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.”

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.

Leadership

The rise and fall of societies and institutions has depended almost exclusively upon the quality of their leadership. George Barna, who has spent years researching the church in America, claims that the most serious weakness he has found within the church in the last fifteen years is the lack of leadership. Few would disagree that strong, bold, innovative, and godly leadership is in short supply.

During the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee said, “I believe our army would be invincible if it could be properly organized and officered. These men will go anywhere and do anything if properly led. There is the difficulty of proper commanders.” Lee knew that ultimate victory rested on the quality of leaders who led the troops. He wanted men with administrative skills, diligence, imagination, initiative, resourcefulness, and the ability to elicit the best in other men. Like Lee, people everywhere are looking for leaders. So, what does one look for in a leader?

Don’t put too much stock in outward appearance. Externally leaders often appear very different. Hitler, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, and General George Patton would all be excellent subjects for a study in contrasts, except for the one thing they had in common—they were all leaders. God has used uncultured farmers, crude fishermen, and simple shepherds, as well as gifted scholars, astute politicians, and military tacticians to lead His causes. While most of us look at the outward appearance, God looks at the core of the person’s character. He looks for certain inner traits that will turn a lad into a leader. As a matter of fact, research shows that internally leaders have certain characteristics in common. Let me list them for you:

Leaders have clear-cut objectives. Leaders know what they want to achieve, why they want to achieve it, and how they are going to achieve it. They know that you will only achieve what you aim for, and so they keep focused on their goals and objectives.

  1. Leaders know themselves. Leaders know their strengths and weaknesses. They lead from their strengths and bring the right people around them to help where they know they have weaknesses.
  2. Leaders are persistent. They have staying power. They will sometimes give a lifetime of dedicated service just to see their objectives fulfilled.
  3. Leaders are learners. They never stop learning and growing. They have an insatiable appetite to expand their knowledge and learn how to lead more effectively.
  4. Leaders have the ability to attract and energize people. Leadership is influence. Leaders have the ability to influence others to accomplish a common goal.
  5. Leaders are risk takers. They don’t fear failure. They are willing to fail if they can learn something from it. They aren’t afraid to take risks with resources, ideas, and change if they believe good can come from it.
  6. Leaders are followers. No true Christian leader is a law unto himself. He asks others to follow him only as he follows Christ. He lives in obedience to the Word and those to whom he is accountable.

Some who are reading this right now are looking for a leader for your church or organization. Look for these core traits. Don’t be too caught up in outward appearance, or you may miss a David, Israel’s greatest king. Don’t be deceived by a hesitant speaker, or you may miss a Moses, Israel’s greatest leader. Don’t be turned off by a “thorn in the flesh,” or you may miss a Paul, the church’s greatest missionary. But look inside. Look for the right kind of heart. That’s where you will find a true leader.

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!