Sunday, March 28, 2010

Growing After Jesus

What does it mean to grow and change as a Christian?  How do we "grow after Jesus?"  Is it that we become saved by what Jesus did for us and then grow and change solely by following His example, or is there more to it?

For Jesus to be our example for conduct means this:

I see how Jesus treated people; therefore, I should treat them as He did.

There is truth to that.  Jesus is to be our example.  The ways He walked were righteous and true.  He shows us what it is like to be truly human, without the stains and chains and self-centeredness of sin.  But before He is our example, He is our Savior.  Furthermore, the way we "grow" in Jesus is not, I believe, primarily through strudying Jesus as a moral example but rather through experiencing Jesus as a personal reality.  In other words, we grow and change through our personal relationship with Jesus, like this:

I see and experience how Jesus treated me; therefore, I want to treat others the same.

This is Gospel-transformation.

I'll give a short, personal example.  I've struggled with anger over the years.  Praise God, I'm not going around punching walls and stuff like I have done in the past.  But I still get angry, and I noticed that one of the things I have done is trample over people's boundaries when I've been really angry.  Something inside me flips and says, "Ok, I am justified and this person is bad or in the wrong.  They don't deserve to have any rights -they deserve to be punished."

Think about the responses you might get from people if this is your problem:
-"Oh, but everybody does that sometimes..." (minimization)
-"You learned it from your parents..." (blame-shifting, minimization)
-"You have a real problem, you psycho, and you are teaching it to your children" (condemnation, even though true)

But the Gospel responds to me in a different way.  It asks me, "How did God treat you when you were His enemy?  How does God still treat you when you offend Him, such as when you treat people with bitterness when angry at them?  Does He, the only One who truly has the right, kick dirt in your face and punish and oppress you?"  No.  He doesn't.  He sends His Son to die for me.  He loves me.  He enters into personal sacrifice in order to bring me close and love me, in spite of what I deserve.  He treats me with grace and mercy even though, from His point of view, He would be perfectly right to not treat me that way at all.

Take an example the Bible gives us.  Look up the second chapter of Paul's letter to the Philippians.  In it, Paul urges the Philippians toward humility.  He does this by reminding them of the humiliation, incarnation, suffering, and death of Jesus.  But it is not merely, "Look at how humble Jesus was.  Go be like Jesus."  It was, "Look at how Jesus left behind His glory, His interests, in order to die for you."  Paul does not portray Jesus primarily as an exemplar but as someone who personally treated them with humility and love.  That is what changes us and moves us.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Come Away My Beloved

At least for posterity, it is worth it for me to take note of a devotional book that I have really enjoyed reading and have once again picked up off the dusty bookshelf.  More than just enjoy it, God has used it to speak to me.  It is a book called Come Away My Beloved by the recently passed Frances J. Roberts.

What makes this book so different from other devotional books is the way it is written.  Most devotional books I have read follow a common formula:  the author gives a Bible verse, the author explains it, the author uses a funny little anecdote from when they were five years old to illustrate it, and then the author gives some kind of exhortation, like, "So... let's give our cares away to God and trust that He will carry our burdens," followed by a short prayer.  Since daily devotions are intended to be short, usually to fit our busy modern lifestyle, you may not find tremendous depth. That is how most of the devotional material I have read goes.  That format is just fine -not picking on it, and not all devotional material is created equal.  Some people really have a way to express the heart of God with words, and some people have a gift for keeping it simple -even using this common format.

But what many devotional materials focus on is learning or recalling some idea or some piece of information.  Sometimes that may be convicting, or it may be very encouraging but in my experience it isn't always very personal.  Many of them feel a bit information-based, as if what we need is just some more information. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there are devotionals that are beautifully written and attempt to be very personal, but it is almost difficult to not become caught up more with the beauty of the language than with the God the language is intended to point us to.  I must confess, when I read things like C. H. Spurgeon or the Valley of Vision book, sometimes I am more caught up with the beauty of the ideas and the wording.  It has that "old" flair to it, with poetic and beautiful language.  With those, I often feel connected with the living faith of men from a bygone era -not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes it may be distracting.

But Roberts' contribution to the devotional-material mountain is different from anything else I've experienced, as admittedly limited as that experience is.  Rather than lifting me up with particularly beautiful language and rather than merely engaging my mind with information and practical anecdotes, Come Away My Beloved reads more like a personal letter to me from God.

I realize that some folks may not be comfortable with this format.  How can a mere human put together a letter from God to us?  Yes, in that regard it should be considered imperfect.  However, the words, the promises, the speech, the wooing, the heart, the character, the emotion, and the truth come straight from God's Word.  You can hear God in His Word speaking through the words of these devotionals... echoing, resonating, whispering.  In that, in the closed-door, isolated silence of my time before my Maker, it becomes personal.

And this is what I believe a "devotional book" should do.  It should engage the heart by revealing the heart of God to us, enlivening our faith to respond to what we "see."  It should be personal, it should point us to a Person and be a pathway for bringing God's Word to us for the purpose of that personal, Spirit-bound, intimate connection.  That is what devotion is, is it not?  All information and beauty are meant to serve that end, and if they don't they are lost... they become empty idols. 

And as a plus, like almost all things worth reading, it was penned by someone who has now passed from this world into the arms of her Savior.

Here is are two short samples:

"I have commanded that you love Me with a whole heart, and that you serve Me with undivided loyalty.  You cannot serve two masters.  Purge out the old leaven, therefore, and clean the vessels... I long after you with a love that embraces Eternity.  Though you go astray, I will surely draw you back.  Though your love grows cold and your heart indifferent, if you will listen, you shall surely hear My voice.  When you turn to Me, I shall bridge the gap.  Although you have strayed, I have not left you..." (from Cleanse the Sanctuary)

"O My children, what do you need today?  Is it comfort?  Is it courage?  Is it healing?  Is it guidance?  Behold, I assure you, whatever it is you need, if you will look to Me, I will supply.  I will be to you what the sun is to the flower; what the water of the ocean is to the fish; and what the sky is to the birds.  I will give you life, light, and strength.  I will surround you and preserve you, so that in Me you may live, move, and have you being, existing in Me when apart from Me you would die... Be done with petty things.  Be done with small dreams.  Give Me all that you have and are; and I will share with you abundantly all that I have and all that I am." (from You Shall Not Be Earthbound)

Enough for my lavish praises of this book, which I happen to have in the bonded leather edition (woo hoo!).  I realize all people are wired differently and all people are at different places, but if you should pick it up, I pray it will personally stir you in the presence of God's heart as much as it has for me.

Monday, March 15, 2010

My Life

I remember going through a particularly difficult time a few years ago.  I'd rather not discuss the details right now, but there was one experience (among many) that stuck with me and which I see still in myself and in the lives of others.

I was having a rough day -lots of strife inside and outside, lots of emotional pain ringing through my bones.  I went into the bathroom and locked the door, turned on the shower, and thought for a minute while I was waiting for the water to warm up.  I lamented inside with a mixture of anger, exhaustion, and despair, "I hate my life."  It was a sigh, a desperate and frustrated complaint, a defeated admission.

Immediately, another voice spoke within.  It wasn't an audible voice, and it wasn't from me although I "heard" it inside me.  The Voice said, "Your life?  What makes you think it is yours?"  I was immediately stilled by those words and convicted.  I am still convinced by them as I look at the things I walk through every day.

Obviously, when we say, "I hate my life," it is in the midst of suffering of some kind.  I don't want to minimize that.  But still, no matter how much we are suffering, to what degree are we making our experience of suffering worse because of that attitude which I was convicted of on that day? 

Usually, "I hate my life," means, "I hate how I'm not getting what I want (the things I think will make me happy, the things I want, the way I want things to be).  I hate how my plan for my life is not working out.  I hate how everything I set my hopes and dreams on keeps getting wrecked or taken from me."  Not many of us would admit to "hating" our life like that.  We try to avoid and ignore the obvious cries of our hearts and cover them over with things like denial, "positive thinking," busyness, you name it.  Yet still it eats at us inside.  Why?

God's Word makes two things very clear.  First, we are blind fools with a heart that is so deceitful we don't even know ourselves.  We just plain don't know what will make us happy.  Second, we think real life will be found in everything we want and not God Himself and what He wants.  We have an inward bent toward self-soveriegnty and all the alleged rights and entitlements that come along with that false notion.

Sometimes we get the foolish idea in our heads that God is like Santa Claus -He exists to fulfill all of our wishes if we've been good little boys and girls.  When He doesn't, we have a crisis of faith: God isn't like what we thought.  The sober truth is that God is in the business of smashing the cup of our self-sovereignty to replace it with something better, more enduring, and more beautiful and satisfying.

When you "hate your life," you need to ask yourself at least four big questions:
1. What is it that God or others didn't give you that you find so essential?
2. Why do you think this life you have is yours? 
3. What would be different about your life if it belonged to Someone else and you were, in effect, "using" it for them for a time?
4. Why don't you want to let that happen?  What things would you be forced to let go of that you don't want to let go of?  How would that threaten you and your plans?  (Hint: see your responses to question #1)

The big issue here is sovereignty, for ownership here implies sovereignty.  See, if you believe the life you have is "yours," then that means you believe you have certain rights and entitlements.  You should, for example, be entitled to decide how you think it should go.  And if people, things, situations, or even God happen to thwart your plans for "your life," then you have a "right" to be bitter about it.

A. W. Tozer explains...

"For [fallen man], God's dominion ends where his begins.  For him, self becomes Self... Because man is born a rebel, he is unaware that he is one.  His constant assertion of self, as far as he thinks of it at all, appears to him a perfectly normal thing.  He is willing to share himself, sometimes even to sacrifice himself for a desired end, but never to dethrone himself."

What if this life of yours isn't your life?  What if a supreme, eternal, and completely independent Being created you, a very, very dependent being, for His own purposes?  What if it isn't all about you getting to call the shots and decide what your life should entail and how it should play out?  What if you aren't the one who gets to decide what should be most important and what things are essential for your life, your particular little blip on the screen of human history, to be meaningful and "worth it?"  What if you wake up one day and discover that you... are not God?  Hmmm....

God calls us to "hate" our lives in a very, very different way.  Instead of being focused on our wants and lamenting our life out of frustrated selfish desires and foiled plans, God calls us to demote "self", putting God and others first.  Jesus put self aside for us, and following Him means doing the same.  And He calls us to recognize that our lives are, well, not "ours."  We belong to Someone else in a double-sense: as creatures created by God and as those who belong to the One who died and bought us.

"Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life." (John 12:15)

"...You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." (1 Cor 6:19-20)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Loving When it is Difficult

A young friend on Facebook recently posted the somewhat rhetorical question (paraphrase): "I know we're supposed to love, but how do you love others when they have stomped on your heart and ripped it to shreds?"

I replied in comment:
"We learn it, slowly, not by looking at others and how they treat us but by looking at the God who died for His enemies (you and I and everybody else). The more we realize we were His enemies, and even still do and love things that only enemies would love, and yet He loved us like that, the more we learn to love our enemies. Takes a long time.

But it is impossible to love people so long as we are entirely focused on what they have taken from us or how they don't give us what we want or threaten it.

Loving people who hurt us is always costly and often painful. Look what it cost Jesus."

The short answer is: we learn love from God.  It flows from God to us, and we choose to give it to others.  The more we receive and apprehend God's love in the face of the depth of our depravity, the more compassion and love we have on others, even when they have hurt us.

The thing about love is that it always costs something.  There is always a place you come to where, in order to love and/or forgive someone, you are forced to let something go.  Why?  Because, as I alluded to in my comment, the reasons we do not love others are related to things we love more than others.  There are things we are holding on to, or trying to hold on to, things we have enthroned in our lives, desires that capture our hearts.  It is easy to love someone who never hurt you.  But when someone has destroyed your reputation, killed your dream, or taken some other thing you lust after and love more than others, you have a choice:  you can let go of that thing you are holding on to, relinquishing your dependence on it and right over it and love the other person, or you can hold on to it and hate them.

Like walking in faith, love takes us places.  At each destination, at each bump along the road, love for God and others asks us, "What  or who do you really love?  What is most precious to you?"  Often times, we find out that what we love most is not God and our neighbor (or our enemies, as Jesus commanded).  We find that we love our reputation, our money, the glory we get from the approval of others, our family, our agenda, our plans, the respect we think we deserve for our good efforts, or our dream for our dream life more than we love others.  They are usually good things we love, but we love them too much.  They become what the New Testament calls "lusts."  In other words, we have a hard time loving others because we are driven by self-interet.  We love something they are blocking from us, and it's all about us and what we want.

When you have a hard time loving someone who has hurt you, you must ask yourself, "What is it that I want so badly that they are blocking or have blocked from me getting?"  That is why you won't love them... that is why you can't love them.  You can't because you're ruled by another master, and you remain focused on you and what you lost.  Love is costly (just look at Jesus) because it always forces us to restructure our priorities and dethrone the things we hold as so precious, forcing us to humbly look to God, endure the debt of what we lost, and love and serve even those who hurt us.

And it does... it takes a long time to learn.  But as we learn it, we find freedom from the chains of our own desires that hold us down.  We don't cease to desire, but our desires for self begin to subordinate themselves to the love of God and our desire to glorify Him by loving and serving others.  We see beauty in Jesus and what He did for us, and it begins to surpass our desires for self.

Real life has an uncanny way of providing practical examples to this :).  Recently, my son got himself into a whole lot of trouble.  At first, I was somewhat in shock.  But anger soon grew inside, and it was eclipsing my God-given responsibility to love him as his dad.  Why was I angry?  It was because his actions blocked from me what I wanted.  I wanted all of my efforts to love him, listen to him, pray for him, teach him, and raise him well to pay off.  I wanted my payoff, I wanted the results I expected -I demanded them, and he urinated on all of them.  Suddenly, it was all about me.  I was being selfish.  At this crossroads, I had to let go of my expectations, to demote them, to let go of the strings I had attached to all of my giving.  I could not, and cannot, really love him and serve him otherwise.

Real love brings us to a crossroads, leading us, if we wish to walk in the way of love, to demote self and demote our self-interest, our self-kingdom, our self-plans in order to serve another.  Real love is a life-long process of dethroning and surrendering all of the things we love more than God and others.