There’s A Kind of Love

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By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

LOVE. IT’S MORE THAN A four-letter word. At its basic, love is a noun meaning “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,” such as a mother’s love for her child. Of course, it also means “attraction based on sexual desire: affection and tenderness felt by lovers.” It can mean admiration, benevolence, warm attachment, devotion, a term of endearment. However, love is not merely a noun.

Love is also an action verb. In other words, it’s not about something, it’s about doing something. Something selfless at the very least. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary indicates it is a transitive verb that means “to hold dear: cherish.” It can also implicate a lover’s passion, tenderness, amorous caress, copulation. Its etymology is from the Old English word lufu, which includes, “feeling of love; romantic sexual attraction; affection; friendliness; the love of God.” The Germanic word is from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root leubh, meaning “to care, desire, love.” It is “the love of God” I wish to talk about here.

There are seven types of love in Greek:

  • Eros—sexual or passionate love; the type most akin to our modern construct of romantic love.
  • Phileo—brotherly love; friendship; shared good will.
  • Storge—familial love; natural or instinctual affection, such as the love of a parent for his or her child.
  • Agape—a Greco-Christian term referring to “the highest form of love; charity; the unconditional love of God for man.”
  • Ludus—this form of love includes game-playing, manipulation, lying; the purveyor of ludic love has “conquests” but no commitments.
  • Pragmaalso known as “pragmatic” love, it is the most practical type; convenient love that involves “being of service” to another out a sense of duty.
  • Philautia—this type of love is within oneself; essential for any relationship because we can only love others if we truly love ourselves. One of the key lessons on a spiritual journey is learning to love unconditionally. In many ways, this type of love is a stepping stone to grasping agape love.

WHAT OF THIS THING CALLED “UNCONDITIONAL LOVE?”

I’ve heard it said that unconditional love is easy. You probably find that hard to believe. I did. There would be no boundaries to loving someone unconditionally. No matter what they’ve done or not done. One blogger posted an article titled “Unconditional Love: Is it Real or Just a Romantic Illusion?” The post analyzes relationship love. It notes that when love is unconditional nothing can tear it asunder. This is the “we are one in our new relationship” love that is ageless, timeless, and infallible. The writer states, “But here’s what you have to know: unconditional love is a romantic illusion, and one that reflects love that is immature.”

In the introduction to his book, Real Love, Greg Baer, M.D. describes his struggle with emotional problems and addiction to tranquilizers and other narcotics. One evening he took a handgun and went into the woods intending to end his life. He put the barrel against his head, ready to die. Instead, he realized something had to change. He sought treatment at a rehab, but said when he returned home clean and sober he was still at the same place that took him down the dark path of addiction: alone and empty. He was missing the profound happiness he’d been longing for his entire life. Reading Baer’s introduction, I saw myself on the pages.

Life for me has always been an emotional roller coaster. I was a little hellion who could not behave no matter what my father tried. His go-to answer seemed to be corporal punishment. This made me hate him and despise myself. I came to fear his very presence; to feel unloved and unlovable. In my heart, I wanted to please him and make him proud. But in my flesh, I wanted nothing but numbness and escape. As each year passed, I became increasingly sullen and doubted I’d ever amount to anything. Why couldn’t I stop lying, stealing, cursing, trashing my room, getting sent to the principal’s office? As my anger grew, I started hating everything and everyone. I got good at deception. After all, who wants to be in trouble all the time? This was the perfect breeding-ground for alcohol and drug abuse. Finally, I could feel euphoric, happy, invincible. I could escape.

As you can imagine, this was not a very sound solution. I ended up right back at the same place every time. Clean and sober for a short time, but lost and alone. Empty. Without friends. Estranged from my family. So I went back out there, drinking and drugging. Numbing the pain and hiding from the world. Withdrawing behind drawn curtains. I was convinced that I was one of those that Jesus couldn’t save. I drifted further from my Christian roots. My high school friends all left for college. I stayed home and hung out with the party crowd. Out until three, sleeping until noon. Just like the shampoo bottle says, “lather, rinse repeat.” I no longer believed God cared about me. It wasn’t long before I doubted the existence of God.

After four decades of active addiction and numerous relapses in my forties and fifties, I found my way back to the church. I started teaching Bible study at two local prisons and did a lot of studying and writing. You’d think my life improved, right? That I finally reached my happy ending. That there was nothing left but to love and be loved; to be clean and sober and help others find their path to sobriety. Sadly, that was not the case. Chronic and ever-increasing pain from a back injury, degenerative disc disease, severe arthritis, and fibromyalgia taunted me and drove me to opiate addiction. I knew better. I just couldn’t decide better. I was letting my physical pain dictate my behavior.

Even after returning to the church of my youth where I accepted Jesus as my savior; despite attending a Christian university and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology; regardless of years of research, writing, and blogging about addiction and spirituality, I continued to mess up and kept helping myself to narcotic painkillers of family members. Again, I was shunned. They were back to believing I will never change. I’d work my way back into their lives to only repeat my selfish and deceptive behavior.

So what is this all about?

It might sound too simple, but I’m wrestling not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12). But it’s true. This is exactly what Paul means in Romans 7 when he says, “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (verses 18-20, NIV). Although this is instrumental in helping me learn to crucify my flesh and walk instead in the Spirit, it does not alleviate the hurt, disappointment, and anger my family feels toward me. Their utter disgust and inability to trust me.

THE KIND OF LOVE ONLY GOD KNOWS

I recently discovered an incredible song by the Christian group For King and Country, called “God Only Knows.” Although the entire song cuts me to the core, several lines really stand out. Wide awake while the world is sound asleepin’, too afraid of what might show up while you’re dreamin’… Every day you try to pick up all the pieces, all the memories, they somehow never leave you. God only knows what you’ve been through, God only knows what they say about you… You keep a cover over every single secret, So afraid if someone saw them they would leave. God only knows where to find you, God only knows how to break through, God only knows the real you…

LOVE FROM GOD’S PERSPECTIVE

What happens when we look at love from God’s perspective?

The love of God is central to His relationship to the world. We cannot grasp His kind of love through our own intellect. Certainly, there are many paradigms, worldviews, and theological interpretations for God’s kind of love. Theologians consider divine love to be an overriding component of God’s character, if not the very essence of God. Conceptions of divine love vary widely. This is due, in part, because man has a tendency to split hairs over metaphysical matters. The result is theories and definitions which are often cemented in denominational, doctrinal, or other theological differences.

But here are some basic features of God’s love:

  • We can trust in God’s love. First Corinthians 13:4-8 provides an excellent description of God’s (agape) love. It is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil (but rejoices with the truth), always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. Clearly, there is a powerful and unrelenting component to God’s love. We see evidence of this in His covenant relationship with His people. Even in our sinfulness, He demonstrates patience, showering us with unmerited grace and mercy.
  • Our salvation is an expression of God’s love. God loves us enough to have established a plan for our redemption before the foundation of the world; before man’s first sin of disobedience. He provides access to that redemption through His Son, Jesus Christ, who died in our place (see John 3:16). God did not send Christ as a reward for those of us who can keep the Law; rather, He provided Jesus as a solution to the sin problem by making Jesus a ransom for our disobedience. Although we were bought (redeemed) with a price, redemption is much more than being set free from the wages of sin. The crucifixion of Christ restores our fallen status by making peace between us and God. It takes away our shame. It provides for our physical healing. It provides for our spiritual rebirth and restoration.
  • God’s love serves as an exemplar for us. Truly, God has restored us to Him through Jesus Christ. It is up to us to work at restoring our relationships with others. We can only do this by being rooted in God’s love—striving to understand its depth and implications. God asks us to emulate this behavior.
  • The Holy Spirit produces love in us for others. The link between Christ’s love for us and our love for each other is found through the Holy Spirit. We see Christ’s love for us to the point of obedience unto death.

Paul writes, “…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NKJV). By accepting the full measure of God’s love, we are able to begin practicing unconditional love toward others. We will by no means measure up to this divine attribute. This “no limits” love cannot be achieved through human endeavor. We become able to love this way only through yielding to the Holy Spirit. We can only accomplish it because God first loved us. What connects us with Jesus is faith—trusting His forgiveness; banking on His promises; cherishing His fellowship; desiring to fulfill His Greatest Commandment: to  love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:36-40).

LOVE—PART OF THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT

Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us of what is achieved in us through the Fruit of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson translates it like this: “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely” (MSG).

The late Billy Graham said, “This cluster of fruit should characterize the life of every Christ-born child of God. We’re to be filled with love, we’re to have joy, we’re to have peace, we’re to have patience, we’re to be gentle and kind, we’re to be filled with goodness, we’re to have faith, we’re to have meekness, and we’re to have temperance. But what do we find? In the average so-called Christian today we find the opposite.”

True love—the unconditional agape love of God—always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:7). Jesus tells us in John 15:12, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (NIV). Paul reminds us in Romans 12:9-10, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (NIV). When we expect this kind of undying love from our friends or family, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Further, as in my case, we’re at risk of living in the sin of offense because we become unforgiving of their unforgiveness. Rather, we must look to God for this kind of love. A love that culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Each of us, before coming to Christ, is dominated by one nature—the “old man.” We’re controlled by our ego, our self. We are selfish at best; deceitful at worst. No one likes to be wrong. That’s human nature. Repeated mistakes—especially the ones that continue to break the hearts and spirits of those we love—are the hardest for us to let go. I loath myself when I cannot seem to do that which I want to do, and keep doing that which I wish not to do. I have to remember I am in good company, as the apostle Paul wrote of this very struggle in his life. 

The moment we receive Christ as our Savior, self is put down. We identify with His death, burial, and resurrection through backward-looking faith. Accordingly, we are to crucify our flesh daily. No amount of human power can relieve us of our habits, hangups, or addictions. But when we walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh, we put Christ on the throne in our lives. We dethrone ourselves. The Spirit of God is in control. It is only through realizing this and living it every day that we can ever hope to love unconditionally.

References

Baer, G., M.D. (2003). Real Love: The Truth About Finding Unconditional Love in Fulfilling Relationships. New York, NY: Avery.

Peterson, E. (2003). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Skinner, K. (December 16, 2013). “Unconditional Love: Is It Real or Just a Romantic Illusion?” Retrieved from: https://www.yourtango.com/experts/kathe-skinner/unconditional-love-it-real-or-just-romantic-illusion

 

 

The Essence of the Gospel

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The Gospel is the heart of the Bible. Everything in Scripture is either preparation for the Gospel, presentation of the Gospel, or participation in the Gospel.

Many believers “know” God intellectually. I did, initially. Actually, in many ways, I still do. I seem to know of Him more than I know Him. But head knowledge doesn’t cut it. It won’t change our lives. It might tell us how our lives can change. It may provide countless biblical examples of what this so-called changed life looks like; what we can and should do once we’ve become a new creation. But it will not imbue us with godliness or allow us to become Christ-like. The only way we can accomplish this is to get God from our head into our heart. Trust me, this is a lot harder than it sounds.

The most important doctrine in the Christian church is the Gospel. Pastors often encourage believers to begin with the Bible, but this approach challenges contemporary telling of the Gospel. For example, some think the Gospel is about social justice, others see it as salvation, and still others might see the Gospel as theological doctrine (kingdom, justification, sanctification). Just referring people to the Bible risks us losing them in the quagmire of confusion. We need to (i) promote the Gospel through how we live; and (ii) break the Gospel message down to the most basic.

We need God in our heart; not just in our head. This, however, is a life-long process.

As Christians, we often want to believe God in our head yet hang on to who we want to be in our heart. The heart is the seat of our soul: our emotions, desires, and will. To hold onto God intellectually while giving in to our every whim and desire of the flesh is precisely what is meant by trying to serve two masters. To dumb it down, this is also referred to as having our cake and eating it too. Eugene Peterson translates Matthew 6:24, “You can’t worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you’ll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other” (MSG). Well, that’s pretty plain, isn’t it? Okay, I’ll admit that from a sociological or legal perspective it is actually possible to serve two masters. But psychologically, or spiritually, if pressured to choose, our devotion for one will always drown out the other.

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As humans, whether we choose to believe it or not, we are servants. Yes, all of us! The bosses. The billionaires. The entrepreneurs. The retirees. Even when we’re not actively serving another human being, we are servants to our wants and desires. Paul understood the broad application of this passage. In Romans 8:5-6, he says, “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (NIV). He says we can either be in the flesh (Romans 7:5) or in the Spirit (Romans 8:9). The litmus test for flesh versus Spirit is simple: How do you live your life? What do you give in to on a daily basis?

A CLOSER LOOK AT THE GOSPEL

What is the “essence” of the Gospel? The word Essence refers to the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of something, especially something abstract, that determines its character. Some relevant synonyms include soul, spirit, ethos, intrinsic nature, reality. That last one is rather on point, isn’t it? As if we’re asking the question, “What is the reality of the Gospel?” Philosophers who teach on worldview talk of discovering the “really real.”

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Unconditional love and unwavering grace is the very essence of the Gospel. Jesus came to Earth to live among us, teach and inspire us, serving as Messiah and Exemplar. Man was created in the image of God. Jesus showed us what it looks like when we mirror that image. His entire life was a legacy of unconditional love, sacrifice, and servitude. We need to show love in all our day-to-day interactions with others. We must fine-tune our ability to recognize someone’s need, and then responding to that need. We are presented daily with opportunities to show love and kindness to those around us. There are many attributes which are manifestations of love, such as kindness, patience, selflessness, understanding, grace, and forgiveness. In all our associations, whenever we can, if we display these attributes it will be outward proof of the love and grace we have in our hearts as a result of becoming one with Christ.

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! — Charles Spurgeon

But what does it mean to preach the entire Gospel? Unfortunately, there are nearly as many answers to this question as there are denominations and sects within the Body of Christ. To truly preach the Gospel is to clearly and unabashedly state every doctrine contained in God’s Word. It includes giving the Word the prominence it deserves. I’ve been to a number of church services in my lifetime. Some of the experiences were, to be as polite as possible, very interesting. Some were, well, just a bit of a downer. All the doom and gloom—how bad we are, nothing but sinners, deserving of eternal pain and separation from God—yet with no mention of the “Good News.” I left more than one sermon feeling as lost and confused as I did when I walked in. Thankfully, I have come full-circle and returned to the church of my youth where I accepted Christ at an alter call at age thirteen and was baptized as an outward display of my new-found faith.

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No man can claim to preach the whole Gospel if he knowingly and routinely leaves out even one single truth about Jesus Christ, God the Father, or the Holy Spirit. I’m a real fanatic when it comes to pastors sticking to the true Gospel message. Many church leaders today “tone it down,” perhaps hoping to avoid offending the congregation. People love hearing “it’s not your fault,” and “Jesus loves you anyway.” They don’t want to be confronted about their wrongdoing. I know I don’t! But I’ve come to accept who I am and realize there is work to be done if I ever hope to fulfill God’s plan for me.

Pastors who are afraid to speak doctrinal truth because they might scare people away are not being shepherds. Such an approach to ministry can actually serve to detract others from the Good News. The apostle Paul summarized the Gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through whom sin is atoned, sinners are reconciled to God, and the hope of the resurrection awaits all who believe. He wrote, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2, NASB). If it sounds like a difficult undertaking, it is. I’ve found it requires singleness of purpose even if we have to wear blinders to the distractions of the flesh.

WHAT’S GOING ON IN OUR CHURCHES?

We’re told in Acts 2:41, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (NIV). The early church grew exponentially. New believers were devoted to the teaching of the Apostles and were possessed by a great sense of awe over God’s glory. I asked a member of my church, “If you had a choice, would you rather be living in the twenty-first century or back in the first century where you’d have a chance to meet Jesus and sit at His feet and hang on His every word? Walk with Him throughout Judea as He tells you about God’s love and grace?” Hands down, he’d rather be living during the time of Christ. Imagine the power and charisma that must have radiated from Jesus! I imagine His empathy and love were palpable. He judged no one. He hated no one. When put to the test by the Pharisees, Jesus always responded with the entire Gospel in mind, typically saying, “It is written.”

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A friend of mine who has served as a youth pastor and associate pastor said, “I am upset and discouraged by the dwindling number true Bible-believing churches that teach the Gospel in America today.” His biggest pet peeve is churches who have “professional” concerts, coffee clatches before or between services, movie night, dozens of support groups, countless missions they support, and yet near-silence on the wages of sin, the answer to breaking free from the bondage of the flesh, and an obligation to preach the entire Gospel. He said, “Church isn’t about entertainment.” Personally, I love worshiping Jesus in song. My church has a full-time (paid) worship leader, and we’ve invested a fairly large of money in sound equipment, in-ear wireless monitors for the team members, lights, and a computer-controlled projection of lyrics and related images.

WATERED-DOWN CHRISTIANITY LEADS TO LUKEWARM CHRISTIANS

Frankly, however, I see my friend’s point. The Christian church of today has been leaning toward “watering down” the Gospel at a critical time in history where we should be screaming from the rooftops the entire truth about sin and death, Christ and grace, the cross and forgiveness. Pastors who preach a less-than message risk lulling their congregations into a state of lukewarmness the Book of Revelation warns us about. Revelation 3:15-16 says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (NIV)[italics mine].

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Lukewarm Christians clearly risk being rejected by Christ. It would seem critical, therefore, that we recognize the signs. First, do you seek God before making decisions? One of the major aspects of the Christian life is trusting God to lead. It’s a desire to see His will in our lives over our own. This requires having faith that God’s way is the best way. The lukewarm Christian doesn’t really believe this; they will always make their own decisions without consulting God. Second, people do not take your “Christian walk” seriously. A lukewarm Christian displays an inconsistent witness at best. Friends are able to tell you’re not “all in” for Jesus. If your friends don’t believe what you confess about your commitment to Jesus, is it because your words don’t match your actions? Third, lukewarm Christians  tend to make a habit of testing the limits of God by trying to serve Him and the flesh. A compromised Christian walk is more dangerous than no walk at all.

Thom S. Rainer, in his blog post “Fifteen Reasons Our Churches are Less Evangelistic Today,” provided the following table listing those reasons:

  1. Christians have lost their sense of urgency to reach lost people.
  2. Many Christians and church members do not befriend and spend time with those who are lost and in need of the Good News.
  3. Many Christians and church members have become apathetic.
  4. We are more known for what we’re against than what we’re for.
  5. Churches have an ineffective evangelistic strategy of “you come” rather than “we go” (see Matthew 28:16-20).
  6. Many church members think that evangelism is the role of the pastor and paid staff.
  7. Church membership today is more about getting “my needs met” rather than reaching the lost and the worse off.
  8. Church members are in a retreat mode as culture become more worldly and unbiblical. Culture has begun to tie the hands of Christianity.
  9. Many church members don’t really believe that Christ is the only way to salvation.
  10. Our churches are no longer houses of prayer.
  11. Churches have lost their focus on making disciples who will be motivated and equipped to reach the lost.
  12. Christians to not wish to share the truth of the Gospel for fear they will offend others. Political correctness is too commonplace, even among Christians.
  13. Most churches have unregenerate members who have not received Christ themselves.
  14. Some churches have theological systems that do not encourage evangelism.
  15. Our churches have too many activities; they are too busy to do the things that really matter.

THE GOSPEL OF THE KINGDOM

The synoptic gospels unite in opening the ministry of Jesus with a summary statement of His message. Matthew writes, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Mark tells us that Jesus preached “…the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (ESV). The Gospel of Luke is specifically addressed to Theophilus and is focused on the complete story and history of Jesus Christ from His birth and ministry to His crucifixion and ressurection. Luke focuses on the teachings of Christ about salvation and Christ’s fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah. It includes the beautiful birth story of the baby Jesus and the miracle conception by God. The first five verses of the Gospel of John show us the divine participation of Jesus as the Word who was present at the moment of Creation. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made.

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Ed Stetzer (2012) wrote in Christianity Today, “The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.” Of course, evangelism is about speaking Christ to others; it’s also about living Christ in front of others. Virtually any activity provides Christians with the opportunity share their faith in Christ. This involves sharing the good word and doing the good deed. Frankly, this is a huge responsibility. My pastor recently said, “The number one attraction to the Gospel is other Christians.” Makes sense, right? He wasn’t done. He added, “But unfortunately the number one detractor to the Gospel is other Christians.”

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Christian ministers have always sought new ways to attract non-believers to their gatherings. The more non-believers you have, the greater likelihood that at least some of them will come to faith in Jesus. The great British pastor, Charles Spurgeon, observed that when hunting ducks, if you are shooting at a large group of them flying overhead, you have a much greater chance of hitting one or two than if you are shooting at a solitary fowl. However, it is imperative that believers refrain from going to church just to sit in the pew and wait for unbelievers to show up. Clearly, Jesus commanded that we “go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NKJV)[emphasis mine].

Some of the means ministers use to attract people are innovative and effective; others are downright silly and accomplish nothing. Non-Christians may be devoid of the Holy Spirit, but they are usually smart enough to smell nonsense when they see it. Other church leaders, considering themselves too spiritual to ever use any means whatsoever to attract unbelievers, are content to simply pray and preach the gospel, and hope that somehow people will just show up in their meetings. Sometimes it happens; often it does not. However, too many churches have “competitive” and rather manipulative ways to attract non-believers to their gatherings.

This is one situation in which “keep it simple” is the perfect attitude. A successful evangelical message serves to convict people of their sins, explaining the Good News in a contextual manner, while keeping the core message explicit and clear. The message should be delivered from a position of compassion for the lost sheep. This is especially true when reaching out to those whom we believe are living a lifestyle that is in direct contrast to biblical principles. For example, we will never reach same-sex couples, alcoholics, drug addicts, or those experiencing gender confusion if we convict or (worse yet) condemn them. Never forget that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus (see Romans 8:1). We simply cannot reach those whom we despise as we won’t want to spend any time with them. Of course, lastly, the message must be Christ-centered and include reference to what occurred because of the cross.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16)

References

Peterson, E. (2006). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Rainer, T. (Feb. 23, 2015). “Fifteen Reasons Our Churches are Less Evangelistic Today,” [Web Log Comment]. Retrieved from: https://thomrainer.com/2015/02/fifteen-reasons-churches-less-evangelistic-today/

Stetzer, E. (June 25, 2012). “Preach the Gospel, and Since It’s Necessary, Use Words.” Christianity Today. Retrieved from: https://www.christianitytoday.com/edstetzer/2012/june/preach-gospel-and-since-its-necessary-use-words.html

 

 

 

Jesus: Portrait of a Messiah

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I’VE BEEN THINKING A LOT lately about who Jesus truly is, and how He conducted Himself during his ministry. Just think about how much love He has for us and for the Father. Jesus lived to be the Good News we all need. He was committed to doing the will of the Father. In fact, He was the embodiment of God’s love for us. Jesus was forgiving and accepting of everyone He encountered.

A LOOK AT THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW

I was reading in Matthew recently and found it rich with information. The synoptic Gospel of Matthew is one of the most quoted books of the Bible. It contains the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer. It is in Matthew that Jesus explains the Golden Rule. It famously concludes with the Great Commission: “Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, the worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age'” (Matthew 28:16-20, NIV).

The Gospel of Matthew is especially important, for it is one of the two Gospels originally written by an apostle—John being the other one. It is likely Matthew wrote his gospel in Antioch, which was perhaps an early home of Christianity (85 A.D.). The Book of Acts (essentially a chronicle and exposition on the activities of the early Christian church after Jesus ascended into heaven following His crucifixion) recorded that the followers of Jesus there first called Christians in Antioch (see Acts 11:26).

MY TAKE ON JESUS

I find Jesus to be fascinating, enigmatic, powerful, consistent, straightforward. He was not a diplomat or politician. His agenda was devoid of trying to please everyone. He saw the potential, the good—the redeeming qualities if you will—in everyone He met. He literally oozed unconditional love. He was not tolerating of hypocrites—especially the Pharisees who practiced what I like to call  “conspicuous religious consumption.” They were most concerned with their own public image, and considered themselves to be the only group that understood God. They felt they were holier than others—the word Pharisee is from an Aramaic word meaning “separated.” Jesus saw the heart, not the attire. He clearly saw everyone on the same, equal footing.

Certainly, there were individuals with whom Jesus got angry—like the money changers and the men at the Temple selling animals for sacrifice at an exorbitant profit. I identify quite easily with the types of people Jesus loved, reached out to, ministered to, and healed. Basically, the broken. When moving in the physical realm, God has always had a soft spot for people who are far from perfect. Our weakness is God’s power. He uses the flawed and the troubled to implement His will. He does not look for the perfect; even the not-so-imperfect. God does not call the qualified; rather, He qualifies the called. This is great news! None are perfect. None are without sin.

That was music to my ears. I have often felt I am one of those whom Christ could not save. I have been downtrodden, depressed, resentful, suicidal, mentally ill, and an addict. I am a convicted felon. I’m twice divorced, have had cars repossessed, been evicted, had my children refuse to speak to me. I have a long-standing history of lying, cheating, and stealing. There are so many “failures” in my life that I simply stopped counting. But in the eyes of the Father, I have been made in His image. Jesus loves me and wants me to have an abundant, successful, God-sharing life. Jesus accepts me for who I am, with absolutely no strings attached. He does not play favorites at all, which is miraculous in itself. That fact alone—His undying, unconditional love—may be one of the most supernatural things Jesus did. He didn’t show partiality at all, and neither should we.

BECAUSE HE FIRST LOVED ME

For me, I will love God because He first loved me. I will do my best to obey God because I love God. But if I were unable to accept God’s love, I would be unable to love Him in return, and unlikely to be obedient. The ability to accept God’s unconditional love and unmerited favor is all the fuel we need to obey Him in return. This is what’s at the crux of getting God out of your head and into your heart. Accepting God’s grace and love is something the devil does not want us to do. If we hear, in our “inner ear,” a voice saying we are failures, we are losers, we will never amount to anything. This is the voice of Satan trying to distract us from God’s love. This is not the voice of God. God woos us with kindness and grace and acceptance. We become saints. We partake of sonship through Jesus. Through this, God changes our character with the passion of His love.

Sometimes I wonder if I am doing everything God expects of me. Certainly, I miss the mark. When we look at Matthew 28:16-20, we realize none of us truly measure up. Jesus said to feed the poor, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, heal the sick. John 14:12 tells us, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (NIV). He said to love those that persecute me. This involves putting our ego in check. Regardless of who He truly was, Jesus did not let this impact His ego or derail his ministry.

Jesus did not mix His ministry (indeed, his theology) with politics. I grew up doing that, which got in the way of the central message of the Gospel. I know that was wrong, and I know that there are a log of people who will not listen to the message of Christ because of believers carrying their own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across.

THE MEASURE OF OUR FAITH

Love is the measure of our faith, the inspiration for our obedience, and the true altitude of our discipleship. By altitude, I mean how high we can go in God. How deep our relationship can be. Love is a distinguishing mark of Christians and something the Lord commanded us to do. John 13:34-35 tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (NIV). This is what we mean by a God kind of love. It is impossible to have this kind of love without accepting Christ. Love and the cross are indivisible.

Jesus said we should love others as God loves us—selflessly, sacrificially, with understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness. Jesus did not come to our world to condemn, and neither should we. But how can we love others if we’re unsure of His love for us personally? When we refer to God’s love, we’re talking about unselfish giving of Himself to us, which brings about blessings in our lives—no matter how unlovable we might be. I don’t know about you, but that makes me extremely happy. I always felt unlovable growing up. I felt I was too bad, too evil, to be loved. God’s love is not just an emotion, decision, or action. Well, in one sense love is a verb. It is something we do, not something we say. Love, of course, is who God is. It says in 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (NIV).

GOD CHOSE US

John 17:24 says, “Jesus prayed, ‘Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (NIV). Let’s compare this verse to Ephesians 1:4-5, which states, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” God loved us and foresaw our adoption into His holy family before He created the earth.

We know Jesus died for us. Romans 5:8 says, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (NIV). His death was the ultimate gift to us. What more can a man do than lay down his life for those he loves? On the cross, Jesus emptied Himself for our sake, pouring out His love so that we might be saved. He loved us, then, and He still loves us today—regardless of all our sins, mistakes, or struggles. In fact, He will love us and aid us during all our struggles.

God cares for us. God continually watches over us, providing our needs. He protects and guides us, and answers our prayers. The Lord may not always act within the time frame we expect, but if we’re faithful to wait on Him, He will always come through for us according to His will. The best way to learn about God’s deep concern for His children is to spend time reading the Scriptures and meditating on His Word. If we devote ourselves to the Lord, we will discover that He is always caring for us. What’s unfathomable, God promises to love us unconditionally. No matter what. He will never leave us or forsake us.

Hebrews 13:5b reminds us “…Neither will I leave you, never will I forsake you” (NIV). In verse 6, we’re told, “So we say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?'” If God loved us only sometimes, but not all the time, that would indicate His character, feelings, and attitude are changeable. But the Lord never changes. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Thankfully, neither is His love contingent upon what we do. Whether or not we go to church, witness, pray enough, and never sin—which we know is impossible—will not impact God’s love for us as His children. God’s affection is always the same. You can’t do anything to deserve God’s love, and you can’t do anything to keep Him from loving you. There is no sin too great. No person too depraved. God loves us all and sent His Son to be our ultimate sacrifice.

Remember, the Apostle John tells us that God is love. This may be a difficult truth for the human mind to comprehend. But love is the Lord’s very essence. He is the source from which all true love flows. There are no limitations, no restrictions, and no exceptions. God’s care for us is absolute and genuine, and through creation He has unmistakably declared that love. But in His most powerful proclamation of all, He sent His Son to die for us, so that we could enjoy His loving presence for all of eternity.

THE GOD KIND OF LOVE

What are the attributes of this agape kind of love? Let’s look at 1 Corinthians 13. Starting at verse 4, “Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (NIV). How important is love? Peterson puts it this way in The Message: If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (vv. 1-7).

The love God has for you and me is far beyond human comprehension. Jesus told us that God loves us as much as He loves Jesus. Think of it! What a staggering and overwhelming truth to comprehend. We need have no fear of someone who loves us unconditionally. We never need to be reluctant to trust God with our entire lives, whatever situation we find ourselves in. God does truly love us. And the most unbelievable part is that He loves us even when we’re being disobedient. He disciplines or corrects us because He loves us. We’re told in the Bible not to be angry when the Lord punishes us. We should not be discouraged when He has to show us where we have gone off the rails. For when He punishes us, it proves that He loves us. We need to let God train us.

We are commanded to love. Jesus said we are to love the Lord our God with our our heart, soul, and mind. That means we have to love Him unconditionally. Even when our lives are falling apart and He seems to be ignoring us. Jesus said loving God was the first or greatest commandment of the new covenant. He said the second-most important thing is to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. If we keep these two commandments we will find it easier to fulfill the other commandments given to us through Moses.

I’ve learned I cannot love in my own strength. Scripture tells us that just as surely as those who are in the flesh (the worldly, carnal person) cannot please God, so in our own strength was cannot love as we should. We can’t demonstrate agape love, God’s unconditional love, through our own efforts. How many times have you resolved to love someone? How often have you tried to manufacture some kind of positive loving emotion to another person for whom you felt nothing? Such as trying to “love” your neighbor who gives you nothing but grief and heartache. It’s impossible, isn’t it? In your own strength, it is not possible to love as God loves.

Jesus lived out the agape kind of love by being a sacrifice for us. He laid down His life willingly. No man took the life of Jesus. And He did this out of a perfect, undying, unconditional love for us. But one way we can show God we love Him is by keeping His commandments. Jesus said, “The one who loves Me will be loved by the Father.” Of course, the greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord with all your heart, mind, and soul.

And we have the example of Jesus to follow.

 

 

 

 

Baa Baa Black Sheep

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A black sheep stands out from the flock. In the English language, black sheep is an idiom used to describe an odd or disreputable member of a group. It seems nearly every family in America has one. The troubled child. A lightning rod of sorts. The center of attention. Always in the hot seat. The squeaky wheel in need of grease. Chances are, if you are the black sheep of the family, then you’ll know about it. Unfortunately for you, you were born as the runt of the litter and your family isn’t exactly pleased with your existence. At the very worst, you’re the stereotypical black sheep – an alcoholic, drug addict, gambler, delinquent, and a constant disappointment to your family.

But not every black sheep is as dramatic as that, and it may just take something little for you to set off your family’s wrath. You may be an atheist in a family of Christians, unemployed, a party animal, have trouble in school. Maybe you got your high school sweetheart pregnant the summer you both graduated. All of these attributes can make you the black sheep, and make your parents wonder where they went wrong. However, being the black sheep of the family doesn’t make you a bad person, it just means that you’re different. You see things differently, have you own opinions, and you’re probably the only one on your side, so it feels like you’re fighting a losing battle.

Perhaps some of this sounds familiar:

  • Your parents were more strict with you than they were with your other siblings.
  • Your mistakes were blown out of proportion and/or punished disproportionately.
  • You always carried the feeling that you “didn’t fit in” with your family, and you didn’t develop strong connections with them.
  • You were mocked, ridiculed and/or made fun of on a constant basis.
  • Your family seemed intent on making you feel “deficient” and as though you were always fundamentally lacking.
  • You developed mental or emotional disorders, and/or substance abuse problems as a result of being scapegoated and overburdened.
  • Your family didn’t show any interest in who you really were as a person.
  • You were criticized, completely ignored, or or emotionally manipulated if you rebelled in any way.

The role we played as children and young adults in our families contributes immensely to our present sense of self-worth, feelings of social approval, and our psychological and emotional well-being at large. If you’re like me, you may have got stuck in a role that undermined your sense of being a fundamentally “good” and “acceptable” person deep down, something that still affects me to this very day.  You may find yourself identified as the trouble child or the black sheep of your family, and this may cause you a lot of shame and depression in your life. Families often focus on the behavior of one child who seems to struggle with behaving properly. Dysfunctional families tend to avoid their own internal pain, disappointments and struggles by pointing the finger at another family member as the cause for all the problems they experience.

I took a class on marriage and family last semester at Colorado Christian University. The core textbook for the class, The Family: A Christian Perspective on the Contemporary Home (Balswick & Balswick, 2014), indicates that it’s critical for children to develop into their own unique selves within the context of family unity. Family scientists and counselors refer to this as differentiation – the process of maintaining a separate identity while simultaneously remaining connected in relationship, belonging, and unity. Another way to describe this process is interdependency.

Balswick & Balswick believe that family relationships involve four sequential (non-linear) states: covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. Covenant has to do with commitment to family members, and hinges on unconditional love. Grace involves forgiving other family members and being unforgiven by them. Certainly, from a human perspective, the unconditional love of God makes no sense until we look at it through the eyes of grace. Grace is truly a relational word, and means unmerited favor. John Rogerson (1996) takes the understanding of grace as a natural extension of convenant love and applies it to family life. He believes the family unit to be “…structures of grace…social arrangements designed to mitigate hardship and misfortune, and grounded in God’s mercy.”

Family relationships, as designed by God, are meant to be lived out in an atmosphere of grace, not “law.” Family life based on contract leads to an atmosphere of law, and is a discredit to Christianity. Christ came in human form to reconcile the world to God. This act of divine love and forgiveness is the basis for human love and forgiveness. We can forgive others as we have been forgiven. It is the love of God within that makes this possible. Of course, humans are limited and fallen. We can never fulfill the law. Thankfully, we are free from the law because of Christ’s perfection and righteousness, which leads to our salvation. When it comes to family relationships, none of us can expect to measure up. In a family based on law, the members demand perfection of one another.

Shame is often born out of a fear of unworthiness or rejection. When shame is present, family members put on masks and begin to play deceptive roles before one another. Children who experience the wrath of a parent on a nearly daily basis try to escape that wrath by employing various avoidance behaviors, such as lying, hiding, and deception. However, when family members experience convenant love, grace, and empowerment, they will be able to communicate confidently and express themselves freely without fear. Typically, family members should want what is best for one another. There must first be an atmosphere of unconditional covenant in the family, as well as open communication and honest sharing without the threat of rejection.

Inasmuch as all family members are imperfect, each with their own individual temperaments and experiences, they progress at different rates in the realization of God’s ideals of unconditional love, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. That is to say, all family members fall on a continuum between hurting and healing behaviors. When families choose hurting behaviors and move away from God’s way, the entire family will be negatively effected. Among the hurting behaviors in a family environment are conditional love, self-centeredness, perfectionism, fault finding, efforts to control or punish others, unreliability, denial of feelings, and lack of communication. With such behaviors, the focus is on self rather than on the best interests of the other family members. When children are raised in this type of family, they are limited in their ability to love others unconditionally.

Hurting families tend to withhold grace, often demanding unreasonable perfection, and blaming those members who don’t measure up. Individuals in these families fear they will make a mistake and be rejected because of failure to meet the standards. So they try harder to be perfect. What they need is acceptance for who they are, and forgiveness when they fail. Members of hurting families are typically not able to get in touch with their feelings. Their fear of rejection keeps them in denial of their emotions. What they need most is a safe atmosphere in which they can express their feelings, thoughts, wants, and desires, and be heard and understood by the other family members. Open communication helps each person share more honestly rather than hide feelings and thoughts.

A child who was loved conditionally (with strings attached) needs to experience unconditional love in order to feel lovable. This would go a long way to break the perpetual cycle found in hurting families. Such a breakthrough is predicated upon receiving God’s unconditional love. Being cherished by God no matter what you’ve done gives you a sense of self-worth and a new self-perception. (“I am lovable!”) Drawing on the Holy Spirit and maturing faith, the individual now has reason to follow God’s example and adopt healing behaviors. Living in covenant love is a dynamic process. God has designed family relationships to grow from hurting to healing behavior. As families accomplish this, it helps family members to eventually reach out to people beyond the boundaries of the family.

Conclusion

We know what the black sheep of the family looks like. He’s the “bad” guy who gets in trouble all the time at school, and later with the law and society in general. The “wild child” with poor impulse control who begins abusing drugs and alcohol. Someone who tends to embarrass the family by making all of the family secrets apparent to the world. Obviously, the family can’t be that great if little Stevie ended up drinking and drugging and spending three years in state prison, right? No matter what the family does to undo that image, there’s always Stevie to contend with. And how did he grow up so “bad” if he came from such an upstanding family?

Black sheep are basically scapegoats raised by parents who have a particular issue with morality. Either they are rigidly moralistic and can’t abide the slightest infringement of the rules, or they are unable to own their own mistakes and shortcomings. They tend to project these issues onto one of their children, seeing that child as wrong, “bad,” immoral, or evil. Often, the child will take on the bad, swallow it deep down into the unconscious, and then work really hard to be “good.” However, having not been empowered by his parents, such a child is typically incapable of self-control.

In this type of situation, parents unwittingly react to the challenge of controlling the bad child by talking to the child. Unfortunately, this makes him feel as if it is hopeless to even consider changing. Perhaps the parents are sincerely worried about what’s going on, but they don’t recognize the unconscious projections that are occurring in the home. They might even show him affection during this talk. They look him right in the eye with a sincere worry about what might happen to him if he doesn’t stop. The child, again taking on the emotional content of the conversation as if it belongs solely to him (as the empathic scapegoat child generally does) assumes that not only is he bad for upsetting his parents, he must be really hopeless if his parents are worried.

We can’t change the past. Our childhood experiences have shaped us into the men and women we are today. Both the good and the bad parts. What we can do, however, is change the way we view our past. It is important that we make sense of our life story. We need to think about experiences in our past, and how these experiences have shaped the actions we take today and in the future. By linking past experiences to our present, we’ll be able to better understand the motives behind our actions, and move forward in such a way that that our past, while remaining an integral part of ourselves, doesn’t define us for the rest of our lives.

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Things I’ve Learned About Human Nature

  1. When our communities were tribal-based, the good of the clan came before the good of the individual.
  2. Man is a social animal, and he is not designed for isolation.
  3. There is a God-shaped hole within all of us that cannot be filled by sex, booze, drugs, gambling, career, cars or big houses. I’ve heard this concept described as the “hole in the soul.”
  4. It’s better to leave a legacy than a personal history.
  5. When we choose to counsel and help others whose life has gone off tracks, our past becomes an asset rather than a liability.
  6. Unconditional love is known as affection without any limitations. It is sometimes associated with other terms such as true altruism, or complete love.
  7. Unfortunately, acts of evil aren’t terrifyingly inhumane, but rather all too human.
  8. Man is hard-wired to take credit for everything good in his life, and to blame God for everything wrong in his life.
  9. We are a snapshot or facsimile of God. Our godlikeness is the path to our greatest fulfillment.
  10. We’ve all heard that the unexamined life is not worth living, but consider too that the unlived life is not worth examining.