I hear many Christians declaring that we need to “Keep Christ in Christmas” because “He’s the Reason for the Season“. Yet, this year, when Christmas fell on Sunday, many churches chose to emphasise their Saturday Christmas Eve Service and some went so far as to cancel their Sunday morning service so that their members could spend time with family.
This state of affairs highlights a reality that many people recognise, but have trouble explaining. There are two distinct holidays both called Christmas.
One holiday places family front and center and close behind is materialism and credit card debt. This holiday has many cultural and family traditions relating to which movies we watch in December, which music we play, and which food we eat. It’s not a bad holiday, in fact, it’s a great experience and an important part of our children’s formative years. It’s warm, it’s rustic and comforting, and hopefully it’s full of love.
So many songs promote this Christmas celebration from, I’ll Be Home for Christmas to Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bells. The romance of Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire seems comforting no matter if you live in Florida or Australia and never see snow, or eat chestnuts for Christmas.
Likewise, the list of Christmas moves is extensive. Here’s a list of 50 with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe being as religious as it gets. From classics including A Christmas Carol, and It’s a Wonderful Life to modern classics such as Elf, and Home Alone many families have their own movie play list at this time of year.
The other holiday is a Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. It’s a celebration of God becoming human: the Incarnation. The Incarnation is also a story of love. A story of God’s love toward us. In John 3:16-17 Jesus himself described what happened at his birth. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
The Christian celebration requires worship. It has its own set of sacred carols, but not so many movies. The Christian holiday has also been romanticised. It focuses upon the cute scenes of a baby in a manger surrounded by shepherds and animals. If that’s the totality of the Christian story then it’s no wonder so many have bought into an alternative narrative.
From a Christian perspective the Incarnation of Jesus should prompt people to contemplate questions about the Trinity and the nature of the Godhead. We should ponder the relationship between God and humanity. The miraculous advent of Jesus gives a greater depth of meaning to subsequent events surrounding his death and resurrection.
Additionally, the Biblical account of Jesus birth provokes us to consider complex social topics including the relationship between Christ and political powers, the tragedy of violence, and the plight of refugees. We also contemplate the titles given Jesus and how he is “God with us”, the “Prince of Peace”, and “Saviour”. None of these discussions have cute answers.
Because both of these holidays, the secular and the Christian, are each called Christmas and because they overlap and many people celebrate both… it’s easy to mistake one for the other.
Family is important. God wants us to live within loving families. Traditions, myths, songs, and movies encourage people and provide shared experiences and values. But for Christians, Christmas first and foremost is about reminding ourselves that God loves us immeasurably. Sometimes family reminds us of this truth. Sometimes family causes us to question this truth.
And sometimes, the secular holiday pulls us away from our Christian celebration. For some of us having the picture perfect Christmas dinner, or ensuring the children have time to open their gifts and play with them, take a higher priority than worshiping our Saviour.
I’m not writing this post to beat anyone up, but to emphasise how easy it is to lose focus on the miracle of the Word becoming Flesh. We don’t keep Christ in Christmas because we say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”. We keep Christ in Christmas by allowing ourselves to dwell upon the Power, Wisdom, Humility and Love found in that manger. We keep Christ in Christmas through worship. And we keep Christ in Christmas by keeping our lives centered upon God and reflecting God to others, because the birth of Christ makes a difference in our lives.
The recent U.S. election campaign that seemed to run for about 6 years sadly did a great job of illustrating what Christianity looks like to many people.
The campaign focused almost exclusively on the problems the candidates saw in the country, in the world, and most of all, in the other person. Too often the church communicates a similarly negative message. In fact, many Christians combine the two messages and seek to create legislation that mirrors their beliefs about morality.
I have no problem with Christians condemning certain behaviours. I believe God does this also.
I do have a problem with this message drowning out the more important messages of the Christian faith.
The biggest problem those outside of Christ face is not that Christians criticise their sexual ethics. Their biggest problem isn’t that they drink too much alcohol. Their biggest problem isn’t racism. Their biggest problem is that they reject Jesus. That’s the problem that Christians need to speak up about.
Another point many Christians seem to neglect is that the parts of the Bible condemning sexual immorality, lying, theft, gossip, slander, anger, and violence are usually written to Christians, not pagans.
When Christians point the finger at other segments of society, rather than ourselves, we communicate that we don’t face those issues. This is why Christians are so often called hypocrites. Rather than growing our own spiritual maturity, we’ve spent too much time and effort pointing out the flaws of others. Just as a negative election cycle failed to generate much enthusiasm, so negative churches will fail to share the Gospel.
I was excited to find in Ephesians 4:17-5:2 how Paul encourages the church not just to put off sinful behaviour, but also to put on godly attitudes and behaviour. Look at these snapshots:
- Put off your old self… put on the new self, created to be like God…
- Put off falsehood… put on speaking truthfully to your neighbour.
- Put off stealing… put on working to share with others.
- Put off unwholesome talk… put on building others up.
- Put off bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice… put on kindness, compassion, forgiveness…
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Christianity is an off and on faith. It inspires us to put off one set of behaviours and attitudes in order to put on another.
As a follower of Jesus, I want to be known for the things I’ve put on. I want to be truthful, generous, encouraging, kind, compassionate and forgiving. I want to hold others to those godly expectations also.
Most of all, I want to walk in the way of love.
Something has gone terribly wrong when the world only hears half the message and the half they hear is terribly off putting.
I’ll give the final word to the apostle Paul. I love how in Romans 8 he takes the negative commandments from the 10 Commandments and reframes them in a positive way. We don’t have to tell people what NOT to do. We can tell them instead to “love their neighbour” and that takes care of everything.
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,“ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Romans 13:8-9
The years that our marriage was a disaster, each of us believed that a change in behavior or attitude of the other person was the key to our happier future. At some points we could have said that the change in the other person was the key to our future relationship status. We were thinking Outside-In. We nearly divorced.
She had a list of things that needed to change about him. He needed to be more organized, dead-line efficient, trustworthy and connected. That’s the short list. Since she is a nurse, she had a care-plan for each of her marital health goals and she was determined that he would be a compliant patient.
He had only one thing on his list of things she needed to change. She needed to quit being so negative about all those things she wanted to change about him. By the time the worst came, he lost hope in her ever being more positive; the marital health would increase exponentially, he conceded, if she would just be less negative.
Paul’s instructions to wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves and masters in the Letter to the Colossians begins with this: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17).
The pursuit of a whole, healthy, holy relationship begins, not with the adjustments of a spouse, but with the commitment to a mindset; the mindset that everything done will be done because Jesus wants it done. Any growth starts inside the mind and heart of a husband or wife. Moreover, since the motivation is about what Jesus wants, then, no less-than-desirable response from the other spouse changes the behavior. After all, it’s not about them; it’s about Jesus.
Someone asked leadership guru Zig Ziglar about marrying the wrong person and he replied with this:
“I have no way of knowing whether or not you married the wrong person, but I do know that many people have a lot of wrong ideas about marriage and what it takes to make that marriage happy and successful. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s possible that you did marry the wrong person. However, if you treat the wrong person like the right person, you could well end up having married the right person after all. On the other hand, if you marry the right person, and treat that person wrong, you certainly will have ended up marrying the wrong person. I also know that it is far more important to be the right person than it is to marry the right person. In short, whether you married the right or wrong person is primarily up to you.”
Choose your mindset. Your mindset will guide your behavior and that will create renewed feelings about your spouse and your marriage.
We tried the experiment of developing a strong relationship by getting the other spouse to behave like we wanted. It was a failed experiment. It was an outside-in attempt. Start in your mind and heart. Decide you will be who you ought to be regardless of the behavior of your spouse. For us, “being the right person” means doing what Jesus wants. Do everything, including marriage, in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father.
That’s an Inside-Out marriage.
Richard May and his wife JeannaLynn together run WGHJ Ministries: a full-service, spiritually focused marriage mission center with international impact by coaching couples, supporting couples in ministry, and providing marriage related resources for churches, universities, organizations, and communities. You can get more information on their website: www.WGHJministries.com; or follow their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WGHJMinistries.
As part of our Summer Blog Tour you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s newly released book and accompanying workbook Church Inside Out by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.
For the last three years I’ve lived in a tiny town in a county of 15,000 people. There are churches on every corner which means the majority are all very small. This is vastly different from my experience as a city girl, where there are still churches on many corners but there is a plethora of mega churches to choose from.
Here’s what I’ve learned in a place where I’ve had to stop, look, listen, and re-evaluate what I think about “doing church.”
- I’ve long chosen programs over people. As a city girl, I’ve been a big church gal. The more programs the better. The more activity the better. The full calendar serving as the barometer of my commitment to the Father.
- I’ve bought into the lie that if we build programs within our walls, the lost will flock to them. It’s just not true. We’re building a lot of programs that only serve those who already know Jesus. And we go home at the end of the night feeling good about ourselves.
- I’ve believed that we can reach out to others without getting too uncomfortable ourselves. I don’t think I even know what to say about that.
[Tweet “Are we operating under the wrong definition of service? #SummerBlogTour”]
I think I’ve been too caught up in the wrong definition of service, putting the emphasis on serving people who already know Jesus. Yes, Christians also have problems and needs and we have a responsibility to care for those within the church. Discipleship is important for those who have newly found salvation and freedom in Christ. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with craving the company of other believers. The writer of Romans reminds us,
Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10
The truth is that in the church, we already have the answer to our issues. Jesus. Outside the church is where the greatest need lives…the need to be loved and served and to know Jesus.
Living in this area has turned my calendar upside down. As churches here are small, we don’t have a lot of committees and programs and stuff to do. At least not at the church building. These days I go to group worship on Sunday mornings and receive great encouragement from the Word, the worship, and God’s people. That gives me a whole lot of other hours in the week to show love and share Jesus outside the church building.
[Tweet “There’s a whole lot of hours in the week to serve people who need Jesus. #SummerBlogTour”]
This shake-up in my church-going life has had an effect that I didn’t see coming. Oddly enough, lots of my own issues have been solved by serving other people. Taking the focus off myself makes my problems seem not so big or bad or scary anymore.
So yes, we are to love our church family and enjoy spending time with them. We are to disciple and encourage one another. But we have to stop fooling ourselves about our efforts to serve the hurting in our communities around us. Until we take the service inside out, we aren’t going to reach those who are desperately in need of Jesus.
Romans 12 goes on to say,
Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Romans 12:13-16
I still enjoy a good church service, especially one filled with many people lifting their voices and their hands to the Lord. And I won’t live on this mountain forever, so someday I may end up back in a big church. Maybe even a big church that has lots of programs for folks on the inside. But for me, it won’t look like it used to. Jesus has shown me that serving from the inside out…serving from a heart that loves Him and loves His people, especially those who are lost…is what is most pleasing to Him.
There can’t be a better reason for taking our service inside out than that.
As the Summer Blog Tour continues… Remember that you can win a copy of Tim Archer’s new release Church Inside Out, (both the book and workbook) by leaving a comment on this page and then completing the form over HERE.
Holly Barrett is an ordained minister who has spent over 20 years in volunteer and staff ministry. She currently works as Director of Communications for The Crossnore School in the beautiful Blue Ridge mountains of NC, where it is her privilege to tell the stories of children who are finding hope and healing. Holly is the co-author, with her mother Rachel Solomon, of Gray Hair Talking: Lessons I’m Learning as My Hair is Turning. They plan to release a Bible study later this year and another devotional book in 2017. Holly is also a podcaster having started the podcast, Living a Redeemed Life in 2015. Episodes are available on iTunes or at hollybarrett.org. Holly has two adult children, plus a son-in-love, and three adorable grandchildren. Connect with Holly on her blog at hollybarrett.org or on Twitter and Facebook.
Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23
It often seems that when God wants to tell humanity what He wants from them He gives them laws. Think of the 10 Commandments. Consider that the first five books of the Bible are called the Books of Law. Ponder the Sermon on the Mount. Reflect on the imperatives of 1 Timothy 5. Law and requisite obedience loom heavy as we endeavour to live in a manner that honors God.
Surprisingly, the Hebrew prophets who mostly rail against Judah and Israel for their disobedience and rejection of God, also point us to values closer to God’s heart than obedience.
In Jeremiah 9:13 the prophet writes, “The Lord said, “It is because they have forsaken my law, which I set before them; they have not obeyed me or followed my law.” The consequence of this disobedience is described in v16 “ I will scatter them among nations that neither they nor their ancestors have known, and I will pursue them with the sword until I have made an end of them.”
Despite this focus upon Judah’s faithfulness to God’s law we find an important insight in verse 23-24.
Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.
In these verses God discounts wisdom, power, and wealth. I’m not sure if the parallel is intended but these three traits match up closely to the way God blessed Solomon in 1 Kings 3:10-15. In other settings God grants these attributes as blessings. However, Jeremiah’s context the blessings had become the objects of admiration, rather than the One who gave the blessings.
God then calls upon Judah to “know me“. He longs for his people to know Him, and he goes on to facilitate such knowing by describing Himself. God “acts with steadfast love (hesed), justice, and righteousness.” As a stand alone statement it’s good to know that these positive traits contribute to God’s motivation when He acts. This is particularly true in light of the earlier words of the chapter.
God’s final words in v24 give these 3 characteristics even greater significance. Steadfast love, justice, and righteousness are not just motivating traits, they’re virtues that God delights in! These are values close to God’s heart that make Him smile.
While God may bless us with wisdom, power and wealth, we must ensure we don’t idolise the gift rather than worshiping the Giver.
While God desires for us to keep His law, our relationship with Him is not founded upon obedience. I equate obedience with a parent telling a child to clean her bedroom or take out the trash. The chores build character, discipline and responsibility. There’ll be consequences if the chores aren’t done. But if children really want to make their parents smile, they’ll buy flowers, write a card, sing a song, or give a gift their parents value. It’s these latter actions that mean more to a parent’s heart.
So God tells his people what means the most to Him: steadfast love, justice and righteousness. When we integrate these values into our daily lives, God delights and smiles at us.
God smiles when we persist at loving the people in our lives who make it difficult.
God smiles when we stand with those who are disadvantaged, neglected and abused.
God smiles when we make choices to do the right thing treating others with respect and equality.
Yes, we can put a smile on God’s face when we build our lives around the virtues that delight Him.
Sadly, churches have too often given the impression that obedience is the value at the core of God’s being and the only thing He delights in. Jeremiah emphasises obedience, but gives greater priority to knowing God and His steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.
I’m not a dancer. Around the age of 20 I enjoyed the wonderful experience of performing in several musicals. When the dancing started my primary responsibility was to stand still and let the pretty girls take the spotlight. Occasionally I got to move too, although mostly that was simply to get me out of the way. But through the hours of rehearsals I learned a few things.
A dance tells a story. No matter how chaotic the stage appears, the movements were designed with a purpose.
It’s all about movement. Sometimes the movement is toward each other. Other times it’s a movement away.
Everyone one has a role. It might not be difficult, but it’s important. Just ask left shark!
It has a destination. There’s a precise feeling it seeks to produce. An exact point on the stage to conclude. A dramatic pose to capture.
As I prepared this week’s sermon from the book of Exodus I noticed four movements in God’s interaction with us. Sometimes it’s his move, sometimes it’s ours. The goal is always that we end up at the same place.I see these four movements recurring throughout God’s interaction with humanity. I’ll give a couple of illustrations below.
Move 1: God Graciously & Lovingly Moves Toward Us
- EXODUS: God hears the cries of the Hebrews in slavery and in response He calls Moses and sends the plagues on Egypt. Nothing about this particular group of slaves made them more worthy of rescue than others. They couldn’t demand God’s rescue. God chose to hear them and rescue them, out of His grace.
- PENTECOST: Dies on a cross and rises from the dead, graciously defeating death for us.
- US: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.“ Romans 5:8
Move 2: We Respond by Faith Toward God
- EXODUS: The Hebrews responded to God’s promise of rescue by following his instructions to paint their doorways with lamb’s blood. Perhaps an even greater demonstration of faith is when they walked between the walls of water. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be nervous as you imagined the water collapsing on top of you. Although the Hebrews walked through the water, no one could realistically claim that they had saved themselves. They simply responded out of faith toward God.
- PENTECOST: After initial skepticism the apostles respond to Jesus’ resurrection with faith. Many Christian apologists point to their willingness to die for their faith as one of the strongest “proofs” of the reality of Christ’s resurrection. Perhaps no greater statement of faith exist than Thomas’ exclamation as his skepticism cracked, “My Lord and my God!”
- US: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8.
Move 3: We Lovingly Obey God
- EXODUS: The specific text for this sermon was Exodus 19-20 and the giving of the 10 Commandments. However, I chose to emphasise the larger setting within which the commands were given than the specific instructions given. I did this because we often label this section of the Pentateuch “law” like it’s a bad thing. This would no doubt puzzle the Israelites who were grateful for the laws God gave them. In fact, Deuteronomy 7:9 refers to God’s law as a “covenant of love”. Israel’s obedience to God was a loving response to a loving God. Remember also that Psalm 119 is basically a love song to their covenant with God.
- PENTECOST: The end of Luke’s Gospel Jesus explains to his disciples the implications of his death and resurrection. He then instructs them to remain in Jerusalem. This may not seem like a big deal, but Jerusalem represented a hostile environment for these disciples. The same people who killed Jesus would surely kill them if they felt a need and an ability to get away with it. Home and safety for the apostles was Galilee. Galilee was where their families lived and where they had travelled with Jesus for three years. But Jesus told them to stay in Jerusalem… and they obeyed because they loved and trusted him.
- US: “And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.” 2 John 1:6
Move 4: God Moves Into Our Neighbourhood
- EXODUS: Chapters 25-30 and 36-39 contain very detailed instructions about the design and construction of the tabernacle. To our modern eyes we might question the relevance of this passage for us. But these chapters are important because Israel is preparing a place for God to dwell. He will not be their distant God ensconced upon a heavenly throne looking down upon them. He will be their God visibly living among them. I love how the book of Exodus concludes, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.” Ex. 40:34, 38.
- PENTECOST: As the apostles and other disciples waited in Jerusalem as Jesus had instructed them, God delivered the power he had promised them. “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” He empowered them for the mission he had given them. Immediately Peter and the others begin sharing the Good News of Jesus. God was with them.
- US: “Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” 2 Corinthians 1:21-22
I know I’ve written a lot here, but I hope you can at least take away this thought: God always makes the first move toward us. We can’t compel Him to move. We can’t move on our own. God graciously initiates. How we respond determines the remaining movements of the dance.
Have you experienced these movements in your life?
I wrote a similar post from a slightly different perspective last year titled “God Initiates”. You can read it HERE.
Rather than celebrate their blessings, I have found that many people raised in Christian homes question the depth of their commitment to Christ because they don’t feel as though they ever went through a transformative conversion experience. The distinction between their old life and their new life in Christ is minimal.
In Galatians chapter 5 Paul paints a dramatic contrast between the behaviour of a pagan and the values of a Christian.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Paul personally experienced a profound transformation when he encountered the risen Jesus. He stopped persecuting Christians and actually submitted his life to the Lordship of Jesus. The transformation continued as he became a teacher in the fledgling Christian movement and was ultimately recognised as an Apostle.
During my two years as a campus minister I met several young adults from Christian families who questioned the reality of their commitment to God. They felt that because they didn’t have a spectacular conversion story that somehow God’s grace wasn’t as real in their lives. Someone caught up in a hedonistic lifestyle that meets Jesus and immediately pursues a life of simplicity and holiness obviously has a greater testimony of the power and love of God than I do, right?
This line of thought presents some serious problems.
The Bible addresses this logic in Romans 5 when Paul asks, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” Pursuing sin so that we can then experience God’s love and grace is a destructive cycle.
In Luke 15 Jesus tells the story often given the title The Prodigal Son. Jesus intends for us to learn from this story how much God loves us, and much he longs for sinful people to return to him. As a second point, he longs for his followers to be like the older son who remains faithful to the father.
Those who question their commitment because of an absence of a “conversion experience” in their life may not realise it, but they distort the message of this parable. They see themselves as the older brother in the story. They believe that the only way they can experience God’s love and grace is to demand their inheritance and live a life of wastefulness. Then, and only then, their father will throw them a party.
The father’s words to the older son provide the ultimate rebuttal to this faulty logic. We absolutely need to celebrate when someone turns their life around in a dramatic way. But for those of us who’ve always been “good kids” God has some special words,
“Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours.”
I’ll close with two thoughts:
First, the Christians described in Galatians 5 really did have a sensational turnaround in their lives. The Holy Spirit worked powerfully to help these people overcome the allure of sin.
In our society every Christian makes a dramatic decision. Sometimes the dramatic decision requires stopping a behaviour. For “good kids” it’s a decision to never start a set of behaviours. We all have the opportunity to be the younger son and leave for a land far away from the father. Yet some of us make the choice to never take that road. We all know friends who took that path. We have family members who woke up in a pig sty. We’ve seen people who settled for sharing food scraps with the pigs. But in the face of social expectations we made the sensational decision to trust our future to God. There’s nothing second best about that. I’ll take love and joy over hatred and rage any day of the week.
Second, churches have clearly done something wrong when our young people would rather identify with the prodigal son than the older son. When Christians believe that they need to taste death to experience living. To walk in darkness so they can appreciate light. To fall so that God will pick them up.
How do we communicate the intimacy of love, the euphoria of joy, the wholeness of peace, the virtue of patience, the value of kindness, the heart of goodness, the security of faithfulness, the safety of gentleness and the wisdom of self-control?
How do we share the fruit of the Spirit?
Why is it so difficult to convince Christian young people that “being with the Father all the time, and having everything he has” is the greatest blessing available to humanity?
Tennyson apparently said, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
God says, “It’s best to be loved and to never be lost.”
BONUS TRACK: If you’ve liked this post you might also enjoy THIS article on ChristianityToday.com.
God promises his followers many blessings. In various places he promises peace, wisdom, love, presence, strength, eternal life, and the Holy Spirit, among many others. In making these promises God runs the risk that his creation will fall in love with his blessings rather than Himself.
A couple of years ago I was blessed to read the book Crazy Love by Francis Chan. This blog post is inspired by one of the major takeaways I had from that book.
On p62-63 he writes,
“Our love for Him always comes out of His love for us. Do you love this God who is everything, or do you just love everything He gives you? Do you really know and believe that God loves you, individually and personally and intimately? Do you see and know Him as Abba, Father?”
Later (p10-101) he quotes from John Piper’s book God is the Gospel.
If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?
This has been a powerful question in my life. Do I love God, or just what God does for me?
I understand that to some extent it is not possible to separate God’s love from His loving actions. John 3:16 tells us that “God loved the world so much that he sent His only begotten Son…” The sending of Jesus arises directly out of God’s love for us. As a result, we know that God loves us because he sent His Son. God’s sending action reveals his loving heart.
I then need to ask myself, “Am I grateful that I’m saved, or do I love the person that loved me enough to save me? Will I be happy to go through life without that person now that I’m saved, or is my life empty without God’s presence?”
We all know the right answer to this question.
We all know that we’re supposed to say we love God, not just his blessings.
So how do we love God? How do we include his presence in our lives? Is prayer a chore? Do we hate getting out of bed on Sunday morning in time for Bible Class? Is regular Bible reading part of our life’s schedule? Do we enjoy spending time with Christians friends talking about God? Do we value spending time with the poor and hurting and sharing God’s love with them?
How do we love God?
If we have trouble answering that question, maybe we don’t love God? Perhaps we only love what God does for us.
Thankfully, that’s not a final state.
Acts 8 tells the story of Simon the sorcerer, who saw the apostles performing miracles with the power of the Holy Spirit and wanted some of that. Simon offered them money in exchange for the Holy Spirit’s power. In response, Peter seemed surprised that God didn’t instantly smite Simon. He told Simon Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.
That’s the good news. That we can repent. We can reorient our attention away from God’s blessings and toward God himself. As we lean more upon the Holy Spirit in our lives and less upon our own abilities and priorities we can bring our lives into alignment with God’s values.
We’re not told much more about Simon. His closing words leave us wondering… Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me. Did he sincerely accept Jesus as his saviour? Did he learn to love God? Did he submit his life to God’s direction? Or are these final words a shallow effort to say the right thing and avoid God’s judgement?
However we view Simon’s response, his words provide hope for us all. When said with sincerity, our loving God forgives us and accepts us.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.
In my previous post I listed 7 signs of pride in our lives. But there’s little benefit in pointing out problems without providing solutions. So here are some antidotes to the attack of pride.
In his excellent book Humilitas Australian minister and academic John Dickson proposes several means of cultivating humility in our lives. I’ll share a couple of those and then throw in a few suggestions of my own.
- We are shaped by what we love.
If we find ourselves struggling with pride, we probably don’t value/love humility. So combating pride requires learning to value humility. Notice humble people and imitate them. Study what makes them humble and make appropriate adjustments in your own life.
- Pay attention to others.
Pride involves an obsession or love of self. If we deliberately move the focus of our lives away from self we reduce pride. Jesus taught us this process in Matthew 22:35-37 when he gave the Greatest Command, “Love God” and the Second Command, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If we can genuinely rank God first in our lives and others equal with self we will find ourselves closer to humility than pride.
- Practice obedience.
Bonhoeffer in Cost of Discipleship describes obedience as the most fundamental step of discipleship to Christ. Obedience requires submission to a higher authority. Jesus himself gives an example according to Philippians 2:8 “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death…” For an interesting perspective on this topic, you can check out this blog post by ACU professor Richard Beck that also discusses obedience and humility in light of Benedictine monasticism.
- Focus your thoughts on the gifts God has given you.
Scripture regularly reminds us that God gives us salvation as a gracious gift. (Romans 6:23) We’re also told several times that our talents and abilities that distinguish us from each other are actually gracious gifts from God. In Romans 12:3-8 Paul begins by warning Christians “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought…” then goes on to list the gifts God gives his people. When we accept this reality we will have less reason to take pride in any of our accomplishments.
- Develop a habit of gratitude.
Gratitude naturally promotes humility. As we cultivate an attitude of thankfulness we will increasingly appreciate the contributions God and others make to our successes.
- Learn to forgive.
The connection between forgiveness and humility may not jump off the screen at you. Think of it this way. The opposite of forgiveness is judgement. Judgement often involves an air of superiority. “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Or maybe, “I’m wrong, but you’re wrong-er”. Forgiveness means letting go of the right to be right. It allows others to sin without thinking less of them. We don’t keep count of their sins, because we know the length of our own shortcomings. Consider the parable of The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14). Imagine how different the story would read if the Pharisee had wondered over to the tax collector and said, “You’ve hurt people I care about, but I’m glad you’re here today and I for one forgive you.” No pride, just forgiveness and humility.
- Forget about being humble.
If we attempt to increase our humility we still focus on ourselves. The more we invest in the lives of others, serve others, and love others humility will naturally follow us. But if we make humility a focus of our lives how are we going to measure our progress without again becoming proud in the process?
It’s much better to serve others because we love them than because we want to reduce our pride.
What other traits have you observed in humble people that you know?
- Read Leviticus 16 here.
- You can listen to this sermon here.
- Here’s an academic article on the scapegoat and it’s meaning.
- Here’s a simple description (with lots of Jewish terms) of the contemporary celebration of the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur as it is now best known.
To be honest, I’m a bit nervous at the prospect of writing about the Day of Atonement. It continues to be a major event on the Jewish calendar and I suspect you’d be much better off using Bing or Google to gain a better understanding of the feast than trying to follow my explanation. But here I go anyway… 🙂
The Day of Atonement represents the pinnacle of the sacrificial system given to Israel by God. Here’s a basic outline:
- Exodus 35-40: Instructions for construction of the Tabernacle and its furniture.
- Leviticus 1-7: Instructions for how different sacrifices are to be offered.
- Leviticus 8-10: Dedication of the priests
- Leviticus 11-15: Description of ceremonial clean & uncleanness.
- Leviticus 16: Day of Atonement.
- Leviticus 17-27: Laws for Godly living.
If I was to put these sections in my own words, they’d look like this:
- God needs a holy place to live.
- The way sacrifices are offered matters. They’re holy. We cannot approach God thoughtlessly.
- The people offering the sacrifices are to be holy representatives of God.
- Here’s a list of small ways to maintain personal holiness – free from sin and the baggage of sin.
- On this day each year the nation will seek, receive, and celebrate the forgiveness of sins. They will receive at-one-ment with God.
- If you’re God’s people you’ll express it in your lives… here’s how.
Rooker, in his Leviticus commentary (213), observes that Leviticus 16 “is the consummation of the previous fifteen chapters and provides the spiritual energy and motivation to carry out the imperatives of Leviticus 17-27.” I think that’s a good summary of my outline.
In the original context of the Israelites in the wilderness and the tabernacle at the centre of their camp, the Day of Atonement rituals included:
- 1 purification of the tabernacle (Lev 16:15-20);
- 4 times atonement was made for the high priest (16:6, 11, 17, 24);
- 3 times atonement was made for the nation (16:10, 17, 24).
The rituals include both sin offerings and burnt offerings. At the centre of the day is the fate of two goats. Two he-goats are brought before the high priest who casts lots to choose one to serve as a sin offering and the other to be that year’s scapegoat. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the scapegoat and “confessed over it all the wickedness, and rebellion of the Israelites – all their sins – and put them on the goats head.” (16:21) As the goat then left the camp, so did the sins of the nation.
This dramatic ritual must have made an impression on the people watching their sins depart. Verse 30 summarises the days events saying, “on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the Lord, you will be clean from all your sins.” Isn’t that exciting?
Being clean from our sins is a thrill. It means harmony with God. It means removal of guilt. It means a clean slate and a new beginning.Christians experience a similar joy in the ritual of baptism. 1 Peter 3:21 describes baptism as “an appeal for a clean conscience“, while Paul in Acts 22:16 describes how he was told “Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
Just as the goat didn’t magically remove sins (God did when these instructions were followed) so the baptismal water doesn’t remove sins by itself, and the sin doesn’t literally disappear into the sewer system. Atonement can only come from God. And just as there was one goat sacrificed and another banished, so baptism requires the sacrifice of Jesus. It is powerless by itself.
While I’m making comparisons, let me throw in Psalm 103:11-12.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
This passage demonstrates the confidence that the Israelites had in the promise of God to forgive them. In particular I hope you notice how God’s forgiveness is grounded in his love for his people. It’s almost an Old Testament version of John 3:16. God’s love for his creation prompts him to provide a path to forgiveness, to adoption, to holiness.
- Since baptism is once while the scapegoat occurs annually, how do you remind yourself of your holiness before God?
- Is the Israelite Day of Atonement a helpful lens to consider your forgiveness and relationship with God?
- How prominent is the idea of holiness in thinking about your Christian walk, decisions you might make, or ways you worship God?