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.

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!

 

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!

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.

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!

Conditional

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Yes, you read the title correctly.

Last time, I wrote about “unconditional” love and grace.

I want to look at the other side of the coin today, mainly to make clear what that article was not insinuating. It was *not* promoting universalism (the idea that no matter what, everyone is okay in the end). To move on with even a chance of leaving that impression would be a dire mistake.

God’s love is unconditional. At no point do I want to reverse or undermine that idea. It is a core truth, and our freedom depends on knowing and believing it.

Let me say it again. His love is unconditional!

But our relationship with Him is not.

Let me explain.

First, Jesus was very clear when He said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

Entering into a relationship with God is certainly conditional … conditional on only one thing – the need to trust that Jesus Christ was God and He died for us. But conditional nonetheless.

Second, the quality of our relationship with Him is conditional.

Jesus: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father and I will love him and manifest Myself to him” (John 14:21).

Paul: “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

So apparently, our actions and attitudes influence not only the existence, but also the closeness of our relationship.

We tend to want to sometimes paint with a broad brush.  Either (1) obedience is key, so everything is conditional – God absolutely won’t bless you unless you have everything in order, or (2) God’s love is completely unconditional, so everything is okay, and God will love and automatically rescue you in the end.

The truth is actually somewhere in the middle.

So…from the top, just to make sure we’ve got it:

Nothing is beyond the reach of God’s love and grace.  We can never mess up so bad that He won’t rescue us (unconditional).

But we have to ask for that rescue (conditional).

And the more we obey, the more precious is our relationship with Him (conditional).

I’m not saying God will bless or withhold blessings based on our actions. Sometimes it works that way, but not as a rule. We can point to lots of biblical examples where God blessed or didn’t bless based on people’s actions. But I can also point to plenty of examples where blessings fell on the dishonest (scheming Jacob, socially deviant Samson) and curses fell on the obedient (righteous Job, humble Ruth). Jesus Himself said that God “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt 5:45).

What I am saying is we will feel more connected to Him, recognize His activity around us, and hear His voice more clearly as we live the way He desires for us to live.

Allow me one more example: Jesus said “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27).

A sheep that is standing at the other end of the field and refusing to pay attention doesn’t hear very well. The Shepherd is not deserting him. The Shepherd is not punishing him. But the quality of the relationship is definitely affected.

We have to get away from this image of God as some sadistic bully hovering over us waiting for an opportunity to punish us. We must also not allow ourselves to go to the other extreme of thinking of Him as some washed up pacifist who indiscriminately doles out passes to Heaven.

God is an uncompromisingly just Judge, who loves extravagantly.

He is a pure unconditionally loving Father, who does not abandon His perfect standards.

We can never allow one to cancel out the other. Both coexist, because Jesus reconciled them.

He came to open the door to that one condition that would make the unconditional accessible to all of us.