Friday, March 25, 2011

The Meaning of Life, part 5

(Be sure to read part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.)

Growing In God

“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”
John the Baptist, Matthew 3:8

In the past few posts, we’ve gotten a good taste of the Meaning of Life. Now it’s time to wrap up this series of posts, though certainly not these topics.

In our new life and new journey of faith in Jesus, the truths we’ve covered are our foundation, just like a tower’s foundation is anchored to the bedrock before it’s built. If we stand on it, we can’t be shaken. Yet here we’re faced with another question:

Now that God’s given us the gift of salvation and everything that goes with it, what does he want us to do?

Now we grow.

When we repent and accept Jesus, we’re born again and become spiritual babies. Like infants, we begin weak and immature, fumbling around as our eyes perceive the spiritual world for the first time. And just like learning anything new, it’s humbling to admit that we’re clueless; we can’t even eat the peanuts yet, let alone fly a jumbo jet. But over time on this journey, if we let him, God helps us grow into spiritual maturity.

How do we mature? We grow by getting to know God better, both by studying him and by experiencing life with him. God guides us on this path with his love – always with kindness, but often with discipline and correction as well.

It’s true – discipline is never fun - indeed it's painful - but it’s necessary if we’re going to grow. It’s far better for our hand to be slapped now so we’ll play within safe boundaries for years to come than to enjoy that minute of fun now that causes us never to play again. If we submit to God’s correction, he’ll teach where his boundaries are and much more. He’ll teach us who he is, what it means to live how we were always intended to, what it means to be content, what it means to love, what it means to receive love, and where peace is found rather than chaos.

That's well worth it.

In this lifelong process of growth, we’ll see significant changes as he makes our hearts and minds new. The sinful things that our hearts once longed for will become more repulsive to us while the things that God desires will become more attractive. On top of that, our basic intellectual understanding about the world – history, relationships, money, politics – won’t just include God, but they’ll be totally re-formed with him at the center. Inside of us, we’ll find God developing deeper hope, wisdom, compassion, humility, love and joy - and from them, we’ll gain a passion for the things that God loves: servanthood, purity, integrity, and self-control. Eventually - and inevitably - all of these godly attributes will overflow into our actions. This is how we love God, love ourselves, and love others.

To explain it a different way, when we hear the truth, it’s as though a seed is planted. Then, as it grows, the Father feeds it, waters it, and prunes it; he masterfully cuts off the dead parts while trimming and nurturing the living ones. Eventually, that tiny seed grows into a sturdy tree that bears good fruit.

We’re that tree. And the sweet fruit that we’ll produce consists of godly attitudes and godly actions whose flavors complement each other perfectly. If we’re rooted in God, we’ll develop a rich inward life of faith, love, and purity that consistently produces outward good works that please God.

All this is great, but growth takes perseverance. It means never giving up. It means the harder the winds blow to bend our sapling over, the deeper we'll shoot our roots. If we persevere with faith, we’ll mature into strong men and women who think and act more like Jesus. Men and women like this bring glory to God, change the world around them, and are sure to enter the inheritance they’ve been promised.

A discussion of growth is incomplete without placing it in the context of holiness, also known as “sanctification.” In some ways this is an abstract concept, but it's also very practical. 

To better understand what God expects of us, we have to start with the fact that God himself is holy. That means he’s distinct from everything he created. And even though holiness is one of God’s own timeless attributes, he expands it to apply to us as well. When we accepted his offer of salvation, he made us holy, which means he set us apart from the rest of his creation.

Why does this matter? It changes our very identity.

First, holiness means that we now belong to Godnot to sin, not to Satan, not to the world, not even to ourselves, but to God. A good husband can love many other people in his life, but he reserves a unique and deep love and commitment for the woman that he chooses to be his bride. She is set apart from everyone else to receive his best gifts, unique attention, and most intimate affection. In the same way, when we accept Jesus’ offer, he makes us his very own, lavishing his love on us, defending us with zeal, and giving us a special purpose. 

Secondly, because we’re his, we are pure. God is perfect, and as he shows us through his people, his tabernacle, his temple, his land, and his kings, the things that he loves and defends are held to a higher standard. Anything dedicated to God, touched by God, or chosen by God is intended to be spotless, and the same is true for us; we were anointed and sanctified just as they were. Therefore, just as a good wife will be pure and faithful to her husband alone, we'll respond to God with pure devotion.

Now, here we'll find some tension, so clarity is important. In a very real way, God has already made us pure as a result of his grace through faith – done deal. He's happily made us his. But everyday, he calls us to continue working with him to purify ourselves of everything that defiles us – inside and out. Why? It's the only fitting response. We can look at it this way: Why would we intentionally dive back into a sewer ditch after we've been scrubbed clean? Why would we even long for it in our heart? It’d be absurd. 

Hopefully, we won't dive into sewage, but sometimes we'll encounter puddles of it that seep into our path. That’s why there’s a present and future dimension to our purification while we’re in this corrupted world. We don’t pursue purity to gain his acceptance or to say his grace isn’t enough; we do it because we respect our Dad immensely, we believe him when he says sewage will make us sick, and because want to be just like him… holy... perfect.

Now, before we let the word "perfect" frustrate or discourage us, let me summarize the tension we feel here. The same God who wants perfection is happy to claim people who aren't perfect - people who don't have perfect theology and people who aren't sinless. The same God who wants perfection gives us the security of knowing that he has grace and patience for us even when we fail. But at the same time, he wants us to try to hit the mark - with all our heart, soul, mind and strength he wants us to try. His grace never gives us an excuse for treating truth or purity as if they're no big deal. If we've connected with our Father's heart, we'll zealously love good and hate evil - even if it means hating some of our own actions.

Our lives must remain in that tension, but here's the beautiful way he helps us ease it:

We could never do it alone and he doesn’t expect us toNot only does he give us the security that he loves us even if we fail, but our Father changes us from the inside to help us succeed. He knows when we need grace and when we need correction. And with his help, we may not become sinless, but we will do good and sin less

God is faithful to finish what he started in us.

In light of all I’ve said, here is a fitting place to ask: What does purity look like? What is servanthood? What’s integrity? What are these good works that God expects of us? There’s a short answer and a long answer to this. The short answer is found in the parable of the good Samaritan: “Go and do likewise.” Beyond that, God’s instructions are found throughout Scripture and Jesus' perfect life is our example. For a longer answer, stay tuned for my next article.

Wrapping It Up… But Not Really
The story of the Bible is one of extremes and one of balance; a story of both intense darkness and blinding light. It predicts and reflects the extremes of life and offers the ultimate meaning behind it all – along with hope.

In the past several posts, my challenge has been to boil down the basics of a story of life with God that is both universal and intensely personal. But what I’ve said is by no means the end of the story. There is immeasurably more to learn and experience in the Bible: The faith of the patriarchs, God’s heroic faithfulness to Israel, the fulfilled prophecies about the rise and fall of world empires, the foretelling of the Messiah’s coming, the consolations of the Psalms and so much more. My following articles will dig deeper into ideas and actions that I could only touch on here. At the same time, I encourage you to dive in and explore more. 

The word of God has all kinds of depths to explore. And yet for all its complexity, for all its perspectives, for all its variety – there's a simple message that rises to the surface again and again and again.

Love God. Believe him, trust him, repent of your sins (which offend him), submit to him, thank him, praise him, glorify him, respect him, please him.
Be loved by him. Accept his gifts; let him take your burdens. Have confidence because he’s forgiven you and gives you priceless value. Offer yourself the same kindness and respect he offers you.
Love others. Give time, encouragement, money, food, talents, defense, respect, and forgiveness to others just as God first gave these things to you.

Do this and you will live.

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