Love and Loving

 Love is the evidence for God’s presence in our life.  1 John 4:7: “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”  Love is, therefore, the standard for the Christian life.  1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God.”  Bam! He presses the point in v. 19  “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” Bam! John puts it on the bottom shelf, let me paraphrase: If you have been born of God, you have, at the very least, a kernel of love in your heart. God’s seed is in you. And the evidence that seed of God’s love is in you is that you become a loving person. 1 John 4:12(NIV)  If we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:16 NIV) Whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God in him.

There is no doubt about it the standard for Christian living is love.“If I speak with the tongues of men and angels…If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2 NIV)

To grow as Christians our first priority needs to be to grow in love.  John says, 1 John 4:20 “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen”. Love sets the standard for Christian living.

Some believe the Christian life consists exclusively of believing certain facts to be true. If you believe A, B, and C, then you’re saved.  But that can’t be all there is to it, because James says that the demons also believe. There’s a relational component to the gospel—that’s the essential, non-negotiable part. Being a Christian comes down to being in a relationship—a relationship built on love, built on facts. Knowing, understanding and believing the facts of the gospel is vitally important, but it does not replace love. They lead us to Jesus and we fall in love with Him. Then because we love God we love others. John said, 1:John 4:21 (NIV) “Whoever loves God must also love his brother”. I like the way that verse in put in The Message: “The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both”.

The natural question once we accept love as the standard for the Christian life  is “How? How do we love others?”  In the previous chapter John gave us this guideline: 1 John 3:18 “My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love”. [The Message] The NIV puts it well ” let us love with actions and in truth.”  Love is expressed in what we do. We love people by doing good for them. We love people by helping them.

We live in a time when hating your enemies has never been more fashionable. In the political realm, it is generally considered acceptable to refer to a candidate as “evil in every sense of the word.” The idea is not just to challenge a candidate’s policies and opinions, the idea is to assassinate the candidate’s character. The motivation is nothing short of hatred; in the political realm, this sort of hatred scares me.

In the religious realm, in certain circles, it has become acceptable to ridicule and lampoon those who have a different faith expression than ours. In many places it’s considered OK to look at other expressions of faith with sneering condescension. A while back I heard a man refer to a church as “one of those seeker-sensitive atrocities.” This was a congregation of God’s precious people he was referring to. And then I’ve heard seeker-sensitive pastors put down traditional churches and I’ve heard evangelical leaders put down Pentecostal churches and I’ve heard Pentecostals put down anyone who is not Pentecostal and … Enough! Christians are supposed to love one another. This means, at the very least, being civil to one another. And it means, at best, that we look for opportunities to do good for them. We can disagree with others theologically or politically—we can even debate with them—without humiliating them. And if we do good for that person, we become more complete in our love for God. God sets the standard for True Love. True Love sets the standard for Christian living.  Christian living shows the love of God to the world.

The logical question is: How are we doing?  Are we making God visible or invisible to those around us? 

We Christians don’t have a great reputation these days. Sometimes it’s because our message is misunderstood. Sometimes it’s because it isn’t. I think we have been guilty of emphasizing the wrong things. Sometimes we’re known only for what we’re against. Sometimes we have a tendency to major on minor issues. In the early days of his ministry, Billy Graham used to preach against communism. It wasn’t long before he realized that he had a much more important message to emphasize, one that transcended political ideologies and spoke to the deepest needs of humans everywhere. He made the love of God his standard and became the most known preacher of the 20th Century.

We need to direct our message to what’s most important. I remember hearing sermons when I was a teenager against bell-bottoms, shaggy hair, and rock music. In those days some Christians and some churches defined themselves by their opposition to the youth culture.

Today there are some who define themselves by being at war with the culture. We are at war, but not with people: “we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness in this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12 KJV)

We are not at war with people. We need to get aggressive about showing people that we love them so that they will know that there is a God who loves them, too.  Then maybe we’ll be able to tell them what it is about their world that we’re against.

I’m against a lot of things. Certain TV shows. Certain movies. Certain songs. Certain political ideas. Certain economic theories. Certain sociological constructs. Certain behavioral patterns. Certain theological positions. Certain doctrinal views. Certain religious rituals. I’m against a lot of things! I could preach against one of them every week of the year and still not cover them all. But that’s not what defines me and it’s not what should define the church. Too many people think taking a stand means being against something. I want to take a stand for Jesus. I want to take a stand for loving others. In order for us to make a difference in our culture, we must love the people of the world as God so loved them that He sent His only begotten Son to save them.

The world’s idea of love is “I will love you as long as it’s easy, convenient, and it benefits me.” God’s idea of love is “I will love you because I am love, and because you are precious and valuable to me.” Imagine the difference we could make if the world perceived the love of God as our message.

Feeling Alone

Have you ever felt that God wasn’t listening anymore?  I hope you never have, but the fact is, if you haven’t, you will.  There will be times in your life when God seems to be far away, and intimacy with Him seems like nothing more than a fading memory, or a distant dream.  When that happens, you have the opportunity to become closer to God than ever before, because this is a time in your life when you can learn to walk by faith, not by feelings.

I have been reading Psalm 13, which is what I do when God seems far away.  David wrote this psalm when he was going through an emotional valley; yet he continued to find strength and direction in his faith in God.  David shows  our faith can overcome our feelings when God seems far away.

 Ps 13:5 “But I trust in your unfailing love.”

When I read this I hear David saying: “I won’t let despair get the best of me. I will just assume you are with me…watching over me…taking care of me…leading me along the way, regardless of how I feel about it.”

I have a friend who works for a company that is struggling to stay afloat. There have been some rumors that he might be transferred, or even laid off. This has put him in a state of limbo. He doesn’t know if he is staying or going, or if he’ll have a job next month. When he goes to the office he isn’t sure what he should do from day to day. As a result, he’s been afraid to begin any long-term projects and has found himself floundering — at a time when he can least afford to flounder. He finally said to me, “Since I really didn’t know what was going to happen back when I started this job I’ve decided that the only thing that has changed is that back then I expected the best and now I’m expecting the worst.  So I’m just going to trust God that everything will work out for the best, whether the company succeeds or fails, and keep doing my job the way it’s supposed to be done.”  His situation hasn’t changed but he has because of where he placed his trust in God.

What I’m saying is this: regardless of how you feel, assume God’s presence in your life and do what you know you should be doing.  Assume God’s presence.  Assume God’s love.  Assume God’s mercy.  Assume God’s guidance.  Assume God’s protection. Even though you don’t feel His presence, love, mercy, guidance or protection — trust that God is there by faith. This is how we, in David’s words, “Trust in God’s unfailing love.”

This means we continue spending time alone with God whether we feel like it or not.  We go to church each week whether we feel like it or not.  We serve whether we feel like it or not.  We include God in our daily life whether we feel like it or not.  We return to him again and again throughout the day whether we feel like it or not.

Even when you don’t feel God’s presence in your life, he is there.  Cling to God’s presence and act the same as if you felt His presence.  This is how you put your trust in his unfailing love.  It’s a matter of saying, “God, regardless of how I feel, I’m going to keep on doing what I know I should be doing, because by faith I trust that you are right here with me.”

Cling to God’s presence: trust God not your emotions.

Ps 13:5,6 “My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.”

 When God seems far away, cling to what you know is true. Remind yourself of the things God has done for you, and rejoice in them.

 I try to think of all the things I know to be true, and offer them up to God. “Lord, you’ve made such a difference in my life. You’ve given me joy. You’ve provided for me. You’ve forgiven my sins. You’ve given me eternal life. You’ve answered my prayers.” [Here’s where keeping a prayer journal pays off!] As I remind myself of these things, and as I offer them up to God in prayer, I find myself strengthened in Him.

I’m not saying pretend to feel something that you don’t really feel.  I’m saying that God knows how we feel; so we might as well be honest with Him.  I search your heart for those things I know to be true, and, by faith rejoice in them.  I cling to them.

 When I feel like God is far away I sometimes think about where my life would be if I had never become a Christian.  What would my life have been like if it had followed its logical progression?  What kind of career would I have pursued?  What kind of person would I have married?  What kind of father would I have become? Every time I think these things through, I am overcome with gratitude for God’s sovereign mercy in my life.  Even when he seems far away, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he has made an incredible difference in my life, and I cling to that.  And I thank him for it.

Cling to God’s truth: rejoice in what God has done, not your emotions.

God loves you whether you feel it or not!  Cling to that truth.

Footprints in the Sand

I have been a Jesus follower for a long time and I have experienced the ups and downs of life in Christ.  What I have discovered about the ups and downs is that most are the result of my feelings going up and down.   There are times when I FEEL close to God, and times when I FEEL like He is far, far away.   These ups and downs are not exclusive to me but rather are a common Christian experience.  This poem written in 1936 has been overdone but it so vividly portrays the emotional cycles that cause us to misinterpret the presence of God in our life that I’m going to include it in this blog.

Footprints in the Sand

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky.

In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,

“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”

The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”


Mary Stevenson, 1936

Our feelings cause us to misinterpret the facts.  But we don’t have to be driven by our feelings.  We can be driven by faith.  We can let the engine pull the caboose.  Even during those times when God seems distant, we can by faith know He is there.

Regardless of how you FEEL I encourage you to cling to God’s presence.

Regardless of how you FEEL I encourage you to rejoice in what God has done.

Regardless of how you FEEL I encourage you to cling to God’s goodness.

David gives us a great example to follow: “But I trust in your unfailing love, My heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.”

The life God has designed for us is to live continually in His presence.  And we do regardless of how we feel!

Refuel

I love to travel.  If my health and finances allowed I would seldom be home.  There are so many places to see, people to meet and experiences to be had.  I enjoy the convenience of flying but when time allows I prefer to drive, even if it means extra nights on the road.   For me the joy is in the journey!

It is no wonder to me that life is often referred to as “the journey of life”.  Each day is a road trip of this epic journey and like any road trip, stopping along the way to refuel is not optional if you want to reach your destination. When Sheila and I got in the car for our anniversary trip to Miami we left Athens with a full tank of gas, but we would never have gotten to Miami without stopping throughout the day and refueling.  The journey of life is no different: it is essential that we refuel with God’s power throughout the day.

Psalm 55:17 “Evening, morning and noon, I cry out in distress, and He hears my voice.”

I don’t know about you but I don’t just eat one meal in the morning and expect it to last all day, I make time to eat lunch and dinner to refuel my body.  But when it comes to my spiritual life one meal in the morning is all it takes!  The only thing wrong with that last sentence is that it is completely bogus!  To experience God’s presence and power all day one meal in the morning won’t cut it.  We need to return to Him for refueling again and again throughout the day.

Monastic communities have practiced this for centuries. Years ago I went on a spiritual retreat to a Trappist Monastery.  The monks there begin their day with prayer (at 5am!).  At mid-morning they stop working and pray.  At noon they stop working to pray and eat lunch.  In mid-afternoon they stop working to pray.  In the evening, as they finish the work-day, they pray again.  Before they retire for the night, they pray again.  Some monastic communities even make it a habit to get up in the middle of the night and pray!  I am not advocating living in a monastery with its imposed order, what I am advocating is that we refuel by coming into God’s presence again and again through out the day.

Doing so helps to remind us that Christ is our constant companion throughout the day — while we’re out and about, while we’re at work, while we’re with our friends or at home alone.  Robert Schuller uses a phrase that I like, “in your labor and in your leisure”.  Jesus is available always; every moment of the day can be spent in His presence “in your labor and in your leisure”.  By returning  to Him again and again throughout the day we experience His presence and are refreshed and refueled with His power.

Sometimes we forget what a wonder it is to have a God who listens to us when we pray.  Of course, the fact that God listens to us doesn’t make him our celestial Genie.  He doesn’t do everything we ask Him to do.  Things don’t always work out the way we want them to.  Prayers are not always answered specifically on our terms.  After all He is God and we are not.  Even so, it is still a marvelous promise that when we talk to God He  listens.  Don’t underestimate the power and pleasure of this promise.

I once was campus minister with a ministry that directed campus ministries on several different campuses.  Our board replaced our experienced executive director with one who had a strong administrative background but no campus ministry experience.  To say he was a bad listener would be an insult to bad listeners!  I remember feeling that he was so unsympathetic my ministry objectives that I wondered sometimes if he was capable of human emotion. (The jury is still out on that one.) Whenever I requested money for a retreat or campus outreach, I got the distinct impression that my words were falling on deaf ears.

Fortunately, he was an exception and not the rule!  I left that ministry and had a more cooperative relationship with the board in my new campus ministry.  They were interested in what I was trying to accomplish.  They listened and were supportive.  Though they didn’t always say “yes” to my requests, they thoughtfully considered each one. When they said “no”, they always suggested alternatives. In other words, when I talked to them, they listened. Even though I went through all the typical struggles of a campus minister, it helped to know that I had a sympathetic board that listened!

This is what makes this promise about our relationship with God so powerful.  God listens because He cares.  We can return to Him again and again through out the day, talking to Him about our problems, and we can be sure that He listens, not just the first time, but each time we return to Him.  Talk to God,  He listens and He cares!

I would love to hear how you “refuel” throughout the day.