How Do I Grow in Love?

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The New Testament often distills the Christian life down to its most basic essence: faith and love. For instance, Galatians 5:6:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Or consider Paul’s summary exhortation to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:13:

Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Of course, other descriptions apply as well – but, in the broadest sense, faith and love pretty much cover it. Faith towards God – belief in his promises, in who he says he is for us in Jesus Christ – that’s the vertical element. And love, directed towards others – that’s the horizontal element.

Which, of course, leads to a question: how do you grow in love? You know you’re supposed to love your wife, or your neighbor, or the other members of your church. And you do love them – but you want to grow in that love. What do you do? What does that look like? A change in emotion? More warm-fuzzies? More sentimentality?

Here’s a simple answer. Love expresses itself in actions for someone’s good. If you want to grow in love, grow in taking actions – real, concrete actions – that do good to another person.

You’re probably thinking, Wait: isn’t love an emotion, too? Yes, emotions are a necessary part of love. If you claim to love a person but never have any feelings of warmth, affection, enjoyment of their presence, happiness for their success or sadness over their loss – then you probably don’t genuinely love that person. But the emotions of love, like any other emotion, are such an up-and-down, unstable thing that if we’re really going to grow in love, we can’t just sit around and wait for an overwhelming emotion to strike us. The call to love is too vital for such inactivity. Instead of waiting for the Emot-O-Meter to rise, take action. Do something. What does that look like?

A meal delivered when the new baby comes. A card written on the anniversary of a significant loss. Help with an oil change. A day given to pack boxes and load the moving truck, a word of gratefulness for a service rendered, a word of encouragement when someone has stepped out in faith. “Doing good” has a thousand outfits but a few of them are formal dress. Most of the time, love wears its street clothes.

So here’s an assignment: consider a few people around you that you are called to love. Pray for them, and ask God for a concrete idea to bring good to that person. (Be content to think small.) Then go and do it! You’ve just taken a step of love. Now repeat.

Oh, and don’t forget – you can give love because you’ve already received love. Remember the apostle John’s words: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” Even today, the God who saved you through the gift of his Son is plotting kindness towards you in a thousand disguises: food, protection, friendships, moments of worship and spiritually enlightened eyes and fellowship in prayer. We’re simply imitating him, the God who is kind in all his works (Psalm 145:17).

So go, put on your street clothes, think small, be creative, and demonstrate love. It’s a family trait.

Photo by Kophe

You Are Not Your Labels

We tend to find our identity in labels. For example, the label “nerd” applies quite nicely to me. I like video games, obscure Star Wars quotes (“He’s no good to me dead!” – name the reference), and all the latest tech gadgets. The label “creative” also fits me pretty well. I love bringing new ideas to fruition and coming up with new ways to approach old problems. I’m also book junkie, a sports lover, and a coffee snob. I’ve got no problem with these labels. They represent part of who I am. And you probably have a number of labels plastered on your forehead as well. Gearhead, gamer, jock, outdoorsman, redneck, political junkie, etc. For the most part these labels are neutral.

But all of us have also adopted labels which are not so good. “My grandpa was an angry man, my dad was an angry man, and I’m an angry man.” Or, “I’ve always struggled with body image issues. It’s just who I am.” Or, “I’ve always wrestled with same sex attraction. It’s just a part of me.” Or, “My mom treated me like trash. My husband has treated me like trash. Therefore I must be trash.” Or, “I’ve just always been a worrier. I can’t help who I am.”

We assume that was has been always will be. We willingly adopt the labels that come with the struggles: angry, anorexic, loser, trash, failure, addict.

When we believe the labels we more quickly give in to temptation. “I’ve always been a slave to porn. It’s just who I am. I might as well keep giving in to it.” Or, “I’ve always been impatient. I can’t help it. I’m always going to be this way so I might as well learn to live with it.”

But the solid, firm, Biblical reality is that we are not our labels. 

In Galatians 2:20 Paul said:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

When Paul said he had been crucified with Christ he meant that his old, sinfully enslaved, wickedness-loving self had been killed. It was crucified with Christ and it died. When Paul’s old self died all the labels that went along with his old self also died. Paul was a violent man, but the “violent” label was nailed to the cross. Paul was a self-righteous fool, but the “self-righteous” label was pinned to the cross as well.

For Paul there was only one label that mattered: Christ lives in me. That reality defined who he was. The old, “labeled” Paul had been crucified with Christ. The new Paul had only one label: “Christ In Me”.

The same is true for us. Our old self was crucified with Christ and now Christ himself lives in us. We are not ultimately defined by our struggles we are defined by our union with Jesus Christ. Our old self, with all its labels is dead and buried. Those old labels don’t apply to us anymore. We may still struggle with the same temptations but those temptations no longer define our identity.

We are in Christ and Christ is in us. Period. That is our identity. All the old labels can go to Hell (I mean that literally).

There will be times when it feels like we will never change. Like we will always be angry, have an eating disorder, give in to lust, worry, or be greedy. But God’s reality must always trump our perceived reality. We will not always be the same. Why? Because Christ lives in us. When Christ lives in us the old labels no longer apply.

Every day we must live in light of who we truly are. When we are tempted to be angry we must remember, Anger belongs to the old me. When we are tempted to lust we must remember that lust belongs to our old self. When we are tempted to worry we must remember that our old, worrying self was crucified with Christ.

We are not our labels. We are Christ’s.

You Are NOT Who You Think You Are

Take a long look at yourself in the mirror. If you look closely you will see all the labels that have been slapped on to you over the years. Some of these labels have been put on by others. Parents, schoolmates, coworkers, friends, pastors. Some of the labels have been self-administered.

FAILURE // ADDICT // CONDEMNED // LOSER // CUTTER // GLUTTON // ANGRY // LUSTFUL // ANOREXIC

In your mind, these labels define you. You have always been an angry person. You’ve always had an eating disorder. You’ve always been addicted to porn. You’ve always been an outcast. That’s just the way it is, some things will never change. You feel like you can identify with the words of Jack Kelly (see Newsies) who said, “We was beaten when we was born.”

You feel trapped by your labels. You don’t want to be constantly angry. You don’t want to be a slave to sexual sin. You don’t want to constantly live under a cloud of gloom and condemnation. But you don’t know how to escape. You’ve been this way for so long that you no longer have hope of change. You are convinced that you’ve always been this way and will always be this way. Yes you are a Christian, and yes you will always be this way. Right?

WRONG. DEAD WRONG. SATANICALLY WRONG.

One of Satan’s greatest lies is that you will always be trapped by your sin. If he can convince you that you will never change, the odds are high that you never will change. You will believe all the labels that have been slapped on to you. You will believe you have no hope of changing. Your grandad was a lazy loser, your dad was a lazy loser, and now you’re a lazy loser.

The good news of the gospel is that you are no longer defined by your past sins, by your biology, or by your family history. You are defined by one thing: your identity in Christ Jesus. 

In Romans 6:6-8 Paul says:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.

Your old self, the self that was enslaved to anger, lust, eating disorders, and laziness has died! Your old, sin-loving self was crucified with Jesus Christ and was buried with Jesus Christ. It cannot return and it cannot rule you. Your old self was defined by sin and biology and family history and wounds. Labels belong to the old you.

Your new self is defined by one thing: Jesus Christ. You belong to Jesus Christ, and he has set you free from sin. You died to sin and now you have the power of the living Christ coursing through you. Jesus is the great label destroyer. You are not an addict, you are in Christ. You are not defined by anger, you are defined by Christ. You are not a failure, you live in Christ and he lives in you.

It’s time to stop letting yourself be defined by labels. Those labels belong to your old self, and that old self is long gone, buried with Christ. You may struggle with anorexia, but that sin will not rule you because Christ rules you. You may battle with lust but that sin will not define you because Christ defines you. You may feel like a loser but you are NOT a loser because Christ the victor dwells in you.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

+photo by antigallery

Does Your Inside Match Your Outside?

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” MT 5:8

Once a father told his child to sit down. The child refused. Again the father told his child to sit down and again the child stubbornly refused. Finally the father said, “If you don’t sit down I’m going to give you a spanking.” The child sat down and said, “I’m sitting down on the outside but I’m still standing up on the inside!” Reminds me of what Jesus said to the Jewish leaders:

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…’ MT 15:7-8

Outwardly they honored God. They sang songs and prayed and tithed. But they had no love for God. Their hearts – their inner persons – were impure – they acted religious to be noticed by men, not to please God.  They were hypocrites.

The word hypocrite comes from a word meaning actor. A hypocrite’s an actor, a pretender. He professes some value or belief but his private life does not match it. He’s not pure in heart.  So to be pure in heart means our words match our thoughts. Our outer life matches our inner life.

When God saves us he gives us new hearts:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. Ezekiel 36:26-27

God gives us new hearts that want to follow and obey him and pours his Holy Spirit into us who motivates us to sincere obedience.

A friend once requested I ask him about his TV watching every time he traveled for work.  This man sincerely wanted to please Jesus and didn’t want to sin when no one else was watching.

To be pure in heart doesn’t mean we never sin.  But it means that now we don’t want to.  We hate it when we do, and are grateful for Jesus’ constant cleansing (1 JN 1:9).

A few ways to cultivate purity of heart:

  • Read your Bible regularly for it convicts, warns and encourages us.
  • Ask God for inner purity. David prayed, “Create in me a clean heart.” Regularly ask God to deliver you from evil and temptation.
  • Be careful what you take in through your eyes and ears.  Flee temptation.  Thomas Watson said, “In a duel a man will chiefly guard and fence his heart, so a wise Christian should above all things keep his heart pure.” 
  • Fellowship – confess your struggles and temptations and ask for prayer of one or a few wise, trustworthy believers. 

The reward for pursuing purity? “They shall see God.”

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3). 

Because of our glorious hope to see Jesus, the infinitely pure one, face to face, we purify ourselves now, by the power of the Spirit.

 

Are You Making People In Your Image?

In a post last week we discussed how seeing every person as made in God’s image helps motivate us to love those who are different than us. We were thinking primarily on evangelism, on loving the lost whose preferences and priorities seem like barriers to us. In those situations, seeing the image of God in the tatted up biker or the suited-up choir boy compels us to find common ground and share the hope of Christ. It’s hard. It stretches us. But then isn’t comforting to know that if God saves those people, he’ll change them so they get rid of all those weird differences? They might even begin to look a bit like you. Because everybody who is saved and becoming mature (like you) is bound to begin to think and act more like you, right?

Ouch. It hurts to air my secret thoughts that baldly. But if I’m honest I often work from this hidden assumption: the more people mature, the more they look like me. (Don’t leave me hanging here! Admit it, you do too.) For some reason, though, my church and my family and my relational world are constantly full of people so different than me! Boy do they have a lot of maturing to do.

Thankfully there’s more of God’s truth functioning in my heart than that. I know diversity is a good thing, something God has designed. But I need a theological foundation for that belief, because it is hard to escape the sinful tendency to think all godly people look and think alike. Here’s where the doctrine of the image of God comes in. It’s not only for evangelism or theology tests. It needs to be part of the way we view our spouses, our kids, our church family, and every close Christian relationship we have. In salvation, God is remaking people in his image – not yours, and not mine. That means differences are by God’s design. No single human being can come anywhere close to reflecting the fullness of the infinite God. The more your spouse, child, or fellow Christian becomes like Christ, the less they’ll look like you.

A personal story here. I’m the oldest of five kids, raised in a Christian household with godly parents and siblings. I became a pastor one year after college. My sister after me got married and started a family. This seemed like the start of the normal American Christian path. Then something happened. The remaining brothers and sisters started seeking the Lord for their own futures, and started saying crazy things about what God was showing them that didn’t at all sound like my plan for their futures. I wanted to sputter like a broken motorboat engine, “But, but, but, but….that’s not what this was supposed to look like!” My siblings, however – and God – ignored my engine noises and proceeded down paths leading a lot of places I hadn’t expected. And gradually God has reminded me that this is okay, because he’s remaking my siblings in his image, not mine.

Can you relate? That’s the challenge: are we content to help people become like God, even if that means becoming less like us? Parents with teens, can you let go of your dreams for your child’s future (athletics, ministry, taking over the family business, whatever) and allow God to mold them in his image? Wives and husbands, can you let go of your plans to finally make your spouse “see things your way,” and instead thank God for putting you with a person who differs from you? Pastors, are you fighting the temptation to make a church of clones and instead simply be an assistant to the master Sculptor as he refashions your people according to his own designs? And church members, is it enough to you that God is at work in your pastor or in your fellow believers – even if that means they upset the equilibrium of sameness in your church?

Diversity stretches. It breaks down walls, walls that need breaking. No Christian can reach their potential in Christ confined by the limits of man-made uniformity. Our recreation in God’s image, when it is complete, will one day shout the glory of God to the entire cosmos (see Eph. 3:10). And you know what? That is worth a little stretching and wall-breaking in the present.

 Image by Easter Island Traveling