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.

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.

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.

 

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!

Dungeons and Dragons

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It’s a strange dynamic.

Dungeons are dark, dank, and scary places. But sometimes the dark, the dank, and the scary can strangely morph into a comfort zone. As bad as it is ‘in here’, we fear the uncertainty of what might be ‘out there’ and so we accept where we are.

Addictions, compulsive behaviors, sins of our past, guilt and shame, false labels – these things tend to build formidable dungeon walls. Even as we detest them, we are fearful of what might happen if we step into the light. How will people react? What will our friends say? Our critics? What will become of our lives and our families?

And so we hunker down in our musty, cold, hopeless dungeon cells. Secretly relishing the chains that we despise. Appreciating the company of the occasional rodent that scurries by.  Telling ourselves that the meager light that filters in through the bars is all that we need. After all, there are dragons out there.

Much of the safety of the dungeon is protection from the fearsome dragons that we’re convinced are lurking outside. We appease the little dragons ‘in here’, because the really big and scary ones are waiting ‘out there.’ And they will certainly devour us and our relationships and our reputation and maybe even our careers if we so much as stick a limb outside.

There is this unspoken and often unrealized idea that somehow indulging our habit, or tolerating our flaws, or keeping the lid tightly shut on our shameful past, keeps the hovering gods of our secrets appeased.

All of this is completely illogical, but in the dark corners of the dungeon it makes perfect sense.

And so…imprisonment. Not willing to risk even a peek at what we may be missing. Only concerned with the imaginary or exaggerated dangers we’re protecting ourselves from.

Yes, imaginary or exaggerated…because one of the unique features of our self-imposed incarceration is that the isolation and inward focus allow our fears to build and become larger and intensified.

They’re not all imaginary. Many of us can say from experience that there are harsh critics waiting outside those walls. And sometimes we will feel the heat of the dragon’s breath.

But I can also attest that there is tremendous grace and support out there as well – grace and support that will completely outweigh the harshness.

However, it takes stepping out of the cell, and that’s not easy by any stretch. Fortunately, though, we’re not on our own.

“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” – Isaiah 61:1 (emphasis added)

In Luke 4:18-21 Jesus personally applied these words to Himself.

He is the one who waits outside the door of the dungeon, and will stand with us, come what may.

Jesus came to empower us to shrug off the chains, to crash the walls, to get out of our prison cells, and to face the dragons.

It’s time for a prison break. Let’s do this.

Named!

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Your name is who you are. It’s that unique combination of words that encompasses your identity.

A couple months ago, I had a birthday. My wife and our Sunday night small group surprised me with a cake. Inscribed on the cake were the words – wait for it, you’ll never see this one coming – “Happy Birthday Doug!”

(We won’t go into the other décor on the cake such as the number 50 or the little rocking chair that was perched atop it – they’re a real humorous bunch, that group).

About three days later, while getting a cup of coffee, I decided to have a sliver of cake. As I opened the box and looked at the remnants inside, I noticed all that remained was the piece that my name had been written on. My name was wholly intact, but everything else was gone.

In that moment, God whispered, “I’ve kept your name intact. Not the name you’ve striven for. Not the name you tried to build for yourself. Not the name you thought you had established. But the name I gave you.”

And I knew it was true. Through the trials and the turmoil, bad decisions and their consequences, hurt I caused, hurt others caused, gossip, rumors, temptations, struggles, failures, exposed ugliness…through it all God had kept my name intact.

But the important thing is which name He preserved.

You see, God isn’t interested in the name we build for ourselves. He’s interested in the name He has given us.

The Doug who was striving to be significant through credentials and performance was not actually the Doug that God had blessed since the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).

The Doug who caved in to temptation, hurt people, and sank into the mire of guilt and shame over those failures was not the Doug He had known before He formed me in the womb (Jeremiah 1:5, Galatians 1:15).

Even the Doug that tried to serve and encourage and counsel as a pastor was not the Doug that He declared to have plans for (Jeremiah 29:11).

Those Dougs may have at times been living out some aspects of the Doug God created, but it wasn’t him.

That was someone trying to build the labels that he thought necessary to make him valuable.  But the truth is God had already declared him valuable!

Stop for a moment and think about where you are today. Are you striving to check boxes so that you can be the person you think God wants? Are you working your tail off so that you can somehow attain acceptance with God and make a name for yourself?

If so, stop! God gave you a name before you ever entered this world. You don’t have to make a name for yourself, because the name that is important is already firmly a part of you. Each of us is already “complete in Him” (Colossians 2:10). Live out of your true name.

Or, are you carrying around labels resulting from past failures? Are you allowing your inner voice, or accusations of others, to define who you are? Are you resigned to thinking that you have to live the life of an addict or loser or convict because of your past?

If so, enough! Those failures were certainly not part of God’s plan for you. But that doesn’t mean they change who you really are in God’s eyes. Don’t get caught up in thinking that failure inevitably leads to continued failure. Live out of your true name.

No matter what you have done. No matter what others have done to you. No matter how wildly successful or miserably unsuccessful you think you’ve been, your true God-given name has not been enhanced or tainted one iota. He has preserved it just as He intended, and will continue to do so.

Put all those false self-imposed or others-imposed names behind you and live out your true name. Live redeemed!

Surveying the Battlefield

Military 1148Sometimes battles are lost. We won’t always win. That’s just part of the ebb and flow of this thing we call spiritual warfare. 

But when losses come, it’s good to take time to look back over the battlefield and survey the landscape for lessons learned.

When I do this after a stumble or a fall, what I find is a battlefield littered with the armor that I should have been wearing.  

The Shield of Faith was sufficient to stop any fiery darts of lust or self-doubt or anger or whatever the Enemy launched at me. But it is lying on the ground. Cast aside in a moment of fear or frustration. Or out of sheer exhaustion from the overwhelming onslaught.

The Sword of the Spirit (scripture) could have given me the ability to deliver an effective counter-punch.  After all, that is what Jesus used when confronted by Satan in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. But I didn’t reach for my Bible when temptation came, or recall scripture passages. Instead, I loosed my grip on that sword and allowed it to clang to the ground alongside the shield.

The Belt of Truth should remind me of who I am based on God’s promises. Instead, it’s slack and falling down, allowing lies and labels to form my core in the moments when I most need to be girded by the truth. When that belt is firmly in place, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven, called, favored, blessed. When it slips, I see myself as worthless, incapable, emotionally out of control, lustful, addicted, helpless. 

Because the belt has fallen away, the Breastplate of Righteousness is askew. It no longer guards my heart properly against insecurity and frailty. A loose breastplate means I am now drawing from my limited humanity which is incapable of attaining righteousness. Had the breastplate stayed straight I’d have rested in my Spirit-filled self, which finds value and worth in what He has done rather than what I can do.

If I’d cinched fast the chinstrap on that Helmet of Salvation, I would have been protected against the ungodly thoughts and carnal imaginings that invade a mind focused on this world.  The knowledge of a secure salvation would keep me honed in on an eternal perspective.  Instead, the helmet toppled off into the dirt and I became overtaken by temporal concerns, emotions, and pleasures.

Shoes of the Gospel are there to remind me of the “death, burial, and resurrection” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) that completes me. But when they are not laced up securely they fall away and I am easily overtaken by a message of false fulfillment.

That’s the whole armor in Ephesians 6:13-17, strewn on the ground at the site of the defeat.

The losses look different. The circumstances change. The opponent varies in appearance and tactic. But ultimately, it all comes back to the armor.

It comes back to too much focus on the enemy and not enough focus on the armor that protects me from him.

Let’s make a conscious effort to change that focus. The battle is ours.