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.

         

 

105. Tough God Stuff

  It felt like a light saber duel out of Star Wars. I could feel the heat; hear the brilliant light humming as it slashed repeatedly in my direction My atheist friend was going after Christianity hammer and tong – my Christianity; my life foundation.   Not only is she very smart, she’s also grown up in the church and thus has inside knowledge about Christianity’s toughest issues, which she didn’t hesitate to attack aggressively.  

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104. The Listening Ear

  Christmas was just a few days ago when I wrote this. Some of us really heated up the credit card giving gifts. Others of us didn’t hand out many boxes or gift cards – this year the money just wasn’t there.

            Here’s a bit of good news: one of the world’s most valuable gifts doesn’t cost a cent. Poor people can bestow it just as easily as rich people. Yet, despite its low price tag, it can enrich others in ways that money never will.  The gift I’m talking about is the gift of listening.

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103. Conservative Christianity pt. 2

     I consider myself a “conservative Christian”.  What picture does that raise in your mind? You might be surprised, if you actually knew me, to find that I don’t fit certain stereotypes you assumed.   Actually, none of us fully fit stereotypes.

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102. Conservative Christianity pt. 1

    We human beings love to use labels to describe one another.  On the one hand, this can be useful as a sort of short-handed snapshot to understand another person’s overall orientation. To say, for instance, that a person is politically conservative, moderate, or progressive gives you a ballpark idea of where they might be coming from on various issues. It alerts us to potentially sensitive issues, gives us an idea of where their priorities may lie, and helps us to better interpret their perspective and value

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101. Immaturity vs Carnality

   Joe had become a believer in Jesus not that long ago.  As he stood talking in the parking lot with a group of men after church, his face lit up as he began to tell a funny story. When he hit the punch line, he paused, waiting for the usual reaction. All he got were a few tense chuckles.  The reason?  The story was the kind that would be considered, off-color or dirty in Christian circles. No one wanted to hurt Joe’s feelings, but the other believers also felt awkward laughing at his story (though, to be honest, it was funny).

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100, How can I have full trust in a God who. . . ?

   If I could give you tool kit and you could design your own God; a real God, mind you with all the God-like qualities, what kind of God would you put together? Would He look like the one found in the Bible?  Be honest.  I’ll bet He wouldn’t. Aren’t there at least a few biblical statements about God which are hard for you to swallow? 

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99. But Everyone Interprets the Bible Differently

    Yesterday I had the privilege of sharing an animated discussion with a man who does not consider himself a Christian.  One of the themes which came up, briefly, was the idea that everyone interprets the Bible differently.  Sound familiar?  It usually occurs when you quote the Bible to someone who disagrees with you, and uses this observation to turn whatever verse you quote into simply your opinion -- not the Word of God.

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98. Perseverance

  My wife called on the phone last week to see how I was doing.  “I want to come home,” I whimpered.  She was at home, but I was over two hundred miles away in an empty Indiana house by myself.  Around me wafted the smell of fresh paint, along with  what seemed like miles of green painters’ tape and carefully placed drop clothes.

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98. Perseverance

        My wife called on the phone last week to see how I was doing.  “I want to come home,” I whimpered.  She was at home, but I was over two hundred miles away in an empty Indiana house by myself.  Around me wafted the smell of fresh paint, along with  what seemed like miles of green painters’ tape and carefully placed drop clothes.

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97. Head Knowledge vs Heart Change

            Years ago I read a famous singer’s autobiography.  It was impressive, like having a conversation with a good-natured, sensible next door neighbor. I’m sure that a lot of what I read was true, but, like many autobiographies, it was selective. Those who followed his life know that it was also messier than the book might lead us to believe.

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96. When God seems distant

There’s a common Christian saying that goes something like this:“If God seems distant, guess who moved?” Have you heard this one?  It’s essentially saying: “When you don’t feel God’s presence, it’s your own fault.  Straighten up.”  In other words, it’s a rebuke.

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95. The Reformation

            It’s been 500 years, since the hammer hit its final blow and the document lay impaled on the church door trembling in the wind.  Martin Luther posted his 95 theses and the world has never been the same since.  It’s been on my mind especially since I’m almost finished reading a book called Protestants – THE FAITH THAT MADE THE MODERN WORLD, by Alec Ryrie, a professor of the history of Christianity at Durham University.  It’s a masterful book which traces the impact of the Reformation on our world from Luther’s time up to the present.  Professor Ryrie has obviously done his homework well.

            Yet I come away from this scholarly work with profoundly mixed feelings. On the one hand, I believe a reformation was needed.  The Church had lost its way, badly needing reform.  I think that even many modern Roman Catholics would agree with this, at least in some areas. Martin Luther, as R.C. Sproul has pointed out, was seeking reformation not revolution.  He hadn’t wanted to abandon the church and start a new movement.  He’d simply wanted to bring it back to holiness and to its biblical roots.  In the end, however, the changes were too radical, and Protestantism became its own entity.  Many of the changes were positive and God-honoring.  I’ve benefitted, for instance, from truths like sola scriptura (only Scripture) and sola gratia (only by grace).  Scripture should be the final authority, not human leaders, and salvation is by grace alone, not by works (aren’t you glad about that?). For these reasons, and others, I’m grateful for the Reformation.

            My mixed feelings come from another direction.    While the Reformation did bring spiritual freedom and advance to the Church, it also created a great deal of chaos. There was, of course, enormous conflict between Protestants and Roman Catholics.  But it didn’t stop there.  Like a mirror hit with a hammer, the Protestants themselves, soon cracked and split in many different directions.  Once each person was freed to follow his conscience, based on God’s personal leading and His Word, it turned out that everyone didn’t agree with each other. Soon there were Lutherans, Calvinists, Arminians, Anabaptists, Moravians, and many, many more.  Each sect thought it had the most accurate biblical interpretation and practices. And because the government and church were often intertwined, these differences sometimes resulted in bloodshed and even wars. Heretics were tortured, executed and sometimes burned at the stake. If you want details, read the book. You’ll find hundreds of them. Lots of ugliness in the name of Jesus Christ.

            Even today, when Christians have mostly separated church and state, and have achieved greater religious tolerance, the Protestant Church is still deeply divided. Reading this book saddened and humbled me.  This is the “Reformation” prompted and led by the Spirit of the Living God?  And even if we go back to the “good old days”, in biblical times with Israel and then the New Testament church, amidst the flowering beauty of holiness we still find our share of thorns.  God’s people have often been an embarrassment to Him.  I include myself in that number, though I deeply desire to be like Jesus.

            I have no wish today to rain on the Reformation Parade. Much good has come from it. It was needed. There’s much to celebrate. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from its downside as well. Here, in my opinion, are a few of them.

Lessons to be learned from the Reformation’s problems

1.     The government and the Church make uneasy partners

I realize that the clause “separation of church and state” has been misinterpreted at times in the United States, in ways which have impinged upon the Church’s rights. That’s unfortunate and wrong. But to equate the government with a particular denomination or religious group is also an invitation to disaster.  Ancient Israel was a theocracy, a combination, but the New Testament church never attempted this. The government and the Church each have different loyalties and roles and while they can assist each other, each needs freedom in their own domains. This leads to the next lesson:

2.    Religious freedom is a God-given right to be guarded

From the Garden of Eden onwards, God has given people freedom to choose Him or not to choose Him.  In the end, He is the one who will judge each of us for our spiritual choices. While there are certainly limits as to what we can do in the name of religious freedom (ISIS being a prime example of abuse of that privilege), in the end, coercing someone to be a Protestant, Catholic, Methodist, or whatever is not only going too far, it flat-out doesn’t work. Even Jesus didn’t force people to believe in Him.

3.    Sin often masquerades in religious garb

Just because someone claims their action is “Christian” doesn’t mean it is.  Religion is one of Satan’s favorite tools. Think of how many people were slaughtered in the Middle ages in the name of Christ. Or, in our day, how often churches divide over power plays presented as theological issues. This, is perhaps one of the meanings of the commandment which says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Even good theology does not excuse bad actions.

4.    God can use imperfect saints

While sin is never excusable, if God could only use perfect people, the church would be a discarded tool.  Martin Luther was anti-Semitic.  John Calvin had a heretic, Servetus, burned at the stake. Jonathan Edwards owned slaves.  Even in biblical times, God’s saints had feet of clay – King David, a “man after God’s own heart” also committed adultery and murder. Peter denied Jesus three times. These are all actions we’d condemn today, though some of these, to be fair, were seen as less objectionable in their time than we see them today. The point is, anyway, that God has always used imperfect people while accomplishing His will.  That would include us.

5.    God, for some reason, allows for, and uses religious diversity

While there are certainly clear limits as to what can be called “biblical truth”, there still seems to be quite a bit of leeway for diversity, both in interpretation and practice.  God can, and has used a variety of approaches to the Christian faith.  Who’s to say that the Baptists are more Christian than the Lutherans, or the Reformed Church more Christian than the Pentecostals? There are people afire for God in many denominations.  In the Reformation, God used even opposing factions to bring people to the same salvation.  The “great multitude which no man can number” standing before the throne in Revelation 7:9, will be composed of every color and theological stripe.

6.    In the end, it’s God, not us, who makes it all work

 

The Reformation was a mixture of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, but, in the end, God used His imperfect tools to accomplish His purposes. This is no excuse for sin, or mediocrity, but it’s also a comfort for those of us who know that we and our fellow saints are far from perfect. Martin Luther, though imperfect, sought to be faithful, and God used him to help launch a moment which has brought millions into the Kingdom and still impacts our world today.  He will use you and I too if we’ll take His hand and stay by His side.