Saturday, March 23, 2013

Our Love of God--What It Means In Practical Terms

 When talking to people of various backgrounds, they tell me that they love God. But they always seem to knowingly or unwittingly qualify that love and thus show that they really do not know what it means to love God—according to what God himself defines as “love” in the Bible. It is definitely great fodder for this blog.

In Matthew 22:36-39, Jesus was asked a question. Notice the conversation here: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He said to him: “‘You must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. The second, like it, is this, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’"

Everyone I've met that says they love God, immediately say they agree with Jesus’ words. They equate love of God with some vague inner acknowledgement that who He is and what he wants are good. But is it just some non-committal feeling that obligates us to nothing beyond a mental acknowledgement that Jesus meant? In answer to that question, notice what James wrote: James 2:19 “You believe there is one God, do you? You are doing quite well. And yet the demons believe and shudder.” So love does not equate to mere acknowledgement of God’s existence. What more is involved? God’s word, the Bible, does not leave the matter to guesswork.

Loving God: 1 John 5:3 "For this is what the love of God means,  that we observe his commandments; and yet his commandments are not burdensome." Yes, love & obedience go hand-in-hand. But obedience to which rules? Religions, for some reason, have decided to complicate things by adding a list of rules. Jesus himself referred this as adding an unnecessarily heavy load on people. Finding out for yourself what the Bible says will help you to appreciate the truth in John’s statement that God’s “commandments are not burdensome.”

Before I continue, please know that I will not be hitting on every possible facet of what true love toward God means for us. Each of us must make a practical and honest review of our daily lives—we owe this to both ourselves and our Creator. After considering the following, hopefully you’ll see at least some of the practical ways our love for God can be demonstrated.

Loving our "Fellow Man:" In the starting quote from Matthew 22, Jesus said that those serving God must "love your neighbor as yourself." In Matthew 7:12, Jesus spoke about the proactive nature of that love--not that would wait around for others to love us first, but that we would demonstrate love first. "All things that you want others to do to you, you must do to them." This means that if we want love, we must first take the initiative to display love.

1 John 4:20, 21 "If anyone makes the statement: “I love God,” and yet is hating his brother, he is a liar. For he who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot be loving God, whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that the one who loves God should be loving his brother also." It is easy to say that we don’t hate people, but really, how do we treat those we don’t like. Do we refuse to talk to them, do we avoid them, do we treat them poorly, do we discredit them to others? When we consider how God freely forgives our sins and willingly listens to our prayers, are we in any position to do less to our fellow man? Jesus himself addressed this exact situation in an illustration:

Forgiveness is not Optional: Matthew 18:23-35 “That is why the kingdom of the heavens has become like a man, a king, that wanted to settle accounts with his slaves. When he started to settle them, there was brought in a man who owed him ten thousand talents [=60,000,000 denarii]. But because he did not have the means to pay [it] back, his master ordered him and his wife and his children and all the things he had to be sold and payment to be made. Therefore the slave fell down and began to do obeisance to him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay back everything to you.’ Moved to pity at this, the master of that slave let him off and canceled his debt. But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves that was owing him a hundred denarii; and, grabbing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back whatever you owe.’ Therefore his fellow slave fell down and began to entreat him, saying, ‘Be patient with me and I will pay you back.’ However, he was not willing, but went off and had him thrown into prison until he should pay back what was owing. When, therefore, his fellow slaves saw the things that had happened, they became very much grieved, and they went and made clear to their master all the things that had happened. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘Wicked slave, I canceled all that debt for you, when you entreated me. Ought you not, in turn, to have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I also had mercy on you?’  With that his master, provoked to wrath, delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay back all that was owing. In like manner my heavenly Father will also deal with YOU if YOU do not forgive each one his brother from YOUR hearts.”

Today, our monetary system doesn't use “talents” or “denarii.” So how can we be helped to appreciate the magnitude of the above? One commentary I read indicated that the daily wage for a common laborer back in the days that Jesus walked the earth was one denarius (Denarii being the plural form of the word.) This is based on the account at Matthew 20:1,2. So using that as a measure, the peer of the first slave only owed 100 days, a little over 3 months wages, to the first slave. However, the first slave owed the master the equivalent of 60 million days. Using our modern calendar of 365 days, that equals 164,383 years! If we average that within a 70-year lifetime, that equates to over 2,300 lifetimes of 70 years. So what Jesus is helping us all appreciate is that our debt to God is so great, there is no way we could ever pay it back. If he is willing to forgive us (which he is) such a great debt, we have no excuse not to forgive others that sin against us. Their debt to us is insignificant compared to what we owe God.

Generosity & Tangible Help To Others: James 1:27 The form of worship that is clean and undefiled from the standpoint of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep oneself without spot from the world." This doesn't mean you are going to give money to every beggar standing on street corners. But it does mean that when you know of deserving people that won’t misuse or waste gifts of mercy, you will do your best to help them. In agreement with this, Paul wrote to Timothy: 1 Tim.6:17, 18 "Give orders to those who are rich in the present system of things not to be high-minded, and to rest their hope, not on uncertain riches, but on God, who furnishes us all things richly for our enjoyment; to work at good, to be rich in fine works, to be liberal, ready to share." (Note that I’m not even attempting to cover the latter part of James’ words, “…to keep oneself without spot from the world.” Perhaps I’ll do that in another article.)

While on the subject of money, here is some more advice the Bible gives about the matter:

Matthew 6:24 "YOU cannot slave for God and for Riches."

1 Tim.6:10 "For the love of money is a root of all sorts of injurious things, and by reaching out for this love some have been led astray from the faith and have stabbed themselves all over with many pains."

Yes, if we “slave…for riches” we demonstrate a “love of money” that betrays our love of God. Note that money is not evil, it is the LOVE of money that the Bible warns against. We all need to work, we all need money to live. But if we compromise our lives so that God takes back seat to work, then God has a problem with that. One way this becomes very evident is the admonishment recorded at Hebrews 10:24,25 “And let us consider one another to incite to love and fine works, not forsaking the gathering of ourselves together, as some have the custom, but encouraging one another, and all the more so as YOU behold the day drawing near.” Regularly “gathering together” for spiritual encouragement demonstrates our appreciation for the brotherhood we are given. If work is more important than that, then we need to reexamine our priorities.

Love of God and Neighbor Interconnected: Besides our meetings, there are other ways to demonstrate appreciation for God. In dealing with fellow humans that we love, we both enjoy talking to them and listening to them. This mutual sharing of each one’s likes and dislikes is what forms friendships. The same goes with our God. We need to talk to him in prayer. But even more importantly, we need to listen to him. How? By reading his Word the Bible. Over the decades I’ve had a few people say, “Hey, if the heavens opened up and I heard God’s voice tell me what to do, then I’d listen.” (I couldn’t help but wonder how they would be sure it was God’s voice, but that is another matter.) But these same people fail to realize that when they read the Bible, they are indeed hearing God’s thoughts. It takes years for this to “sink in,” for us to “get it.” So don’t think that speed-reading the Bible is going to result in instant understanding. All “real” and “deep” relationships take time to cultivate, to grow, to mature.

For the most part, I’ve covered our conduct. But Jesus said that both our minds and hearts had to be completely committed to God. How does that work? Two examples:

Self Control: Matthew  5:27,28 “YOU heard that it was said, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say to YOU that everyone that keeps on looking at a woman so as to have a passion for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” A good friend of mine gave a wonderful illustration about this. He said, “It is one thing if a bird momentarily lands on your head. It is completely another thing if you allow that bird to build a nest.” So while anyone can have a momentary “bad thought,” allowing our minds to dwell on immoral thoughts is a lack of love not only for our fellow man (and women), but also for God who expects us to not only act morally upright, but think morally upright.

James 1:26 "If any man seems to himself to be a formal worshiper and yet does not bridle his tongue, but goes on deceiving his own heart, this man’s form of worship is futile.” Here, we are reminded that self-control in our speech is required of true followers of Christ. Anger is something all of us experience. Paul acknowledged that when he wrote at Ephesians 4:26, 27 "Be wrathful, and yet do not sin; let the sun not set with YOU in a provoked state, neither allow place for the Devil." The point is that we want to control our anger. Enraged, boisterous outbursts of shouting and screaming are not acceptable for those who want to be followers of Christ. Years ago, when I was given to angry outbursts, a friend told me, “It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.” It took me a long while to ponder and understand that. Essentially what he was telling me was that a mature Christian may whole-heartedly disagree with the other person, but they will make every attempt to be calm and respectful.

Love, true love, deep love, is something God wants back from us. It is the only thing that we can truly “give” him. He gave us free will, so when we respond with obedient and loyal love, we are giving something that he doesn’t already own. He definitely deserves it; he owns our bodies, but our love he allows us to give because we want to. Its take a lifetime of commitment and earnest effort to prove that love.

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