Saturday, July 2, 2011

How To Love God Well

How do we love God well?

Jesus said, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching” (John 14:23 and elsewhere).

Love, obey, repeat. That’s pretty straight-forward. But there’s a hitch.

Good works are a beautiful part of life with God, but even good works are something we’ve proven to misuse or misunderstand. We can try to do good works without loving God or we can try to love God without doing good works. 

What I want to do here is take a closer look at the path of obedience, but before I do, first I’d like to set a guardrail in place so we don’t risk tumbling into some ditch along the way.

The Guardrail
Our obedience must be a loving response to Jesus’ gift of grace. The two big mistakes I just mentioned can be guarded against if we remember this. (It’s even possible to make both mistakes at the same time in different areas of life.)

On the one hand, we could walk the path of moralism by making good works something they’re not supposed to be. Treating God’s commands as a checklist, we can easily do a bunch of things that look obedient, but do them without the love that gives those acts any spiritual meaning. If we walk this self-focused path, we’re finding our identity in ”being good” and trying to earn favor rather than in being loved by God - and that’s not good. We twist obedience into an obligation or a status symbol rather than an act of love. If we start that course, it’s wise to remember this emphasis:

Our obedience must be a loving response to Jesus’ gift of grace. Only good works that come from faith and love are pleasing to God. That’s why, as we do them, we should always check our motives and let God work through us.

On the other hand, however, we could walk the path of license by ignoring God’s commands altogether. We can easily enjoy the good feeling of being loved by Jesus, but then when something he says doesn’t feel good, we do whatever we want rather than what’s fitting for a relationship with him. If we walk this self-focused path, we’re finding our identity in our own pleasure rather than in what’s true and lasting - and that’s not good either. We twist “freedom” into the freedom to sin rather than the freedom from sin’s control. We twist “love” into passion without humility, commitment, sacrifice, or responsibility. If we start that course, it’s wise to remember this emphasis:

Our obedience must be a loving response to Jesus’ gift of grace. Feeling thankful or happy is only one part of our response to God’s gifts. If we truly trust and love God, we’ll do good works that God says please him, even when following him means sacrifice or even feelings of suffering at times.

These reminders will help us see our emotions and actions from God’s perspective. And with those in place, now we can ask: 

What does this obedient response to God’s goodness look like?

We could say that our responsive actions begin at repentance. When we repent, we have remorse for our sin and we say so. But equally important is showing our love by saying "thank you" and giving praise to God for all he’s done. There are lots of ways to thank and praise God, like simply telling others about him, writing, creating art, singing, and recalling his greatness in our prayers.

Prayer is an essential of our Christian lives for many reasons - the more, the better. Not only is it a major way in which we give thanks and praise to God, but it lets us share our joys with him, lets us turn our troubles over to him, and allows him to work visibly in our lives. Fasting in various ways also causes our hearts and God’s to respond. In response to prayer and fasting, the God of the universe not only communicates to our hearts and minds but he also comes near to us and acts on our behalf.

Unfortunately, despite the wonderful things he does, we’re forgetful people. Since the distractions of the moment easily pull us away from him and cause us to value other things more than him, God encourages us to intentionally remember how amazing he is. There are many tools to help us do this. The Sabbath is one way to remember the supreme rest that God has bought us and the diligence with which we should work until we enter that rest. Other great tools for this are the meaningful biblical holidays that God gave his people and the traditional church calendar that developed later. We can start with the Lord’s Supper, which Jesus told us to do in remembrance of him

Wisdom and Knowledge
We’re all born with emotions and physical bodies – and both are vital parts of us – but we gain knowledge and wisdom as we grow. Wisdom is what teaches us to guide our hearts, minds, and bodies together in the best way possible rather than letting our momentary urges be our guide.

Now, we may think knowledge, wisdom, and discernment just happen to us, and to some extent, that’s true. I think everyone gains some intuitive knowledge from experience – and ultimately God has to give us the ability to learn the truth. But at the very same time, wisdom is something God wants us to actively pursue by reading, asking questions, listening to others, praying, seeking to spend time with wiser people, and more.

The opportunities are numerous and so are the benefits. For one, knowledge of God leads us to love better. Furthermore, having good information helps God form us rather than us forming our own god in the way we feel he should be. And knowing this truth, in turn, helps us make good choices and avoid being deceived into bad ones. Wisdom ties it all together.

One thing that God teaches us through wisdom is the call to serve others - to imitate Jesus by living a sacrificial, humble and generous life. Really, this just means being kind – but we can’t limit “kindness” by our feeble definitions; God’s kindness is extreme. Kindness means offering mercy, forgiveness, and respect to everyone – even those we disagree with; even those who hate us; and even those who our pride says don’t deserve it. Kindness and respect mean not taking advantage of people – not tripping the blind, cursing the deaf, seducing the weak, or deceiving the gullible. And it has to begin with the family: We’re called to honor our parents and to love our spouse and kids well, even when it requires sacrifice.

In the same way, being a servant means helping those who need help. If we share God’s heart, we’ll sacrifice our time, money, and other resources to help those who are sick, helpless, fatherless, poor and needy. People can be needy spiritually, emotionally, or physically, and God cares about them all deeply. (Good thing, too, because “them” includes us.)

Along these same lines, God calls us to submit to legitimate earthly authorities that God has put over us – our parents, our spouse, our boss, our government – as long as they don’t force us to sin against God. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that God is the authority that everyone else is accountable to.

[Sidebar: Submission, Not Compliance]
All that being said, submission is an idea that can be warped easily and in very dangerous ways, so I want to clarify.

It’s clear that God doesn’t want for us to callously steamroll over people who we consider weaker than us or for us to show contempt for authority. He wants us to be gentle. But contrary to a popular misconception, that doesn’t mean we let others steamroll over us, either. In other words, we’re not called to be weak, fearful, ignorant, "politically correct," or otherwise have the mentality of a victim. We shouldn’t believe we deserve abuse and shouldn’t blindly do whatever someone with influence wants us to do. In this same vein, releasing a debt through forgiveness does not mean we devalue ourselves by convincing ourselves there was never a debt, sin, or injustice against us to be forgiven.

The truth is, God wants something very different for us; something that goes beyond both passive compliance and bitter aggression. Godly submission comes from humble confidence and wisdom. It’s knowing the value that comes with belonging to God; it’s being confident that we have choices; it’s taking ownership of them by assessing what’s true and setting firm healthy boundaries based on that. Then it’s freely choosing to be genuinely vulnerable – to serve, forgive, sacrifice and give in wise ways [references]. In other words, we always have the freedom to say “yes” or “no” - regardless of the situation. That’s how Jesus lived.

Another trait that Jesus confidently exemplified as our servant is honesty and integrity. God wants us to have the integrity to tell the truth (with love and wisdom) even if we’re afraid it’ll make us look bad. But it’s even more than that. Integrity means we’ll back our words up with honest actions, we’ll encourage others, and we’ll respect what belongs to others. Conversely, it means we won’t deceive, cheat, or slander them and we certainly won’t steal from them. In fact, God’s standard is so high that he says we shouldn’t even withhold something if we know it belongs to someone else and they need it.

Like all of God’s commands, integrity touches every part of life. A person with integrity stands boldly to defend justice, preserving the lives of those attacked unjustly; even fighting their attackers. Not only are we called to defend those who are threatened, but we won’t allow ourselves to think or act in selfish anger or violence. Now, we may never have murdered someone, but before we shrug off this instruction as irrelevant to us - God says that if we hate someone, then we are murderers; if we slander someone, we're in danger of hell.

Purity and Self-Control
Now we’ll get even more personal. Indeed, as the one who made us and saved us, God has something to say about one of the strongest of human urges – sexuality. His expectation can be summed up like this: God intends for us to have sexual relations only within the lifelong covenant of marriage, which he defines as one man and one woman as long as they both live. Any sexual relationship outside of that is deeply displeasing to God. Now, that’s a bold and unpopular statement in many cultures, but God is bold and doesn’t apologize for his standards.

In fact, if we’re tempted to think it’s not that big a deal, he stops that train by saying his standard is even higher than that. God wants us to be pure even in the way that we think about sex because God cares first and foremost about our heart. This means that if we’re intent on pursuing God, we’ll do even more than draw strict physical boundaries relating to sex. We’ll do what it takes to rid our lives of lustful thoughts, pornography, obscene talk, crude entertainment, and dressing and acting in immodest or seductive ways.

Why such a high standard? A world of reasons could be offered, but here I want to emphasize two of the most profound ones, which are deeply connected. To begin, God created marriage and sex to be the complete, intimate, passionate, and lifelong union of one man and one woman under God – a gift of mind, body, heart, and spirit to just one other person. Immorality steals intimacy from every part of that unique union that he designed. And, as if that romantic intimacy weren’t reason enough, that earthly union points to a higher spiritual reality: Marriage is a mysterious and mystical picture of the church’s unification with Jesus – a union where both sides are totally pure and faithful.

Our sexuality is important to God, but it’s not the only area in which God wants us to use self-control. He also wants us to use wise discipline and restraint with regard to anything else that could make us slaves – the alcohol, drugs, and food that we take in, for example – and even in the way we use money, influence, and media. Sin reproduces like leaven. Addictions to alcohol, drugs, money and influence in particular can lead us into all kinds of other evils - lying, cheating, stealing, murder, sexual immorality, and oppressing the helpless, just to name a few. Jesus has freed us from these forms of slavery. As we turn to God and receive his love for our satisfaction, then the self-control that His Spirit gives us will enable us to live in that freedom. This freedom allows us to use God's gifts the way he intended and can save everyone a great deal of unnecessary pain.

God is the one that entrusted us with our minds, emotions, bodies, hearts, time, influence, relationships, money, and the earth itself – everything we have. If we truly want to honor him, it’s only fitting for us to be good stewards of these things, using them for his glory and not our own.

“Evangelism” simply means “declaration of good news” - and this is one area in which God wants us to focus our resources. He desires deeply for us tell others the good news that he has defeated the darkness and has bought them life. After all, that's how people get to find out about the same life, joy, peace, and salvation that we have! God says we should be intentional about this, both by taking initiative to tell people near and far about him and by being prepared with an answer for everyone that asks us what’s different about us. But it doesn’t stop there. Jesus also wants us to mentor and teach others to follow Jesus with our words and actions.

One of the best ways to grow, mentor, and teach all of the godly attributes that the Bible talks about is to live in godly community. Safe church community is where confession happens. It’s where we’re held accountable for our thoughts and actions. It’s how we get to experience grace for our failures. It’s where we get to experience friendships that are as close as family. It’s where we experience godly encouragement and provision during tough times. And church community is where we get to joyfully celebrate God with other people!

To be clear, what I’m talking about is far more than showing up at a building called “church” from time to time. Godly community – the church – isn’t a physical building. God compares the church to a body. Just like ears, eyes, and feet all serve different functions in the human body, we as individuals are given unique gifts yet serve one spiritual body. We need each other. That’s why believers are called never to give up meeting together, we’re called to help each other and we’re encouraged to use our gifts to the best of our ability. And it’s no surprise that what happens inwardly has outward effects. By worshiping God and building each other up, we can also serve the world outside the church with integrity, purity, and holiness that brings glory to God.

Wrapping Up
All of this unpacks what James means when he writes, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” Faith and love lead to action.

Now, since we’re dealing with the issue of obedience, I think it’s wise to wrap this up with a few important reminders.

First, God knows we're not perfect. The fact that we fail doesn’t surprise him or change his love for us. That’s why he died for you and me; he's forgiven us. And just because we've failed, it doesn't mean that we don't truly love him, either. It does mean that we have growing to do. The key is humbly running back to his open arms when we fail and seeking to mature so we don't repeat our mistakes.

Second, God helps us. He won’t tell us what he wants and then abandon us. Everything that God commands is contrary to our sinful nature, which means we’re never going to be able to do these things on our own power - and he doesn’t expect us to. If we let him, he himself will work through us and he’ll put people in our life to help us.

Third, remember to value good works for what they were intended. Our obedience must be a loving response to Jesus’ gift of grace. So if you’re tempted towards self-righteousness, remember obedience is a response to his free love and grace. If you’re tempted towards license, remember that an important response to grace is obedience. In either case, meditating on the astounding gift that Jesus gives so freely should help bring back the right motivation and perspective. In all things, seek confident humility.

Finally, rejoice! The fact that our good works glorify God would be enough for us to shout with joy, but there is also rich blessing that comes with following God’s commands! If we wisely invest what he’s given us and endure to the end, our work will have lasting worth. In the end, I can’t imagine a greater honor than having the King of the Universe say to you and me:

“‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’”

No comments:

Post a Comment