“Love the Lord:” But what does that really mean?

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Most people familiar with the teachings of Jesus can tell you what he considered to be “the greatest commandment.” They may not know exactly where it is, but somewhere in the Bible, Jesus tells us that “You shall love the Lord,” is the most important thing, and that a close second is “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And as a result, there are a lot of people have developed an idea that serving God and following Jesus involves having some sort of emotional attachment to Jesus.

Does godly love mean “getting along?”

We can look at it like the way we love our parents: “I love my mom and dad, but that doesn’t mean I have to do whatever they say! I’m a grown-up now, and can make my own rules and decisions, and their job as parent is to accept all those decisions, and my job is to love them even when they say things I don’t like or act in ways that I don’t agree with.”

By that standard, love is basically being able to ignore all our differences and care about each other. That sounds great, and on some level there’s some truth to that.

But there’s a lot more to what Jesus is saying there, and sometimes we miss what Jesus is really calling us to do.

Loving God “with all my heart”

Jesus says in Mark 12:28: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” That’s not an empty expression; it’s not hyperbole.

I might tell someone “I love you with all my heart,” but when it comes to making decisions in my life, my first thought is still about what I want to do. What’s in my best interest? After all, that’s what we’re taught in our culture: “Take care of yourself. Don’t give up your dreams or ideals or desires for anyone! Be true to yourself.”

The problem is that Jesus is saying the exact opposite of that. If I love the Lord with all my heart, that leaves no room for any love that is going to contradict a love of God.

Loving with all my strength means that my energies and efforts are reserved for activities that reflect a love for God – and I don’ have strength left for anything else.

And in Matthew’s account, we read an additional statement that Jesus makes: “on these two commandments (loving God, loving neighbor) hang all the law and the prophets.” That means that everything God commands you to do first into these two categories.

Love of God leads to love of good

It doesn’t mean that the other laws God gives us are unimportant, or even less important – they’re not optional for us so long as we maintain an emotional attachment to God. They are the tools God gives us to exemplify our love for God.

Do I truly love God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength? Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Not “If you love me, you’ll think of me fondly while you go about living the life you choose and ignoring all the things I’ve told you to do.”

Godly love is a love that is defined by God, not by us. And the love that God requires from us is a love that compels us to not only embrace God, but to embrace everything God is – including his character, his nature, his will. We love what He loves, and we love HOW he loves.

Loving God requires a choice!

In Romans 12:9, Paul makes a pretty important statement about what true godly love requires. He says “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.” Those aren’t separate thoughts. Paul is saying that true love, love that comes from God, calls for us to make some choices in our lives. If I love God, I will love the things of God – things I know that God approves.

That means that I not only have to have a knowledge of what God loves – not the things I think God SHOULD love, but what His word actually teaches us that He loves – but I need to love those things too. I should desire to fill my life with good things, not continuing to cling to the sinful activities of the world that we know God hates.

So does that mean that God doesn’t love sinners? Of course not! God commended his love to us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us! That’s what Paul writes in the same book, Romans 5:8.

But God doesn’t love in the same way that we describe love in our culture. God’s love didn’t allow him to simply overlook sin, to say “You live your best life, do whatever makes you happiest, whatever you enjoy, and I’m going to accept that and let you come live with me in my kingdom.”

How much do I REALLY love God?

God’s love compelled him to reach out to humanity, his creation, and provide a way for us to be with Him – if that’s really what we want. But we have to ask ourselves the question: Is my love for God genuine? Do I REALLY love God?

Because if I love God, I want to be LIKE God. I want to be around things that reflect the character of God. I want to live the way God wants me to live – not out of the sense of some moral code, but rather a wish to be everything God wants me to be, knowing that every command He gives, every instruction for my life, is designed to bring me closer to Him, so that when this life is over, I can spend eternity in the presence of the God I truly love.

So let’s love the Lord, not in some nebulous, meaningless way, but with a love that seeks to know God in all his virtue, righteousness, justice and mercy, and carry that grace with us in everything we do. That’s the whole point behind the idea of training for godliness.

Are we seeking the glory that comes from God?

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This month I’m doing some reading in the book of John, which is a great book to read because it has so many levels, from clear, basic teachings of the gospel to deep, complex ideas about who Jesus is and what that should mean to us as his disciples. And in the fifth chapter, Jesus is making his first lengthy statement to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. He just healed a man on the Sabbath, and he’s laying out the reasons why he has every right to do so, even thought the Jewish traditions dictated that healing on the Sabbath was forbidden.

There’s something he says at the end of the chapter that stuck out to me. He says:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

We live in a confrontational world where we’re more and more lining up on one side or the other of every issue, and we see the other side as the opposition to be defeated. But even though Jesus is harsh in his statements, he doesn’t see his opposition as the enemy. Jesus’ invitation of blessings was for anyone who was willing to take it – even the people who thought they were doing just fine without him.

He says “you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” The implication is that if you’d just get rid of your pride and accept what Jesus is telling you, he’ll give you that life that you’ve been looking for! But you’re not going to find it as long as you’re insisting that your traditions and personal priorities come first.”

Jesus here indicates the core problem with the religious leaders of his day, and it’s the core problem for so many in today’s religious world who are not interested in the pure, complete message of the gospel: How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

Finding life in the scriptures

How many today are so concerned about being approved and congratulated by the right people – the “accredited” people, or the people that they respect in their lives like parents or friends or family members – that they aren’t that concerned with actually reading the word of God and understanding it on its own? Jesus tells them “you search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life.”

I’ve heard people interpret this to mean that Jesus is saying “You think you’ll find it there, but you’re wrong.” But actually, he’s telling them “you’re right! Eternal life is right there in the scriptures. The problem is, you’re not listening to it. You’re ignoring it because you’re focused on what’s being taught by prominent teachers and scholars, and you’re not letting the scriptures point you to the true source of life.”

Jesus makes a pretty strong point, but it’s also a fair one: if I’m more concerned with the ideas of scholars, my family, my favorite Bible teacher or prominent religious blogger than I am with reading, studying, and meditating on God’s word, can I truly say I love God? Who am I really following? Is it more important to me to live, to teach, to believe in a way that makes me socially acceptable or in step with what the people around me are doing? Or do I love God’s word enough that I want to understand it for myself, and then conform myself through faith and obedience to the teachings that Jesus says will lead me to eternal life.

We glorify God by listening to Him, not ourselves

Let’s never have an attitude of shutting our ears to what the Bible says, just because it isn’t always what we want to hear, or what we’ve always been taught, or what we know most other people think. The gospel – not my opinion or yours – is the power of God to salvation according to Romans 1:16, and it will continue to work through us if we’ll let it.

Read the Bible. Find someone to help you study it if you need to, but always make them go back and show you that what they believe is the same as what God teaches through His word. Read and study to learn what God wants from me, not to figure out how I can do what I want and still follow God. And if you find something that requires you to change your life or your viewpoint on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, make the change. Don’t worry about what anyone else believes or teaches, just follow what the word says. Because after all, the only glory we should be seeking is the glory that comes from God, and the source to achieve that is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And never allow yourself to be satisfied with where you are; as Paul writes in Philippians 3:14, keep pressing on for the mark, and keep training for godliness.

“Failing upward:” How to succeed in service to God

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Have you ever heard the phrase “failing upward?” If you follow sports, you’ve probably seen a lot of it – or at least it feels that way. The coaching ranks are rife with people who failed miserably at their last job, got fired, and were immediately hired by someone. If our team does the hiring, the response we usually give is “What were we thinking? Why would we want that guy??”

Generally speaking, we’re not a culture that appreciates failing up. We look at failure as a dead end – it’s defeat, and it is a reflection on someone’s competence and a good reason not to trust them in similar situations again. They’re going to have to show us something pretty impressive to wash away the taste from that previous disaster. And in our own lives, we tend to live in fear of failure – failing up is what happens to other people, not us! And so we don’t go out on too many limbs, we take on tasks we’re confident we can accomplish, and we set goals that we know we can attain.

Are we afraid of failing?

But the reality is that Bible makes it clear that playing it safe is not an option for a disciple of Christ. The old cliché is that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, but the more Biblical example is probably in Jesus’ parable of the Talents, where a man is given a large sum of money and entrusted with its use for a time. He’s afraid of what his master will do if he fails, and so he hides the money so that he can give it back without losing any. But God didn’t call us out of the world to break even. We are called to be a people for God’s own possession, one created in Christ Jesus for good works.

So how do we view our failures? And how does God view them? Is He really the “harsh taskmaster who reaps where he hasn’t sown?” Does he really see me as just another instrument to do his work, and we’re only a success if we do as much as some other person in the kingdom? I don’t think any of us believe that – so why do we hold ourselves to that standard?

The Bible’s stories of “failing upward”

The reality is that we all fail, whether it’s falling short in our pursuit of godliness, or maybe its the unsuccessful attempts to bring someone to Christ. And the harder we try, the more we fail, it seems! As our goals get bigger, we come up short more often. All of a sudden, “failing upward” is starting to look pretty good!

Fortunately, that’s actually pretty common in the Bible. We see time after time when godly men and women make mistakes – some of them huge in terms of the severity and consequences. If David were running for re-election as King of Israel, with a record of adultery, murder, and cover-up – along with a disastrous policy decision that led to the deaths of 70,000 of his countrymen – how many votes would he get?

God’s view of success is a lot different than ours, because the question in God’s eyes seems not to be whether we’ll fail, but how we respond when we do. When Jesus was in his final hours on earth, he addressed Simon Peter in Luke 22:31-32, this exchange takes place:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Jesus doesn’t even debate whether Peter will succeed, and when Peter tries to correct him, it almost seems as if Jesus expresses frustration and says “not only are you going to fail but you’re going to deny me three times in one night.”

Jesus wasn’t interested in dwelling on Peter’s denial – he was focused on what he needed Peter to do afterward. He needed Peter to understand that the response to failure isn’t to wallow in it, or to feel sorry for yourself, but to get back to the work God has given you. And God had given Peter a vital role in the coming kingdom – a role in which he would succeed not because he was perfect, sinless, skilled or talented, but because God gave him everything he needed in order to succeed, and Peter went out and did the work.

All the tools for success are ready for us

Every time we fail in Christ, we have a chance to grow closer to God. God forgives us of our sins because we have an advocate with the father in Jesus Christ according to 1 John 2:1. God has set the expectation already that he knows we’re not always going to be successful in teaching the gospel — in fact we’ll fail more than we succeed — but as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:6, it is God who gives the increase

We’re given the Holy Spirit, which works in us to help us produce fruits of strong character and godliness, if we’re willing to accept it. We’re given the gift of the word of God, powerful as any two-edged sword, and as Paul describes it, the power of God to salvation. The power isn’t in my skill as a teacher or my depth of knowledge and wisdom. It’s in the word of God.

The key to a successful life in Christ is not in the wins, the conversions, the pure and perfect life. The key is in not giving up, picking ourselves up through God’s grace when we fall, and continuing forward with a trust in God and an unwillingness to be stopped in our goal to achieve a crown of life in the kingdom of Heaven. As Paul writes in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

So keep failing upward. You’ll be surprised how much success it brings in your service to God.

What part do we play in the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman?

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This week, our lesson focused on a story about a woman caught in adultery, and Jesus’ response both to her and her accusers. (You can listen to the full lesson here.) It’s a story that teaches us a lot not only about Jesus and his mission, but about our own need for grace and mercy.

The book of John tells the story of how Jesus came down to earth and took on human form, dwelt among us, and spoke with such authority that the religious leaders of the day decided that they needed to silence him any way they could.

They finally decided to try and trap him into making public statements that the teachers could then take to the government and use to portray Jesus as a troublemaker, someone who needed to be silenced before he stirred the people up into a violent revolt. The don’t seem particularly concerned about the woman, whom they caught in the act of sin, as their attention is focused on discrediting Jesus.

When the people demanded that Jesus render a judgment, he refused to take a stand on the question.

He simply told the accusers “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

But what did he mean by that? As with other passages, when the Bible doesn’t give us specific answers, we must look at context, as well as the full picture painted in the word of God. We can see enough of Jesus’ teachings in other areas to explain what he meant more clearly.

Did he mean that what this woman had done wasn’t wrong? No, because Jesus talked a lot about the sin of adultery, just like other violations of the law.

Did he mean that sin was no one’s business but that person and God? No, because Jesus himself said that if a brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him.

Jesus didn’t expect us to be sinless, but he DID expect that we be honest about whether we’re truly judging what he called “righteous judgment.”

That means examining our own hearts and taking an honest look at what we’re doing before we try to make a case against someone else.

Am I guilty of the same sin? Is my priority to save and to help, or to point out fault?

It’s important for us always to see ourselves in this story to keep from becoming an accuser with impure motives, who doesn’t care at all about following the law, but is more concerned with making ourselves feel holy.

We also should see ourselves in the accused – one who has been brought before our God condemned due to our own sin, worthy of death, with nothing to save us other than the mercy of the judge.

Thanks be to God, our judge is Jesus Christ, who gave his life for us and paid the penalty for our sin. We were bought with a price, and should live our lives in joy and humility, with an eye toward helping people escape just as we escaped, through the blood of Jesus.

Writing in the dirt: What we can learn from Jesus and the adulterous woman, John 8:2-11

Sunday lesson: Jesus and the Adulterous Woman

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Lesson date: Sunday, April 14, 2019
Kimberly church of Christ
Kimberly, AL

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One of the great — and often misused — stories in the Bible is that found in John 8, of the woman caught in adultery.

In many ways, this story really isn’t about the woman, or her sin. It’s about the relationship between the Jewish leaders and Jesus, as they had become increasingly antagonistic to the point of looking for ways to have him arrested, thus silencing his teachings and the growing followers who believed him to be the Messiah.

It’s worth noting that the Bible doesn’t tell us a lot about this story, and as a result, readers and scholars often impute messages and motives that may not have ever been intended. It’s important that we read this story in the context of what has been happening in previous passages — combining that with what we know about Jesus in his teachings from other parts of the Bible.

When we look at these things, we see a story of Jesus making a statement not about sin itself, but about the attitudes that we often have about our own standing with God, and the willingness we often have to ignore the commandments of God until they suit our own purposes.

When we finally see Jesus left alone with the woman, we see Jesus exemplify his redemptive message, seeking to bring the lost to repentance and new life. And as we read this story, we should not only examine ourselves in how we deal with those in sin, but remember too that we are the accused, just as she was, kneeling before our Lord in need of grace and mercy.

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