Monday, October 6, 2008
When we Live as Though we are Loved
Recently when I logged into my email there was waiting for me a 'check-up' email from a very dear friend. An area with which I have been wrestling was the topic of the email and I had asked my friend to hold me accountable. The truth is that I hadn't had a lot of success in this area in the last week and typically I would be dreading the faithful accountability my friend offered but when I saw the email sitting like a candle in my inbox I felt encouraged--even happy. I thought to myself, "How odd that I am happy to see that email when I have so little good to report." The truth of the matter is that I know her heart so well that I know without a single question that this person loves me to pieces and her sincere hope is for God's goodness to come about in my life. I also realize that she does not judge me based on failure or success, but based on my heart. She knows my heart's intentions and loves me for the contents within my soul. Though I knew I'd have to report some failures I also knew that her disappointment would not be "in me" but "for me" as I had before me this week the choice between God's very best and some mediocre counterfeits. If she suffered any grief over my report it would not be in me as a person but a sincere sadness that someone she loved made poor choices. Few humans can separate people's actions from people's hearts. But her unconditional love changed how I felt about her faithful encouragment in my life. Here's the thing--God's love for us is that way times a million, and most of us just don't live like we believe that. We say we believe it, but we do not live like it. God used my friend's email to remind me of His own feelings towards me despite my inadequacies. Ephesians 1:4 says, "For He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world that we may be holy and unblemished in his sight in love." That verse packs a whole lot of truth into one relatively short sentence. For the God of the universe, of all creation, of you and of I, chose us -before the earth was formed, before the sky shone light or dark, before the stars were strung--to be encased in Jesus. When God sees us, He sees two things--a person who is holy and a person who is unblemished. Do you follow that with me? As a follower of Jesus, standing before God with our failures, our lists of mess-ups and our relative unrighteousness God still sees holiness and an unblemished creation. I know. I know. He sees holiness because we are in Christ and Christ is holy. He sees unblemished people because we are clothed in Christ's righteousness and therefore we appear like a spotless lamb. And none of that is really us. That's all Christ. But when He really looks at just us....WOE. Stop right there. That's the point. We've got to get our heads around this reality--it's NOT just us anymore. "I have been crucified with Christ, and it is NO LONGER I WHO LIVE, but Christ lives in me. So the life I now live in the body, I live because of the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." (Gal. 2:20) From the moment we become a follower of Jesus we are never again seen alone in the nakedness and shame of our sinful and broken state. When God looks on us He sees Jesus--every single time. We are dressed in Jesus. We may not behave like Jesus, we may not think like Jesus, we may not act like Jesus, but we are in Him nonetheless. We need to know that because so much of our theology comes from the words we hear instead of The Word and we don't always realize the two don't line up. We hear things like, 'we don't want to disappoint God' and assume that somehow if we can disappoint him we must also be able to please Him. He is pleased--trust me--He is "well pleased." He's well pleased with us, but not because of us, because of who we are in--Christ. "I do not set aside God's grace, because if righteousness could come through the law, then Christ died for nothing." (Gal. 2:21) The thing is that we are loved in such a way that is completely apart from ourselves and anything we will ever do or not do. We are loved without condition because we are not loved based on our own righteousness, but based on the perfect spotless lamb of Jesus and if we think that in anyway we can appear before God in a pleasing way in our own merit we sell short all that Jesus did for us on the cross. When we say with our mouths that we can't earn God's favor but then turn around and nearly deify people who appear to have it altogether. The question must be asked, if God's pleasure in us can be related to our good doings, then, as believers, can it not also be related to our wrong doings? The answer, I believe--however controversial, is NO. Like a candle glowing in a windowsill over the holiday season, God's love is an everlasting love. It's presence in our lives is not in anyway conditional on how we behave, how together we are, or how much of a failure we are. And when He checks up on us, like my friend did, it is for our good. It is not God's intention to condemn us but to empower us. His desire is not to point out our failures, but to spur us on toward love and good deeds. When we sing of God's amazing grace we are singing of God's amazing "unmerited, unearned, undeserved favor" not His grace that saves us and then somehow becomes conditional. It's my hope that in a world where even amongst Christians we can feel a spirit of condemnation and a sense that in some way we need to perform in order to prove our worth, I may walk as one who is loved. Loved not for what I've done but because I am God's creation and I am dressed in God's Son. Those two things will never change and therefore, I am forever loved. If we can learn to walk in that truth, I believe the world will inevitably be drawn toward the irresistible warmth of the God whose scripture insists that above all "the greatest of these is love." (I Cor. 13:13) Perhaps Christ Himself said best what I fear happens all too often among sincere people who desperately want to obey and honor their heavenly Father. "Therefore pay attention to what they (experts in the law or scribes) tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy loads hard to carry, and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them..." (Matthew 23:4) If after walking away from a sermon or a book intended for spiritual growth we feel weight like a burden or that there are a list of things we need to do to improve upon ourselves could it be possible we have misunderstood the intent? Consider again Christ's own words, "Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry." (Matthew 11:29-30) Jesus Himself insisted He came not to condemn the world but to seek and save those who were lost. And the question must be asked if as Christ followers we are walking with a sense of failure and condemnation, then by whom are we being condemned? Many years ago I lead a Bible study on women's character. We went through a book and many were affronted by the contents of the book. Many of the ladies said it felt next to impossible to carry out the author's instructions. I followed the instructions laid out in that book to the letter for a very long time. And I'll be frank with you, I felt like I had something finally figured out. It was a difficult pace I can promise you, and after a couple of years I realized that while her ideas were excellent and well intended they were not a miraculous formula for achieving spirituality. My most spiritual moments in those years were probably on the days when I bombed big time and sat before my heavenly Father looking into His eyes soaking in His love. When I get to heaven I know that God will not commend my efforts in those years as any greater than the years when I basked in His presence and drank up His love like a warming wine. I'm ashamed to have to tell you that I remember looking into some of those women's eyes and saying, "I know this is difficult, but it is right, and your life will be better if you live like this." That I was sincerely trying to obey God and honor Him goes without saying. But as I look back on that study, my heart aches for those young mothers who were struggling to follow a God who seemed so unattainable, so righteous and perfect that to bring Him joy would be nearly impossible. For some, sadly, I believe they came to the conclusion that the goal was too lofty and that the exhaustion that resulted from their noble attempts was just not worth it. They could be better moms and wives if they just focused on their families and quit worrying about trying to please God. Man if I could have a do-over! I'd take those women's hands in my own and I'd say, "God does not care about how perfect you are, He is madly in love with you right now--while you are completely imperfect. He loves you when you are tired from being up all night with that new baby and He loves you when you fall asleep trying to pray. He loves you when you snap at your children and He loves you when you intend to make a romantic dinner for your husband and have the kids in bed early and in fact you end up eating hot dogs with kids crawling under the table. He loves you because you are His creation and He sees in you the perfection of His Son." I'd say it every single week that they came to that study because if we don't believe, live and breathe the reality of God's love in our lives we will not experience the freedom and fullness of life God intends for us here on earth. I write all of this at the risk of being criticized for not discussing James' words about being "doers" of the Word. I write all this knowing people will say you are selling God's love as a ticket to live life as you please. Knowing that people will ask what about the "working out of your salvation?" I know. Trust me, I know it's all in there. But I believe that when a person knows they are completely, madly, unconditionally loved their lives will be transformed. Do we want to live lives that are full of God and discover that we can be more in this life than we ever imagined? Paul prayed to that end when he said, "I pray...that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, so that, because you have been rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and thus to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:16-21) God's love changes everything. Do we know that love? Really know it? I pray we do. Amen.