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!

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.

The Resurrection

William Sangster, the venerable British preacher of yesteryear, was stricken late in life by incurable muscular atrophy. As the merciless disease advanced, rendering his muscles useless and robbing him of his voice, Sangster was eventually forced to surrender his pulpit and retire his anointed pen. However, he did manage to find the strength one Easter Sunday to feebly scrawl these words in a letter to his daughter, “It is terrible,” he wrote, “to wake up on Easter Sunday and have no voice to shout, ‘He is risen!’”

With these words Sangster underscored the dynamic of the Christian message, the death and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is the fulcrum upon which turns every other Christian doctrine. Without resurrection, the divinity of Jesus is in jeopardy. Without divinity, Christ sinlessness is debatable. If He is sinful, Calvary loses its atoning merit. Robbed of its atoning merit, the cross—indeed the entire gospel story—is a sham. Or, as Paul expressed it centuries ago, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; you are yet in your sins” (I Cor. 15:17).

In his book, Reality of the Resurrection, Merrill Tyney notes that many aspects of the Christian faith are echoed (if only vaguely) in non-Christian religions. For instance, some religions claim, as does Christianity, to have divinely inspired writings. Muslims boast of the Koran; the Mormons of their “Golden Tablets.” Similarly, many pagan religions offer their followers the promise of life after death. Like Christianity, philosophers and religionists of all eras have proposed various systems of ethics for the governing of the human race. However, Tyney rightly declares that the distinctive attribute of the Christian faith is its belief that “the supernatural power of the living God was manifested historically by the resurrection of Christ from the dead.”

The resurrection marks Christianity off from all other religions, past, present and future. No other faith underpins its belief system with the doctrine of a risen Saviour. It is the cardinal doctrine among cardinal doctrines. It was central to the preaching of the early church. It sustained the hopes of first-century martyrs, and it is a message that has been faithfully transmitted across the centuries and entrusted to those of us who number ourselves among the followers of Jesus today. The resurrection message is non-negotiable. It must never be surrendered or compromised.

However, the greatest danger in the Christian community may not be the temptation to erase the doctrine of the resurrection from the time-honored creeds of Christendom. In fact, any suggestion to alter this tenet would immediately be voted down in most of our conference meetings or our academic forums. Rather, the greatest danger in our circles is that of relegating this basic doctrine to the dusty archives of church history. Having been hammered out on the anvil of controversy by our forefathers, the resurrection story tends to become so commonplace that it is by sheer neglect demoted to second place in our thinking. The resurrection and its manifold implications have become supplemental themes that we take off the shelf once a year. Sadly, they seldom maintain a central place in the perennial preaching and teaching of the Church.

Sangster lamented to his daughter that he had no voice with which to shout the resurrection message. But he then added these searching words, “It would be more terrible still,” he concluded, “to have a voice and not want to shout.” Reader, have you a voice? Use it to proclaim anew the blessed anthem, “He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!”

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.

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!

God Goes Where He’s Wanted

In his most recent book, What Good is God, Phillip Yancey makes a remarkable observation about God’s work in the world. He says, “I am struck by the phenomenon of God ‘moving’– not in some mystical sense but geographically moving from one part of the world to another.” He goes on to note that the Apostle Paul addressed his epistles to churches that were in the Middle East; yet today, to find them one would need an archaeologist as a guide. The Christian faith spread westward across Europe into Britain and Ireland, reigning there for over 1000 years. But today, though much of the architecture still stands, less than 3 percent of the population goes to church. In time, the Christian faith spread to the Americas where a lively, yet dimming, presence remains. In recent years the greatest advance has been in Africa and parts of Asia. So much so that now less than a third of Christians come from Europe and North America. However, today the explosive growth of Christianity is in China! There are some 20,000 conversions a day happening behind the bamboo curtain.

Yancey asks the rhetorical questions, “Why are there so many formerly Christian countries? Why does it appear that Christianity has hop scotched around the globe”? His answer is amazing. He says, “I’ve concluded that God goes where he’s wanted. And when a society feels less need for faith, God quietly moves on, to a place that senses more need.”

Not only do I believe that Yancey is right, I believe the Biblical record supports that assertion. The Bible repeatedly reveals a God that always makes Himself available without ever pushing His way into our lives. He patiently waits to be invited. Why? He wants to be wanted! Mark 6 tells the story of the disciples at sea in the midst of a storm, “and Jesus saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by” but they cried out to Him in their distress and He came to their rescue. Luke 24 recounts the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus and says that when “they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: he made as though he would have gone further, but they constrained him, saying, Abide with us . . . and he went in to tarry with them.”   One of the final pictures we see of Jesus is Him standing at a door knocking, saying, “if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

Conversely it is true that when God is no longer needed or wanted He moves on. The Old Testament narratives of the nation of Israel make this very clear. Israel had suffered in Egypt under the yoke of slavery for almost 400 years. Their life was so bitter that they, “sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage”. God miraculously delivered them from Pharaoh’s hand and started them on an amazing journey through the desert to a land of “milk and honey.” During the years of wilderness wandering they were forced to depend on God. He fed them, clothed them and planned their daily itinerary. He hovered over them in a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They went on to conquer the land and build lasting cities. They grew strong, prosperous and plump—and promptly forgot all about God! And the short step from not needing Him to not wanting Him was finally taken. So an unwanted God withdraws. In His absence Israel is overrun by her enemies, disgraced by foreign gods, taken into captivity and finally scattered to the ends of the earth. This is the story of individuals and nations that no longer want God.

The good news is that God is willing to come back! I Samuel chapter 7 tells the story of a defeated Israel languishing under the heavy hand of the Philistines and suffering the indignities of their heathen worship. Verse two describes the mood of the nation, “. . . the time was long, for it was twenty years; and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord.” During these bitter years there began to develop a better mind in the children of Israel. Their conscience began to stir; their soul began to be weary; and there arose a long and sorrowful cry after the Lord. They wanted God once again! And the God who wants to be wanted responded to their cry with revival and renewal!

If we are enjoying His presence in our lives it’s because we want Him in our lives. If He seems far away then remember the words of Jeremiah, “. . . You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD”. God goes where He is wanted!