Do You Love Me?

Jim Cymbala recently remarked that, “our people will pay good money to go hear some Christian musician but they won’t come to meet with Jesus for free.”  This stinging rebuke points to something deeper than Christians with misplaced priorities.  It points to Christians who have a problem with love – or more precisely, a lack of it.

 

When Jesus proclaimed to His followers that the greatest of all commandments was to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind (Mt 22:37), He was not only prioritizing the most important of all Biblical commands, but He was declaring that the fundamental relationship binding us to Him is one of love.

 

What does loving Jesus mean?

 

Jesus tells us in the Gospels that loving Him does not consist in saying, “Lord, Lord!” but in doing the Father’s will and in keeping His words (Mt 7:21-29).  When we speak of loving another person, we mean that we seek the good of the person loved.  It means that we desire and seek to procure that person’s well-being. However, there is no good that we can desire for Jesus that He does not already have. Hence, for Him, all the loveliest qualities of loving are subsumed in that simple act of “doing the Fathers will.”

 

How can we cultivate love for Jesus?

 

            Jesus is not merely a historical figure, a philosophical concept or a remote invisible Deity.  He is truly God yet truly man.  He is a living person who is a “you” and a “friend.”  He is someone who can be loved and someone who reciprocates our love!  The saints have given us multiple examples of this love relationship.  Paul’s love for Jesus was such that he wished to be released from the body in order “to be with Christ” (Phil. 1:23).  The Apostle John often referred to himself as that “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23). On the eve of his martyrdom, Ignatius wrote, “All I desire is Christ . . . I seek Him who died for me, I desire Him who rose again for me”!  How can we cultivate this level of love for Jesus as well as this level of awareness of His love for us?

 

There are no married couples who cultivate their love for each other in exactly the same way.  Each couple has their own preferred way that works best for them. However, there are common means that can be witnessed in the lives of all married couples who seek to cultivate a deeper love relationship.  The same is true in the cultivation of love for Jesus.  Individually we might have our preferred means, but there are certain common means that Christians have used for centuries in developing such love.

 

One of the primary ways saints have cultivated love for Jesus is through the means of grace: studying the scriptures, prayer, fasting, contemplation, good works toward our fellow man, singing to the Lord (private worship) and receiving Holy Communion.  The faithful pursuit of these means will enable us to “know (experientially) the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge (comprehension)” (Eph. 3:14-19). It is important to add that these practices must be enabled and aided by the Holy Spirit. The most brilliant and acute Christological analysis, void of the Holy Spirit, will reveal nothing transformative nor increase our love for Him.  Jesus is not revealed by “flesh and blood,” that is to say by human brain-power and research, but by “the Father who is in heaven” (Mt 16:17).  It is the Holy Spirit who reveals Jesus to us and enables us to love what we see in Him.  It is the Holy Spirit that brings life to what would otherwise be dead works.

 

The Apostle John provides another way to increase our love for Jesus.  In 1 John 2:5 we learn that, “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” My studies in spiritual formation have taught me that formation in Christlikeness is oriented toward explicit easy obedience.  It is also true that as we go deeper in obedience to Jesus we increase our ability and capacity to love Him.

 

Jesus gave us insight in how to love Him more in the Sermon on the Mount. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Mt 6:24).  John tells us to, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).  There is a law of moral affinity and it will develop in us either a love for Jesus or a love for this present world depending on what we set our affections upon.  There is no middle ground or safe zone where we can love them both. If you wish to grow in your love for Jesus, then the love of this present world can have no place in your heart.

 

Someone has said that at the end of life we shall be examined about love.  If that is true, the question we face might be, “How much did you love Me?”  In light of such a possibility, it could be profitable from time to time to let the question of Jesus to Peter, “Lovest thou me?” speak freely to our inner man to see if we can honestly respond,   “Lord thou knowest that I love thee.”

Notes from my Prayer Journal Part III

In my last two articles I mentioned that I have made 2016 my year of prayer. I did so in part to renew my own prayer life but also to learn more about prayer. In my first article (March Issue) I gave some general observations about prayer. In my second article (April Issue) I raised and then attempted to answer the basic question of why we pray. My answer to that question was that there is no better answer than simply the example of Jesus – “And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray . . .” The Son of God, who knew the wisdom of His heavenly Father above any of us, felt such a strong compelling need to pray that he made it a regular habit of His life.

Answering the question above, caused me to focus on the prayer life of Jesus. As I did I discovered something that is both fundamental and essential to our own prayer life. Jesus was able to pray with remarkable ease, under any circumstance, about anything, with complete confidence because He knew His Heavenly Father was absolutely trustworthy. The God Jesus reveals always has our ultimate good in mind. He has no malice or evil intentions. He is completely good. And the fact that He is also all-knowing and all-powerful makes his goodness even better. One can never develop a satisfactory prayer life until one knows that our Heavenly Father is entirely good, loving and trustworthy.

When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, they did so presumably because Jesus’ own prayer life was so vibrant and reflected such an easy uncomplicated trust in His Heavenly Father. One way Jesus used to teach them how to pray was to give them a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) that actually accomplished two things. First, it gave them the basic composition of a prayer. Second, it provided amazing insight into the nature of the God to whom they pray. To me, this second aspect is more important than the first because it fuels our faith by underscoring the trustworthiness and goodness of the God to whom we pray!

As we dismantle the various sections of the prayer we can clearly see the kind of God that Jesus came to reveal. The kind of God that is truly trustworthy!

“Our Father”- God is not distant sovereign but “Dear Father”. He desires to have intimate involvement in our lives. He is a God that is personal!

“Our Father who art in Heaven” – The Jewish understanding of heaven did not refer to a faraway place. Heaven referred to the surrounding atmosphere. He was telling His disciples that God is near. He is as close as the air you breathe.  He is a God that is present!

“Hallowed be thy name” – God is holy. There is nothing about Him that is bad or evil. He cannot sin nor participate in anything evil or wrong. His intentions for me are always good.  He is a God that is pure!

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” – As the King who rules over all, He is a God that is powerful!

“Give us this day our daily bread” – God cares about our basic needs. He is a God that provides!

“Forgive us our trespasses . . .” – Richard Foster said, “At the very heart of God is the desire to forgive and to give.” He is a God that pardons!

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” – We all face trials, problems and sicknesses but our Heavenly Father always has the last word. Nothing can happen to us that God cannot redeem. He is a God that protects!

Trustworthiness in the One to whom we pray is crucial in developing a healthy vibrant prayer life. Praying the Lord’s Prayer and embracing what it teaches about our Heavenly Father was Jesus’ way of reinforcing this in the lives of His disciples. I believe it still works today. Try it with me in 2016!

This Thanksgiving – Focus on the Good

I recently held a revival meeting in Binghamton, New York, with a wonderful congregation, who is privileged to be shepherded by a fine man of God and his wife. God gave a gracious moving of His spirit, as well as a wonderful time of fellowship with the parsonage family. The pastor, Rev. Rowan Fay, is such a delightful man, full of optimism and cheer. In our conversations together, he was ever sharing something good about the people in the church or community or about someone both of us knew. It seemed that he spoke of every person in such delightful, positive terms. I became so intrigued by his genuinely positive evaluation of people that I asked him the “secret” to seeing the good in all men. He told me that his father, Rev. O.L. Fay, had instilled in him as a young man this philosophy. He would say, “Son, look for all the good in all the men which you can; and when you have found it, dwell on it until you know men for the good that is in them.” This little nugget of pure gold struck a responsive chord in my own heart. What a refreshing view of life!

The unfortunate truth is that far too many Christians have developed a view of life that has them focused on the bad. They are always looking suspiciously for the flaws, weaknesses and failures of others. If any good is seen or ever mentioned, it is only by accident and not by design. There are even those who almost feel that it is their Christian duty to speak of everything and everyone in somber, negative tones. What an awful view of life!

Christians who live out this simple philosophy of Brother Fay are just naïve people who are blind to all the warts and failures of others who are around them. Rather, they are those who have chosen to catch and possess the spirit of perfect love that is found in the New Testament. Jesus looked upon a renegade tax collector and saw a man—filled with potential. Jesus looked upon the emotionally volatile Peter and saw a “rock” of a man that would lead His church. The New Testament teaches us that perfect love enables us to “suffer long,” and “speak kindly” to and of our brothers. On the other hand, it is the writing of the book of Proverbs who tells us “the ungodly man digs up evil, and it is on his lips like a burning fire. A perverse man sows strife and a whisperer separates the best of friends.”

I know that a Dale Carnegie course or a Zig Ziglar seminar can teach a man how to have public optimism for the good of his business. However, I am convinced that it is only the work of God in the soul that can enable us to see the redeemable good in others, to dwell on that good, and to speak of others in kind and positive ways.

As Thanksgiving rapidly approaches, let me challenge you to look for all the good in all the men that you can; and when you have found it, dwell on it until you will know men for the good that is in them, so that on this Thanksgiving Day, you can thank God for good men.

Preaching is Indispensable to Christianity

Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. To set aside preaching would be to close the mouth and sever the legs of the Christian religion. Preaching has been central to the ministry of the Church historically, and especially so to those in the holiness tradition. The holiness movement has produced and profited from some of the greatest expositors and pulpiteers of this century. So why has the standard of preaching in the contemporary holiness church become so deplorable? Why are our finest preacher boys finding their heroes among popular Calvinistic communicators? Why are our parishioners turning to self-help counselors and psychologists rather than to faithful men of God for answers to life’s perplexing problems?

Much of the current uncertainty about preaching is due to a generation of preachers who have lost confidence in the Word of God. Too often the contemporary preacher uses the Bible as a curiosity shop. He peruses through it until some palatable proof text emerges as a snappy sound bite on which to tack his latest self-help lecture. These pulpit vagabonds fail to see that Scripture is the omnipotence of God unleashed through the spoken word, and that it holds the answers to life’s most desperate needs. When preached and responded to, it will radically change lives.

The art of preaching is further brought into scorn by preachers who have caved in to today’s culture. Ours is a culture that demeans the personal disciplines necessary to become an effective preacher. The ability to build bridges from the Word of God to contemporary life takes an unbelievable amount of hard work and study. A man who snubs through study will be doomed to mediocrity and ambiguity. Too many holiness pulpits lack a clear, definite, certain sound that is forged only on the anvil of study. So many church-goers are like the small girl wearied by empty utterances. She appealed, “Mother, pay the man, and let us go home.”

However, study alone isn’t the answer. Scholarship that isn’t steeped in prayer will yield barrenness. The preacher who allows day after day of prayerlessness to prevail in his heart need expect no grapes of Eschol to hang over the wall of his preaching on Sunday morning.

I have a major concern that today’s holiness pulpit suffers from a “lack of history.” Eugene Sterner, in his book Vital Christianity, wisely comments, “Clocks are corrected by astronomy. What good is a clock if it is not set by the stars? Without a sense of eternity [and history] you don’t even know what time it is.” The preacher who fails to understand his roots and properly appreciate his heritage is usually condemned to repeat its mistakes. Some view their heritage as a bothersome bundle of historical baggage burdening them down. They exaggerate the mistakes and eccentricities of yesterday’s pulpiteers in order to nullify the claims of their legacy, much like the adolescent craving freedom from restraint seeks to repudiate his father.

The effective preacher, without making the past a hitching post, does own his heritage, embraces it with gratitude, incorporates it into his identity, and utilizes it to the fullest in communicating eternal truth that rings with clarity.

Preaching is here to stay! Men who join hands with God and preach with certainty will find that through their labors God will advance His kingdom.

What Religion Do You Preach?

In his booklet An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, John Wesley tells of a man he once met who had fallen into deep despair and unbelief. Out of the bitterness of his soul, the man said to Wesley, “All is dark; my thought is lost. But I hear you preach to a great number of people every night and morning. Pray, what would you do with them? Whither would you lead them? What religion do you preach? What is it good for?” Wesley’s answer was remarkable:

“You ask what I would do with them: I would make them virtuous and happy, easy in themselves and useful to others. Whither would I lead them? To heaven; to God the Judge, the lover of all, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant. What religion do I preach? The religion of love; the law of kindness brought to light by the gospel. What is this good for? To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: To make them like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives; and crying out at their death in calm assurance, ‘O grave, where is thy victory! Thanks be unto God, who giveth me the victory through my Lord Jesus Christ.’”

Religion in its purest form is a fundamental set of beliefs, practices, and traditions through which the Christian faith is promoted and by which it is protected. But far too often, religion has offered a form empty of content and a ritual void of presence. It has, in too many cases, become a cold, sterile, unattractive practice that obscures the beauty of the gospel. Wesley’s answer offers a rare glimpse into a religion that is solidly scriptural, as well as winsome and beautiful. He saw the religion that he preached as one that offered the following:

  1. Happiness and peace as the fruit of transformed character.

I have never met a person who didn’t want to be happy, just as I have never heard of a religion that didn’t offer some means to happiness. But rarely do either talk about virtuous living as a key component to real happiness and peace. No one can find happiness and peace through his own efforts. Neither happiness nor peace are self-originating, but are the fruits of a redeemed and holy life.

Wesley offered a gospel that so transformed the life and so renewed the mind that the end result was a happy, contented, and useful life! “Oh the bliss of the pure in heart…” (Matt. 5:8).

  1. Heaven now and heaven to come.

Wesley wanted to get men to heaven, but he also wanted to get heaven into men here and now! Notice his words, “To make all who receive it enjoy God and themselves: To make them like God; lovers of all; contented in their lives….” Wesley understood that those who find great joy in God also find great delight in others and great strength in themselves—a recipe that allows one to accomplish more in one lifetime than would otherwise be possible. John Piper is right when he says that God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him. “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh.8:10).

  1. To know the one true God through Jesus Christ His Son.

Every human heart has within it the hunger to know and be known by God. Sadly many religions can’t seem to find the right balance. They create a God who is angry and distant or one that is tolerant and casual—neither of which are an adequate understanding of who God really is. Wesley’s view is both balanced and beautiful. He speaks of a “Holy God” that is the “Lover of all!” This is a God who is against sin—a Judge who condemns the transgressor but who also sends His own Son to die for that transgressor and be the mediator of a new covenant that will bring reconciliation and forgiveness to the condemned.

  1. Love enthroned.

Wesley says he preaches the “religion of love—the law of kindness.” To Wesley true religion was to “love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself.”

This is religion controlled not by the letter of the law but by love—a love that is pure, patient, and kind. It is not a love controlled by passion but by pathos—not of emotion but disposition. There is no greater need in our world than a religion of holy love that flows outward in “kindness to all.”

5. Assurance.

Most of the religions in the world do not believe that one can be sure of personal salvation. Wesley, however, preached a religion that offered every man the “calm assurance” of eternal life. Wesley’s father, an Anglican priest, left these dying words: “The witness, son, the witness; that is the proof of Christianity.” In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley defines the testimony of the Spirit as “an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God, that Jesus Christ hath loved me and given himself for me, and that all my sins are blotted out and I, even I, am reconciled to God.” Religion is not often spoken of as something that is beautiful, but the religion that Wesley offered to the poor man drowning in despair is something that I find absolutely winsome. May the religion I preach be so!

It’s A Wonderful Life

The Greatest Gift, written by Philip Van Doren Stern, is a story about a man who wants to accomplish something in his own life but is so busy helping others that life seems to pass him by. Despondent over what appears to be a very ordinary—if not a wasted—life, he wishes he had never been born. He gets his wish, and through the help of a guardian angel he sees the world as it would have been had he never lived. After viewing life from such a unique perspective, he concludes that life is indeed a wonderful gift. Though Stern never found anyone willing to publish the story, it finally found its way into the hands of filmmaker Frank Capra, who turned it into the all-time Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life.

I have not had any life-changing visits from a guardian angel, but I have had my perspective on this life altered in recent months. I am one of those Christians who truly believes the best is yet to come! It has not been tempting for me to spend any time or money collecting the trinkets and toys of this present world. I have not craved houses and lands. I have had a good life, a happy marriage, and wonderful children, who are now grown and established; and so any time God is ready for me to go, I am ready. There are no sad stories, no regrets about leaving, and no struggle to grasp a few more fleeting moments of time here on earth. It’s been a great journey! (For those who are shocked by this, no, I am not depressed; and, yes, I would like to know my grandchildren.) After all, earnest Christians live with a very loose grip on this present world. Right? Right!

We are only pilgrims passing through the temporal headed for the eternal. Right? Right! This life is inferior at best, and the sooner we slip the bonds of mortal existence and are clothed with the eternal, the better. Right? Not quite! Some months ago God began to speak to me about the wonderful gift He has given us in our earthly physical life. It should not be minimized or demeaned because it is not as blissful a state as the life to come, nor should one just endure it until liberated by heaven. Rather, it should be lived with deep gratitude and respect as a wonderful gift from God. It is good, not because I make it so, but because He has made it so.

God created life and declared it good. God gave Adam and Eve each other and the created world around them to enjoy richly. He considers this physical life sacred and reserves the severest penalties for those who destroy it. The first promise attached to a commandment was the promise of a long life. God often promised length of days as a way of honoring His faithful servants in the Old Testament. All of this is still true, despite the fall of man and the curse of sin.

Obviously, God sees the life He gives us as very good! Don’t confuse God’s gift of life that is good with what the world calls the “good life.” The two are polar opposites.  The citizens of this present world chase after the “good life,” grabbing all they can get and holding it as tightly-fisted as possible. They generally succeed in keeping it long enough to make themselves thoroughly miserable before losing it all. Christians, however, have given up the “good life” so that they may enjoy a life that is truly good.

They do not grab for what they can get but rather hold everything they possess in an open palm. They clutch nothing to themselves but God. Thereby they can enjoy all things without those things affecting their joy.

If God views our earthly life as good, then His perspective ought to become our perspective. We should see every moment of our life here as a blessed gift to be richly enjoyed, life as a glorious journey marked by His grace. I don’t need health or wealth or popularity or beauty or anything else to make my life good. All I need is to walk with Him and remain in Him moment by moment. Such a view of life is neither a shallow optimism nor a refusal to acknowledge the deep darkness that life can bring. It isn’t ignoring the curse of sin and its awful physical consequences. But it is refusing to let those things blind us to the ultimate goodness of this life. It is acknowledging that every day is a gift from God—a gift that when received gratefully can transform the most common and ordinary moment into joyful living. It is a statement of faith that says pain, sorrow and trouble do not define my existence, determine my happiness or have the last word!

If God sees life as good, then His perspective should be reflected in the way we live it. God has given me some real-life object lessons to illustrate this point. Oscar Johnson, a dear friend, died recently after battling cancer for several years. Oscar’s life taught me so much about how one should truly enjoy each and every day. Oscar knew for over two years that he was dying. The joy and optimism with which he lived those years was a powerful witness to hundreds of people. During his last hospitalization, I was alone with him and took the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to my family and me and to say goodbye. That opened the door to talk about dying. He said to me, “Brother Avery, I have never walked this way before. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do when you’re dying.” And then with a big smile he said, “So I’m just going to enjoy my family, witness to my doctor, and take a nap.” Oscar was holding life in an open palm. He was rejoicing in every moment he had, and others were incredibly impacted by that joy.

A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of alumnus John Case, Jr. John died suddenly from a rare form of cancer at the age of forty-two. Hundreds came to the viewing and the funeral. His life had impacted so many people for what appears to be one primary reason—he loved life, and it showed! From the twinkle in his eye, to the lilt in his voice, to the humor in his words, John left those around him with the feeling that life is good and that he was enjoying it! A simple phone call from John could be the bright spot in a person’s day. What a great way to live!

It is doubtful that anyone was ever influenced toward the life to come by someone who despised the one he or she was living now. Life is good, and as Christians we should demonstrate that goodness to those with whom we interact.

As we celebrate God’s unspeakable gift in Christ this Christmas season, it would be good also to celebrate another of His wonderful gifts—the gift of life. Important celebrations require planning and thought. Last year on Christmas morning, before my family and I opened our gifts, we read the Christmas story, prayed together, and then I read some prepared remarks about how good God had been to our family and how grateful I was for each of them. I then mentioned some specific things about each one that I deeply appreciated. After I finished, each family member did the same. At times we were so overcome with emotion we couldn’t speak. When it was over, we embraced each other and realized anew how wonderful life really is! If you’re alone, read a prepared letter to God and thank Him for the life He has given you. You will not be alone for long! Whatever your circumstance, don’t miss an opportunity this year to celebrate all of life. Because it really is wonderful!

Christ Came Down At Christmas

At the close of the First World War, Prince Edward of Britain visited a hospital that was caring for thirty-six of Britain’s greatest war heroes. The Prince was taken first to a ward of twenty-four men. Before leaving, he asked, “Are there not others?” The nurse responded in the affirmative, but she had questioned whether or not the Prince wanted to see those who were more seriously wounded. Demanding to see them all, he was taken to another room of eleven men. The Prince was stunned at the awful condition of these noble defenders to the Crown. He was moves to tears as he offered each and deepest appreciation for his noble service.

Again upon leaving the room the Prince remarked that if he had counted right, there was still one more. The nurse remonstrated rather strongly about seeing the last one since that veteran was in isolation and his condition was so critical. The Prince demanded a visit. The nurse protested that the situation of the man might truly be unbearable to the royal visitor. Edward would not be dissuaded and was soon standing by the bedside of the dying hero. He was not prepared, however, for what he saw. The brave soldier had taken the worst of a fiery explosion. Much of his body had been either blown or burned away. His face was disfigured beyond recognition. The stench of death lay heavy in the room. The Prince shuddered as a wave of horror swept over his soul from what he saw.

However, after a moment to regain himself, the Prince leaned over the bed, and calling the soldiers name, told him who he was. The old warrior’s eyes twitched; and the stub of an arm on the right side of his body jumped in an effort to salute. Prince Edward stooped down in the tenderest tones poured out the deepest thanks on behalf of his country. Then stooping lower, he kissed the disfigured brow of the dying soldier. This was a condescending moment for the noble Prince of the English throne.

There is a greater One, however, who has stooped far lower to plant the kiss of redemption upon the execrable and wretched brow of lost humanity. Oh what incomparable condescension! The King of Glory came down. He wrapped himself in the fading garment of our humanity and pitched his fleshy tent in silence on straw in a stable under a star. Why did he come? He came to save! How would he save? By identifying completely with our humanity, yet remaining the sinless Son of God.

You see, God had created man but he had never been a man. He had watched men toil, but he had never blistered his own hands with a carpenter’s tool. He had never felt the onslaught of the tempter, or had his soul been pierced with the sorrows of life. He had seen men sink into the hopeless depths of the grave, but He had never felt the cold grip of death or spread His omnipotent shoulders on the bottom of a sepulcher. But He would yield Himself to be judged and unjustly condemned at Pilate’s bar, so that we might be acquitted at the tribunal of heaven. He took our place and was crucified as a despicable wretch, so that rebellious sinners might be reconciled to God and sent forth as kings and priests. He suffered the sting of death, yet He broke the bars of the grave so that we might cry, “O death where is thy sting? Oh grave where is thy victory?”

Why did Christ come down? He came down that His mysterious Incarnation might reunite us to God; that His Atonement would purchase our justification; that his death would become the spring of our eternal life; that His resurrection would be the pledge of our glory; and His ascension the triumph of our souls!

Hallelujah! Christ came down at Christmas!