A Father’s Love

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With the recent celebration of Father’s Day, I’ve come to an interesting realization.

I, like many of us, grapple with the issue that a good God could love me knowing some of the things I’ve done. He knows where I’ve been, and He knows what’s inside me in my darkest moments. How could He even love me in the first place, let alone keep loving me?

I’ve interacted with enough people on this topic to know I’m not the only one who wonders these things. And many who don’t wonder about it consciously, are influenced by it subconsciously.

The source? I think it comes from various places. Some of us were taught about a God who was a vengeful punisher, a taskmaster just waiting for us to slip up. Some were raised by fathers who didn’t exactly model unconditional love. And some – well, we just never developed a good understanding of God for some other reason.

I realized recently that the best way to understand God’s love is not based on the impressions I developed about God from teaching or observation.  The thing that recently flipped on the light bulb for me was my own heart as a father.

Let me explain.

I have three daughters. They are all adults now. I know I’ve not always been the best dad to them, but here is what I do know:

First, I love each of them so much that a moment’s reflection fills my heart to bursting.

Second, they did not need to do anything to earn my love for them. I loved them since the day I met them. I loved them because they belonged to me, because God instilled a responsibility and care for them within me, and most of all just because they were. Their existence was the only real reason I needed.

Sure, they were cute, but that’s not why I loved them.

Sure, they demonstrated their love for me repeatedly over the two-plus decades of their lives, but that’s not why I loved them.

Sure, they said some amazing things, and they made cool projects at school, and they snuggled with me and watched funny cartoons with me, and bonded with me in a million ways. But that’s not why I loved them.

I loved them before they even had a conscious thought about doing any of those things or even loving me at all. When all they could do was cry and eat, I already loved them…immensely.  I loved them first.

Third, there is nothing they can do to make me stop loving them. They could mess up repeatedly in infinite ways, and I would still love them the same.

They could run off like the prodigal son to spend all of my money; they could cheat and steal; they could land in jail or rehab. And I would still love them the same.

They could hurt me deeply and hurt my loved ones, and I would still love them the same.

The love I have for them, that they did nothing to earn, cannot be nullified by anything they do either!

All of this I know in the depths of my being. I live it. I feel it. This moment as each of their names and faces crosses my mind my heart literally aches to see them.

Do you see where I’m going with this? I’m not trying to put myself on a pedestal and campaign for ‘Father of the Year’. Lord knows – and many people will testify – that I’ve got way too many faults for that. I’m just being honest about my heart and my true feelings.

And if I as an earthly, human, flawed father can have this sort of unconditional love in my heart for my children, why do I find it so hard to grasp that my heavenly Father would love me the same?

To rephrase the question, why do I think God could stop loving me because of my mistakes or brokenness, when I know in my heart of hearts I could never stop loving my kids no matter what their mistakes or brokenness?

Here is what scripture says:

So why do I live like His love can be less than mine, more conditional, more fleeting? (I would never say that out loud, but my fears and doubts reveal exactly that.)

Maybe you’re not a parent, and maybe you didn’t have a good parent to model this.  If that is true, I am sincerely sorry. My intent is never to draw out pain, but to encourage.

My hope is that everyone can connect with this on some level, and that somehow this brings a new level of understanding to a fundamental reality:

He loved us first. He loves us always. He loves…no matter what.

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A Winning Record

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Why do we have this recurring tendency to go back to the score sheet?

As Christians, the truth is that we are free from any need to keep score and measure ourselves by our good deeds.

We don’t have to earn God’s love.  Romans 5:8 says “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He loved us before we ever thought about earning it.

We don’t have to strive to remain in God’s love.  In Jeremiah 31:3 God told His people “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.”  Everlasting applies in both directions – past and future. He always loved us, and He always will.

Bottom line: Everything is His doing and none of it is ours!

This takes some getting used to. It’s not an easy concept to grasp. And, even when we finally get it, we still have this tendency to drift back to thinking we must do work to keep things right with God. Why is that?

I can think of a few reasons:

  1. It’s ingrained in us. From our earliest days, we are told there is no free lunch. If we want to succeed in school, sports, career, relationships, <insert-other-life-pursuit-here>, we must work for it. We get to where we are and have what we have based on our efforts. This is, in my opinion, the fundamental idea that makes it so hard to grasp the truth in the first place.
  2. There are plenty of voices telling us this is the way it has to be. The Galatians didn’t fall into this trap completely on their own. Teachers came through their churches telling them that they had to follow the Jewish customs to be truly right with God. And (probably because of point #1 above) it made perfect sense, so they bought it. And – don’t miss this – this was not people outside the church telling them such things. It was people in the church! Sound familiar?
  3. True freedom in relationship with Christ is a unique experience. This point intertwines with point #2 – but it’s worth mentioning separately. There is no religion in the world where the work is already done and we don’t have to strive. The reason why those voices in the church sound so convincing and make so much sense is because it fits with everything we know about religion. Which is why it’s important to differentiate relationship with Christ from religious performance. They are *not* the same.
  4. It’s a core weapon of the Enemy. It is key to Satan’s manipulative schemes; a tool used to distract believers and get them out of the game. Granted, there are a ton of tools in his toolbox – discouragement, depression, anxiety, fear, to name a few. But when you think through it, don’t these all trace back to our self-perceived inability (or anticipated inability) to measure up? In other words, don’t those things often (always?) come back to us thinking we’re not doing enough to keep our scorecard in the positive? And the more he can keep us focusing on what we need to do to earn God’s love, the less we’re focusing on showing God’s love to others.

Those are just a few thoughts. I’m sure there are more (feel free to share yours in the comments).

The truth is there will always be this draw to come back to what we’re doing and where our win/loss percentage stands. But all that is a lie and a distraction.

True, prayer and obedience serve a purpose.  It improves the quality of the relationship in that it brings you closer to Him.

But it does nothing to bring Him closer to you.  He already loves you infinitely.

So put the scorecard away, and live like you’re already loved. Because you are.

joy

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“…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:2

Take another look at that verse, and think about this – what was the joy that was set before Him?

Was it Heaven? No, I don’t think so. Jesus was God in the flesh. Philippians 2:5-8 tells us that He stepped away from His throne temporarily so that He could come to earth, and did not feel His throne was threatened by doing so. He had left heaven to come here, so getting to heaven was just a return trip home.

Was it His throne? Again, He was God, and at no point was He ever not God. He created the universe. He ruled completely. His place in Heaven from eternity past was not jeopardized by His leaving it (again, back to Philippians 2), so why would He consider it a joy to attain what was always His?

Was it a sense of accomplishment? Maybe. When He said “it is finished” from the cross, it was the completion of something God had promised thousands of years before. It was a long-awaited promise fulfilled, a long-anticipated task finally done. So if anyone ever had reason to feel accomplished over anything, it was certainly Jesus in that moment. But I don’t think it was that either.

I think it was something much more personal.

I think it was us. You and me. Humanity. “The joy that was set before Him” – the thing for which He was willing to endure so much pain and humiliation – was the opportunity to have a relationship with us!

That opportunity for true community with God had been lost thousands of years before. Our sin prevented us from having a relationship with Him. We could not be righteous enough to have a true relationship with God. And the intensity of the purification that would make us righteous enough would have turned us to dust – there would have been nothing left of us for Him to have a relationship with!

But Jesus could endure the purification that was necessary on behalf of all of us.  And that’s exactly what He did!

He willingly went through a horrible death to make possible the relationship that He longed for – a personal relationship with you and me.

Isn’t it awesome that a perfect God would consider a criminal’s death worth the cost, to obtain the joy of spending eternity with us?

I think it is.

 

The Freedom to Resume

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I confess I lost my way.

When I started this endeavor, it was with specific intent. It was to bring encouragement to fellow believers and show the path to a true relationship with God to those who didn’t know it.

It was to represent grace in today’s world and in today’s church, where it’s often lacking. Lacking not because people are cruel, but because they don’t always understand how to display grace in the tough situations. Or sometimes because we’ve been conditioned to react in ways that – while commonly accepted as Christian – are far from what Christ taught or modeled.

It was to speak freedom to people who were caught in a cycle of hiding and dragging their chains with them because they felt too ashamed or hopeless to stand up to their jailer – a jailer that takes various forms:

  • Our past – shame over the things we have done or people we’ve hurt.
  • Current struggles – things like addiction, unwanted but seemingly inescapable habits or desires, negative mindsets, poor self-image.
  • Our spiritual Enemy – Satan, Lucifer, the Devil, whatever you want to call him.

(I personally believe that ultimately the jailer that holds the keys to every chain that binds us is this Enemy. Yes, I believe he exists. And I believe he is active. He doesn’t want us to live free, because it scares him! A world full of free-living people could bring the roof down on all his hopes and plans, and he knows it!)

Whatever or whoever the jailer is, the truth is that we have a Savior who brings freedom which transcends all the brokenness. A God who represents everything the Enemy doesn’t want us to realize.

That message was my motivation. But I lost that. I got caught up in lies, and allowed the lies to derail me from these truths. As a result, I lost my focus, and then the path. Until the next thing I knew, I was in the thickets not even sure where the path was or when I had left it.

I had allowed exactly what Paul warned the Galatians not to allow – “do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

The result – a year of almost total silence.

But praise God for the freedom to resume. The freedom to get back to the work when we realize we need to re-center. The freedom to shake off the chains, and engage afresh.

Let me encourage the reader: if you’ve lost the path – if there is something that God laid on you and you got caught up in distractions or discouragement or apathy – God is still calling you to serve Him. Pick it up, whatever it is, and serve Him. You will not be happy until you are serving where God has called you to serve.

Eternity starts today, and in God’s economy the game never times out. No matter how long it’s been paused, we have the freedom to resume.

Swordplay

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“[Eleazar] arose and struck down the Philistines until his hand was weary, and his hand clung to the sword.”  – 2 Samuel 23:10, ESV

I was reminded of this verse the other day during a quiet time.

I don’t know what your struggle is. Maybe it’s substance abuse. Maybe it’s a sexual addiction. Maybe it’s gambling, or food, or road rage. We all have one. It might be an all-out addiction, or it might be an annoying little habit that we know we should stop. But we wish we could just change it. We want it to be different. And so, the battle ensues.

Truth is, often when we lose the battle, it’s often not because we were just incapable of holding back the onslaught. It’s because we chose to lay down our sword and stop fighting. When the alcoholic stops off in a bar; when the sex addict makes a choice to swing by the porn shop or the red light district; when the gambler takes his or her paycheck to the casino – it’s often because they decide the fight is not worth it or maybe that they’re destined to lose anyway. And so they lay down their sword.

I am not trying to minimize the power of addiction. I’ve seen way too many struggles and strugglers up close to ever suggest that winning is just a matter of good old-fashioned willpower, and if you fail you just didn’t try hard enough. That is an absurd idea.

Also, don’t dismiss this because you think it’s only for hard-core addicts. It’s not. Your situation may not escalate to the level of ‘addiction’ but it is just as real. If your fight is gossip rather than gambling, or anger rather than alcohol, or compulsive lying rather than compulsive sexual behavior – your struggle is still real.

You can’t control temptation, or the intensity of it. But you can control your reaction to it.

Do you surrender your weapon and cave, or do you get on your knees and spread a bible out before you?

Do you give up as it feels like it’s crashing in on you, or do you call a friend who can come to your aid?

Do you spread your arms so the enemy can run you through, or do you clasp your hands together and pray for strength?

If we want to win –to have a closer walk with God and improved relationships with others – we learn to grip our sword tighter rather than allowing it to slip from our grasp.

And we do that, not by putting our head down and “just trying harder.”  We do it by relying on help from the one who is our Stronghold (Ps. 144:2), our Fortress (Ps. 28:8), our Strong Deliverer (Ps. 140:7), and our Refuge and Strength (Ps. 46:1)!

Eleazar fought so persistently and so fiercely that he came to the point where he was unable to let go of his sword!

This is my prayer for my own personal battles, and for yours.

May we wield that sword so long and so fiercely and so uncompromisingly, that even if we wanted to drop it we wouldn’t be able to.

May we be so focused on living the life God meant for us and fending off everything that interferes with it that we find our spiritual hand permanently cramped and our grip incapable of letting loose!

 

 

 

Lane Changes

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It’s a familiar scene.

I’m slowly crawling through the parking lot between home and office – the ‘parking lot’ officially known as Northern Virginia’s Interstate 95.

I’m following a semi. I don’t remember the markings on the truck, but let’s called it “ACME Corporation” (I was always a big Road Runner fan as a kid).

At some point I grow tired of following a truck that I can’t see around. That, plus the lure of the slightly-faster-moving traffic in the lane to my left, compels me. I make my move. I change lanes.

Five minutes later, guess where I am? I am sitting in left-center lane, staring at the “ACME” truck in the right-center lane…which is at least a half mile ahead of me. And I’m thinking If I had just stayed where I was…

And it occurs to me…isn’t that the way we live our lives sometimes? We make a decision, and then later we look back on that decision and say If only I’d have just decided differently…

But guess what? We can’t re-do those decisions any more than I could make four lanes of interstate traffic back up and allow me a do-over on my lane change.

But still, it’s easy to look back and imagine how perfect things would have been with a different choice. But imagination is not reality (profound, eh?).

So here’s a few things we can do when we catch ourselves in those moments of second-guessing.

  • Remember Hebrews 13:5 – “For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” God is there. Always.
  • Be thankful for where you are in life, instead of regretful of where you might have been.
  • Pray that God will show you how this works into His plan. Because it does. Even if it was a bad choice, it still becomes part of the fabric of His plan. Because He’s sovereign that way.
  • Remember that perception is not always reality, and that the whole can’t be derived from a snapshot. It’s about the entire race, not just a few paces somewhere in the middle.

Lane changes happen.  Some of them turn out well. Some of them not so well.

Sometimes you look like you’re going nowhere, only to look up one day and realize you did get somewhere. (Case in point – I ended up ahead of the ACME truck just a few miles later.)

Sometimes you don’t get where you wanted to be, but find out where you are is pretty good.

Sometimes you don’t see any of these things, but have to trust God that you are where He wants you to be (I wish I could say that we always see the happy ending, but that’s just not true).

So keep moving forward. Trust your decisions. But most of all, trust God.

 

Identify!

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There are times when we don’t quite believe who God says we are. But that never changes who we are or the plans He has for us.

There are even times when we put a lot of energy into making excuses and explaining to God why we aren’t who He says we are. But that doesn’t change anything either.

Case in point: Exodus chapter 3.

A man named Moses finds himself in a conversation with God, who informs him that he, Moses, will be the one to go bring the Israelites out of Egypt. He is going to be the voice that frees six hundred thousand men and their families from slavery.

Moses’ response?

  • “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…” (3:11)
  • “[But] If I come to the people of Israel …and they ask me ‘who sent you?’ what do I say then?” (3: 13, paraphrased)
  • “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice…” (4:1)
  • “I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and of tongue.” (4:10)
  • “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” (4:13)

With each comment, God continues to explain how He has chosen Moses, how He will influence the Israelites to listen to Moses, how He will enable Moses to handle whatever is ahead, how He will display His power through Moses, how He defines who Moses is and He has decided Moses is the man for the job.

But Moses responds with more excuses. Moses simply refused to buy it. He was sure he was a nobody, and that the best place for him was right where he was, in obscurity taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep.

So finally, in 4:14-16 God essentially says “Fine. Your brother Aaron will go with you and he’ll do the talking. Does that make you happy?” (My personal interpretation, of course…I’m pretty sure none of that was in the original Hebrew text.)

But here’s the rub  – pay close attention now – because if you read through the next 9 chapters of Exodus, in all the interactions that took place with Pharaoh, not once do you read “And Aaron said unto Pharaoh…

The only place we see Aaron taking the lead is when they first talk to the Israelites (4:30). From there on out, Moses is the point man.

To me, this is significant, because it is one of the starkest examples in scripture of what Bob Perdue and others refer to as the concept of the true self.  It says “You are who God says you are, not necessarily who you think you are.”

As much as we try to hedge and detour and deflect and make excuses, God knows who we really are. He knows because He defines who we really are.

Our maneuvering, our excuses, our doubts, what we think we’re capable of or not capable of – none of that trumps what God planned from the beginning of time.

Our mistakes, our past, our faults or failures – none of that disqualifies us from what God planned from the beginning of time.

The Creator of the universe, designated you for a purpose and then designed you to meet that purpose.

Trust Him, you’ll find that the person he designed you to be is exactly what brings deep fulfillment, more so than your highest personal aspirations. (I’m pretty sure that in the end Moses knew that what he accomplished was a whole lot more fulfilling than another 40 years of tending sheep).

So stop making excuses and believe who God says you are.

He knows what He’s talking about.