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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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.

Not Fair!

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We are surrounded by unfairness.

Too often, we find undeserving people are in dire situations while those who seem to deserve some misfortune strut happily along.

For some of us, it strikes so close to home, as we find ourselves voicing the proverbial “why me?”

Sometimes it hits close to home in a different way. Recently I witnessed a debilitating illness take down someone I love and respect dearly. And as I tried to grapple with reality, I caught myself thinking how really tired I was of seeing good people get sick while I still stand upright.

I share that raw moment not for sympathy, but for the sake of transparency, and because at one time or another, something similar may have gone through your mind. It’s not something we typically admit out loud.

All that aside, the bottom line is: What do we do with that unfairness? Do we rail and cry and yell “Unfair!” like a frustrated child? Do we shake our fist at God or society or the universe in general? Do we just shut down and not care anymore?

As hard as this is, and as much as it may sound like a tired old cliché, the only thing we can do with it is trust that God is in control of it.

Let’s take a look at a nearly 2,000-year-old case study.

Acts 7:58 is the first place in the Bible that we are introduced to a man named Saul. And it’s not a very good introduction.

“Then they cast him [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

Saul is overseeing the unjust stoning (a.k.a., murder) of one of the most godly men of the budding Church. He’s not casting any stones himself, but he has helped to get the people stirred up, turned them loose, and taken on the role of watching their coats for them while they took care of things.

To any observer who knows the life and character of both men, Saul should have been stoned while Stephen lived a long life.

Here’s what we know of Stephen from Acts 6 and 7. He is knowledgeable, passionate, loyal to Jesus Christ and His church, a selfless and compassionate servant. He is bold, brave, and unafraid.

Contrast that to what we see of Saul (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-2): hateful, hurtful, heartless, and filled with resentment. He hides behind edicts that he receives from the high priests and travels with a cohort of men to help him carry out his dastardly work.

Now, returning to Acts 7:58…who deserves to die?

But then, we read through the rest of the New Testament, and get the rest of the story (shout-out to Paul Harvey for those who still remember him). And it dawns on us that God knew precisely what He was doing.

Stephen was prepared to meet His Savior that day. He had a relationship with Jesus Christ and knew that whatever happened, eternity was laid out before him.

Stephen would be an inspiration to those in the early church, and remains an inspiration to believers.

Acts 8:1 tells us that the persecution that ensued after Stephen’s death caused the church to spread and the Gospel to reach parts of the world that it had not reached previously.

As for Saul, after Acts 9:3 he would be known as the Apostle Paul, and would turn the known world on its ear.

Paul would start churches all over the Roman empire.

Paul would stand his ground against Jewish leaders and Roman officials alike.

Paul would endure treacherous terrain, hunger, weather, assaults, shipwrecks, and unfair accusations (see 2 Cor 11:23-28).

So next time things seem so unfair, remember this: every single event or circumstance you witness is another moving part in God’s great orchestration. It may not make sense today, and it may hurt like mad, but in the long run He is doing amazing things!

 

Nailed It!

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While paging through an old notebook some time ago, in the margin of some meeting notes, I found a sketch of a nail. Yes, a nail.

The meeting was April 6, 2009. I don’t remember what the meeting was about, and probably nothing else on that page will ever mean anything to me again. But the nail does.

Because on Palm Sunday 2009 (which happened to be April 5), I listened to a message on forgiveness, and at the end the speaker handed out small nails as a reminder of the forgiveness we’ve all received and the forgiveness we should offer in turn.

For many years I carried one of those nails in my pocket regularly (some days I still do).

The man who delivered that message that day was pastoring a church we visited. My family and I didn’t stay there – it was over twenty miles away and we opted for somewhere closer to home. But we would be back.

It’s funny how we cross paths with certain people along our journey, never suspecting the major role that person will play in our lives someday.

This man had no idea the lasting impact this particular sermon made on my life. He had never met or even seen me before, and considering there were a thousand plus people in attendance that day I doubt he noticed me even then.

I had no idea that three years and one month later I would be in his church again…this time for counseling after a personal crisis would drive me into a spiritual wilderness.

He had no idea that his ministry would be the oasis in that wilderness that was exactly what I needed.

Neither of us had any idea that we would form a friendship, that we and our wives would see one another on a regular basis, or that I would one day consider him one of my most valued personal mentors.

But God knew all of that.

On that day in 2009 as I was doodling in the margin of my notepad, God had already mapped all this out. The meandering path I was about to take would lead right back to the same place I had been the day before, to see the man I had just heard speak.

These are the orchestrations of life that convince me there has to be a God who not only cares but is fully engaged in our lives. Nothing else can explain it.

And it makes me wonder…

…who did Saul of Tarsus see in the crowd that day at the stoning of Stephen who he would one day collaborate with for the furtherance of the gospel?

…what fellow wanderer would Joshua share a campfire with in the Sinai desert that would later become one of his loyal supporters or trusted advisers?

…what skeptic could Peter or John have had a run-in with who would eventually become a champion of the early church?

…which of King Saul’s soldiers may David have spied when he was hiding in caves who would someday serve in his own army?

…who is on the fringes of your life right now that will someday come back around to be a key person in your future (or vice versa)?

Predictability isn’t always God’s modus operandi, that’s for sure. But one thing is certain – He’s always working to bring things together in the most fantastic ways.

And when it happens, and we look back and see it, we can only marvel and say “Wow, God…you nailed it!”

Three Things to Consider While You Wait

Household 791Did you ever wonder about the years between the time the prodigal son took off with his inheritance and the time he returned?

We have a pretty good idea of what happened in the son’s life during that time, but virtually no insight into the father’s.

First, I wonder how hard it was for him to let go in the first place. How it must have torn his heart to hear his son say “I don’t want to have anything to do with you. I’ll just take my money and move on.” What emotions did he grapple with? Confusion? Anger? Feeling like a failure? Desperation? Guilt? Resignation? All of the above?

And what went through his head while the boy was away? We don’t know how long it was, but we know it was probably years. Partying away a small fortune, living through a famine, hitting rock bottom, and entering the workforce in the most demeaning job imaginable – all of that doesn’t happen overnight.

So what about dad during this time?

Did he yearn to go out searching for him? Did he think about sending a search party or hiring a private eye? If the story were pulled into the modern age, would he try to turn on the GPS on the boy’s phone, or Google his name to see if he turned up in the news? Would he have constantly fight the urge to text or email him?

It had to be grueling, just living with the silence, not hearing any news. Thinking about the old times, choking back emotions when memories arose. Maybe wishing he had done some things differently – spent more time with him, worked less, had more patience. Maybe he made some serious mistakes that he wished he could take back, or at least have a chance to explain. Maybe he looked back on the good times and felt a twinge of hurt and anger that his son would dismiss all that good and fly from the nest.

Of course, this is all speculation. We don’t know what went on at the home-front while the prodigal was ruining his life. But some of us can draw from personal experience, and feel like we have a pretty good idea.

Which leads to my point (yes, I have one).

Maybe there’s another lesson in this parable besides the return of the prodigal. We must not lose sight of that key lesson – that just like the prodigal, we can always return home, find unconditional acceptance, and be embraced by our Heavenly Father.

But maybe for some of us there’s also the lesson of what to do if we find ourselves in the shoes of the heartbroken father.

Some of you may be there right now.  If so, here are three thoughts about the wait that may help.

First: Life goes on. We can’t allow the pain of that damaged relationship to damage the rest of the relationships in our lives. Others still need us, and we have responsibilities to them. The hurt is real, and we can’t ignore it. But to dwell on it at the expense of other, intact relationships is wrong. Take the pain to God. Find counsel if necessary (there’s no shame in getting counseling – don’t get caught by that lie). But keep loving those that are still in your life. As far as we know, the father still attended to his farm and the rest of his family in his youngest son’s absence.

Second: God is in control. No matter how bleak things seem, God never relinquishes control, and He never drops the ball. Whatever is happening, He is there. He’s not surprised, He’s not outmaneuvered, He’s not stumped. We don’t know how long the wait was, but we know this: the father was still waiting and watching expectantly right up until his son appeared on the horizon.

Third: Do what you can, and let God do what He will. You can’t control this. Relinquish the urge to try. If an opportunity comes to let them know you’re still thinking of them, take it. But trust that the love you showed them while you were together will stay with them, and that God will remind them that they can always come home. The father didn’t pursue the prodigal, but somehow the son still knew that he could return, and would find some sort of welcome (even if it was just a job as a farmhand).

And one other thing…

Keep your running shoes on so you can dash out to meet them when they return!

Commend

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“But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8 KJV

It’s not often I prefer the King James Version for study, or launch from it in my blog posts. I love its poetic prose and rich imagery, but versions written in today’s vernacular make it much easier for us to grasp the concepts and intentions of the text, in my opinion. (No intent to launch a firestorm with that comment – I know there are passionate opinions on both sides of the KJV fence…so I’ll move on quickly).

Something in this verse jumped out at me recently, though, and the word that struck me is one that is only used in the KJV – “commend”. Most modern day translations render the verse “God demonstrates…” (NASB, NIV, NKJV) or “God shows…” (ESV) or “God proves…” (HCSB) “…His love for us.” These are all good words. But let me spend a few minutes on why I think “commend” is so much richer.

Dictionary.com defines “commend” as “to entrust; give in charge; deliver with confidence.”

God “delivered with confidence” His love to us. Not any confidence based on our ability to carry it out. But confidence because of who He is and because of His ability and determination to carry through (see Philippians 1:6).

How should that change my life? That God would ‘entrust’ His love to me? He didn’t give it to take it back. He didn’t give it to ‘see how this works out.’ He didn’t give it with reservation or hesitation. He entrusted it to me! He ‘gave it in charge’ to me! He ‘delivered it with confidence’! He gave it with the full intent of my possessing it for eternity!

What a terrific word! How rich that one word makes this promise. How could I ever take advantage of or dismiss such a commitment?

And what freedom! Knowing that God not only offers His love but commends it – this symbolizes a commitment that allows me to live in total freedom, knowing that He has full confidence in me and my ability to possess (and share) His love.

There is no obligation or striving, because it is based completely on Him and not on me in the slightest. His faithfulness and His promise and His work in the person of Jesus Christ make it so – not my ability to earn it or to maintain some level of worthiness.

So no matter what my weaknesses, what my failings, what level of ugliness I might see in myself – God commended His love to me with no take-backs or do-overs. He demonstrated it (to tie it all back to the word used in other translations) before I ever had a chance to prove my worth.

Because our worth is in who He has determined us to be.

Let that sink in.

Let it become part of how you see yourself.

Let it become who you are.

And live free!

Unconditional

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This word “unconditional” has captured my thoughts recently.

I wonder…do we really know its meaning?

I mean, most of us can give the dictionary definition, but do we really know it? Are our intellects capable of grasping it?

According to dictionary.com, it means “Not limited by conditions; absolute.”

Pretty simple, right? What’s so hard about that? After all, it’s only five words!

Here’s what’s so hard about it:

Everything we know is conditional. Our paychecks are dependent upon the job we do. Holding that job is dependent upon our performance. Investment income is dependent upon choices. Awards are dependent upon achievements. Healthy relationships are dependent upon trust.

None of these things are bad. They are exactly the way it should be.  Our world wouldn’t function fairly or properly otherwise. But the problem is, this conditions us (no pun or irony intended) to have a no-free-lunch mindset in everything.

Then we talk about loving unconditionally, and it all breaks down. We talk about God loving us unconditionally and it just doesn’t compute, because it’s so against what we have learned.

And so we talk about His unconditional love and grace toward those who trust Him. And then almost before we finish the sentence we find ourselves trying to do things to please Him so we can earn His love and grace.

Our ability to understand and fully embrace ‘unconditionality’ is limited because of things like:

  • Fear of vulnerability. To truly love unconditionally means to be completely vulnerable. Love already can bring pain. Unconditional love could leave us open to excruciating pain. So we set conditions in order to self-protect.
  • Inability to see people’s hearts. We simply can’t tell what the other person is really thinking or what is driving them. We have to rely on our interpretation of the outward signs…which may or may not reflect the inner heart that we can’t really see.  To mitigate the risk, we move with caution – and unspoken conditions.
  • Perceived benefit. Really, no matter how we try to avoid it, there is always the “what’s in it for me” factor. This isn’t wrong.  We make decisions in our lives for two reasons: 1) to make our lives better, or 2) to make the lives of the people we care about better (which makes us feel happy or satisfied or accomplished…which equates to making our lives better). We therefore define conditions to measure cost/benefit.
  • Self-preservation. This is not so much a reason as it is the sum total of all the reasons. Self-preservation is the shield against the devastation that could come from vulnerability; it is the insurance policy against unforeseen things in the other person’s heart; it is the mechanism by which we make sure there is some benefit. Self-preservation equates to conditions.

These conditions may be unspoken, unacknowledged, or maybe even unrecognized. But they are there.

God, however, operates on a different level than us:

  • Jesus was willing to make Himself completely vulnerable without feeling threatened (see Philippians 2:6-8)
  • God knows all and understands exactly what is in each heart – and still loves us! (see Psalm 139:1-6, Ephesians 2:4)
  • And He desires a relationship with us above all else. His joy truly comes from relationship with us, and He doesn’t do the dance to make it appear any differently! (see Jeremiah 31:3,  1 John 3:1-2)

This all adds up to the truth that self-preservation does not come into the equation. Our God is capable of – and practices – something that we cannot grasp or replicate. True unconditional love!

How have you experienced this unconditional love and grace? Or have you? Maybe you’ve experienced it but haven’t recognized it. Maybe you never entered a relationship with Him and so have absolutely no point of reference to start with.

Whatever the case, wherever you are in your spiritual journey, this is a prime topic for meditation and prayer.

We may not be able to grasp it completely, but there are depths that are attainable. And as you reach those depths, it will amaze you!