The Apostle Paul is consistent in opening most of his letters with a phrase that uses the same four key words– Always, Remember, Prayers, and Thank. The order of the words may change, but the idea stays the same. Paul is always remembering others, always praying for them, and always thankful to God for them.
Paul uses similar phrasing whether addressing individuals, like Timothy or Philemon, or church groups, like the Ephesians or Philippians. But the message is always very personal. He is not saying a general “Thank You” to God for people “like” Philemon, or “like” the church in Ephesus. He is remembering shared burdens, shared laughter, shared experiences, and thanking God for those deeply held memories. He is lifting up individual burdens, such as the on-going disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Philippians 4:2), or Timothy’s stomach problems (1 Timothy 5:23).
It is easy, and costs nothing, to pray generic prayers for a large, faceless mass of strangers. It is easy to love humanity from afar. It is another thing to enter into another person’s “messiness” and “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2); to remember struggles and sacrifices made on behalf of others (or to remember being the one in great need of another’s sacrifices). Life– abundant, vibrant, and glorious–calls us to get involved. Not just from the sidelines, not just when it’s convenient, but “always.”
Prayer calls us to be involved. That doesn’t mean we can’t pray “general” prayers– for peace in foreign lands, or and end to drought or hunger, etc. But we must not neglect “wrestling” prayers–prayers for our unsaved loved ones, prayers for persecuted believers (whether next door or around the world), prayers for our community workers, and prayers for those who are in need. Nor should we neglect prayers of remembrance and thanksgiving for those who have come into our lives. Finally, we need to be willing to let individuals KNOW that they are being remembered, prayed for, and appreciated.
One of the greatest blessings I know is remembering all the special people who have crossed paths, shared the journey, and borne shared burdens with me, and knowing that each person, each memory, each moment, is eternally and infinitely precious to God! What a privilege it is to share good times and even “battle scars” with so many amazing, unique, beloved people! What a privilege to lift them up before the throne of grace!
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Sometimes, I write because I feel as though I have received wisdom to pass on about prayer. But sometimes, like today, I write because I need to confess how much I still need to learn (or put into practice)!
My mother has been in and out of the Emergency Room over the past few weeks. It’s not that she is experiencing actual emergencies–heart attack or difficulty breathing or broken bones or blood clots (though she has been checked for all of these at one point or another). Instead, she is experiencing pain and fear– fear that her pain is related to a larger issue that could be life-threatening. My mother is 88 years old, and there is a reasonable fear that her health is deteriorating and that death is closer than she wants to think about.
The other day, I received a call from a dear friend and neighbor of my mom to say that she had stopped by to visit Mom and ended up taking her to the ER at the local hospital. Again, Mom was not in medical distress requiring an ambulance– this was not a “life or death” call; but Mom hadn’t slept well, she was hurting, and she just didn’t feel “right.” She had just seen her physician last week, and she had an appointment to see another doctor the next day, but she was afraid.
I was very much less than gracious about receiving the call. My siblings and I are exhausted, frustrated, and worried. I can’t speak for the others, but I feel guilty about not doing enough, and guilty for doing “too much” all at the same time. My emotions were raw; my gut was churning, and my mind was a complete disaster. I couldn’t think clearly, and I couldn’t “feel” anything. As a “last resort,” I sent out a request via Facebook asking others to pray for my mom– I didn’t feel like I could even do that on my own.
Of course, there is a power in prayer that goes beyond anything we can comprehend, much less explain. Within minutes, over three dozen people let me know they were sending prayers for my mom. But more than that, I received a call from my cousin–and he had just the words to assuage my false sense of guilt and refocus my thoughts and emotions. As time passed, our friend called with an update–Mom has severe arthritis in her back, and another minor issue that should respond to simple medication. She will still have pain; but now she has one less reason to worry about the cause.
I can’t say that this is the “end” of the frustration, exhaustion, or even the worry about my mom’s declining health. We are still struggling with various questions and decisions she needs to make for the future.
But this episode reminded me that prayer should not be a “last resort” when facing the unexpected. It’s not that I haven’t prayed about Mom’s health recently– a lot! But in that initial moment of hearing about yet another trip to the ER, my first thought was not to “take it to the Lord in prayer,” but to worry and let my thoughts run everywhere but up.
Thankfully, God is eternally gracious and powerful– willing to give the doctors wisdom in dealing with my Mom, and willing to give me peace and restore my flagging faith. Mom still has to face pain; my siblings and I still have to face the looming reality of life “after” God calls Mom home, and the chaos and uncertainty in the time between now and then. But we can seek Him first, with confidence and hope, rather than letting worry sap our energy and steal our joy. God’s love and grace are more powerful than worry and doubt, fear and guilt.
I’ve mentioned it before, but one of my earliest memories is of my Mother singing and humming an old hymn as my lullaby. Even as I watch her struggling with end of life issues, I am joyfully anticipating that this season will give way to being “lifted” by Love into eternal bliss. I am so grateful that this song is etched in my heart– even when I need a reminder. So I’m going to listen and let it be part of God’s comforting message to me. And I hope, for anyone struggling with stress, guilt, worry, or fear, that it will be “uplifting” for you today, as well.
“For God so loved the World, that He gave His only Begotten Son, that Whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting Life.”
John 3:16 (KJV)
This is probably the most well-known verse in the Christian Bible. It has given hope to millions, as it explains that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ allows anyone to find forgiveness, faith, and new/eternal life. But what about those who don’t believe; those loved ones (and others) who die without the hope of salvation? Doesn’t God care about them? Why does he let them die without hope? Why do they go to eternal suffering, instead of being forgiven?
I can’t give a complete answer to those questions…I don’t comprehend the entirety of God’s plan or His mind. But I do know this– God understands our heartbreak and our grief over our unsaved loved ones. After all, Jesus spent three years preaching and announcing the Gospel, yet He was betrayed by one of His closest friends. Jesus– God in the Flesh; Emmanuel; the Perfect Son of God–didn’t “save” everyone He knew. We have the wonderful story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus– what about others who didn’t “see the light?” There may have been hundreds, even thousands who heard Jesus preach; who watched Him hanging on the Cross; who heard the rumors that He had risen, only to reject His message–what about them? Jesus had met them. Maybe He had healed them, or eaten at their house, or studied with them at the Temple when they were younger. Some may have been His brothers, or cousins, or mentors and teachers.
On the night before He was crucified, Jesus was in agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in anguish about what He would have to face, but some of His anguish and grief had to be in knowing that, while His death and resurrection would save so many, there were still others who would choose to turn away and reject the Life and Hope and Peace that He suffered to bring.
Even during His ministry, Jesus didn’t heal everyone who was diseased or lame or blind. He even made reference at one point to the kinds of disasters that often leave us questioning God’s mercy:
There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)
Jesus could have “saved” those Galileans from having their sacrifices desecrated; He could have provided a miracle to save those who were killed by the tower that fell in Siloam. And just as we grieve today for the senseless loss of life in places like Afghanistan and Haiti, or New York City on 9/11/2001, Jesus felt the loss of innocent strangers. Just as we plead with friends and loved ones to repent and seek God’s face, Jesus preached the need for all people to confess and seek forgiveness.
Jesus could have forced Judas to turn from his plan to betray the Master. He had the authority to cast out demons and demand that angels come to honor, protect, or comfort Him. He has the authority to make every knee bow down and every tongue confess that He is the Sovereign Lord of the Universe. And someday, He will! But Jesus won’t save people against their will– even those close to him. He doesn’t compel grudging obedience, or demand abject servitude. There are some who choose to serve Him in that way, but that is not His desire. Instead, He compels us with His mercy. We choose to love Him because He first Loved us– sacrificially, unreservedly, without limits or conditions. (See 1 John 4:19)
Jesus patiently spoke to Nicodemus in the dead of night. He chased Saul down on the road to Damascus and gave him three days of blindness to reconsider the direction of his life. He called His disciples and asked them to Follow Him– even Judas. He invited Himself to the house of Zacchaeus. He spoke with compassion to those who were broken, and outcast, and lost. And just like Judas, they had to make choices– some of His friends and followers abandoned Him when He needed them most. Some of them stumbled. But they HAD followed Jesus. They had learned from Him, and they came back and persevered.
Being loved by God comes without conditions and without reservations. Being “saved” by Christ’s atoning blood comes with a price–not just the price He paid on the cross, but the price of our repentance and acceptance of His Lordship, and yes, even the mysteries of His Grace.
As Jesus hung on the Cross, He was positioned between two convicts who were justly condemned. Both were sinners; both were paying the penalty for their crimes. One cried out to a dying Savior, and was saved. The other mocked and cursed. Jesus had the power to save him. He did not desire that the other man should suffer. But the other man chose to reject who Jesus was, and so rejected all the mercy and power He could have shown.
Jesus died to save “whosoever” would believe. He did not die to save “howsoever.” We may not fully understand why He chose to offer Salvation in this way, but we believe it to our everlasting joy, or reject it to our everlasting anguish.
13 Suppose I speak in the languages of human beings or of angels. If I don’t have love, I am only a loud gong or a noisy cymbal. 2 Suppose I have the gift of prophecy. Suppose I can understand all the secret things of God and know everything about him. And suppose I have enough faith to move mountains. If I don’t have love, I am nothing at all. 3 Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give myself over to a difficult life so I can brag. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all.
1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NIRV) via biblegateway.com
We run a small shop, my husband and I. The other day, a sweet-looking elderly lady came in looking for antique buttons. She was delighted to find a few that would suit her purpose and she came to pay for them. We struck up a conversation, and I was appalled to hear the words coming out of her mouth. It was like listening to an R-rated stand-up comedian–filled with profanities and bigoted remarks–all delivered in quiet, honeyed tones. I was stunned!
Such talk becomes habitual. Most people don’t even notice how often they say offensive words or off-color remarks. In this situation, I simply kept a kind of stony silence– I neither exploded with offense, nor nodded in compliance. She stopped talking and made her exit, knowing she had somehow displeased me, but likely unaware of how she actually sounded. I felt guilty for not having challenged her, but I truly think she was oblivious. She had not been swearing in anger; she had not used obvious slurs, but to me, her language was like a cesspool. My ears felt dirty just listening.
But after I had judged her harshly, I turned the lens on myself. How often do I offend others with my language? I don’t mean with obvious swear words or racist language, but with careless statements or unkind sarcasm? Or with selfish empty boasts about how wonderful my life is or even how good God has been to me? How often do I sound like a clanging, clamoring “noisy cymbal?”
I love to talk, but do I talk with Love? Do I speak words of truth and beauty; blessing and encouragement? Do I speak words of conviction out of love for others, or out of my own contempt? Do I pray with a heart of grieving for those who struggle, and those who are lost? So I assume, as this woman did, that my ugly words will be accepted because I speak them in polite and dulcet tones to someone who looks like me? Or because “everyone else” I know uses such words or spreads such opinions? Do I choose to listen to celebrities, or neighbors, or family members whose speech is filled with hatred and filth? Do I add my nervous laughter when others make careless remarks– worse yet, am I developing bad habits in my own speech or in my social media interactions?
24 Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. 25 Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable crown. 26 So I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. 27 Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified.
1 Corinthians 9:24-27 CSB
I must confess, I haven’t been watching much of the Olympic games currently taking place in Tokyo. Over the years, I’ve spent hours glued to the television, watching the competitions, gobbling up the emotional stories of various athletes and their struggles to qualify and chase their dreams. In fact, I used to get so involved in watching the Olympics, that I would fall behind in my housework, social obligations, and sleep! It can be very inspiring to watch as various athletes from around the world challenge themselves (and their competitors) to go faster, reach farther, and climb higher. And many of the stories and names have stayed with me over the years.
There is nothing wrong with watching sports, and cheering on those who have worked so hard. And I love the pageantry and good will of the Olympic games, where I find myself cheering for athletes and sports I would never know otherwise–those who have overcome tragedy and incredible obstacles just to participate; those whose achievements have set new standards and inspired others to greater heights. But as Christians, we should consider our OWN level of achievement. Not in a competitive sense, and not in the sense of “earning” God’s salvation or approval, but in the sense of growth and development of self-discipline.
We admire athletes, not only for their natural abilities, but for their discipline and spirit. They train for years, undergoing rigorous drills, keeping tight schedules, pushing their bodies– often to the point of injury–to get a little more speed or distance or strength. They prepare for the stress of competition and the pressure of expectation. They learn to leave behind the failures and the victories of yesterday as they get ready for tomorrow. We watch them, and we talk about being inspired. But inspired to do what? I have never developed the level of self-discipline to rise every day at 6 a.m. to run or stretch, let alone train for a race or a swimming meet. I briefly flirted with becoming a gymnast after watching Nadia Comaneci score a perfect 10.0 in the Montreal Olympics of 1976, but I quit after only one weekend!
The Apostle Paul calls us to follow his example and “run the race” as we live for Christ–we are to develop our character and practice spiritual discipline in the same way that an athlete develops her body and practices physical and mental discipline. And our motivation is not a gold medal or a world record that will eventually be broken, but eternal victory over Sin and Death!
I’m ashamed to say that I have not always followed this example. I’ve been an “armchair Olympian”– content to watch others do the hard work, and enjoy the vicarious feeling of victory when they cross the finish line. I cheer for those Christians who are called to foreign missions–I’ve even traveled on “short term” mission trips– but I don’t always see my everyday life as a “mission.” But that’s exactly what it is. Jesus didn’t watch the disciples heal the sick or preach about the Kingdom of God as He sat on the sidelines. And He certainly didn’t spend time analyzing and dissecting the “performances” of the prophets and patriarchs of old. He didn’t even tell the disciples to analyze His miracles or study His sermons. He simply said, “Follow Me!” “Walk with Me.” Christianity is not passively cultivating a feeling of victory in Jesus. It is living victoriously THROUGH Jesus.
Our character won’t be changed by sitting on the couch or in an armchair, watching others do the hard training and running their race. Cheering from the sidelines isn’t going to increase our patience, or develop our faith, or make us more Christlike. Listening to Christian Radio or watching sermons on television won’t automatically translate into a life of integrity and peace. Even reading the Bible, or keeping a prayer journal, or writing a blog about spiritual things won’t teach us humility, gentleness, or love for others. We need to make the effort. And we need to seek the wisdom and discipline of the Holy Spirit– our “coach”– as we follow the example of Christ. It starts with small decisions– daily habits–and learning to be consistent. It also takes a willingness to repent and get back on track when we fail. And we will fail in our own efforts!
We can admire earthly athletes. But we shouldn’t worship them. And we shouldn’t let them become idols that substitute for the kind of work WE need to be doing to learn discipline and faithfulness. I want to reach the finish line, knowing that I’ve run my best race for the King!
We had an unexpected visitor to our store the other day…a sparrow somehow managed to get inside our store over the weekend, after we closed on Saturday. We assume it found its way in through a small vent, in an attempt to get out of the heavy rain, and couldn’t find its way back out. We don’t know how long it was trapped inside, but by the time my husband found him, its leg was caught, and it was unable to fly away. It was scared, dehydrated, and weak. My husband gently and carefully extracted its leg, and I got a small dish of water. The sparrow was listless, and its breathing was shallow. We feared the worst. Putting small drops of water on his fingertips and holding it up to the bird’s beak, David finally got it to drink some water. After several attempts, the bird started perking up, and finally flapped its wings and flew off!
I was reminded of Jesus’s words in Matthew 10: 29-31–Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.
Sometimes, we pray for guidance, or protection, or safety when we know we will be facing certain trials or long journeys. And we should acknowledge known dangers and our continual dependence on God. But how many times does God guide and protect us without our awareness!? How many times do we, like this little sparrow, find ourselves in an unfamiliar or dangerous situation and wonder whether anyone even knows where we are? We struggle, only to find ourselves caught– helpless and without much hope. God’s eyes are always on us– wherever we are, whatever our circumstances. His love is unchanging and sure. And sometimes, He sends help in the most unlikely ways and times. Sometimes, He chooses to work through US to help the most unlikely candidates– even a sparrow!
God gave us the opportunity to save this little sparrow– and He gives us opportunities throughout each day to help those around us– to encourage, give, protect, defend, support, and even “save” them as the arms, hands, feet, and voice of God in the world. Similarly, He sends others to cheer us, to warn us, to come alongside us, and to “save” us when it seems like all hope is lost.
Lord, for today, I pray that you will open my eyes to the “sparrow” moments– whether I am the one offering help, or the one who needs to accept it. May I see my worth, not in my circumstances, but in my relationship to you. May I see others as precious and worthy of care, respect, and love. Thank you for sending a little sparrow to remind me how much you love us all.
Across from our shop, there is a mural that tells the story of the first “Orphan Train.” In October of 1854, 45 children– some orphaned, others abandoned–arrived in southwest Michigan from New York City. Conditions for such children in the large cities were dangerous. Floods of immigrants included children who had lost their parents on the voyage to America, or who had been separated from their families upon arrival. There were very few orphanages, and almost no resources dedicated to child welfare. Hunger, disease, crime, and exposure to the elements meant that many children never lived to maturity. Most of them lived on the streets; ignored, preyed upon, or simply forgotten. A group called the Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, had tried helping children– especially boys–but their limited resources were overwhelmed within the first year.
It was the idea of a man named Charles Loring Brace that large numbers of these children could escape the dangerous environs of the city and find safety and hope in the expanding “West.” With the help of the new railroads, groups of children could travel west, where kind-hearted families could adopt them. Food, shelter, education, fresh air, opportunity, and a loving family- this was the promise of the orphan train. For some children, it was the start of a wonderful new life. For some, it was trading a hard life in the city for a hard life on the frontier.
I can only imagine how frightening it must have been for the first train-load of orphans to travel here. Few people had ever traveled by train in those days. Some of the children had never traveled more than a few blocks from where they had been born– had never seen a farm or a forest. Part of their journey was on a steamboat. The journey would not have been comfortable, but it would have been exciting and even terrifying at times. They had no guarantee of finding homes or families who would be willing to take care of them– only the hope that someone might.
What does this have to do with prayer? Well, the obvious connection would be that everyone involved with this venture must have prayed diligently. All 45 children were placed with local families in that first journey. And the success of this first placement encouraged future endeavors. The “orphan trains” ran for 75 years, and carried nearly a quarter of a million children to new homes throughout the growing United States. And while not every child found a “happy ending” with their new family, most of them survived to create a new life as adults–an opportunity many other orphans had been denied.
But it struck me today, as I was looking at the mural and thinking about the fate of these children, that we are or were all in a similar situation. I am so thankful to be able to pray to my Loving Father– but there was a time when I was lost and without hope. There was a time when Sin had made me an orphan. I was alone and frightened and helpless to save myself. Like the orphans in first part of the mural, I was sick and sad, my best intentions were no more than tattered rags. Even as they line up to board the train, their faces show fear and pain.
It can be frightening to call out to God– frightening to leave the life we know, even when it is dangerous and unhealthy. God’s way takes us to uncomfortable and unfamiliar places–we can’t see the road ahead, and we don’t know what our “new” life will be like.
As I gaze once again at the mural, the last section shows an idealized version of the “new life” experienced by the riders of the “Orphan Train.” It shows a groups of children in a circle, holding hands and playing in the sunshine among grass and trees, while a bird flutters nearby. It is a heavenly place– the children’s clothes are clean, and they look healthy and happy. And while this is an ideal, rather than the reality for some of the children, it is a reminder of the contrast with the life they left behind.
Thanks be to God for His Grace that rescues us from the ravages of Sin. He offers us an escape to a new life– complete with a new family and a glorious hope of Heaven. He offers full adoption– guaranteed by the blood of His own Son– for those who will choose to leave their old life of Sin behind and travel as an orphan on His own “Orphan Train.”
4 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”
5 Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. 6 The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.7 All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.9 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. 10 Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. 11 Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?
James 3:5-10 NIV via biblegateway.com (emphasis added)
‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.’
Epictetus (Greek philosopher)
Have you ever made a tape of you speaking, and played it back to listen to yourself? Or have you had someone remind you of what you said earlier in the day or week? Have you been astonished to hear what came out of your mouth (or how someone else interpreted your words)? James, the brother of Jesus, had much to say about the dangerous power of an untamed tongue. “Fire”, “poison”, “corrupt”, “restless”, “evil”, and “deadly” are harsh words, but we should heed James’ warning.
Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing… Out of the same mouth come worship and complaining… Out of the same mouth come encouragement and gossip… Out of the same mouth come blessings and bitterness… Out of the same mouth come hymns of heaven and threats of hell…
And it’s not just our mouths, anymore. I see (and have seen it in my own feeds) posts on social media that make me wonder if the person posting is aware of what they posted just minutes or hours before–rants and boasts, complaints and smug condemnation sprinkled with Bible verses about Peace and Love, and pictures of puppies. We copy and paste, write and speak “in the moment” out of the emotions and thoughts that we allow to govern us. And while we may forget our momentary outbursts and random sarcastic comments, others do not. God does not ignore them, either. He can and will forgive them, but He isn’t “fooled” by our gracious cover-ups and flowery quote boxes.
When I pray today, I need to “listen” to what I’ve been saying lately. Do I need to deal with hidden anger or resentment? Do I need to confess (both to God and to someone else) about gossip? Do I need to reconsider the way I speak about my relationships and my achievements (and failures!)?
The same mouth that praises God should be speaking life, peace, healing, and hope to those around me. The same mouth that promises to follow Christ, should promise to reach out to those for whom He died. The same mouth that gives thanks for Salvation should be eager to share the Good News.
The tongue is powerful–whether as a weapon or a tool; whether controlled or out of control. God wants to teach us to use it as a tool for good. Not just when we pray, or worship, but every time we use it!
36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
Matthew 22:36-40 (ESV via biblegateway.com)
This is a familiar Bible passage, and one that Jesus quotes from the ancient writings (in Deuteronomy and Leviticus). All the laws and regulations of history boiled down to two commands. And they are not what one might expect. The greatest commandment isn’t to believe; it isn’t a “shalt not”; it isn’t even to “obey.” Instead, the greatest commandment is to LOVE– love God wholly and without reserve, and love your neighbor “as yourself.”
It sounds so simple, but we don’t do it. In fact, we spend countless hours and waste energy trying to make the commandments MORE complicated and adding conditions, additions, interpretations, excuses, and critiques.
There is not enough time or space to list all the ways we try to avoid the greatest commandment, but here are a few I struggle with:
My heart–I love the Lord, but I don’t always love Him with my whole heart. I love His creation; I love His promises; I love the “idea” of God. But I also love my comfort zone; I love my own moods (especially happiness and self-esteem); I love the admiration of my peers; I love God, but…I don’t always pray to God the way I would talk to my best friend. I don’t seek Him out ahead of everyone else. I don’t always seek His correction or welcome His Lordship.
My soul–Most of us would claim that we are “spiritual” on some level. But many of us (including me) don’t do a very good job of tending to our souls. We assume that behaviors and habits and a list of beliefs are “enough.” We spend very little time in prayer, worship, and Bible study (compared to the time we spend on chores, sleep, entertainment, driving around, daydreaming, etc.). I’m not suggesting that we all need to go into a cloister (especially in light of the second great commandment to love our neighbor). But souls, like bodies and minds, need to be nourished, exercised, and cared for. Very few of us make it a priority to nourish our soul-connection with God–to Love Him with all our soul. We skim over this part of the commandment, assuming it is much the same as loving Him with all our heart or all our mind.
My mind– My mind wanders– a lot! And I spend a lot of time learning “about God,” instead of learning “from God.” I want to know what God is like– to be able to explain Him or comprehend Him. But God is bigger than my ability to “know” or even to imagine. And yet, He invites me to “know” Him, not just know about Him. In fact, He invites me to “follow” Him, to be His disciple, to model my character and my thoughts after His own.
My neighbor–I want to love humanity. I want to love “everybody”– from a comfortable distance! But God calls me to love my neighbor– that person who cuts in front of me at the grocery store, or revs their car engine outside my bedroom window at 3 in the morning, or laughs at me when I’m having a bad hair day. And not just “love” them in the sense of tolerating them– God wants me to love them “as myself.” To value them, reach out to them when I might rather avoid them, or seek peace when they are “pushing my buttons.” God wants me to offer them grace and forgiveness, when I might expect to demand justice or recognition.
“As Myself”–Sometimes, I don’t love myself. Sometimes, I idolize myself. Other times, I despise myself. And the attitude I have rubs off on to others. God doesn’t call me to idolize my neighbor; to lie to my neighbor about Sin and its consequences, or to let my neighbor’s wicked behavior go unchallenged. Just as God wants to call me to repentance, He wants me to lovingly reach out to my neighbor, not enable her/him to live a lie. But if I am living a lie–not dealing with my own sin– I cannot demand from my neighbor what I am not willing to give to God. Similarly, I can’t give honest love to my neighbor when I despise myself– God created us both and loves us with an everlasting love! How can I give love I am not willing to receive?
My understanding of “commandment.” God has the authority to command my attention, my obedience, my worship, and my loyalty. But my “love?” God has given us the CHOICE to Love Him, and to Love others– He also gives us the imperative to live our lives filled with Love. It is not God’s will that we Love out of coercion, robot-like and against our own free will. Rather, God commands us to submit our will to Love in every situation. We are slaves to Sin, powerless to love perfectly–even when we try, or think we are doing well, we will fall into faulty thinking, ungoverned emotions, and uninformed, unloving reactions. We WILL break this greatest commandment, just as we will break other, lesser commandments. But God has also promised to listen to our confession and forgive us, redeeming our soul, cleansing our heart, and renewing our mind as we follow Him. God does not command us to Love perfectly in our own power. He does command us to choose Love–first and foremost for Him, and then for those around us whom He loves. In so doing, we will grow to understand the power of God’s commands as we experience the power of His Love!
A fundamental piece of advice for writing fiction is “Show, don’t tell.” A good writer will use words to paint a picture or set a mood. Poets and songwriters are masters of this advice. Metaphors, analogies, figurative language, even alliteration– all create memorable images with very few words.
Jesus (hardly surprising, as He is the Word of God) was a master storyteller, using parables that we still recognize and identify with today–mustard seeds and prodigal sons, good Samaritans and lilies of the field– Jesus didn’t “lecture” about forgiveness or holiness or love; He provided word pictures, even as He demonstrated each concept in His actions.
When Jesus was getting ready to return to Heaven, He commanded His disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations.. (Matthew 28:19 NIV) He also said to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature..(Mark 16:15 NKJV). And as I review Jesus’ methods and actions, I see that I need to make some changes.
I need to listen more and lecture less. I need to spend more time with those who are shunned by the “righteous,” but cherished by God. I need to spend less time defending myself and more time testifying about Jesus. And I need to spend less time “telling” and more time “showing” love, obedience, joy, mercy, peace, and hope.
This doesn’t eliminate the need to talk and write and “tell” about God– but I want to learn more about doing it God’s way!