is God really love?

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

1 John 4:7-21

I am having a hard time on my own believing that “God is love,” as the Scripture tells us here. There’s just too much evil, and even so-called “acts of God” to make one see God as love. Little children killed in accidents, or even in natural disasters, etc., etc. And on top of that one might have a hard time accepting love for themselves, since their experience because of sins against them and their own sins have made their inner life mostly a desert.

But this passage from the beloved disciple John, the one who leaned on Jesus’s breast, and seemed maybe more than all the others to have received God’s love in Jesus most deeply, is at least helpful to me. And a passage I need to dwell on, and take in more for myself.

I lament the lack of love in our world, and even among Christians, those who profess to follow Christ. If we don’t live in love then nothing else we do matters. Do we really believe that? What we believe is evident from just what we think, and  out of that, how we live.

In the end I have to trust the testimony of God in Jesus, in the good news: the gospel. That gives hope, and hopefully impacts life in a way that can make the much needed difference. So that one will really believe what they do, or even their existence matters. For one reason: love. From the source of all real love in creation and new creation, the God who is love, and is revealed in and through Jesus.

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the unreal real world

“Get a life,” we sometimes think, in our own words perhaps, but when we view others who seem self-destructive, and on their path, destructive of others. Not to mention all the conflict and strife in the world, with cruel despots in power in too many places. It’s all quite real, the reality in which we live.

But it’s not at all the reality that God intended. In creation, God made everything “good” and in the end after he had created humanity it was all “very good” (Genesis 1). God’s blessing was on everything, with his full blessing contingent on whether or not humankind, that is Adam and Eve would be obedient to the only prohibition God made, that they should not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Whether or not this is symbolic or literal, the point is that Adam and Eve (humankind) had the choice of trusting God, in God’s goodness and word, or in ultimately being left to themselves, losing their so-called innocence, more like the wisdom and knowledge God was ready to pour on them. And instead knowing good and evil in their experience in a way God never intended. When Eve ate of the fruit of that forbidden tree, then Adam, their eyes were opened in a way God never intended. For the first time they felt shame and wanted to hide from each other as well as from God (Genesis 3).  And humankind has never recovered.

We live in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and that includes ourselves, who we are. Neither we nor the world has arrived, for sure. Instead, in biblical theological terms, we’re fallen and broken. It’s a mistake to think that somehow through the means of this present time, we can arrive to an idyllic world. It’s also equally an error to think that excuses humankind for not striving for a better world in which love for neighbor, for everyone is taken seriously. But evil has to be dealt with, sometimes in no uncertain terms.

We in Jesus have begun to live in the real world as God intended. Although it seems incremental, and sometimes all but lost in its already present / not yet completed state, nevertheless it’s as undeniable as the breath we breathe. Sometimes we’re left with just knowing intellectually, we know not why experientially, but based on faith in Christ and his historical resurrection from the dead. Other times, the experience of God’s love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit makes life seem more than worthwhile as God’s righteousness, peace and joy (Romans 14:17-18) becomes the place in which we live.

So we in Jesus live as those of another realm in this realm. As lights in a dark world, citizens of heaven, partakers of the new creation, longing for and looking forward to the redemption of all things. In and through Jesus.

continue to soak it in

When we were part of a Vineyard church, “soaking” was the term for spending time in God’s presence, usually I think for hours. I’m not sure I ever participated in a time set apart for that. We probably don’t do enough of that. People can mock “personal devotions,” or practices in church meant to help us draw close to God, but really, we need to soak in- to remain, so as to soak in- to take in, all God has for us.

Part of that is to watch ourselves and our own life. And to watch life in general. In all of that, we want to observe, and be taught by God. “What is God teaching me?” is a good question. Usually it won’t be hard to come up with an answer if we’ve been open. No doubt we are slow learners. We live as Christians with the desire to know God’s word and apply it, but we also live within experience. In some ways experience can help us when we verify the truth of what God says, the Spirit giving us insight. But often we run up against our limitations, our weaknesses, not to mention spiritual warfare.

Where I start as I’ve often said is in Scripture which I take to be God’s written word pointing us to his Word in Jesus. I remain there, with an emphasis on application. I especially want to apply what I think God has been teaching me lately. That will take time. And included in that is more soaking, not just in the word, but in life and hopefully God in our experience as we seek to grow in what God is teaching us. In and through Jesus.

accepting limitations

I think Christianity and faith seems to bring with it a tendency toward an idealization in which this and that are to be just so, or at least there’s growth toward the good, what’s best. With that comes an expectation which sets one up for discouragement when it’s not met, or regularly falls short.

I think what ends up being the case is not the idea of having expectations at all, but misplaced expectations. We don’t understand God’s promises in Christ and how they work out in real life. I believe an important aspect of that ends up being our need to accept limitations. Limitations in ourselves, in others. And with that, we need to understand and accept our weaknesses along with that of others.

I want to be careful here. I’m not referring to out and out sin such as people giving into this or that which they know is wrong. Yet at the same time, if we are caught up in any sin, God’s promise in Jesus along with his promises in Scripture are for us as well.

Does this mean we expect less from God? Hopefully not. Actually it can mean that we understand better how God works. Through weakness, brokenness, even failure. Through our ongoing keen realization of our need for him. Through the way of Jesus which is the way of weakness in taking up one’s cross and following (2 Corinthians 13).

But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s anything but easy to accept weakness. And when we do so there’s always the danger of rationalizing sin, excusing ourselves when we do. What I’m referring to here is more of an existential awareness that at times, maybe much of the time for some of us, we will not be in any kind of on top of the world experience. And problems will come and sometimes mount in number and intensity.

We must not simply throw in the towel and give up. Though if we do we need to remember God is present for us then as well. All of this is the opportunity for us to push deeper into God and God’s provision for us in and through Jesus.

to know Christ’s love

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

Ephesians 3:14-21

I like traditional church liturgy, and even crucifixes (and I like the empty cross) because they remind me of the center of our faith: the good news in Jesus. It is through Jesus’s Incarnation, death and resurrection, and the ascension which follows with the pouring out of the Spirit, that we have forgiveness of sins and new life in him. Jesus’s death and resurrection at the heart of that. And in that we can come to know the love of God. A love that is beyond description, as the text says, surpassing knowledge. We shouldn’t neglect Jesus’s teaching and ministry during his earthly life, either, quite formative for us in this.

But where do we begin so that we can hopefully know this love in the way this text says? It began with Paul’s prayer or we could say by extension the prayers of those who follow Paul’s example, a prayer for the church. Evidently Paul had come to know this love for himself, and he was here praying that the church would know it as well.

It’s a prayer to the Father, that out of his glorious riches he would strengthen his people with power through his Spirit in their inner being, so that Christ might dwell in their hearts by faith. It seems to indicate that one’s main impulse for life is no longer themselves, but Christ (Galatians 2:20). We are still ourselves, but ourselves as God meant us to be. Of course this is not something we arrive to overnight, or fully in this life. It’s a transformation beginning now and continuing as a process in growth in Christ-likeness.

Christ dwelling in our hearts through faith is the result of the Spirit’s work in us. From that we’re rooted and established in love. By the way, in passing I want to point out that this seems by the text to be a communal matter, one might say, even endeavor. Church is at the heart of the letter to the Ephesians, we could say the universal church played out in local churches. Which is why I prefer smaller churches. But if one is part of a mega church like my wife and I are now, then you need to plug into a small group. Too often in the United States, and I would think western culture at large, especially European in its roots, we’re more than content to remain in isolation as individuals. But the spiritual life isn’t lived that way: it’s in union with Christ and therefore in the Triune communion, and therefore in union with all who are “in Christ.”

But back to the point: We’re to be rooted and established in love. We live in God’s love in Christ. That is to impact and animate us. We love, because God first loved us. That is where we begin and remain. But through that we’re to experience so much more. Or maybe better put, know so much more. We make much of experience, impacted by the romantic era in ways that are not altogether healthy. Know includes experience, but in a sense goes beyond that so that it transcends or is not dependent on our experience. Through thick and thin we’re to “know” this love of Christ which paradoxically is beyond human knowledge, a gift to us from God by the Spirit.

And the result? To know together as God’s people the fullness of Christ’s love. And Paul is descriptive (or whoever wrote the letter under Paul’s direction): it’s width, length, height, and depth. With the result that we’re filled to the measure of the fullness of God.

And then the great promise that God is able to do this beyond what we can ask or imagine. And through it he would receive glory through the church and through Jesus Christ through all ages. Good to know the context of this great promise. It is about knowing Christ’s love. The heart of our existence, and ultimately the heart of all things. Through the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Something we need to be aware of and aspire to, in and through Jesus.

dial down and accept the ordinary

If your law had not been my delight,
I would have perished in my affliction.

Psalm 119:92

I’m more and more convinced that one formidable enemy of the good is misplaced expectation. This is probably true across the board, but I’m thinking of the spiritual life of a Christian, or the spiritual lives of Christians.

I’ve lived as a Christian several decades, and from early on was inundated with “deeper life” teachings. And I’ve witnessed some of emphasis on the Spirit in individual lives and in the church. And I’ve partaken of a few unusual experiences and participated in some of that myself. And we all as Christians have experienced the closeness of the Lord, which I believe is actually something for us daily, but probably not in the way we expect.

I want to say and even emphasize that it’s of the utmost importance for us to dial down and accept the ordinary. That most of our lives are going to seem mundane, boring, lonely, difficult, etc., you fill in the blanks. As soon as we get away from ideals, immediately we’ll be better off. We’ll then and only then begin to be able to appreciate the good from God that’s right in front of us, and actually everywhere. Until then we’ll miss the good that’s right in our face.

Scripture doesn’t present an easy, feel good existence. Just begin to read on almost any page. But as the psalmist says, Scripture as God’s written word not only can keep us grounded, our feet on the ground so to speak, but can actually be our delight even in the midst of the ordinary and difficult aspects of real life.

When we realize that our expectations are simply unmet, then we’ll be able to see and accept the actual blessings God is giving us, but not until then.

Am I suggesting that God can’t bless the socks off of us, of course to not only bless us, but bless others through us? Of course not. But only as we accept the reality of our own brokenness, that the kingdom in its fullness, while present now in Jesus by the Spirit is yet to be fully present in the finished transformative way. Until then, we’re set up for disappointment and disillusionment.

Which is why we need to remain in God’s word, in Scripture, so that God’s Word, Christ himself can touch and begin to transform us now. Yes, in the midst of the ordinary and difficult. In and through Jesus.

the experience of God’s love in our hearts

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Romans 5:1-5

I live in the default experience of feeling down. Some people, especially Christians, will fault me for that, or at least wonder, though many not. It’s not how you feel, but it’s about faith, and in a sense, what we do with our feelings. I wonder if it isn’t related to head injuries I’ve had. But it’s been a struggle for years.

There are ways I can get around it, or maybe past it for a time. But the best way by far seems to be when the Holy Spirit just takes over. All the negative feelings are gone, awash in the love of God through the Holy Spirit.

Note in the passage above that this love is in a process which in itself is not easy, and surely fraught with negative emotions. The peace with God spoken of here is not the peace of God experienced, but rather our standing before God through God’s justifying grace and our faith in Jesus. Suffering is part of it, and then the perseverance that follows it. And character, and then hope.

I wish I could live in that feeling and sense of well being and love all the time. It does make life so much easier. I have to remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan no less, which tormented him. But how God was in that for Paul’s good, and our blessing (2 Corinthians 12).

But that love of God is made known to us by the Spirit. Something we look forward to living in forever together with all of God’s children in and through Jesus.