Who Forgives All Your Sins…

Praise the Lord, my soul;

    all my inmost being, praise his holy name.

Praise the Lord, my soul,

    and forget not all his benefits—

who forgives all your sins

    and heals all your diseases,

who redeems your life from the pit

    and crowns you with love and compassion,

who satisfies your desires with good things

    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

Psalm 103:1-5 (NIV) via biblegateway.com

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+103&version=NIV

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Sin isn’t a popular topic of conversation. Most of us would rather talk of victorious living; of accomplishments, righteous thoughts, life choices that “worked out” to our benefit. If we must talk of wrongs, we prefer to speak of “shortcomings,” or circumstances “forcing” us to make bad choices. We point fingers at those who could have/should have helped us, or warned us, or given us better guidance. We may even acknowledge shame or guilt for choices we’ve made, and speak of atonement, or lessons learned.

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But God has provided for forgiveness–not a denial of our guilt; not a “free pass” for our actions–something beyond our capacity to give or “earn.” God alone is capable of perfect judgment. He never makes excuses; nor does he accept them. He knows every detail of every choice you’ve ever made–the motivations, the circumstances, the alternatives–and He has the power to pronounce eternal judgment AND eternal forgiveness.

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We have a tendency to give partial forgiveness, because we do not have God’s perfect knowledge or judgment. We get trapped in a cycle of guilt and shame, or blame and bitterness, because we want to see a perfect justice that is often missing in our fallen world. We tend to forget the benefits of God, instead focusing on the deficiencies of ourselves and our neighbors.

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God forgives ALL our sins–but we must seek that forgiveness and accept it! God heals all our diseases– some of them here and now; others in eternity. God redeems our lives from Hell–something we could never do on our own.
God crowns us (read that again!) with love and compassion. He pours His love all over us– lavishly, unreservedly, undeservedly–and raises us up to eternal life.

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Why do we fear to confess our sins to such a Loving God? It’s not as though He cannot see or know them. It’s not as though He is powerless or unwilling to forgive them. He wants to remove our sins “as far as the east is from the west” (v. 12) And only He can do this. When we deny or ignore our sins, they are not removed, only suppressed. When we wallow in our guilt and shame, our sin is constantly present in our mind. Only God’s perfect forgiveness can free us to make courageous and compassionate choices, confident in His love and power to heal and guide us in His ways.

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Sin is ugly. And its power is too great for us to overcome on our own. Its consequences are deadly, and far-reaching– too great for us to make atonement in a lifetime. But its power is broken in the light of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The sentence is commuted. We are reconciled to the God of Holy, Righteous Perfection. The consequences now belong to Christ yoked with us, working in and through us. We cannot perfectly atone for our actions; but we can give the burden of atonement to the One who can– and the One who can give us His power to bring healing.

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Praise the Lord, O my Soul!

My Father’s World

As I look outside, there are bare branches on the trees, and the grass is covered in fallen leaves. The beauty of early autumn has almost gone, and winter is coming. The air is brittle and chilly, but not as cold as it will be in another month.

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Yet, this is My Father’s world. I trust that winter will come, and pass. Spring will follow, and the trees will once again be covered in leaves and filled with birdsong and new life.

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As I listen to the news, I hear of COVID deaths and hospitals filled with the sick and suffering. I hear of political unrest, and people spewing hatred, anger, and fear for the future. There is chaos and uncertainty, injustice, and pain. There are hurricanes and fires, floods, and earthquakes.

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Yet, this is My Father’s world. He sends rain on the just and the unjust; He brings healing and hope, even in the darkest hours. This world does not belong to any one nation, or political party, or natural disaster, or epidemic. Such circumstances have the power to cause destruction and fear, but they do not have power over the Creator of all things. Their reign is temporary and limited. And ” ‘tho the wrong seems oft so strong,” God is eternally sovereign– nothing that happens today can either take God by surprise, or cause Him to quake.

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I meet with people who are discouraged, angry, bitter, and scared. And I cannot “fix” the world around me with good intentions, or hard work. I cannot give assurance based on my own efforts or my own wisdom. I don’t know the answers, and I don’t have the solutions. I will make mistakes. I will say things that cause confusion, or even offense.

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But this is not my world; and it isn’t the world of those who try to discourage me, judge me, take advantage of me, or manipulate me. This is My Father’s world. And in this moment, I will choose to look for His hand and listen for His voice.

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AMEN!

Sacred Spaces

I love visiting old churches and cathedrals, with their vaulted ceilings and solid stone walls infused with centuries of incense and the echoed prayers. And I love being outdoors surrounded by the glorious beauty of creation. These spaces seem infused with a special sense of the sacred. It is easy to feel close to God is such spaces.

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But God is omnipresent. A crowded bus is no farther from God’s presence than a majestic mesa. The hush of a hospital ward is just as close to His heart as the swelling choir in a cathedral. In fact, when Jesus lived among us on earth, He spent much of His time walking dusty roads, talking and working miracles among the noisy “rabble” of ordinary people. He did not seek out “sacred spaces;” instead, He took the “sacred” into the dark and dirty streets where it was often ignored or dismissed.

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Sometimes, Jesus would go off by Himself into the wilderness or into the hills to pray, as well. It is important to make a time or space to do this. But there is nothing especially sacred about particular spaces– even ones designed to be places of worship. It may not be easy to find a physical space for prayer and worship, but we can make a mental “space”– close off distractions, move or turn away from others for a few precious minutes–focus on God’s presence. Remember, His presence is always with us; we just need to acknowledge it!

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Prayer connects us to God– wherever and whenever we pray. That doesn’t mean that we should not seek out special times and places to be alone with God. But we needn’t wait for a certain moment or location or position in which to meet with God. He is eternally, immediately available to listen. Are we?

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Showers of Blessing

One of the things I find amazing about prayer is hearing about and seeing God work globally through the prayers of His people. God is Sovereign–He can choose to work however, whenever, and wherever He chooses. But He gives us the awesome privilege of participating in His work.

I use a prayer journal. In it, I keep names of people, ongoing and urgent prayer requests, and a list of places. Each day, I pray for those who are celebrating their birthdays or anniversaries (if I know them). I also pray for ongoing and urgent requests as I receive them. I pray for world leaders, local officials, and even those who wish me ill (if I know of them). Lastly, I pray for a particular place each day–as I write this, I am on the day reserved for Uganda. I don’t know anyone in Uganda; I’ve never visited, and I know very little about the nation. But God knows. God knows the people, He knows the weather, the land, the economy, and the spiritual needs of Uganda. I don’t have to know any of that. I just need to be faithful to call out to God on behalf of this land that is precious to Him. Some days, I pray for a nation; sometimes a city or a region; sometimes an ocean or desert.

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My prayers rise to God like a mist, but God gathers prayers to form clouds and send a shower of blessing wherever He wills it. I may never see the answer to my prayer for Uganda today. But I trust that God will send blessings like rain– maybe today, maybe next week– to someone in Uganda. Someone I’ve never met. Someone I hope to meet and love in Eternity–my long-lost, never-before-met brother or sister! And as I pray for those with birthdays or urgent needs, I trust that others are doing the same. God may not choose to answer those prayers in the way we expect. But He WILL send out showers of blessing. The rain will fall on the just and the unjust https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matthew+5%3A44-45&version=NIV and it will fall where and when God decides.

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God doesn’t need me to pray for Uganda or any particular person or place. His work will progress with or without me. And if I pray for Moldova or Tokyo or the Arctic Ocean tomorrow, it won’t change God’s plans. But it might change MY outlook. And I will know the joy and glory of joining in God’s work as I watch it unfold. Amazingly, I know that some of those showers will fall on me and my family as other believers– perhaps strangers I have never met– pray today. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+113%3A3&version=NIV

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Pray without ceasing..

1 Thessalonians 5:17

Of Incense and Vapors..

Sometimes, prayer seems like a vapor–something that rises without substance, only to evaporate. We say our prayers and wait for an answer. And the Bible describes prayer like incense. It rises to God as a sweet fragrance. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Revelation+5%3A8&version=ESV But incense and vapor dissipate and evaporate without a visible trace. They have no form or solid substance. Is prayer equally fleeting and amorphous? Is prayer “real,” if we can’t see it working?

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And yet…

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Vapors rise and mix with other vapors. They are carried on the wind. They form clouds, and the waters return to the earth as rain and snow. And incense diffuses and leaves its scent throughout a building long after it is burned. We know that incense has been burned. We know that water has evaporated. And we know that they are “present” even if we can’t see or touch them.

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Prayers– especially prayers lifted in petition–rise away from us. They are meant to disappear from our view. Our focus should not stay on the visible troubles we lift up in our prayers, but on the invisible and all-powerful God who receives our cries. And as prayers rise, they are gathered and formed by God into clouds of blessing. The rain will fall where God wills it, to water thirsty souls, bring healing, and be lifted up in new prayers. The incense of our prayers will permeate the world with the fragrance of God’s love, even as they ascend to His throne.

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This is part of the mystery of prayer. Just as God designs water to be lifted up and returned to the earth hundreds of miles away; just as He designs fragrance to spread without any visible evidence, so He has designed prayer to work in unseen and unpredictable ways. God delights in our participation in this mystery. He invites us to be part of the process of spreading His beauty and glory throughout the world!

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The Thief of Joy

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:7-10 NIV (via biblegateway.com)

Theodore Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, once said, “Comparison is the thief of Joy.” Comparison, envy, judgment– they have a way of sapping our joy, our energy, and our purpose, leaving us angry, deflated, and anxious. He knew a lot about the subject. Coming to the office as the result of the assassination of William McKinley, Roosevelt was the youngest man ever to hold the office of president, and it was not expected that he would be capable of fulfilling his duties. He was a blunt, restless, often hot-tempered man– not a smooth and polished statesman. There were plenty of people comparing him to McKinley and others– and finding him on the short end of the comparison! Yet Roosevelt was a man known for his optimism and joy. Even with his bluster, he was rarely seen without a smile and a positive outlook. And that optimism won people over so that he won his reelection bid in 1904, and became one of our most esteemed presidents.

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Comparison can creep into all sorts of areas of our lives– we compare finances, status, “likes” on social media, looks, job status, clothes, houses, cars, even shoes! And sometimes, it impacts our prayers. I know people who won’t pray in public because their prayers “aren’t good enough.” They fear that their prayers lack eloquence; that the people listening will be disappointed or bored or even amused or disdainful. And sometimes, I’m ashamed to say, they have reason for their fears! This should never be.

But it isn’t just public prayers that we compare.

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I write about prayer; I’m very open about praying, and I receive a lot of prayer requests. I’m honored and glad to be able to share in praying for others. But every once in awhile, I hear from people that they want certain people to pray for them (as opposed to other people). They seek out “prayer warriors”– people who are viewed as being “better” at prayer than others. On the surface, this seems like a wonderful thing– some people are gifted with more time or more opportunity to pray–why not celebrate their gift or promote their ability?

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But what about those who are not seen as “prayer warriors?” What about those whose prayers involve months and even years of crying out in groans and tears and unfulfilled hopes? What of those learning to pray?

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We can easily fall into the bad habit of comparing our prayers– our style of praying, the amount of time we spend on our knees, the stories of answered prayer and miraculous outcomes, the number of people who come to us asking for prayer… And this can rob us of the joy of spending time with God! God loves each of us for who we are. And He wants to spend time with US– not our neighbor, or the sweet lady at church who prays so beautifully.

I love communal prayer– even though I know there are people who are terrified of praying in groups. I love to hear the individual voices and styles of those who come together to cry out to God. Some are short and sweet; some are convoluted and conversational; some are anguished and passionate– but all reflect God’s heart to communicate and interact with us, and to have us draw near to Him. He never pulls away from us when we stutter or stumble, or forget someone’s name or mix up a request. He patiently listens to our rambling; He reads the deeper heart of our short outbursts– He even hears our unintelligible moans and mumblings (see Romans 8:26)! And His heart is filled with compassion, love, and inexpressible, boundless joy as He hears the sound of one of His precious sheep.

Jesus described Himself as the “Good Shepherd.” He told the religious leaders of His day that the true sheep would recognize His voice over all others. And He spoke of the “thief” who comes only to kill and steal and destroy. This “thief”– Satan– uses certain tricks to steal our joy and take our focus away from God’s love and wisdom. One of his favorites is to whisper comparisons in our ear. And if we listen to his voice, we will begin to look around instead of up; to ourselves and our words, instead of God and the Word of God. But Satan does not use the voice of our Good Shepherd. His words do not bring safety and peace–they bring doubt and discontent.

God will not urge us to comparison– He will always urge us to Communion!

Mustard Seeds..

He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.”

Matthew17:20 ESV (via biblehub.com)

Faith is a vital part of life, and especially a life in pursuit of prayer. If I don’t believe that God exists, and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him (Hebrews 11:6) then my prayers are little more than wishes made on a star or empty dreams.

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During Jesus’ ministry on earth, He lamented often that His disciples had so little faith. And yet, He said that if they had “faith like a grain of mustard seed,” nothing would be impossible. In fact, Jesus used seeds in a lot of His teaching. He talked of seeds scattered on different types of soil; mustard seeds growing into large plants; seeds in good soil yielding exponentially large harvests. There is something about seeds that can teach us about the nature of faith. And, according to Jesus Himself, we need to learn about and practice faith in greater measure!

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So what are some of the seed lessons we still need to learn?

  • Seeds start out small. Jesus used a mustard seed, mentioning that it is one of the smallest of all seeds. So often, we want to start out “large” in our faith. We see our doubts as failure, rather than immaturity. We see our slow growth as weakness–and it is! It is that very weakness that God wants to use to show HIS strength. When Jesus “lamented” that the disciples had so little faith, He wasn’t condemning them– instead He was pointing out that faith is a process–that seeds GROW into larger plants.
  • Seeds do not produce plants unless they are planted! I see websites and Christian bookstores selling jewelry featuring a small glass case with a tiny mustard seed inside. It’s a nice reminder of Jesus’ teaching about faith, but carrying around a mustard seed is NOT the same thing as having faith like a mustard seed. Faith that is never planted and rooted in good soil will remain nothing more than a seed– useful as a piece of decoration, perhaps, but dormant and unproductive. If I have faith “like a mustard seed” in money, or power, or in my own wisdom and skills, it is no more effective than if I throw it on the sidewalk, wear it around my neck, or put it in my pocket.
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  • Seeds need soil, light, and water. Faith doesn’t grow in isolation. I need to listen to others, share with others, and, most of all, live in the good soil of God’s word. I need to pray for others– and I need the prayers of others! I need to talk to God daily; but I also need to read His words to me daily!
  • Seeds are designed to produce a harvest– fruit, grain, trees, and new seeds! I get distracted, thinking of how faith impacts MY life and my Christian walk. God wants me to grow stronger in my own, yes. But He wants my faith to be multiplied by being visible. Even a root vegetable sends a shoot or a plant above-ground, so there is evidence of growth underground. In doing go, the original seed will disappear! There are days when I cannot see my “mustard seed.” But that is (I hope) because the seed is becoming a mustard plant– producing evidence of God’s sustaining power and love, and providing “seeds” for others to plant.
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There are days when my faith may feel small and dead. But I need to remember that the power is not in the “seed” of faith– no matter how small; no matter how large its potential–it is in planting that seed and letting God’s power transform a seed into fruit that will last!

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More more on this topic, see:https://www.crosswalk.com/faith/bible-study/what-does-jesus-mean-by-faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed.html

Praying in Perspective

Have you ever seen a photo collage–a large picture made up of hundreds or thousands of tiny photos? If you stand back, you can see a large picture– a face, or a landscape, perhaps–but when you get closer, you can see the many smaller photos that make up the details.

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Prayer is like that. Each of us is a tiny details in the grander scope of the world’s population. Millions of people are praying at any given time on any given day. And we don’t see all of the others– sometimes we don’t see or hear or think of anyone else as we pray. But God sees and hears them all–moreover, God weaves and blends our prayers into something amazingly more than meets our awareness. Prayers of thanksgiving add a dash of bright color; prayers of anguish sound a minor tone; prayers of confession rise like incense, and prayers of worship wrap around all the colors and sounds and scents.

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Yesterday, I was feeling very depressed and small. It was difficult to pray. My perspective was off, and I could only see my own problems and emotions. Prayer helped change my perspective. As I spoke to God; as I thought about His power and omniscience, I began to see that I WAS small–but my God is enormous! And while He sees the entire picture– all places and times and peoples–He also looks on every tiny detail. He knows my name; He knows my every thought. He knows my needs and my desires; He knows my weaknesses and my unique gifts– gifts He has given! Even if no one else noticed, God would be able to pick out the smallest detail in His amazing creation, and bring it into perfect focus.

See Isaiah 55

Holy Terror

It’s the end of October, and tomorrow will be Halloween. Stores and houses around the neighborhood are decorated with frightening figures of skeletons, witches, ghosts, and gravestones. Some of my friends love this time of year, and they look forward to binge-watching movies about zombies or vampires– anything scary, spooky, or terrifying.

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I don’t like Halloween. I don’t like scary movies. But I believe in the value of fright. Life is filled with things–natural and supernatural– that fill us with real fear. And that is as it must be in a fallen world. Sin and death, evil and darkness, fires, earthquakes, violence and plague–they are real and should produce both fear and caution. The Bible is not silent or dismissive of such things. God’s laws warn against evil spirits, calling on the dead, consulting with witches, fortune telling, even giving in to anger, envy, and hatred. God’s laws also provide for hygienic practices to ward off disease and plague.

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And yet, the Bible also gives hundreds of warnings against giving in to fear and letting it control our lives. We are to be cautious and wise where fear is concerned. Over all, we are to remember that God is bigger and more powerful than our fears. God can calm storms, put out fires, even conquer disease and death! There is no power, no force, no terror, that can overwhelm God, or touch those under His protection.

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Terror holds no power in God’s presence. Therefore, if we know God, we can experience no true terror. But where there is no God, terror will reign. It’s like the saying: “No God; No Peace–Know God; Know Peace”. Terror comes with darkness, with chaos, with lawlessness and loneliness.

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There is only one other kind of terror– a Holy Terror. We can be terrified by the awesome Holiness of God. It is altogether more powerful and alien than anything we can even imagine. Even for those who know God, there is the knowledge that God is GOD, and we are not worthy to look on His face or enter into His presence on our own. Normally, when we think of terror, we think of things that are very unholy–evil things; supernatural forces of darkness. Yet Holiness can also inspire terror because it causes us to see our own unworthiness; our own sin and failure. I am reminded of the “face-melt” scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark– Nazis, who have been fearlessly and relentlessly pursuing the Ark of the Covenant, believing that it holds supernatural powers they can use to gain power over life and death, are suddenly and horrifically destroyed when they gaze inside–as they come in contact with the very Glory of God, their terror is absolute, and they are destroyed by its presence.

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This season, may we celebrate that God, in His awesome and mighty power, constantly reminds us that we can “Know” Him without fear; instead of running, cowering, or melting, we can come to Him with confidence and joy! And in doing so, we can face any other terror, knowing that God is with us, and for us, and even filling us with His peace! We need not be filled with Holy Terror– instead, we can be filled with the Holy Spirit!

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..And Love Your Neighbor as Yourself

How can I please God? What does He require of me? I’ve been exploring the most basic answer to this question by looking at Jesus’ answer to the related question, “What is the greatest of all the commandments?” (See Matthew 22: 34-40) Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy (6:5) as He gave His two-part answer– Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and Love your neighbor as yourself! He went on to say that ALL of the commandments and laws hang on these two concepts.

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So today, I want to look closer at the last of these– Love your neighbor as yourself. In another gospel, we see that Jesus is challenged to clarify, “Who is my neighbor?” https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2010%3A25-37&version=NIV When we want to justify ourselves, or narrow the letter of the law, we often stall obedience by seeking to “clarify” God’s commands. Jesus’ words are broad, but perfectly clear– Love your neighbor as yourself–love the next person you meet; the person closest to you, as if they were YOU.

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This doesn’t give us room to reject anyone or exclude anyone from our love, compassion, or respect as a child of God. Nor does it give us the right to live someone else’s life, or take away their God-given free will to think and act for themselves. I have been guilty of both offenses, and I don’t think I am alone.

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Two of the great mistakes we make in failing to “love our neighbor” come through fear and pride. In the story of the “Good Samaritan,” we see two examples of a priest and a Levite, who fail to show love to their fellow Jew. They act in fear– fear of being the next victim, perhaps, but also fear of being inconvenienced or pulled away from their plans and purposes, and fear of being “defiled.” How many times do I let fear keep me from reaching out? How often do I fear that people, even God, will think less of me for associating with those who need help? Yet Jesus was known for interacting with sinners, lepers, and other outcasts. How can I act differently, and please God more than His own son?

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The other great mistake I have made is to “love” out of pride. Sometimes, I think I have more wisdom, or more material wealth, or greater skills, and that it is my right to “help” my neighbor in my own way and at my own convenience. I think I know how they should live, what they should do, and what they need– more than they do; sometimes even more than God knows! But I cannot love where I am not willing to be humble. This is true with God, and it is equally true with others.

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That doesn’t mean that I love others best when I let them take advantage to my harm or to their own harm. And it doesn’t mean that I must agree with them completely or deny what I know to be right. But it means that I must value their well-being and worth in God’s eyes as equal to (and often greater) than my own. It makes me feel good to “fix” someone else by fixing their circumstances, or demanding that they accept my help, but their greater need may be to take control of their own circumstances and attitudes. My need to be “right” or “righteous” or “charitable” needs to take a back seat to whatever their greater need may be. I need to listen more than I speak; wait when I would rather act (or vice versa); to take direction rather than give it; and to give advice rather than orders.

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The Apostle Paul spoke at length about love:

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13: 1-7 NIV (via biblegateway.com)
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I can “care” about others; I can be generous; I can be knowledgeable; I can volunteer, and make sacrifices; I can “feel” deeply, and empathize with others– and still NOT love them. Conversely, I can disagree with them about a number of things, including their life choices, political views, and spending habits, and still love them as Christ loves them. I can love those who like me, or ignore me; those who hate me, as well as those who love me back. But I cannot do this in pride or in my own emotions and thoughts. This kind of love can only be sustained by the source of true Love– God Himself.

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This is why it is so important to learn from Jesus’ example. His perfect Love casts out fear and pride, and allows us to see others (and ourselves!) in the proper perspective.

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