity”, he just sort of shrugged and kept on doing it. It seems like no big deal to him.

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122. Calloused or Mature? pt. 1

Does sin bother you – your sin or the sin of our culture? Are you ever saddened, shocked, dismayed, or angered by the disobedience to God you see in yourself and in those around you? We’re told in Acts 17:16:  “16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”   Paul looked on the spiritual fallenness of Athens and was deeply troubled by it and the spiritual destruction it wreaked on the people there.  

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121. I'm Spiritual, but not Religious

  “I’m spiritual, but not religious”, said my new neighbor.  It was the first time I’d ever heard this perspective.  Since then, it’s become a familiar mantra. Oddly enough, there’s part of it I like.

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120. Weird Christians

  Have you ever noticed that Christians, when they’re portrayed on television, tend to come off as weird? This weirdness portrayal can be fairly mild – such as just making them seem old-fashioned, more abrasive – such as making them mean or brainwashed, or somewhere in the middle – making them seem irrelevant. To be fair, other groups also make the same charge about how they’re portrayed. It’s not just us.

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119. Cherry-Picking God

            “I don’t need to be a Christian to be a good person,” said the man. “I have a solid marriage. I treat other people fairly. I work hard. I participate in charities. Jesus doesn’t have anything to do with it. Furthermore, lots of other religions teach many of the same truths that Christianity teaches.”

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118. Patience vs Forgiveness pt. 2

    I couldn’t help it – the guy bugged me. We’d been thrown together in a situation and I’d come out of it feeling silly and a bit used. That’s all I’ll say. Yet whose fault was it? Had he actually done anything wrong? Not that I could clearly put my finger on

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117. Patience vs Forgiveness pt. 1

 “My husband’s not much of a mechanic”, said Joy, to the group of friends chatting after church. “It’s usually better to just hire someone.” Arthur, Joy’s husband, felt himself flush. It was true that he wasn’t mechanically gifted, but he wasn’t that bad, and, even worse, as a man, it made him feel stupid hearing this said in front of a group. He fumed.

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116. Spiritual Resiliency

Have you ever seen a believer implode spiritually?  This person, who seems to be a solid Christ follower suddenly steps off His path, behaving, uncharacteristically, in a spiritually foolish or ugly way. It may be a mean flash of temper, a bout with pornography, an unethical action, etc.  Recently I saw this happen with a believer for whom I had held a lot of respect.    

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115. Sorting the Essentials from the Extras pt. 2

    I may have given the impression, in the last column that the essentials of the faith are all that really matter and that those concerned with the extras of the faith are simply gnat strainers. I don’t mean to go that far. The extras, such as our denominational traditions and preferences can be beautiful, and part of what makes us “us”. They help us to find a good match; to savor our spiritual experience and our church.

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114. Sorting the Extras from the Essentials pt. 1

You serious church attenders, is your church the best around? I’m not asking if your church is perfect, but would you trade your overall church package (doctrine, liturgy, organization, etc.) for some other church’s nearby? Is there something, perhaps unspoken, or hidden deep inside you that says, “We actually have put together the Christian thing better than most churches”? 

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113. Eternity-changing friendships pt. 2

Over the last 25 years I’ve walked thousands of miles. Once I found seventy dollars laying in the grass. Once. Another time I think I found a twenty. A man could starve if he depended on this sort of treasure hunting. The opposite sort of situation is occurring with many Christians today. We are the ones carrying the world’s greatest treasure – the good news of eternal salvation through Jesu

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112. Eternity-changing friendships pt. 1

Evangelism was a frequent topic in the evangelical millieu I grew up in.  In our current church alone, since I arrived, we’ve had six or seven classes on how to lead people to Christ. One is running right now.  All of the methods I’ve learned over the years have been solid.  They made sense and were based on a desire to share the greatest gift ever given – salvation from our sins and an eternal connection with God.

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111. Benign Skepticism

This may surprise you, but I’ve always been one to question things.  I recall correcting my first grade teacher, Mrs. Arrid, on her spelling of “giraffe”. I wasn’t “hooked on phonics” (the product wasn’t invented yet), but I knew that the first sound in giraffe is a “j” sound, not a “g” (grrrafffe sounds like a growl). While the other kids were out at recess, perhaps to her credit, my teacher let me change the spelling on the board to “jiraffe” (though I’m sure she changed it back later). She was encouraging me to think.

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110. Love and Marriage

  “You’re  a nice girl, but I don’t love you that way,” the young man mumbled to the crest-fallen young lady.  Ever been through that scenario whether male or female?  I was single till I was thirty, not particularly handsome, charming, rich or amusing (“He makes me laugh!”) and so I encountered this a number of times, though it was usually unspoken.  My brother once said that most of my relationships began and ended in my head.

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109. Heaven

   In his book on heaven, author Randy Alcorn, reveals a surprising truth – not every believer is all that excited about going to Heaven. Maybe you’re one of them.  You know that you should be excited, but find it hard to get too worked up about it.

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108. The Caring Tongue

As soon as the words were out of Alex’s mouth, he wished he could take them back. They were too harsh and he knew it. Yet, when Alice shot back at him in the same angry vein, he forgot his temporary remorse and the battle was on.

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107. God's Unconditional Love pt. 2

          “God loves me fully right now, just as I am. He’ll never love me any more or less.”  Do you believe that’s true? We often struggle to believe this, for reasons I discussed in the last column, yet it’s the very foundation upon which a close, happy love relationship with God must be built. A foundation any less firm is unstable and sets us up for unnecessary spiritual worries and roadblocks.

What are the advantages of resting fully in God’s unconditional love?

1.    Resting fully in God’s unconditional love allows me to deeply trust Him

This transitional stage of our spiritual journey is a hard one. Much happens that we don’t understand. God often seems silent and invisible. We suffer. If I am assured that God unconditionally loves me, I will learn to deeply trust Him even in times of struggle and confusion. That level of trust leads to the next point:

2.    Resting fully in God’s unconditional love allows me to relax and rest in Him

The Christian life, while often difficult, is not meant to be lived in a state of tension and worry. God’s in control and His love for us guides that control. My life, challenging though it may be, is under careful supervision. Whatever happens, even when it’s hard, I’m okay. God’s plan for my will is being accomplished.

3.    Resting fully in God’s unconditional love puts my own performance in a different light

I’m still committed to giving God my full effort, but this has nothing to do with earning His love.  That’s a done deal, given by grace alone. I “run with perseverance” the race marked out for me for other reasons, such as love for God, gratitude, wanting to glorify His name, and a desire to please Him. If anything, resting in God’s unconditional love, frees me up to do these things better.

4.    Resting in God’s unconditional love keeps me humble

It’s easy for pride to creep into the believer’s life in any one of a hundred ways.  Remembering that we don’t deserve God’s love, in fact, that it’s an incredible concession of grace. humbles our hearts.  We’re less likely to look down on others. And we’re less likely to take an attitude of entitlement toward God; as if He owes us anything good.

5.    Resting in God’s unconditional love helps me handle my own failures more skillfully

When I do fail, either through sin or mistakes, the sense that I’m still fully loved by God allows me to bounce back more quickly. I didn’t earn God’s love, so I can’t lose it either. Even if He disciplines me for my sin, it’s still done out of a deep love for me.

6.    Resting in God’s unconditional love allows me to extend that love to others

One of the most wonderful gifts we can give another person is to love them unconditionally. This doesn’t mean that we can’t set boundaries or impose consequences at times (as God does for us), but it does mean that we will pray for and care for even our enemies. This is a glint of God reflecting on us that not only brings healing and hope to others, but also directs them toward Christ; the source of all love.  This, by the way, is not easy to live out, but the Spirit can teach us.

7.    Resting in God’s unconditional love drives me to frequent thanksgiving and worship

We’ve been given the most valuable gift in the universe. Embraced in God’s unconditional love we have hope with a capitial “H”, not just now, but for all eternity. As we come to believe this more and more, and as we realize more and more our own unworthiness, we’re quicker to say “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”. It’s totally amazing that a perfect, holy God loves us and makes us part of his family. Our eyes turn more away from ourselves and toward Him.

How can I rest more fully in God’s unconditional love?

1.    I rest more fully in God’s unconditional love when I understand that it exists

Forgive me if this seems too obvious, but I’m not sure that everyone, even believers, have comprehended that God loves them unconditionally.  It’s not a natural way to think.  Normally, if we think that God loves us at all, we see that love as based on our performance.  Most religions are slanted this way. But Christianity points out that if God’s love were based on our performance, none of us would receive it.  It’s a pure free gift of grace.  Period.

2.    I rest more fully in God’s unconditional love when I frequently reinforce it in my thoughts, words, and prayers

Remind yourself constantly that what you’re receiving is a grace gift.  Thank God for it. Rest on it. Use it to defend yourself against the Enemy. This truth must be constantly reinforced or it begins to fade and legalism, or other distortions start to set in.

3.    I rest more fully in God’s unconditional love when as I grow more aware of my sinfulness and inadequacy

The closer we draw to God, the more we become able to see that we’re even more sinful and imperfect than we thought we were.  His light reveals our darkness.  At the same time, we become more sensitive to how ugly and repulsive our sin actually is.  It’s not just a cute weakness.  Its an insult to God and a cancer to the soul.  Remember Peter, in Luke 5:8, calling out to Jesus: “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!”

4.    I rest more fully in God’s unconditional love when I become less shocked by my sin

This may seem to contradict my last point, but it doesn’t.  We still learn to hate sin, but we’re just less surprised that we sometimes fall into it. We’ve been humbled into realizing that, apart from God’s strength, we fall easily.  So, while we’re disappointed when we fail, we’re not so surprised and are grateful that God has kept us as strong as He has.

5.    I rest more fully in God’s unconditional love when I realize just how high God’s holiness bar has been set

This reinforces previous points.  God expects perfection; nothing less. If His love were based on our performance even the saintliest of us would fall far short.  Again, either He loves us by grace or not at all. What’s exciting, though, is not just that He loves us, but that one day His love will perfect us.  One day, with God’s total help, we will reach that holiness bar.  We’ll become like God’s Son Jesus. Now that’s something to look forward to! Amen?

6.    I rest more fully in God’s unconditional love when I learn to focus more on God and less on myself

His beauty is beyond what we can imagine.  He’s holy in every way.  And that love! That magnificent, warm, rich love which flows from Him like a mighty endless torrent!  We’ll bathe in it for all eternity.  Paul prays in Ephesians 3:18 that his readers “may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” Just a glimpse of this love will grasp our attention and strengthen our hearts.

106. God's Unconditional Love pt. 1

           “God must hate me,” thought George.  He’d had a miserable day spiritually – lashing out at his wife at breakfast, making a stupid mistake at work, and spending ten minutes on a porn website in the evening. He was supposed to be a committed Christian, and yet . . . He  felt a sense of despair and self-loathing.

        Christian, have you ever doubted the love of God?  Ever wondered if He’d rejected you?  Despised you?  I have a strain of this tendency in myself that I’ve had to deal with for many years. It’s been a source of discouragement, since I can find plenty in myself that doesn’t match God’s perfect standards. Yet this doubt, though it may seem like a helpful motivation to obedience, is actually an obstacle to intimacy with God. Let me define “love” first. “Love” means that God cares about us and wants what’s best for us. This leads to our first question:

How does doubting God’s love hinder my relationship with Him?

1.  Doubting God’s love builds our relationship on a false premise

Why do you think God loves you in the first place?  Is it because you’re so loveable?  Is it because you’ve earned His love? It’s not.  It can’t be. “We all like sheep have gone astray” (Is. 53:6), “There’s no one righteous, not even one (Rom. 3:10)”. God’s loving heart toward us is not based on who we are, but on who He is.  Period.  “God is love”(1 John 4:8).  

2.  Doubting God’s love creates instability in the relationship

How can we ever relax and enjoy God when we’re never quite sure that He’s loving us at the moment? When we think we’re doing well, we’ll kind of relax, but not entirely, since His judgment of “doing well” may be different than ours.  And when we’re failing, we’ll feel insecure and distant.  

3.  Doubting God’s love takes the fun out of the relationship

God’s meant to be, among other things, our best friend.  But if we’re insecure about His love, we lose the freedom and joy and stability that a best friend can provide (especially if the best friend is God). How can we “delight ourselves in the Lord” (Ps. 37:4) if we’re never quite sure that He’s fully committed to us?

4.  Doubting God’s love can cause us to give up trying to draw close to Him

Who wants to approach a God who may be looking on us with loathing or disgust or even indifference?  Where’s the motivation in that? So even if we maintain some sort of relationship with God we may only put limited effort into it.

5.  Doubting God’s love may cause us to constantly focus on trying to earn it

Our whole life can be spent striving to be good enough to be loved by God. Not only does this create the instability mentioned above, it also puts the focus squarely on ourselves and our performance rather than freeing us to glory in God and give more loving attention to others.

The unconditional love of God is the only firm foundation possible if we’re to enjoy an intimate love relationship with Him. Starting with Romans 8:38, Paul makes this astounding statement:  “38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

        Notice the words “anything else” here?  That would include us. Yet many  believers find it hard to completely relax in God’s unconditional love and reap its benefits. 

Why is it hard to rest in God’s unconditional love?

1.  It’s hard to rest in God’s love because that‘s not the way the world is around us

We grow up in a world of conditional love. I’m not suggesting that no one loves us well, but every human relationship has its limits. Marriages can break apart or fade. Even good friendships can be ruined. Many, if not most relationships are based on a sort of conditional love.

2.  It’s hard to rest in God’s unconditional love because it wounds our pride

There’s a part of us that wants to believe that we’ve earned God’s love – that He loves us because we’re “good folks”. But we’re not “good folks”.   At our peak, we’re all still spotted with the ugly cancer of sin, whether we recognize it or not. God’s love for us is not an earned paycheck.  It’s pure gift. That’s humbling to accept, isn’t it?

3.  It’s hard to rest in God’s unconditional love because life is often painful, confusing, and difficult

Would a loving God allow me to get cancer, to lose my marriage, or those I love to suffer? There are other difficult biblical and philosophical questions which cast doubt on God’s love.  We feel as though we, if we truly loved someone, would do things differently.

4.  It’s hard to rest in God’s unconditional love because He often seems invisible and silent

One of the ways we prove our love to others is by directly interacting with them. We make statements and they reply.  We ask questions and they answer. For most of us, most of the time, I’m willing to bet that this is not the case with God. Yes, we have the Bible, which is fantastic, but it’s not the same as actually hearing God’s voice, seeing Him, or at least clearly sensing His presence. Usually, at best, we sense Him around the corner and down the street.  

5.  It’s hard to rest in God’s unconditional love because sometimes we ourselves create a sense of distance.

If we’re choosing to live sinful, compromised lives, our ability to believe in God’s love diminishes. We feel guilty and uncomfortable with God when we deliberately rebel.  The Enemy, Satan, also exploits our sin, hurling darts of doubt.  “How could God love someone as rotten as you? He’s given up on you!”

6.  It’s hard to rest in God’s unconditional love because we confuse His love with His favor

I want to discuss this more in a later column. Let me just say that God may love us unconditionally without necessarily being pleased with our lives at the moment.

7.  It’s hard to rest in God’s unconditional love because we’re not born again

Here I want to give a possibly controversial conclusion. I believe that, while people are still on earth, God deeply cares about all of them and wants the best for them, including salvation. All receive unconditional love. Those who reject salvation, however, place themselves in an awkward situation when they die. God’s holiness requires that He cannot bring unsaved people into heaven and that they must face the painful consequence of their sin – which is living in Hell, a place of eternal pain and separation from Him. It’s not His preference, but, in a sense, He has no choice. His unconditional love is not shown to the residents of Hell, despite attempts to argue to the contrary, i.e., “He’s just letting them have what they choose, not forcing them to be with Him.” I don’t buy it.  So if you’ve never received Christ as your Savior, and want His eternal unconditional love, I would encourage you to do that today.  Next time:  How to learn to rest in God’s unconditional love.