It seems like every where I go, people are distraught about God and how He’s perceived in the world. Christians–people who are supposed to declare the goodness of God–are spending an inordinate amount of time either apologizing for God being the way He is or trying to say He’s different than what the Bible says He is. All of this is in some kind of misguided fear that God will look bad and unappealing to our unbelieving or once-but-not-now-believing friends.
This looks different depending on where you go and who you talk to, but the basic premise is this: The God the Bible describes is old-fashioned. He worked as God of the first century, was definitely better than those B.C. gods, but the times have changed. Penal sacrifice, lists of sins, submission to His lordship…all of these are things that were applicable then, but need to be updated. So they take the best parts of the God of the Bible, exclude the parts they don’t like, and present a sort of God 2.0. This God is not only like the God of the Bible, but He is so unbelievably good that He’s not awkward to bring up at parties.
For those of you who struggle with this, I have good news: We don’t need to exaggerate the goodness of God! We have a God who created everything out of nothing! Nothing! And then, after He created everything, He created mankind and set him over every amazing thing He made. When mankind had the audacity to spit in His face and turn our backs against Him, God started a rescue plan that culminated in being born into this Earth, living as an innocent man in a despicable world, and dying the death of a criminal, all so He could restore humanity to its rightful place of having a relationship with God!
This relationship could be restored as easily as repenting and believing that He did what He said. There were no mountains to climb or any money to give. No secret wisdom for the wise that only a select few could have. As many as wanted to could come to God. Also, if you’re sick, there’s healing! If you have demons bugging you, there’s freedom from that! He will restore everything that’s been lost in your life, you just need to ask.
This is why the Psalmist says:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion;
Who satisfies your years with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle.
Now there are all sorts of accusations that can and will be leveled against God. But those are accusations against a God who is nice but never does anything. Beloved, we have a real God who pardons us for all the crap we have put Him and others through. We have a God who heals all of our diseases. We have a God who redeems our lives from destruction that we caused ourselves AND He sets His loyal love on us. We, who turned are backs on Him, became the objects of His affection.
Beloved, you might be able to make up a Genie who serves you, but that Genie isn’t real. Nor is he God. But God, friends, God will restore you and your life if you surrender it to Him. You can’t exaggerate this. It’s literally too good to be true. If anyone in real life ever treated you like this, your story would not be believed.
So the next time you are tempted to believe that God needs to be updated to fit the modern era and conform to modern sensibilities, remember how ridiculously good He is. Don’t try to exaggerate His goodness–you’ll end up in error–but declare in truth how good He really is.
You won’t regret it.
Lately I’ve been reading the Song of Solomon*.
This time around, I’ve been reading it as the story of a church that God dearly loves and the journey that she goes on in order to become the mature Bride of Christ we see described in Chapter 8. What’s struck me as I read this time was how much power the love of God has to transform a person.
Let me explain: The book starts with a woman (called the Shulamite) who is insecure about herself. She’s deeply loved by Solomon and loves being loved by him, but when he comes to her and asks her to join him in the harvest, she refuses. She loves safety and security more than she loves Solomon. So in chapters 3-5 there is an elaborate courtship, where Solomon leaves and the Shulamite, realizing her mistake, goes on a journey to find him. She is drawn out of her selfishness and leaves comfort to find Solomon.
Then in Chapter 5 something amazing happens. The Shulamite begins to look for Solomon a second time. He came and reached out to her. She responded. But by the time she responded He was gone. She goes looking for him and asks others where she can find him. When she does, these others ask her, “What’s the big deal about this guy? Why do you love him?” She launches into what amounts to a hymn of praise for Solomon that provokes these others to want to find him as well. And when she finds Solomon, they remark: “Who is this who shines like the dawn—as beautiful as the moon, bright as the sun, awe-inspiring as an army with banners?” (Song of Songs 6:10). This woman, who identified herself in chapter 1 as “dark, but lovely” is now “awe-inspiring as an army with banners.”
This is our story as well. We start out loved by God but insecure, afraid, and divided in our hearts. But as we expose ourselves to God’s love, we are transformed by it. God’s love poured out in our hearts, convincing us that we are the desire of His heart transforms us. Suddenly in our quest for Him, people start to look at us and say “Why do you love Jesus as much as you do?” We get to tell them. And just as the Shulamite was transformed by her love for Solomon, we are changed by our love for Jesus. We become a different person because of the transforming power of God’s love.
I write all of this because so often we feel like taking time to seek God, to receive His love, to hear His voice is a passive, even selfish thing. Often we feel like there are better, more noble, less self-centered things to do, but the transformation that happens when we know, receive, and grow in is worth our time. It transforms us. It draws others to Jesus. It’s only in receiving this love on an ongoing basis that we get beyond ourselves and join Jesus where He is.
So take time today, tomorrow, and the days after, to know and receive God’s love. Don’t despise the day of small beginnings in it. Often early it will feel pointless. It’s worth the time. If you continue to know and receive the love of God, you will be transformed.
*The Song of Solomon has a long history of the church not knowing what to do with it, but there are essentially two groups of thought on the subject: One group sees the book as the biblical celebration of human love in the context of marriage. (Warning: this view requires you to see more explicit sexual images in the Bible than you ever thought was in there.) Another group all throughout history has seen this book as the journey of the believer into intimacy with God. (I wrote a brief introduction to the Song of Solomon that can help catch you up on this interpretation.) While will argue until Jesus returns about this subject, I’m over hear like “Why can’t it be both?”
Sometimes we forget.
I know I do. When the pressure of the days is high and the work before us seems unending, it’s easy to lose perspective on why we do what we do.
I talk a lot with the brothers and sisters around our network about counting the cost of following Jesus. This is right and good, because there is a cost to following Him. You won’t be the most popular person in your school or your job. There will be times you have to go against the world. They way of the Kingdom is narrow. All of this is true.
But counting the cost can become a thing where we discourage our own hearts. We become a Christian version of Eeyore the Donkey who only sees the weight of what was left behind. Brothers and sisters, this shouldn’t be.
Instead, counting the cost starts with recognizing the great worth of Jesus. When we truly see the fact that we have been invited into a relationship with a God who loves so extravagantly and doesn’t hold our past against us, it changes the equation. We get God! We get to live in relationship with Jesus. And when we count the worth of that relationship against the cost of following Christ, the math changes significantly.
God said to Abraham: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward,” (Genesis 15:1). Jesus compared God’s Kingdom to a treasure that a man found hidden in a field. That treasure was so valuable that when the man found it, he joyfully went and sold everything he had in order to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). This is the kind of relationship we are invited into: One where God Himself is our reward.
Jesus promises trouble for those who follow Him. We may lose all of our earthly possessions. We may be despised for resisting immorality that is trying to overtake the Earth. We may lay down our physical lives for the sake of the Gospel. But we get an invitation to be friends with God. We can’t forget that or we will grow weary and give up.
He is our reward. Not success. Not notoriety. Not friends. Not honor. Him.
He alone will satisfy.
He is our reward.
Sometimes life takes different turns than we expect. We can start out with good intentions and get distracted along the way. We can end up in a place we never would have gone on our own.
And often, the fact that we didn’t mean to end up in the spot that we’re in can be discouraging. Why didn’t life turn out the way that I thought? Did I miss God’s plan for my life? Have I disappointed God with the choices I’ve made?
If this is you, I’ve got good news: It’s not too late to overcome.
Don’t miss that. The circumstances you are in can still be overcome. You’re not too far gone or too old or too sinful. You’re not doomed to a life of failure in life and before God.
How do I know? Because I’ve been reading the book of Revelation lately. And in the book, Jesus addresses seven churches that existed in the first century. All of them had difficulties. Most of them were a mess. But to each of the churches Jesus had this to say: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes…” and then He makes them a promise about what they will receive if they overcome.
Catch this. Because He makes the promise, not just to the churches who are doing well, but to all of the churches no matter how deep the struggle. He makes the promise to churches that have failed in one or sometimes many areas. To each church, Jesus breaks in and basically says, “It’s not too late to overcome.”
You could be enduring life-threatening suffering. “He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death.“
You could find yourself holding to false teaching and have been deceived. “To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it.“
You could have been tolerating immorality in your life or in the lives of people around you. “He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father; and I will give him the morning star.“
You could look alive to everyone else but be dead on the inside. “He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.”
You could be standing before an open door of the Lord’s favor. “He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name.“
Or…you could be lukewarm, ineffective in your calling and not really doing anything. “He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.“
Friends, you could find yourself in any of these situations or disqualify yourself in a thousand other ways. But Jesus has a promise for you. If you are willing to follow Him and and lay down your life in the way that He asks, it’s not too late to overcome. You can do what He asks and die tomorrow and you would stand with Jesus as an overcomer in Heaven.
Our biggest hindrance is how hopeless we feel. But it’s not too late.
You can overcome.
“He who has an ear to hear, listen….”
…is you can do it without realizing it.
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.
-Jesus, Revelation 2:2-4
What I’m extremely aware of in this stage of my life is the fact that the Ephesians did everything right. Jesus has no complaint for the Ephesians about anything that they did or didn’t do. No sin was mentioned and there was no rebuke for what was left undone. These guys worked hard, were patient, tested false apostles, endured persecution patiently for the name of Christ, and even after doing all of that they didn’t grow weary.
They lost their first love. And even though on the outside everything was good, on the inside their love had grown cold. In fact, everything they had done so well was in jeopardy because they missed the reason they started in the first place: they loved Jesus. I struggle with this because we as Western believers measure so much of our spirituality based on what we do. And while we need to be people who obey Jesus, Christianity can quickly become about what we’ve done for Jesus lately.
I don’t want to be the guy who did all the right things but lost my first love. I don’t think you do either. But losing our first love happens slowly over time, little bit by little bit.
Until one day it’s gone.
These words were written to a historical church in Asia Minor, but they were written down and recorded for our benefit. Hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Don’t let your love for the Lord grow cold. Take time to make sure the fire is burning brightly inside and you’re not just dealing with glowing ashes.
The cure that Jesus gives us if we find our selves in this same spot is simple. Look where you’ve come from! Remember the love you felt in your heart towards God when you first came to Jesus. And when you see where you’ve fallen from, do the things that stirred up your heart in those early days when it was just you and Jesus.
None of us wants to lose our first love. But we have to decide to keep it.
May the the Holy Spirit, who fills our hearts with God’s love, meet you as you examine your heart today.
One of the realities I struggle with many days in my walk with God is “How far is too far?” I know that seems like a weird question to ask when I’m talking about God. But the question is never, “Have I gone after Jesus too hard in a way that makes me unrelatable to the rest of the world?” More often the question is, “I sure feel like I’ve gone a long ways, but maybe there’s more of God and I’ve settled for too little. Could I have not gone far enough?”
Maybe you can relate.
But the mystery of God is this: God is unknowable and yet He invites us to know Him.
God is unknowable: He’s God because He is bigger and more complex than you. He measures out the universe in span of His hand. We’re talking about the God who laid the foundations of the world and taught the stars how to shine. He created the star and created the atom and everything in between and holds it all together through the word of His power. He knows you and your ways far better than you know Him. If you could fully understand God, if you could get your tiny human mind around Him and His ways, if you could know Him fully, He would cease to be God. You want a God that’s bigger than you.
God wants to be known: We first see Him creating a world where He can relate to people. Then people break that special bond they have with Him and hide and He goes to find them. He spends thousands of years beckoning and whispering to people that He will come and break the curse that we’ve put on ourselves only to finally end up shouting in fragile form of His Son, Jesus Christ. And with the final act of laying down His life Jesus atones for our sins against Him and the veil that separated God from man is torn in two, signaling an end to us being shut out from His presence.
So, yes, God is unknowable. But He wants to be known.
Which is why Paul prays in Ephesians 3 this prayer:
I pray that…you have the power to understand…how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is….though it is too great to understand fully.
Friends, God knows He’s too big for us. He knows we will never fully comprehend Him and His love for us. He knows that He is an ocean of love and our small, frail hearts are the size of a thimble. We can never fully hold the vastness of who He is.
But this, I think is a secret to God’s heart, that if you understand, will help you grow in Him:
He invites us to try anyways.
Friends, I don’t think the issue is to get a certain amount of God. That would be impossible. I think the answer is to keep opening your heart to receive more of Him, knowing that you will never be able to comprehend it all. Be okay with the God who is bigger than you. Who has more love than you. And keep opening your heart knowing it will never be able to hold everything God has to give.
Today, I pray that you would have the power to understand how wide, how long, how high, and how deep the love of Christ is, though it’s too big for you anyways.
“We ought to make the best possible use of God-given opportunities and should not waste our precious time by neglect or carelessness. Many people say: there is plenty of time to do this or that; don’t worry. But they do not realize that if they do not make good use of this short time, the habit formed now will be so ingrained that when more time is given to us, this habit will become our second nature and we shall waste that time also. ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much’ (Luke 16:10).”
-Sadhu Sundar Singh