Unconditional Love

My son came up with this saying that he likes to pull out every once in a while that goes like, “I love you when [something] and I love you when [not something].”

For instance:

“I love you when you’re sick and I love you when you’re not sick!”

“I love you when you’re mad and I love you when you’re happy!”

“I love you when you’re here and I love you when you’re not here!”

You kind of have to imagine this 5-year-old saying it with a beaming face and a soft voice. It’s pretty charming, I have to admit.

But it’s also a surprisingly deep statement from a little kid. What he’s trying to articulate is the enduring presence of his affection — the outpouring of unconditional love. He both craves and gives a love that is not subject to the whims of change and circumstance. He wants consistency. He wants others to know that they won’t lose his love just because they leave the house or deliver a punishment. And he says that in the hopes of hearing it in return.

I think that we are often afraid that God is as fickle with how he hands out love as we often are. It’s really difficult to believe that God loves us wholly, unconditionally, and eternally, especially when we look deep within the well of our own sins and shortcomings. We don’t deserve love, we think. We don’t even love ourselves most of the time. Others’ love toward us is often imperfect and capricious. Why would God be any different?

Because our God loved us not when we became perfect, but while we were still self-centered sinners (Romans 5:8). He put his life on the line for us to save us because of that great love (John 3:16). When God looks at his creation, as rebellious and ugly as it can be, he cannot help but tenderly love each and every one. And best of all, God’s love cannot be taken away from us (Romans 8:35).

Today I just needed to remember God’s love for me. His love that is patient, kind, refuses to keep track of my wrongs, is faithful, and abounds in truth. God is complex beyond comprehension, but his love is as simple as that of a five-year-old. He always loves, no matter what. It’s hard to hate someone who loves you that fully; the best thing to do is to surrender to it and reciprocate.

Discipline makes disciples

A while back during church, we were spending quiet time simply reading and studying the Word. I was flipping through Hebrews when chapter 12 caught my eye — particularly the passage called “God’s discipline.”

The author begins by quoting Proverbs 3:

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

And then he follows that by saying that the suffering we experience can indeed be part of our discipline:

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? …God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.”

I’ve got to say that this passage is one of what I internally dub a “profoundly uncomfortable teaching” that we come up against here and there in the Bible. It’s one that you kind of wish God didn’t convey to us, because it’s challenging, tough, and doesn’t coddle us with happy feelings. I mean, I don’t want to be punished, I don’t want to be rebuked, and I don’t want to have to endure suffering! Who does? And here God is not only saying that his children will be disciplined, but that it’s for a specific purpose.

I’ll admit that my mind immediately took the word “discipline” and paired it with “punishment,” although upon successive readings I don’t think that’s the case. Some discipline can involve punishment for bad behavior, but not all discipline is punishment. In fact, the act of discipline is to shape and mold a person to obey and conform to a certain standard.

In other words, discipline makes us disciples.

This passage flies against prosperity gospel teachings and other feel-good notions of the gospel to grasp a fundamental truth of being a Christian: We will suffer, and through that suffering we will understand more what Jesus went through and become more Christlike in our attitude and actions. It is part of our training, just how a runner will have to push through the burn and dominate his or her body to perform even better.

And once I got past my immediate reaction of a fear of suffering and pain, I read the encouragement that exists here. First, it makes a strong and repeated case that discipline means that we belong to God as God’s sons and daughters. We are not abstract strangers that he is smiting for evil pleasure; we are his children that he is training to be the best that they can possibly be.

As a father, I can understand that. My children outright resent my discipline, because that correction doesn’t let them continue doing the bad or selfish act they wanted to do. I see that anger and frustration in their faces when I sit them down to talk, and I hear it when I listen to what they have to say in defense of why one kid pushed another kid into a wall for taking his toy. But the discipline I perform on them is not out of anger or dislike, but out of love. I want them to grow up to be wonderful people, full of faith, compassion, love, and selfless giving. And that attitude is not going to come naturally, but must be trained for constantly. They may resent me for it now, but one day I pray that they will thank me that I cared enough to do it.

Second, the discipline mentioned in this passage has a very specific purpose for our lives. We will share in God’s holiness and will produce a harvest of peace and righteousness. When I think of the type of person that I wish I could be for all of my faults, it would be to be like the men and women of faith that I’ve admired — the ones who do desire holiness, who do project peace, and who do prize doing what is right.

It may be the hardest prayer to pray in saying, “Dear Lord, please discipline me. Please help me to thank you for the hardships and rebukes that I will encounter. Please help me not to resent you, but to hold fast to these verses and the hope that lies within.”

Reading the Bible as God intended

Imagine sitting down with a brand-new novel and opening up to page 105, reading three paragraphs, and then closing it. The next day you might jump to the activities of page 455 (it’s a big novel, you’re very impressive to be reading it), where you’ll consume a few sentences here and there.

Ask yourself: What would you get out of this experience? You might get a vague sense of the plot and characters involved. If the novel is good at repeating key points, you may even get a glimpse at the larger picture. But your impressions of that book would be fragmented and unhinged from the author’s intended chronology.

Yet this is how many Christians read the Bible. We flip open to passages and pick out a few verses or paragraphs to digest, and then the next day (or week), we’ll be somewhere else completely. If we do this enough, we may start to get a sense of how the Bible connects and see the larger shape of God’s redemptive plan, but we’ll be missing out as well.

The Bible is not a novel, of course. It’s a collection of 66 books of varying genres, from poetry to historical narrative to letters. Sampling little morsels of scripture here and there benefit us, but not nearly as much as consuming the Bible as it was written: front to back.

While the men’s Bible study has issued a challenge to read the Bible cover to cover, I’ll toss out my own suggestion. In your personal studies, pick a book of the Bible and read it from the start to end. Don’t pick and choose, don’t leap around the Bible like you’re throwing darts and selecting passages at random, just… read it. See how a book begins and ends. Get a sense of its context and how the author links thoughts and arguments and stories together. Invest in a study Bible and read the notes — and maybe even do some cross-comparison with connected verses elsewhere in scripture.

For some of us, this may require significant retraining. I think we develop bad Bible reading habits from a young age that carry on through adulthood. But it’s never too late to start!

You’d be amazed how this simple act can transform our perception of “boring” or “non-applicable” books into fascinating narratives. I found myself hooked on books like Ezekiel and Jeremiah as I wound my way through them. Every time I read through Romans, I am convicted by Paul’s linked argument all over again. And as we’re studying in adult Sunday School and hearing during the sermons, the gospels take on a breathtaking quality when you go through the entire account of Christ’s ministry.

May God bless and spiritually nourish you as you devote yourself to the reading of His Word this week.

Turn back before it’s too late

“Therefore say to the Israelites: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Will you defile yourselves the way your ancestors did and lust after their vile images? When you offer your gifts—the sacrifice of your children in the fire—you continue to defile yourselves with all your idols to this day. Am I to let you inquire of me, you Israelites? As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I will not let you inquire of me.’”

~ Ezekiel 20:30-31

Ouch.

I’m reading through the heartbreaking saga of Ezekiel in my devotions, which is a book about Israel being incredibly unfaithful to God and God sending his prophet to entreaty with his people to turn back before it’s too late. Just a couple chapters earlier, God defends his fairness, explains patiently how the sinful people were bringing doom upon their head, and calls them to repent.

In Chapter 20, it’s almost like God’s at the end of his patience as the elders come to Ezekiel with more questions of God. At first that kind of seems like it makes sense and is honorable — they want to know about God, so why not talk to his prophet? But it’s been a year or so since Ezekiel has been about his mission here, and none of the people, including the elders, are listening and responding. They’re still in full-fledged rebellion, and God delivers these strong words to them when they dare to try to question him even as they are doing despicable things such as child sacrifice and worshiping other gods.

Their attitude is arrogant and even a bit blasphemous, and if there’s something I’ve picked up in my reading of Scripture, it’s that God does NOT respond well to arrogant people. It also reminded me a bit of how Job had all of these questions for God in the midst of suffering and God’s answer was to basically state his resume as an all-powerful creator and remind Job that he doesn’t ever have to answer anything to anyone. If he does, that’s his mercy and generosity in action, but at all times does God keep the fullness of his council to himself.

I think sometimes we presume too much on God’s mercy, assuming that we are entitled to a neverending flow of it. We are, of course, neither entitled nor deserving of unending mercy. Mercy is at God’s discretion, and sometimes he allows that mercy to end in order to bring about his justice. The point is that the elders kept pushing God too far with their stubbornness and arrogance, and they and the country ended up paying for it. The point is that the elders didn’t hear the merciful warning to turn back, and so were treated to the fair justice that lay ahead for their crimes against an Almighty God.

Don’t push God or presume upon his mercy. Don’t ignore his warnings in scripture and through the Spirit to turn from your sins and repent. Instead, follow God’s guidance in humility and find a new and better path that he desires you to follow.

Trading in a spirit of fear

I would wager to say that fear is a major force in all of our lives. We fear so much — death, rejection, poverty, mistakes, pain, humiliation, betrayal, the future — that it locks us down into a pattern of worry, of hesitation, and of a narrow routine. Fear can dominate our life’s headlines, with each tragedy (large or small) confirming what we already know. It’s a broken world, we are broken people, and something bad is always on the way.

I am tired of being afraid. I know that one of my weaknesses is timidity and fear, as I spend too much time scared that I will mess up my life, hurt my family somehow, or die before I raise my kids to adulthood.

What’s amazing to me is that God knows that fear is a potent result of sin, and He goes out of His way to encourage us past this fear and give us real hope to replace it. When Jesus came to Jairus’ house to minister to his daughter who just died, Jesus issues to commands to this grieving, scared father: “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” (Mark 5:36). As he raises the 12-year-old girl from the dead, he illustrates that we can trade in that potent fear for something new: faith in the one greater than anything we might fear.

It’s easy to stop being afraid when you have someone with you who can help you through it and even demolish the thing you’re scared of, right? But what do we do now that Jesus has returned to heaven?

Fortunately, we have something just as good — or someONE just as good — as Jesus at our side. Believers are gifted with the Holy Spirit who is always present and always willing to live up to its name as a Helper. That’s why I’ve always loved 2 Timothy 1:7, which echoes Mark 5:36 when it tells us that we’re trading in something old, broken, and hurtful (our fear) for something wonderful and victorious (the Spirit): “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power, of love, and of self-control.”

We get three in exchange for one, I say that’s a good deal!

It’s a good reminder that as the redeemed, we are no longer alone in our life’s journey, but are filled with the Holy Spirit who isn’t there to make us quake and worry. Instead, God highlights three benefits of being Spirit-led: We have the power of God with us, we are conduits of God’s love, and we have the means to gain control over the sinful nature that used to enslave us. It’s important to note that this verse comes within the context of a passage discussing how we may testify to the world about the gospel. I like how in verse 14, God reminds us to “guard the good deposit in you” — a reminder that He has sealed us in salvation and that we do not have any reason to ever fear being taken away from Him ever again.

In accepting the gift of grace, I’ve traded up from fear to boldness. I just need to remember that more often.

Confidence in prayer

My devotion reading today took me through the end of 1 John, where I read these arresting words in 5:14-15:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us — whatever we ask — we know that we have what we asked of him.”

This is such a great summation of why the Christian prayer is so effective and unique but also how it should be performed. I wanted to share it with you and add a few thoughts of my own.

First of all, prayers from God’s children do not go unheard. We do not need to be like my children, who ask me the same question a hundred times just to make sure that I’m listening (although I admire their persistence in getting an answer!). John says that we can indeed have confidence that God hears our prayer.

But there’s a big clause there that needs to be noticed, understood, and implemented into our prayer life: “if we ask anything according to his will.” This radically adjusts prayer from being a selfish litany of our wants — a one-way wish list — to a responsive, submissive conversation with the Almighty. We should desire, first and foremost, God’s will for our lives and pray according to that. We are the tree that bends to God’s trunk instead of demanding that God shape himself to our life.

Jesus illustrated the proper way to pray before his death when he asks, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He had a request to avoid the pain that was coming, but his ultimate desire was for God’s will to be done. And the Father heard and responded to that prayer with His will, which was to see the Son die for the forgiveness of the world.

To pray with confidence, we need to pray in submission to God’s will. We are invited to bring our concerns and problems to the Father, but we are not in a position to make demands of him or ask him to change his will. When we stop trying to force God to capitulate to our demands and begin seeking his will in all things, God shows us how prayer is answered — and answered boldly.

Resolving conflict, Jesus-style

Despite being the unified body of Christ, the church has always faced conflict inside of her walls. From theological debates to personality mismatches to long-held grudges, this conflict tears and corrodes the kingdom that God is working to build in this world.

Conflict is not a new phenomenon in churches. In fact, many of the New Testament epistles were written to deal with conflict between believers and errors with relationships. Paul and Peter were sometimes at odds with one another. Believers were suing other believers. Factions and false teaching sewed strife on Sunday mornings. These conflicts we struggle with today were much the same as they were 2,000 years ago.

Yet we are called to live in peace and unity as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:2), so what should we do when sinful conflict emerges? How do we handle disputes between two believers, the friction caused by social barriers, or when one person doesn’t agree with the leadership decisions being made? We are called upon to roll up our sleeves and deal with it — but to do so in a manner worthy of the calling of the gospel. In other words, we deal with conflict Jesus-style.

The next time you encounter conflict in the church, take a page from Scripture and try this instead of letting your mouth run wild and your emotions get hot and bothered:

(1) Read James 4:1-12 and come to a new sense of humility while carefully guarding the words you speak to others. “Do not speak evil against one another,” James said, pointing out that our words often pronounces arrogant judgement on others.

(2) Be quick to apologize and settle conflicts. Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:23-24 that it’s more important to resolve these issues before coming to worship. “First go and be reconciled,” he counsels.

(3) If the conflict is emerging from a place of sin, then follow the three steps of escalating conflict resolution that Jesus outlines in Matthew 18:15-17. Talk one on one; if that doesn’t work, involve another believer in the discussion; and if that fails, then call upon the leadership of the church to intervene.

(4) Be committed to unity. “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought,” said Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10.

Be peacemakers. Remember how Jesus told us that peacemakers are blessed? A peacemaker makes peace where there was formerly arguments and anger. That is what we strive for when we tackle conflict in the church — a unified, agreeable body where we may set aside our differences to worship and work in Jesus Christ without distraction.