Why do you have to love God for all things to work out for the good in your life?

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, ESV)

Suppose I wanted to go spelunking, and I went to Fantastic Caverns, America’s only ride-through cave.  The tour guide guarantees it will be a spectacular tour.  But as we travel through the cave on the jeep, I jump off.  I decide to go check out what’s inside one of the dark tunnels.  I get lost, can’t find my tour group, and wander around for several hours until the tour guide finally finds me, having taken the rest of the group back.

I rant vitriol against the tour guide, demanding a refund for my money.  After all, I did not experience a spectacular tour.  I got lost in the dark and felt scared.

Very fair reaction on my part?

Well . . no.  But this is very similiar to the reaction we have when God tells us that we must follow in His path to Heaven through Jesus Christ’s payment of our sins if we want to receive the free gift of forgiveness and experience His love.

Just like a tour guide can guarantee your experience will be dangerous and scary if you veer away from the group tour of the cavern, God guarantees your experience in this life will be dangerous and scary without Him.

The Good News is that God does seek and save the lost, like the tour guide in the analogy who returned looking for me when I lost my way in the cavern.

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10, NIV)

We can choose to stay lost, and refuse Christ’s help, or we can get back on the right tour.  If I refuse to listen to the tour guide when he finds me, I will continue to stay lost.  I will wander around in darkness until I die.  And if I refuse to listen to the Son of God who is the only One with the rescue plan and the only one who can save me, I will spend my eternity in darkness away from Him.

If you ever get to go to Fantastic Caverns, pay for a tour.  Check out the caves under the supervision of a tour guide.  Follow your guide’s rules.  You’ll get to see stalactites, stalagmites, and an enormous cavern.  Best of all, you’ll be able to see it all with the light of the tour guide’s flashlight.

If you want to go to Heaven, receive the free gift of salvation.  Check out God’s Word under the supervision of Jesus Christ.  Follow His rules.  You’ll get to see golden streets, gates of pearl, and enormous mansions.  Best of all, you will get to spend eternity with (and because of) the God of Light.

This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all. (1 John 1:5, NLT)

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Mind

When Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, because He is God, He added another facet.  This is the original command,

Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.

And listen again to what Jesus said,

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30)

We, of course, cannot add to Scripture, because we are not God, and Scripture is God’s language.  But Jesus, as God, had the right to do so, because it is His language.  And He added,

with all your mind

I think about how Jesus revealed to us that a man could commit adultery with a woman by thinking lustfully about her, and a man could commit murder by holding anger against him.

Jesus revealed a dimension of difficulty the Pharisees and other religious leaders had never even considered: that there could be sin of the mind, “thought crimes”, as Christopher Hitchens called them.  It was one of the most offensive things Hitchens seemed to find about the God of the Bible.  He actually had this in common with many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.

In the Old Testament, followers of God were called to serve Him with all their hearts, souls, and strength.  In the New Testament, followers of God are commanded to give Him their minds, also–even their most secret thoughts.

But this command didn’t come without a way to follow it.  Through God’s Word and the Spirit of God in their lives, the believer is able to surrender even their most dearly held wickednesses–the hidden paths of the mind and caves of the heart–to the Lord Jesus Christ.

take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5b, ESV)

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Photograph by Jacob Botter, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/jakecaptive/

Photograph under Creative Commons License.

Why we can’t expect people in the church to be ready for church.

No one should ever, under any circumstance, feel too unworthy to go through church doors.  The church is a place for anyone to go who decides they want to know a bit about God.  They could be drunk, high, hung-over, texting, wearing too few clothes, or donning a plumed hat complete with a Styrofoam bird.  They could have just left from a board meeting, parole hearing, divorce court, local casino, the nearest fast food restaurant, off the last bus for the day, or been kicked out of the nearest bar.  They could be coming from a shift at the local diner, a season of selling popcorn at a stadium, ten years of factory work, a six-week stay at a resort, a year of wondering what they are going to do with their life, or a fifty-year career as the CEO of one of the best run companies in the world.

They could have come from a house or an apartment or a hotel or a homeless shelter or the nearest tattoo parlor.  They could have a Bible or a copy of the newspaper or an iPhone or a comic book or a screaming child or a golf bag with broken clubs or a wallet full of fifties or a chihuahua in their purse.

They might be swearing, or they might be correcting everyone’s grammar.  They might have holes in their jeans, or they might be wearing way-too-expensive shoes.  Their phone might ring in the middle of church; they might chew tobacco in the parking lot; they might cough without covering their mouth; they might have no sense of personal space; they might slouch over in their seat.

They might criticize everything & everyone.  They might be prime examples of hypocrites.  They might be uneducated, or they might have too many doctorates.  They might be prejudiced, or they might be way too tolerant.  They might be better-than-thou, or they might be quite sure they are a nobody.

We can expect them, because God is open to taking them all.

When we try to get people to follow God’s rules before they are saved, it’s like expecting a homeless child to follow the rules of somebody else’s parent.

It’s not happening.

And if we try to make it happen, people will get mad, startled, disappointed, hurt, furious, confused, outraged, depressed, indignant, and frightened.

Division of Family Services doesn’t tell Robert the teenager, who is waiting in juvenile hall for a home, that he has to start following all of George and Teresa’s rules.

Can’t you just hear the response?  “Who is George and Teresa?  Why should I follow their rules?!?”

It’s obvious to us that Robert needs to live with George and Teresa before he is going to want to–or even understand why he should–follow their rules.

We can’t expect people to come into church and want to follow God’s rules.  You have to be adopted by God before you want to follow what He says.

When Robert moves in with George and Teresa, and they show him his new room and buy him clothes and enroll him in the local high school and drive him to football practice every Monday and Thursday night, it will be very natural for them to tell him he can’t smoke cigarettes or download pirated DVD’s or leave the house in the middle of the night with a spray paint can.

Whether Robert agrees or disagrees with the rules, there is a relationship they are built on.  Does Robert live in the house? Yep.  Do George and Teresa now drive him to football practice every Monday and Thursday night?  Yep.

Now–here is something very important to notice.  Before Robert ever knew George and Teresa, it was still wrong to smoke cigarettes, download pirated DVD’s, or go gallivanting around at midnight.  But now he is motivated to do what they say.  He lives with them.  They take care of him.  He relies on them.

We all have a relationship with God as our Creator, but only believers have a relationship with Him as our Father and Savior.  So, while everyone will be held to the same standards under God’s perfect Law, only those who know Him will want to obey Him.

“If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. (Jesus, quoted in John 14:15-18, NIV)

We can’t expect people in church to be ready for church.  But we can expect believers to be.  If we have been saved by Christ, then we are going in His house much like a child running into the arms of a parent.  Church for us needs to be all about out-and-out worship, total outreach, and an imitation of the same patience for others in the church that God had for us when He chose to stay around for us . . even when we broke all the rules.

After all, we are the ones living in the Father’s house.  When visitors come in, our goal isn’t to critique them, or make them less embarrassing looking to God–oh my!  I would hate to think how embarrassing I have been to God over the years!  It also isn’t our job to make them feel good about their sins–just like we aren’t to feel good about our sins.

Our goal is to bring visitors in our home to our brother Jesus, not to keep them waiting at the door until they make themselves ‘more presentable’.  Jesus is the only way any of us will ever be presentable to God.  He is the only one who can bring us for adoption to the Father.

When Jesus pays for someone’s sins, they are adopted into the family of God  . . just the way we were.  So we should look at every person who walks through our church doors as a potential new member of our family.

Rescue others by snatching them from the flames of judgment. Show mercy to still others, but do so with great caution, hating the sins that contaminate their lives. (Jude 1:23, NLT)

Release

Release bitterness . . . love God forever.

Get rid of all bitterness (Ephesians 4:31a, NLT)

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Photograph by Mary, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/mayr/

Photograph is under Creative Commons License.

See Copyright Page for Bible translation information.

Published in: on April 4, 2012 at 8:37 pm  Leave a Comment  
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To Know

“You may not love Him now because you know Him not, but to know the Lord Jesus is to love Him.”

Dr. Tom Malone

And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. (1 John 15:20, ESV)

“with only a wall”–from Ezekiel 43:8

“They put their idol altars right next to mine with only a wall between them and me.” (Ezekiel 43:8a, NLT)

God is talking about people who are supposed to be His people who have the audacity, in God’s Temple, to add their idols to God’s manifestation of glory . . . with a dividing wall between them.  As if God is going to be okay with that.

The Lord said to me, “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place where I will rest my feet. I will live here forever among the people of Israel. They and their kings will not defile my holy name any longer by their adulterous worship of other gods or by honoring the relics of their kings who have died. They put their idol altars right next to mine with only a wall between them and me. They defiled my holy name by such detestable sin, so I consumed them in my anger. Now let them stop worshiping other gods and honoring the relics of their kings, and I will live among them forever. (Ezekiel 43:7-9, NLT)

Isn’t that incomprehensible?  Isn’t that unbelievable?  First, that people would dare put their ridiculous little idols (and the word the Bible often uses in the Old Testament, the commentary in my NLT says, is thought to be connected to the word “dung”) . . . and then that God would forgive them?  That He would let them come back?

But the idols have to lose their place.

Now this seems crazy: God is willing to take back these lunatic people, and all He wants is for them to live in His holiness without accessorizing with their sin?  It’s a free gift.  It’s simply coming into the Presence of God and loving Him.  Who could possibly have a problem with that?

Me.

I don’t go to the Temple of God and put wooden idols in the room beside God’s majesty.  But the Scripture tells me that, when I accepted Christ, I became part of the Temple of God.  That means any time I allow idolatry into my mind and heart . . . I am placing an idol right next to the glory of God.  I may think I’ve carefully divided off that idol from the Presence of God . . . but that’s as crazy as thinking God will be okay with a man-made object of junk worship in the room next to Him.  That’s not how it works.  God doesn’t ask for 10% of us, or 50% of us, or even 90% of us.  God wants all of us to be purely devoted to Him.

That means if something’s standing in the way . . . if anything’s standing in the way . . . I have to put it outside the Temple.  I can’t allow it in my mind or heart.  No matter how tempting, no matter how seemingly innocent, no matter how world-approved, no matter how funny, no matter how secularly justifiable, no matter how pleasurable . . . it’s got to go.  And now.  Now of now.

God deserves better than for me to hoard my sin in the room next to Him and try to get by with a partition.

Now devote your heart and soul to seeking the LORD your God. (1 Chronicles 22:19a, NIV)

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Photograph by Tim Snell, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/timsnell/

Photograph is under Creative Commons License.

See Copyright Page for Bible translation information.

Love, Anyway

In Facing the Giants, there’s a key question:

Will I love God anyway?

The characters face losing dreams they hold close: coaching football, winning a championship, starting a family.  And each time a hardship comes up, they have to answer the question,

Will I love God anyway?

My favorite line in movie comes from the woman who so desperately wants a child, after she believes she’s been given another round of bad news:

“Lord, I will still love you.”

For most of my life, the idea of still loving God even when He does not move as I ask was like the idea of climbing up Mount Kilimanjaro with toothpicks.

It all started when I was little.  I didn’t hate God.  I just saw no reason to be around Him.  He didn’t seem to care very much about my prayer.  Even my prayers that I thought were unselfish, like praying that friend wouldn’t be lonely anymore.  God didn’t seem to care very much for the quality of my prayers, I thought.

God didn’t seem to care very much for the eloquence of them, either. I didn’t get better response when I picked better vocabulary.  Nor did God seem to care very much for the quantity of my prayers.  I didn’t get better response when I prayed the same words over and over, either.

Since God didn’t seem to care about anything I prayed, I wondered what the point of prayer was except to keep me out of Hell.  So I prayed to stay out of Hell, and also with a far-fetched hope that maybe God would one day pick my prayer “ticket” out of the bowl of requests He got every day.  I thought about the book Please Try to Remember the First of Octember.  I wanted to keep a long running list with Him, just in case He ever decided to respond.

Every time my life would crash, I was more and more sure God did not love me at all.  And so I very naturally felt it was right for me not to love God.  When I faced a big heartache as a young teenager, I decided to make a new agreement with God.  I would acknowledge He was there, and He would maybe save me from Hell, and, other than that, we could leave each other alone.

Failing in social circles, losing my dad, struggling with my health . . . every bad thing that happened started a new list for me.  Not a list of things I wanted from God, but a list of things I was holding against God.  I didn’t feel too bothered that I didn’t love God–other than that He might send me to Hell for it–because, in my book, God didn’t love me.  It annoyed me to hear that God loved me, but I fixed that by avoiding the places I thought He exclusively stayed: the Bible, Christian radio, church.  I still went to church (dutifully, grudgingly), but I made sure to clench my list of grudges against God extra tight whenever I was afraid I might change my mind.

. . . As I’m writing this, I’m searching in my mind for a bridge to try to explain to you what happened next.  But I realize I can’t find a middle ground because there was no middle ground.  If I tried to give an order of steps for what happened, I’d never get to salvation, because I didn’t have steps.  I had a plunge, straight into God’s love.

One day, God just pushed me in.  That’s the only way I can explain it.

I realized it wasn’t about my struggle to love God.  It was about His struggle to love me.

My struggle: anger that my sin and other people’s sin causes problems.  Here’s what I found out: not God’s fault.

God’s struggle : anger and grief that our sin separates us from Him.  Here’s what I found out: instead of treating me like I treated Him, instead of making a list of proofs that I clearly hated Him and why He shouldn’t bother with me . . . God pursued my heart.  He pursued my heart even though it cost Him His life.

God figured out a way to die.  When I think about that, I still can’t believe it.  God figured out a way to die.  It’s impossible for God to die, but God figured out a way to die.

God became human not so we would decorate our houses with nativities at Christmas time, but so that He could die.  The manger is a symbol of death: God’s death.

God in that little wooden manger.  God finding a way to die when He could not die.  God dying so He could forgive us.  God didn’t just pay the penalty that we owed to someone else.  God paid the penalty we owed Him.  Like a judge taking the death penalty for the man he convicts.  That is a taste of God’s love.

God’s love letter to us (His Word) . . God’s gift of His Son . . is a personal love for me, for actually me, for me, for me, for me.  Once I knew that, I knew no matter what happens . .

I will still love God.  If my sin or the sins of others causes me pain, I will still love God.

–But that’s nothing.  Here’s what is something:

God still loves me.

I am the thorn in Your crown
But You love me anyway
I am the sweat from Your brow
But You love me anyway
I am the nail in Your wrist
But You love me anyway
I am Judas’ kiss
But You love me anyway
See now, I am the man who yelled out from the crowd
For Your blood to be spilled on this earth shaking
ground
Yes then, I turned away with a smile on my face
With this sin in my heart tried to bury Your grace
And then alone in the night, I still called out for You
So ashamed of my life, my life, my life
But You love me anyway
It’s like nothing in life that I’ve ever known
Yes,You love me anyway
Oh Lord, how You love me
You love me, yes You love me
How You love me
How You love me
How You love me

–You Love Me Anyway, Sidewalk Prophets

Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me. I will never turn away anyone who comes to me. I haven’t come from heaven to do what I want to do. I’ve come to do what the one who sent me wants me to do. The one who sent me doesn’t want me to lose any of those he gave me. He wants me to bring them back to life on the last day. My Father wants all those who see the Son and believe in him to have eternal life. He wants me to bring them back to life on the last day.”  (John 6:37-40, GWT)

Ephesians 6:10, Army of God: Strength

Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. (Ephesians 6:10, HCSB)

Had I understood this verse, I would have understood the entire passage about the armor of God.  But I didn’t, so the passage was nothing more to me than a disappointing analogy.

Before I can even begin to deal with my wholly faulted view of analogies in the Bible, I have to understand Ephesians 6:10.  If I don’t get Ephesians 6:10, I will never understand Ephesians 6:11-17.

I shared earlier that I grew up wanting to be a knight.  I didn’t want to be rescued by a knight, I wanted to be a knight.

One thing I thought was that girls had a bum wrap in the Medieval Ages.  Although I wanted to live back in that time, I sure didn’t want to be a girl.  Who wanted to be a damsel in distress, crying “Help, help!” from the top of some tower and expecting a knight to have all the fun getting there and saving you?  Not me.

I didn’t want to be saved; I wanted to save.  And although I thought this was a girl problem—I didn’t think I would have this problem if I’d been a boy instead—I didn’t realize this is actually a side problem.

There are two sides, and only two sides, in all epic battles I know.  There’s the side that represents good, and there’s the side that represents evil.

Most people—most—want to be on the good side.  Even though we live in a culture infatuated by villains, I think a majority of people would still say they would want to enlist for the good army . . . if for no other reason, then so they would be on the winning side!

If the majority of people want to be on the good side, doesn’t it make sense that Heaven’s going to be pretty full, and Hell pretty empty?  Can’t we all go out, do some good, win some battles, and step up to God on the day of Judgment to be knighted?

There is a big step I’m missing here.

Enrollment.

I can think of two big pieces to enrollment: qualification and willingness.

  • I can be very willing to be in the army, but if I’m not qualified, it doesn’t matter one iota.

For example, if I really want to serve in the U.S. military, and I’m a well-known terrorist . . . would the enrollment officers be wise to let me in?  Would they be mean to refuse?

The Bible tells us we are all sinners.  That’s like being a terrorist against God.  All of us have a past of evil.  Every time we put something or someone before God, the Bible tells us we sin.  We can say that’s not fair, but would we accuse our military of unfairness for banning terrorists?

God isn’t going to choose terrorists to populate His army.  We can fuss and fight about it, but the fact remains: He has every right to base His decision on our past.

If we want to go out and fight, there’s only one place with open enrollment for terrorists: Satan’s army.  And so, no matter how willing we might be to get into God’s army, our credentials will always land us on the other side.

Now here’s the incredible part: God had a special ops[1] plan to save us from ourselves.

God couldn’t make it easier to understand: He sent Jesus to die for our sins as terrorists, so that we could be free to enroll in His army.

But here’s the second part:

  • I can be qualified to be in the army, but if I’m not willing, I will not get in.

Jesus perfectly qualifies us to join the army of God.  But if we aren’t willing, we won’t get in.  There are two parts to willingness that I can think of from my own life: acceptance and surrender.

It does not benefit me for Christ to die for me if I do not accept His sacrifice.  I’ll say it again: I do not benefit from Christ’s sacrifice, if I do not accept what He’s done.  Rather, I am infinitely more condemned by this worst choice I make.

We were all in the execution line.  Every one of us was a terrorist belonging to Satan.  But Christ stepped in front of us, and He took our sin on His shoulders.

That is the point of the cross.

Far more than simply taking a bullet, He suffered the death of a terrorist, for us.  He paid for everything.

But if we stay in the execution line, His sacrifice is not for us.  His sacrifice is in no way diminished, but our choice voids our benefit from it.  This is the ultimate horror: not only to eternally die as a traitor, but to do so when you didn’t have to.

Going back to my vision of knights as a child, remember how I said I wanted to save and not be saved?  This is one of Satan’s all-time go-to defense tactics to keep his recruits standing in his line: pride.

I wanted to do the saving.  I wanted to get the glory.  I wanted to follow God my way on my own, and I wanted to get credit for bringing others along with me.  What I didn’t realize is that the only place we can lead people through our own works is behind enemy lines.

No one would put a terrorist on a bomb (dismantling) squad, but we become indignant when God doesn’t accept us just the way we are, and pick us for rescue missions.  I had all kinds of great plans for how I could serve God and become famous and glorious.  I had all kinds of great ideas for how I could win battles against the enemy.

The problem is, what enemy did I have in mind?  God tells us in no uncertain terms that we either serve Him or Satan.  There’s no “anti-war” ground and no place for people who don’t like to fight.  We are all waging war in every single act we do, and if we aren’t on God’s side, we can be sure we’re against Him.

Salvation through Christ goes beyond acceptance, though.  Salvation is the biggest internal battle any sinner will ever have, and it goes straight to the heart.  To be saved, we must surrender.

For many years, salvation to me was words that said over and over again, “I want you to save me,” to a Christ I didn’t want to follow.

It doesn’t work like that.

What if I call the U.S. military today and say, “Hey, guys, I really like what you’re doing.  I want to be in the military.  I won’t do push-ups or any of that hard core workout stuff, and you can’t ask me to quit my job, of course.  I’m afraid of planes, and I get seasick on ships.  Even if I take Dramamine, my homesickness won’t go away, so travel is basically a no go.  I have a psychological disagreement with standing in a straight line, and besides, it hurts my legs.  I’m ok if I can bring a folding chair along to drills, though.

“I’ve got to have a Jeep if we’re going on hikes, and I need to know the names of the caterers you hire for these events.  I need Tuesdays off, and of course all weekends.  I’m okay with sharing a room with one other person, but no bunk beds, please.  I get depressed if I get up before 7 a.m. and I need transportation to the nearest Starbucks.  I can’t make my bed like you guys expect, but I am willing to pay someone else who can do it for me.  Can my cat come along, and how many flat screen TV’s are in each barrack?  Do you have a microwave for popcorn, and will you buy me ice cream when I get my feelings hurt?  Oh, and how do I sign up?  Am I in?”

Our soldiers are able to protect our country because they surrender to authority.  There is absolutely no other way to keep a nation standing.  When we think of surrender, we think sometimes of “giving up”, but the surrender a soldier demonstrates is anything but.  A soldier surrenders to instant gratification, to selfishness, to personal glory, to mistrust, to fear, and to cowardice.  A soldier is able to give up even his or her own life because (s)he has surrendered doubt and put faith in the commander.  This is how concentration camps are emptied, hostages are freed, civilians are protected, and wars are won.  This surrender is anything but giving up.  This surrender is about giving all.

We are qualified by Christ to walk away from our old life as an enemy of God and walk into a new life of fighting for Him.  When we are willing to receive Jesus into our life, we realize that He is the knight in shining armor, not us.  We accept Him as our Hero, and we surrender to Him as our Commander.

Then—and only then—do we understand Ephesians 6:10.  Our battle is not won by our skill or strategy or courage, but by the strength of a God who holds Himself on a cross to die for the sins of the world.

Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and by His vast strength. (Ephesians 6:10, HCSB)

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1st Photograph, Statue of a knight, by Zakwitnij!pl Ejdzej & Iric, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/zakwitnij/

2nd Photograph, Knight’s helmet, by Jennifer Boyer, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/jenniferboyer/

3rd Photograph, Slaying knight, by Thomas Waldek, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/rawtrigger/

4th Photograph, Fighting knight, by Ed Alkema, profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/nl/

Photographs are under Creative Commons License.

See Copyright Page for Bible translation information.

[1] This comes from Dr. Charles Ware’s sermon, Special Ops for the Savior.