Archive for the ‘Loving God’ Category

I made the mistake of asking a friend for some book suggestions related to the chapter on worship for the Provocative Christian Living book. He suggested a book that connects our worship of God to our doing justice for the poor, oppressed and enslaved. It was not what I expected but more than I could have hoped for.

The bottom line of Mark Labberton’s book, “The Dangerous Act of Worship”, is that we can’t say we love God if we do not love our neighbor. I know, that comes right out of 1 John 4:20 “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” How we treat our neighbor, especially the poor and oppressed has a direct connection to our worship of God. In short, it is not possible to worship God if we are not concerned about the issues of pain and suffering that are faced by people made in God’s image.

I am reminded of a story of a congregation that was confronted with a dilemma one Sunday morning. Just like every other Sunday morning they made their way from their cars to their seats in the sanctuary. Each one was dressed in their Sunday best, including their obligatory Sunday morning smile and greeting for the other worshipers parading in to worship. What made this Sunday morning different was the man huddled in a corner near the bottom of the steps, outside, near the street. He was dirty and had his own uniquely unpleasant aroma. His hair was greasy and knotted, and covered by a dirty brown beanie pulled low over his eyes. An over-large tattered trench coat kept him warm while one arm remained hooked around a shopping cart loaded with the totality of his worldly possessions. No one spoke to him. Most turned away and made sure not to lock eyes with the man. Children who embarrassed their parents with overly loud questions about the man where told not to pay any attention.

Inside the sanctuary the service was about to begin. Everyone was seated in their normal places, the ones they always sat in, waiting quietly for the pastor to step onto the platform. To the shock and dismay of the entire congregation, the dirty, homeless stranger from outside came stumbling down the middle aisle and took a seat in the front row. No one dared move or say a word. A few minutes of uncomfortable silence felt like an eternity. Just when people expected the pastor to come out to begin the service and maybe deal with the man who was so out of place, the man stood up. He slowly walked up to the platform and had the audacity to step into the pulpit. To the gasps and bewilderment of the congregation, he removed his cap, took off the knotted wig, removed the tattered coat, wiped the grime from his face and revealed himself as their pastor in. All he needed to do was stand there. The Holy Spirit did the rest. People were confronted with their rejection of someone in need as they prepared to tell God how much they loved Him by worshiping as they always did.

It really gets back to what Jesus said about what we do for the sick, the prisoner, the naked, the hungry and the rejected. To the degree we serve them and care for them, we are serving and caring for Jesus. If we fail to serve them and care for them, then we really are not serving and caring for Jesus no matter how many songs of praise we sing or offerings of resources we make.

Buy caring about issues of justice and loving our distressed neighbor, we take worship out of the exclusive realm of the sanctuary or church auditorium. Instead, we find ourselves on the road to making worship a 24/7 act of giving ourselves to God. When we care for, and show love to others, we are honoring God who made them. You cannot honor the creator and dishonor that which he created. If I say I love Picasso but I slap graffiti on one of his paintings, then I am really making a statement about what I truly think of Picasso. If however I really love Picasso, then I will cherish and care for that which he painted. The same is true in our worship of God. If I really want to honor God, then I must cherish and care for that which He has made in His image. It is in that context that doing justice is what God wants from us in our worship of Him. It is summed up in these words from the Prophet Micah:

He has shown you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

The Bible is not nearly as complicated as people make it out to be. Yet, what I have learned is that it is simple enough that the least astute child can understand it’s depths and deep enough that the most skilled of scholars can never fully grasp it’s implications. This verse from Philippians comes to mind as one of the verses that so perfectly fits that reality.

12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Philippians 2:12-13

On numerous occasions I have had people ask me about this verse and wondering if there is a contradiction here. People think that Paul is saying our salvation depends on our good works. They get the fear and trembling part because they usually start trembling when they realize they are not doing a very good job of it. But Paul is not saying that our good works, or being a good person is was gets you into heaven. The problem is, people usually read verse 12 and forget to read verse 13. The verse divisions are great for finding places in the Bible but terrible as a guide to understanding it. Verses 12 and 13 are a complete sentence. To read verse 12 by itself is to only read one half of the thought. We would never do that with any other piece of literature yet we do it with the Bible all the time. Not a good idea.

What Paul is saying is simply this, “When I was with you, you did a great job of living for Jesus. Keep doing this even though I am not there. Work hard at living out the salvation you have been given by God. Why, Because God is working in you and that should be made evident in the way you live.” Paul is NOT saying that you are saved by being a good person. He is perfectly clear in many other places that we are saved by God’s grace and the faith/trust we have in Jesus Christ. The life we live as followers of Christ does not save us, but it should be a life that is consistent with being a follower of Jesus who is saved by God’s grace.

Paul does not say, “work FOR your salvation” or “work AT your salvation” or “work TOWARD your salvation”. All of those would mean that in some way it is your efforts that gain you admission into eternal life. He says “work OUT your salvation”. In other words, live it out. Plan out your life, live out your life, work out your life in such a way that your salvation is obvious. And you need to be so committed to living out the Christ-like life that you are driven to it with an urgency that makes you tremble.

But why such urgency? Why such desperation to live out your salvation? Paul gives the reason, “For God is at work in you”. Why work out your salvation with fear and trembling? Because God is working in you, giving you the will to follow and obey Him. To fail to live out your life as a radical follower of Jesus is to actually work against what God is doing in you. That should cause fear and trembling in us. When we fail to love others in Jesus name, when we fail to be content with what God has given us, when we long for someone who is not our spouse, when we fail to love God with our entire being, we are not simply ignoring something that God has told us. We are actively opposing God and what He is doing.

To simply ignore God could be seen as a passive thing. It is like failing to exercise. We view that as passive. We are not actively trying to hurt our body, we are just not doing anything to actively help it. I think we often look at our Christian life that way. We are passive in it and think that this is somehow acceptable to God because at least we are not actively opposing God. What Paul is saying is that by NOT actively working at living for Jesus, we are by default, actively opposing what God is doing in our lives. In reality, failing to exercise means that you are actually actively working at getting fatter, weaker, and sicker. You have made a decision to do something that harms you. That something is whatever takes the place of healthy physical activity. The same is true of your spiritual well being. To fail to live a life that is committed to a radical love for God and neighbor is to actively oppose the work that God is doing in you. Every time I fail to love God with all I have and my neighbor as myself, I am actively fighting against what God is doing in me as He works to shape me into a more Christ-like follower.

The fact that God has worked in me to grant me grace and faith should motivate me to live for Him with all I am. The fact that God has worked in such as way as to pay the penalty for my sin should cause me to tremble before Him. The recognition that my sin is great but God’s love for me is greater, should cause me to work at living for Him like nothing else I have ever done in my life. I do it, not to earn salvation, but because I have salvation.

I find it very interesting to consider “worst-case scenarios”. A few years ago I even bought a board game by that name. (By the way, don’t bother getting it. It became the fulfillment of it’s own name) But thinking about the worst-case scenario recently I thought, what would the typical church going American do if attending worship at a church building with lots of other people was no longer an option? What would you do if for some reason it was no longer legal or possible to do so? What if it was still legal to be a Christian, you just could never gather in a group of more than a few people at a time? What if terrorist threat levels meant there were no longer any large group gatherings, not just churches, but sporting events, schools and theme parks and concerts. Sound crazy? Often worst-case scenarios seem to be crazy until they actually happen. Think, The Black Death, The Titanic, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina.

But lets just stick to the church gathering part of this scenario. What would you do? How would you continue to follow Jesus and grow in your faith if you could no longer gather in a “church building” with others? What would you do differently from the way you live your Christian life right now if you had no worship team to lead you, no pastor/teacher to instruct you, no large gathering to make you feel upbeat about your faith? I know that in some cases, maybe even a majority of cases, people would end up with a faith that withers and shrivels beyond recognition. The reason I am sure of that is that for large numbers of people that is the only activity that connects them to their faith.

For those of you who would keep there faith growing and vibrant in such a situation, I suspect that it would look something more like this. First of all you would have a radical commitment to spending a considerable amount of time each day in prayer, worship, and study of God’s Word. That prayer time would be less about giving God updates on you life since He already knows all that, and more about pouring out your love to Him and listening for His voice. The study of His Word would be systematic and not the Bible roulette verse of the day that is forgotten tomorrow. It would probably include writing your thoughts  a journal.

Then there would be the time spent with a couple of other Christians during the week, Maybe you would meet in your home or office or even Starbucks. But it would be consistent and a top priority. That time together would include sharing insights from your time with God, what you learned, what psalm or hymn or spiritual song really grabbed you in your worship time. It might include being honest about areas of struggle in your life and being prayed for, really prayed for, by the others in the group. In between those meeting times you would be on the phone to each other or email one another, urging one another on in love and good deeds.

There would be lots of time in your schedule to meet with that new follower of Christ whom you are mentoring since leading them to the Lord a few months ago. You would be talking with them about what the Lord is teaching them and about the obstacles they are facing recently. You would be encouraging them by letting them know that this is fairly normal after a few months. The early honeymoon of following Jesus, blessing that it is from God, is now winding down and the road is getting a little steeper. But you encourage them with the assurance that you will be with them every step of the way and remind them that the person they led to Jesus last week needs encouraged in the same way when the time comes.

You will head home to get dinner ready for the next door neighbors who you are loving for the sake of the Kingdom. It started when you cut their grass while they were on vacation and then invited them over for dinner once they got back. You thought of loving them that way, because last year when you went on vacation you wished someone had loved you like that. You came home to grass way too high and a refrigerator way too empty. One day while your neighbor was away you remembered Jesus telling us to “love our neighbor as ourselves”.  When they ask why you did that, you are prepared to give a defence for the hope that is within you. You are determined to not say something lame like, “Oh it was nothing” and instead say something like, “Jesus said we are to love our neighbors”.

You would end your day praying for the people in your life who don’t know Jesus. You would pray for open doors to love them with Jesus love and for the chance to answer questions about Jesus that they bring up. You would spend a bit more time reading God’s Word, just as a snack before bedtime since you already ate fully from His Word through out the day.

Does that sound like how you would want to live out your faith if you could no longer go to a building on Sunday with lots of other Christians? Well let me ask the obvious. Why do you need to have a worst-case scenario in order to live out your faith like that, when that is exactly how Jesus wants you to live out your faith, 24/7, no matter what? How provocative would your life for Jesus be if that was the norm and the large gathering was just icing on the cake?

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. Luke 14:26

What in the world are we supposed to make of these words from Jesus? It seems to be a pretty clear and simple statement but does Jesus really want us to hate our families? When I was a new Christian there was a group that made this verse one of the foundations of their ministry. They convinced thousands of young people to renounce their parents, family and friends and run off and join their group. Most people intuitively sensed that this was NOT was Jesus had in mind but at the same time they didn’t know how to respond to what seemed to be a pretty cut and dried understanding of some clear words from Jesus. As a result lots of folks simply dismissed these words as something we just don’t understand and they instead moved on to more familiar, safe verse about who much God loved them.

But we can’t just ignore what Jesus said. The enemy, Satan, would like nothing more than for us to blow off such provocative verses and refuse to get any deeper in our faith that having a some vague sense that God thinks we are okay. We need to wrestle with what Jesus meant. In order to do that we must first understand what He did not mean. Clearly Jesus would not teach that we are to hate anyone in the way that we normally think of hatred. After all, it was Jesus who commanded that we not even hate our enemies but instead love them. (See  https://provocativechristian.wordpress.com/2008/12/19/provocative-bible-verses-love-your-enemies/) It was also Jesus who said the two most important things you could do were to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. Surely we are not expected to love our neighbor as we love ourselves and at the same time, detest our parent and siblings.

Some people try to use this as an example of a contradiction in the Bible and an excuse to ignore all of it. But there is no contradiction. When Jesus says to hate your parents He uses the Greek word,miseo. It is a word that has duel usage. It can in fact mean to despise or detest someone. But it is also used in the Bible and other ancient literature to mean “love less”. Numerous scholars of the Bible concur that in this an many other casesmiseo is used in to mean love one thing less than another. It is a matter of placing higher priority over one thing than another.

With that in mind the meaning of Jesus becomes easy to grasp but harder to live. What Jesus is saying is that there whould be nothing in this world that we love more than we love Him. We are not to love our parents more than we love Jesus. We are not to love our brothers and sisters more than we love Jesus. We are not to love our children, or spouse, or cousins, or next door neighbor more than we love Jesus. In fact He says that we are not to love our own life more than we love Jesus. That shouldn’t surprise us for two reasons. First, God said in the Ten Commandments that we are to have no other gods before Him. In other words, nothing in life is to have more devotion from us than the Lord our God. Secondly, Jesus said that we are to love God with ALL that we have and ALL that we are. The implication is simple, nothing and no one should have a greater place in our heart, and in our devotion, and in our love, than the Lord.

To emphasize the fact that we are to love nothing so much as we love the Lord, Jesus goes on in Luke 14:27 and says “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Those folks who heard those words come from His mouth had to have been stunned to the point of being frozen in their tracks. The image of carrying a cross was vivid to them. Anytime someone was carrying a cross they were on their way to their own execution. They were going to death, just as Jesus was when He carried His own cross. By saying that we are to love Jesus more than we love our parents and that we are to carry our cross for Him or else we are unworthy of being His disciples, Jesus is saying that when it comes to following Him, He wants your all. There is no halfway measure with Jesus. It is full and complete devotion or nothing. It is Jesus first or not at all. It is give Him your life even to the point of death, or not at all.

Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you have to say no to your family and yes to Jesus. Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you have to turn down a promotion because even though it will mean more money and prestige you know that it will have a negative impact on your relationship with Jesus. Sometimes your love for the Lord might mean that you must sacrifice your comfort and open your home to someone without a home. Sometimes your love for the Lord means you must live with rejection from people whom you care about, or face ridicule from others. You must love them and their acceptance and your comfort and your promotion and your prestige, less than you love Jesus.

So the right thing to say is not, mom and dad; I love Jesus but I hate you. Instead, it needs to be, mom and dad and anyone or anything else, I love you but I love Jesus most of all.

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus
Colossians 2:17

One cold and snowy winter weekend a group of people from North Park church outside Pittsburgh went away for a retreat that focused on spiritual disciplines. The setting was a local convent that rented out space for such things. I don’t remember a whole lot about that weekend. I do remember it was cold. There are also vague images of lots of candles, John Michael Talbot music in the background, and a time of communion that was done very quietly and it was cold. Did I mention that it was cold? The cold was an important part of the weekend because it set the backdrop for something I learned in a most profound way. No matter what you do, it can and should be an act of worship to God. It should be done in the name of Jesus, for His glory, for His honor, to the praise of His name.

The nuns at this convent raised honeybees. One afternoon there was a nun out by the beehives. Her traditional black nuns habit made for a stark contrast to the snow and ice on the ground. As she was tending the beehives she noticed something on the snow at her feet. Bending over she made a cup with her hands and scooped up a seemingly frozen and dead honeybee. With great tenderness she actually spoke to the bee and then blew ever so gently on it with her warm breath. There she stood in the cold and snow, patiently, gently, breathing warmth and life into the bee. After a few minutes and many soft and gentle wisps of breath, the warmth that she blew on the bee revived it. It began to stir. As the tiny wings gave evidence of buzzing movement she eased it towards the opening from which it had fallen and ushered it back inside the familiar and protective surroundings of the hive.

Many people watching that scene would have observed a woman in funny clothes risking getting stung by a bee that would never have been missed out of a hive of tens of thousands. Others would have paid her no attention in the first place. Maybe it was the spiritual emphasis of the weekend, or maybe it was her demeanor as she worked. Most likely it was a bit of both, but those of us who observed her saw an act of worship. This was a woman who projected a sense that no matter what she did, saying prayers, singing songs, reading scripture, or breathing life back into a honeybee, all of life was an act of worship, lived for the glory of God.

Clearly the Bible calls us to worship God. But just what does that mean? For most Christians worship is something that happens for an hour on Sunday when we gather with other Christians in a building designed for worship and sing songs to and about Him.  The songs seem to be the important component. Worship leaders will even introduce the time of singing my saying things like, “Now let’s stand and worship together”. Even the language of the people attending shows what we mean by worship. We tell people that we are going to worship, not at all meaning that we are about to let everything we do and say be done in the name of the Lord, but meaning that we are going to the specific time and place of worship. I have even heard people ask, “Have you worshiped this week” meaning did you attend one of those specific events. The unintended implication being that unless you had, then you could not have really worshiped God yet this week.

Others may have expanded the definition and see worship as the singing of songs to God no matter where you are and what time of the week it is. They may even see a regular time of being alone with God as a time of worship. That time may also include reading God’s Word and praying. Certainly that is a step in the right direction. But it is not enough. We must see worship as more than an activity that is somehow confined to a particular place or time or set of behaviors. We must begin to see worship more from the standpoint of our identity and not simply our activity.

When Paul told the Colossians that they were to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus he gave us an impossible task. It is impossible if it can only be accomplished by intentionally determining at every moment of every activity, how we can do that in the Lord’s name. We would end up spending the entirety of our lives trying to figure out just how to do each and every activity in the name of Jesus and probably have no room for actually doing each thing.

The only way to do all that we do in the Lord’s name is to have an orientation of our lives towards His glory. It must be something that is so embedded within us that we are automatically oriented towards bringing glory to Jesus. It has a great deal to do with love. When I really love my wife it takes little to no effort to demonstrate that, even in the mundane things of life. So when I do the dishes or make dinner, or send her a card or flowers, those things come out of the overflow of a heart that is lived towards her. It happens because she is in my thoughts and my heart. The same is true with our worship of God. Our love for Him should be such that even in the mundane things of life we do them with Him in mind. We do them in such a way as to please and honor Him. Putting a bee back in the hive is done out of the overflow of a heart that loves God. Serving the poor, tutoring a student, fixing a broken drain pipe, going to the gym, eating Thanksgiving leftovers, all become acts of worship when we do them in Jesus name and for His glory. Maybe that is in some way at the heart of what Jesus meant when he said that by serving the least among us we really serve Him. Such things are acts of worship done in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you find yourself from time to time treating your sin as if it is no big deal, not as bad as some other people you know? If you do then you will fail to experience the full delight and freedom that comes from the forgiveness God offers. You will always carry around a hidden weight of pride mixed with some nagging guilt. The pride is your own flesh. The nagging guilt is the Holy Spirit trying to bring you to your knees so you can receive the full force of Gods love.
The only way to begin to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength is to admit the depth of your sin. When you come to grips with that, and give up any hope of your own righteousness making the least bit of difference, then you are in position to receive Gods love. Only when you receive that love on that basis, the basis of your own complete and utter sinfulness, are you then in a position to live rightly, for the right reason.

Our reaction to God’s grace is a study in paradox. On the one hand we are extremely grateful for it and know that we need it. On the other hand we are often uncomfortable with it and seem to be concerned that a little too much grace might be a bad thing. We seem to be concerned that there will then be no motivation for living righteously. In some evangelistic presentations the question of what should motivate us to live rightly if we have all this forgiveness and grace is boiled down to a sense of gratitude for our forgiveness. With all due respect to those presentations, my gratitude runs out after a very short while. Certainly gratitude is a factor in obeying Jesus, but it is extremely limited in its effectiveness.

The Bible never speaks of gratitude as the reason for living righteously because gratitude is too weak a motivator. Jesus gives a rather different idea. He said very simply in John 14:15 that we will obey Him, keep is commandments, IF WE LOVE HIM! Love for God that comes as a response to His overwhelming forgiveness is what should motivate us to live differently. But in order to have that kind of love we must know and admit the depth of our sin. We do this not so we can wallow in some spiritual form of self-loathing but so we can understand the depth of God’s love for us. If you are not able to admit on a daily basis, the depth of your sin and the height of God’s mercy, you will not be able to love God with all you are.

“Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.” Luke 7:44-46

St. Augustine gives is incredible insight into the nature of our heart and the depth of our sin. I remember the first time I read his famous Confessions. At one point Augustine reflects back on a part of his youth when he stole some pears. He confesses that he did not steal them because he was hungry or needed to sell them for money to clothe his mother or family. He stole them simply because he enjoy the sinful thrill of stealing them.
At first I thought that going on for a couple of chapters lamenting your sin for stealing a few pears bordered on the neurotic. But then God brought to mind a similar event from my own childhood. I was about nine years old when my best friend Bobby and I slipped through a hole in the fence that separated my yard from Mrs. Peglow, the widow who lived next door. Mrs. Peglow rarely came out of her house and Bobby and I were convinced that she was over 100 years old. We climbed the apple tree in her back yard like we often did and sat in it eating apples. Sometimes taking only a bite before we threw it as far as we could into the woods behind the house, then taking a bite from another and repeating the process. At first we barely heard the tapping on the second floor window coming from her house. When we looked up it was clear that Mrs. Peglow did not want us in her tree. She especially did not want us taking single bites and tossing the rest of the fruit. But it was also very clear that 100+ year old widow Peglow, was in no condition to come outside and do anything about me and Bobby and the tree. So we stayed in the tree and laughed.

Augustine was broken in spirit because he stole some pears. By comparison I was as wicked as they came. Not only did I steal apples. I trespassed to do it, convinced a friend to do it with me and wasted most of apples in the process. If that wasn’t bad enough i sat in a tree and taunted an old widow woman. Clearly without Christ I am scum. But guess what; so are you! No matter how we try to spin it, we are sinners in deep trouble. Only the grace of God can save us. Before coming to Christ I was, as I like to say, “On a greased pole to hell”. Only Jesus stopped the downward plummet to destruction.

The Pharisee who was Jesus dinner host was oblivious to his own condition condition of sin. All he saw was a woman who was an obvious sinner invading his home and weeping at Jesus feet. When he looked at his own moral standing he incorrectly saw himself as a man far better than her; a man who thought he needed very little from God. The result was that he loved God very little. Jesus was not condoning the little love and saying that his host really was only a little sinner in need of only a little forgiveness and therefore should only be expected to love a little in return. Jesus was forcing his host to come to grips with his own self-righteousness. We know that by the words Jesus speaks about the Pharisees conduct.

Jesus tells Simon the Pharisee that he has been living in a world of self-deception. He has convinced himself that he is a good, moral, righteous person. He is convinced that his sin is little, especially when compared to a prostitute. The message of Jesus is the exact opposite. “Simon” he says, “compared to this prostitute you are a lousy host, a self centered egotist, and a spiritual snob. And at least in the current situation you are a far greater sinner than this woman”. Simon was brought face to face with the startling reality that as good a person as he appeared to be, his sin was deep and his need for forgiveness was vast. He needed to see the deadly serious nature of his own sin so that he could experience the amazing freedom of grace and forgiveness. Only then would he be able to begin to love God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. Only then could he begin to love his neighbor as himself. As long as Simon thought of himself as “basically good”, he could always downplay his need for Gods forgiveness. And as long as be saw himself as better than even one other human being, he could hold on to his spiritual pride and look down at that person. But the moment he comes to realize that he is a desperate sinner as well, then he can love them as he loves himself. His love for himself can equal his love for his neighbor when and only when he is broken by the fact that he and his neighbor are equally sinners, equally in need of grace, and equally broken at the foot of the cross.
So the real question is, “how much of Simon lives in your heart and mine”?

The Great Commandment is not to love the Lord your God with a LITTLE of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, but with ALL your heart, mind, soul, and strength. It is a command to love God much, very much, as much as possible. But if it is true that people, who are forgiven little, love little, what hope is there for people who have lived a decent life by all human standards and not sinned much? What about those who have lived according to Alfred P. Doolittle’s standards of middle class morality? I can just picture people like Simon saying, “Wait a minute! I tried to live a good decent life and now you are telling me that because I didn’t sin much, that I don’t have much to be forgiven for and so I am destined to not love God enough. That hardly seems fair.”
So what is the answer to this seeming “unfairness” in God? The problem lies in our understanding of our sin. Our human tendency is to evaluate our moral and spiritual standing by looking at other people around us. Invariably we look to the right and see very holy, godly people and decide that they are the exception and we should not be expected to like them. Being the next Mother Theresa is just not what we think we should be expected to do. Then we quickly look down the other end of the moral lineup and see people who we determine are far worse off than we are. Sure we can see Hitler and Stalin and Charles Manson and decide that they are clearly wicked sinners and are in desperate need of either forgiveness or punishment. But even less extreme than that we are always able to find someone who we decide is worse than we are and so we must be okay in Gods eyes. This fits perfectly with a concept in psychology known as the false attribution theory. It basically works this way; we assume the best about our own actions and motives and attribute the worst possible motives and actions to others. When you are driving in your car and someone cuts you off, you assume all sorts of nasty things about him or her; they are a jerk, dangerous, an idiot, they should never have been given a license. But when you cut someone off, it was an understandable mistake, you are so sorry the other driver should understand and be gracious to you.
We do the same with our sin. We think that because we have the best of intentions that our sin is not as serious as that of other people. As a result we think that our need for grace, mercy, and forgiveness is not as severe as that of other sinners. What we fail to realize is that no matter the depth of our sin, we are all the same. We are all destined for Hell without the forgiveness offered in Jesus Christ. Being a sinner saved by grace must never be allowed to become a cliché. They are words that must burn within us and light a fire of desire to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

It is my contention that if we really loved God in a Great Commandment way, with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, then we would be living far differently from the way most Christians currently live. The strange part is that given the level of blessing and abundance that the church in the west experiences, including the freedom we have to worship, you would think that our love for God would be abundantly manifest. You would assume that given the amount of Christian teaching that is available to us through books, radio, television, podcasts, conferences and all the rest, that our knowledge of God and thus our love for God would be uncontainable. So what is the problem? Why don’t we love God more?
I think the answer is found in an event in the life of Jesus and a story he told that deals with this exact question. It comes in Luke 7:36-50. Jesus has been invited to the home of a Pharisee named Simon. It is a dinner party with some of Simon’s closest friends. Because Simon is a Pharisee, one of the religious teachers and strict keepers of every religious rule imaginable, his friends are only the most respectable kinds of people. So there they are in Simons house all feeling good about themselves, how respectable they are and that Jesus, this up and coming prophet is eating with them. Suddenly into the room comes a woman whom they all know to be a local prostitute. She falls at Jesus feet, weeping. As her tears drip off her face and onto his feet, she wipes the tears away using her long, undone hair.
Imagine such a scene in which you are the host. I suspect that your first move would be to intercept this woman or at least get her away from Jesus and out of the house. You might even immediately call the police. Yet in an amazing act of passivity, Simon doesn’t move. Instead he sits and ponders to himself wondering why Jesus would possibly let a prostitute, a sinful woman if there ever was one, touch him, let alone weep and his feet and kiss them.
Jesus looks up at Simon and asks him a question, all the while with the woman weeping at his feet:
“Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Luke 7:41,42 NASB

Without making any connection to the current events playing out before his very eyes Simon answers,
“I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”  “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Verse 43

Simon must have been confused at this point. What does that question have to do with all of this? I suspect that there was a little bit of annoyance at the question, tempered with a touch of spiritual pride when Jesus praises him for his answer. But it was all short-lived as Jesus let the spiritual hammer fall heavy on Simon’s head.

44Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.

I love that opening line in verse 44, “Do you see this woman?” How could he not see her? She has created a scene unlike anything Simon has ever experienced in his home. Yes he sees her with his eyes wide open in amazement.  He sees how she compares to him. His answer would be yes I see her. “I see that she is a whore and I am a religious man who would never associate with her. I see that she has barged in uninvited and I am holding my tongue, keeping my place and maintaining a proper decorum. I am a proper, righteous man and I see that she is a sinner of utmost filth.” But before he can even begin to express any of his thoughts in which he compares himself favorably to “this woman” Jesus goes into a litany of comparisons of his own.

You did not give me any water for my feet so that I could wash, or a towel to dry them when I came into your house. This most basic of the rules of hospitality for a guest and you violated it. Yet she has not ceased to wash my feet with her tears using her very hair to dry them clean. And it’s not even her house! Chalk up one for the prostitute. You did not even great me with a formal kiss on the cheek when I entered your home as a sign that you welcomed me as a friend, yet she has not stopped kissing my feet as a sign of her devotion. That’s prostitute two, Simon zero. Finally, you did not honor me as a guest by giving me oil for my head, yet she has anointed my feet with perfume. Final score: prostitute three, Simon zero.

Simon had to have been spiritually shell shocked at this point. Jesus has just indicted him on three counts of blatant disregard for his guest, a theological and sociological sin in Simon’s day. But if that wasn’t bad enough the worst was yet to come. As soon as he finishes the litany of indictments Jesus says,

47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

The comparison hits it apex. “She is doing all of this” Jesus says, “because she loves me, because she has been forgiven much. Just like greatest of the two debtors in my previous question that you answered so well Simon. She loves much because she has experienced much forgiveness.”  The unspoken comparison that Simon and everyone else in the room are now painfully aware of is that Simon loves “little”. For all his adherence to the religious laws of his day and all his striving to be respectable and righteous, Simon is told that he is guilty of having little love.
Now you might be thinking, but Simon was a good man. He followed the rules. He certainly was not a prostitute or other kind of blatant sinner. He was a respectable guy. Jesus himself compares one who sinned a great deal with one who sinned a little. The woman is the one who sinned a great deal so shouldn’t Simon get some props as the one who sinned a little? He was doing a respectable job, trying hard to be righteous. On the surface you might think so. But there are depths to this story that we rarely plumb.

Check back on Friday for part two and begin to plumb those depths.

“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” James 2:19

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God, and whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. 1 John 5:1,2

Augustine was raised by a godly Christian mother who loved Jesus and prayed unceasingly for her son to come to faith in Christ. In the early years of his life at the end of the 4th century Augustine seemed to do everything he could to avoid having God answer his mothers prayers. He tried various religious options other than Christianity. He made a habit of looking for fulfillment in sexual exploits. He tried finding significance through fame in the world of ideas and rhetoric. He tried everything but Jesus. But that does not mean that he refused to believe in a divine being who could be called God. Like many people in our post-Christian era, Augustine “believed” in God. He believed that there was something higher than himself that he needed to acknowledge and believe it existed.
Augustine spent several years in his young adulthood as a devotee of the early Christian heresy known as Manichaeism. In short the Manicheans held that the spiritual world is what is good and it is trapped for now by the physical world that is evil. The goal for a Manichean was to rid oneself of the evil by coming to know yourself as a soul and be rid of the influence of evil. The Manichean idea of God is bound up in the two equal forces of good and evil. There is a Living Spirit responsible for creating, but there is not a single, omnipotent, holy God. Think of the two sides of the force in Star Wars, one of light and beauty and the dark side of evil and turmoil. The side of good was basically spiritual and the side of evil was basically physical. Eventually Augustine abandoned his experiment with the Manicheans and looked for spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.
Following his time with the Manicheans Augustine continued his search for some connection with the Divine being that he sensed was out there. The next stage of that search led him to study and teach rhetoric as a part of the Neo-Platonism of his day. That philosophy sought to understand the divine within all of us as an expression of the ultimate divine being whose spark or essence inhabited each person. In many ways it was just a variation on his Manichean days. And like that failed quest, this too ended in a feeling of emptiness.
Both his Manichean and Neo-Platonist years proved to be fruitless in Augustine’s search for a relationship with God. He was convinced that there was something out there, some divine being to know and understand. But he kept looking for that divine being in places other than the Christian faith he had been taught as a child. Fortunately his mother’s years of prayer were about to find their fulfillment and answer. Augustine eventually came to faith in Christ after years of searching for some fulfillment in his spiritual life. But Augustine recognized that he arrived at more than an intellectual understanding of God. In all his previous “spiritual” seeking he focused a concept or idea. You can’t have a relationship with a concept. The change for Augustine was that God became real. God became the one who loved him and demonstrated that love through the sacrificial death of Jesus. No longer did Augustine settle for head knowledge. He now had a heart knowledge. He came to love God. In Book X of The Confessions he says:
“Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.” From “Late Have I Loved Thee: Selected writings of St Augustine on Love” Edited by John Thornton and Susan Varenne Vintage Books.

Augustine came to love God. He gave himself completely and totally in service to God through Jesus Christ. In part that love came as a result of Augustine understanding that he in fact was a sinner who was hopeless on his own and that his only hope was in the grace of God and the blood of Jesus Christ. Loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength comes when we experience the love of God on the Cross. The more we understand the depth of our sin; the more we will understand the price paid on the cross; the more we will love God.