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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Onslaught

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Satan never fires just one arrow and moves on. He fires volleys…salvos…relentless barrages.

Anyone who has been assaulted by the Enemy knows that it is rarely dodging one arrow and wiping our brow, like some fortunate wanderer who just happened to step into the line of fire and made it out to tell the story. It’s more like hunkering down in the bomb shelters of London or Liverpool circa 1941, hoping that the explosion that just rocked us was the last one but fearing that there’s at least one more to come.

That’s why Ephesians 6:16 doesn’t talk about using the shield of faith to extinguish the flaming arrow, but all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

I used to think the plural form referred to the accumulation of arrows over a lifetime of living our faith. But experience has taught me differently. Yes, the arrows accumulate over time, but that doesn’t mean they accumulate one at a time.

And the arrows don’t all come from the same direction. Like a good battle strategist, our Enemy wants to flank us and knock us off balance. So he varies the attack vectors to cause more confusion and uncertainty. Hence, the arrows aren’t just coming from personal temptations, or relationships, or finances, or illness, or car problems. They come from any or all of the above.

It almost seems like a mere shield isn’t enough – we need a fortress.

It just so happens, we have one:

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).

He is our fortress and our deliverer. He is our strength and our shield.

There is distinct symbolism here that gives us a three-hundred-sixty-degree defense against Satan’s onslaughts.

Sometimes when the battle is heaviest, we need somewhere to take refuge. We need walls and barriers to shield us, and someone to provide cover. We need to defend and just survive. There’s nothing wrong with hunkering down and waiting out the worst of the attack. God is there to be that fortress and deliverer in those times.

Then come the times to go on the attack. No war was ever won by an army permanently entrenched in their forts. At some point, an offensive strategy is needed. We cannot attain freedom for ourselves or anyone else if we’re locked in defensive mode. That’s where the strength and shield come in. When we’re ready to step out of the fortress and take the fight to the enemy, God is there for that as well. He becomes our strength to wield the sword and our shield to quench those arrows we talked about earlier.

So when it seems like the onslaught is at its worst, remember we have options. God’s war plan is multi-faceted. The next time you feel like you’re taking heavy fire: breathe deeply, know that He has all the angles covered, and plan your strategy accordingly.

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!”

Leave It at the Cross

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“You were never meant to carry this beyond the cross.” – MercyMe, Dear Younger Me

This line strikes home for me every time I hear it. Because I look back at things that I know I shouldn’t have carried beyond the cross and see the pain it brought and the problems it caused.

I think to some extent all of us have things that we try to carry beyond the cross.

We talk about turning things over to Jesus. We nod confidently and agree there is nothing that He can’t carry for us.

But still there are things we try to carry ourselves.  We plant our feet firmly, heave it up on our shoulders, and trudge forward, one laborious step at a time.

Maybe it’s because we feel like it’s not something that’s worthy of turning over to God – it’s too trivial to bother Him with.

Or maybe it’s too ugly and we don’t want to expose it to our relationship with Him – like somehow revealing the thing (which He already knows about) will somehow taint His impression of us.

Or maybe someone has convinced us that God’s grace doesn’t quite cover that.

But Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

He didn’t say “all who labor and are heavy laden with big things.” Or “all who labor and are heavy laden unless your burden crosses this line.” He said “all.”

So no matter the size, shape, appearance, or form of your burden, bring it to Him. You were never meant to carry it beyond the cross.

Alcoholism? Bring it. Pornography? Bring it. Unwanted homosexual desires? Bring it. Bad temper? Bring it. Guilt from a painful past? Bring it. Hurt caused by someone else? Bring it. Drug problems, gambling addictions, trust issues, gossip, hate, lying, cheating, jealousy, judgmentalism – whatever form your flaw or your struggle takes…bring it to His cross.

And leave it there. Don’t carry it one step further.

When we try to carry it ourselves, bigger problems result. Struggles become addictions. Secrets become complex networks of deceit. Angry outbursts become abusive behavior. One more compulsive bet becomes financial ruin.

The scenarios are exhaustive (and exhausting!).

Trust me, carrying whatever it is ourselves and trying to keep it stuffed inside only leads to more (and deeper) hurt. I know. I’ve been there.

So make the commitment now to leave everything at the foot of the cross. Everything…and live free!

p.s. – since I mentioned it, take a listen to this song if you have time. It’s worth it.

Duck Test

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He was the leader of the world’s only superpower. He had subdued enemies, conquered lands, captured cities, built spectacular palaces, and oversaw a thriving economy.

And then one day things went sideways. And before it was all over he could add to his accomplishments adultery, treachery, betrayal, and murder.

His name was David, King of Israel. Most people know the story: He slept with and impregnated his neighbor’s wife, and after a hastily planned scheme to cover up the consequences failed, he orchestrated her husband’s death.

You don’t have to agree with David’s actions to understand how they came about. Hopefully we’ve not been down the path that led to adultery and murder, but we’ve all been down paths where we would never have ventured with a clear head.

But here’s what I want you to see about David: When he finally came to himself, David called it like it was.

David’s prayer following the fallout from his actions is the prayer of a broken man who was done with maneuvering and making excuses.

See, we need to be honest with God in our confessions.

We need to learn to say simply, “I sinned against You.”

I didn’t ‘have a weak moment.’ I didn’t ‘make a mistake.’ I didn’t ‘falter’ or ‘stumble’ or ‘lose a battle.’

These phrases are accurate, and in proper perspective can help us press forward. Because our weaknesses combined with the barrage of influences we face, sometimes lead to bad choices. We can’t live a perfect life, and God will never give up on us (even after all this, David’s character is still immortalized as “A man after God’s own heart”).

But the duck test says “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck”

Like David, we need to learn to be raw and honest with God and say,

“For I acknowledge my transgressions, And my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned, And done this evil in Your sight” (Psalm 51:3-4).

When he says “against You only have I sinned,” he’s not dismissing the fact that other people were hurt by his sin.  In this case Uriah, Bathsheba, the unborn baby, and many others close to them, were hurt terribly by his choices.

But it was primarily God against whom he sinned.

Every sin is first and foremost an offense against a holy God.

So let’s be careful to maintain balance.  We can’t spend our time condemning ourselves for our mistakes, wailing and wallowing in our filth, expecting ourselves to live the perfect life and never slip up.  But we also can’t use our flawed humanity to smooth over or minimize the fact that we hurt God and others by our actions.

Living like new means constantly renewing our mind and spirit through self-inspection, confession, and trusting that God lifts the penalty for that sin from us.

It’s “Freedom 360” – freedom from excuse-making and freedom from condemnation.

It’s a package deal.

Trust Me

Level of transparency – this is something that I have debated internally many times.

It’s a valid debate. Lack of transparency inhibits being there for those that need to hear that they are not alone in their struggles. Too much transparency becomes counterproductive as we expose loved ones to unnecessary hurt, and risk inadvertently encouraging others to stay in their brokenness (“Well at least I’ve never done anything as bad as him”).

Recently, as I prepared for a church presentation which called for openness about my personal struggles, I trudged through this internal argument once again. And as it transpired, I slowly came to realize that the issue was a matter of trust.

“Can I trust people with my revelations?”

“Can I trust that they will not react harshly?”

“Can I trust that they will continue to love me and support me?”

“Can I trust that they will not jump to conclusions?”

I concluded that no matter what arguments I made regarding why I should or shouldn’t be transparent, and to what extent, underlying it all was this issue of trust. I just wasn’t sure I could fully trust everyone in my listening audience.

Then I heard it.  So subtle that I almost missed it, yet so profound that I was certain it could only be the voice of God.

I’m not asking you to trust them. I’m asking you to trust Me.”

You see, God isn’t looking for us to obey because we trust that it will sit well with other people.

He’s not asking us to do what He has called us to do because we can trust that others will support us and not judge us.

He’s asking us to serve Him because we can trust HIM to carry us through whatever comes.

Look at scripture.

In Acts 9, God calls a man named Ananias to go heal Saul of Tarsus, and Ananias essentially says “Lord, that is the craziest idea I’ve ever heard! Don’t you know that guy’s killing Christians?!” But God says “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (v 15, ESV).

God was telling Ananias “Don’t trust Paul, trust Me.”

In Exodus 4, Moses is arguing with God saying “They [the people of Israel] will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say ‘The Lord did not appear to you'” (v 1). God then proceeds to instruct him regarding a series of miracles (turning Moses’ staff into a snake, making Moses’ hand turn leprous, turning water into blood), and God says “When they see these things, they’ll believe I sent you.”

God was telling Moses “Don’t trust the Isrealites, trust Me.”

There are other examples throughout scripture and history. We don’t have time for all of them here. But believe this – God is trustworthy, and He is asking you to put your trust in Him…and not anyone else.

“So we can confidently say,’The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?'” (Hebrews 13:6)

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!