The Priority of Christian Love

Father Damien

God wants people to come to know Him.  The way He pursues this goal is through us.  God’s strategy is to draw people to Himself by entering the lives of His children—those who believe in Him—and drawing others to Himself through what people see in us.

That strategy worked for me.  As a young man, I got to know some Christians who revealed the character of Christ to me through their lives.  I saw in them the love and joy and goodness and hope and peace of Christ.  Because of what I saw in them, I was drawn to Christ.

This is one reason why the Bible so often calls us to love others.  When Christians graciously, courageously, genuinely, and compassionately love people, individuals experience God’s love in a personal way and are drawn to Him.

Christians need to face the fact that people form their opinion of God based on what they see in us.

While commenting on Paul’s remarks in 1st Thessalonians 4:12 about the impact our behavior has on “outsiders,” William Barclay writes, “A tree is known by its fruits; and a religion is known by the kind of [people] it produces.  The only way to demonstrate that Christianity is the best of all faiths is to prove that it produces the best of all [people].  When we Christians prove that our Christianity makes us better workmen, truer friends, kinder men and women, then and only then are we really preaching.  The important thing is not words but deeds, not oratory but life.  The outside world never comes into a Church to hear a sermon, but the outside world sees us every day outside the Church; and it is our lives which must be the sermon to win [people] for Christ.”

In 1873, a Belgian Catholic priest named Joseph Damien de Veuster was sent to minister to lepers on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai.  When he arrived he worked at meeting each of the lepers in the hopes of building friendships.  He built a chapel and conducted worship services, but the people remained cold toward him, uncertain if they could trust him.  After 12 years, Father Damien considered giving up and leaving Molokai.  One morning, though, before the daily worship service, while pouring some hot water into a cup, the water swirled out and fell onto Father Damien’s bare foot.  It took him a moment to realize that he had felt no pain.  He poured more hot water on his foot to verify his experience.  Again he felt nothing, and he understood that he, too, had contracted leprosy.

In every worship service up to that point he had begun the service with the greeting, “My fellow believers.”  But that day he said, “My fellow lepers.”  Quickly, word of his condition spread throughout the island.  The next morning when Father Damien arrived at the chapel he was met by hundreds of worshipers.  By the time the service began, the chapel was completely filled.  Father Damien’s ministry on Molokai became extremely successful.  The reason?  He was one of them.  They knew that he understood and sympathized with them.

When it comes to caring for people, we may not have all the solutions, but that’s all right.  The most critical issue is this: Are we willing to come alongside others and love them?

That’s what will draw others to Christ.

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The Call to Holiness

holiness

Why does the Bible care so much about holiness?

Much of the world thinks that holiness is a waste, that holiness stifles life and detracts from joy.

In his book, The Fight, John White shares a list of images that often come to people’s minds when they hear the word “holiness”:

  • Hollow-eyed gauntness
  • Beards
  • Sandals
  • Long robes
  • Stone cells
  • No sex
  • No jokes
  • Frequent cold baths
  • Fasting
  • Hours of prayer
  • Getting up at 4 a.m.
  • Clean fingernails
  • Self-humiliation

But from God’s perspective, it is holiness that truly makes us human.

Many years ago, a man wrote to a newspaper advice column, “Dear Abby, I am in love and I am having an affair with two different women.  I can’t marry them both.  Please tell me what to do, but don’t give me any of that morality stuff.”

Abby wrote back, “Dear Sir, the only difference between humans and animals is morality.  Please write to a veterinarian.”

From God’s perspective holiness (morality) is what makes us human (beings created in the likeness of God), and from God’s perspective holiness is actually what leads to the abundance of life rather than detracting from the quality of life.

Jesus tries to make that clear to us in John 15:10-11: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete!”

David Seamands observes, “The word evil is the word live spelled backwards.  It is life attempting to live against itself.  And that can’t be done…it is an attempt to live against the nature of reality and get away with it.  It is an attempt at the impossible.  The result is inevitable—breakdown and frustration.” (Freedom from the Performance Trap, p. 192)

From God’s perspective, immorality corrupts and squelches life; holiness enriches life!

It could be said that holiness is to unholiness what

  • whole is to broken
  • clean is to polluted
  • healthy is to diseased
  • fresh is to spoiled
  • true is to counterfeit
  • full is to empty
  • abounding is to inadequate

No wonder the Bible cares so much about holiness.  God cares that much about us.

Learning what to pray

praying hands

Though I have been a Christian for almost 50 years, when it comes to the matter of prayer, I still have a lot to learn, and I find it helpful to learn how to pray from those whom I look upon as “masters” of prayer—people like David and Moses and Habakkuk and Paul.

My prayers easily sink to the level of trite and trivial, or to shallow and selfish.  But when I look at the prayers of these “masters,” I discover better things to pray for on behalf of those whom I care about.

Nearly all of Paul’s letters include a rich expression of what he prays for on behalf of the people he writes to.  For example, in 1st Thessalonians 3:9-13, Paul prays about four things that I want to incorporate more fully into my prayers:

1: In verse 9, Paul expresses how he thanks God for the joy the Thessalonians have brought to his life.

Gratitude is an incredibly powerful force, changing us from the inside out.

Brother David Steindl-Rast states, “The root of joy is gratefulness…. It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”  It is not surprising that Paul expresses both gratitude and joy in his prayer for the Thessalonians.  Gratitude and joy go together.

Thornton Wilder adds, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”  It is gratitude which makes us conscious of our treasures which makes us come alive!

When we recognize the “treasure” that others are in our lives, and when we express our gratitude for them, our love for them and bond with them is deepened.

No wonder Paul so frequently articulates his gratitude for others.  What a great element to add to my prayers for those whom I care about.

2: In verse 10, Paul writes about how he prays most earnestly night and day to be able to see them face to face and to “restore whatever is lacking in your faith.”

Paul’s prayer is that God will give him an opportunity to be of help and encouragement to them.

In his inaugural address, John Kennedy stated, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  Often our prayers focus on asking God to do things for us.  What a great thing it would be if our prayers began to ask God to give us opportunity and wisdom to be of help and encouragement to others.

3: In verse 12, Paul asks God to make the Thessalonians “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”

Since 1 John 4:16 stresses that “God is love,” when we pray for a person’s love to increase and abound, we are actually praying for that person to live more fully in God, and for God to live more deeply in that person.  Can there be any greater prayer than that?

Geoff Gorsuch remarks, “The question to ask at the end of life’s race is not so much, ‘What have I accomplished?’ but, ‘Whom have I loved, and how courageously?’”  So when we pray for a person’s love to increase and abound, our prayer is addressing the most important question of life.

4: In verse 13, Paul prays for God to strengthen their hearts in holiness.

Susanna Wesley captures well the truth about the Christian faith.  She writes, “There are two things to do about the gospel: Believe it and behave it.”  Our faith is not just about believing certain doctrine, but about living out our faith.  So our prayers for one another ought to include prayers for integrity in how we live.  Desmond Tutu stressed, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

What a great way that would be to pray for those whom I care about: That God would strengthen their hearts so that they behave the gospel and overwhelm the world with their “little bit of good.”

Compassion rather than apathy

compassion

Sometimes Scripture speaks to us with a command, telling us what we must do; sometimes with a prohibition, announcing what we must not do; sometimes with a warning, alerting us to dangers in life; sometimes with a lesson taught; and sometimes with an example, enabling us to see the heart of God lived out in the life of a person.

1 Thessalonians 2:17 – 3:5 shares such an example that stands out in sharp contrast to what we often find in the world around us.

What we find in the world around us too often: Many years ago, someone who signed her name as “Ashamed of my species in L.I.,” wrote to Ann Landers,

“I just read something in the New York News that made my blood boil: The parents of a 13-year-old are suing the town of Babylon, Long Island, for $21 million, alleging that a lifeguard at the municipal pool refused to save their son from drowning.  He said, ‘It wasn’t my area.’

“According to court papers, the boy was swimming in the crowded pool when suddenly he began to drown.  Despite repeated pleas from his friends and other horrified bystanders, the lifeguards on duty failed to go to the aid of the boy.  Finally two of the boy’s friends pulled him out of the pool.  Not one of the lifeguards attempted to resuscitate the lad as his life slipped away by the poolside.  He died 30 minutes later in a hospital.

“An observer said, ‘She [the lifeguard] waved me away when I told her someone was down there, at the bottom of the pool.  She told the other lifeguard to help.  He said it wasn’t his area.’

“The prosecuting attorney charged the death was the result of ‘pure indifference—the most shameful disregard for a human life I have ever come across.  They just didn’t want to be bothered.’

“What is happening to the world?  Where are compassion and concern for one’s fellow man?”

The sin of apathy is not new.  Several decades ago, Helen Keller remarked, “Science may have found a cure for most evils, but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all—the apathy of human beings.”

But God is not a God of apathy; the God we meet in the Bible is a God of deep compassion.  Therefore, when God establishes His own heart in a person, that person begins to show the compassion of God, caring deeply for others.  That’s what we find in Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians.  Over and over again we see evidence of his deep care for these people.

In 1 Thessalonians 2:17, he writes, “But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you.”

In 1 Thessalonians 3:1, he shares, “So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens.”

And in 1 Thessalonians 3:5, he repeats, “For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith.  I was afraid that in some way the tempter had tempted you and that our labors might have been in vain.”

Compassion toward us is the heart of God, and compassion from us is the way we live out the reality of God’s heart in us.  Because God’s heart for the Thessalonians was alive in Paul, Paul cared deeply about them.  (There is no smidgen of apathy in what he writes.)  When God’s heart is alive in us, we, too, should find ourselves caring deeply for others.

Such care may change the world!  As C. Neil Strait points out, “Love is the ingredient that makes every relationship in life, whatever it is, a little better.  Love has a capacity to mend the broken, heal the hurting, and inspire the despairing.  Love that reaches beyond the misunderstandings and the failures is a love that unites and encourages.  Such a love is one of our world’s greatest needs.”

What is the Word of God doing in me?

bible 3

Often I have heard Christians speak of what we should do with the Word of God.  They stress that we should study it, or we should memorize it, or we should recite it in worship, or we should teach it, or we should spread it, or we should obey it.  Each of these suggestions is good, but as I read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, I find myself wondering whether we have been putting the emphasis on the wrong side of the equation.  In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul speaks of the “word of God” being “at work in you who believe.”  Rather than asking, “What should I do with the Word of God?” perhaps the more important question to ask is, “What is the Word of God doing in me?”

As I contemplate this question, other things the Bible says about itself come to mind:

Psalm 119:105 describes the Word of God as “a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.”  Am I letting the Bible shed light into my ignorance, my prejudices, and my sinful attitudes and habits?  Am I allowing the Bible to provide insight to my outlooks, understanding to my misconceptions, and direction to the way I live?

Jeremiah 23:29 suggests that God’s Word is like “like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.”  Am I letting the Bible break down my pride, my arrogance, my stubbornness, my callousness toward others, my apathy, and my prejudices?

Ephesians 6:17 calls the Word of God “the sword of the Spirit.”  Am I relying upon Scripture to defend me in my spiritual battles?

Hebrews 4:12 adds that the Word of God is “sharper than any double-edged sword” and that it “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit.”  Am I letting the Bible do its needed surgery in my soul?  Am I letting it cut into my heart so as to expose the falsehoods that lie there?  Am I allowing the Bible to cut sin out of me?

And 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says that Scripture is “God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness that the person of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  Am I letting the Bible train me and correct me and equip me and challenge me to be a better person?  Am I seeking for the Bible to help me to grow in the likeness of Christ, with His integrity, humility, kindness, compassion, and courage, so that I can do good works?

An unknown writer remarked, “I am the Bible, God’s wonderful library…. To the weary pilgrim, I am a strong staff.  To the one who sits in darkness, I am glorious light.  To those who stumble beneath heavy burdens, I am sweet rest.  To those who have lost their way, I am a safe guard.  To those who are sick in sin, I am healing strength and forgiveness.  To the discouraged, I am a glad message of hope.  To those who are distressed and tossed about by the storms of life, I am an anchor, sure and steadfast.”

What a great and terrifying thing it is when the Word of God is at work in a believer!

Pursue the right goal in the right way

hiking trail

When I was in high school, some friends and I cut school a day early for a backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park over Memorial Weekend.  We planned out a round trip which required us to cover a set distance each day, but from the beginning, everything seemed to go wrong.  Our car broke down along the way, and we had to wait for one of the parents to switch vehicles with us.  We had further car trouble along the way, so we got started hiking much later than we had planned.  On top of that, we brought raw chicken to cook our first night, but as it sat in the hot, broken-down car, it went bad, so the next morning, one of our group woke up with food poisoning.  We waited around for much of the day, but being foolish, self-centered high school students who were intent on completing our loop, we did what one should never do to a friend: We left him behind and hiked on without him.  (Fortunately, he caught up with us the next day).  Since we started late again, we felt driven to reach our planned camping spot even though the sun set before we got there.  We pressed on in the dark with a couple of feeble flashlights until we completely lost the trail.  We set down our sleeping bags and fell asleep.  Early the next morning, I woke up, climbed out of my sleeping bag, took a few steps and looked down a sheer cliff that any one of us might have tripped over in the dark.  We were so focused on reaching our destination (completing the loop) that we risked the life of our friend while leaving him behind, and we risked our own lives while hiking in the dark.

Since that time I have grown up a bit, and I have learned that the destination is never more important than the people who accompany us along the way.  And I have learned that the most important goal to reach is not a point on the map but the kind of person I am becoming.

John Maxwell said, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”

As I read Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, it seems clear to me that Paul knew where he was going (he was intent on helping the Thessalonians to grow in the likeness of Christ).  He was going that way himself (he was growing in the likeness of Christ).  And he was showing them the way (he was demonstrating Christ-likeness in how he lived with them).

In verses 7-12 he writes, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you.  Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.  Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.  You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.  For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory.”

Quite some time ago, Pastor Mark Thompson of Faribault, Minnesota, suffered terrible knife wounds from an assailant in his home.  One of consequences of his difficult recovery was being forced to miss watching his son Chris run in the state cross-country championship meet.  Pastor Thompson asked his brother Merv to go in his place.  According to an account in the St. Paul Pioneer Press & Dispatch, Mark told his brother, “I can’t be there to see Chris run, so I want you there at the beginning of the race. Holler a lot…. Then at the end, I want you to really cheer loudly.  And I want you to make your voice sound like mine.”  With his uncle’s encouragement, Chris ran a strong race, finishing in second place.  Merv, also a pastor recognized the theological significance of what he did: “That’s what Jesus wants us to do,” he said.  “Make your voice sound like mine.” (Leadership Journal, summer, 1989)

This is the task given to Christians: Cheer people on toward the goal of growing more and more like Christ, while making our voice sound like His.

God’s Strategy of Spreading His Story

 

fruit of the spirit

A made-up story is told of Jesus’ return to heaven after His time on earth.  The angel Gabriel approached Him and asked, “Master, do they know all about how You loved them and about what You did for them?”

“No,” Jesus replied, “not yet.  Right now only a handful of people in Palestine know.”

Gabriel was perplexed.  “Then what have You done to let everyone know about Your love for them?”

Jesus said, “I’ve asked Peter, James, John, and a few others to tell people about Me.  Those who are told will tell others, and My story will spread throughout the earth.  Ultimately, people all around the world will know about My love.”

Gabriel frowned, “But what if they fail?  Do you have another plan?”

Jesus answered, “No.  I’m counting on them.”

Though the conversation is fictional, the message it conveys is accurate: For some strange reason, God has chosen to spread His story throughout the world through fallible people like you and me.

In his book, Severe Mercy, Sheldon Van Auken writes a few sentences that should deeply challenge and humble every Christian.  He writes, “The best argument for Christianity is Christians—their joy, their certainty, their completeness.  But the strongest argument against Christianity is also Christians—when they’re self-righteous and smug in complacent consecration.   When they’re narrow and repressive, then Christianity dies a thousand deaths.”

We have the capacity to attract people to Christ or to repulse people from Christ, depending on whether we reveal to others the love and joy and goodness Christ is growing in us, or whether hypocrisy, nasty attitudes, and self-interest flow out of us.

From what Paul shares in 1 Thessalonians 1:8, God’s strategy was working in Thessalonica: “The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere.”

People from northern to southern Greece and beyond were being drawn to Christ because of what they saw in the Thessalonian believers.

God’s strategy worked in my life, too—particularly through a woman named Fran Watron.  She was my Sunday School teacher when I was a rowdy, obnoxious and rebellious Junior High School student, but I watched her conduct herself consistently with love and joy and goodness.  Despite her struggles with debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, she exhibited peace, patience, endurance and joy.  I watched the compassionate and caring way she interacted with a friend of hers who lived with severe Cerebral Palsy.  I experienced her incredible patience toward me and her caring interest in me.  Through her I was drawn to Christ.

God’s strategy is both risky and wonderful.  Tragically, many people have run away from Christ because of the hypocrisy, nasty attitudes and selfishness they have encountered in Christians.  But others, like myself, have been drawn to Christ through the love and joy and goodness of Christians we have known.

I pray for God to prune from my life those attributes in me that drive others away from Christ, and I pray for God to grow in me the fruit of the Spirit that will draw others to Christ: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.